Running the Marathon Des Sables for The Urology Foundation
I was languishing in Baghdad last September, having completed my final run in the sun because I hoped not to have to return there for some time. I have subjected myself to running in 50-degree heat because, in a fit of madness and cabin fever brought on by a work trip earlier in the year, I signed up for the 2019 Marathon Des Sables (MDS).
For those of you who do not know, the MDS is what most sane people would label a challenge. It is a six day, 160-mile ultra-marathon, in the Sahara Desert. The longest day is a double-marathon, the shortest a single, and the terrain is undulating to say the least – so ends theory. You are required to carry all of your own equipment, survival kit and food for the entirety. You do not quite sleep under the stars, but the black tarpaulin propped up on sticks leaves little to the imagination…
Whilst training in the Iraqi mid-summer heat is good acclimatisation for a desert run, some of you may have been keeping up with the news of political unrest in the country and wondering if that presents a danger to running out in the open. In short, yes it does. However, whilst the general animosity towards westerners, mingled with the ready availability of legacy Soviet automatic weapons and Iranian made IEDs, did occupy my nerves during these runs; the true reason I kept my head on a swivel out there is for much more mundane threats. The treacherous combination of a lack of pavements and barely established driving regulations is particularly acute here. The aggressive, and often bigoted, nature of local guard dogs is also a concern. However, I will admit that the suspicion with which a runner should treat freshly disturbed earth – picking his way carefully – is probably the most alarming concern. Suffice to say most of my runs have provided for an engaging experience and breath-taking evening scenery.
Why would anyone torture themselves like this? I hear you cry. Firstly, it is useful to find ways to stave off that civilian body shape for another year. Secondly, I would like to do something useful for others before I am thirty. Therefore, I am going to run this hyper-marathon for charity. My main beneficiary will be The Urology Foundation (TUF), which some of you may know was very supportive of mum and I, in the wake of dad’s illness. They are the only UK charity dedicated to all urology diseases – while not the most glamorous of subjects – half of us will develop such a disease in our lifetime. Next summer will be the seventh anniversary of Dad’s death and, while I doubt you would ever have persuaded him to attempt the MDS, it does seem a fitting challenge to undertake in order to help raise funds in his memory.
I have set up my Just Giving pages, which can be found by clicking here. My target is at least £30,000, to make the investment cost worthwhile. You will find that there is a page for each charity ─ TUF and the Household Cavalry Foundation (HCF) ─ and I have decided to send 90% of funds raised to TUF and 10% to HCF. Therefore, if you are kind enough to donate, then please split your donation accordingly.
I have now moved to the USA to continue training. On my first morning, I went for a jet lag run up the other National Mall. When I reached the Lincoln memorial, I found a large group of runners who clearly had the same idea as me – stair sprints. These famous steps, as many of you will know, must be one-hundred feet wide, but all the runners were jogging up one side only in what resembled a large and congested conveyor belt. Not wanting to be constrained in a large pack I rationally decided to run up and down the empty side. The tutting began in earnest and I could feel the judgement at my back for my unwarranted display of initiative and self-preservation. My first lesson in the land of freedom was learned – go along, before you get along.
I am now running in my race shoes, which I was told need to be bought one and a half sizes too big, to accommodate for foot swelling in the Sahara. Recent training has proven that the American winter is not very conducive to training for the forty-degree heat of the desert. The above photo of a recent run in Philadelphia should help demonstrate this, but at least it allowed me to pose like Rocky. The more avid fans might have noticed that the statue is further away in my photo than the original… I would never want to pretend that Rocky could not make it to the top of the steps, but clearly to get the best no-filter snap, he decided not to.
My job here involves travelling nationwide for meetings and the frequent need to travel with hand luggage only has sometimes left me without the space for trainers. Resorting to occasional on-the-spot sprints in a hotel room, is often preferable to slipping down an icy Denver street. And with the heating turned up to full, you can even create a more realistic training environment than the one found outside. The first time I have braved the bracing air outside, I quickly realised that donning t-shirt and shorts whilst embracing the Army mantra of ‘be bold and start cold’ is less of a thing in Washington than Salisbury Plain and can be downright dangerous. I recently read an article by an MDS veteran, who described the strange looks he got from his fellow gym members whilst doing step-ups and sit-ups in a crowded sauna. I have not resorted to this yet.
As you can see from the photo, I am all packed and ready to go – I assure you that it costs a lot of money to look that ridiculous. Having actively avoided wearing any bum-bags or fanny-packs for all of my life, until now, training in the full getup has taken some getting used to.
