On the 7th April 730 runners from around the world gathered at the small Moroccan town of Ait Saadane. There destination was a collection of 100 Berber tents 9km to the east, and the start of the 2006 Marathon Des Sables. In the midst of them was me, Shem Banbury, runner number 483, fulfilling a 15 month goal of completing the Marathon Des Sables.
Since its creation the Marathon des Sables has been a team or individual endurance race of around 220km. It is the world’s premier race of this type and proudly carries the tag as the world’s toughest footrace. The race is spread over 7 days and in 2006 was made up of 6 stages between 12 and 72 kilometres including one night stage.
The race was set up by Frenchman Patrick Bauer who in 1984, at the age of 28, set himself the personal challenge of crossing the Sahara by foot. Surviving on limited food and water and having to travel 300km challenged and inspired him so much that he wanted people to have the opportunity to experience something similar. Therefore he designed the MDS; a sporting event that required competitors to master their own bodies and challenge themselves to the extreme. Added to that was the mystery of the desert and the both fear and apprehension that this vast land generates.
“For the finishing touch I added just a hint of adventure by introducing the notion of becoming a voluntary castaway. So each person prepares his expedition by calculating, testing the weight, balancing the load, learning to ration, to control one’s nerves, to live through the psychological aspect of the event as it’s the head that drives the rest of the body on. Either you crake up or you transcend yourself.” Patrick Bauer – 1985
The first race was held in 1986 with only 21 competitors and has steadily grown into a huge international event. Today the event attracts over 700 competitors and is followed by thousands world wide.
Upon arriving at camp the first job is to find your self a tent. I was attracted by an Irish flag fluttering in the breeze and with one place left, I filled the 8 member quota. Tent number 86 was a superb mixture of nationalities, ages, sizes, snorers and characters. We had the oldest British runner in 63 year old Brian and the youngest runner in 19 year old Ed. Add to the mix was Team Odyssey comprising of barrister Mike, Englishman Paul and American George. The final two members were the two characters of the tent. Cork born Fergal McCarthy and Mahmood. Fergal was a laugh and despite contracting every disease known to man and having to have surgery in the desert, he managed to see the funny side to everything. Mohmood was the man with everything in our tent. No item was too heavy for his pack and no food to exotic for him to carry.
The 8th April was registration day. Competitors are given a registration time and have to show that they have the required equipment and the minimum of 2000 calories a day. My time was set for the afternoon so I had the morning to organise and repack any items I thought necessary. Registration managed to go without a hitch, although the French organisers were a little annoyed my ECG was a photocopy and not an original. The process also involves the collection of your survival kit consisting of a flare and salt tablets. Finally as the final act of you isolation you are required to hand your suitcase into the organisers. From then on for the next 8 days you are limited to the clothes you are wearing, the food in your pack and the ration of 9L of water a day.
Prior to the beginning of the race on the 9th April the main talking point in tent 86 was the stat of Fergal’s back. Not long after arriving at camp a cyst in Fergal’s back started to play up and inflame. He went to the doctor who gladly told him that he would have to cut the cyst out before the race. As you could imagine Fergal was a little apprehensive as he set off to the doctors the night before the race. Apparently the doctor cut two slices with the scalpel and then expressed the puss out. Unfortunately I was the designated as tent 86 House surgeon and was required to strap Fergal every morning before the start of each stage.
STAGE 1 – 28km
AIT SAADANE to RICH MERZOUG
Usually the first stage is shorter to help competitors acclimatise to the conditions. However, this year the organisers set the stage at an unusually long distance of 28km.
Initially I was feeling confident about the race. My training had been excellent and I was the fittest I have ever been and felt I could do well in the race. Over the 8 weeks preceding the race I hade averaged around 90km a week with a pack, and had spent hours organising my equipment and food to ensure it was perfect.
Like all sport events there was plenty of nervous energy on the start line. Competitors looking at each other, checking other peoples equipment and generally just waiting for the event to start.
Finally after a detailed pre stage briefing the gun went off at 9:00am and the race began. The initial 5km were easy as we made our way along loose sand and small rocks. My plan was to take it easy on the first day by jogging and walking the majority of the course. However, any thoughts of a fast pace were quickly dispatched as the course soon followed a dried out wadi (river) with large rocks and difficult terrain. The first CP (Check Point) at 12.5km seemed a long way away as I was forced to walk in the wadi.
