If they asked everyone to walk with their arms stretched in front of them, day five in the Marathon des Sables camp could easily pass for the set of a zombie movie. After 180-odd kilometres, bodies are creaking. Feet are blistered: blistered on blisters. Shoulders are raw. IT bands are groaning. Quads are straining. Achilles tendons are tight. Mine are so tight that I have to spend the first hour of every day walking on tiptoe which, wearing the lightweight hotel slippers that most competitors choose for camp footwear, a filthy sports bra and salt-stiff running tights, is quite a sight to behold.
Welcome to the Marathon des Sables, affectionately dubbed ‘Le Cirque’ for good reason.
FRIDAY 4th APRIL
This is it. After almost two years of preparation the UK competitors head for Gatwick to catch glamorous Monarch charter planes bound for the desert. At check-in, everyone is cheerfully sizing each other up. I was expecting an intimidating field of Übermensch but it’s comforting to see a whole range of shapes and sizes, from steely athletes to matronly women, skinny waifs and fresh faced students. Actually, a lot of short people. A reaction to Small Man Syndrome?
Dad and I had taken the challenge on together. We knew another friend – Nats – was competing and had trained with her. We’d befriended a couple of fellow Bristol competitors, Chris and Tom, in advance and had been instructed by various friends and colleagues to look out for other people also desert-bound. While having coffee at the airport, I run into one of my sister’s colleagues who happens to be sharing both a tent and a surname with one of the Bristol gang. It’s a small world, the Marathon des Sables.
The atmosphere on the plane is one of excitement, but you can sense underlying tension. Naturally. Whatever your approach, this is the hardest event that most of us have ever undertaken. Every one of us has dedicated hours of time to running, hiking, lifting weights, bikram yoga, core strength, heat chambers, sauna sessions – you name it. Families and friends have been neglected, replaced with kit preparation, medical certificates, physio appointments and early nights.
As we cross into North Africa, the Atlas mountains rear up, snow-capped at their peaks and majestic. Just before landing, we pass over what looks like a river, but closer inspection reveals it to be acres of date palms and agriculture plots contained within the boundaries of an occasional riverbed.
We arrive in Errachidia at about 5pm, local time. Patrick Bauer – founder and kingpin of the MdS – is at the airport to greet everyone with a kiss. We’re funnelled onto buses where for some reason we sit for an hour and a half. Luckily we’re given a packed lunch (organised by the French and therefore supreme) and the race roadbook to pass the time. This details everything that you could want to know about the route and safety procedures in the event. As a vaguely prudish Brit, I’m relieved to read:
“To give women, and women only, the possibility of a little more privacy in their daily ablutions, cabins will be installed around the bivouac. Because of the numerous cultures and nationalities involved in the Marathon des Sables, it is important and legitimate to create spaces, however modest, away from potential prying eyes.”
Sitting around also gives us time to study the field. Behind every pair of sunglasses people are surreptitiously sizing each other up. One man comes out of the airport dressed as a huge panda. No no, it’s a cow. That’s going to be uncomfortable.
The transfer to the first bivouac is just less than two hours. The convoy of coaches marches through dusty Morroccan towns as the sun dips below the horizon and we get our first glimpse of the incredible Saharan stars.
Unfortunately that also means we arrive at the camp under cover of night. We’d arranged to share a tent with Nats and five others: Team Escobar on account of their being medics armed with vast quantities of prescription drugs. But there are 147 tents arranged in three, giant, concentric circles. After dragging our wheelie bags over stony, dusty ground around the perimeter periodically bleating names and breaking out the A-level French to ask how we can locate our tent (answer – we can’t), we install ourselves in at tent back near the start. Already resident are three cheerful Irish friends and a French-Canadian husband and wife from Saudi.
SATURDAY 5TH APRIL
The day of queues.
We locate our original tent just a few doors down but the one over the way only has two occupants so, after weighing up spaces versus warmth, we jump ship and set up a splinter camp. It may seem trivial, but tent groups are an important part of the MdS. Although the camaraderie around the camp in general is incredible, these are the people who will witness your deepest pain: the highs, the lows, the shredded feet, the jokes, the confusion. This is where your emails – lifeline to the outside world – will be delivered. We’re just lucky that we now have three other tents that we can go a-visiting come evening.
