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Marathon Des Sables - My Saharan Adventure

Marathon Des Sables - My Saharan Adventure

Morocco, April 2002 - by John Lindsay

SHORT VERSION - the bare facts

Briefly, Marathon Des Sables (French for Marathon of the Sands and MDS for short) is a six stage foot race in the Sahara Desert in Morocco, held over 7 days, camping overnight between stages. Contestants must carry mandatory safety equipment, all food, clothing and sleeping gear in a back pack. The French organisers supply approximately 9 litres of water per day, and a space on the ground approximately one metre wide under a Berber tent made of hessian.

It is a tough event, but with fairly liberal cut-off times for each stage, one that can be completed by people of modest running speed and experience. Indeed, some of the runners had not previously completed a marathon, and some fast-walked the whole way.

This year's event was 224 kms long and had 594 starters from over 30 countries. Each year the event contains a long stage of around 80 kms and a "dune day", comprised mostly of an extended run in an area of large and continuous sand dunes. This year these two stages were combined into one stage of 71 kms, with the dune section for many runners being traversed at night (I personally found myself half way through the 23 km dune section as night fell).

Temperatures were milder than normal this year, with maximums normally in the low to mid 30s Celsius. The milder temperatures were largely the result of the sun being obliterated by major dust storms which raged across the desert for the first 5 days of the race. Due to the westerly direction of our course, we found ourselves running head on into these winds, which were usually in the 40-80 kph range.

My overall time for the event was 40:25:58. I improved my ranking throughout the race from 480 on Day 1 to 388 by Day 7. 565 finished the race.

I enjoyed the event immensely. It was an adventure in the true sense of the word. I quickly adapted to camp life, sharing a tent with 6 Brits and one other Aussie. We developed a great camaraderie which added considerably to my enjoyment of the event.

The official website is http://www.darbaroud.com/indexuk.asp. Another good site is http://www.litchfield.co.uk/MDS/Expert.html.

FULL VERSION - my personal account of the event

This event first got its claws into me several years ago, when I read an article about it on the web. Initially I dismissed it due to the cost and other factors, but my interest in doing it did not abate.

So last year I applied the rocking chair test to this event, where you picture yourself in your rocking chair at the end of your life, reviewing the choices you made. I asked myself "would I regret not having done MDS?". Of course, the answer was "yes", so I decided that 2002 would be the year. My decision was reinforced when a work acquaintance around my age was diagnosed with cancer, and died within several months.

My wife Olga strongly supported my desire to compete in this event. She has done many marathons herself, and understands the attraction the MDS has for endurance runners. As it turned out, in 2002 the London Marathon was on at the same time as the MDS, and through Mari-Mar of Travelling Fit, we were able to get Olga an entry to this prestigious event. So she would be able to do the London Marathon while I was in the Sahara Desert.

Here now is my account of the race, reconstructed from notes I made during the event.

Thursday 04 April - arriving at Morocco

I'm aboard a charter Boeing 757, taking 160 runners like me from London to Morocco. Below me stretches an endless vista of snow capped mountains as we cross the High Atlas range. Beyond that range is the infamous Sahara Desert.

We land at Ouarzazate, pronounced "Wazazat". The air is crystal clear, the sky is brilliant blue, temperature is around 24 degrees, and a light wind is blowing. As we walk from the plane to the terminal, the snowcapped Atlas mountains are clearly visible in the background. What a spectacular sight.

Ouarzazate is not what I expected. It is clean and modern looking. It is a kick off point for safari tours into the Sahara, but its main industry appears to be making films. It contains a large film studio complex where major films including "Gladiator" were filmed.

The Le Meridian hotel where we're staying is a high standard 4 star hotel. The French influence is everywhere, especially in the food which is excellent. French is widely spoken.

We have to check in with a room mate, and I team up with Rod who I sat next to on the plane. Rod is 59 years old, super fit, ex-SAS, and currently works as a sports therapist and rock climbing instructor.

Friday 05 April - first taste of the desert

After a great breakfast in the hotel, we board a convoy of buses to take us to our bivouac camp somewhere in the desert. Before we leave, we're given our Road Book, a small booklet which contains all the details of each stage of the race, plus the rules under which we must run. The course has not been disclosed up until now.

After an hour or so driving through desolate country, we come into a valley fed by a stream, presumably from the mountains. We follow this valley for over 100 kms, with houses, date plantations and communities almost without break over this distance. A packed lunch is provided on the edge of the road, and we are immediately set upon by kids from nearby villages, who waste no time attempting to sell us their wares.

After a total of around 5 hours, the buses stop in the middle of nowhere. We offload our gear, which at this stage consists of what we'll carry during the race, plus a small bag of extra stuff that we can have access to for the next day or so before the start of the race proper. The buses then depart.

A little later, along comes a convoy of beat up old trucks. They have high steel sides like a tip truck. The floor of the truck is about chest high off the ground, and I discovered some of the spring has gone from my step since I last mounted a truck like this back in my army days 30 years ago.

