Thursday 4 July 2013

MdS 2013 - Calling All Newbies

Well, what can I say.... I'm really going to find it very difficult to express how much this race has affected me.  I'm currently sitting in my office (on a lunch break obviously!) listening to everyone around me talk about chemistry as normal and inside I feel like everything has shifted.  I learnt a lot during the MdS, both about myself, others, desert racing, human spirit and human endurance.

Just to give you some background to me in case you don't want to read all my blog ramblings, I'm not a seasoned runner (I started running when I signed up to the MdS - not recommeded!), I'm not competitive and my only goal for the MdS was to finish with as little damage to myself as possible.

In the end, I finished the MdS 2013 in position 824, with a time of 54 hrs 55 mins and 21 secs which isn't fast by anyones standards but I am writing this, because as a complete novice I frequently felt overwhelmed and honestly in awe of other, more experienced runners and desert racers.  Bearing in mind however, that I finished with almost no blisters, no injuries, no visits to the medical tent and a first aid kit that was used more for others than it was for me, I hope that what I've learnt will be of interest and maybe even some help to future newbies as they fight through the mountain of advice and information that will undoubtedly be coming their way.

Fail to plan, Plan to Fail

Having now completed this race I genuinely believe that half the battle in a successful and pain free finish is preparation, planning and organisation.  Obviously fitness is an absolute must, especially if you're wanting to compete, but if you fail to prepare your kit and yourselves, fitness might not be enough.  There are plenty of blogs out there that describe training plans, so I'm not going to cover mine here but I saw numerous people who at first glances looked super fit and had most definitely clocked up the miles, but for whatever reason they were limping badly on day 2 and the walking wounded only seemed to increase in numbers as the days passed by.

Feet, Feet, Feet

Firstly, because they're the most important tool in your kit, I'm going to start by talking about my feet.  "Yay", I hear you cry!  Your poor feet are going to take a battering, so give them some tlc before the race.  I used 'Nok' cream every night for about 6 months before the race and when I ran out of a tube I used 'Swiss Formula Foot Cream', and carried on swapping between the two right up to the last night in the hotel before shipping out to the desert.  My toes especially are prone to blistering and I also knew from experience that as soon as my pack goes over 10kg then my feet fall apart.  With this knowledge I made sure that fully loaded, with water, flare, road book etc etc my pack was as close to under 10kg as I could get for the day one start (it ended up being 10.5kg).  I'm sure someone out there has done the research but I'm fairly sure there's a direct correlation between pack weight and number of blisters.

I also tested numerous sock combos and even took and couple of different combos in case my preferred choice failed me under desert conditions.  However, I found 'Injinji's' liner and 'Wigwam' outer worked brilliantly and the spare socks got used to dry my feet or wash sand off my legs in the evenings.  My trainers were Brooks Cascadia 7 and I loved them!  My normal shoe size is 6, my normal running shoe is a size 7 and the Cascadia's I took to the desert were a size 8.  Apart from the long stage when sand got into my shoe due to failing gaiters, my feet were perfectly comfortable.  My gaiters were Raidlight's (the grey and white ones) and I wouldn't take them again, dust seemed to work it's way through the velcro and into my toes which wasn't too much of an issue (and possibly not even a gaiter problem, but a stitching issue) but sand got in the top and rubbed my ankles raw.  If, sorry, WHEN I go out there again, I'd take long gaiters like the sandbaggers version.  I'd also try and find out if 'Wigwam' do a long sock version and I'd take them instead of the anklets as a sun protection thing.  P20 suncream was great, just not quite good enough by day 4.  Anyway, I'm digressing away from my feet.

Hydration is as vital for your feet as for the rest of your body.  I drank to thirst, but as my sister will back up, I am a bit of a water fiend and I drank every drop they gave us whilst on the course.  During the race I took double salt tablets from day 2 onwards as I found the recommended two tablets per bottle just wasn't enough for me (my fingers looked like sausages after a couple of hours in the sun, I couldn't even make a fist and I'm sure if I'd taken my shoes off my feet would have been just as swollen).  You're not told unless you ask, but salt is one of the few things they'll hand out more of (double check the year you go - they like to change the rules, alot).  I also heard that the most common reason the medics have to administer drips is because the runner has not taken their salt.  Some people complained that the salt tablets made them feel sick or gave them stomach cramps, but if this happens to you, beware of relying on your normal electrolyte tablets, most don't give you anywhere near the correct balance your body needs (at least the ones I've looked at don't).

