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....