03 December, 2015

Saw no Sunrise, but Felt the Heat: Running the Marathon des Sables

by blind Dave Heeley 

Waking up on 13th April, I pinch myself: have I really just completed the Marathon des Sables? An event that took me on a journey across the Sahara desert, covering 156 miles (251 km) in 6 days! The answer is yes, making me the first English-born blind person to do so! Did the title it holds, “The toughest foot race on the planet,” apply? The answer once again: yes! What a journey; what a challenge! What amazing guides and pals, Tony Ellis and Rosemary Rhodes, who helped me to success through all the pain, heat and exhaustion. How did I ever considered doing this in the first place, and how do I start describing it? I guess the obvious place is the start line in that barren place, with 1,300 other competitors, standing in the clothes we’d wear for the week, carrying all our supplies on our backs, anticipating what the desert held in store for us… but no, it all started some 18 months before.

I’d had my eye on the Marathon des Sables for a few years, but no one seemed too eager to guide me, and then came Tony! He described the time he ran the MDS, how tough it had been, and said he would never set foot in the desert again unless (yes there was an unless!) “you let me guide you,” was his comment. A week or so later Rosemary also showed a keen interest in taking part, and suddenly we were in! All three of us entered the 2015 event. Tony has sworn at me on more than one occasion since, not believing for an instant he was actually going back to that desert. The deposit was paid and training began, with the realisation of what the whole event entailed!

How do you train to run – or walk, for that matter – in the sand? In the blistering heat of the desert? There are not many beaches in West Bromwich and the sun is a commodity not found too easily around here, but with our own experiences from previous challenges we began to put a formula together. We ran some serious miles; we walked just as many, and also climbed a few hills: the Wrekin and Sandwell Valley became home-from- home. We trained on the Breckon Beacons, and took part in a 50 mile event around the Gower peninsular; this certainly took off-road training to a new level for me. We went up and down Snowdon, wrapped up well; we trained in the rain and the snow – how far removed is that from any desert!

After a few months we introduced a backpack with a 10kg weight in it. We would be in the desert for over a week, so the pack needed to be full of essentials. Martin and Sue Like, of Likeys, packed my bag to perfection: from my socks to my hat, meals, a pot and cooker, spoon, sleeping bag, and a jacket for the night. (“In the desert?” I asked. The little lightweight coat was a godsend on a couple of occasions as it went from extreme heat in the day to what felt like freezing at night.) Likeys also supplied water bottles, electrolyte tablets, and a tube of wipes for cleaning. (Little tablets, once water was applied, turned into a cloth!) Everything was small and lightweight; once it was all packed in the new bag and the straps were pulled tight, that bag and its contents fitted like a glove.

We spent our last week of training at the University of Birmingham. They very kindly allowed us to use their humidity chamber, under the guidance of Becky and Dr Sam Lucas, and it gave us some idea of the temperature we could expect in the Sahara.

On 3rd April we flew out of Gatwick on the first of three chartered flights, leaving at 9am and arriving at Ouarzazate, Morocco, early afternoon. Then we spent 6 hours travelling by coach to the bivouac, our home for the week. Ours was Tent 124, a Bedouin tent: a carpet overhead with 4 poles, one at each corner, rough matting on the floor, and entry flaps at the front and back. There were 5 of us in our tent, including two of Rosemary’s friends from Dubai: Anne Marie and Leslie. After the 16 hours of travelling, we had food provided by the organisers, and then it was sleeping bags out, and our first night in the desert. I didn’t get much sleep: the air-filled mat underneath me sounded like a crisp packet every time I moved, and my blow-up pillow certainly made me appreciate the comforts of home!

In previous years, the toilets were holes dug in the sand, but the organisers took things up a level to four poles draped in plastic sheeting: about 5 constructions in a row for everyone to use. The queues were long, first thing in the morning. We were issued with a plastic bag, and while waiting in the queue, we collected a couple of stones. There was a bucket to house our plastic bags; we then dropped in the stones to hold the bag down. We had to squat down whilst one foot held down the plastic flap which represented a door (and being blind, it’s difficult). After doing our business, we removed the bag from the mop bucket, grabbed all four corners at once, tied a knot in the top, and deposited it into a bin outside. Rosemary had the job of assisting me on a morning; unfortunately there was the occasional accident – I’ll leave the rest to your imagination!