After about 2 hours I finally made it to CP1 and carried out what was to become the usual process. Collect my ration of 1.5L of water, fill up my water bottles, take 2 salt tablets, treat any blisters and move on. My initial plans were to spend as little time as possible at each CP, however, as the race developed each CP was a huge relief and I valued the time to rest and recuperate.
The second leg of stage one was to have a lasting impression on me. The first 4km were easy and I felt good enough to break into a fast run. But the terrain soon changed and within 30 minutes I found myself on all fours struggling up a huge sand mountain. For me this was when the race changed. No longer was this a running race, or an adventure, it had turned into survival and my only goal was to complete the race.
My training with Gurney Gears from New Zealand had been excellent but my Scottish preparation was found wanting on the first day. The heat was extreme and the terrain brutal. The way your body reacts to these conditions is almost impossible to gauge if you have not been in this kind of environment.
I staggered to the top of the sand hill and found about 50 other people laying around on the top. At least I wasn’t the only person struggling. I managed to get a photo from one of the marshals and decided the best option was to just carry on.
The terrain to CP 2 was spectacular as rugged sand peaks rose out of the sand. However, I was in no mood to admire the view. I managed to hook up with a couple of British guys who had decided to walk to the next CP. My only option was to walk with them as we followed the rocky ridge line to the CP. By now the terrain had turned and we were walking on large rocks which I found really hard on my feet. The constant rubbing and twisting mixed with sweat and sand was the perfect ingredients for blisters.
By the time I arrived at CP2 my spirits had been raised slightly and I was keen to push on. I filled my water bottles and didn’t even look at my feet although I knew I had large blisters on the heels of both feet. From CP 2 I only had about 8km to travel and in true MDS comradeship I met up with a Chloe, a British girl living in Hong Kong. Her and her husband where both doing the race and in a strange coincidence they know the parents of one of the pupils in my class back at Belhaven Hill. It is amazing how the world is so small.
With only about 3km of the stage to go I had my first scary experience of the MDS. With the camp in sight there were two runners about 40m in front of us and they seemed to be running freely. Then suddenly the guy in the left just collapsed on to the ground. We ran to his help and it was clear that he was in a bad way, suffering for dehydration and unable to talk. His friend stayed with him as I ran the final 3km to the finish line to alert the marshals who went to his rescue in the 4WD.
That evening I was just happy to finish and get the first stage out of the way. I collected my nightly ration of 4.5L of water and then headed to Hotel 86. I managed to have a good rest and spend the time relaxing and assessing my feet. Unfortunately they were in a bad way. I had 2 large blisters on the heels and a number of smaller ones starting around the toes. I decided the best option was to go to the dreaded and feared Dr Trotters, the onsite doctors. Fortunately the experience wasn’t as bad as I thought. In the past the doctors actually cut the blister open, removing all the skin, exposing the flesh and then they clean the wound. This year the process seemed slightly different. The blister is pierced in two separate places and all the fluid carefully removed. Then comes the pain. Iodine is slowly squeezed into the wound through the small piercings and exposed to the raw flesh. The pain lasts for a minute and is definitely not the most enjoyable experience. To take my mind off the pain I would think about a saying I tell my class and cross country runners at Belhaven
“Pain is a weakness of the mind”.
Finally the blister is left to dry over night and then covered for the next stage the following morning.
STAGE 2 -35km
RICH MERZOUG to MA’DER EL KEBIR
The second stage course began by running up a large mountain consisting long steep climb on a narrow track. The chances of passing on that section of the race would be slim. My plan was to run fast from the start and look to get into a good position before the mountain. Following the mountain I would run to CP1 and then run/walk for the reminder of the stage.
I felt good in the morning and went out hard and as expected the field slowed to a walk over the mountain. Following the mountain there was a 7km salt plain leading to the first checkpoint. At this stage I was feeling great and pushed on, passing a number of competitors.