The trucks then lurch across the uneven landscape for the final journey to the bivouac. The bivouac consists of half a dozen large white tents which are clearly for administration purposes, around 50 smaller nice white tents for the volunteers and press, and then around 80 open-sided Berber tents for the competitors. These Berber tents are made of half-rotten hessian bags sewn together, and then propped up with sticks.

On the bus trip down, I had made friends with a group of Brits and we all decide to share a tent. Our tent has the following:

6 Brits

  • Dave T, age mid 30s I think, product manager of a steel company
  • Dave W, age 43, ex Royal Navy for 19 years, now works in ship re-fitting business
  • Stuart H, age mid 30s I think, wood machinist
  • Nick R, age 36, manages a fitness centre for Hilton Hotels
  • Rod D, age 59, ex-SAS now sport therapist and rock climbing instructor
  • David M, age mid 20s, computer software

2 Aussies

  • Peter E, age 34, school teacher from Perth, Western Australia
  • John L (me), age 54, marketing manager in the tractor industry from Melbourne

Saturday 06 April - Administration Day

On Saturday we present our medical records to the doctors, receive our water allocation tag which we wear around our necks, have our gear checked and weighed, receive our emergency packs consisting of salt tablets, safety blanket and a distress rocket to be fired if you become lost, or decide enough's enough. Firing the rocket means your race is over.

We hand in our extra gear which is taken back to Ouarzazate. My pack weighed in at 13 kgs excluding water and emergency pack. This is a shock as I had expected it to weigh only 10 kgs based on my bathroom scales at home.

The weather at this point is milder than I expect, maybe low 30s Celsius. The wind picks up around midday and creates some minor sand storms. This worsens during the afternoon, and visibility at times drops to 50 metres.

I met a bloke earlier who was wearing a Marathon Des Sables "buff", like a piece of lycra stocking that goes over your nose and mouth to keep out the sand. He used it last year and swore by it, and told me they are for sale in the Communications Tent. So I buy one, and it is great. They also have sand goggles for sale, but I like my Nike wrap around sunglasses, so I don't get these (I get a pair several days later however, a decision which proves very wise).

We have our last meal supplied by the organisers from their mobile kitchen, and retire to our sleeping bags.

Sunday 07 April - Stage 1 (26 kms)

It's Day One, 15 minutes before the race. Everyone is walking around shaking hands and wishing each another well. Last minute adjustments to packs … tightening shoe laces ... repositioning race numbers to make sure the sponsor's names are visible (they're strict about that).

The helicopter is circling, the thump of its rotor blades and the whine of its turbine mixing with the theme music "Castles In The Sky", which is pumping out through a massive sound system. Photographers are everywhere. You can just about smell the adrenaline in the air.

At 8:45 the music drops, and race director Patrick Bauer with his very capable lady interpreter welcome us to the event, and give us last minute instructions. Fifteen minutes of speeches later, the music goes ballistic for the countdown, and we're finally on our way. The helicopter sweeps sideways across the quickly spreading out herd, moving fast towards us only metres above our heads to give the photographers and video operators spectacular footage (these helicopter jockeys have the greatest job!).

The faster runners bolt as if it is a 5 km run. My plan is to walk the first kilometre each day to avoid getting dragged along by the crowd too fast too early. Then I'll hopefully be passing people as the race progresses rather than being constantly passed by others.

Stage 1 is 26 kms, mainly stony ground with a few small dune sections, temperature low 30s and we have the benefit of a strong tailwind due to our direction for the first day. Great. I finish in 4:01:42, finishing 480th out of 594 starters. Very happy with that.

Shortly after I finish, the wind kicks up and we get our first serious sand storm. The organisers retain a small army of local Berbers whose job it is to maintain the camp. They come around and hammer in tent pegs and shovel sand over the bottom of the hessian tents to stop them from blowing away.

Monday 08 April - Stage 2 (36 kms)

Another freezing night last night, probably 3-4 degrees Celsius. I wear three light layers of clothing on the top and two on the bottom, inside my sleeping bag, and I'm still cold by early morning as the wind comes through the tent as if it isn't there.

Today's stage is 36 kms and contains around 10 kms of dunes. We've changed direction and today we're running smack bang into a roaring sand storm. It takes a lot of effort to run. I try walking, but it is not much easier, so I keep running.

The sand whips around my legs, and blows off the tops of the dunes, looking like the ice plume at the top of Mt Everest. Because we're running into the prevailing wind, we're going up the steep face of the dunes and you cop a blast in the face every time you reach the top. My eyes are full of grip, and I squint behind my sun glasses.

My finishing time is 6:36:32, and I finished in position 414, compared to 480 yesterday.

Back in camp after the event, the sand pours through the open weave tents like rain, covering absolutely everything. It is very fine, almost like powder, and gets into everything that is not in a sealed bag, and that includes our bodies.

