The Call of the Desert


    Utter the infamous words the “Marathon des Sables” amongst the running community and it’s likely you’ll receive a mix of responses…

    a) OMG that race sounds insane. Why would anyone want to do that?!

    b) That sounds amazing but I’d never be able to do something like that.

    c) What a challenge. Maybe once in a lifetime…cue little glint in eye ;-)

    The concept originated from a solo traverse across the Sahara Desert by Patrick Bauer, a French concert promoter in 1984; two years later the Marathon des Sables was born with twenty-three runners. Fast forward thirty-three years nearly a thousand runners and walkers stood on the start line as ACDCs Highway to Hell boomed out across the desert earlier this month. Just for the record; Christian Ginter holds the highest number of completed MDS event - thirty-one!

    The Marathon des Sables has gained a notorious reputation, once described as “more hellish than hell” by Sir Ranulph Fiennes who’s tackled a fair range of epic challenges across the globe. The approximately 250km route changes slightly each year with six stages over seven days require participants to be fully sufficient excluding water and Bedouin “tent” (read blanket pegged down with a couple of pegs and held up by sticks) so pack weight can vary from 6.5 to 13.5 kg.

    BIG DREAMS

    Eighteen years ago, I encountered a collective of hobbling, broken runners at Gatwick Airport and discovered each had completed the equivalent of six marathons; in six days in the Sahara Desert. This physical and mental feat was literally beyond my comprehension, I’d yet to tackle a “normal” marathon in the UK, let alone an ultra or multi-stage event. In the past, my chequered teenage sporting achievements had been particularly minimal and PE lessons were avoided where possible. However, a seed had been planted and I’d wonder if I’d ever be a “good enough” runner to even dare to enter.

    Fast forward to 2015, after months of training in Riyadh, getting cosy with the kitchen scales weighing out rehydrated food and cutting the end off my toothbrush amongst other load lightening measures I was ready! Stood on the Marathon des Sable start line alongside over thousand ultra-runners from fifty different countries ACDCs “Highway to Hell” boomed across the desert. My BIG running goal had come true. The next seven days were hard. It was tough. Think “Type II Fun” that only becomes real with hindsight. Temperatures soared into the low 40OC. Sand storms appeared from nowhere so the tent collapsed for fifth time at 3am. Hunger is a constant friend as 2,000 calories/day fails to replenish energy consumed. Out on the course my world shrunk down to simply taking the next step.

    Despite the physical and mental hardship, it’s the friendship, laughter and collective sense of achievement that remains. I’ll never forget the sense of elation crossing the finish line each day; to place 2ndlady was the figurative cherry on top. Back to reality the predictable question crops up…will you go back?

    NEVER SAY NEVER

    Anna-Marie’s running ethos:

    #1 Have fun.

    #2 Discover new races.

    #3 Explore the world.

    #4 Don’t repeat races.

    #5 Have fun.

    The answer…was always a resounding “No”. However, sometimes life has other ideas. After placing 1stlady in the inaugural Half Marathon des Sables Fuerteventura in September 2017, rather ironically the prize was entry into the 33rdMarathon des Sables in April 2018. Much deliberation ensued though I finally opted to tackle the beast once again.

    It felt different stood on the start line second time. It’s impossible to pinpoint what had changed exactly. I’d done it before. Metaphorical bucket list ticked so I didn’t feel the need to repeat the process. Maybe a deeper residual fatigue remained from the previous seven months’ endeavours with Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, Half MDS and Trans Gran Canaria. I find the beauty of the unknown adds a different dimension. I knew I could and would complete the race.

    My favourite memory is from the long stage during that magical hour when day shifts to night. The shadows lazily lengthen across the dunes and the desolate splendour of the desert stretches into the distance. The relentless heat finally cools and a welcome breeze brushes across your skin. There’s still several kilometres that separate you from savouring the Moroccan sweet tea at the finish line and your sleeping bag though it’s within reach.

    At the core of the Marathon des Sables is an ethos of solidarity amongst the runners, volunteers and support from overseas. Time and time again I’m humbled by the inspirational stories which lie hidden behind a race bib number. The team of London estate agents on a mission to raise money to fund two MacMillan nurses for a year, bubbly Jenny back to lay her Long Stage demons at rest after a much feared previous DNF and kind-hearted Kerry who recently overcome cancer and the end of a relationship now determined to start a new chapter. It’s taking time for conversations, building new friendships and the deeper human connection amongst like-minded people that brings a smile to my face.

    Back home, Ben orchestrated a phenomenal campaign to share my progress across Facebook and Twitter. The response from across the world who kindly took the time to write a few words of support through the message system simply blew me away. It was the highlight of my day, tucked up in my sleeping bag with my feet up reading through these emails that were printed out and delivered to our tents each evening. Thank you.

    WHAT’S NEXT?

    This question inevitably crops up after every event, though for once my calendar is a blank canvas with the exception of a little 50km around Gozo to break Ben’s ultra cherry at the beginning of May. I suspect something will creep in towards the end of the year though for *now* I’m content to rest and relax to let my body and mind recover.

    If you’re vaguely tempted by the prospect though not quite ready for the Full Monty yet; the Half Marathon des Sables Fuerteventura is a stepping stone (and far more affordable!) that takes place at the end of September.

    #ultrarunning #goal #challenge #mindset #running

    © 2020 by Anna-Marie Watson

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