At CP I stopped had a drink and checked my blisters from yesterday. They seemed okay but I could feel them beginning to rub with each stride. The leg following CP2 was for me the hardest of the race. It is amazing how quickly your confidence and enjoyment is shattered in the desert. This stage included a large section of sand dunes and I found that these really sapped any energy that I had in my legs. I am not the best walker in the world and I found I was being passed regularly as stronger walkers flourished in the dunes. The effect of this on your mind is something I didn’t expected and half way to CP2 I was in a bad way. My blisters were sore and rubbing and mentally the sight of people continually passing me was beginning to have an affect. I was forced to stop about 3km from the CP and check my blisters. After adjusting my socks I pushed on those final 3km seemed to just last for ever.
Finally I made it to CP 2, took my salt tablets and dived for cover in one of the Berber tents. At this stage the temperature was hovering at about 45 and as the afternoon wore on the wind was beginning to send sand everywhere. I quickly tended to my feet, put on my googles and covered my face with my buff and set off before the sand storm really started to bite.
After about 500m though the wind was howling and visibility had dropped I remember feeling a little apprehensive at this point as the course just seemed to vanish into the sandstorm. With nobody around I decided to head back to CP2 and take shelter. Fortunately on the way back I found a walker coming my way. Eye contact was made, no words were spoken as I turned and walked beside them. The strange thing was I had no idea if it was a man or woman or their nationality as we were both covered from top to tale to avoid the sand.
We walked together for a while but I soon pulled away and decided to put on my MP3 player and just try and plough through the dunes and the sand storm. At places you could see about 50m in front of you and at other times you couldn’t see more than a few meters so you had to stop and wait for the sand to clear. With Green Day blaring in my ears I found the experience rather strange and soon my blisters were back into the groove and I started to make some headway. The last 5km to the final CP and home for the evening was like a continual wreckage. People were lying down or resting from the sand every 200m. The thing about the sand is that it causes you to lose all perception of distance. The CP could be only 500m away but your are unable to see it so you feel like stopping.. Fortunately I managed to keep things right and complete the second stage in 5:45.
However, when I returned to tent 86 I found that both Paul and George had been forced to withdraw. Paul had become sick on the first mountain and had lost too much time to recover.
I felt so sorry for both Paul and George after so much training and effort I would be devastated to be in their shoes. In true grit the boys decided to stay on in the camp and there moral and support over remain stages was crucial to the rest of our team completing the race.
STAGE 3 – 38km MA’DER EL KEBIR to MAHARCH
Stage 3 was to prove to be the toughest stage in the 2006 race. Following the relative success of my plan yesterday I decided to try and follow the same technique of running to the first checkpoint and then walking the remainder.
The first leg to CP was perfect desert running conditions and definitely easier than a lot of the terrain that we had covered previously. I ran well and made it to CP comfortably so quickly filled my water bottles, took a photo and continued running. After about 3km of salt plain the ground became sand and once again the desert turned my confidence into misery in a matter of minutes. What lay in front was a long sandy slope that lasted for perhaps 5km. My only recollection of this part of the race was having the thought “what on earth am I do here”. Apparently everyone has this thought at some stage and for me this occurred here. Strange things go through your mind in the desert but I felt that if I just continued on and made it to CP2 I would be okay. In the back of my mind however was the knowledge that this CP was positioned on top of a large mountain. As the sand slope continued the mountains around seem to open up and as we neared CP2 the views were exceptional. The final kick up the mountain was brutal. I was in a line of about 6 runners each one close enough to put there foot straight into the hole that was just left by the previous person, this technique seemed the avoid your entire foot sinking into the sand dune. It was like a 6 man bobsled team walking up a sand dune.
At the CP2 I had to check my blisters again which were painful, swollen and very attractive to the hundreds of flies in the area. I stopped for a while and admired the view. There was a strange feeling amongst the competitors at the top of the mountain. The vistas were incredible and towards the west you could make out a tiny and trail of the 300 or so runners that had just reached the sand and were embarking on their own mini torture as they made there way to the check point.