We queue in the heat to get our passports back. We queue for water. We queue to have our kit checked, ECG certificates approved and salt tablets and emergency flare issued. By early afternoon we’re in our race clothes and everything left in our bags we’ll have to carry for the next week. Mine weighs in at just over 9 kilos which with mandatory kit (road book, flare, salt tabs) and water will be close to 11. Hefty, especially with a weakened post-fracture shoulder.
The organisers drive a big sound system into the middle of the camp and play music all afternoon as people lie around in the tents or go for jogs towards the start line. (Nutters.) Some have stripped down and are sunbathing. They’ll live to regret this. At 4pm, Patrick calls us over for a briefing. We’re told that 44 nationalities are competing. The youngest is 16 and the oldest is 76. He also tells us that he’s changing the time zone. Morocco minus one. Which effectively means that every day will be an hour hotter. Thanks. Doesn’t seem to be any real reason why.
Catering is provided for the last night before we go self-sufficient. This being a French operation, we head over to the tent for a fantastic spread of salad, bread, cheese, spaghetti Bolognese, wine and beer. In the queue, I get talking to some competitors from Reunion and Southern France. One tries to tempt me into marriage with inducements of a mountain home and a lifetime’s supply of fois gras. Another tells me of an 180km ultramarathon around Reunion. Let’s get this one out of the way first.
SUNDAY 6TH APRIL – DAY 1 – 34km
At 6am, water is distributed. At 6.05am staff are taking our tent down. At 6.30am one is crushing a camel spider that had been hiding out under the mat. Poor spider. We force down breakfast of porridge and head for the start line.
People are pissing everywhere. You can’t walk more than 50m without stumbling over someone answering the call of nature. It’s something you get used to.
There’s a photo op for the helicopter cameras before the start so we’re channelled into pens shaped like a giant ‘29’ before amassing on the start line. Patrick gees everyone up by making us sing Happy Birthday to all those celebrating their birthday (he does this every day) and dance to ‘Happy’ before starting us over the line to ‘Highway to Hell’ (he also does this every day). I’m emotional as I trot over the line for the first 3km over the plain. A wave of adrenaline washes through me. It’s the point of no return. The culmination of months of effort, several injuries and enormous support from friends and family at home.
Here goes nothing.
We head for a dune field. Morocco’s highest, as it turns out. 12km of them. And it’s hot – at least 40 degrees. From a vantage point at the top we watch as a trail of human ants stretches out in front of us. It’s quite something.
There is a windswept crust on top of the dunes. If you can find a bit that hasn’t been trodden by hundreds of pairs of feet already, it’s much easier work but I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s not softer, energy draining sand. Dunes are the only section that aren’t way marked by bright pink spray paint so a dune buggy with two volunteers is positioned in the middle. “Which way?” I ask. “That way is 1km longer,” she says, pointing straight ahead. We follow the dwindling line of people bearing to the left.
Many people are already struggling. The heat is draining and dunes are a particularly dastardly start. I chat to a Japanese competitor, Rena, and two Brits wearing pin tutus who are raising money for a hospital unit that looked after their friend whose head was crushed by a telegraph pole and went on to make a full recovery.
At checkpoint one we pause to collect our water, have some food and to cool down. People are already filling the medical tent: I can see naked feet being proffered to doctors and runners holding their heads in dehydrated, vomiting pain. We continue along a wadi up over a small pass with an abandoned village and down into another dune field, encountering another father-daughter duo, Richard and Helen, on the way. Richard has done the MdS before and is enormously proud of his 38bpm resting heart rate. It’s Helen’s first attempt.
As we enter the dunes, casualties are lying on the ground with alarming regularity. A number of flares go up. It’s like the Hunger Games. I have to say I’m surprised. I thought it would be a process of attrition. All these people are well prepared and fit, and yet the in-field medical staff are dishing out anti-sickness pills, salt tablets, emergency bottles of water (for which there is a penalty) at every turn. Today feels a lot like a battlefield and we’re delighted to see the inflatable finish line appear on the horizon.
As we do so, we find Richard and Helen. Richard is in a bad way, bent over vomiting, and Helen’s understandably upset. The heat has got to him. I pour the precious little water that’s left in my bottle over his neck but Dad’s struggling too and I have to carry on with him. I hate leaving them.
Back in camp, I can’t put my bag down fast enough. I’ve definitely bruised my shoulders, the muscles over the top are sore and I have two lines of heat rash that match the straps. This is just day one. Ulp. But it’s amazing what a little restorative sleep can do for you. In camp bedtime is about 8pm for most. Once dinner has been rehydrated and the sun has set, it’s lights out.