Today two of the leading runners got lost, one from Jordan and one from Morocco, which shows even the locals can take a wrong turn in the desert. They were located near a fort belonging to the Moroccan Army, 5 hours after being reported missing. They got back on the route and finished the run, but it destroyed their chances of a podium finish.

Generally the course is very clear, with a marker about every 500 metres. For the mass runners, we have the advantage of following others ahead of us, but the leaders do not have this advantage. The Road Book gives excellent instructions and maps, with compass bearings all marked, but this all takes time for a leading runner in the middle of a sand storm with a competitor breathing down his neck.

Some of the Brits in our tent have sun burn. Most are using a new all day sunscreen which was sent to them by one of the sponsors. I stay with my tried and proven sunscreen, which I apply once before the race and again after about 3-4 hours.

Some in our tent have major blister problems, and have sought medical attention from Doc Trotter's team of 29 medical personnel. Everything I have read about MDS suggests you should bring your own blister prevention stuff and know how to use it, which is what I have done. Doc Trotter's treatment involves cutting away all skin in the affected area, especially if the blister is under thick skin, applying a very painful purple antiseptic which just about makes a man cry, and then some tape. The brave souls who have had this treatment can hardly hobble back to our tent.

Tuesday 09 April - Stage 3 (31 kms)

Another rough night, with about 3 hours sleep. The sun goes down just after 7.00 pm and that's when everyone gets into their sleeping bags. While I may not be sleeping much, I certainly get plenty of rest. I am constantly shifting position to relieve the pressure on my bony hips and tail bone, and I wake every time someone gets up to water the horse, which is fairly frequently because everyone is drinking lots of water to re-hydrate after all the running.

Today we run through the kasbah of Mhamid. The dictionary describes a kasbah as "the older section of a city in northern Africa or the Middle East". This town has a wall around it, and alleys such as you see in the old city of Jerusalem. It seems as if the whole town is turning out to see us. My face is aching from saying "Bonjour" to each group I go past.

After running through the kasbah, I see a Doc Trotter vehicle and decide to get a piece of plaster on what feels like a developing blister under the ball of my foot. I thought I'd try this approach to save unpacking my gear to find my blister kit. Unfortunately, my foot was too sweaty for his plaster to stick, so I tell him I'll attend to it myself.

The Doc Trotter vehicle leaves and I dig into my pack for my blister kit. In the mean time, I am surrounded by kids from 4 to 14, who clearly see nothing morally repugnant about swiping some of my gear if they can get away with it. So I have one eye on my foot and the other on my gear, and I have to rely on a combination of terse words, black looks and hand clapping to preserve my worldly possessions in tact for the balance of the MDS.

At around midday, violent head winds erupt, bringing visibility down to around 20 metres. Only those out in front are able to escape them, having already reached the finish line before midday. But middle and back of the pack runners face the full fury of this sand storm. We are told at the check point that we must run together in groups, and not to send up our flares in the sand storm as no one will see them.

I am running with an Australian flag attached to my pack, and many people talk to me on the way because of this. I pass them, we run together a while, then they pass me. Some people are very fast walkers, walking faster than I can run with my pack. However I find it more tiring to walk at the pace they do, and it places more stress on my legs than slow running. I tend to "lope" along, taking slow, longish strides with minimum vertical movement.

I'm running along in the middle of the sand storm, when out of the dust and gloom comes a Berber trader, walking at the head of two camels in a train. He comes up to me and says "Francais?". I say 'Non". He says "Anglais?" I say 'Yes". He says "You want to buy shoes?". I say "No thanks", and start to run on. He turns after me, telling me he has good shoes and other things I can buy. Pretty optimistic salesman, you'd have to say… now if he had been selling a Big Mac, fries and a coke, he would have had a customer.

My time today is 5:09:48, and my finish position is 401, so I am improving my position each day.

I arrive back at camp to find the tent half collapsed. Due to the terrain, the Berber crew had 160 kms to drive to set up camp, and they did a good job, given the conditions. However, our tent is almost devoid of smaller sticks to hold up the sides. The rumour is that some of the faster runners who get in ahead of us, raid the tents of the slower runners for sticks, because some tents look veritable Taj Mahals compared to ours. I hope this is not the case.

Today I buy a pair of sand goggles. I spoke with Terry, an Aussie from Melbourne in another tent, and he bought a pair after he broke his sunglasses. He says they are terrific. Walking around camp in the sand storm, I am impressed with their effectiveness.

Wednesday 10 April - Stage 4 (Day 1 of the Super Stage 71 kms)

Stage 4 is the one the competitors fear most. This year more so than previously, because this year the "long stage" and "dune day" are combined. At 71 kms, the distance is a little less than usual, but included in this is 23 kms which many competitors will be crossing in the dark.

For most people, this is the real test of themselves against the desert. The wind is already up when we leave, and it intensifies throughout the day. There is a check point around every 10 kms, where water is issued and you can get medical treatment if required.

