DAY THREE: 37KM
I wake up to pitch black, surrounded by whispered commotion, with headtorch lights darting through the darkness. A sandstorm had ripped through the camp felling many of the tents, including ours. Grace and I are the first out of our sleeping bags, trying to weigh down our tent as best we could. The stones we had gallantly gathered before night fell the day before had been brushed aside by the sand heavy wind and now a nearby tent was pilfering ours to weigh down theirs. In a somewhat prehistoric juxtaposition, company directors and army officers argue over stones to keep their hovel structural. Eventually Grace and I had weighed down the edges of our tent and the rest of the tent that had now stirred, thanks to the shouted words and sand billowing into their sleeping bags, helped inside by propping up the sticks used to erect the tent at an angle that would not buffer fleetingly against the wind but rather lean into it.
The hour or so spent awake at 3 in the morning fighting against the Sahara storm meant that I arrived at the start line already wearied. My legs felt surprisingly fresh considering the war of attrition they had faced against the dunes from the day before but as we started I knew that something was off, I just couldn’t put my finger on it. It was my mental strength cracking, I simple couldn’t hear the fracturing over the swirling excitement of the start line and my sleep deprived mind.
After about five miles on the flat rocky terrain in I need the loo. Because of the copious amounts of water I consumed during the race twinned with listening to my body and not pushing too hard I was, for the most part, well hydrated. This did mean, however, that I was constantly searching for bushes. At the start of the race I would wander far off the route to protect my dignity but after pooing in a bag all dignity had long gone. The heat was already ramping up, so I decided to stop for a wee under the shade of a small bush and spotted a small hole at the base of the bush and decided that was nature’s urinal. It wasn’t until I was mid-stream that a scorpion came out from said hole, presumably to see why he was getting rained upon. I am not proud to admit I ran still mid wee as fast as I could away from the tiniest little arachnid. To the poor Swiss lady who had to witness all that play out; I am truly sorry.
After the long drag on the flat Mars like terrain, the short section of dunes that led to the first checkpoint of the day was a welcome relief. These dunes were much larger than most I had summited the day before so despite sucking the energy from my already weary legs they yielded some spectacular views. I couldn’t stop thinking looked like exactly a Windows XP screensaver I used to use.
After the checkpoint it was clear that I was not going well as I just couldn’t find a comfortable pace to go out. Before I started Marathon des Sables, I wrote my running motto on my gaiters “Always Forward, Forward Always”, so when times got hard I could look down and just repeat the words as each foot fell. As the heat started to excruciatingly escalate I could feel my body starting to fade so began repeating the words over and over again, first in my head and then out loud. I thought today would be easier than yesterday as it was almost entirely on the flat besides that dune section but I was wrong, so wrong. The heat and the exhaustion had cracked my resolve. The temperature apparently topped out at 45 degrees during this stage and as I made my way through the salt flats of the many dried out river beds you could feel the heat radiating from the ground as well as bombarding you from above. With nothing but flat arid landscape there was no shade to escape the unrelenting heat as I staggered onwards.
By mile 12 my morale, like my water was running dangerously low. I still had 2 miles to go, fear began setting in. I had to make sensible decisions now. They say when times get rough in a race, run with your heart and for the most part I would agree but when it comes to ultras and specifically multistage ultras you must run with your head. Your heart is passionate and empowering, but it is also fickle, stumble and you risk losing that emotional fuel. Your head, however, is pragmatic and calculating. Thinking five, ten miles ahead avoids potential problems before they snowball, or ‘sandball’ in my case, into something that could end your race.
At the second checkpoint I sat defeated under the shade of the medical tent and cried. Raw, unyielding tears rolled down my sand battered face, stinging as they slid. I felt utterly broken, lost and alone despite the many other people squashed under the tent escaping the heat. In those tearful moments I honestly debated quitting. I sat there utterly defeated daring the universe to give me a sign to quit to throw in the sweat soaked towel. With the long day only one sleep away I feared failure could await in the darkness. To come so very far only to fail through fear seems, in hindsight, an utterly ridiculous reason to quit but in my delirious state I pondered it. I let my body go, caring little what the other athletes thought of me right now and cried for what felt like an eternity which in reality was probably only a few minutes.
I got my phone out and looked through the photos from the past few years and realised there have been an innumerable points at which I have debated quitting: before my first Half Marathon in 2015 or my first full Marathon four months later. Through every injury and emotional set back that doubt has creeped it. But by continuing one step at a time I reached the Sahara Desert and this incredible race. Taking the easy option is rarely the road to a life lived well. So why stop now? Why quit the adventure?
I thought about all that I had been through and not relented and thought; not now, not yet.
I slowly got up, dragging my drained body from the ground. I plugged my music in and for the first time narrowed my world to each step, each note, each lyric. I created a playlist a few weeks before flying out, knowing that I would eventually need rhythmic rescue. The songs were those that reminded me of places, people and races, flooding my soul with joyful memories. A smile began to blossom across my dry, cracked lips and I was back.
The next 9km went through in a sweaty, semi delirious blur and when I finally reached the next checkpoint, I felt stronger again. That darkness had dissipated through musical distraction. I knew it was only a plaster for a bullet hole, but it felt secure enough for now. The idea of quitting the race no longer wedged its way into every stream of thought. After a short stop, I gathered my bag after taking on a gel and some water and turned to leave the checkpoint. Then I heard a familiar voice, clearly in distress.
Rob is what I would call a gentle giant, not giant in stature despite his height but giant in the respect I hold for him. I met Rob in Heathrow Airport and we briefly chatted about the race and I instantly felt admiration for the man. The Marathon des Sables is damn near impossible for most fit and healthy individuals, but Rob was undertaking the race with type one diabetes controlled with an internal pump and had been struggling with pneumonia before the race. He had battled the race, the heat and the constant rollercoaster of his blood sugar but this day was harder and as he puts on his blog:
“I had three hypos during the day. There was no shade, so I had to treat myself in the full glare of the sun. In that light I couldn’t read my insulin pump screen, so I had to do it by touch. Eventually, after my legs had started shaking and then gave way, I managed to turn it off, to stop my levels from periodically plummeting in the heat and exertion.”
As he lay tearful on the medical tent floor I could tell that he was down but definitely not out. I slung my bag down next to him and sat at his feet as the doctors took his vitals. It is always distressing seeing such a strong individual like Rob crying and I could really see myself in those tears.
We waited for his blood sugar to level out and we made our way out for the final kilometres of the stage together, determined to drag one another along. We shared the stories and paths that led us to this spot as we made our way through the dune field that lay between us and the finish line. Those final six kilometres were the best of that day and as we crossed the finish line I knew that if I was going to make it through the long stage tomorrow I could not do it alone.
Calories Burned: 5,300
Calories Consumed: 2,555
- Great British Porridge (400cals)
- Clif Bar – Alpine Museli Mix (270cals)
- 2 Torq Gels (230cals)
- Peanuts (180cals)
- Dried Mango (85cals)
- Small Salami (120cals)
- For Goodness Shake – Chocolate Recovery Shake (270cals)
- Expedition Food – Carbonara (1,000cals)