Thursday 12 May 2016

MDS 2016 - Epilogue and 'What's it like?'

Many people tell me I'm too hard on myself and that I should be proud of what I've achieved in my relatively short time as an ultra-runner. Well I am - realistically I'm never going to win many races but I'm usually in the top 10 - 20% of finishers at most races, which isn't bad for an old bloke. However what went wrong usually requires more thought than what went right - I don't like repeating mistakes - and so I often appear to be dwelling on my failures rather than my successes.

So what went right in the 2016 MDS? Well I finished higher than last time and with almost no blisters so that's a couple of big positives. Although I finished higher, my average pace was slower but then Rachid El Morabity won both editions and he was slower in 2016 - in fact I slowed (slightly) less than him so I think I can claim a genuinely better overall performance.

Equipment-wise I've already mentioned the shoes but the UD Fastpack and Scott Jurek belt combo performed perfectly. I did manage to wear a hole in one of the pockets on the belt somehow but I didn't suffer any chafing and whilst a little more padding on the straps might have been nice on the first two days they weren't unbearable - overall better than the pack I used in 2014 and significantly lighter. Breakfast was better than 2014 but still not perfect - more variety and possibly liquid food might work best for me. The best breakfast was on the rest day when I accidentally ended up with freeze-dried ham, egg and potato for my morning meal. I realise that isn't a statement that will sell the MDS to many but things are different in the desert.

What went wrong? I would have liked to have performed more consistently. I think there were two main reasons I didn't. The first was expectation, in 2014 I had no idea what I could do and so took everything very carefully and put in some very consistent performances. In 2016 I wanted to do better and so took off way too fast on Day One and suffered. Day Two I ran according to my heart rate and ignored pace and did much better.

The second reason concerns hydration and preparation. I knew I'd have trouble drinking lukewarm water because I did last time, but last time I had practised drinking on the ultras leading up to the event. In the UK I drink mainly at checkpoints with only a few sips of water in between. However most of the races I do are in spring and autumn so I can get away with that - the MDS may technically be in Spring but 40 plus degrees isn't a UK Spring (or even Summer) temperature and so a lot more drinking is required. I assumed I'd just do it as I had before but in reality that wasn't the case. I found myself arriving at checkpoints with half full bottles and trying to drink a litre or more of water in one go. Next time I will a) practice and b) take teabags.

I think I had enough food as I took the same as last time, however my bodyweight was less. This may not have been a good thing as my tent mates commented I looked visibly thinner by the end of the race. Obviously I was going to lose weight through the event but I had been losing weight right up to it as well which might not have helped my performance. I certainly didn't have a huge amount of energy by the final marathon stage.

Anyway that's enough of an inquest, I did OK and finished in good condition so MDS 2016 can be counted a success I think. So far this blog has mainly been a chronological account of what happened during the MDS so I'm going to try and write a few words - OK, probably quite a lot of words - to describe how it felt. I suspect I'm going to fail to convey very much but I'll give it a go.

If I could only use one word to describe the MDS it woud be 'big'. I know that's not very imaginative and from the previous blog entries you would probably have expected me to go for 'sand' but I'll explain.

The MDS is big from the moment you arrive at the first bivouac. This is not a campsite, it's a small village. The 'black camp' is three concentric circles of tents for around 1100 competitors. The 'white camp' is for around 450 support staff. The whole bivouac sprawls across the desert - 'big' is a good word.

Then there is the desert itself. It swallows the bivouac, it has flat featureless plains that stretch horizon to horizon, there are dunes as far as the eye can see, there are mountains, even the biggest trucks are insignificant specks. In the grand scheme of things you are of little more significance than one for the many grains of sand you will run over. Big is still a good word.

After dark on the long day stop and turn off your head torch for a moment (forget about potential penalties, this is important). Now look up. The sky is pretty massive too, you will see all the stars you see at home, a lot you don't and then you will see the Milky Way itself. You can do this at camp too but it's only out in the desert you can get completely away from any light pollution. The night sky in the desert is really big.

So how does it feel to run through all this? It has the power to raise you up and knock you down like nothing else. You might spend an hour trudging up a sandy slope, your legs burning, feet sliding back with every step forward so progress is painfully slow, monotonous, morale sapping. Then you get to the top and it feel like you can see the whole world stretching out in front of you. Your legs don't hurt, there is no question as to whether it was 'worth it' - yell with delight and take photos, you won't be alone.