It's about 3.00 pm in the afternoon when I arrive at Check Point 3, situated at 35.5 kms. This is the last check point before the 23 kms of dunes. I am met by a French lady doctor who wants to know how I feel, and strongly encourages me to rest and eat before continuing.

I eat some almonds, some crushed potato chips and have some Clip drink. Some people get out the stove and make up a full meal - I don't know how they can stomach it this far into the race.

They give me 3 litres of water rather than the normal 1.5 litres, and I am given a chemical glow stick which I have to attach to the back of my pack when it gets dark. I top up all water bottles, including a 500 ml emergency bottle I carry in my pack, and force as much water as possible into my stomach rather than tip it out on the ground at the check point.

The big difference between this dune section to the previous one is the size of the dunes. Up until now, the dunes have been up to maybe 20 metres high. These (according to the website which I read later) are up to 150 metres high. Our compass bearing is 273 degrees, which puts us on virtually a due west heading, right into the prevailing winds and up the steep side of the dunes.

There is another check point in the middle of the 23 km section, and I hope to make that before dark. I follow the foot prints of previous runners which have not yet been blown away by the wind. This is good, because the early runners are Moroccans who know the best way up a steep dune, and all runners follow in their foot steps.

I find it easiest to take small steps up the dune, with my feet directly in the imprints of previous runners. These imprints act like steps and I get less slipping back than I get when I don't do this.

The sight is spectacular. From the top of the dunes, it's more dunes as far as the eye can see. In the dunes area, the visibility is better. Although I am getting whipped in the body by the sand, the sand does not seem to fill the air above head height like it did back on the stony plains.

I get nervous as I approach the top of the large dunes, knowing that the wind will blast me as I come over the crest. I feel myself being blown backwards, and if I fall at this point, it will be a long way back from the bottom of the dune.

I arrive at Check Point 4 in the middle of the dunes, about 30 minutes before sundown. I see Terry and Katrina there. Terry is the other Melbourne entrant. He's about my age, but a faster runner. He's entered as a team with his son Ben (very athletic and fast and way up front), and Katrina from NZ. Katrina has my absolute respect. On Day 1 she injured the nerve in her shoulder which rendered one arm useless. It just flops, and she has to run with it in a sling. She is always so bright and cheerful, irrespective of how hard the going is, and makes friends with every one she meets.

I take a picture of Terry and Katrina eating something before they head out. Terry had a week's growth of beard and is hardly recognizable (it doesn't occur to me that I look the same). He takes a photo of me, the last one before my camera dies from an overdose of sand. We haven't washed or shaved and we're wearing the same clothes we started in, so we aren't a pretty sight.

Check Point 4 is beginning to resemble a refugee camp. The tent is already filled with runners in sleeping bags who have decided to camp for the night and tackle the next stage of the dunes in daylight.

I put on my wind proof jacket, crack my glow stick to activate it, and then head out for the next part of the dunes. There are no markers in this section and it will be very dark soon. I attach myself to a group of 2 French men, 2 French women, and 1 German. One of the French men seems to know where he is going and leads the way.

A compass is part of the mandatory kit, however up until now I have not used it. But I refer to it constantly now to make sure the Frenchman is leading us in the right direction. The German bloke keeps coming over to check my compass, as he is worried the Frenchman is leading us the wrong way.

Somewhere in the darkness, we lose the trail of foot prints. This in itself is not a problem because we have the compass, but we no longer have the benefit of knowing which approach gives the easiest path up the dunes. I am carrying two small torches. One is an LED type which gives good general light, and the other is a regular torch with a pencil type beam which I use to pick things out in the distance. Both fit neatly in one hand.

Mostly, it becomes a case of just go straight up the dunes, because if we walk around at the bottom of the dune looking for an easier way, we can get off course.

As a safety precaution in the absence of markers, the organisers said they would throw up a laser light into the sky to mark the end of the dunes. As the darkness falls, we're all looking for this laser light. But it is no where to be seen, so we continue on using the compass. I look up and see a flare in the distance as someone decides it is enough and they want to call it quits. But still no laser light.

Climbing the dunes is very hard work, and is best done on hands and feet (not hands and knees). I have to stop to get my breath several times going up the bigger dunes. In my right hand are my two torches attached by chord to my wrist. In my left hand are my two water bottles and my compass, attached by chord to my wrist. These get buried in the sand as I clamber up the dunes, literally taking 4 steps for every 1 step gained.

The 4 French people are dressed in white overalls made of a type of soft plastic with small holes in it (I think I've seen it referred to as Tyvek). These things flap incessantly in the wind and tend to blow up with air. On a number of occasions, the wind catches the two French women as they crest the dunes, and they blow up like balloons and start falling backwards down the dune, their male partners grabbing at them to stop them going too far.

