Back in May 2014 I made the decision to sign up for 2015’s Marathon des Sables. Known simply as the MdS, the
race is a gruelling multi-stage adventure through a formidable landscape in one of the world’s most inhospitable
climates - the Sahara desert. The rules require you to be self-sufficient, to carry with you on your back
everything except water that you need to survive. You are given a place in a tent to sleep at night, but any
other equipment and food must be carried. Places are much sought after, but those who do make it to the start
line are richly rewarded. Under the scorching Moroccan sun, life-long friendships are fostered through a shared
experience of unforgettable days spent running across saltpans, up desert-mountains, through ruined towns and
through the occasional sand storm.
My training began the day after I had signed up for the event and over the next 10 months I ran over 1600 miles in pursuit of my MdS dream. The majority of the time I ran during autumn and winter months, battling wind, rain and even snow blizzards, not exactly the right training for the 50 degrees Centigrade I was to experience in Morocco. Heat chamber sessions at Kingston University and Bikram Yoga classes, both in 40 degrees Centigrade, helped my acclimation training and was invaluable as part of my preparation for this ‘bucket-list’ adventure.
As a member of the Y Services Branch of the Royal British Legion, I have regularly taken part in fund raising
activities for the Legion, most notably our annual run around Lincoln, shaking buckets during the city’s 10km race.
Hence it was a ‘no-brainer’ when I thought about choosing a charity to fund raise for during my Sahara Desert
adventure. A dress rehearsal, a fortnight before I flew to Morocco, in this year’s Lincoln 10km focussed the
mind and soon all the training would be put to the test in very different circumstances.
Having found out that two of my old TA buddies from 34 (N) Signal Regiment (V), Rich Torley and Doc McKerr, were also taking part in this year’s MdS, along with my son-in-law, Toby Conway-Hughes (who along with his brother Ben was really responsible for prising me off the couch and encouraging me to get fit again), we were half way to filling the 8 person tent that was to be our home for our week in the desert. Bolstered by one of Doc’s mates, Matt Neave (an ex-RE Officer), we were joined by Matt Chubb, Iain Winterbottom and Wayne Dennis (an RAF Officer) in Tent 128.
MdS 2015 had its fair share of celebrity runners, including Graham Bell, Winter Olympian and ex-Rugby League GB internationals Paul Sculthorpe and Keith Senior, but the most famous of all was Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the greatest living adventurer in the world and it was our privilege to meet the great man the night before the race started when he posed for a photo with Tent 128.
This year’s MdS attracted over 1360 entrants, a record fitting for the 30th running of this prestigious international event. My initial desire was to just finish, but I secretly hoped that I would sneak into the top half of finishers, but I kept telling myself that I was here to ‘complete not compete’ and needed to curb my competitive streak. After a long day of admin checks, we were ready to start the first day, which was a nice short 36.2km stage with a variety of jebels, oueds, mountain passes and our first introduction to the dreaded sand dunes.
Stage 1 went by without a hitch and I finished in 5 hours 35 minutes, well within the top half, which was very pleasing. The highlight of the evening, definitely wasn’t the food, but the emails from home and I am eternally grateful to friends and family for their words of support and humour that kept me going throughout the week. There wasn’t much to do in the evenings and unless you were seeing the medics in Doc Trotters for some feet maintenance, you found yourselves in your sleeping bag by 20:00 and due to the fact that we were drinking 10-12 litres of water a day, up at 23:59 and 03:00 to water the desert, followed by an early reveille between 05:30 and 06:00.
After being eased into things on the first day, stage 2 definitely introduced our first real challenge, Jebel el Otfal AKA the Uber Jebel. Don’t be fooled by the shorter distance of 31.1km, this was due to the climb encountered after checkpoint 2 and was to be my first ‘moment’, when I had to have a sit down ¾ of the way up the Jebel and question whether or not I was going to make the ultimate finish line. With hindsight I probably could’ve climbed the Uber Jebel without stopping, but I was always conscious of conserving my energy and with 3 more stages to go, including stage 4 which was to be 91.7km this year (the longest ever stage in MdS’s 30 year history) I erred on the side of caution.
