Marathon Des Sables
‘The Toughest Footrace on Earth ’
A 156 mile race across the Sahara desert in temperatures of over 50° C, whilst carrying everything on your back except the water that you will need to survive during 4 marathons plus a 55 mile run.
When I entered the 2014 race I didn’t realise that packing would be one of the biggest challenges. The equipment and calories vs weight conundrum is one that plagues all racers with some going as far as shaving off extra strap length from their pack and cutting the handle short on their tooth brush! I ended up taking 2500 calories of food per day, consisting mainly of granola (which I shall never eat again!), energy gels and one freeze dried meal per day, as well as some recovery powder as a treat in the evenings. When I set off running on day one, my pack weighed just less than 9kg which I felt was a reasonable compromise which included the compulsory distress flare and anti-venom pump!
With a mixture of adrenaline, the amazing views and the apt daily blasting of ‘Highway to Hell’ on the huge start line loudspeakers, it was initially easy to conquer the weight of the pack and the incessant wading through soft sand. But after the first 9 miles over the continuous Erg Chebbi sand dunes, the biggest in Morocco, the enormity of the task set in as well as a healthy portion of cramp! At the first check point I stopped to eat as many salt tablets as I could stomach; getting cramp this early on was not what I had intended. Others had stopped to be sick and some were already sacrificing time penalties for extra water. The salt tablets worked a treat and in spite of my cramp I managed to finish the first marathon stage in the top third. I subsequently found out that it had been the highest drop out rate ever for the first day, despite an extension to the cut off time.
During the second and third stages I had adapted to coping with the heat but it was evident that I hadn’t done enough training carrying weight and my knee joints weren’t enjoying the variety of terrain and dunes. My lowest point came on stage 4 after completing the first 26 miles of the 55 mile stage. I stopped at a checkpoint to have a ‘crisis meeting with myself’ and sat down to enjoy the sunset. I dug through my bag, pulled out the emergency Pepperami that I had saved for just such an occasion and began to read through some emails. Each night the staff brought out a couple of pages of emails that family and friends had sent via the website. Emails from family were encouraging and mentioned that they had been tracking me on the website and watching me momentarily via the webcams positioned at the end of each stage. Emails from RAF colleagues and friends back home were more to the point including useful advice such as ‘when you are feeling tired, stop feeling tired’ and ‘run faster’. Both provided a huge morale boost. I got back to my feet and waddled on, navigating across the dunes through the pitch dark with my compass and headtorch. It was sunrise again before I saw the finish line and could finally relax for my delicious freeze dried chicken curry made with cold water and warmed in the sun.
The last full marathon stage was one of the highlights. I don’t know if it was because of the amazing views, the other runners that I ran small sections with throughout the day or the extra energy that I found with the end in sight but I didn’t stop running all day. My pack was lighter and the course felt flatter. The final marathon finished in a small Moroccan village full of local people selling real food and cold beer. Cradling my beers and a huge loaf of fresh bread I boarded the bus to the hotel for a shower.
The MDS officials mentioned that people will not understand why anyone would sign up to complete the race. During the last 10 miles of the long stage, I specifically remember asking myself the same question. It wasn’t until the flight home that I began to think ‘that was fantastic, I’m sure that I could do it quicker next time…’
I chose to raise money for the Macmillan Cancer Support nurses whose work touches millions of people every year. Thank you so much to everyone that donated, both offline and also online via www.justgiving.com/owensmds. I was absolutely astounded by people’s generosity and over £3000 has been raised. The site will remain open for another few months and any further donations would be greatly appreciated!