I got through the MdS with just three blisters, the biggest one being about half a centimeter in size and all three were painless surface blisters, which I self treated.  I was lucky enough to get my hydration right from day one (well maybe day two) but because I didn't race off at the start I had the luxury to play around with this and make sure I got it right for the rest of the week and made up race positions every day.


I published a separate blog on what kit I took which I've since updated to take account of the last minute changes that took place on admin day.  I'd take everything again with a few changes....

The most borrowed bit of kit was my tin foil which acted as a wind break when cooking.  This weighed nothing but meant I needed less fuel (3 esbit tabs per meal) and didn't have to wait as long when I wanted my grub.  I also took the daddy of all lighters which could be used in gale force winds.  We didn't get any gale force winds and this was probably overkill.  I wouldn't recommend this for racing snakes but it got borrowed a fair bit by my tent mates as the downward flame meant a few less burnt fingers.  I also took a 50mL travel pot of Nivea cream and this got used alot by my tent and even took a trip to the neighbours.  It helped my sore legs enormously and soothed sun burn, shaving rash (on the guys) and numerous other ailments.  To me, it was an essential.

I agonised for months over whether to take my poles or not and at the absolute last minute I ditched them in my suitcase at the admin checks.  Did I regret not taking them, no.  However, when the going got tough and I started struggling because of the terrain or heat, every single person (without exception) who overtook me had poles in their hands, maybe that's because I was at the back and more walkers are likely to have them.  The decision is yours, would I take them next time?  Ask me at the admin checks...

I took the RAB Neutrino Endurance 200 sleeping bag with a silk liner and was lovely and warm every night.  A couple of guys took super light bags (like the currently unrated OMM bag) and were cold the first couple of nights, especially when one of them realised they didn't actually fit in the bag.  The extreme rating of my sleeping bag was -16°C, comfort 2°C with the silk liner giving an extra 4°C.  I'm sure this is unecessary for most, but I am a cold person generally and would def take this again.  I also took the NeoAir Lite (small), loved it for warmth, comfort etc, but it was bloody noisey!  Every time I moved it sounded like I was lying on a bed of salt and vinegar crisp packets, much to the annoyance of my tent mates and probably half the camp.  I'd find a quieter mat next time but of similar quality regarding weight, warmth etc.  Also, a little tip I found work really well.  Assuming you have a mummy style bag and liner then sleep with the hood of the liner over you instead of under you.  If the wind gets up and starts blowing sand into your tent, pull the liner hood over your head and you're fairly sand proof till morning.

The age old question that is as common as "which shoes?" is "how many calories?"  I took 2500 for every day except day 4 when I took 4000 cals and day five and six I took 2000 (they fed us an evening meal on day 6 otherwise I'd have taken 2500).  When I do it again I'd take 2300 per day, 3500 cals for day 4 and 2000 for days 5 and 6.  Take what you enjoy eating and I found skittles particularly good, especially on the occassions when I ran out of water, chewing on those made me forget I was thirsty until I got to the checkpoint.  It was definately the skittles I enjoyed eating the most and the chocolate 9bars.  Yes, the chocolate melted badly, but I just licked the packet.  I ended up looking like a three year old with chocolate all round my mouth, cheeks and nose especially when the wind pick up the wrapper and smacked it, chocholate side first, directly into my face, but it was bloody worth it.  I also took an emergency sharing bag of m&m's which I demolished on day 4 (no, I didn't share them, yum, yum) but the chocolate lasted surprisingly well in the heat.  For my main meals and even for a lot of my snacks I took spicy foods, chili con carni, chili seeds etc.  Whilst they tasted great, because my mouth, throat and lips were so dry from breathing the dry desert air, it hurt to eat them!  I'd take less spice next time, mix it up a bit more.