MONDAY 7TH APRIL – DAY 2 – 41km
It’s a long boring start to today. Flat stony plain with a long line of competitors filing across. At checkpoint one I manage quite a sprint… but only because I’m busting for a wee and I’ve spotted a clump of trees at the edge of the village. At this stage I’m still a bit prim about toilet breaks. That will pass.
Some kids are hanging around at the checkpoint talking to the competitors. As there are only 160 women in a field of just over 1,000 runners, many of whom are wearing lycra, they’re quite taken with the ladies. They’re sweet. The boys ask questions in Arabic, French and broken English. “The race is very hard,” they say; “you are very strong. Bon courage.”
It’s a lovely snapshot of rural Moroccan life, though a Swiss guy I talked to later that day told me that other kids had been begging for sweets and calling runners gypsies. The girls waves shyly and say “bonjour”. The gents sit under the shade of trees watching with what looks like admiration. We pass through their village and on over another plain – searing hot and peppered with low-thorny bushes. There’s another dune field before the next check-point and everyone is feeling the burn on this stage so when a Japanese competitor up ahead summits a dune and announces ‘check point two!’ at the top, we’re ready to kiss him.
A small oasis (where locals offer us water from their spring), a steep jebel climb and another soft wadi lies between us and the finish line. It’s viciously hot and we’re drinking all the water that they give us, using time to gauge how much we should have drunk. Monitoring your water and food intake is critical to success. There’s no point waiting until you’re thirsty or hungry – you’ll never make it up. You’re burning 5,000 calories a day and eating just over 2,000. There’s no picnic lunch. We need to eat little and often while we’re on the move – pork scratchings (scavenged from those jetting weight from their bags after day 1), nuts, pepperami bars, Haribo and flapjacks and are my nibbles of choice and I need to have something every hour.
We walk the final few kilometres to the finish line rounding a hill alongside Odile. She’s blind and is completing the course with a guide. The terrain is rocky and soft. I often see her kicking stones as she steps. I can’t imagine how bruised her feet are. I’m enormously impressed.
We get the opportunity to send one email a day from a solar-powered email tent. In the email queue later that night, I learn that another guy running has terminal cancer and got permission from his doctor to stop chemo so he could compete. He’s taking mule-strength tablets while he’s here. The Swiss guy I talked to earlier is competing for the second time – there are a number of repeaters. He’s already lost all of the skin on his heels and every step feels like he’s shearing flesh off. He does it to understand the pain that his daughter, who has been undergoing chemo for ten years, is going through. Another, Ian, is carrying a fencing sword the whole way. Just two years ago he lost the use of his arm in a car crash. It’s coming back and so is he. I’m humbled to be among such determined people. It’s invigorating to be part of them.
But while many here can drive themselves on through the most horrific pain, it’s important not to lose sight of the danger. The camp rumour mill goes into overdrive when we get back. A British competitor has been airlifted out to hospital with a core temperature of 42 degrees. He’s literally cooking.
TUESDAY 8TH APRIL – DAY 3
Many, many more dunes today and Big Len is getting pissed off at the sand. It was preferable to the rocky 12% jebel that we had to climb though. Sand might drain your energy but at least on the plain there’s a chance of a breeze. There isn’t here. Pa is struggling with the climb in the heat, with the bag, but stopping is no reprieve. It’s baking. We have to press on to the top. Another field of dunes opens up beyond but at least there’s a breeze.
When we finally reach the next checkpoint, funnelled in to channels to collect our water rations and get our cards punched, I ask the volunteers what the temperature is. “Forty-two,” they tell me, and it feels like blessed relief after the dunes we’ve just come out of.
We descend another field of dunes in the company of Luke, who is suffering with ITB bands and crunching paracetamol like sweets – only low dunes but it’s 2pm and by this stage of the day everything is fully heat charged; it feels like a slow cooker – we cross a wide, baked plain. Pa is suffering but unbowed. He’s not built for the heat.
There are competitors ahead, there are competitors behind, but all we can hear is the scuffing of feet as we trudge along, absorbed in our own thoughts. Behind us, someone starts to make choking sounds. It sounds like he might be sick, one of the more serious signs of dehydration. I double back to check if he’s ok. “Ca va, Michel?” Names printed on everyone’s number are a great help. Strings of spittle are hanging from his gaping mouth. I’m not sure if he even heard me. “Ca va?” But Michel is in his own private world of pain and we need to press on ourselves. It doesn’t stop me turning to check on him every few hundred metres.