We move relentlessly forward. I am wearing my sand goggles, but they are dark like sunglasses and it is hard to see with them in the light of the torches. I lift them occasionally to get a better view of the size and shape of the dune ahead, but I pay a price for it sand with in my eyes. It is on one of these occasions that I spot the laser, and it is right where our compass says it should be, which is a great relief. We'd done about 1-1/2 hours on the compass, which can now be put away.

On and on the dunes go. Another hour and a half passes before I see the glow at the bottom of the laser which indicates I am close to Check Point 5. I split off from the group and make my own way there.

It starts to rain. I can't believe it. Here I am in the middle of the desert and it is raining? I'm glad my windproof jacket is also shower proof, but my brain immediately starts to compute the difficulties to be faced if the rain persists, with tents that won't keep out sand, let alone water, and my down filled sleeping bag which becomes useless when wet.

Still, one thing at a time, so I head for CP5. Twenty minutes rest, refill my bottles, have some light food, and it's off across a dry lake bed to the bivouac. It is 11.24 pm when I leave, and I hope to get in under 16 hours. I'm riding high at this point, because I had allowed myself a minimum of 20 hours for the "super stage", and would not have been surprised if it had taken me longer. The cut off is 35 hours.

The shower of rain has helped lay the dust, and the sky is now crystal clear. The way is lit by glowsticks on marker posts about every 300 metres. The wind is still against me, but has dropped in intensity, and I no longer needed my sand goggles. It is so peaceful.

I see the odd person ahead of me, walking, and I catch them with my loping shuffle which is slightly faster than their walk. They say things like "in a hurry to get to bed?", to which I reply "my blisters hurt less if I run than walk". This is true, but I am also running because I can, and because I want to do the best time possible, and I'm pumped about finishing in a good time. All things considered, I'm feeling pretty good.

The lights of the finish line are visible right across the dry lake bed 13 kms away. This can send you nuts if you let it. I pass an American who complains that he has "never been on such a mind-numbingly boring leg before". But I know that it will end eventually, and I remind myself of the pledge I made to myself before I came here, that not once will I complain, whine or in any way express discontent, irrespective of what happens.

I am passed by a couple of runners, much faster than me, who no doubt sense that the finish is only a kilometer away. But it's not, because 45 minutes later I am still running towards the same lights in the distance. Later I catch two walkers. It's Terry and Katrina. Last time I saw them they were still eating at CP4. Somehow they left CP4 after me, but got to CP5 before me. I walk with them for a while, then continue my loping shuffle to the finish.

I arrive at 12:41 am, with a finish time of 15:41:33, which gives me a 355th position for this stage. They load me up with 3 bottles of water. I wait for Terry and Katrina to finish, then set out to find Tent 54.

Thursday 11 April - Stage 4 (Day 2 of the Super Stage 71 kms)

Our tent is nearly collapsed through lack of sticks and wind damage. Inside I find Nick sleeping across the middle. He has a badly damaged eye which he can hardly open. The sand in the dunes has taken a serious toll despite his sunglasses, which makes me grateful for the goggles I bought.

Nick is quite an athlete and came in 2 hours earlier. He tells me the tent was worse when he arrived, but the organisers can't fix it at this time of the night. He moves over to make room for me. I wipe down my face and legs with the wet hand towel I brought with me, put on my long pants, and get into my sleeping bag.

I doze off, and wake a couple of hours later when Dave W arrives. Nick and I make room for him. He is very emotional at having finished. His wife had bought his entry to the MDS as a Christmas present 16 months earlier, and for 16 months this "super stage" has occupied his thoughts. He has now stared the Devil in the eye, and won the contest.

He tells Nick and me that he was walking with Dave T from our tent. They had planned to do this stage together. After eating a meal at CP3, Dave T started vomiting violently and continuously. This went on and on. Dave W stuck with him and slowly helped him into CP4. There has been a great bonding in our tent, without a single case of disharmony, and no greater example of this is Dave W's selfless support of his partner in his hour of need. Eventually Dave W continued on, leaving Dave T to stay overnight at CP4. He attached himself to another group. They found a German bloke who had lost his sunglasses in the dunes, and was walking around in circles, blinded by the sand. Dave W loaned the German his sunglasses, as like me, he had bought some sand goggles.

No more arrive in our tent that night. Five of our group are still on the course.

Daylight reveals a bleak sight. We're camped in the dry lake bed I crossed last night. The wind is howling, but so far blowing sand is not a serious problem. Nick goes off for treatment to his eye. The doctors irrigate it for a solid hour, but he still can't see. He has to have a cloth pad taped over the eye, and lie still for 24 hours. I pay my respect to Nick for his silent suffering.

We get up, eat breakfast, I send Olga an email, and wander around for a while. In past years, the second day of the two day stage is usually a rest day, as most competitors are in by morning. This year, something like 70 slept out at CP4 alone, choosing to complete the dunes in daylight.

