Marathon des Sables, Village, June ’13
Marathon des Sables
This article was published in the June 2013 edition of local Wandsworth magazine, Village. Distributed to over 100,000 households.
I first entered the 2011 edition of the MDS, where by some stroke of good fortune, I managed to come 21st overall and the Top British Finisher – a title that James Cracknell had held the previous year. It turned out that despite being 33 years old, fair skinned, 62 kg, 5ft5 and unable to reach the top shelf in my kitchen – I was, on the other hand, genetically blessed as a desert runner.
However, this year, as I lay on the ground of the medical tent, occasionally wincing with pain as a very pretty French doctor applied disinfectant to my blisters, I couldn’t help but wonder what on earth I was doing here and why, when I’d already run the Marathon des Sables two years earlier, would I possibly want to put myself through this torture, all over again. And so soon.
Held annually in April, the Marathon des Sables (or MDS) is a 250km, six-day race across the Sahara Desert, in Southern Morocco. And being self-supported, competitors have the added challenge of having to carry a daily minimum of 2000 kcals of food with them as well as a sleeping bag and a few other compulsory items.
With 2013 marking it’s 28th edition, it is widely written about as one of the toughest footraces on the planet. And perhaps surprisingly, one of the most popular. This year there was a record breaking 1027 competitors taking part. In fact, it is so popular, there is a 3-year waiting list for UK entrants – who make up a third of the competitors – which seems barmy when you consider that it costs upwards of £3500 to enter. But there appears to be no price too high for the 13,000 other competitors who’ve already completed the race.
But no matter how much raw talent one may have, running around Clapham Common in what felt like the most miserable winter in history, is not exactly the perfect training ground, when preparing to run across sand dunes in the scorching heat of the Sahara Desert. One afternoon in March, trotting along Balham High Road, kitted out in what can only be described as ‘full dress rehearsal.’ I was a cause of some puzzlement to one small boy. With my lower legs covered in enormous white silk gaiters designed to prevent sand entering my shoes, and a couple of large water bottles hanging from the front of my rucksack straps, it wasn’t surprising to overhear him say to his father, ‘Dad, why does that man look so strange?’
Ironically, anyone’s enjoyment of the MDS is largely determined by two things: the number of blisters you acquire and how well you get along with your tent mates. I have been exceptionally lucky in both departments, on both occasions, but in particular my most recent tent companions, where I discovered that six out of the eight members of our tent lived in Wandsworth! Furthermore, I discovered that quite a few of us had used Clapham Old Town’s Yoga Haven for heat acclimatisation.
Unsurprisingly, it can get jolly hot in the desert. The average temperatures at the start of the race were mostly in the mid thirties – very do-able if acclimatised. But not even my hot Bikram yoga sessions could prepare me for the 54˚C midday temperature that it rose to on Stage 4, the 75km Long Stage. Even the women’s race leader and 3 time MDS winner succumbed to heat stroke, later that day withdrawing from the race. At one point it was so hot, it felt as if the cerebrospinal fluid around my brain was actually boiling!
Generally speaking the British don’t do that well in the MDS, probably because we think a heat wave is 18˚C. Respected by other nationalities for our, ‘It’s the taking part that matters’ attitude, most of us simply want to complete the race. And despite the temperatures soaring to unfathomable heights and the tally of blisters growing in places not deemed possible, Team GB held its own.
Fellow South Londoners Danny Kendal of Greenwich and Andrew Fargus of Brixton came 10th and 11th respectively – and I came in at 15th improving my ranking from 2011. And in the women’s ranking, two British girls took 2nd and 3rd. place. We all broke records. Never before in the history of the Marathon des Sables had five British runners come in the first twenty!
Will I do it again? Who knows? So far, the oldest contestant is seventy-six so I’ve got time to think about it!
Based in Balham, Tobias Mews is a professional Adventures Sports Journalist, Filmmaker and Athlete. To find out more his adventures, visit TobiasMews.com