The Marathon des Sables is amazing!
I have been back in the UK a week form my Marathon des Sables adventure,I’ve spent the last week recovering, eating some fresh tasty food, and having a few small celebrations.
I must thank everyone for all their support before and during the race. It’s been overwhelming just how many people followed my Marathon des Sables progress, and hearing stories of people getting addicted to the webcam to get a glimpse of myself or another runner doing something interesting across the finishing line has made me appreciated the immense support I have.
As you all know, my goal was to finish in the top 50 of the Marathon des Sables, unfortunately I fell short of that with only finishing 214.th For those of you who were following me closely probably realised along the way something was wrong, I had a few “little” problems, but to understand exactly what happened, here is my Marathon des Sables story.
IT GETS REAL
Arriving in Morocco it was a lot colder than I had expected, and in typical airport fashion, it took several hours to clear customs then be shuttled to the hotel. The following morning we were all up early to board a bus for the 3 ½ hour trip into the middle of the desert. The bus trip took us up, down and around several bends, with my stomach not having the greatest of times at all, but my new friend Jamie who I was seated next to, was visually hurting a lot more than I was.
We eventually stopped, but still had another 30 minutes of travelling in what could only be described as cattle trucks to our camp, and where the 27th Marathon des Sables would begin.
We spent the first two nights in the desert getting to know our tents mates, and experiencing what life was going to be like over the following week. I shared a tent with 7 other guys, 2 of whom were from The Royal Navy, and 2 were Royal Marines, we all got on extremely well. It was a great laugh, even though none of the non military guys had any idea what the military guys were talking about when they were using their “military slang.” In typical Luke fashion, I would annoy the hell out of them by simply referring to them as the army boys, and ask them all types of questions of “What’s it like in the army?” And “Do you have this and that in the army?” It made me laugh at the very least! But as I said we all got on very well, looked out for each other, encouraged those who had tough days, and there were plenty of jokes flying around the tent!
It was finally here, the past 5 months of my life has been dedicated to this race. I have lived and breathed an elite ultra runner’s life, and now all that hard work and dedication was to be put on the test during my Marathon des Sables race.
As the field set off, with helicopters hovering overhead I felt an immense source of energy, courage, and spirit within me that this was my race and I was ready.
I set off at my own pace, feeling comfortable, check point 1 came and I was feeling fine, then we had a couple of climbs, they were fine. I was feeling fresh, reminding myself it was day one and to not push too hard to early, so I was happy to just cruise along. We then had a technical descent between rocks and sandy passages, I managed to get to the bottom (which was about 12kms to the finish of the stage) but as the terrain flattened out my knee (or actually ITB, which was the injury I was carrying into the race and the reason I had an injection 2 weeks before the event) flared up badly and forced me to a halt.
I couldn’t move for a minute or two, then was able to walk, although very gingerly. After only 20kms of the Marathon des Sables completed, I now had to carry this painful, inflamed swollen knee. I continued to walk for 7-8 minutes, afterwards I was reduced to a hobble but pushed myself to run (although much slower than what I would have liked).
Finally I arrived at the finish, knee absolutely killing me. I knew my goal of top 50 was out the window and the aim was to survive and finish the week. It was very disappointing to know that I only managed 20kms of 250 pain free and that I was going to “run” the rest of the race with sharp burning pain in my knee. Frustrated didn’t even get close to what I was feeling, even though I finished the stage in 28th position, I felt like my Marathon des Sables race was over even before the start of the second day.
Waking up to a very warm morning I was in a positive frame of mind and thought that my knee may have settled over night with some rest, and I will be ready to go again, then I stood up and tried to walk! I was hobbling already after one stage.
I got to the start line with the goal, run as fast as I can for as long as I can, if I need to walk then walk, but then run hard, if it hurts keep running until my knee/body would not let me run anymore.
My mind was strong even if my body didn’t mirror it, so I thought if I kept positive in my head, and made my head be the boss rather then my body I could get through.
The stage started with a lot of sand, which I found out quickly would be my nemesis in numerous ways. The sand would make my knee pain worse due to having to push harder as I’m running through it, so the 6kms of sand dunes shortly after the start were a constant pain land mine, with a lot of walking, falling down several times in the sand, and if I’m being totally honest, a couple of tears as I was running through the pain (which I’m pretty sure I got on camera, footage to follow shortly).