Stage 3 was 36.7km and dubbed the day of the Dunes. Most of the runners were conscious of the next stage and thus held back, conserving their energy for the long stage. By now we were used to sand and more sand, with the majority of competitors walking through the dunes.
Stage 4, was as mentioned earlier, known as the long stage and this year a massive 91.7km. Competitors were given 36 hours to complete the stage and the top 50 runners started 3 hours after the main start. A lot of people planned to camp out at one of the checkpoints and rest up overnight, before finishing the next morning, but I hoped to conquer the stage without any major stops – well that was the plan, I really had no idea whether I could make it as a oner or not. Looking at the course, the organisers took us back over the Uber Jebel and today there were 7 checkpoints to navigate through. I planned to make checkpoint 5 before dusk, which was around 19:00 and as luck would have it, I ran into checkpoint 5 at 18:45. A quick shake out, pack off, hot food, head torch on and glow stick attached to the back of my pack and I was on my way by 19:05. So far so good and I began to think about getting to the finish by mid-night, this would give me an extra night sleep, a day off and another night sleep ahead of the final marathon stage 5, if I could just keep up the pace. It was very much like doing a night nav exercise, following the markers (with glow sticks to help) and runners ahead. From time to time, you would find yourself in the middle of some dunes and no one else around you, no sight of a marker or glow stick ahead of you and you just had to trust your instincts. I continued on well and made checkpoint 6, finding a second wind between 6 and 7, picking off numerous runners ahead of me. I came into the final checkpoint with a real chance of finishing before midnight, but these hopes were scuppered when I left checkpoint 7 and found myself following a sandy oued for 2-3 kms and I ground to a slow walk. Mounds of sand and camel grass then appeared and I was able to run slowly, but still not as quickly as previously. I persevered and found myself crossing the stage 4 finish line at 12 minutes past midnight and a sub 16 hour finish for the long stage, which I was ecstatic with. Back at the tent, Rich and Doc were in (they were both solid top 100 finishers and Doc had actually been the 20th person over the line of the long stage tonight, a monumental achievement and one that the whole tent was really proud of. One by one, the rest of the tent drifted in, with the last of the finishers crossing the line just before the 36 hour cut off – these people really deserved their medals and there were lots of heroic stories of people helping their fellow runners through dark times on the long stage.
On the last official stage, the marathon stage 5, the top 200 runners began 1 ½ hours after the mass start and
I have to admit to running with some trepidation, not wanting to go over on an ankle or in any way ruin the
effort put in on the first 4 stages, hence I definitely held back. Early caution over, I sailed through the 3
checkpoints and before I knew it I was approaching the finish and the end of a long journey, both physically and
spiritually. I had finished the MdS and surpassed all my expectations by finishing in the top 25%. It had been a
brilliant experience, not easy, but one I am so glad I signed up to. Stunning scenery, sand, breath taking views,
sand, challenging climbs and did I mention the sand dunes!
Would I do it again? I would love to, but it really is a once in a life time adventure and I am not sure my family, who supported me brilliantly throughout, should be subjected to this again. If I did do it again, I would do some things differently; my pack was too heavy and I would be ruthless with what I took, I would decant my food from foil bags into freezer bags, I wouldn’t take a cooker and I would definitely do more hill training in the peak district, noting how much time you do actually walk on the course.
As I write this, I have raised over £3,000 for the RBL and the money is still coming in. I am so grateful to family and friends, colleagues from the Y Services RBL Branch and 34 (N) Sig Regt (V) Reunion who have been so supportive. Thank you all.
Chairman's note - Please sponsor Jez at: https://www.justgiving.com/Jez-Bailey/