It’s the most gruelling race on earth but two Dubai-based expats ran approximately 250km across the Saharan desert in temperatures of up to 50 degrees. They lost 6kg each but raised Dh51,400 for a special needs centre in Sharjah. Anthea Ayache finds out w
give back to the community here.” For Irvine there was also an emotional attachment to the choice, “A friend of mine has a child with learning difficulties so it’s close to home.”
Not as simple as getting from A to B
Their journey began in the idyllic surrounds of Ouarzazate, a small Moroccan town known as the Door of the Desert. Sitting in the middle of a plateau, 1,160 metres above sea level, it was here that the contestants had a day to enjoy luxuries such as the scents of local cooking, the feel of clean clothes and the taste of cold water. For soon these amateur runners and elite athletes would not waste their precious rationed water on washing clothes, they would eat only freeze-dried food and they would be sheltered in a rudimentary tent – a coarse cloth on flimsy sticks. For the next seven days Keith and Irvine’s only possessions were the bare essentials such as food, camping equipment and medical supplies that they carried in their 12kg rucksacks, while the closest thing to luxury were the two bottles of ambient temperature water handed out at checkpoints.
“The MdS is not just about getting from A to B,” says Keith. “There is so much more to it in all respects, than just a foot race.” Husband and father of two Irvine adds, “You don’t realise that you’re going to be living with almost nothing for the next week. The living conditions are a real challenge. You’re enduring the heat of the day and the freezing cold of the night.”
They got a glimpse of what lay ahead after an eight-hour coach journey into the middle of nowhere to the campsite. The two were not greeted by a soft bed of sand on which to pitch their tents but rather something Kevin says “more resembled moon rocks.”
Soon the grey stone area was thick with the eight-man black tents, under which red traditional rugs acted as a buffer against the harsh stones. The race had not yet begun but already creature comforts were a thing of the past. Irvine and Keith weren’t the only two who barely manage to sleep that night before the race began, their bodies not yet accustomed to howling cold winds or sleeping on rough terrain.
Watching dawn bathe the desert dunes in hues of red and orange, the 1,000 or so runners carefully packed their limited rucksacks, applied sunscreen and chatted excitedly with new friends. “There was so much adrenaline, such
a buoyant mood that morning,” Keith says. “At the start line, all the people who had been training and waiting for this moment were all together. There was a real buzz but also a definite underlying feeling of uncertainty as no one knew what lay ahead.”
After a motivational speech from the top of a Landrover by founder Patrick Bauer, suddenly a befitting anthem for the race – AC/DC’s, Highway to Hell – blared out from the camp’s PA system and it was time to begin the race.
Day 1 was 37km this year, a distance contestants were only told about on arrival in Morocco. On the coach to the back of beyond they had received The Book, containing the 2013 course details. Every year daily routes are painstakingly chosen to provide participants with challenging, uncharted territory and the course remains a carefully guarded secret until the very last minute. The routes in The Book are hand-drawn, outlining the mountains and the dunes, and although each day covers different terrains and poses different challenges, they all have one aspect in common – difficulty.
“The enormity of the task is suddenly apparent when you get The Book.” says Irvine “When you see the course description and the mileage, you get a shock. It’s suddenly real and you think, this looks horrendous but there’s no backing out now!”
The first day was a multi-terrain marathon and gave participants the opportunity to get their bearings while navigating across rocks, camel grass, sand and boulders. “We were running 10km on what looked like it was going to be a flat river bed in The Book,” says Irvine. “But actually when we got there it was the hottest part of the day and the sun was reflecting off the surface, making it unbearable. Not only that, the riverbed was actually littered with sharp rocks and boulders and you’d keep bashing your feet or nearly twisting your ankle.” Adds Keith, “It was also quite mentally draining. You literally had to focus on watching every single step.”
Preparation was key for all and Day 1 allowed participants the opportunity to find out whether their equipment was up for the task ahead. Many contestants had practised in colder climates and entirely different terrains, consequently finding out late in the game that their kit was simply not efficient enough to keep sand at bay. “Imagine running with sandpaper instead of insoles in your shoes,” explains Keith. “That’s what it’s like if your gaiters don’t work properly. Your feet are your single most important tool in the MdS.”