As the week goes on every part of you and your kit will gradually be infiltrated by dust and sand. Your clothes will become so salt encrusted they may not bend. you can try and stay clean but the wind blown dust will tend to put paid to that. Learn to accept it, embrace it even, you aren't just in the desert, you become the desert.

While there is a breeze you will only become unpleasantly hot. Wait until you run into one of the sheltered valleys or passes. The sun is so high there is no shade but there's no breeze either. Feel yourself getting hotter, you'd love to douse yourself in water but you only have enough to drink and that's more important. Keep moving, that gives you a bit of air movement and hopefully you will get back into a breeze soon...

You may feel so bad at times you want to cry - I did when I left CP5 on the long day. Cry if you must but don't stop, the only way out is to keep moving. When you hit the bottom things can only get better, you might be lifted by a stunning view, some smooth flat ground you can make progress on, or very often it will be a fellow runner that lifts your spirits. However low you get don't let it stop you, the highs on the MDS far outweigh the lows.

People ask why I went back. I told them I enjoyed it. They backed away nervously. The second time had far more highs and lows and so in many ways I enjoyed it more. I fully intend to be back in the desert sometime in the future. If you want to enjoy and experience the MDS properly my advice would be embrace it, don't fight the desert, you can't possibly win. You will be filthy, hungry, thirsty, you may even feel sick some of the time and there will be times when you will want to be anywhere but where you are. However you are in an environment which can stun and amaze you in ways you won't find anywhere else. People say 'I could get a 4x4 and see all that' and the answer is yes you could, but you wouldn't have the same perspective and understanding of how it all fits together.

Of course there is one other big part of the MDS. It may or may not (probably not) be 'The Toughest Footrace on Earth' but to cross 250 kilometres of inhospitable desert with nothing but the contents of your backpack, your ration of water and a tent you share with seven of the best people you will ever know is a huge achievement so to go back to my opening lines, yes I'm hard on myself but I do also recognise to do that once is an achievement. To do it twice may be insanity but two attempts, two top two hundred finishes and still be smiling, maybe I should be proud of myself!

All that remains are the thank yous. I can't mention everyone but I must mention Perry, Darren, Tim, Ross, Eric, John and Tony. A fantastic group of tent mates that certainly contributed to my enjoyment of the experience. Everyone that wrote to me, all messages were read (at least twice) and kept and brought home with me - thank you. Thank you also to everyone that supported me on this journey, I'm lucky enough to know many truly inspirational people - you know who you are. However the biggest thanks is reserved for my wife Sharon, the rock upon which all my achievements are founded. How many other wives when given the news 'I've entered the MDS again' would reply with 'So when are we going to Fuerteventura?'

My account MDS 2016 is finally at an end but this is not goodbye - just Au Revoir....

Wednesday 11 May 2016

MDS 2016 - Day Seven

Most of these posts tend to have some sort of preamble about something else before we get to the running. This one is really quite important as it links to the news I got on Day One. You might remember I mentioned my Belgian friend Philippe being taken ill just before the start and hence it appearing his MDS would be over before it started. Well it wasn't. I was in the queue for the email tent on (I think) Day Three behind one of the Belgian runners who told me that Philippe had started and was still in the MDS! This was fantastic news and I eventually tracked Philippe down and saw for myself that he was not only still going but in good spirits and his race was getting better day by day. Mind you, from where he started that was fairly inevitable. Day One was unsurprisingly hell (his description), after being given the OK to start he had to report to Doc Trotters at each checkpoint. However he finished well within the cut-off and completed the rest of the race also within all the cut-offs and so I'm very pleased to say is the proud owner of a 2016 MDS medal.

At the point we pick up my story however none of us are proud owners of anything new apart from a UNICEF blue t-shirt. I understand it looks good for photos to have us all in the same t-shirt, I only have two issues with it. Firstly it did detract a bit from the 'posing with medal' picture at the end as everyone looked quite similar and far too clean. Secondly - and in the very unlikely event of Patrick reading my blog, please, please fix this one - the t-shirt is an ordinary 'non-technical' one in cotton. This means it gets very sweaty very quickly. I appreciate that keeping down costs on the t-shirts means there is more money for the charity but if it was a technical t-shirt (like the 'Finisher' shirt) people would wear them to races after the event and raise the profile of the charity aspect of the MDS. A lot of people accuse the MDS of being 'commercial' and there are a lot of rules regarding keeping the sponsors logos visible on the race numbers. However these sponsors are Moroccan companies - I suspect Coca-Cola would pay a lot more than Sidi ali to be on the race numbers - and the money raised by allowing those not doing the MDS to take part in the charity stage funds a number of projects in Morocco primarily aimed at educating children. So whilst yes, there is undoubtedly a strong commercial element I suspect it could be a lot worse.