Medics are patrolling in 4x4s checking on people, engaging them in conversation and making sure everyone is OK. Competitors are looking out for each other too. I never feel unsafe.
Dad is flagging and so I rouse his spirits with a round of ‘Jerusalem’. The birds fall silent so I leave it at one rendition. It’s just one crenellated hill until we see the glorious arch of the finish line and I’ve still got enough energy to manage a run across the line.
As we collect our camp rations of water I spy some guys some 200m away from the camp. Stark-bollock naked having a strip wash. Bit of a treat for the ladies. Ablutions are creeping closer and closer to the tent as the week wears on. Women and blokes alike barely go 10m beyond the last tents any more. We wake up in the morning to the same lovely vista: a line of people peeing.
WEDNESDAY 9TH APRIL – DAY 4 – 81.5km – THE LONG DAY
This is the day that I’ve been afraid of. I know that I can cover 50km in a day – I’ve done it in training. I know I have to be careful to eat and drink plenty to avoid nausea. But I’ve never done this distance. I sit lost in my own thoughts (quietly shitting myself) on the mat as the tent is collapsed around us, gazing out into the desert. I don’t feel like idle chat this morning.
Dad taps a camel spider out of his shoe before putting them on. I’m glad that he remembered to knock them.
The day starts across a flat plain, unnervingly towards a steep-sided ridge leering up in front of us. The route takes us up a steep sand and scree slope which narrowed into a rocky gorge with 30% incline and rope section where scrambling is all that’s possible. Rocks are bouncing down where they’ve been dislodged by competitors carving their own route. Two people have their hands crushed as we wait. We’re nervous. We want to get the hell out of that gorge; you should be careful what you wish for.
On the other side lies a field of soft dunes followed by two dry lakebeds. We reach these at noon. So do the top 50 runners who have been held back for three hours today. Watching them run past is incredible. They appear to float over the ground. Rocks don’t bother them; they never stumble. They’re running a consistent 8 minute mile or faster. The searing temperatures are in the high 40s. It’s so hot that your sweat evaporates as soon as it hits your skin. By the afternoon the ground is superheated and bouncing back at you. Only your back is soaked with sweat, where your backpack traps. We’re not even half way.
As night falls, we descend a ridge. If you stop to look around, it’s beautiful. Black-tinged rocks are bursting out of the flat plain; wind-carved bowls are glowing orange in the sunset. We descend onto… soft dunes (leading to some ribald language from Len), which lead into a 20km river bed of soft sand. Joy.
At the last checkpoint we were all issued with glow sticks. The only things marking the way are the green blush of marker glow sticks, a soft yellow snake of glow sticks carried by every runner, and the pool of light cast at their feet by their head torch.
We stop at checkpoint 4 for some energy food – chocolate flavoured, high calorie gruel – and that’s the last time we sit down. Although you have 30 hours to finish this stage, you’re still against the clock if you stop to rest, besides which night-time is mercifully cool compared to the day. The moon is bright – and huge – and is ringed with a rare halo.
The hours blend together. We’re focused only on making it to the next checkpoint. It’s funny. You live for the next checkpoint but pass through it as quickly as possible to get to the next. We’re shuffling silently along. I speak to a few people I’ve come to know along the way, but as tiredness sets in, I have no brain capacity for small talk.
After the last checkpoint, we’ve been awake for over 21 hours and on our feet for 20 of them. My left Achilles is hurting and my little toes have an odd squishing sensation with each step. And I’m starting to stagger a bit. With 5km to go, all I want to do is sit down, but I don’t want to stop. Stopping means starting again tomorrow in the heat of the day. Stopping means slipping down the field. No, I don’t want to stop.
We press on. My mind starts to play tricks on me. Peering through the gloom for the steadily dimming glow sticks, I see a Scout mistress waving people to the left. The proportions are all wrong and I know its my brain but I can’t shake her. Suddenly I’m talking constantly to reassure myself of what’s real and what’s not. Rounding a corner, the terrain changes.
Suddenly we see the inflatable arch of the finish line. Hallelujah! I pick up the pace. I’ve been fantasising about unfurling my sleeping bag for the last three hours. But you can see a long way on the plains of the Sahara and while it appears tantalisingly close, it still takes us close to 45 minutes to get there.