I speak with a man in the communication tent who was forced to abandon the race in the dunes last night. His leg went deep into the sand and he kept going, tearing ligaments in the knee. He tells me the knee has been damaged before. He fired his distress flare and waited 2 hours in the stinging sand for a rescuer to reach him. He was then treated to a long ride in the dark on the back of a 4 wheel motor bike fitted with sand tyres, his pack lurching him from side to side as they negotiated the never ending series of dunes. Then a ride back to the bivouac in a Land Rover, and elimination from the race.

As morning progresses, the conditions worsen. The sand storms start up big time, and rain starts falling. Then suddenly it all stops and the sun comes out. The three of us have been in our sleeping bags to stay warm and keep out the sand as much as possible. We now get up and eat something while we can.

And it's just as well, because it doesn't last long. The sand storms return with a vengeance and we're back in the bags, where we stay for the balance of the day, except for answering the call of nature.

This requirement presents some interesting challenges. "Number 1" is not a serious problem. We boys just walk a few yards from the tent, turn back on to the wind to avoid soaking our shoes, and go. As the days go by, the girls progressively lose their inhibitions and do much the same thing … except of course they don't stand up. I heard one girl remark as she headed out of her tent towards a line of guys standing with backs to the wind "I'd like to get me one of those".

"Number 2" is a bigger problem. The race organisers place care of the environment high on their priority, and toilet paper takes a long time to break down in the dry desert air. In addition, it wouldn't be a lot of fun to have someone's used toilet paper flying into your tent at dinner time.

So they issue us with brown paper bags in which to place the used toilet paper. These are then deposited in boxes and later burnt in a special incinerator where they burn all rubbish from the camp. I saw one of these boxes up-ended by the wind one day, and the exotic contents scattered to the desert.

Most people wander away from the camp for "Number 2's", but how far can you go on a dead flat lake bed? So you go "far enough", then you "go". It takes considerable judgement and dexterity to perform this essential task in a 50 kph sand storm, and place the toilet paper in the bag without accident. I could go into more detail of course, but I'm sure the reader's imagination can fill in the gaps.

Rod D arrives just before noon. Being ex-SAS, he is a fast walker and made good time across the dunes, having decided to camp at CP4 during the night. His trip across the dry lake bed was much more harrowing than mine the night before. It started to rain and poor visibility blocked out the markers. So he was on compass most of the way back to camp.

He is followed in by Dave T, David M, Stuart and Peter (I'm not sure of the order). Peter has strained his hamstring, and lost his sunglasses in the dunes. I loan him my sunglasses for the next two days. It took him 29 hours to complete this stage. He has lots of heart, that's for sure. He goes off to the medical tent for treatment to his eye.

Evening comes without a let up in the sand storm. By this time, the wind has created mini sand dunes near our tent. There is an inch of sand on top of my sleeping mat, despite the fact that I have been lying on it most of the day. I mix up a noodle meal, and put a plastic bag over it while it softens in the water. Every mouth full is accompanied by the sound and feel of grit between my teeth. Eventually I abandon it, and eat dry food such as almonds and crushed potato chips.

As dark falls, I get back into the sleeping bag.

Friday 12 April - Stage 5 (Marathon Day 42.2 kms)

I look at my watch for the umpteenth time. It's 5:09 am. In another 6 minutes, the Berbers will start yelping like a pack of hounds on a fox hunt. The boss Berber will be on his scooter rounding up his team to strip the tents and move them to the next bivouac site. At 5:30 am, the trucks will fire up. This is the signal to get your gear out of the tent.

A key task this morning is to get rid of anything I don't need, to save carrying it for the last two days. I give my surplus torch batteries to a Berber. I dump my razor which I have not used, plus surplus food and the 500 ml emergency water bottle. My gaiters are holding up, so I dump the tube of glue, or what's left of it as it was used by people in our tent and other tents to make repairs to gaiters. Everything is put on trial for its life. All up I guess I lighten the load by maybe 2 kgs.

I also tape my feet, which are standing up pretty well. I did get a decent blister on my heel from the walking on Wednesday, but I have it under control.

I talk with the other John Lindsay in the event. He's from the USA. I ask him how he went in the long stage. He was with a group of French people who completely missed CP4 and headed for CP5, following the laser beam. Thinking it was getting no closer, they decided to camp in the dunes for the night. They got up at daylight, and walked a few hundred metres to CP5. They just couldn't see it in the dark. They were penalised 3 hours for missing CP4, but this was reduced to 1 hour when John argued to the race director that they thought the laser was CP4 (this had not been made clear in the instructions).

There is a jubilant air at the start line as competitors sense they have the back of this thing broken. The day is clear and while the wind is still head on and fairly strong, it's much better than we've had so far. We head off across the lake bed towards a gap in the two mountain ranges that converge in the distance. It reminds me of running the Alice Springs Marathon along the edge of the Macdonald Ranges in Central Australia, except the sand here is not red. It's so good not to have sand blowing in my face all the time. I even run some of it without goggles.