After queuing for our water rations and having breakfast, once again supplied by the organisers, it was time to sort out our backpacks. We packed, unpacked, and repacked. The organisers stipulated we had to have a minimum of 2,000 calories per day, plus compulsory kit: sleeping bag, head torch, spare batteries, 10 safety pins, compass with 1° or 2° precision, lighter, a whistle, knife with metal blade, topical disinfectant, anti-venom pump, signalling mirror, aluminium survival sheet, tube of sun cream, 200 Euros or equivalent in foreign currency and a first aid kit. Our packs could weigh anything from 6.5kg to 15kg, but the lighter the pack the better it was for conserving energy.

We stood in line again for official checks to show our passport, signed doctor’s medical certificate and ECG (electrocardiogram) report. Once the organisers were satisfied, we were issued with our numbers (mine was 313), GPS responders for both bag and ankle (these would allow the organisers to know exactly where in that desert we were, and also family back home could keep a check on our progress), salt tablets and other bits of compulsory kit. It now began to dawn on me how serious this event was. Although no one was going to be holding your hand, it was reassuring to know that if any serious problem did arise, the organisation behind the scenes was more than capable of handling any situation.

It was at this point we had a slight problem and for a few minutes we thought the adventure would end before we began. Tony’s ECG had a word on it, abnormal, which back in England simply meant no problem other than he had a slightly different heartbeat. Our doctors put it down to all the training he’d done; sometimes this happens to people. However, the French doctors took it to mean something else. We had some intense conversation trying to explain, and thankfully they agreed to let Tony run with one proviso: at every checkpoint, and at the end of each day he was to have an ECG test. I couldn’t believe that in the middle of the desert they had a portable ECG facility! Again, I was impressed by how organised this event was. We breathed a sigh of relief because no Tony taking part meant no Dave either; the stipulation had been I had to have two guides, so both Tony and Rosemary were very important bits of kit.

Formalities over, we waited for a heavy sandstorm to blow over, and met up with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. We had a good laugh at the prospect of the camel catching us: when everyone has started on a morning, the organisers set off a camel in pursuit, and if it catches up and overtakes you, you’re out! Sir Ranulph said he would have a quiet word with that camel, and I guess he must have, as it never caught up with us! After talking to him many times on email, it was nice to meet in person.

We had a walk around the bivouac, and took a few photos with my Baggies shirt on and the black country flag. We bumped into a family who were taking part: husband and wife, mother and brother-in-law, all from Windermere. We came across them many times through the event and hopefully at some point will visit them when we’re in the Lake District.

Night-time comes early in the desert, and the whole camp was slowly quietening down, mentally preparing for the start. I couldn’t believe how heavy my bag was: 10kg, and I had to add a litre and half of water to it yet! I also thought about my number, 313. We flew out on the 3rd and hopefully would fly back on the 13th. My first adventure when I ran 7 marathons, ended on 13th April, so 313 felt quite significant. Rosemary read me letters written by my two youngest children, sending me on my way with love and kisses. On previous challenges, I’ve had a photo of the family with me, but this year I had an imprint of the three girls and my wife Deb’s fingerprints in a silver ingot, so once again they would be with me every step of the journey.

On 5th April the bivouac started waking up at 5:30 and we were a hive of industry. We fetched water rations and boiled water for breakfast and drinks.

Breakfast, dinner and tea mainly comprised Extreme Adventure foods: freeze dried, high-energy and importantly, low-weight. By adding hot water, it made for a sumptuous meal! With no dishwasher, I licked my spoon clean; the taste of sand grew on me over the week, too! We stowed our kit in bags, filled the water bottles, applied the important sun lotion, and all the little rituals that would happen every morning for the next week.

The camp came alive, the tents were lifted literally from above our heads, and vehicles started up to make their way to the checkpoints. There was excited chatter everywhere. Slowly all the competitors made their way to the start line. Many nationalities were all coming together, many photos were taken, and even now we could feel the camaraderie building. What always amazes me, is that standing with 1,300 other competitors, that silent moment can still come upon you. I stood lost in my own thoughts, thinking of family back home; how Tony and Rosie had put themselves out to support me; and the reason I was standing here: The Albion Foundation.