I have spent the last three weeks in the Yorkshire Dales, courtesy of some very generous relations, trudging up and down the neatly kept tracks of the Catterick Garrison Army training area. The ability to go in a straight line for more than a few urban miles, without doubling back, has been a welcome change to the slippery streets of DC and Denver.
I have had to contend with the odd strange look from a uniformed soldier, passing in a Land Rover, who is not quite sure if my tattered old Army t-shirt and cheery officer-like ‘hello!’ constitutes official access permission to Ministry of Defence property. But, mostly, the military training I have come across is low-level and I can run past enjoying a lovely feeling of nostalgia without getting in the way. Only once did I decide to change my route, but choices are often limited when you accidentally run around a corner to find yourself uncomfortably close to a Challenger 2 Main Battle tank live firing range. At least it would have been a good anecdotal way to go.
As I come to the end of my training, it is enjoyable to consider how far I have come since my Iraqi initiation and jet-lag runs up the National Mall, last year. I have now finished the ‘impact’ aspect of training with five, twenty-mile, runs in a week. Now it is time to let my body rest and recover, before the off.
With its high water-table and March showers, the tropics of Yorkshire are still not quite an environment reflective of the Sahara. Neither is this realistically improved by running in thermal leggings, top and hat either. Therefore, to assist with heat acclimatisation, I have recently discovered the ‘delights’ and ‘mindfulness’ of Bikram Yoga. It turns out that not only is yoga even more difficult at over forty degrees, but it has also given my class a true insight into how inflexible it is possible for a human to be. Do not believe anything people say about the non-judgmental mantra of the discipline, I know the London Bridge centre can sense weak prey when they see it.
Before I fly to Casablanca this Thursday, I want to give you a quick reminder of what the ‘Toughest Foot Race on Earth’, apparently, entails. After a six-hour coach south-east towards the Algerian border, I and my running companions will reach the first ‘bivouac’. We do not know exactly where, because the race’s precise route changes every year to account for border disputes and local conflict – reassuringly unpredictable. From there we set off on Saturday 7th April. Over the next six days we will cover over one-hundred and fifty miles – every day is a marathon and one very long day is a double. You have to carry all of your own food, sleeping system and survival kit (about 12kg at the start). Water is rationed along the route. Each day tends to present a slightly different aspect of terrain, from escarpments and mountains to dunes and scrub… and they are all run in forty-degree heat!
If you want to track my progress, you can use the MDS Website. My race number is *|MMERGE5|* (I doubt the asterixis and parenthesises are required), but I will confirm it. You are even able to send me a message of encouragement, that I will get each evening, if you like. I am permitted to send one email each evening to one recipient, during the race. Therefore, I will send a daily report to my sister, Rose, who has kindly agreed to send it out so it can be added to this blog. If you do find yourself lounging at home in a week’s time, reading my exploits over a cup of tea, or a glass of particularly good wine, then I can help assuage your guilt at https://www.justgiving.com/teams/maples89-3. Some of you have already donated, for which I am exceptionally grateful, and often bowled by the level of generosity. I will write and thank you all individually after the race. For those who have left their donations anonymously, I appreciate your desire to remain unknown, but will not be able to write and thank you individually – save the trees.
Distance: 34km (22 miles).
Time taken: 5 hours – 11.5kg, plus water.
Ground: rocky and small scrub dunes – relatively flat.
After nearly 60 hours in Morocco, mainly briefings and faffing, we set off this morning on Stage 1 of 5.
Passing the start line to the power chords of Highway to Hell, with a Frenchman dancing on top of a Land Rover to our right, it felt more like Burning Man than the MDS. The energy was certainly infectious. Energy that got me all the way over the first proper hill (photo below) and to Checkpoint 1, which I actually entered wearing a smile.
I then ran to the next checkpoint with an old Army friend and current tent mate, Joe, which made the leg more than tolerable. We passed through one of the most remote looking settlements I have ever seen. A local ‘village’, where other runners were actually avoiding reciprocating the eager high-five offers from local kids from fear of contamination.
After Checkpoint 2 it became trickier. The balmy 25 degree morning breeze was replaced with the midday sun and a stagnant atmosphere. Despite lathering on factor 50 I am still pink. A surprise runny tummy in the small scrub dunes meant that I lost Joe until the finish – perhaps I should have avoided the local children?!
Instead, I found a new friend: Boris from Bulgaria. We played overtaking tag for most of the final leg. Finally, I crossed the finish line with Faris; a fellow DC resident who lost his leg serving with the Marine Corps and was using a bionic substitute. In my current fatigued state I cannot think of words worthy of that sort of feat.