Anyway on with the running - or today, walking. The charity stage is un-timed and so tent groups frequently walk together and Tent 137 was going to be no exception. It was going to be a long walk, - 17.7 km - and also fairly straight, flat and not terribly interesting, looking at the road book. Obviously there were dunes, a jebel and a a bit of a dust storm so at least it wouldn't be entirely un-typical of the 2016 MDS. Why was it so long? The answer actually lies in Day Four. Whilst the route of the MDS changes every year there are certain aspects that are fairly fixed. It's always in the same area of Morocco for instance. Even though I'd only done it once before I covered quite a lot of the same ground in 2016 as I did in 2014. One of the limiting factors is that about 25 coaches are needed to get the competitors to and from Ouarzazate and the start and finish of the race, and there are only so many places you can park these in a desert. You may remember that I said Day Four was a more scenic loop and the camp didn't move very far and so because Day Five is always a marathon and hence the distance is fixed, the last camp ended up 17.7 km from the nearest road/bus park suitable for the coaches.

Anyway Tent 137 set out as a group in good spirits and looking forward to getting to the hotel and a shower, beer and a bed without stones poking through (hopefully) in about that order I think - well it was for me anyway. It's actually quite hard to keep eight people together in amongst the overall throng - especially when everyone is now wearing the same t-shirt. The group splits as different conversations start and so we had to make sure we regrouped or at least knew where each other was every so often along the way. However we'd been a pretty close-knit bunch through the week and we were determined to cross the finish line together so we stopped a few hundred metres from the end to regroup and cross the line as a team - and what a team we were, not only did we all finish but six of us were in the top 200. We collected our medals and went to sit on a coach for a while before it decided to take us to the Berbere Palace Hotel.

So we've come to the end of my 2016 MDS adventure. Last time my final blog entry included an epilogue but as this one has rambled on a bit I'll make that a separate entry and in it - as I've done the diary bit up to now - I'll try and describe just what it really felt like to run in the 2016 MDS - the words 'hot' and 'sand' may be overused though...

Monday 9 May 2016

MDS 2016 - Day Six

One of the things I got wrong in 2014 was my breakfast choice. I decided 150 grams of granola and powdered milk mixed with water would be a good thing to start every day with. By this time then, I was finding getting through the granola harder than the running. For 2016 I decided breakfast would be a couple of bars, one of which would give me the power of beetroot, in which I am a firm believer. Was it better than granola? The answer is yes but there is still room for improvement. I seem to find it hard to eat anything in the morning in the desert, if/when I go back I might try a liquid breakfast as that might help me maintain my hydration better too. I did actually get try a liquid breakfast when Darren and me swapped breakfasts - he was sick of his liquid meal every morning and I was starting to put Chia Charge flapjacks in the same category as granola. I think next time some variety would be a good idea...

Anyway it was the morning of the final competitive day of the 2016 MDS and to be honest I wasn't feeling great. The day off hadn't really done me any favours. I think I had failed to drink enough during the day despite Perry sharing his mint tea bags and Tim his spicy chai ones. Either bag could be dropped into a bottle of water and the bottle left in the sun. No-one is likely to start selling the resulting liquid in caf├ęs in Shoreditch but to me it tasted far better than plain water. If/when I return I will be taking mint and/or spicy chai tea bags to aid my water consumption.

As in 2014 I was top 200 and therefore on the later start for the marathon day. Last time I was worried that 199 people would vanish over the horizon and I would be left behind on my own. This time I was fairly certain that would happen as I knew today would be a struggle. The fact the first three kilometres were sand and dunes wasn't going to help and sure enough I watched most of the field gradually pull ahead of me until I was fully expecting to have a camel nuzzling my backside.

As it was I didn't get molested by a camel and gradually I started to catch the back markers from the earlier start. I was however well behind almost everyone else that started later and realised today would simply be a damage limitation exercise. The fact that almost every instruction in the road book up to CP3 has the word 'sand' or 'dunes' or just 'sandy' in it somewhere wasn't helping and it was quite a relief to finally see the last camp of the 2016 MDS. There was still about six kilometres to go from that point and a fair few of those involved sand but at least I could see what I had to do.

