For those of you who have not heard of this race the following is a brief:
Distance: 250k (5.9 marathons)
Stages: 6 stages over 7 days 21.1k to 82 k
Support: Self supported except for water, about 10 litres/day and a tent
Terrain: Sahara Desert – sand dunes, rocks, steep hills, more stand dunes, more rocks
Weather: Temperatures range 5°C to 42°C+
Location: East Morocco near Algerian border
Competitors: 1016 at the start, 923 at the finish
Why: Someone’s idea while cycling in Italy last year – Needed a challenge for 2010, one I could train for in Moscow. Given the temperature differential between Moscow and the Sahara, it was clearly not the race to choose, however…
Preparation: Several areas one needed to focus on here:
Distance – fairly basic… get the distance in. I peaked around beginning of January at 130km/week, although the cold Moscow weather and a hamstring injury would curtail any greater distances, averaging about 100km a week after that.
Work outs with pack – kind of slacked off here, but did a few at the end.
Acclimatization – Failed miserably here. Training in Moscow was not the suggested venue, and I hate treadmills. In December I had a cut off of -20°C for outdoor running, but in January it rarely got above -20°C and I had to adjust accordingly. I never missed a run because of temperature, enduring down to -27°C. While I did hear of some runners from Finland actually putting a treadmill in a sauna, I stuck to the cold outdoors. For the first bit heat was an issue, but not really a problem.
Feet – Information I had, suggested to apply a peroxide or lemon solution to your feet starting two months prior to the race to “toughen” up the skin and prevent blisters – I declined as I never get blisters – somewhat of a mistake.
Best Call – In early November it finally dawned on me I did not have a clue what I got myself into and required some specific training. I ended up in Granada Spain (www.axarsport.com) for a five day training camp which I also received a quick lesson on gear requirements. Two other important factors, the first , dropping 8kg in weight and the second lifting weights. Both a big help.
Kit – When you are running 250km and carrying your gear for a week you need to get it right the first time, it has to be durable and light. My pack, sleeping bag and pad, compulsory equipment and a few extras weighed in just under 3 kg (I weighed everything to the gram). My food, 17,500 calories (minimum was 14,000 calories), weighed in at 5.5 kg. For those experienced in endurance events you can do the math and see the calorie deficit very quickly. This was after several alterations of weight/bulk reduction. I ended up with a Raidlight Olmo 20L pack, that weighed 360 gms and a 5L Salmon front pack. At the start of the race, with race provided signal flare and water bottles, my gear weighed close to 10kg. On the last day it was just 3kg.
Note: apart from the technical shorts and shirt I was wearing, I carried 4 extra pair of socks (a pair were turfed at the end of each day), a pair of Recovery Skins for the camp and a quasi technical long sleeve top. My shoes, the Salomon XT Wings were an absolute must – more on this later.
Now my biggest challenge was acquiring all the gear. Living in Moscow you don’t have a lot of selection for this type of technical gear, acquiring it was a challenge. I managed to do the initial shopping at Christmas back in Toronto. I also was able to get some gear while in Spain. But, as I had been advised, I did some last minute changes and because I was seeking some specific gear, I had a challenge getting it delivered to Moscow. At one point I had gear sent from Singapore to Monaco to Paris to Toronto to Vancouver. Three weeks before the race I had arranged for the outstanding gear to be flown in on a business jet to Moscow. One of the advantages of my job.
Acquiring some in Moscow did prove to be an interesting challenge. I spent one Sunday afternoon surfing the Cyrillic internet to find a dive shop in Moscow where I could acquire neoprene glue to attach my gaiters/Velcro to my shoes. I eventually located a store in an outlying region of Moscow, managed to find it, and purchase the glue in a store where they only spoke Russian… guess my language skills are improving.
The Race: I signed up through the “International” group, through Paris, due to my Russian residency. Entry fee thus included a chartered flight from Paris which I boarded from Orly airport, one of four from Paris, to Ouarzazate in east/central Morocco. When I got to Paris the night before I did not know anyone, although I had had some email correspondence from a group from the UK, but that was it. By the time we got to the first bivouac, an additional 5 hour bus ride away, we had an unofficial team that was to become my tent mates for the next week. Thing about this is that we were the very last to arrive in camp, so while all other tents had 8 people to them we managed to get our own tent, much more comfortable with 4.
Team “Expat” – Ready to Rumble
Ben – Brit/disguised as a Frenchman 8 yrs on British Modern Pentathlon Team
Geoff – Torontonian, living in Sweden – former pro Tri Athlete
Mark – The “Russian”
Veronica – US/UK living in Dubai, Ultra Marathoner
Day one at the camp was spent registering; we had to present our credentials, and an ECG. Our pack was looked at but never weighed, I was asked how many calories I had, though they only get particular when you are close to the minimum. Then we were given our safety flare and salt pills, 140 of them, these would be essential. At the same time you checked in your gear and basically you were ready to go.
