Dunes and Endurance: How I found self-belief in the Sahara

In 2011, I competed in the Marathon des Sables (MdS) and, after marrying my wonderful (and patient!) wife, and having two marvellous children, I think the whole journey to finishing the MdS has been the most rewarding experience of my life. I am writing this almost seven years later and the memories are vivid and the learnings immense – and of course I am still running ultras.

A bit of background for those who don’t know: the MdS is a gruelling multistage ultramarathon across the Sahara Desert. It takes in six days and 156 miles of endless dunes, burning hot salt plains and rocky terrain at temperatures hitting 50oC. It truly is extraordinary: the Discovery Channel dubbed it the Toughest Footrace on Earth. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Now, whenever I hear AC/DC’s Highway to Hell I remember:

  • The panic which set in when I sat on the bus ahead of the six hour drive to the desert start. I was handed the Road Book (a map of the course, which changes every year). Those around me seemed so confident, especially those from the military. But I was scared and questioning what had I let myself in for.
  • Looking at the Bivouac for the first time from the back of an open top army truck – like somewhere from a different planet.
  • Highway to Hell playing before the start each morning. Even today, hearing this song brings goose bumps to my arms and takes me right back to being stood in the crowd of nervous and excited runners.
  • Patrick Bauer (the Race Director) stood on top of a Land Rover giving out the instructions the evening before the start.
  • Finishing day 1 (The Sand Dunes in 2011 – awesome). I felt surprisingly good and had an amazing sense of achievement (#225 that day). I called home on the organisers’ satellite phone because it was Mother’s day and Mel was looking after our two young children.
  • The low flying Eurosport helicopter, which made me feel like a real athlete you see on the TV.
  • Finishing each day, having my number checked then collecting my bottled water ration, and walking the 300 metres or so to the Bivouac. I also remember the fantastic camaraderie of my tent mates, the support crew and all the competitors.
  • The terrain – so beautiful yet so harsh, and so many rocks!
  • A section of the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra played to us on the second or third night, in the desert under the stars – very surreal.
  • Stepping on to the tarmac in Tazzarine for the finish and being given my finisher medal.
  • Getting back to my hotel room and having a long shower – and then another, because the dirt, sand and sweat was so engrained in to my skin. I’d had no way of washing for the last seven days.

These memories alone are worth the investment in time, training, preparation, and money. The real life-changing effect for me has been the increased self-belief and feeling of completeness as a result of finishing something which, back in 1996 when I first saw the MdS on French TV, looked so amazing and so far beyond my capability.

The Long Day

I was very nervous at the start of Day 4. My goal was to try and finish before midnight so that I could benefit from some rest the following day; the cut was not until early afternoon on Day 5. At some point in the morning I found myself in a long train of some forty runners and the sand was gruelling. I was following three or four Sapiers Pompiers who decided to head over a rocky hill rather than go around it. I thought this was a good opportunity to get off the sand and followed. However, when we got the top we realised we had gone the wrong way and could see the train of runners heading off in to the distance. Not wanting to violate any course rules, I turned around and headed back down the rocky hill. I worked hard and an hour later caught up once again with the tail of the train of runners.

The effort in catching up took its toll and between CP2 and CP3 I started overheating and dropped back. As I arrived at CP3 I decided to collect my water and leave immediately; I was not in good shape and I didn’t want to attract the attention of the crew and medics who would be looking out for runners in trouble. I later found out that the temperature in the sun that afternoon hit 54 degrees C at CP4.

I walked over a hill and then started hallucinating. I thought I was lost in the desert without water and that, not only might I not finish the race, I might die. Sounds extreme now, but I really did not know what I was thinking. I was walking slowly and I remember another competitor stopped to offer help. I remember politely declining his offer because I did not want to incur a time penalty – call that stubbornness, not focus.

I must have lost an hour and was worried when sense prevailed and I did a systems check. I stood still and scanned my body from top to bottom. I remember my head felt better, I had not been moving so much so my breathing and temperature were back to something like normal, and I jumped up and down on the spot to check my legs.

It was then that I heard that magical sound of water sloshing around in my two shoulder mounted water bottles! Of course I had water – the hallucinations had taken over my thinking for a while. So, totally relieved, I decided to walk to the next CP. That period during the hallucinations was the lowest and scariest moment I can remember.

As I walked in to the CP I could see someone walking out to meet me and it was adventurer and photographer, the late Mark Gillett. Sadly Mark died in 2015, but his encouragement to me at CP4 will always remain with me. Mark was an adventure racer, coach and was in the MdS that year as an official photographer. Mark’s advice was awesome, asking how I was and calmly suggesting I take some time to eat, drink and to get ready for the night section – every word delivered on the assumption that I would be fine. He then walked in to the open plain ahead of us to take some photos of me in the late afternoon sun leaving the CP.

I do not think of myself as a spiritual person, but as I ran out that afternoon from CP4 with the sun setting to my left, I felt so very close to my Father who had died in November 2009. I knew that he would be so proud of me and at that moment I took so much strength from my fond memories. I really did enjoy running into and through the night, and completed Day 4 just before midnight. I was so excited that, although exhausted, I could not sleep a wink that night!

So for me, the real big takeaway from the MdS has been the increased self-belief from being outside my comfort zone and exposed to some amazing people and some amazing experiences. These are now my foundation, so when life’s problems come along I can handle them with the benefit of that experience.

Planning your own adventure? Got a big goal in mind? I’d love to hear more – leave a comment or email me at andy@lifeisasinecurve.com.

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