In 2014 the finish was slightly ant-climactic as I had to queue to get my medal. In 2016 it was slightly anti-climactic as we wouldn't get our medals until the end of the charity stage tomorrow. However it was great to be welcomed back by my tent mate Tony and I think I did manage to look fairly enthusiastic about finishing for the obligatory photos.

As you might realise from reading the above the marathon stage wasn't my finest hour on the MDS - in fact it wasn't my finest six hours. I was 337th, my lowest placing in any stage of either MDS. However I had finished and despite my poor finish on the last day was 158th overall, up 34 places on 2014.

Despite the fact we hadn't got our medals and despite the fact we were told that tomorrow's charity stage was mandatory and any penalties incurred would be added to our time, prizes were still given out that evening. We weren't entirely sure what Patrick would do if Rachid El-Morabity chucked his water bottle away on the course the next day - would he really give him a 30 minute penalty and take his winner's trophy away? We went to the prize giving anyway - mainly because there were rumours of another can of Coke or even a beer afterwards. I didn't take the beer rumour too seriously but I did enjoy the can of Coke we were given.

All that was left the next day was a rather long hike out of the desert...

Saturday 7 May 2016

MDS 2016 - Days Four and Five

Stage Four is 'The Long Day' and for some it will run into Day Five. I was hoping it wouldn't and that I would get a full day off. This year the distance was 84.3 km. It promised to be an interesting route as it consisted mainly of a long loop taking us south over mountains (and dunes, obviously) before we turned back north-ish and then north-west to cross our route out and get to the bivouac. Our camp would only move about 15 - 20 km west so the route had been chosen to be interesting and challenging rather than simply to get us from A to B.

The start of the stage was however familiar. Just under 10 km of small dunes and stones before the first checkpoint and then it was the El Otfal jebel. I didn't want to set off too fast as there was a lot of running to be done today but I did know that El Otfal can become a bit of a queue and so I decided to push on a bit so that things should be moving reasonably well when I started the climb. There really is only one path which can be taken safely. This is because if anyone does try and take a different path they will be above other runners and likely to kick rocks down on them. Unfortunately some are more concerned with their own position than the safety of their fellow competitors and  do try other routes. Fortunately this didn't really happen to me but my tent mate John did have to endure falling rocks when someone decided he couldn't possibly suffer a couple of minutes delay and stupidly tried climbing above the other runners. I didn't experience that but I did have a guy climbing so closely behind me I nearly stepped on his fingers several times - I wasn't really bothered about his fingers as such, I just suspected they wouldn't be a sure a footing as the rock underneath them.

I stopped at the top of the jebel for the obligatory selfie and then started the descent. The descent is no where near as steep but it follows a rocky oued bed which offers numerous ankle twisting opportunities. The dunes afterwards only lasted for a kilometre and so barely registered on the sandiness scale that had been sent for the 2016 MDS. They were followed by seven kilometres of flat gravelly plateau to CP2 so I just needed to put my head down and keep jogging...

Unfortunately this didn't quite happen. I was probably no more than a kilometre in when I tripped. I managed to avoid any major damage to my skin or equipment but I did manage to find a small rock to bash my left thigh into. Whilst, as previously mentioned, some of the competitors have little regard for the well-being of their fellows, the vast majority do care about others and a lovely lady from Britain stopped and pulled me to my feet and made sure I was OK. I was but I was slightly dazed and quite annoyed so I wasn't as grateful as I should have been. Fortunately I saw her later when she asked if I was OK and so I was able to thank her properly (thanks again Megan!).

The damage to my leg was having a significant effect on my running style - which isn't very stylish at the best of times anyway. I took some pain killers and tried to run it off and eventually arrived at the second checkpoint where I tipped some water onto my shorts over the damaged area which helped the pain a bit - also the pain killers were starting to kick in.

The route from CP2 was still fairly flat and gravelly until it reached an auberge I recognised from 2014 just before the El Maharch pass. The auberge was also the site of an official MDS photo point. I suspect this may have been to discourage competitors from going into it in search of refreshment - it might be tricky to explain a cold can of Coke in an official photo!

After the pass and some more open flat stuff we had a few sandy ascents including the Mziouda jebel and started to discover why Steve Diederich - founder of Run Ultra, the UK MDS representatives - had told us he thought the 2016 MDS course was one of the best he'd seen when he met us at the airport. The views we would have from CP3 to CP5 were stunning.