Hygiene kit consisted of, well too much really.  Next time I'd take wemmie wipes (1 per day as you can rinse and reuse), a small bar of soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and toilet roll.  I took a packet of 42 kids toilet wipes and they were great but I didn't consider the fact that the dry desert air would play havoc with my nose.  I ended up with a mild sinus infection and had to blow my nose repeatedly.  This meant I ran out of tissues fast and had to reuse tissue a lot more than would normally be considered healthy.  I'd take the 42 wipes again plus half a toilet roll (this was actually something that got ditched last minute at the admin checks).  It seems a few people underestimated the toilet roll situation and sheets were being traded by the end.  Whilst we're on the subject of hygiene, I may as well talk about toilets and expecially the issues us girls are presented with.  You may think that you'll find a nice person sized bush to squat behind at convenient moments along the route and in camp.  Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that!  I'd find I needed to pee at the most inconvient moments when there wasn't a bush or tree in sight and end up just walking far enough away from the path that people might not see everything (but probably could).  I'd just turn my back on everyone else and like a 2 year old playing hide and seek by covering their eyes with their hands, I'd work on the basis that if I couldn't see them, they couldn't see me.  I have to say though, that although the campsite toilets have a bad reputation for spreading nasties, the new toilets for number two's were great and I had no problems with germy toilets and infection.  I took 100mL of hand sanitiser and used about half.  This is a must, not a luxury and I'd take 100mL again.

Get into a Routine

You quickly find yourself in a routine in the mornings and evenings, and find that after the first mornings inevitable faff, getting things organised takes less and less mental power, probably a good thing considering the mental capacity I had left on day 5.  I was told it was important to get a good post race routine going and someone even suggested I write it down so when I was knackered I wouldn't have to think too much.  I didn't go quite that far, but the principle is important.  I found I had a list of questions and responses in my head for every situation.  Cross the finish line, tea (they gave us an amazing cup of sweet moroccon tea), collect water, recovery shake, shoes/feet inspection, drink, raise legs, drink, chat to tent mates, drink, cook, email (eating dinner in the queue), drink, sleep.  Whilst out in the desert, if I started feeling rubbish I'd ask myself why, when was the last time I drank, took salt, ate something, how's my body temp, foot temp.  All these questions became automatic and I dealt with issues straight away, life was amazingly simple.

Your Expectations

I generally went through each day loving every second of the experience, taking in the surroundings and chatting to others on my way.  One question I was frequently asked though was "does the race live up to expectations?"  I initially found this a weird question as I was loving every second and I hadn't even compared my experience to any expectations I'd had before the race.  When I asked the question back, I found out what they were getting at.  All these super fit, sub three hour marathon runners were being forced to walk by the heat and terrain and that was a new experience for them.  Don't underestimate the amount you may be forced to slow down and work in some long hikes into your training plan, just in case you find you're out there for longer than you might have expected.

Final Words

I have to stress that this is my experience if you are about to hit the desert yourself, then you have to make your own decisions as to how you prep and what kit you take.  My only real advice is listen to your body, know your body and when you feel rubbish ask yourself why and do something about it immediately.  Don't wait until the checkpoint, sort it out straight away, is it water, salt, food or rest you need.  Do your feet need to cool for 5 mins?  Sorting out the little niggles immediately made sure I had a great and relatively pain free race.  Most importantly, enjoy and savour every moment of the experience, it's life changing!

As for me?  Well a lot of people have ask the question, "what's next?" and the honest answer is that I have to spend a little time on my Ph.D. before I sign up to anything big again.  But having said that, I've registered interest in the MdS 2015 and if I decide to go for it then my goal will be to compete rather than complete.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

The Race! Days Six and Seven

Days six and seven of the Marathon des Sables 2013

News from the field...

Day 6 - Today wasn't so bad, apart from being dog tired and everything aching a fair bit. The terrain was relatively kind, lovely open flats and dried up lakes.  I had intended to run as much a possible but the heat got a bit too much so was forced into a walk from cp 1 to cp 2 where I met Daz.  We were in good spirits so continued in our individual races, but just before cp 3 I met him again and he wasn't doing so well.  I really thought I was going to have to get the medics involved, especially when he started wondering off in the wrong direction and wouldn't respond when I called him!  We spent the rest of the race together and crossed the finish line when I promptly burst into tears (again!).  I then spent the next hour crying about everything, reading your emails, watching others cross the finish, phoning home, everything set me off!  A two year journey and I've done it, I've completed the Marathon des Sables!!!

Day 7 - Today was a 'fun run' which wasn't competitively timed and I have never seen such a slow start to a 'race'.  The countdown reached zero and everyone wandered over the start line, chatting and laughing.  The elites were part of the main field and not sprinting into the distance and the rest of us could chat to people we wouldn't have normally been with.  The whole 7km were over dunes so the terrain wasn't easy but nothing mattered, sore feet, rough terrain, dehydration, none of it mattered.  The only sad part to the day was that Rob and Mark weren't with us.

