The gruelling Marathon des Sables almost did for James Cracknell last year, but that didn’t deter our man from following in his footsteps, he headed out into the desert and never once looked back.
words & photography: Jody Raynsford
The time is 10.30pm and I’m approaching kilometre 71 of the 82km long stage of the Marathon des Sables (MDS). On the move since 9.30am, my body is, quite justifiably, pleading with me to rest. The temptation is strong as I approach the final checkpoint where shelter is available should I choose to bed down, but I ignore the pleas of my body and with a new mantra in my head, ‘stick to the plan, Rayno, stick to the plan,’ I pass through the checkpoint with just 10km of rocky plain separating me from sleep...
Sticking to a plan is how I’d characterise my assault on the 2011 Marathon des Sables. After months of both mental and physical preparation, belief in my training plan paid off with Italian Job-like precision while the infamous race lived up to its well-earned, tough as nails reputation.
The first stage - ‘dune day’
After being handed our roadbook during the interminable six-hour journey into the desert, it became quickly apparent the unthinkable was going to happen with 13km of dune running scheduled for our first day; so much for a jaunty acclimatisation jog.
After days of packing and re-packing kit with OCD-like fervour, it was with trepidation that we lined up on that first morning to listen to race director Patrick Bauer’s innocuous pre-race briefing before the sounds of AC/DC’s Highway To Hell (the race’s unofficial theme) saw us off on our 150 mile journey.
Never let arrogance so much as creep into your thinking on these events. With a gentle crosswind brushing my face as I raced to the first checkpoint, the most dangerous of thoughts sauntered into my mind; ‘hey, this isn’t so bad’. Then I hit the dunes.
With the temperature rising and my pack creaking under the 11kg weight of a week’s worth of kit, 13km of soft, undulating sand felt like running through deep snow. When the dunes eventually spat me out the other side, I was cursing my earlier, hasty assessment. It was still day one and the ultramarathon gods had showered me with wisdom - show the course some respect.
Stages two and three
The sheer beauty of the desert lies in stark contrast with the challenge of running across its vast landscape, I found myself thinking this as part of a never-ending snake of runners diminishing into the horizon.
Despite my early chastisement, over the following two 38km stages, months of endless training came into its own. It became a mental checklist: when my body touched down on a soft sand dune, it ticked off the leg and core exercises I had been working on in the gym, when I found myself climbing a steep jebel, the hill work during my long runs were rewarded with a big fat gold star. Each part of my race-specific training achieved a goal that paid off in the field and my base of endurance that comes with spending hours on your legs made me thankful daily. I hate to say it, but I was almost enjoying it.
The long day
Yet, it was with a little hesitation that I awoke and prepared for what is certainly the toughest challenge of the MDS. The ‘long day’ sees competitors tackling 82km (51 miles) across a route that is just as tricky as previous days, through six checkpoints and partially in the dark. The race has a 34-hour cut-off time limit as many are unable to complete the distance in a day, but my aim was to finish as quickly as possible to guarantee a full day of recovery before the impending marathon stage.
I started pushing early on to get as far along the course before night fell, running as much as I could in the searing 50ºC+ heat. But finally a trail of faint luminous light sticks began to glow ahead of me, signalling dusk and eventual darkness, while behind the flickering of head torches reminded me of those who had yet to trace my steps. This small comfort didn’t last long and with only 10km to go the desire to stop and sleep was incredible, resulting in a constant battle with my brain to carry on.
On an endurance race as big as the MDS, you have a resource that few other races offer - other competitors. When I began to flag after checkpoint five, I was fortunate enough to fall in with two Brits, Richard and Philip, who provided much needed company and tempo to see me through my fatigue and help me into the final straight.
And so, two hours later and after 15 hours and 19 minutes of utter physical and mental exhaustion, I crossed the line and slipped into the bivouac, quietly fixing a meal before curling up for some overdue sleep. Contentment is most definitely sleeping bag-shaped.
For all but the elite, running the whole distance proves tough. The multitude of dunes, rocky surfaces, jebels and dried river beds makes any prolonged period of running exceedingly tricky, and, for me, frustrating. Marathon day offered a chance to pick up the pace, although I was mindful of pushing too hard; only a day earlier two of my tent mates, Paul and Phil, found themselves on saline drips in need of emergency hydration.
Phil, incidentally, ended up checking himself out of the medical tent - against the doctor’s orders - to then sprint 13km to the next checkpoint before the cut-off time, a seemingly reckless thing to do in normal circumstances. But these weren’t and it was perfectly indicative of the sheer determination that drives so many competitors in the race.
After a week in the desert my body was starting to suffer. Blisters that previously proved a minor discomfort became painful and the calorie deficit had made the hunger constant. Simply taking it easy on the final day would ensure I finished fine, but that would have been too simple among all this madness. As Highway To Hell blasted into the air for a final time, I threw caution to the wind in a sprint to the finish. It may have been only 17.5km, but the exertion of running faster made it just as hard a slog as any other day.
There was a palpable sense of relief when my feet touched tarmac in the dusty town of Tazzarine before crossing the finish line and receiving the trademark congratulations and medal from Patrick Bauer. It was a strangely unemotional moment, brought about, I think, by the fact I had visualised it so many times. ‘Mission accomplished’ rang in my head, along with the enduring satisfaction that my training had paid dividends.
There is a tendency for hyperbole when it comes to extreme running events, yet the sandy simplicity of ‘the toughest footrace on earth’ belies the truth behind the work that one must put in to meet the challenge of running the MDS. It is tough, satisfyingly so, and on those dusty plains and epic Saharan dunes we find what we’re truly capable of. Now my MDS goal has been fulfilled, however, it does beg the question, what the hell do I do next?