I had kind of planned on walking a fair bit from CP3 to CP4 as this was the hottest part of the day. CP4 was where I would have my Peronin, a liquid food designed to be consumed during exercise, and get myself ready for running in the cooler part of the day - that was the plan anyway. The walking bit worked, my thigh was still a bit sore but the aforementioned views were keeping me distracted. It was however very hot and I wasn't drinking enough...

When I got to CP4 I realised I was thirsty, very thirsty. As a result I consumed one and a half litres of water with the Peronin rather than the 400 ml recommended. There were two reasons for this, one, the powder wouldn't dissolve properly so I kept adding more water, and drinking that which did dissolve each time and two, I was struggling badly to drink tepid water so any flavouring helped.

After I left CP4 I felt bloated with water and still thirsty. I then made what was probably a mistake in that I decided to add my recovery shake to one of my water bottles  to try and make the water more palatable. I drank it, grateful for something with some taste, but I was now feeling very, very bloated and not at all like running. I saw Perry and John  at CP4, John was leaving it as I arrived and Perry overtook me soon after I left. I wasn't really expecting to see either of them again as I was feeling decidedly rough and a bit sorry for myself.

I finally made it to CP5 in a fairly poor state. I would have liked to have hung around there for longer but the medics seemed to be taking an interest in me so I thought I'd better leave before they wanted to examine me too closely. This was about my lowest point on the whole 2016 MDS, the exit from CP5 was a short steep hill I really didn't want to climb up. However that was where I had to go so I thought it was time I had a serious word with myself whilst climbing up. There was 30 km roughly left to go and the sun was going down. I could either have a long and miserable night walking or I could start running again. I still felt bloated but I reasoned that if I ran one of two things would happen, the water would either start to be absorbed into my body - or I would throw up. The second wouldn't be ideal but at least I might feel better afterwards. As it was the first thing happened and after the climb the sandy start gave way to some reasonable dirt terrain over which I could run quite easily. It was at this point I thought I was hallucinating - I wasn't expecting to hear music in the desert. It turned out I wasn't hallucinating and the source of the music was a bluetooth speaker on the back of the pack of a great guy called Tom. We ran along and chatted together for several songs - I'm not sure he entirely appreciated me singing along to 'Mr Brightside' by the Killers but he politely endured it. As it became fully dark he took the safer option and slowed down while I proceeded at full speed kicking every single rock in my path that was larger than a golf ball. I didn't care, after my low point the fact I was feeling better, it was getting cooler and I'd had some positive interaction with another human being had lifted my spirits and I was (relatively speaking) racing along from glow stick to glow stick as they showed me the path to CP6.

After CP6 things got even better as I caught up with Perry and we decided to finish the stage together. I knew having Perry as a tent mate was a good thing but I only realised quite how good it was when he gave me one of his Mint Crumbles. We ran into CP7 together where the marshal pointed to some lights in the distance and told us that was our 'home'. We had less than 10 km to go along some reasonably flat and firm terrain, we just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

As it happened we did slightly better than that. We slowed down for a short rest and someone (I think he was French) had the temerity to overtake us. We looked at each other, shook our heads and set of in hot pursuit. We caught and passed said runner fairly easily and could now see the lights of the camp very clearly. I wanted to finish in style and so sped up a bit, so did Perry, so did I, so did he... My head torch has four settings, dim, normal, bright and The Sun. I selected maximum brightness and we raced to the line side by side. The only problem was that, due to the lack of perspective provided by darkness and with nothing to act as a reference for the size of the camp, we were still about a kilometre from the finish. Were we going to slow down? Hell no, we just carried on and when we did get get to the finish we still managed to find a bit more for a last sprint to wild cheers and applause from the marshals at the line. We waved to the web cam and went collect our tea. Perry then pointed out that if anyone was watching they wouldn't have seen us as we still had our head torches on so we turned them off and went back and waved again. I'm glad we did since at least one person saw us and she has been one of my most loyal supporters through both my MDS adventures. Things got even better when, as a result of Perry wanting a photo with the tea man, I managed to get two cups of mint tea!

I was 171st on the day and managed a same-day finish. Given the way the day had gone things could have been a lot worse. Day Five was spent mostly resting and chatting with my tent mates - and eating, quite a lot of eating. Only one more competitive day for the 2016 MDS, the marathon day...