Just before, we encounter a puddle. A puddle, in the middle of the desert? It’s the only water we’ve seen and will see. It has a plank across the middle of it. A boy dressed in dark clothes comes out of the shadows pointing across it and saying “this way” before shrinking back into the dark and I swear I’m going mad but I step in some mud and have to inch across. I strain to see the finish line. Is… is that a man sweeping? No. Yes. It bloody is. A man sweeping the desert in front of the line at 5am. They’re messing with my mind.
Apparently the course has been specifically designed to be psychologically demanding, lifting you up then dumping you down. I can believe it. I can’t help think that sweeping man is another component of the psychological warfare being waged on competitors. Since the race was crowned ‘the toughest footrace in the world’ others have sprung up that are as, if not more, challenging. The organisers have a reputation to preserve and the record numbers of drop-outs this year are testament to their efforts.
After just over 20 hours on our feet, we stumble over the finish line. I’m so tired that all I can think of is lying down, but I notice that one of the guys helping at the finish line is one of the top ten runners. It’s just pre-dawn. That is super nice of him. Apparently the fast guys are as impressed by the slower folks being out on their feet in the heat for so long as the slow guys are impressed that the fast guys can go that fast.
THURSDAY 10TH APRIL – DAY 5
I wake up after a couple of hours sleep when the heat makes it too unbearable to be in a sleeping bag. Everything below my knee is swollen. I’ve got kankles. My heels hurt and I’ve got some mild blisters that need popping, draining and treating. Achilles are so swollen that we have to walk on tiptoes for the first hour of the morning until we limber up. Blisters have appeared on blisters. We’re exhausted and we’re dirty.Surprisingly, I don’t feel too shattered but I am ravenously hungry and immediately raid the bag to see what rations could be attacked early. I’m munching on macadamia nuts and jelly sweets by 10am.
Next: foot examinations. The long day has taken its toll. Mine aren’t too bad. I’ve got small blisters on the inside of my big toes, but they’re deep so I leave them. The ones on my little toes are impressive but are restored with the help of a needle, thread and tea tree oil. Dad isn’t so lucky. He’s got massive blisters on the inside of both heels, some on the tips of his toes and some on the sole where it meets the toes. I get to work with the needle. It’s infinitely less fun on someone else.
My shoulders and heels are my biggest complaints. My delicate lady frame is not built for carrying bags; I have neither the strength nor the cushioning. I’d spent a good two weeks ahead of the race eating like a squaddie in attempt to lay down some fat reserves. For the first few days the love handles were taking some of the pressure from the hip straps, but I can feel those reserves have vanished and now it seems like a thin callus is starting to form.
Our tent mates are all home by mid-morning. We’re now firm friends. James is by pure fluke a university friend of my housemate. He claims to hate people, broke his sleeping bag zip on day 1 and has a brilliantly dry sense of humour. And his feet are buggered. I’ve never seen such buggered feet. One wrinkled flap of skin covers the ball of each foot. His heels are covered in a red, iodine-like solution that Doc Trotter is dousing every sore with. He starts fashioning doughnut-shaped bandages like giant corn plasters for his soles, to relieve some of the pressure on the most tender spots. I’m frankly amazed and very impressed that he’s moved so far on them.
Steve is into sustainability. He’s an innovator, constantly cutting up bits of water bottle and kit to make something useful: insoles for James’ shoes from his sleeping mat, a washing machine (two parts of a water bottle fitted together: enclose a tiny bit of water, the sordid item and a soap leaf: shake. Et voila!), clothes pegs…
Lying in our tent – we watch as competitors continue to drift in throughout the day. Whenever you see someone walking past still wearing their bag and carrying three bottles of camp-ration water, a ripple of applause breaks out. It doesn’t matter what pace you complete the course; everyone knows the highs and the lows, the pain, the grit required to simply keep going.
Camp is awash with people lurching, staggering and heaving themselves over the sand under the blazing sun. Many of them wearing only underwear in a bid to keep cool. That’s quite weird, watching people strut around in their scuds. I know altogether too much about some of these people.
Nats drops by to visit. She’s a very good runner and we’ve been basking in her glory. Today she’s 8th placed female and likely to stay there. We’re delighted. But she also binned half of her food on day 2 as her bag was too heavy. Now she’s starving, so we dig around looking for spare supplies. Her reward? An extra shepherd’s pie, some cooking tabs and a flapjack.