Now back in my Berber tent, with a tepid sweet and sour chicken to keep me company and a lot of stretching do to. 22 miles down, 138 to go. Tomorrow is the same distance but more technical (I think that’s code for ‘difficult’).
Distance: 34km (22 miles).
Time taken: 6 hours – 10.5kg, plus water.
Ground: dunes – thousands of them.
Yesterday was clearly designed to lure us into a false sense of security. Before we set off this morning, a sadistic marshal gleefully told us that today was Dune Day. Normally reserved for later stages, on account of how much they wear out body parts, this year they had decided to move them forwards. The organisers’ fun did not stop there either, as today’s dunes are Erg Chebbie – the highest in the Sahara – and we were required to tackle 13 straight kilometres of them (the longest the MDS has previously attempted was seven kilometres). Last year 150 runners (15%) dropped out on Dune Day: so ends theory.
The experience was nothing short of horrific. It was of course also very beautiful, set amidst scenery usually reserved for the narration of Sir David Attenborough. However, this majestic effect quickly wore off and mostly it was just horrific.
For the uninitiated, allow me to paint the scene. Imagine a seemingly never-ending ridge and furrow field – except instead of ridges they are 50 to 100 feet high dunes and, instead of grass, it’s the finest sand you’ve ever seen (slippery). Also, instead of light British rain it is 40 degree midday Saharan sun, punctuated by aggressive sandstorms. Anyway, we finished; unlike the few poor cases we saw passed-out next to the course.
For those of you who have been in similar situations, you may have found that reoccurring thoughts help get you through such trials. I kept thinking back to that wonderful Bremner, Bird and Fortune sketch, where General George Parr enquires of his interviewer: ‘I do not know if this has been your experience too, but we in the Army have found that in the desert you can, at times, get large quantities of sand’.
After today, I am truly grateful for the company of Guillaume and Will (different companions) and for walking poles. For those of you who enjoy a hike in the Lake District, please feel free to broaden your horizons on the ultimate walking holiday. Eat your heart out, Theresa May. I certainly did not receive any premonition telling me to call an election on my return but, being away from news updates for the last three days, they may have already called one.
Anyway, I am now tucking into a cold mac ‘n’ cheese and preparing for tomorrow. Trying to ignore the tendinopathy in both knees and my flaring ankle. Approximately 50 miles downs and 100 to go. Getting through it!
Distance: 37km (25 miles).
Time taken: 6 hours – 10kg plus water.
Ground: Flat and beautiful with interspersed dunes.
‘What first attracted you to the desert?’ is disappointingly not a phrase I have yet heard whilst out here. Perhaps that is testament to the narrow film taste of ultra-marathon runners? However, it stuck in my mind today, as I passed a pile of spent energy gel wrappers flagrantly abandoned on the route. Perhaps Lawrence’s reply to the question has not dated well in this consumerist age?
On returning to our tent this afternoon, the first thing we all agreed is that today had been emotional. By now we are each carrying our own burdensome injuries, from blisters to strained tendons. For me, my ruptured ankle and patella tendinopathy returned with a scream during my second kilometre today.
These new injuries make it painful to walk, but agonising to run. Therefore, I have had to restrict the latter to stay sane and fit for the remainder of the week. However, I am not sure this mattered much to the Swiss man I startled by screaming an expletive as loud as possible after a particularly jarring step. Perhaps next time I should take out my headphones beforehand?
However, on today’s run it was hard to feel sorry for oneself for too long. Not only was the scenery varied, but it was also truly remarkable. Some was beautiful and some was strikingly sparse and barbaric. See below photo for an example of the small berm type dunes that wound their way down a scarred hillside like gnarled tributaries. For a few minutes this sight even managed to detract from the abnormally punishing heat.
The second reason for trying not to be too focused on my own problems can be found in the sheer array of competitors, their stories and how much perspective they lend. From the blind 50 year old woman, to the 84 year old, to the thousand marathon runner (he must get up very early in the morning), two veteran amputees, the runner with terminal cancer and the guy who broke his neck, back and skull: all of the above are still in the race. The phrase ‘we’ve all got problems’ is totally inapplicable out here.
Completion of today marks the halfway point – both in time and distance. Though I had hoped for a faster time, I am glad I have saved some energy for tomorrow, known as ‘The Long Stage’. In short, 76km in a maximum of 31 hours… but who want to stay out for that long?!
Distance: 76km (48 miles).
Time taken: 13h 45m – 9kg.