Coming into the second last check point of the day, hobbling like an old man who needs a hip replacement, the doctor was called to attend to me, laying in the doctors tent as he was asking me all sorts of questions. I simply told him, “all you can do for me mate is give me a massage down my ITB, some pain killers, and high 5, and that’s about it.” He laughed and agreed.
After a quick 20 minute massage to loosen the muscles around my ITB up, and several pain killers, I was out of the tent and heading across a dried up lake to the next check point which was 10kms straight ahead in 46 degree heat. The first 2kms were horrible, I remember filming a few more tears at this low point, but I didn’t want to stop/walk/or slow down, so I kept moving on, then after 20 or so minutes the pain decreased and I was able to run, so run I did, I simply thought “Luke you have 8kms to the next check point, get there as quickly as possible while your not in immense pain.”
I worked hard and made the check point in a decent amount of time, and surprisingly with little pain. I now had 11kms to the end with all different types of terrain; the plan was to simply get through it FAST!
I really worked hard on this leg, there was 2-3kms of sandy passages where I gritted my teeth and dealt with the searing pain through my knee. I was less than 10kms from the finishing line of the stage, so I wasn’t going to let my knee or anything else stop me from getting to the end quickly.
Hobbling across the line after day 2 was a relief as it was a tough day on my body, which was constantly in pain. I wanted a challenge and the Marathon des Sables was throwing me one!
Back at the tent as I was waiting for the others I took my shoes and socks off to find mountains of blisters EVERYWHERE!
The blisters were all over all my toes, under, and between them as well. I was so focused on my knee pain I hadn’t felt my feet at all, lets just say it was tough to eat my food after seeing them. After several attempts from my tent mates urging me to seek medical help for my horrendous feet. I finally decided to go and have them looked at, the doctor simply said “wow” I bet they hurt, and went on his way to slice and dice through my blisters and wrap my toes up to try to stop any infections.
With very little sleep on the desert floor due to an upset stomach, my knee and feet pulsating with every heart beat, and several of my tent mates (who will remain anonymous) snoring like grizzly bears throughout the night. I struggled to stand up in the morning, I realised today was going to be a tough day.
My feet felt like they were stepping on razor blades, my knee (to my knowledge) had a hot sharp poker inside it, stabbing me with each step, and I had just short of a marathon to run. This was going to be a “fun” day.
My moral was quite low today due to the amount of pain I was in, and the total realisation that a top 50 position in the Marathon des Sables was beyond my reach (even though I started the day in 44th position overall). All the boys in the tent got behind me and encouraged me to keep working hard and push myself. I had a great sense of support from each and everyone of them, this literally helped me to stay focused throughout the day. (Thanks tent 70)
I think by now you all get the picture of the pain I was in, it simply got progressively worse with each step, and each day. I also realised that on sand I was unable to walk up or down hill, (due to my knee) unless I hopped down on my left leg, and any flat sandy passages, well I could hobble through some, but some I needed to walk (bodies choice not mine).
Setting off as fast as I could for the 3rd stage (although with many runners passing me) I kept my head down and worked as hard as I possibly could.
It was HOT!
The organisors decided to give everyone an extra bottle of water at a certain check point due to the temperature potentially reaching plus 50 (it ended up reaching 52).
After this stage everyone was talking about how beautiful it was with all the mountains, valleys, rock cliffs, and dunes, I saw none of this. I was in my little pain box trying to push forward as hard as I could and as fast as I could manage. The last 10kms of the stage went something like this, hobble hobble ARGH, stop for 30 seconds, walk 1 minute, hobble hobble ARGH, REPEATED UNTIL END.
I wasn’t even bothered that I finished, I just wanted to get off my feet, and stop limping.
Unfortunately, this evening my upset stomach got worse, my guts were not in a good place (you can imagine the rest). Also my feet were notably worse, and I needed to see the doctors as there was blood coming through some of my bandaged toes, and the pain had become considerably worse. The doc wrapped me up again, but several of my toes had become infected, so I received a box of penicillin and told to go and put my feet up for the rest of the afternoon/evening. I felt I was getting the full Marathon des Sables experience.