Thursday 5 May 2016

MDS 2016 - Day Three

So the position so far then was that Day One had been a bit disappointing but Day Two had been pretty good. The most important thing however - from my point of view - was that I was still going. Sadly this was not the case for quite a number of my fellow competitors. Day One had seen eighteen people either drop out or get timed out and that was after the cut-off was extended by an hour. Even then a few competitors that were just over the time limit had been allowed to continue with a one hour  time penalty. If the cut-off had been the original 10 hours 30 minutes we would have lost another twenty-two people. As I mentioned before the stage was very similar to the first one in 2014 which also had the cut-off extended so it's fair to say the original time limit wasn't generous, especially in view of the sand and dust storms. Unfortunately anyone taking the full time to complete the stage wouldn't finish until 8:30 in the evening, leaving them just over 12 hours to eat, sleep and do it all again. This is quite probably why the drop-out rate for Day Two was even higher at fifty-six. In 2014 Patrick had warned us before the race that we would be straight into it, no gentle introductions. As the start of 2016 was very similar I think it's fair to say a similar philosophy was being adopted.

Anyway I was still in the race and hopeful I could maintain some of the momentum from Day Two. Of course one of the things that has to be remembered about Day Three  is that it is followed by Day Four. This isn't difficult to remember and is even quite logical, the point is that Day Four is the long day (84.3 km this year) and so it's not a great idea to leave it all on the course on Day Three.

Day Three looked to be quite a varied course. Inevitably there were dunes, dunettes, mounds of sand, sandy terrain, a sandy passage, and a sandy descent. In 2016 the 'Marathon des Sables' was going to be quite safe from any attempts at prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act as it was undoubtedly shaping up to be a real 'Marathon of the Sands'. However there was also some stony terrain and a jebel to break things up a bit.

The reason I've put so much preamble in this blog entry is that there isn't a great deal to say about the running! The day was hot but the scenery was spectacular and varied as the road book hinted and so I had a fairly uneventful but quite enjoyable run through the desert. The finish rounded the Ba Hallou ruins and I was left with a bit less than a kilometre to run. I finished 137th on the day and moved up to a slightly improbable 141st overall.

One thing which was significantly different to 2014 at this point was my feet. In 2014 my shoes were too wide and so my feet moved about and sheared the skin on the balls of my feet. This had been the biggest issue for me for 2016 - what shoes to wear? I went through several possibles before settling - slightly last minute - on a pair of Hoka Huakas. Somewhat against accepted wisdom I had bought these in my normal running shoe size and even had two sets of insoles in them. This was a slight accident - I'd put both sets in when I used them in the UK to simulate slightly swollen feet and then forgotten to take a set out when I got into the desert. However two sets of insoles and some quite tight lacing meant that my feet didn't move in the shoes and so I had got through three days of the MDS with my feet pretty much intact. My sock choice may have also helped. Being an engineer (well that's what my job description says anyway) I tend to be quite sceptical about the 'scientific' claims manufacturers make for their kit. For instance I think X-Bionic clothing is very good and used the same set for both desert adventures. However if the claims on the pack are to be believed I would be cool, calm and sweat free through the whole event - which hasn't quite been my experience. Hence when a pair of socks has non-stick PTFE fibres my first thought is do I put them on my feet or am I meant to cook my food in them? However said non-stick fibres seemed to work since as I said before, after three days my feet were fairly intact. I had a had a slight hot-spot on my arch after Day Two but as that was where the non-stick bit of the socks wasn't I put a bit of Gurney-Goo on it and everything was fine for Day Three. In fact the only significant rubbing that I was getting was on my back from the heart rate monitor strap and around my ankles where the tops of my socks and the bottoms of my calf guards wouldn't play nicely. I put some tape on the HRM strap and folded up the bottoms of my calf guards to stop those little irritations. The gaiters covered my ankles so the gap between sock and calf guard would cause any problems. I never did fully solve the HRM problem and I still have the marks on my back to prove it. However it never became a significant problem during the race. Since I've been back I've discovered I could have moved the adjustment buckle to under my arm and fixed the problem that way...

So the next day was the Long Day and the first stage that was completely different to 2014. It did still promise to make me climb the El Otfal jebel again however...