Stage 1: The first stage was a relatively easy 29km, with no real difficult terrain. First day with a full pack , it was heavy but had a very good run, too good. A few hills, took in the surroundings and enjoyed I finished 220ish . I was hoping all day the rest of the week would be like that but knew better.
Stage 2: A killer 35km. The run started off flat then a climb into the hills and along a picturesque ridge. Not bad, just took it easy in the hills. Made it through to CP2 (Check Point) at the 20km mark, then wow! My fast run from the day before caught up with me, then 4km later you hit a dried lake bed. The temperature at this point was 42°C+ . My running came to a grinding halt, a slow walk across the desert. Made it to CP3 at km 28, then the fun began.
The next 2km had a 25% grade, having to climb up the hill with a rope at the top to pull yourself along. Once on top the descent was through a very rocky creek bed, and once out of that there were 2km of sand dunes into camp. Passed one runner on IV enroute, apparently he had been there for a while (you can get an IV once, but you must proceed on your own, or you are out). I finished that stage spent, but remarkably once I got into the tent felt quite good. It was my feet that I had to deal with now.
DeeFeet: Two big issues to deal with on this race, if you are in shape and don’t have to worry about them. The first is water/salt. You only get about 10 litres of water a day so you need to manage it. As important, is your salt intake. At registration they give you 140 salt pills and advise you take two an hour. I followed this but also had my Infinit, which was high in salt and had a solution as well that I added to my water bottles. I carried two 750mL bottles at all times. They would last me between CP’s (which you got a minimum of 1.5 litres of water). Note: at 40°C and humidity of 15% you don’t sweat, just purge salt from your body. Replacement is critical. This did take its toll on a number of people.
The other issue, which can cause you to DNF or just a lot of agony, is your feet. As I stated before, I rarely get blisters, I had broken in my shoes so expected no issues… WRONG. They say you should have shoes two sizes bigger than your feet, because they will swell… Hey, they were right. My shoes were one size large with my orthotics in. I took the regular insoles for my shoes as well, for the swelling phase, I swapped them out the first day. On day two, like many others, I went to the medical tent to start what would be a daily ritual. Several issues with blisters etc. First I wore gaiters, glued onto my shoe, very little sand got in but it was still a bit of an issue. But what was more of an issue was the terrain: running on rocks, constant ascents and descents , and no real path to walk on. Several times my foot twisted on a rock and it felt like the bottom of my foot was skinned, toe nails were demolished. So plenty to deal with at days end. I would start with rinsing my feet in the tent, then hobble down to the medical tent. Here they would give you cleanser, antiseptic, gauze and bandages, and a small razor. This was self surgery. You also got a sterile paper towel, laid it on the tent floor. Cleansed your foot then cut open and drained all the blister, then apply the antiseptic – iodine – ouch. That was it for the night. In the morning you would then tape all the blister and potential blister area, this could take up to 45 minutes. That being said, if you did it right you were good for the day. And we paid money to do this??
Stage 3: 40km, not a bad day. Flattish, had no problem until I was about 2km from CP2, 22km into the day. Heat was coming up and I just bonked. I immediately took two salt pills, several drinks of water, walked for about 10 minutes, and away I went again. The CP was at km 24, temperature was up to 40°C at this point. I started to run/walk, the first two stints were 15min run 5min walk, soon it was 15min walk 2min run. I made it into CP3 , 5km to the finish and headed out quickly. Soon after my tent mate Veronica came by an we ended up running the rest of the way in, albeit a slow pace. Not a bad day but time to eat and rest as Stage 4, 82km was on us the next day.
Typical Camp Day
We woke up at 5:30am and tried to get a quick breakfast in by 6:10. You see at 6:00 the “Berbers” descended on our camp and started taking down the tents. Ours came down at 6:10. Note: between competitors and the 400+ admin staff, there was close to 150 tents. These would all had to be taken down and on the move within two hours, as we moved camp everyday. By the end of the week we would still be in our sleeping bags with the tents coming down around us. After breakfast we bandaged our feet, that was a good 30-45 min, then we had to pack, prepare our drinks etc. Shortly after 8 we made our way to the start for the morning briefing etc. The start was at 8:30 or 9:00 depending on the day, 4-6 hours later, except the long day, we were back to camp. Routine was as follows: Get some food into you, usually a dehydrated meal, at the same time give your feet a wash and check for blisters. Then down to the medic tent if you had any bad blisters, perform self surgery. After that you would head next door to send your one-a-day email, finally back to the tent to visit with the other runners then another meal. By that time it was getting dark and by 21:00 we were fast asleep.