But the relaxed atmosphere of the camp soon became panic when it was hit with a massive sand storm that afternoon and evening, forcing most of us to sleep inside our sleeping bags with sand goggles on, an interesting experience to say the least.
With the elite top 50 runners setting off 3 hours later then the rest of the field, the rest of us were preparing for what was going to be the toughest day of their lives. I was in a good mood even though I knew I had an epic battle to get around the days stage. My game plan was to run hard when I could, walk when my body wouldn’t let me run, but always keep moving forward at all costs. With this strategy I should get back to camp (after leaving at 8:30am) between 10:30pm-11pm, have a good nights rest, then day off tomorrow.
WELL, as the daily messages were read out to our tent the words “congratulations, you have someone starting at the later time of 11:30am” made my heart drop and head shake profusely with disbelief. “Number 540 well done, you’re starting at the later time.” I was gutted, but also quite confused as I believed there was no way I could still be in the top 50 after yesterday’s long, tough day.
As the main pack of runners set off, I watched and cheered them on truly wishing I was amongst them. After the last runner started their epic day the rest of the “top 50” men and top 5 woman made their way back to the few tents which were left standing to lay down and relax.
As I spoke with numerous people I knew I was clearly the odd one out, these guys had done several top 50 finishes in the Marathon des Sables, ran some of the most grueling ultra marathon races throughout the world. At least 15-20 were sponsored by nutritional, or running equipment companies in some way, and the bloke who was resting next to me had run a 24 hour race in Hong Kong 6 months earlier (yes he ran as far as he could in 24 hours).
6 months ago I was an injured soccer player, and he was running for 24hrs, all I could do was laugh when that inevitable question came to me by these ultra runners. “What other races have you done, have you won any?” After a large smile came across my face, I simply replied “mate, this is my first EVER race, I’ve never had a race number before!”
With a puzzled look and several more questions, they all thought I was absolutely insane, and crazy, but at the same time gutsy choosing the Marathon des Sables for my first ever race.
As the top “50” men and 5 woman lined up side by side in the middle of the desert for the start of 81.5kms, I thought to myself, just keep moving, deal with your knee, block out the razor blades in your shoes which are stabbing into every single one of your toes and finish this thing, JUST FINISH!
We set off and immediately I went to the back of the field in roughly 40th position with a few other stragglers who were also visibly hurting.
We hit some small dunes, and sand flats after 4-5kms, this pulled me to a grinding halt, the pain intensified with each dune, and it wasn’t long until I had been passed by the rest of the late starters, except one (who I later found out pulled out of the race at checkpoint 1 due to blisters).
Sitting at the back of the entire field was an interesting experience, there was no pressure, I was running my own race, I had no one around, it was almost like I was in ther desert alone, it was very surreal at times.
After a huge rocky climb and a 20% gradient decent down a sandy passage for a couple of hundred metres, I reached check point one, I was feeling OK, and dealing with my pain. Leaving the check point and hobbling over some more small dunes I started to feel quite ill, light headed, and with little energy, my guts were painful, and felt twisted, I was forced to a walk.
After attempting to hobble/walk for a while I literally was unable to move anymore than a slow shuffle, then with approximately 6-7kms until check point 2 (which was still 57kms from the finish) I started to debilitate. I was swaying side to side, I wanted to throw up and go to the toilet but couldn’t, I ate, I drank but it just made me feel worse, I couldn’t control my head it was all over the place, I was alone, in the heat, and not in a good way at all. My mind was saying “one foot in front of the other, aim for that mountain” (which I thought the direction of the checkpoint was in).
After a while a car drove by and asked if I was OK and do I need medical attention? Of course I said NO, and just mumbled, check point 2 how long?
I had 2kms until the next check point, I kept moving forward towards it.
Due to starting late I was one of the last people arriving in the entire field at checkpoint 2, I received my water and then was taken to the medical tent where a doctor laid me down, elevated my feet and asked me several questions. I was told to drink a whole bottle of water with some sort of salt solution, and take a few pills to settle my stomach. (We all thought I was dehydrated, but the next day after speaking with the same doctor we realised that I had a stomach infection, which was related to the days before stomach upset).