Tuesday 3 May 2016

MDS 2016 - Day Two

As you may remember from the last blog entry I wasn't too happy with my Day One performance. As a result I had a bit of a word with myself overnight and got myself sorted out ready to try and do better on Day Two. Now I know that all in all my Day One performance couldn't really be described as bad and you may wonder why I gave myself such a hard time about it. I think generally in life no-one gives me quite as hard a time as I give myself. The reason is that for me its not just the end result, it's how I get there that matters. Day One wasn't a disaster, realistically I had lost 15 - 30 minutes over where I felt I 'should' have been, which is nothing over an MDS. However I'd made errors that I should have been able to avoid and that's when I get annoyed with myself.

Anyway on to Day Two. Day Two had a fair amount of sand but we had already realised that sand was going to figure more prominently than usual in the 2016 MDS so that wasn't a surprise, however the road book suggested there was a fair amount of terrain that should be quite runnable.

The day started with a few dunes but I had decided today I would pay much more attention to my heart rate. This seemed sensible as the buckle on the strap of the monitor was wearing a hole in my back and it seemed a shame to let that happen for no benefit, so I switched my watch away from pace and distance to heart rate. I decided to keep it below 160 beats per minute which some may think of as a little fast but I was fairly happy that that was good for me in the conditions I was in. After the dunes there was some fairly flat ground which was only really interesting for its vast flatness but it allowed me to run at a reasonable pace, still monitoring my heart rate.

After CP1 and some more flattish stuff for the first time I saw camels on the MDS. Fortunately they were wild (OK they may not have been wild but they were at least peeved - although that does seem to be a camel's natural expression) and not the MDS sweeper camels. I was actually some significant distance ahead of the 'official' camels, so far ahead in fact that I caught up with Darren shortly after CP2. This worried me somewhat as he had had a great day on Day One and I thought he must be in trouble as I'd caught up with him. However nothing could be further from the truth, I was just having a much better day than my first one. We kind of ran together, our run/walk strategies were different but basically we were both doing the same overall pace. We continued together to CP3 and even stopped for a couple of pictures at the top of the El Abeth jebel shortly after the checkpoint. Very shortly after that Eric caught us up and the three of us ran together towards the finish. I was glad of the company as I wasn't feeling at my best by this point and having two of my tent mates with me kept me going faster and more consistently than I would probably have managed on my own.

We didn't quite arrive together as Darren couldn't resist a last minute sprint to pass someone he saw walking ahead of us. I definitely didn't have a sprint left in me so Eric and me crossed the line together about 30 seconds after Darren. We all went for the mint tea together and I reflected on how much better today had gone than yesterday.

I finished Day Two in 105th place moving me up to around 160th overall. It was now impossible for me to say for sure I'd lost time on Day One since if I'd run Day One faster I would quite possibly have been slower on Day Two. That's the thing about multi-day stage racing, you can't go through the results and try and add up all the time you lost to come up with the position you 'should' have finished, if you were quicker over the bit you 'should' have run faster you may well have been slower elsewhere.

Anyway I was back to where I wanted to be and most importantly I'd had a good day, could I keep that going for Day Three?...

Wednesday 27 April 2016

MDS 2016 - Day One

Finally the great day dawned. When the day dawns people start moving and unless you are a particularly heavy sleeper that's it for your night-time slumber, and even if you are a heavy sleeper the Berbers will come and take your tent away very soon so you might as well give in and get up  - so I did. Actually I'd been getting up quite a lot that night and whilst this could point to me being well hydrated I was slightly concerned that most of my water appeared to have gone straight through me rather than being absorbed - hence my comment at the end of my previous blog entry that I should have eaten more of my salt tablets.

Breakfast this time consisted of a couple of bars rather than ludicrous amounts of granola as in 2104, and seemed a little easier to get through. The next activity was yet another trip into the desert which indicated, as I feared, that I could be a little better hydrated. I immediately started drinking more water and Tent 137 set out for the first activity of the day, making the big 31.As an aside, I had a conversation with Darren later in which he mentioned making a big 31. As he is ex-military and my brain had switched off I thought '31' was the number of some sort of military procedure relating to something else entirely and hence the term 'making a big 31' assumed a completely different meaning for Darren and myself for the rest of the week. Anyway for those that aren't familiar with the rituals of the MDS, before the start of each race all the competitors have to go and stand inside taped off areas which form the number of that particular edition so the organisers can film us from the helicopter for the official pictures and videos. This was the 31st Edition hence we had to make a 'big 31'. This done we were free to sort of mill about aimlessly until the race briefing.