This was part of the Tri Albion Challenge, consisting of a 170 mile bike-ride earlier in the year from Southampton to the Hawthorns; a walk by the blind footballers team around Sandwell, taking in every school; and the final bit, our little trek across the Sahara. The Foundation does some fantastic work with blind football, wheelchair football and other disability sports, and work with vulnerable and disadvantaged kids. Through sports and working together, they encourage self esteem and independence and show these kids that they have a life to grab onto. Being in that world myself, and knowing the difficulties they face, gives me fuel to really want to succeed. Could this blind old codger from West Brom show these kids what’s possible? My determined feeling took hold.

Then my thoughts were interrupted by a football fan! Due to having no phone signals, I didn’t get the results of Saturday’s games. To my surprise, I was approached by a QPR fan. Seeing my Albion badge, I guess he couldn’t help himself, and he let me know they beat us four one. The look and smile from me must have said it all!

We were then all encouraged to gather in a roped-off area. This was the 30th anniversary of the Marathon des Sables, so all competitors formed the number 30 and an aerial photograph was taken. Tony and Rosemary described a fantastic spectacle to me: a dozen riders, 6 on horseback and 6 on camels, rode across the desert towards us. They said it was an amazing sight. Loudspeakers burst into life, presentations were made, and birthdays were announced, followed by loud music. There were helicopters flying all around, and I’m guessing they were taking videos and photos. The atmosphere was electric, and then was the sound of the start! We were off and running.

Stage 1: 5th April, Jebel Irhs to Oued Tijekht, 37km

The start, and those first moments, will be etched in my mind forever. I can only imagine the sight of it, but I heard the noise from the speakers, the helicopter flying low overhead filming the moment, and shouts from everywhere; I think everyone was glad to get going.

My initial thoughts were: I’m not actually running on sand! I had imagined the Sahara desert to be soft sand, sending your feet flailing deep, left and right, crossing rolling sand dunes, but the ground underfoot initially was hard, rocky, full of camel grass, and ridged, as if water had formed ridges and funnels over thousands of years – different, but so fantastic. Our trek took us a few hours and 13.4km to Checkpoint 1. Reaching it was magic. I heard for the first time the two beeps caused by the responder on our ankles; at each checkpoint and finish line, we would cross a matting designed to plot our position. Over the week, this was a noise that was always going to represent sanctuary and the chance of a five minute rest. Tony pulled into the medical tent for his first of many ECG tests. He wasn’t happy, but it had to be done. We topped up our water bottles then off we went again, heading for Checkpoint 2, at 24.8km. It was ridiculously hot and with the terrain so bad underfoot, the order of the day was now walking. By Checkpoint 2 we had run and walked over hard, stony ground, with rocks as big as your fist up to the size of a barrel, dried river beds, camel grasses, and sand dunes inclining up and down. At 30km we encountered our first real technical assent: a mountain! I still hadn’t imagined mountains in the Sahara, but there they were!

Tony warned we were going up for as far as the eye could see. There was a long line of people looking like ants in the distance, going up the mountain pass, between the craggy rocks. Up we went, and at the pass we then became the ants in the distance for the long line of folks behind us. At this ridge, we could see the finish and the camp, 3km in the distance. It was a long, sandy, hot 3km, but the beeps came eventually: relief.

Rosemary did a foot inspection, checking on blisters. She swore profusely at me! Tony and Rosemary had both gathered a blister or two but although my feet were sore, I had no blisters at all. Ann Marie had done exceptionally well, coming in the top 10 ladies. Sadly, Leslie had fallen and damaged her knee quite badly. So, with all our war wounds, we settled in for the night. Over the next few hours and into the early morning, the wind picked up and the tent blew about, not quite collapsing completely, but a few tent poles rattled, the sides lifted, and I wasn’t sure if I was in the tent or out. All sorts of items blew everywhere, and with around a 40 mile an hour sandstorm, that sand was everywhere and into everything too! I have to admit I did some moaning, but the uncertainty of what was going on unnerved me. I pulled the zip up on my sleeping bag, and sleep came eventually.

Stage 2: 6th April, Oued Tijekht to Jebel El Oftal, 32km

The road book was read to me, and now I wasn’t looking forward to today’s stage at all: the mountain day! Rosemary and Tony had been totally surprised when they read about this stage, and thought it better not to say anything until the morning. To begin, we got in some quite good running, and then the first of three mountain ranges came upon us. This first one was not horrific, but we certainly worked hard up it. The paths leading up to the summit were only wide enough for one person, so I held on to the backpack of either Tony or Rosemary, feet colliding with rocks at every step. It was not an easy passage up, but those beeps at 12.6km and the first checkpoint, were very welcome.