After drinking the bottle of water, I was told if I could pee and feel ok, I could carry on, but that was the last thing on my mind, the first was to get out of the tent to be sick. Without too much detail, let’s just say the majority of the 6 litres of water I had already consumed that day ended up on the sand next to my feet in less than 10 seconds!
SO, staggering back into the medical tent I was surrounded by doctors and nurses keeping a close on my movements, once I’d laid back down on my sandy bed the doctor put it to me like this “You have 57kms to the end, you cannot make it in this condition, you have 2 options. One, I withdraw you from the race now (you can imagine I was shaking my head profusely as he was saying this) or two, I give you an IV drip and if you can pee afterwards and you feel/look ok you can continue.”
Having an IV also incurs a 2 hour time penalty during the Marathon des Sables, but that was the last thing on my mind.
I simply lifted my right arm up towards the doctor and said “let’s get started!”
After 3 litres of IV, and being in the medical tent for 2 hours, I was finally being cheered off by the last couple of medics left at the check point (even though it was closed as I was the last person to leave).
There were 14kms until checkpoint 3, and it had a cut off time to continue in the race, I had 3 hours to get there.
I felt this next stretch of 14kms would define my MDS experience, if I struggled badly I would be forced out of the race, if I stayed steady I would make it with enough time to spare, but also this next stretch was not about making the next check point as fast as possible, it was more than that, it was a race, a race to stay in the race, I HAD to make it, there was no other way about it.
With this analysis taking the first 2kms until I hit a sandy passage, which was also my first experience of a sand storm while running, with the raging winds, I let out a huge roar and simply said to the desert “bring it on” as I put on my sand goggles and headed into the sandy winds ready for my mission of survival in the Marathon des Sables!
With my watch not working anymore due to the battery going dead and my solar charger not working as it was full of sand, I had no idea how I was doing or what pace I was “moving” at, I just kept pushing as hard as I could hoping it was fast enough.
I eventually made check point 3 in enough time; just at it got dark. I had something to eat, refilled my bottles, and then put on my head torch on to set off into the night for what was going to be a mammoth evening.
The next two check points involved a combined distance of 24kms, with 22 of those being huge sand dunes. It was a strange experience being in the desert at night, out in the open air with only the luminous stars to keep me company.
As I hobbled, walked, strolled, yelled, screamed, and cried throughout the night crawling up some of the steep dunes, and trying not to fall on their descents, it was a constant up down up down pattern of movement throughout the next few hours. I kept mentally strong, and just took each check point at a time. I made this entire stage a war, with each check point a battle, in order to win the war I had to win each battle, knowing each battle would be different, some more difficult than others, and some I would feel I couldn’t win at times, but I would never ever give up, some how I would overcome each battle and be the victor of my marathon des Sables stage 4 war!
Finishing the long stretch of dunes, with this passing through checkpoint 4 and 5, I had one checkpoint to go until a 9km stretch of sand to the finishing line for the stage.
Between checkpoint 5 and 6, I was able to get a bit of a hobble on and eat up some kilometres with only a few arghs and colourful uses of the English/Polish/French languages!
Hitting checkpoint 6 was a relief as I had run out of food, at what I felt was the midway point before the checkpoint, and I refilled my water and set off for the last 9kms of the stage.
I hit sand immediately which was agonising for both for my feet and my knee, I was reduced to walking with a hobble now.
To make matters worse I was in need of food, my glucose levels were very low, and I had nothing left to eat for this stage. I tried to remain focused, but at times I was wondering off course and staggering until I would catch myself heading in the wrong direction, fatigue and sleep deprivation was kicking in and I still had 6-7kms to go.
It was roughly 2am and as I was reduced to a slow walk, I was now getting cold as well. With no long sleeve jacket to put on (a decision I made to keep my backpacks weight down) I needed to push a little faster in order to keep my blood pumping quicker to keep me warm, this came with a price though, increased pain to knee and feet, and a stronger feeling of fatigue.
After a while I could see the finish line, and without a thought I broke into a hop hop hobble, but only to immediately come crashing down in the sand with my knee giving way, hunched over on my knees in the sand, and starving and with only 2kms until the end, I simply had to keep going, I picked myself up and pushed as hard as I could until the finish line was about 500m away.