“We were lucky,” adds Irvine. “Living in Dubai meant we could trial all our kit in desert conditions. Many of the guys who trained in different conditions really suffered and every night at camp there was a huge queue of people outside the medical tent suffering from blisters and damaged feet.”
Keeping in touch
Despite shortcomings, spirits remained high amongst participants back at base camp. Among those with smiles on their faces when they crossed the finish line were a contestant with one leg, a prosthetic blade and adapted hospital crutches; a blind contestant running with his guide; and firemen carrying disabled children in adapted chariots. “It became quite a thing cheering those guys on every night. It would be the end of the day and you’d hear the sound of applause spread across the camp as they made their way to their tents,” says Keith.
Every evening the participants would wait patiently in line outside the white tent that housed computers. Here they were allowed to send one email each to a loved one. In return organisers of the race would dutifully hand out printed emails at the tents later in the night. “It was back to the good old days of receiving letters,” says Keith. “We were lucky to have a huge amount of support and would receive several emails each every night. Having that support, not only from close friends and family but people who had heard what we were undertaking and wanted to wish us well was a huge boost.”
Families back home were also able to track the runner’s progress thanks to an electronic tagging device attached to ankles that would monitor each person’s progress live on the MdS website. Each stage of the day was broken into 9-12km stretches with a checkpoint where water rations would be distributed and participants’ times would be electronically
checked. “Knowing your family could see how you were doing in real time was fantastic,” says Keith. Something that was going to be much needed to get contestants through the six days and six marathons across mountainous dunes and craggy ridges in 50 degree heat.
Dashed dreams, danger and the Long Day
Despite the vast differences in finishing times, each day had an allocated period in which the race had to be completed with those who failed to qualify removed from the race. “On Day 2 one of the contestants was literally physically removed before the race started because he got a little lost and missed the cut-off point the day before,” remembers Keith. “It was pretty hard to watch people being removed when you know how much training and effort they’ve put in to be there.”
While some failed to complete the race in time, others were forced drop out due to medical ailments and injuries, demonstrating that the desert, albeit magnificent, is also merciless. Much the same can be said for its rocky mountains which runners, elite or amateur, would find themselves ascending and descending over Day 2’s 31km course.
“We were literally climbing, having to grip with our hands and use a rope. Some people got stuck ahead of us and had to be rescued. They were airlifted then dropped off at the base of the mountain and had to start again,” says Keith. “At the top the pathway was only about a foot wide with sheer drops either side. With the weight of your rucksack… we literally had to take baby steps,” adds Irvine.
Despite the dangers and the difficulty, both men agree that the views made the excruciating pain of climbing sharp rocky mountains under the searing sun, worthwhile.
“Getting to the top of those mountains was incredibly demanding physically, but once you’re up there you can see for miles and miles, with extraordinary views of the desert,” says Irvine. Keith nods. “The MdS is so tough, but organisers have made it so you get visual rewards at particular points with amazing vistas and panoramas,” he says.
The most magnificent views were seen on Day 4, the unforgiving and aptly named Long Day. Here contestants found themselves having to cover 76km across all sorts of inhospitable terrain varying from mountains and dunes to endless rocky trails in sweltering desert heat, that at one point clocked a blistering 54C. “The Long Day was my biggest challenge,” says Keith. “I didn’t know how I was going to keep my body going for that long. I had never trained for longer than five hours before and suddenly I was going to have to complete 76km in the Sahara desert.”
One reward for the non-professional contestants was to see the elite top 50 male and five female participants run past them at certain points of the day, having been held back for three hours before the other contestants at the start line. The star athletes included four-time MdS winner Moroccan Mohammad Ahansal, who picked up the prize again this year completing the course in just 18 hours and 59 minutes. “It was great to watch them,” says Keith. “It gave us all a renewed lease of life when they ran past.”
That encouragement was much needed in a race that saw many people affected by dehydration. “Irvine and I were used to practising in hot weather,” says Keith. “Others weren’t, so they would really suffer if they got their timing wrong. Water was really a hard thing to manage. We saw people so dehydrated when they got to the checkpoint they would guzzle all their rationed water at once then throw up because they had drunk it too quickly.”