Tony popped off for his ECG. He had missed the second one yesterday and on reaching the finish at camp last night, got told very politely he wasn’t to miss any more. As the week went on, he looked forward to the break that came with the checks, and so did we!

We left Checkpoint 1 and within minutes we were going up. I couldn’t believe what was being described. Rosemary told me it was one hell of a climb, and then we were confronted with a ridge. She estimated it to be around 2km in length and it looked very similar to a dragon’s back, which I interpreted as hard work. Our little team of three, amongst all the other ants, pulled, pushed and heaved up that mountain and onto the ridge. The ridge was simply a rocky road; I was told afterwards that it was sometimes as narrow as 2 foot, and other times 8 foot wide, with a sheer drop of over 1,500 feet. The rocks were ridiculous. At times I could stretch over; at times I was on all fours. I sat and slipped in between rocks, clambered up and over, it was just one very rocky assault course.

Tony and Rosie clung onto me for dear life: one slip, I guess, and it would be more than a headache you got! We crossed this ridge painstakingly slowly, and eventually we slid down off the rocks onto sand. What a relief! Those bleeps came again, and believe me, not soon enough.

At Checkpoint 2, after 24.6km, we had water and a scoop of food, a mix I’d brought from home: nuts, dried fruit and smarties. How nice this was, and it filled the gap on many occasions. We set off for the little matter of another mountain before the finish. I thought to myself, after the first two ranges, especially the second, it couldn’t get any worse! Oh, how wrong you can be! The sun was very hot and Tony and Rosemary were trying to see where the ant line was going: I heard a simultaneous “Oh no!” – up, yet again. It was a finger of sand approximately 600 foot up, and then the rock face went sheer!

We climbed that sand dune with feet going everywhere but up: three steps forward and two back. We joined the line of ant people, and the wind picked up a bit and Tony’s hat blew off into the distance – not good in this heat, but he was definitely, as he put it, not going back down to retrieve it. We took a diagonal line across the dune, bypassing loads of people, but no one seemed to mind, and I don’t think anyone was in a great hurry to climb! Then we hit the rocks and the climbing began. The rocks were once again ridiculous, all at varying heights. Some were three foot high, some lower, some jagged, and some smooth. We scrambled up on our knees, Tony at the front literally pulling me up at times, with Rosemary either pushing or guiding my feet to a safe spot on the rocks for me to push. We just kept on going up.

Then it went vertical, and at this point the organisers must have realised the seriousness of the climb, and had put in some support in the way of rope. I say rope; it seemed more like a washing line with knots in, but it did help some. Tony and Rosemary were not happy, as the rope meant their hands were off me, and they didn’t like the thought of losing me. I was told later that at times I was perched on a ledge about a foot wide with a sheer drop of around 1,500 foot. Better I knew it after the event. Tony stressed to me quite strongly, “Don’t, whatever you do, lose that bloody rope!” Rosemary encouraged me to lean right into the rock face. She sounded so calm, but afterwards told me she was terrified of letting go.

This stretch of the mountain range showed how the camaraderie amongst competitors had grown. When a chap we knew as Bernie, along with many others, was firmly on our tails, Rosemary suggested we let them pass as we might be a lot slower than them. But the answer that came back was superb: “We’ll stay behind. We can’t believe how you three are coping climbing this mountain. We’ll stay behind you just in case you need any help.” That summed up the nature of the other competitors!

This day reiterated how tough this event was; that rope and 150 foot of climbing, at this point in particular, demanded our complete attention. The rocks were simply relentless. Was it good to get to the top after all the grunting, grimacing and hard work! Tony put a smile on my face with, “You know Dave, a blind bloke shouldn’t be up here!” We had a five minute rest, a sip of water, gathered our thoughts and then plodded on. From all the pulling of me up, Tony was totally knackered. The ground levelled off and got smooth underfoot, so Rosemary took over for a while, and with my hand on her backpack we began to trot. We managed around 20 yards. As we were at the top, we would now be descending, but we suddenly stopped. After Rosemary explained what she saw, that smile left my face!

Her description was simple: it was as though someone had taken a quarry full of stone and chucked it off the cliff! There were boulders and rocks of all shapes and sizes. Had I been sighted it would’ve proved no problem, as there were rocks with a good surface so you could literally leap from one to the other, but being blind the trick was to miss the gaps. So we began the long, tedious journey of sitting and dropping into those crevices, clambering up and over, going down backwards, in, out, up and down. That 2km distance down turned into a nightmare. Off the back of this mountain, Sir Ranulph passed us. I’m told he was leaping from rock to rock like a gazelle. Sight, for a few minutes, would have saved us hours!