After the rest I was feeling reasonable fresh and once again tried to jog as much as I could. There was a tricky mountain ridge and descent to negotiate and one had to be careful with footing and balance. The next leg was between CP2 and CP3 and become known as the leg that really defined the 2006 MDS. The road map we were given didn’t really give you a picture of the distance and terrain that was included. Following our descent off the mountain there was a long salt plan and this was one of the only times I really felt the heat. There was stillness in the air and the heat seemed to just rise off the rocks and hit you in waves. The thing I remember about this stage and the comment from a lot of the competitors was the lack of water. Although the stage was only 12.5km due to the three ridges and the two long salt planes the stage was more like a 20km stage which is far to long for only 1.5L of water. Apparently there were a total of 5 flares set off in this stage, four people had to be airlifted out and numerous people dropped out due to dehydration and exhaustion. One of the interesting stories I heard of was about a guy who was about 3km from the CP3 and walking along the final salt plane with the CP in sight. A marshal 4WD came by and he seemed to be okay and was running well. The marshal 4WD continued to the CP and then turned around for another run. They came to the same man again and enquired about how he was. He once again replied that he was running fine. The marshals thought this was strange as he was sitting on the ground. He was promptly taking on board and taken to a doctor in his delirious state.
My stay at CP3 was short as I met up with Will another English in Hong Kong. We had been in contact before the race and it was nice to walk and talk with someone for the final 4km. Halfway along the final route we came upon a couple of water wells. Although we didn’t drink the water we delighted ourselves with a mini shower and the sensation was fantastic. Never before had water down the back felt so cool and refreshing.
That night back at the camp was a horror show for me and without doubt the worst night of the race and perhaps life. After settling down and resting for an hour I went across to Dr Trotters for them to have a look at my feet. It took a while to be seen but I was finally seen to by a doctor. However, I was positioned right beside the communications table. About half through my foot examination a hush came across the entire medical tent. It turned out that one of the Irish runners who had been airlifted out between CP2 and CP3 was in such a bad state he had to be put into a coma. As I sat with both legs stretch out the English organiser was trying to get through to the Irish family. With pain in feet as Iodine was pumped into my wounds I had to listen to the lady explain to the family that there son was in a critical condition and had been airlifted to France an the situation was be treated as extremely serious. It was rather a stressful time for all involved and the silence in the tent added to the situation and to the thoughts going through peoples heads.
That night I didn’t sleep well at all and had stomach bug. I woke up a couple of times to people crying in nearby tents and couldn’t sleep much at all. The MDS is a race that exposes every aspect of who you are. In those lonely hours with only your thoughts you mind can become a dangerous weapon either for you or against you. Unfortunately that evening it was working against me. I woke up the next morning and to my relief I managed to pass a reasonably solid motion. Which was a relief because if you have the runs in the desert you are a goner. Following my successful motion the email lady came around and handed out some emails from the day before.
It was always funny when the emails came around. The tent which is usually alive with people talking suddenly becomes quiet and people retreat into their own little worlds. That morning my emails nearly destroyed me. I felt alone, totally exposed, sick and scared death about the prospect of having to cover some 57km across the Sahara Desert. It is out in the desert when you are broken that you realise the most important thing is people and to not have them near when you need them is one of the hardest things in life.
The tag as the world’s toughest footrace has been earned by the Marathon des Sables and after day three I was in no mood to argue. In the third year of the race, French man Jean-Luc Provence aged 28 tragically died on the second day due to a heart attack caused by dehydration. This has been the only fatality in the event so far. However, every year the drop out rate is high as competitors have to complete the equivalent of 6 marathons in 7 days in searing heat, high humidity and rugged terrain. At the conclusion of the 3rdstage over 130 people had already abandoned the 2006 race. Considering that around 50 failed to finish the previous year this was a huge number and a worry to all both the organisers and the competitors.
STAGE 4 – 72km (Revised to 57km)
MAHARCH to JEBEL EL MRAIER
The news for the competitors at the start of Stage 4 was excellent. Due to the high rate of abandonment’s so far in the race and the severe heat conditions the 4th stage was reduced from 72km to 57km and more water was to be given out. To be honest the increased water allowance was excellent but I know that many competitors were not entirely happy with the reduction in the distance. Personally after the experience of the night before all my prayers had been answered!!!
Due to my mental state I team up with Fergal from tent 86 and we agreed to walk together for this stage and just try and get through. Fergal had had a difficult time so far in the race. Following the removal of the cyst at the top of his back he had become sick during Stage 2 and required a drip at one of the checkpoints. He had made it home on day 2 20min before the cut off time. He was slowly getting better but just wanted to get this big one out of the road. Our plan was simple. Walk to check point 4 and have some dinner and then carry on into the night.