I run in comfortably for a 6:32:26 finish in 394th place. This is 6 km longer and 3 minutes faster than the 36 km I did 3 days ago, so I'm very happy with the time.

Saturday 13 April - Stage 6 (20 kms)

I've spent my last night in the tent. I'm already looking forward to the feed, shower and soft bed at the hotel tonight.

The conversation in the tent goes like this : "just a gentle jog to the finish line now". But I've done enough long runs to know better. Given what has been accomplished so far, I predict that people will make a dash (relatively speaking of course) for the finish on this shorter run which is only 20 kms.

Rod is peeved. He went at 7:50 am to collect his water and learned that today they had changed the cut-off time for collection from 8:00 am to 7:45 am. He is penalised 1 hour. Apparently he should have checked the notice board in the main control tent yesterday as the sand storms raged.

But it's a beautiful day today. We're running in a different direction to the last few days, and we have a light breeze off to the side. The temperature is warm but not overly hot. And no sand in the face. Hallelujah!!!

As I predicted, many runners bolt at the start. I push myself a little harder than normal, but not to exhaustion as I want to enjoy the experience. The surface is mostly flat and a mix of sand and rocks. Only one check point today. I fill up with only half a load of water for the final 10 km, as I'm unconcerned about dehydration at this point.

I get into a tussle with a young French lady for the last few kms. I catch her on the sandy bits and she catches me on the hard ground. She's a lot younger than me, and I sense she is a much faster runner. We come to a hill 2 kms from the finish. She walks it and I decide to run it. Once up on the top, I lengthen my stride for the final 2 kms on asphalt (what a great feeling after 7 days of sand and rocks). The road is lined with residents of the town we are running into, all cheering. The kids come out to grab as much gear as they can from of the runners as they go by. I resist giving them my water bottles prematurely.

About 200 metres from the finish, I toss the kids my bottles, and wind up my 54 year old legs as fast as they'll go after carrying a 13 kg pack across 224 kms of the Sahara Desert. But it's not enough. Twenty metres from the finish, the French woman streaks past me like a scalded cat. Nonetheless, I am very happy with my 2:23:55 and 364th position for this stage.

I pass through the chute and receive a kiss from race director Patrick Bauer as he places the medal around my neck. It's not that he finds me particularly attractive with a week's beard and grot all over my body. Apparently it's a French custom and he kisses everyone.

I'm then handed a piece of dry flat bread, an orange and a bottle of water, and head off to find the rest of the Tent 54 crew. I find some of them reclining under a tree, debating the significance of the pink ribbon used for the medal, and what that says about we manly types. I run into Mary Gadams and she gives me a Coke. Mary organises the US contingent to the race, and has been very helpful to me as I've prepared for this event over the last couple of years.

We are given a pack lunch for the bus ride back to Ouarzazate, and I demolish this progressively over the course of the trip. The driver demonstrates his skill in keeping us on the winding narrow mountain road as trucks came the other way.

We arrive at the hotel around 5:00 pm. I find my room mate Rod, and we make a deal based primarily on his imminent need. He can use the toilet first, and I will shower first. After showering, I look in the mirror and receive a major shock. I cannot recognise the person looking back at me. I was planning to leave my beard on to show my family, but I can't bring myself to stay this way any longer. It takes 15 minutes to get rid of the heavy growth.

I put on my good pants to go down to dinner. I take in the belt a couple of notches. I estimate I've lost about 4 kgs, which is understandable given that I consumed no more than 2000 calories a day, yet expended probably 5000 a day.

The members of Tent 54 get to the restaurant early and grab a table for 8. We immediately tuck into the massive buffet there. A guy once said after completing the MDS that he "ate anything that didn't bite back". I understand that sentiment. It is a satisfying meal, but we're all tired and we're in bed by 9:30 pm.

Sunday 14 April - Wrap Up Day

Breakfast this morning lasts 1-3/4 hours. I eat cereal, yogurt, two omelettes consisting of two eggs each plus ham cheese and tomato, two of those long French bread sticks, and 4 cups of coffee. Great!

After breakfast, we go off to another hotel to claim our T shirts in return for handing back the distress rockets. We buy some race merchandise, and then make our way back to the hotel for lunch via some shops selling trinkets and other local stuff. Lunch is a club sandwich by the pool.

Mid afternoon we board buses to go to the awards ceremony which is being held on the set for the "Gladiators" movie at the film studio. It is a magnificent setting with the snow capped mountains in the background. But it soon gets bitterly cold as the wind off the mountains whips across the stage, and everyone is huddled behind film props of lions, sphinx and anything that will afford cover. We then return to the hotel for another big evening meal and an early night. We all have a lot of sleep to catch up on.

Monday 15 April - return to London

We arise early for the bus to the airport in time for an 8:00 am departure. Unfortunately, there's a hitch with the arrangements and the buses don't turn up. We wait for a while, and I twice raid the breakfast bar for coffee and pastries. Finally we clamber into a fleet of taxis and mini buses in a dash for the airport, where we stand in line for ages going through immigration.