We did come across some dried river beds which gave us respite for a few moments, but then the hard slog came at us again. I asked the question many times of Rosie, “Can you see the bottom yet?” and the answer was always, “No.” Eventually after about an hour and half we hit the bottom, and sand! Was I glad to feel that sand!

The heat was up and the sand was soft but I didn’t care; we only had 3km left to go. The run in (or walk, as the case may be), took us over a rolling dune. Around half a kilometre from the finish we came upon Patrick, a French, partially-sighted chap with his 5 guides, so we all linked arms and finished as a French-British combination. Our legs were battered, but it was great to hear they could see the end; even better when I heard the bleeps!

We found Tent 124 and collapsed, Ann Marie was triumphant: she was still in the top 10 and slowly moving up, but to our surprise Leslie wasn’t back yet. Food was needed, along with a nice cup of coffee, but to my horror the packet with coffee, tea and sugar was not in my bag. Oh no! Disaster! Leslie came back much later and our thoughts of coffee vanished. She’d had to pull out – the injury from yesterday’s fall was too bad to continue.

I remembered a conversation from months ago with an ex armed forces chap who attempted the MDS last year. He had also been a casualty of the second day, through no fault of his own. He’d crossed the finish line that day, but the heat and exhaustion had brought on a hidden virus which caused him to collapse and he had to be flown out of the desert that instant. He spent the next week in a coma. To have Deb listen to this story was not the best thing. She did question my sanity afterwards! Admittedly that was a rare occurrence, but it showed the seriousness of this event. I can understand why the organisers took us through a strict medical check and even then things get past them. For Leslie in this instance, a simple fall caused enough damage to stop her, after all that training, and planning. We were all gutted along with her, and Tent 124 was quiet for a long time. The only consolation was that Tony could borrow her hat. The night drew in, we pulled up our sleeping bag zips, and the wind started to blow.

Stage 3: 7th April, Jebel El Oftal to Jebel Zireg, 36.7km

The dawn seemed to come so quickly. We’d had very little sleep as the wind in the night was unbelievable, and when we woke this morning, our tent was pretty well on its knees! We had the tent that always catches the wind. The others said, looking around the rest of the camp, that everyone else’s was still standing!

Spirits rallied for the start. There were birthday announcements, the previous day’s casualties told - sadly our tent had one this morning – then the music, the helicopters and we set off.

From the road book, today was primarily sand dune day – an easier day. After the lack of sleep, the battering our legs took yesterday, tired minds and tired bodies, no one could convince me any part of this adventure was easy. The sand dunes came upon us in the corrugated landscape, with the camel grasses. I had my first fall today: normally, camel grass parted as we passed through, but there was a large, firm root in the middle of the one my foot connected with, and I unceremoniously hit the floor. We trudged on with the sun beating down.

Checkpoint 1 at 14km, was heaven. After endless sand dunes and dried river beds, we crossed what appeared to be a dried lake, and Checkpoint 2 at 25.9km was certainly a very welcome bleep. At the end of the day we hit a progressive climb: a small, sandy mountain. Its descent took us into more sand dunes, and that last few kilometres of intense heat and heavy legs, seemed to drain the body and mind. Time stood still and if ever I wanted to hear two solid wonderful bleeps, it was now. The finish line couldn’t come quickly enough today.

We collected our water rations, found Tent 124 and collapsed… and then I shot up again like a rocket! Each day, when the camp is moved, it’s re-erected in identical layout, with no extra gaps between tents. Ours had a bush full of tiny thorns right in the middle, and I’d sat on it! Those thorns hurt, and as I was only wearing shorts they made me move pretty quickly – still, it gave everyone a laugh after the day we’d had. We also had some great news: Ann Marie had moved up to 2nd place in the women’s race; she was doing exceptionally well. With trainers off came the obligatory blister check. Tony and Rosemary’s feet were in a shocking state. On checking mine, Rosie gave a few choice words, as I hadn’t got one blister. My feet were sore, but otherwise unblemished. The night came in, and we were really looking forward to another night on the desert floor. We might even catch some sleep. We zipped up as the wind and sand started their nightly ritual.