Ground: all types – scrub, Rocky, dunes, mountains, dried salt lakes and canyons
(Please excuse the standard of writing below – my state of mind is very not lucid)
‘The only easy day was yesterday’, is a phrase that does not apply to my yesterday. The MDS’s notorious ‘Long Stage’ is aptly named. It was my first ever marathon (not even my training regime had one)… and it was an ultra-marathon. And it was, expectedly, unexpectedly long.
The race organisers are clearly wise as to how few competitors are used to this race length. They seemed to be having endless fun trying to persuade me to either give up, or take a break. Although, I will admit that my dosage of codeine might have made these attempts seem more forceful than intended. The locals in dune buggies charging around the giant salt lake I was crossing, kicking up dust clouds in black helmets, were clearly trying to kidnap me to a welcome early finish. And the calming music, hot tea and deckchairs after dusk at checkpoint five were cruelly trying to tell me to put my feet up.
I and my two invalided and hobbling tent-mates started together. The idea was to power-walk the entire thing to conserve our injuries and ensure we could make it to the end of the week. Unfortunately, all our injuries and pacing were not in sync and we had to split. As the one in seemingly the least pain, I stretched ahead. After being guilt-tripped into giving one of my energy bars to a small local girl, I was furious to see her run off and give it to her old brother on a motorbike, smoking a cigarette: I really needed that bar! But nothing was going to get me down.
After some reflection at checkpoint one and some exaggeration of my own ability, I realised that the length of the long stage would skew the timings favourably for anyone who did well. Therefore, this was the day to make up rankings: I decided to go for it. I used a combination of running and power-walking as well as using cheeky navigation to take shortcuts (within race rules). This allowed me to keep a good finish time right up until checkpoint three – 24 miles. However, it turns out that 24 miles is only halfway on a double-marathon.
Between checkpoint three and checkpoint five things began to deteriorate. I was alone – not having a pacing partner makes thing much harder. I was tired. It was hot – too hot to sunbathe hot – and the painkillers were really beginning to affect my judgement, motivation and coordination. By now we had done more dune miles than on ‘Dune Day’ itself earlier in the week.
While I was pathetically trudging along at a worryingly slow pace, my saviours presented themselves in the form of three former army friends. They had been marching from the start line and had made their way up the pack (keep in mind that their marching pace is the same speed as average jogging pace). I joined them for the next 15 miles and immediately felt my motivation return. Though I had not ‘tabbed’ in a while, it soon came back to me.
I am sure we all know what it feels like to give your final burst of energy just before a finish line. Well, sprinting the final half-mile in the pitch black, over rough rocky ground, with my minuscule head torch light bobbing around pathetically, was an unforgettably exhilarating experience.
Getting in at 10pm even allowed me time to get some sleep. However, I did have to summon all of my diplomatic calm when the very French doctor refused to treat me because the time for walk-ins had ended five minutes before. The temptation to tell him to take off his yellow vest and get on with his job was resisted…
Today is a rest day and has been filled with some notable experiences. For one, everyone is hobbling around in flip flops, sporting strong sunburn and head covers – the whole thing resembles more of a heatwave Butlins, than the MDS. Food is now becoming scarce and prices on camp are beginning to resemble German hyperinflation in the 1920s. This deteriorated further when the hordes swamped the coca-cola truck, in a Lord of the Flies meets Black Hawk Down parody. Then we all had to assemble at the finish line to applaud the final runner over the line – 30 hours out. Personally, if I was last in, I’d rather slip into camp quietly, rather than have the whole camp turn out to remind me how long I had been running for. However, they seemed overjoyed at the welcome.
Anyway, I have to go for a blister airing session. Tomorrow looms. Final day. Marathon Day. 26 miles, over five jebels. Final stage. Nearly there.
In other news, a stray dog joined the MDS at Stage 1 and is still in camp, also preparing for tomorrow. They think he may even come in the top 20 and no one can work out where he is getting fed and watered.
Distance: 42km (27 miles).
Time taken: 5h 45m. Weight – 8.5kg.
Ground: mountains – sandy and rocky footing. Some dunes.
I am sorry for this late reply. I only landed back in the UK yesterday evening – I had run out of data in Morocco and there was no working WiFi in the self-acclaimed ‘five-star’ hotel we spent our final two nights in.
I finished the fifth and finally stage of the MDS on Friday afternoon. That is unless you count the compulsory group ‘Charity Stage’ to the coaches the next day – observe the irony of this at your leisure. The final stage was ‘Marathon Day’: 27 miles of mountains (or five jebels, to be precise). As we started three hours ahead of the top 150 runners there was a lack of trailblazers, the effect of which was immediately thrown into relief as we crossed the start line and took two wrong turns in the first two miles. To avoid having my navigation skills scrutinised any further I hung back with the relaxing sounds of Spotify’s ‘Easy 90s’ playlist for company.
