The Marathon des Sables


The following extract is from my book on the Marathon des Sables, a ~150-mile extreme endurance adventure race across the Sahara Desert.  This was my first ultra, and the book charts my journey from non-runner to finisher of what has been called the toughest footrace on Earth.

Stage One

The grainy, pebbly, cold surface beneath the bivouac's rug poked and scratched at my back through the paper-thin sleeping bag. I rallied, retrieved my stove, and began heating up some water for a cup of soup and my porridge. I was playing the oldest trick in my book: pretending I was a morning person, and that everything would be all right if I just got on with it. If I did my utmost not to bother the morning, then just maybe the morning would not interfere with me. It was in just such a spirit that I set about the tasks at hand - quietly, calmly and conscientiously - and forever on edge lest the Morning should sneak up from behind and pull my trousers down.

   I traditionally enjoy a good, hot breakfast as much as the next man (John, in this case), but warm gloop did not really qualify as a Good Hot Breakfast. No eggs, for example, nor any black pudding (a good source of highly bioavailable iron - something we runners need a bit of to make our haemoglobin). Anyway, I heated up my high-energy, low-pleasure brekkie, and then teased and enthused myself from the sleeping bag.

   'Yalla! Yalla!' came the cries, as a swarm of helper bees descended upon the encampment, buzzing directly through the middle of the bivouacs and flying away with them, after which everything was folded away and, together with those busy worker bees, disappeared off into the desert on the back of a lorry. By the time I reached the next bivouac site, the new encampment would already be set up. 

   What followed was something of a blur, but in essence I dressed myself, cleaned the mess tin down with sand as best I could, and then packed everything away, save for my fleece because the Morning's breeze was still unsportingly brisk. I slapped on some suntan lotion, checked that all was secure in my rucksack, and then made a start on my second breakfast. This was a cold affair, which was far more convenient, and comprised a bag containing some muesli, some milk powder, and a sprinkling of salt, to which a healthy dash of water was added. The rationale was that carbohydrate-based breakfasts generally failed to fill me up, and I knew I should capitalise on a second sitting before the start of the race.  The trick was to consume the muesli without piercing the sandwich bag it was living in with my spork. 

   On reflection, I wish I had had a better breakfast, and one that only required hot water to be added to its bag, as opposed to one which turned into cemented, oaty horridness on the side of the pot. And I obviously should have used an ultra-lightweight MSR titanium kettle or mug, rather than that stupid mess tin. Still, the stove worked well, when eventually I managed to get the fuel tablets to take flame. I liked the spork too, so I suppose my breakfast strategy had not been a total disaster. The food and preparation was all wrong, but I could eat it all right, having just about managed to cook up the stuff in the first place. 

   It was at almost this precise moment, whilst gorging myself on salty muesli from a plastic bag, and simultaneously indulging myself on calm reflection and contemplation, that one of the chaps from the next bivvy bent over and showed us his deepest crevice. This, in itself, was not the issue or cause of dropped jaws, nor my having to grab hold of a passing camel to steady myself. The problem was that he was wearing running shorts at the time, and so there was no way at all that we should have been able to see, well, everything. 

   The shorts were those Lycra-like affairs, and were apparently so thin that they offered no protection whatever between a sensitive orifice and the burning sun. We were not shocked that we had seen his rear, although whether we had wanted it presented to us is another matter; but we were disturbed that one of the kinship might be suffering with a burnt ring before lunchtime. We could only hope he was carrying a sufficiently bulky rucksack to provide some protection. Many of the chaps had used Vaseline to ensure their rears were safe from chafing, but a direct sunburn to the region would have elicited the sort of pain the Spanish Inquisition could only have dreamed of in their most wild fantasies, which even then would have relied upon an evening on the strong cheese. 

   Having gathered up my 1.5 litres of water for the first part of the race, I decanted it into my Platypus, together with my electrolyte powder, and ensured all was secure within the rucksack for the off. Unaware that I was exhibiting something of a contemptibly carefree exterior, I received a swift reprimand from Carlos, who seemed concerned I was failing to display stresses in keeping with the gravity of the occasion.  I promptly failed to think of anything useful to be stressed about, assumed this to be a systemic failure on my part, and became inconsolable about the whole affair.  

   Once we were all set, we posed for a group photograph - a sweet memento for each of us of how we looked before succumbing to whatever atrocities lurked in wait - and as such we appeared irrationally relaxed and entirely at ease.  With the photograph accomplished we bravely strode off, full of vim and purpose, to be amongst the congregating masses awaiting the start of the race, and the sermon from the organisers that would precede it. I walked with John, and took the opportunity to unleash an African proverb upon him, partly because he claimed never to have heard it before, but more because we were on that continent and it seemed fitting:


"When a gazelle wakes up in Africa,

it knows it must run faster than the swiftest lion, or it will be killed. 


When the lion wakes up in Africa,

it knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve.


In Africa, it does not matter if you are the lion or the gazelle:

All that matters is-when the sun comes upyou'd better be running."





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