Our plan worked well and upon reflection the race definitely became easier from this point on. The increase in water was a help but the real reason was that the terrain became more runner friendly and the temperatures dropped into the mid 30 due to cloud cover. In hindsight I am sure that the organisers were a little annoyed that they cut the length down, however safety is the most important aspect in a race of this kind.
Working with Fergal was both a blessing and a curse. His is a fantastic guy and we got on very well. It was great to talk to someone and this definitely made the distance seem less. However, I am not a walker, in fact I hate walking so found it a constant battle just to keep up with Fergal. The good thing was that mentally we both felt better as the stage went on. We were walking fast and were past by very few people which helps with the confidence.
It is amazing what you talk about out in the desert and one interesting conversation we had was based around the wind. I casually noted that I was happy that the wind was on our backs rather than into our face and for the next few kilometres Fergal tried to recite a famous Gaelic blessing. It wasn’t until we arrived back home that I received an email with the whole blessing.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
We made it safely to check point 4 by about 5pm and decided to stop for dinner. In the end we enjoyed the rest and spent time just watch the sun drop and the night begin to take hold. Stage 4 is also the night stage and we still had about 19km to go when the sun finally departed. To help you navigate fluorescent sticks are given to every competitor and markers are placed every 500m. I enjoyed the night stage and found the cooler temperatures easier on the body.
Fergal and I finally completed the stage at about 2am with both Paul and George from tent 86 at the finish line to welcome us home. Fantastic!!! The great thing was that the next day was a day off. Many competitors decide to break the stage up and spend a night exposed in the dunes but for those that push on is the reward of a rest day. Mentally my confidence had changed once more. Following the 57km stage I was ecstatic and sure that I would finish the race. I had come this far, my body was getting stronger and although I still had to negotiate a marathon the next day the general mood amongst the competitors was that the hardest part was past.
It was about day four that I regretted a number of things about my pack and the food I had bought. Day after day eating the same thing just gets boring and disgusting. For the past 2 years I have eaten oats, sunflower seeds and raisins for breakfast. However, three days into this race I was sick to death of it. I also found the evening meals frustrating and although reasonably yummy before the race after three days whether it was the shepherds pie, the lamb pilaf or the chicken in noodles they all tasted the same. I also ran into a few problems with my kit on day four. The first 3 days of the race were incredibly hot and even the evenings were hot. I had been told the temperature would drop to about zero and had bought a thermal top. On day 3 in an effort to help get through the next day and lighten the load I threw out my thermal top and white Tyvek suit. Well as you can imagine with the cooler day the night temperatures also dropped and from that point on I wished for my zebra striped thermal.
STAGE 5 – 42.2km
JEBEL EL MRAIER to KOURCI DIAL ZAID
Stage 5 is traditionally marathon day on the Marathon des Sables. With the last stage only being 12km long the general feeling was that this was the last real test in this year’s race. The pace today was hot from the start and obviously people wanted to put forward a good time in the marathon stage. Fergal and I planned to revert to the tried and tested idea of running hard at the start and walking the rest. With lighter packs and only handfuls of food left, we cracked along nicely and arrived at the first CP in a very fast 1:10. Fergal rushed me through the checkpoint and within minutes we were on the road again. There was a cool wind blowing which had helped us for most of the first leg but following CP1 the course direction changed and we found ourselves running into the teeth of the increasing wind. Fergal and I joined with a couple of Spaniards and an Italian runner and we formed a chain where each person lead for 3 minutes and then joined the back of the group. It felt like the Tour de France. The speed was fast and I found my heart rate increasing as I pushed to stay with the group. Finally the pace became too much and I was dropped but at least I had managed to bank a quick 5km into the second leg. I ran and walked to CP2 but by now my feet were in a bad way and very painful. I stopped for a while and changed my socks, which really undid all of the quick running earlier in the morning. Fortunately I met up with Charlie Sykes and ran with him for a while until I met back up with Fergal. He had continued with the Tour de France group and had done well but was now planning to walk the rest. I tucked in beside him and decided to walk with him until the end. We reached CP4 comfortably and with only a small stage of 3km we ran quickly to the finish of the stage. Running across the line to complete the marathon stage was truly amazing. At that point I knew that I had conquered the Marathon des Sables and I had goose bumps as I ran across the line.
