In 2019, only three and a half year since I started running, I took on the legendary Marathon des Sables. Billed as the ‘toughest foot race on the planet’, it is six days running 250 kms (156 miles) across the endless sand dunes and rocky plains of the Sahara desert. You have to be self-sufficient, carrying with you on your back everything except water that you need to survive. You are given a place in a tent to sleep at night, but any other equipment and food must be carried on your back every step of the race.
Battling the sweltering desert heat and constant mental hurdles it was by far the hardest challenge I had ever undertaken, especially as when I had signed up I hadn’t run an ultramarathon or even a single trail race. Below are the collection of posts documenting the build up and my journey during the epic race day by day.
On Thursday night I couldn’t sleep, waking up every hour or so in a cold sweat. Just signing up for a race over a year away had cracked my ability to sleep. Well not just any race but the Marathon des Sables, the toughest footrace in the world…
As the start line draws ever near, I thought I would share two more weird and wonderful experiences I have had in the build-up to the Marathon des Sables…
I have scheduled this post to go live on the day I start the Marathon des Sables. Right now as you sip that coffee or eat that slice of cake I have 9ishkg on my back, sand beneath my feet (and probably already in unholy places) and sweat pouring from every inch of me. I will be feeling more nervous and excited then I will have ever felt in my entire life…
The final few days before I left for Marathon des Sables were a blur of hug filled goodbyes and concern laden good lucks. I packed and repacked my bags countless times and panicked more than I care to admit. But before long, as the songs goes, all my bags were packed and I was ready to go. No taxi for me though; my parents, partner and my friend Mark, who was also taking part, all barrelled into my Dad’s car and trundled our way to Heathrow.
The start of the Marathon des Sables can be defined in one word: faff.We spend the early morning unpacking and repacking our bags, attempting to shave a few last minute grams. Since we carry everything needed for the race (except for water and the bivouac tent) any weight that can be saved helps stave off the inevitable exhaustion to come.
I wake up instantly, through fear or excitement I’m not sure. The camp is still relatively quiet with only a few people stirring from their sleeping bag cocoons. I stare out at the endless desert beyond the camp still unable to imagine myself in it.
That night I dreamt about riding the London Underground and as I wearily stir, I half expect to be sat in the cramped heat of a Northern Line train rather than the cramped heat of my sleeping bag. Rolling over and staring out at the sand and endless horizon I can’t help but smile at the ridiculous juxtaposition and the ridiculous place I’ve volunteered to sleep in.
Even before I left for the desert a lot of people were asking what kit I was taking. Since I’ve been back not a week goes by where I don’t get asked for advice on what kit to take for next year’s race. So I thought I would compile a list of all the kit and food I took and give them all little review so that if anyone is looking for kit for a multistage ultra they can see what worked for me.
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.
When we left the tent that morning and made our way to the start line, we had no idea that by the end of the stage we would lose one of our tent mates and have another hanging on by an ever thinning thread. Our tent dynamic was about to fracture in traumatic ways that will stay with me forever.
As the final light of the day faded, we switched on our headtorches and made sure our glowsticks were attached. These glowsticks would act as guiding lights for the rest of the race. Not only were they attached to every competitor but also to every marker along the course. It became a simplistic yet torturous act of searching for the next neon green glowing beacon, lights guiding you down an endless tunnel.
After I said my goodbyes to Charly I made my way nervously to my tent. I knew, having checked up at each checkpoint during the stage, that Mark has finished and done so in an amazing time but it was still such a comfort to see Mark’s familiar smiling face as I came to our sandy homestead. But his was the only face in the tent.
Making my breakfast on the morning of the last competitive stage of Marathon des Sables I found a messaged I had written before I left home, which now felt like a lifetime ago: “Future James, if you have got this far I want you to know how proud I am of you!! Go get that fucking medal!!”.
With the medal I had longed for finally around my neck I took myself away from the joyful hubbub and let the moment truly sink in. Standing alone for the first time since finishing my thoughts immediately turned to getting home and celebrating with my friends and family.
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