The two men managed to finish the Long Day race in the required time. They kept themselves motivated through entirely different approaches, with Keith choosing to run alone, finding strength in solitude, and Irvine completing the gruelling course with other contestants. Keith, spurred on by the glow of the camp in the distance, pushed himself for the last few kilometres, arriving in 12 hours and 45 minutes, followed just under two hours later by Irvine.
Keith says, “That last part was flat rolling plains with soft sand that was relentless, punishing, energy sapping. My mantra along there was just ‘don’t stop, don’t stop, the sand will get harder soon’. Then I would think I had
done 5km and realise I had just done 1km. The relentless plodding in the pitch black under a beautiful sky of stars after seeing a breathtaking sunset was for me the best and the worst of everything in one.”
The next day was a rest day for those contestants who had completed the double marathon and it was spent writing diaries, reflecting, queuing for the ‘washroom’, and sharing anecdotes. Time moved fairly slowly. “I actually remember feeling a little bored,” says Keith. “There’s not much to do in a bivouac campsite in the middle of the desert when you’ve only got bare essentials in your rucksack.”
To alleviate boredom runners were told there would be a surprise at 4pm that afternoon and it came in the shape of an ice cold can of cola. “If you ask me what my most memorable moment from the event was, it would have to be that. After drinking nothing but tepid water and one sugary tea a day I couldn’t have been happier to see anything. It was so precious I wanted to make sure I didn’t drop it or gulp it down in one go. I think it took me about 40 minutes to finish the can,” Irvine smiles.
The runners took more long-term satisfaction from knowing boundaries had been pushed wide open. “It really changed my perception of endurance events,” says Irvine. “Suddenly we only had one marathon left to do the next day and we were thinking ‘this will all be over in about five or six hours, it’s just a marathon’ as opposed to thinking about a marathon being a huge event in itself”.
Completing the event, alongside the other 968 contestants who made it through the final stage, was something both men had questioned at least once but the two colleagues, friends and marathon buddies finished in respectable positions. Of the 1,040 contestants, long-time marathon runner and iron man participant Irvine finished 397th, while Keith, a novice to long-distance running, breezed in at 180th.
“I couldn’t explain my emotions when I made it passed the finishing line,” says Keith. “I really pushed myself on that last day and I just kept telling myself, ‘this is it, it’s the last stretch’. I was running alone and suddenly I had this realisation of what we had achieved, and all the people at home who had been thinking of me, the kind of thoughts I had unconsciously blocked out to get through the MdS. My wife will tell you I don’t ever cry, so it really surprised me when I found myself overwhelmed, crying in a deserted camp just holding my water bottle.” Irvine interjects saying, “Getting that medal was one of the best moments of my life, it was the toughest, hardest most fun challenge I’ve ever done by miles. But I was also
‘I was also disappointed because the fantastic adventure where you’re totally detached from life was over’
disappointed because the fantastic adventure where you’re totally detached from life was over, it was done.” Despite the nostalgia, neither man feels they would do it again.
“I got all that I could have wanted and more out of it,” says Keith. Irvine adds, “I had so much fun, I can’t imagine it would ever be as good again,” adding, “but I’ve already signed up for my next one, which is the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. It’s 89km in one go.”
The event itself not only brought satisfaction to the two contestants, but it raised enough donations from friends, family, colleagues and even strangers to raise Dh51,400 for Manzil. The two men chose to donate 30 iPads to be used as educational and developmental tools for the students and the rest of the money was spent on providing classroom and administrative equipment. “It was great to go down there and hand over the iPads,” says Irvine. “The kids seemed to be very pleased.”
The MdS takes a year of preparation, but it’s something that can be completed by runners of all abilities and both men are keen to urge others to undertake the challenge. As Keith – who completed the toughest foot race on earth having never before run a marathon – says, “If you’re prepared better, you do better.”
Most days included a gruelling trek up the Sahara’s rocky
Runners survived with just the bare essentials, and base camp at the end of the day was a course black cloth flung over sticks
Frenchman Patrick Bauer (above left), who founded tthe event, spurs competitors on at the start each year. Keith (left and above right) and Irvine (above) finished alongside 968 contestants to have made it all the way tthrough the challenge
While some runners, like Keith, find strength in solitude, others thrive on the camaraderie of running as a group