Stage 4: 8th April, Jebel Zaire to Jdaid, 91.7km

After another night of high winds and sandstorms, the tent was lower than it should be, and we hadn’t slept much. We had 91.7 km today. This was the longest long day in the 30 years of the MDS, so the question I asked was, Why didn’t we do the 29th instead?

In fact, it would be a day and night job. The elite boys and girls were lucky enough to have a very late start this morning and it was fantastic to have them clapping, encouraging and supporting us as we left, into the sand dunes, accompanied by a 40km sandstorm.

Pulling into Checkpoint 1 after covering 12.2km through a sandstorm, was wonderful. We cracked on and passed what must have been the equivalent of a resort camp! It was a holiday retreat in the middle of nowhere, and very desolate; why anyone would want to stay there is beyond me, but it takes all sorts, I guess. Just before we came across Checkpoint 2 at 26km, the elite runners started to pass us. They were covering the ground quickly.

Tony and Rosemary had a discussion about a mountain in the distance. They couldn’t make up their minds whether the people-ants in the distance were going round or up and over. As we got closer, they both exclaimed “They’re actually going over!” We had a mountain in today’s 91.7km. I simply couldn’t believe we were going up another mountain – not today of all days!

So we went up, climbing and clambering over rocks. There were corridors of rock, at times the path only allowing single file. We had a plan for this: when I held onto the back of a pack we sang the song, “Left, right, left, right, you’re in the army now,” so as to keep our feet in sync and not trip each other up. It worked, and with grunting and effort, we eventually got to the top. Then I heard, “Who’s going to tell him?” I stood wondering, “Whatever is coming next?” They described the descent: it was rather a long way down, very steep – in fact, almost sheer. Tony put my hands on a rope, also resembling a washing line, and told me whatever I did, don’t lose it or walk backwards. There was around a two- to three-hundred foot drop of rock.

I was not the only one holding the rope, and it was moving all over the place. Then it ran out. Where my mind was now is anyone’s guess. No rope?! So what is coming next? I felt sand underfoot. Rosemary grabbed me and told me to turn around, relax, dig my heels in and slide. We dropped a very long way, literally skiing through sand. It felt like an eternity, but I’m told it was around 300 metres, and then we hit more rocks. It was quite frightening, but also exciting. Putting my life in the hands of someone else, and seeming literally to drop down that mountain – that is where the trust comes in.

I had a GoPro camera on my head, and turned around to film the route behind us. Tipping my head up, Rosemary tilted it even further. I was almost bent double backwards. It was then that I realized the full extent of the descent we’d just made! There was still more descent to come.

From the top we’d cleared rocks, then sand, and now rocks again. We covered over a kilometre, and boy, was I glad to get off that mountain. We took a rocky road to Checkpoint 3 at 37.8km and had a welcome rest.

Checkpoint 4 was at 50.2km, and this was the halfway mark. It had a great psychological effect: instead of counting the checkpoints up, we now started to count down to the finish – admittedly still a long way to go. Many competitors decided to camp here for a few hours and sleep, but we made this our meal stop. We found a tent and prepared tea. Here, I had a conversation with a French chap, a doctor. Last year he volunteered his services for the event, and having spent the week treating others, thought this year he would actually run the marathon to get the view from both sides. He was very quick to tell me that he would never come back as a competitor again; doctor and volunteer, yes, but this would be his first and only time taking part. This might be the view of a lot of people, come the finish!

Night-time fell, we left Checkpoint 4 with a terrific sandstorm blowing, and started up a sand dune. It went up and up, in fact, all the way to Checkpoint 5. It was very windy, with sand swirling all around. The sand dune was telling on our legs, and our glow sticks and head torches provided the only light. Checkpoint 5 came eventually at 63.3km. A nice surprise greeted us here: the organisers had set out deckchairs, and while having a welcome rest, it was great to sit down on an actual chair! Although the Sahara desert is a daunting place, it was amazing to sit there, have a drink, and enjoy the delights of a packet of KVE pork scratchings (to the envy of a lot of other competitors) at 1:20 in the morning!

It was at this point that Rosemary had a slight blip. She was very tired, so we had a 20 minute stay to give her a power nap. It wasn’t long, but she got up again, and we think she was sleepwalking for the next couple of checkpoints! She was very quiet, which is unusual for her too.