However, as I approached the first jebel – which looked like a sheer cliff face and must have been over 1000 feet high – the famous Oasis tune reminded me that I saw nothing wondrous about the approaching wall and the multitudes that I would be climbing it elbow-to-elbow with. I tried to jump ahead of the pack to avoid the falling rocks dislodged from those above. Grabbing hold of the rope banister installed in the steepest section for support turned out to be a display of false security as any of the twenty others grabbing the ropes to pull themselves up higher meant it slackened horribly, forcing the rest of us off-balance over a very high drop.
Anyway, we overcame the first jebel and the dunes that followed (and the dried salt lake, and the rocky twisted ankle territory, and the next four jebels too) before a stark realisation came over me – I was enjoying myself. I am sure other members of the ultra-marathon community had been masochistically enjoying themselves all week, but this was new for me. I had a huge amount of energy and had almost forgotten about my knackered ankles and screaming knees. This was until we crested the final and toughest mountain, when I was simultaneously overcome by the most diametrically opposed emotions I think I will ever feel: on the positive side, glinting in the distance, was the finish line; however, before it lay at least five miles of fine sand that I thought would probably rupture my achilles tendon. Also, it was at this point I realised that the final jebel I was now atop of was an unnecessary one (I could have skirted around half of the base and come into sight of the finish line without having to climb it). I was furious; but thankfully no one else seemed to have realised the skirting option in time either.
The final five miles of sand was a real stretch and I walked for the first time that day. However, after five hours and forty-five minutes I crossed the line! Over the final half-mile I debated what pose to pull across the line – from jumping to punch the air, to using my poles to resemble a ski-school armadillo – the possibilities were endless. In the end I opted for a graceful swanlike pose, with my arms and poles stretched behind me like a delta. Unfortunately, I had misjudged the proximity of the camera crew and medal awards table which I careered into without being able to stop in time…
Anyway, I was done. Jumping up and down ahead was my friend Kate, happy in equal measure that she had finished and had pipped me by a few places in the process. She deserved it! Even further ahead of us was the aforementioned dog, now named Cactus (see below), who was now sporting a tracking tag around his collar and, as the first dog to complete the MDS, was basking in the glow of his upcoming interview with the New York Times. For the next few hours we hung around the start line, watching friends cross and marvelling at how much longer female competitors were hugged and kissed by the old Frenchman – Patrick – whose brainchild the MDS is. A man not lacking in confidence.
By the next evening we had arrived in Ouarzazte – The Gateway to the Sahara – where I could settle into more familiar activities like ordering cocktails by the pool, booking hammams and haggling in the Bazaar.
Now it is time to thank you all for your tremendous support before and during the race. I have been overwhelmed by the eye-waveringly generous level of donations, large and small. I will personally thank all of you who left names with your donations. As for those selfless few who chose to remain anonymous, I will respect this. The total now exceeds £30 000 for TUF and the HCF. I will keep the JustGiving page open until the end of June for those of you expecting a summer bonus. If you would like to make a donation later than this date, or would rather send a cheque, then please message me directly for details.
You should all know that none of this would have been possible without my corporate sponsors’ support. Bicester Village – please think of them next time your wardrobe needs updating, or you want to brush up on your Chinese. My own company, TurnKey. Please think of us next time you are in a tricky spot somewhere sandy, or remote, and need any enabling services.
Thank you also to Roger Kirby, and the team at TUF for their drumming up of donors. And to Giles Stibbe and the HCF for the kind advice and support
Finally, a large public thank you to Rose for filling in as my PA last week.
But how was it for the family? Jane Corbin, Tom’s Mum, provided the following insight:
‘Amazing but scary to watch – via Toms satellite shoe tracker – his painful progress on Day 2 (‘Dune Day’). I could visualise him wading in sand for mile upon mile!’
‘The double-marathon day (Stage 4) was hardest for us back at home as we wondered how on earth would Tom survive the heat and relentless pace! I was so proud of him when he made it in an incredible 13.5 hours but, as we didn’t hear from that night, we were all so worried to find out if he was OK (or would ever walk again)!’
‘The last day I was so excited I couldn’t concentrate on anything but tracking that little white symbol marked 510 as it crawled towards the finish. I missed Tom crossing the line despite being glued to the YouTube live feed and there was a moment of panic – had he collapsed? Then the joy and incredulity to know he had done it. His Dad would have been so proud of Tom!’