On the plane back I sit next to John, a Kiwi soldier just back from east Timor. John has just completed his law degree through the Army, and had exceptional knowledge about world events. I also sit near Paul, an Aussie doctor now living in Canada. Paul had spent a couple of years as a doctor in the medical centre at the highest settlement on Mt Everest, and is fascinating to talk with.

We land in London, and the adventure is over.

Post event comments

This is an event like no other. It is not the hardest thing that can be done in ultra running, but as an event that combines adventure with a nonetheless heavy dose of challenge, it is unsurpassed in my experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and were it not for the high cost and the time spent away from home, I would love to do it every year.

I like to watch Survivor on TV. I've never understood how the people bond into tribes on this show, but now I do. While there was no animosity at MDS between the different "tribes" in the different tents such as exists on the Survivor show, very strong bonds develop between the members in each tent. In our case, the group got along famously. I am not aware of a single instance of disharmony over the 8 days we shared the tent.

I'm now back home. Two weeks of travel visiting my sons who currently live in the UK and Taiwan have put back the weight I lost, and a bit more. I have no muscle soreness, and my relatively minor blisters have all healed.

For those interested in doing this event in the future, I've listed below what worked for me and what didn't. Of course, the important thing is to try things in training before the event, and go with what is right for you.

Now … what's the next challenge?

What worked for me

Blisters First I cleaned the area with an alcohol wipe. Then I applied tincture of benzoin (also known as friars balsam) to apply a sticky surface for the tape. Then Elastoplast stretch tape, and covered that with 3M Micropore to prevent the edges from rolling up. I dusted the feet with foot powder to remove the stickiness of exposed tincture of benzoin. Individual toes got the same treatment except I omitted the Elastoplast. I then smothered everything not taped with Hydropel, like Vaseline only lots better.

Clothes Nike Dri-Fit running shorts, short sleeved Patagonia Capeline silk weight shirt covered by a long sleeved white (at least it started out white) Patagonia Capeline silk weight shirt. I read that the two layers helps prevent shoulders and back from chaffing caused by the back pack. I never experienced chaffing. The Capeline wicks moisture to the surface, which evaporates and cools you as you run. Nike Dri-fit hat with legionnaire's flap pinned on. Buff and sand goggles for eye, nose and mouth protection.

Gaiters Olga made me gaiters for my shoes. They were made of fine weave breathable fabric glued all around the rim of the shoe, and held in place with a broad elastic band around the ankle. This in turn was covered by a workman's boot gaiter for extra protection.

Shoes I used Montrail Vitesse trail shoes because of the hard insert in the sole to prevent stone bruising under my feet. One size larger than normal to cope with swelling feet.

Food I did not take a stove as many did. Breakfast was cold One Minute Oats with condensed milk and water. I used Achieve (maltodextrin) and Succeed Clip as sports drinks along the way, supplemented by jelly babies and fruit bars. Dinner was noodles soaked in cold water with dehydrated peas and corn, sliced almonds and parmesan cheese. Special treats included crushed potato chips and custard made from powder. 2000 calories a day minimum. Succeed S!Caps for electrolyte replacement. Succeed Recovery Caps each night to aid muscle renewal. A product called Endurance (http://www.hchformulas.com/endurance.html) to assist the assimilation of energy from whatever sources are available to it … I think it helped.

Sleeping Bag I bought a PHD Minimus light weight sleeping bag from the UK. Weighed 495 grams and rated at +5 degrees Celsius. Just warm enough - wouldn't have wanted less.

Pillow I took an inflatable pillow which worked well.

Pack Salomon 30 litre adventure racing pack. Lighter than the Moletraks I did most of my training with, and very importantly places some load on the hips rather than all on the shoulders. Lots of mesh pockets. Can't speak highly enough of this pack.

Preparation 10 minute runs Monday to Friday, with 3-1/2 hours or longer on weekends, interspersed with a marathon or ultra about every month or 6 weeks. This got my endurance up while allowing my muscles and joints to adapt through adequate recovery. I did a 95 km run 5 weeks before the event, half with full kit and included night time running.

Acclimitisation For the last 3 weeks I drove to and from work each day for a total of about 80 minutes with the heater on full blast. The temperature would have been over 50 degrees by the time I got home. I had the air conditioner running on the way to work to remove the humidity so I was not sweaty for work, but turned it off on the way home so it was like a sauna. 20 minutes in a very hot bath also makes you sweat big time as it raises your core temperature.

What didn't work for me

Sleeping Mat I took a blue foam mat to save weight. Should have taken a three-quarter length ThermaRest inflatable as my hips and tailbone suffered throughout the long nights.

John Lindsay
Melbourne, Australia

John has also written the following articles that are published on CoolRunning Australia :

Feel free to E-mail him at jlindsa1@bigpond.net.au.

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