Stage 4: 82km, two days to complete, what can I say. This was a tough day, as you can imagine. Having covered 105km in the past 3 days then this. We all stood at the start line, with the 3 minute warning going off and the usual anthem playing, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” … most appropriate today. As the gun went off we slowly made it to the start line, no need to hurry, a long day ahead. However if we finished this, it was all but over.
The first two CP’s went well, totaling 26km. I ran were I could, very hilly and scenic, walked were I had to. At CP 2 I refueled. Mid day and another dried lake-bed to cross, temperature was pushing 40°C, I wasn’t moving fast. At this stage the top runners left 3 hours after us, and at exactly 6 hours into the race I was passed by the #2 Jordanian, then the #1 Moroccan right behind him. They made it look easy, they were traveling at twice my speed. Got into CP3, 38km, and met two of my tent mates. We all headed out at different times. Shortly after I would meet Veronica who was adjusting here shoes, after that she ran by me and kept on going. Just before CP4 Ben caught up to me, we would go on together from their. Having someone to travel with at this point was a huge benefit.
At CP4, 51km into the race and with darkness setting in I took 30 minutes and cooked up a hot meal, a very good move as it turned out. I needed the calories and the sports nutrition was wearing thin. This was at about 19:00. From here on in, wearing a headlamp was a must. From here to CP6, 70km, it was mostly dunes and rolling hills. We just plugged on stopping at CP5, and at 62.5km took a brief rest. My feet were killing me at this point.
From CP4-6 we followed a laser beam. It worked not to bad, the night was clear but no moon, it was dark except for the glow sticks on the runners ahead and headlamps on the runners behind. We stopped at CP6 for a short break. I wanted desperately to take my shoes off but knew if I did I would never get them back on. My feet were swollen 2 sizes plus, larger but no feeling of additional blisters. Best to keep it that way. We departed CP6 for “home” at about 12:30am. It was a long walk ahead, one step at a time. There were no km markers on the route, you just go by time. We finally got the finish in site, it was well lit. The only problem it was still a ways to go. Ben kept on saying we just had 200m to go, wishful thinking, it was more like 2km. We finally got close enough we could here the beeping of the other runners chip as they hit the finish mat, we knew we were there. Crossing was great jubilation, we celebrated with a “Sultan” tea, the main sponsor. We ran into several other runners we knew and had a quick talk. Then back to the tent, Veronica was there and had been for two hours… what a machine. The first thing I did was take off my shoes, somewhat of a relief, but soon after my feet were throbbing. It felt as if someone had hit them with a baseball bat. Sleep was good but the feet were in agony.
Got up rather early in the morning , 7:30. Runners had been coming in all night with the final ones arriving just before the 34 hour cut off. A longer day for some. Stage 5 was the official Marathon distance leg of 42.2km. Good day actually, I was worried about recovery from the long day but seem to be all right, feet not getting any worse. Wanted to run, albeit slow to CP2, 24km, and then take it from there. Footing was good, temperature of about 35°C and a nice breeze so I kept on going. I was worried how I would feel when I hit the “Wall” but realized that was 3 days earlier, so it was no issue. Just kept on running and had a good sprint finish. Some guy tried to take me in the last 100m, not a chance, still had some energy left.
The Start of the Day – A small sand storm in the making
(What appears to be suntans on everyone’s legs is baked on Saharan sand)
A short half marathon, 21.1km and The End! Everybody was slow in mobilizing in the morning. The end was near, we all just wanted to get it over with. While a mere 21.1km, there had to be a twist. The first 3km and last 5km were sand dunes, which was challenging footing. Not surprisingly everyone took off relatively fast. I picked my way through the dunes, trying to follow the good footing route, sometimes a mistake, a lot of distance can be put trying to find good footing. Once through the first dunes the footing was good, cool temperatures in the low 30s and flat turf. Off I went. Got to the only CP quickly, topped off with water then into the dunes again. I am not good in the dunes but I
had my walking poles. Didn’t use them much, but when I did they came in handy. There was a number of good climbs here and the poles helped me keep my position, not that I was racing. About 1.5km from the end you could see the finish. I was looking for flat ground for a bit of a sprint, unfortunately there wasn’t any and the dunes led right up to the finish.
I had taken of my hat for the finish, wanted to be photogenic of course. About 100m from the actual finish I dropped my hat. I looked around to see if anyone was close by, they weren’t, so I stopped and picked up my hat and had a leisurely run in. With an overall time of 43 hours and 8 minutes I had completed the 250km, placing 334th and 50/167 in the 50-59 age group.