I had ran into every checkpoint of the race so far, and ran (well tried to anyway) across every finish line as well, so today/tonight wasn’t to be any different, I picked up the pace to a lets say, a faster forward motion than before, and eventually crossed the finish line, the webcam caught my eye for the first time in the race, (I honestly never took any notice of it after previous stages) I walked straight up to it and pointed to my heart, as this is what got me through the 81.5kms in just over 15 hours, finishing at 3am local time.
Hobbling to my tent, I managed to eat my recovery food, and get ready for bed, but my feet were quite swollen and it took 30 minutes to get each sock off, and with my bloodied bandages on my toes, and a knee which was on fire, I laid in my sleeping bag knowing I won that war!
After eventually getting to sleep at around 4am, I was able to get 4-5 hours sleep before needing to eat again, and then headed back to sleep for a few more hours. Although I was resting, I knew I wasn’t in a good way as my knee didn’t want to bend, and my feet were throbbing while I was simply lying down. After several hours of dosing/eating, I made the tough decision to head over to the doctors tent to have my feet looked at.
Well, my feet were pretty bad to say the least, after the 2nd stage I had blisters everywhere, very little skin on my little toes, and bits of raw flesh here and there. Now after another 2 days of running, I had literally no skin on my little toes (thanks to the doctor’s scalpel), my nail beds were all puffed up with blisters, and the blisters I had previously were now bleeding. Although I had been in the doctor’s tent each day for treatment, and my feet taped, the last 3 days they simply got progressively worse due to me “running” as hard as I could on every stage.
Several doctors, nurses, and other runners looked and took pictures of my toes, some of their faces were priceless, and they all said the same thing “how are you still running, and you are crazy!” My toes were Marathon des Sables celebrities for 5 minutes. Afterwards my poor knee had several more doses of painkillers pumped into it to try and relieve some of the pain.
That afternoon something miraculous happened, it not only poured down with rain, but we had a hail storm! That’s right, in the middle of the Saharan desert it was hailing down, none of us could believe it, what a way to finish our rest day, soaked with water, battered and bruised from the hail.
As I gingerly got out of my sleeping bag this morning to go to the bathroom, I was met with immediate laughter from my tent mates, they all found it hilarious how I was “moving” and more so, that I had to run a full marathon starting in 2 hours, I laughed too, but knew it was going to be an emotional day.
Having ran the entire race so far alone with only brief encounters of small chit chat with other runners on course, one of my tent mates, said let’s run together. This came at a great relief knowing I had someone else to share the pain of running a marathon on this day. Jamie, or Croc as I named him, as one night while everyone was heading off to sleep, out of nowhere, not even closely related to the conversation topics of the tent he asked, “Luke, is Crocodile Dundee still alive??” I laughed so hard and said from now on you’re known as Croc!
We headed off together quite slowly, me hobbling as usual but a lot slower then previous days, and Croc urging me to run faster as I was slowing him down, I wanted him to run his own race but he wanted to stay with me which helped me to stay strong. But, after 8kms he headed off and I was alone again, hitting checkpoint one was a relief as it was quite rocky terrain and my feet and knee were struggling a lot.
2kms into the next stage I had a tear in my running shorts, so my skin was rubbing on the lycra of my other leg, I had 8kms to go, it was getting pretty red, but I just brushed it off and thought I will have the docs tape it up at the next check point. Arriving at the checkpoint I heading straight to the medical tent to see the state of my inside leg and have the doc tape it up. To my amazement the rubbing had removed the skin and some flesh, and I had a steady stream of blood flowing down half of my leg, the doc applied some antiseptic, which felt how you could imagine, taped it up, and I was off.
I had another 6kms of dunes in this next stretch, I hobbled when I could, walked when I had no other option, but always pushed forward. I just wanted to finish each stage as fast as possible so the pain would stop. With tomorrow only consisting of roughly 16kms, if I could get through today, I would be close to the end.
At the end of the dunes I saw Croc, he was hurting, the week had caught up to him. As he had helped me to get through the first few kilometres of the stage, it was now time for me to return the favour by encouraging him through this dark patch of his race. Together we shuffled and urged each other on, we stayed together for the rest of the stage, and picked each other up when we both literally fell. Crossing the finish line today I felt I used a lot of my strength and power in order to get through, this is why I gave everyone who was watching a close up of the guns and FORTIS!