That night the entire camp was in party mood. There was a concert put on by the organisers although I was so knackered that I could only just lie in my bed and listen to the music. The race had taken its toll on my body. By feet were butchered and I counted 16 blisters between the two feet. My legs were shattered and the muscles were really beginning to feel the pain of each movement. They weren’t cramping up they just had nothing left in them. Like many other competitors I had developed the Sahara shuffle which is a old man slide as my only way around the camp. However, it was mentally that I was the most exhausted. The race is a roller coaster of emotions and thoughts. One minute you can be feeling high as kite and confident of your pace and position, then the next minute the desert reduces you to tears and you wonder how you can complete the next 4km. Mentally I was drained and just looking forward to seeing my lovely wife Rachel again.
The final night was a night to reflect on the race and the achievement of running 220km across the Sahara Desert. Without doubt the things that will stay in my mind are the enjoyable times spent with the tent 86. I will always remember Mike and his complaining. We would often hold bets about what his first complaint would be when he arrived back in camp. Usually it was his back, although once back into the tent the subject of the dreaded pubic hair between his head would become this focus. I felt sorry for Mike as a simple procedure would be to go down and cut things with a pair of scissors. However, no one in the tent was keen to venture down into those regions and the danger of a DIY job always meant it was left on the ‘to do’ list.
Young Ed was also lots of fun. He preformed extremely well to beat his mother who was also running the race considering he did the entire race on a diet of peperami sticks.
Another tent mate who always impressed as Brian. At 63 the Marathon Des Sables is a massive undertaking and he completed the race in fine form and not a blister to his name.
Stage 6 – 12km
KOURCI DIAL ZAID to MERZOUGA
The final stage was just a stroll in the park and as you could imagine the feeling amongst the competitors was electric. I stood at the start line knowing that in only 12km this whole adventure would be over.
Our plan this morning was simple. We would run as fast as possible to the sand dunes which were 8km and then savour the final 4km with a well deserved walk. We could have run the last 4 km but at this stage position and time were not important, we were keen to enjoy the dunes for the last time and enjoy the moment, as it may never come again.
The first 8km were fast and flat and it was nice to be able to run with some speed. I pushed hard enjoying the chance to pass a few competitors and we made it to the dunes in 40 minutes. We then decided to walk and although we were passed by hundreds of runners we enjoyed the walk. The final 1km were memorable. Large crowds coming out into the dunes to cheer every runner on loved ones and seeing the finishing line as we rose over our final dune was a blessing. Crossing the finish line was not the euphoria that one might expect. Yes there was excitement and relief but I think I was more excited at the end of the marathon stage as I then knew I had made it.
Completion of the race meant getting my medal and importantly the traditional hug from organise Patrick Bauer. Although not the greatest job he prides himself on trying to congratulate every runner as they cross the line. As you could imagine with no shower for 9 days this is not the most pleasant experience.
For those interested in positions and speed I end up in 346thposition out of the 730 starters. Overall I was happy with this as after the third day I just wanted the thing to finish. However, I learnt so much during the race I am sure that if I tried again I would do much better. Perhaps I will give it ago again in a few years time.
The Marathon des Sables is a fantastic race. It challenges every level of athlete and the secret to its success is that it enables every person, every average person the chance to do something special.
|Surname||Name||DOS||Stage||Position||Time||Time behind winner||Speed|
It is funny to think of it this way but something deep inside didn’t really want the final day to come. I think every competitor feels the same. A gladness in finishing but a sadness in leaving the desert. Perhaps the best person to sum up one’s feelings is Patrick Bauer himself and his words at the end of his ordeal are similar to the way I felt on that last morning.
I knew that the end was nigh and I was very happy. My backpack was empty but I felt very emotional. I couldn’t really convince myself that it was the end; that there was no more kilometres left. It was a bizarre sensation. I was really very happy to have arrived but deep down inside I was invaded by a deep sadness knowing that I would no longer leave my footprints in this place that I had learned to love. I cast a last look over the sands and then returned to civilisation.