A sunrise start to the day today, which is an ordinarily unsociable 5.30m. I say ordinarily for two reasons. First, I had not slept well during the night and getting up at least meant things to occupy my mind instead of laying there worrying about what was to come. And secondly because by 6.10am the team of Berbers who had responsibility for the camp were dismantling our home around us, leaving us more or less destitute. I tried to ensure that my kit was all within easy reach both whilst the tent was collapsing around us and for later on during the race – I didn’t want to be taking my pack off for any reason at all during the event if I could help it.
|Being made homeless - the first of many times during the week.|
Since we were now self-sufficient I cracked open the first of my granola and vanilla Complan breakfasts – one of the few late changes to my kit which, as it turned out, worked really well all week. Once everyone was ready a collective mass of nearly 1,000 still relatively fresh faced and eager/nervous competitors wandered over to the start area. There was some hanging around whilst the race organisers got their publicity shots, including corralling us into pens to mark out the shape of a number 27 when viewed from the air (it was the 27th running of the race). It was noticeably warmer this morning, and with all the faffing at the start, we didn’t get going until just after 9am, by which time I was hot.
|Tent 64 ready to race.|
Stood at the start line as the apparently customary dulcet tones of AC/DC blasted out “Highway to Hell” from the PA system, the mood was incredible. Everyone was smiling, shaking hands, hugging, passing on expressions of good luck, and hopeful of receiving the same back in equal measure. And finally the countdown ended and we were off – runners everywhere fanning out from the start gantry as helicopters swept by overhead, kicking up clouds of dust and sand and producing a deafening roar.
|Rich and I at the start line.|
Before I knew it however, the noise abated, the field thinned and the enormity of the task ahead dawned. I’d told myself that for the first two days I would aim for a brisk walk rather than risking further injury to my calf by pushing too hard too soon. My experience of previous long distance events told me that my marching pace would be sufficient to hold my own amongst others who ran at the steady shuffle of ultra-marathoners. I just hoped that the heat would not slow me down too much.
The route took us past some ruins and through a village where lots of the local population had come out to cheer us on and no doubt wonder what these foreign idiots were doing. Within a few kilometres the route took us over some small dunes – only about 1km of them, but enough for me to notice the extra stretch in my calf muscle and re-confirm to myself my intention of taking it conservatively early on.
|Stage 1, early on.|
Rich and the rest of my tent-mates all ran ahead of me after the start so I got into my own rhythm and started click-clacking along to the beat of my poles hitting the ground. The rest of the section to Check Point 1 at 14km was reasonable, and I managed to keep up a decent pace. By this stage I’d managed to catch up with Paula and we spent a fair distance passing each other as she alternated running (faster than me) and walking (slower than me). At CP1 I was mindful not to get caught in the trap of staying too long and wasting time, so I filled my bottles under the welcome shade next to the 4WD vehicles and pushed on.
From CP1 it started to get really hot. We were heading towards mid-day and to add to the challenge, the hills were about to start. The first one not too bad – a short sharp rise followed by a nice even descent. Paula and I caught up with Rich at the top of the climb and we set off at a similar pace together. The heat of the sun was slowing the runners, but my marching pace was pretty constant. To be honest, even if I could have gone much faster I would have struggled to make my water last long enough between check points. As it was, 1.5litres was barely enough to see me through each one.
Next came another climb and a traverse along a rocky undulating spine before a steep drop down onto a rocky valley and a few smaller climbs to get over to Check Point 2 at 25km. By now the temperature was getting obscene – rumoured to be about 44 degrees Celcius at its peak. The heat just drained energy out of me and I found it difficult to push on, and even more difficult to eat enough out on the trail. I was starting to get some hot spots on my feet so at CP2 I spent a couple of minutes adjusting my trainers – I was pleased to see the gaiters working well with virtually no sand inside them or my shoes at all. Rich and Paula had dropped back by CP2 and once again I set off on my own (not counting the dozens of other unknown people around me!). This in itself wasn’t a problem and conversations were struck up with a wide variety of people and nationalities as the day progressed – a minimum of a “bon courage” or similar was almost obligatory as you passed people, or they passed you. Each of us had our name and nationality on our race numbers, which was a really nice touch as you could cheer people on by name, and in many cases in their native tongue.
|Technical descent bfore CP2|
From CP2 it was a short, although incredibly hot trudge across more of the rocky valley before the major climb of the day up the Jebel Tibert. It wasn’t an especially steep or long climb and had it been in the Peak District, no doubt it would have thrown up few challenges, but in the stifling heat it was very hard. In places there was just soft sloping sand across the track up the hill and it was hard going to stay on it, let alone make progress up it. Eventually the top appeared, and our first glimpse of bivouac 2. A race marshall was situated at the top of the hill to cheerfully inform us all that it was only 3km from there to the camp. To be fair, this assertion is backed up by the road book, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks it was much less than 5km. The last section was pan flat across a valley floor and as would become a theme throughout the week, the bivouac never seemed to get any closer. Almost like a mirage it just hung in the distance, until all of a sudden you were within spitting distance and it was all over.
Through the finish line, and I forgot to wave at the web cam – at this stage I hadn’t realise how glued to it people at home would be. I was smiling at the end, pleased that the day was done and keen to get some rest. I was then allocated my night-time ration of water – 3 x 1.5l bottles which I struggled to carry with my poles back to the tent.
Back home, Paula followed me in a few minutes behind, with Rich about half an hour back. The others were all ahead of me. Before I could relax a sandstorm blew up, covering everything in sand and making it really uncomfortable. We dropped the sides of the tent, but it didn’t really keep the sand out, and made it really hot inside.
To cheer everyone up and because it was Easter Sunday, I handed out Creme Eggs to everyone in the tent – amazed that they’d retained their shape despite the ridiculous heat. The gesture was welcomed by everyone there, and for my part, I was glad that my pack would be at least 360g lighter the following day.
I made sure my personal admin was seen to in the tent, surveying my feet for damage and eating. A recovery shake was first on the list, then rehydration salts then feet. The hotspot I’d had earlier had turned into a small blister on my heel so I popped it and cleaned it, then set about replenishing the rest of my energy reserves.
|Happier times when my feet still looked normal.|
I’d taken an average of 2,850 calories for each day and so far today I’d not eaten anywhere near enough on the trail. This would be something I would focus on much more in the coming days. In fact the calories I’d taken, whilst seen as almost gluttonous to those working to the bare minimum of 2,000 per day, were nowhere near enough to replace all the energy I would expend throughout the week and I ended up losing around 3 or 4 kg during the course of the race.
I also noted that I was quite heavily de-hydrated and although there wasn’t a lot I could do about that whilst on the course as the water was rationed, I tried my best to drink all the water allocated to me for the night time.
Considering how remote this race is, it is incredibly well organised and set up. We were able to send and receive emails during the course of the event, and so I went to file a race report back home. We were limited to the length of the message but it was enough to tell well wishers that I was alive at least. When I got back to the tent, the emails from home had been delivered which was a welcome distraction before bedding down once again by about 8pm. I was by now very tired.