The biggest disappointment for me was as soon as I finished the stage and stopped running I wasn’t tired, even though I had just completed a marathon. I headed back to the tent and all the other runners were flat out exhausted but I was fine, so I began my post run routine as per usual involving stretching, cooking food, and eating. I was not fatigued, tired, or even in the slightest need of a sleep, my injuries were inhibiting me from running fast enough to get tired. Everyone in our tent just relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon watching runners cross the finishing line of the desert marathon.
With the running over for the day, the camp was treated with a surprise concert, a 12 piece orchestra with a soprano stepping in for several pieces, it was a surreal experience sitting in the middle of the desert, under the of stars listening to a live orchestra, simply amazing, and a highlight of my Marathon des Sables trip!
Everyone was excited about today, it was the final day of the event, and with just under 16kms to run, with 9kms of those over the biggest sand dunes in Morocco, it was smiles all round.
As I set off with Croc again a little past 9am, I was moving very very slowly, I soon realised how slow I was “running” when people who were casually walking started overtaking me, and then I heard Croc yelling at me “C’MON, what are you doing?” I yelled back, “I’m running as fast as I can!”
He soon left me to fend for myself; I don’t blame him at the pace I was moving. I continued to hobble and strain with the feeling of a thousand razor blades cutting into my feet with each step, and a scorching hot, sharp poker jamming into my knee, I was so close to the end, I just need my mind to stay strong for a little while longer, I knew I had it in me. Making the first and only checkpoint of this last stage signaled the final leg of the 2012 Marathon des Sables, I had 9kms of the highest dunes in Morocco until the finish of the race. At the checkpoint I sucked down an energy gel, slurped back some water, and headed off into the mountainous golden peaked sand formations.
The dunes went something like this for me, hobble hobble, walk, walk, up, down, argh, up, down, argh walk, hobble etc.
I caught up with my mate Croc about 4kms from the end, we decided to work together (as both of us were hurting) until the end, but in the last 500m I really struggled, so I urged him to finish strong and I would meet him at the finish line. Dragging myself over the last dune and down into the finishing lane with 100s of people out to cheer all the competitors across the line really lifted my spirits, and made me realise the great feat in which I had achieved. Finally I crossed the finish line, I had done it.
I finished the 27th Marathon des Sables, on 1 knee, and with bloodied, blistered, infected toes from day 2, but that didn’t matter now as I’d finished!
With all the elation and joy which was being spread around as people crossed the finish line, I couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied that I wasn’t able to work as hard as I wanted and to my level of fitness throughout the race and attempt my goal of a top 50 finish, but that’s sport, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
Although I was battered, I had completed the toughest footrace on earth. I had a great feeling of relief that the race was over and that I would not have to run anymore with excruciating pain.
Crossing the line I was given a medal from the race organiser Patrick Bauer, a bag full of food, and ticket for a bus which left in 45 minutes for our 5 ½ hour journey back to the hotel.
Sitting with some of my tent mates who finished before me, and being harassed from the desert children for any sort of kit they could get their hands on (eventually I gave in and two lucky kids were the owners of my hat, and buff) we all laughed and chatted about the week that was, and were all defiant we would never do it again!
I spent two nights in Quazarate before flying back to London, as my feet were bloodied infected stumps, walking was an intense task. After my first shower in 9 days, and having my feet taped up again, it was time to eat. I the food never had a chance, as soon I had my plate in front of me filled with cous cous, salads, chicken, rice, and other colourful dishes which I have no idea what it was, it had all been inhaled and I was ready for bed!
The next day we all went to the awards presentation to see the Marathon des Sables winners be given their trophies, and the rest of us were given our bright yellow finishers t-shirts. My tent mates and I walked around a local market haggling for bargains, until it was time for an afternoon nap, followed by our final meal together as tent 70 of the 27th Marathon des Sables. After dinner, a few well earned beers were in order before retiring to our rooms for the last nights sleep in Morocco.
This was my Marathon des Sables Adventure!
Thank you all once again for your fantastic support, you can still donate money to one of my fantastic charities if you haven’t already, stay tuned as the next adventure is just around the corner.
The Adventure. The Travel. The Challenge.