The sandstorm was still blowing so to keep our spirits up Tony gave me a quiz on the walk. “Name me 20 John Wayne films,” followed later by, “Name me 20 Clint Eastwood films.” This kept us marching along. We then became the Pied Piper. There were loads of people all around us, and whilst we seemed to be walking in a straight line, other competitors kept walking around us, and for a long time kept bumping into Tony, much to his annoyance. There were miles of desert around us, but everyone seemed to be in our footsteps. Then Tony jumped and shouted! He frightened the life out of me. A long strand of desert grass caught his foot and he thought a snake had got him. It certainly livened up the party.

The sand dune accompanied us into Checkpoint 6, at 74.8km. Here, we had a quick stop, filled the water bottles, and carried on. The next checkpoint was the last one before the end. The sand dune was still with us; it had slowly inclined all the way. Tony remarked if it went up any more we could touch the moon. Rosemary was still quiet. Eventually I heard that wonderful bleep that was Checkpoint 7, at 85.7km, at 6:30 in the morning.

People were sleeping all around us, but with only 6km left to do, we pushed on. Dawn would soon be upon us, so I asked Tony to catch the sun coming up on the GoPro. I never saw the sun rise, but I felt the heat. I’m told it was a magical sight. Our road map told us from here there was a good running surface, but it was not the case: there were boulders and rocks everywhere. We ploughed on, Rosemary now back to life. Tony gave us a spelling test (funny, considering he can’t spell), and strangely enough it got Rosie and me challenging with different words, to the amusement of Tony.

As I’d predicted, 8am came and went with us still on the go. Suddenly, Tony got a phone signal; we hadn’t had one for 2 days. With just over 3km to go, a text came through from Deb. They were tracking us back home and wanted to know what was taking us so long. Could we get a move on, as she was waiting to go out. This brought a great big smile on my face. Deb, from thousands of miles away, could still spur me on. After 90km, we began to run for that finish line! Rosemary exclaimed, “Dave, I can see the finish line – it’s about 1,200 metres away.” She told me 5 times it was only 1,200 metres away. What we didn’t realise was we were not only going forward, but slightly up and down too. With Deb telling us to hurry up, and Rosemary telling me for the last time it was only 1,200 metres, we tripped, stumbled and just kept running. That finish line was now within our grasp! Deb texted to say she was expecting a finish dance for the camera. After 24 hours and 55 minutes, we heard the most rewarding two bleeps on the finish line. I did the most ridiculous dance I could muster, with one hell of a smile.

We collected our water, stumbled to our tent, took our packs off, and lay on whatever was on the floor, simply resting and then trying to take in what we had just done! We took our trainers off to assess the damage: again, not a blister on my feet. Tony was in all sorts of pain, and Rosemary was in agony. She decided to see the foot doctor to get prepared for the next morning. A couple of hours later Rosemary returned, feeling slightly better, and explained the whole remarkable procedure.

There were some 190 other people needing attention. You showed your number, then sat with your feet up, cleaned them with disinfectant, and placed surgical over-shoes on them until your turn came. Then the nurse treated the blisters, cutting and slicing with great care. When the iodine was put on, screams could be heard. Your feet were then expertly taped and bandaged to enable you to continue. The detail of the blister on one of her heels made me wince. She said it was as big as an orange, and blood spurted as it was cut – very painful. I was so glad I wasn’t joining their blister gang! Rosemary told us there seemed to be over 70 medical personnel, with 20 dedicated to feet. It showed the incredible support that was offered to the competitors.

People came in periodically through the day. There was an exhausted feeling throughout the camp, but the mood was still high, everyone knowing that tomorrow was the last day and the finish, barring an accident. We rested all day, and sorted out our packs. I couldn’t believe how heavy my pack still was. I counted the meals I needed for the remainder, discarding whatever I could, but that pack was still heavy; Tony and Rosie couldn’t believe it. The last person came in just before the 36 hour deadline. I did feel sorry for them. It was an early start the following day, and their rest would be nominal. As a bit of a prize, the organisers gave us all a small can of coke, and we decided to save ours for tomorrow as a little pick me up. Once our sleeping bags were zipped up, the wind and sand began to blow.