At lunchtime, with the temperatures soaring, I manage a nap for an hour or so until I wake with my head dripping with sweat. That’s novel. Every other day it’s evaporating pretty much before it hits the skin.
A volunteer, Jay, comes over with our emails and some information for the day – the highlight of every day, let me tell you. It’s so nice to know of the wonderful support we have from home. Last year over 40,000 emails were distributed. This year it looks like more. We need to go and swap our numbers for fresh ones in the middle of the camp he tells us. It’s a ruse. A ruse of the best kind. When we shuffle over we are given a can of coke. Cold! It’s never tasted so good.
Today is the first day that I’ve had water to spare. Every other day I’ve used every last drop to drink, make food or clean my teeth. Wemmi wipes have had to suffice for cleaning. So to treat myself I’m going to have a wash. A wash!
He stabs a few holes into the lid of a water bottle to create a shower with the precious half litre of water I’ve allocated. I head for the ‘special lady tent’ armed with bottle, soap and fresh t-shirt. It amuses me that this special cabin – a frame of old advertising hoardings with a crate to stand on – exists, what with the number of naked blokes out in the desert and how many times I’ve got my arse out on the course. Still. Don’t want to show everyone the goods. Once stripped down I discover that I’ve brought the wrong bottle. Tits. But even without the ‘shower’, I can’t tell you how good it feels to be clean. Ish.
At around 4pm, volunteers drive around the camp with a megaphone announcing that the last runner will be arriving in 20 minutes. They have to allow this to give enough time for the walking wounded to stagger over to the finish line. It’s customary for all the runners to cheer the last man in on the long day. It’s a lovely tradition. We all duly head over. It’s a bit of a fiesta actually. If you make it through the long day, you start to believe – allow yourself to believe – that you might actually make it to the finish line, certainly not a given at any time. These last hikers complete our cohort for tomorrow’s final attack on the finish line.
Two Japanese competitors wearing wigs come in to rapturous applause and a kiss from Patrick. They showboat for the live webcam and enjoy their moment of fame. We’re all grinning, cheering and enjoying. They’re followed by the poubelle chameaux (rubbish camels) and their driver that bring up the rear. Everyone is on such a high that they pick up the camel driver – wearing the orange puffer jacket that he seems to wear whatever the temperature – and throw him in the air. He loves it.
I had some cocodamol left in my bathroom cupboard from my shoulder fracture and on a whim had thrown it into my bag as I was packing in case my feet had turned into the horror cases I’d seen online. I was lucky, but James was hurting. So was Pa, so I split the supply between the two of them to get them through the last day. Last year more than 6,000 pain killers were distributed. Everyone’s on them. I lob a few paracetamol down me for the hell of it.
FRIDAY 11TH APRIL – DAY 6 – 42.4km
There’s a buzz about the camp. It’s the last day of competition. Runners hobble over to the start line for our daily performance of Happy Birthday, Happy and Highway to Hell.
For the second time, I’m emotional going over the start line. My eyes are brimming with tears, but I’m grinning. My heart feels like someone has a fist around it and my scalp is tingling, because, for the first time, I’m pretty sure that I can do this.
Today the top 200 runners are held back for an hour and a bit. We plod onwards to checkpoint one. The course is a runner’s course – flat and fairly straight. The leaders pass us near checkpoint one and they’re flying. Nats is among them so I keep looking back for her, bellowing her name when I finally see her turquoise top. I run alongside her for a short way. She seems comfortable and strong which keeps us going.
Wadi has become a swearword and there are a fair few of them today. After passing several cumin farms with labourers standing and watching in bewilderment as we go by, we have to tackle another sandy wadi followed by a short, rocky climb to a jagged plateau. It seems to go on forever, but then we descend a narrow gorge into a little oasis with a smallholding farming. Just before we round the corner we hear a patter of applause. As we round it, we see Mum, Becci, Steve and Pete, our support party. To say we’re overjoyed would be an understatement. I leave Pa standing and race down to them for stinky hugs. They’re bravely trying to hold back tears but it’s been an emotionally week for everyone – worriers as much as participants – so there are wet eyes all round.