Thursday 11 April 2013

The Race! Days Four and Five

Days four and five of the Marathon des Sables 2013

News from the field...

Day 4/5, 54 degrees, 76km - Well I keep thinking this race can't get any more difficult and emotional and I'm proved wrong every time.  I started the 76km long stage yesterday at 8.30am and finished this morning at 5am. I spent the time with my tent mate Daz and so glad I did as we both suffered fairly severe heat stroke. I nearly passed out on the course and Daz wasn't aware who was around him at one point. We stopped at the checkpoint and recovered and then went on through the night, me getting very emotional with exhaustion, bursting into tears across the finish line.  Another tent mate withdrew early on so this desert has now claimed two of my tent mates.  It's currently 35 degrees in the shade and people are still coming across the finish line! I have to say though that the people here are absolutely amazing, everyone helping everyone, no matter the cost to them.  Today is rest and recovery, my feet still aren't blistered but my gaiters are failing and my skin is raw from sand in my shoes. Still, no injuries, just ache!

An update from home while we wait for news from the field

Dear Laura's readers, this is Emma-Louise, Laura's sister. Whilst we wait eagerly for an official update from Laura in the desert, I thought you would like to know what has been going on. As others went to bed at a more civilised hour last night, Mum, Dad and I remained glued to the internet waiting and watching for the time to appear at each checkpoint next to Laura's name to indicate that she had safely passed through. After a restless few hours sleep and some rapid visible hair loss from Dad (he never doubted her, he's just a good father), we awoke to the news that we had quite literally been dreaming of. Here's what happened...

At 08:35 yesterday morning (Moroccan time) Laura set out on the horrendously gruelling 75.7km leg of the Marathon des Sables. Nearly 21 hours later at 5.12 this morning she crossed the finish line on the hardest day of the 'Toughest Footrace on Earth'. What an achievement!!!! It's not over yet though, she has another 42km to run on Friday which is the last timed leg of the Marathon des Sables. How amazing (and exhausted!) must she feel and how proud are we all?!?! :-D

I shall post any news I receive from her as soon as we get it.

Thanks for reading!


Tuesday 9 April 2013

The Race! Day Three

Day Three of the MdS 2013

News from the field...

Day 3, 38 km, 40 something degrees with no breeze - Well today I met the Sahara desert and she bites! Endless sand dunes for miles, baking hot (even for me) and I ran out of water again. I thought yesterday was hard but I'll do those mountains twice over if I don't have to repeat today. At one point I wanted to cry but I don't think I had enough water in me.  Somehow I made it to the end and even managed to run some parts of the course.  We didn't get any emails yesterday but got both sets this evening and I have to say I really did cry then! Thank you so much to everyone for your words of encouragement.  It meant even more today as I started the race with one less tent mate.  He bravely fought the desert yesterday but the medics forced him to retire and had to give him a 6 litre drip!  He's ok now but that and finding out that a further 17 people were forced to retire yesterday brought home that this is real. Overall I'm holding together well, emotional but feet are still blister free (miracle!!!) if slightly swollen and no injuries so far...

The Race! Day Two

Day Two of the MdS 2013

News from the field...

Day 2, 18 miles, 10kg pack, 40 degrees.  Well, if yesterday was an introduction to the desert, today was an introduction to extreme! I can confidently say that I have never experienced a harder 18 miles in my life. There were numerous Did Not Finish-ers, flares going off and tears from the field in general.  I really had to dig deep today as the temperature entered the 40's, 3 huge mountains and I ran out of water. Unfortunately I started the day dehydrated so have had headaches, nose bleeds, dizzyness amd sickness. On the positive though, I made it through with no injuries or blisters and I'm in good spirits (apparently one of the most cheerful too). I received emails from home last night and reread them when it got tough, they really helped me through, so thank you to everyone. One of my tent mates isn't back yet and it's now dark so going to try and find out what's happened...

The Race! Day One

Day One of the MdS 2013

News from the field...

Hey, this place is amazing. So pretty. Race today went well. Pack is 10.5kg so walked today but finished feeling good and no blisters or injuries so can't ask for more than that!! Had dunes, mountains, rivers (with and without water) and rough rocky terrain today, introduction to everything in one 23 mile day. Loved it!! Survived a sand storm or two and had to sit on my tent to keep it from blowing away which was fun.  Tomorrow has a 1000m mountain to climb! Didn't expect anything quite that big but... bring it on!