Stage 5: 10th April, Jdaid to Kou Rci Dial Zaid, 42.2km

The wind in the night had been horrendous, and we were all up well before dawn. After hardly any sleep, I sat on my sleeping bag pulling on my kit, with Tony laughing. “You don’t know where you are do you?” Replying, I said, “Not exactly. Somewhere in the Sahara, sitting on my sleeping bag getting dressed in this tent.” “No, I mean you don’t know what’s happened!” I was still nonplussed, but Tony went on to say the tent had actually blown down in the night! Rosemary and Anne Marie were underneath it, using it as a blanket. Both Tony and I had literally been sleeping under the stars. I did wonder, at some point in the night, why the wind didn’t seem as noisy. The reason was, it had no tent to blow through. After that, I’d zipped up completely and must have slept. I did wonder why I was covered in more sand than usual.

The morning ritual started, only this morning with a bit more pain thrown in. Tony struggled to get his trainers on, and poor old Rosie whimpered at just the thought, then even more as she tried to put them on. She had to cut her trainers in the end, and her mice impressions of pain followed us all day. She was literally squeaking in pain with every step. I believe we all welcomed the start at 7am, for many different reasons; there were certainly some with war wounds on that start line.

With the presentations came the sad news that Bernie, the chap from the mountain day, had pulled out on the long day – there was an ever-increasing list of casualties.

Today was a mixture of all sorts of terrain: hard rutted sand, corrugated sand with small ridges, large ridges, hard ground with many stones and rocks. We hit our first checkpoint at 12.5km, and as we had run practically all of this distance, stopping was good. We all three shared a small can of coke, the noise of that can opening tormenting others! The ground was the same to Checkpoint 2 at 24.6km, so again we managed to run most of it, and again had an enviable can of coke. Just a couple of sips each hit the spot. From here we had similar ground, with the obligatory sand dunes thrown in too, and the temperature hotting up. The third and final checkpoint came at 33.7km. Other than the finish, it was the last checkpoint of the whole event. Superb: only one set of bleeps left! After leaving Checkpoint 3 we could smell the finish, and although the ground underfoot was now slightly worse, with about 5km to go, Tony did his normal attempt at winding me up!

As we began to climb a slight incline, with Rosemary in cahoots, he told me that he could see Patrick, the French partially-sighted chap, along with his guides ahead of us, so I upped the anti, the legs finding strength from somewhere. It was at the top of this incline that Tony exclaimed, “I was winding you up before, but Patrick is really in front now.” I didn’t need any more encouragement – my legs automatically quickened up, but Rosie was telling me not to go any faster. This time we passed Patrick and his crew, Tony filming as we ran, and Rosie hanging on to the running cord. I was shouting Boing Boing all the way in; we crossed the line as one, all bleeps together. We had completed the 30th Marathon des Sables. There were hugs, tears, smiles, and the daft little dance again – who cared. The medal was draped around my neck. We had done it. Our great little team had pulled together. This moment would live with me forever.

The camp sounded jubilant, with claps and congratulations ringing out all around. Tent 124 was a happy place, painful but happy. Anne Marie had secured second place, and was first British lady – what an achievement. Then, whilst sitting and reminiscing, I put my hand in my pack and there in a lining I pulled out the bag with coffee, tea and sugar in. How good did that coffee taste! Later in the evening were the official presentations, and music from a live band. This would be our last night spent in a tent in the Sahara.

Waking up the next morning, the tent was upright. I ate my last breakfast from a packet. There would be no more sand-caked spoon, no more Sahara floor, and no more sandstorms, just today’s charity walk or run.

Charity day: 11th April, From Kou Rci Dial to the coaches! 11.5km

We were given shirts supporting UNICEF and a new number, and at 9am, off we went. It was very casual – even the elites strolled along. Our route went through, round and over the Merzouga sand dunes, the highest in Morocco. On the top we enjoyed a coke, and I filled a small bag with sand to take back for the kids. Then we came to the coaches, bound for Ouarzazate.

As each coach filled, off it went. It was wonderful to sit down on a soft seat, slipping off those trainers. Imagine a coach full of runners, after almost 8 days in the desert, in the same clothes, having had no washing facilities to speak of. That poor driver! He had 6 hours of us and our desert odour! But he survived, and in Ouarzazate, the British were put up in the Berber Palace hotel. Within half an hour I was standing in a shower. What a feeling! It took three showers to feel anything like clean. Then we had a meal; then bed!

Having been travelling most of Saturday I’d got no sports results yet, but in the hotel lobby another football fan approached me. “Morning Dave! I’m a fox’s fan. Just thought I’d let you know we beat you yesterday three two.” So our badge is recognisable all over the world. And talking of West Bromwich Albion, on our return on 13th April, we celebrated with a great reception back at the Hawthorns.

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