It’s just the boost we need to keep us going to the finish line where we’ll see them again. We’ve got another [pissing] wadi to navigate, a hill to climb and a small field of dunes (of course) in our path. We stick to the side of the riverbed in search of harder sand and trek in silence. Some French women near us comment on the birds in the bushes: it’s been a while since we’ve seen much wildlife.
At the top of the plateau with 2km to go, the guy up ahead of us simply stops and holds his poles above his head. “Can you see it?? Can you see the finish line?” He turns. He nods. “Yes! Halle-freaking-lujah!”
We arrived as a team, and we’re going to finish as a team. Dad’s feet are sore. I know he’s hurting. Some runners who have already finished are sitting on a dune just to the left of the finish line. “Sprint finish!” they yell. I start to, before checking myself. It’s not fair to run in without Pop. But as I turn around to look at him, I see he’s burst into a gallop. He must be in so much pain, but adrenaline dulls all of it. I join him and we run the last 100m to the finish line. Patrick is on the line giving every runner a kiss and their medal, as is his custom. A few happy tears leak down my face.
We grab a sweet tea and head for our supporters, gabbling constantly. After putting our bags down, we rejoin them on the finish line to cheer some others in. Pa needs to visit Doc Trotter’s to get his feet seen to so we part company and plan to rejoin at the awards ceremony in a couple of hours.
The docs are operating a ticket system, a lot like the deli counter in that you have to wait for your number to be called and all you can see are lumps of meat. Patients are required to sluice their feet down outside as they wait. Diego – a bearded, hairy, tri-lingual character – is sitting next to us and has no skin left on the balls of his feet. None whatsoever. Every now and again the docs call their friends over to examine (and photograph) particularly gruesome feet. Diego will be there for some time as grit and dead skin are picked and sliced from his trotters.
By comparison, Pa is ok. I accompany him and attempt to chat to the podiatrist but I’m completely exhausted and my brain isn’t stretching to full French so conversation lurches. As he’s getting treated, the most spectacular sunset blazes red outside, the mountains glowing scarlet and fading to a bruised mauve. Personally I’m glad for night to fall as with the extra people milling around the camp, chance of a quiet weeing spot have been eliminated. At night you can go pretty much anywhere.
After we’ve downed another ‘delicious’ dehydrated meal, we head over to the prize giving. It goes on for ages and we’re so shattered that we can’t stay for the music.
We head back to the tent and I fall asleep with the sounds of the Paris Opera lilting over me.
SATURDAY 12TH APRIL – DAY 7 – THE CHARITY STAGE
It’s a curious contrast of jubilant high spirits and reluctance this morning. We’ve all finished, so we’re riding high, but none of us want to complete the 7.7km solidarity stage – basically a glorified, long walk to the bus stop. The tactics that Patrick has used every other morning to gee everyone up fall flat this morning and he has to dance alone to ‘Happy’ atop his Jeep. As the start is delayed because they’ve forgotten to give some people water, the crowd starts to rebel, shouting “our painkillers are wearing off!” and starting countdowns.
But as it’s non-competitive, it does give us a chance to walk with our tenties and Nats. I chat on the way round to some of the winners and people that I’ve met along the way. It’s the last time we’ll all be together.
When we eventually reach the outskirts of a town thronged with women in abayas, kids begging for presents and young men on motorbikes, those who have trampled before us have kicked up a cloud of dust. People are clapping and cheering. Flags are rippling in the wind. It’s quite an atmospheric finish. Over the line, we’re handed half a loaf of bread and another French picnic – the first proper food for a week. It tastes so good.
Better still, the support team are there with cold beers. Ice cold in Alex… I board the coach for the 4-hour transfer back to Ouarzarzate, neck all my food and two beers and promptly fall asleep.
Back in the hotel, it takes me 40 minutes to tug, brush and yank the knots out of my hair, which has turned into one giant mat. At one point I think I’m just going to have to cut the whole bloody lot off. The shower is hot and heavenly, the buffet was delicious and the gin – never sweeter.
It feels surreal as the week comes to an end. The race has been my focus for the best part of two years; it’s consumed all my time for the last six months. I can’t quite believe that I’m one of the fortunate who has made it to the finish. I’m so glad I did it. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken; more difficult than I had imagined, and I had anticipated substantial hardship. It’s also one of the most rewarding. The spirit of comradeship in the camp, the sense of battling towards a common goal, truly testing yourself – those are things you don’t get in everyday life.
Was it worth it? Every last, painful minute.