While milling aimlessly I spotted a group of Belgians. I hasten to add I wasn't trying to spot all 48 nationalities in alphabetical order. If I was then being at 'Belgium' would imply I'd already spotted Australia and Austria and probably decided there were no representatives of Azerbaijan present. No the reason I was interested in Belgians stemmed back to 2015 and the Lake Balaton Supermarathon. I think there were only two of us from the UK at that race and so we had found a very friendly group of Belgians to talk to, one of whom was entered into MDS 2016 (I wasn't at that point) and was very interested in talking to me about my experiences in 2014. We had stayed in touch and hence I was keen to meet up with him in the desert. The Belgians indeed knew my friend but the news wasn't good. Philippe had been ill the previous night and collapsed whilst making the aforementioned big 31. The medics had taken him away but it didn't look good for his MDS. I thanked his compatriots for the information and returned, slightly shocked, to my tent mates.

However there was no time to dwell on the misfortunes of others as Patrick was up on his Landrover and into his briefing. Edited highlights were translated into English for those of us that assumed all foreigners could understand English if it was said slowly and loudly enough and so didn't bother with foreign languages. Then we had the countdown and as 'Highway to Hell' boomed out we were off into Stage One of the 2016 Marathon des Sables!

The first three kilometres were fairly straightforward and I set off quite quickly in order to not have to overtake too many people when we all slowed up in the dunes. This was the day's first mistake... The going quickly got a lot tougher and slower as I entered the 12 kilometre crossing of the biggest dunes in Morocco - the Chebbi Erg. As I think I said  in the prologue, today was very similar to 2014 and so I should have known when to slow down. Instead I kept pushing until my heart rate got uncomfortably high and I had to slow down whether I liked it or not. By now I was going backwards through the field, my early folly was already taking its toll of both me and my position in the race.

After the dunes came CP1 and then it was just a bit sandy until it became a bit stony as I approached M'fiss. Last time I really liked M'fiss, it's an abandoned mining village which is slowly being reclaimed by the desert. The buildings are breaking down in a way which allows you to see how they were built and generally I think its an interesting place to see. Of course if there is a sandstorm going on you can't see much of it... The sand gave way to a strange purple dust. Some of you will know I wear purple calf guards and a buff so that anyone looking for me in the pictures and videos on the MDS website have a chance of picking me out from the hundreds of similarly dressed competitors. Well my calf guards and buff were now complemented by purple gaiters and a purple hat. I suspect the rest of me had a purplish hue too but it was the previously white hat and gaiters that stood out most.

After M'fiss was CP2. Then it was a sandy passage (a frequently mentioned hazard of the MDS) followed by a stony plateau and a gorge leading to.... some more dunes. There were only three kilometres but I was wrecked. My calves were cramping, when they weren't cramping they were aching and when they weren't cramping or aching they were deciding what to do next, cramp or ache.

Unfortunately Ian Corless was in the dunes. Ian is a lovely chap and a superb photographer - if you have looked at any of the pictures on the MDS website you have probably seen his work. The 'unfortunate' bit stems from the fact I do my level best to avoid being photographed walking and so, cramping, aching and just plain knackered, I had to muster one last burst of energy to run past Ian and pretend I was enjoying it (he wasn't fooled). I could see the finish from the dunes and staggered to almost the end where another of my 'rules' dictated I had to run the last bit across the finish line.

As you may have realised I didn't have a great Day One! I was dehydrated, I set off too fast and I think I was generally a bit too arrogant because it was 'only' 34 kilometres and I'd done it before. I finished the day in 234th place, not a disaster but I had been, I estimated, around 30 minutes slower than I 'should' have been if all had gone well. However at least I had finished and the highlight of the day was that, although Sultan Tea were no longer sponsors of the MDS, I still got a cup of hot sweet mint tea at the end of the stage. It may not sound great but strangely it goes down wonderfully after a run across the desert - well for me anyway. I collected my water and went back to Tent 137.

I was the fifth member of our tent back. Darren had had a simply storming day and was well up the rankings (I can't remember exactly where but I think top 100ish) and it looked like I was in a tent with some pretty quick runners. This wasn't entirely surprising as those of us from Druids had all been fairly close in pace and Eric had also beaten both Perry and myself at the St. Peter's Way Ultra - although we had no idea who he was or that he would become our tent mate at that time. I settled down in the tent and both my calves continued to cramp so I kept drinking and swallowing the salt tablets. Eventually the cramps subsided and I started to feel I was better hydrated. Hopefully Day Two would be better...