The Marathon des Sables may no longer have the right to call itself the ‘toughest footrace on earth’ – Badwater, the Western States 100 and running the London Marathon dressed in a diving bell could all stake a claim for that title – but having conquered the 156 miles of sand, stones and searing heat of the western Sahara, I must stress that none of that actually matters.
As I stood on the finish line (in 2015) watching people of all shapes and sizes, from all over the globe, wobble, skip, tumble and drop over that final timing mat, one thing struck me: The MDS isn’t about living up to a Discovery Channel brag, it’s about 1,400 individual battles with varying degrees of brutality. The truth is, that as you fall over that finish line, how tough the journey has been is all down to you. If it was too hard maybe you needed to train more. If it was too easy maybe you didn’t run hard enough. I’ll confess I was thinking the latter as I lay in my open-sided berber tent after completing our third thirty-something kilometre day on the bounce. I’d run the first three stages well within myself and still somehow found myself sitting 98th overall. I hadn’t expected to be feeling so fresh and certainly anywhere near the top 100.
Don’t get me wrong each of the early stages were challenging but my feet were in tact (maybe thanks to my wise choice of inov-8 shoes perfect for sand running or the fact I stole my wife’s expensive face cream for my feet for three months), my legs were in good shape and I hadn’t yet had to dig into the deepest reserves of bloody minded willpower. As a result I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about. I think I even asked my tent mate Richard “is this as tough as it gets?”
The most feared part of the MDS week – the dreaded ‘long’ stage
On the fourth day, I got my answer, a resounding 91km head-wind-and-soft-sand-battering ‘No’. The dreaded long stage hangs over everyone in the MDS like a big black cloud. It’s the most feared part of the whole week. We all knew this would be a considerably tougher day, the longest stage in the then 30-year history of MDS in fact. As I trudged my way through yet another mile of sand dunes under the relentless sun, I realised the folly of my complacency. The earlier days were simply a warm up. The MDS had really only just started. It soon became clear that success and failure in this race was going to be down to how well you coped with the punishing long day.
If you look at my time for Stage 4, compared to the rest of the field, you’d probably say that I coped fairly well. A 13 hour 40 finishing time, 96th on the day, looks pretty respectable but these stats hides a darker reality. They don’t accurately quantify how tough it was. The truth is that from 60km onwards I wanted someone to put me down. I’d have given anything for a stray camel to run me down into a heap. But no humpy saviour came.
The energy from every footstep gets sucked into the sand
It’s hard to describe just how soul destroying it is to feel the energy from every footstep get sucked into the desert sand, almost like you’ve made no effort at all. Even with all the power the PaleoGym training team had put in my legs, the second half of this stage taught me a lesson in humility in a way that only ultra running can. By around 4pm in the afternoon, I’d been moving relentlessly with the same three words rattling around my head for eight hours. Perpetual. Forward Motion. Perpetual. Forward. Motion.
I’d already run a marathon and a half, and having an entire day’s Saharan sun burned into my body started to take a toll. I was still moving through a field of rolling dunes that seemed to stretch for ever, plodding along making what felt like no progress at all with the prospect of at least two more hours in the oven before the sun would finally bugger off. I don’t care what anyone says, at this point, the MDS was doing a bloody good impression of being the toughest footrace on earth. And it was about to get worse.
It’s brutal. A mental and physical battering like you’ve never had before
You start to look for little signs of relief. You zero in on the prospect of a cooler desert evening that darkness would bring. You hope that the race organisers might be about to show you their benevolent side and bring an end to the sand. The darkness inevitably arrives but sadly the sand never ends. Benevolence isn’t a character trait race director Patrick Bauer wastes on MDS runners. It’s brutal. A mental and physical battering like you’ve never had before.
Eventually you reach the final checkpoint in the knowledge that there’s just 6km to go to reach the bivouac. A park run is all that stands between you and a rest day. But just when you allow yourself to start imagining an end, you’re sent back into deep sand that looks like it’s been deliberately churned up by the wheels of the support trucks just to make it harder. At this point personal misery turns to hate, some involuntary self-defence mechanism. I hate the sand, I hate Patrick Bauer, I hate the trucks with their headlights that look like the salvation of camp. I hate Oleg, from Russia, who’s in front of me. I hate myself for ever believing I could do this. I hate myself. I hate myself.
And then, just as you’re about to drop to your knees and beat the sand, the big inflatable finish line comes into sight. You’ve made it. You’ve conquered the toughest stage of the Marathon des Sables. I distinctly remember thinking to myself as I waddled through a fierce sandstorm back to my tent, if there is a race out there that’s tougher than this then I don’t want any part of it. For that moment I believed it too.
* Kieran finished the 2015 MDS in 91st place in a time of 31hrs 20mins 43secs. A total of 1,237 of the completed the course, with a further 92 abandoning. Follow this year’s 2017 race via Ian Corless.
* Kit recommendations for sand running: Shoes: TrailTalon 275 | Gaiters: Race Ultra Gaiter (which can be easily attached to the TrailTalon 275) | Calf Guards: Race Ultra Calf Guard | Tee: AT/C Tank | Pack: All Terrain Pro Vest | Cap: Race Elite Peak