Friday, 20 April 2012

MDS post race summary

Hi everyone

Well as you will know if you were following my progress, I finished the MDS successfully.  Woohooooo - another successful achievement to add to the list and a nice medal to put up on my wall.

I am sure you all want to know more about the experience itself so I thought I would write a bit of a post race summary.  Before starting I have to say that the event was a lot harder than I had imagined it would be.  We all knew going out to Morocco that the terrain would be rough, but I think a lot of us first timers underestimated just how rough it was, and just how much damage it would do to our feet.  On top of that the mental strength required to complete it is incredible.  When times are tough you know that all you have to do is pull the flare and you can end the pain immediately.  Or you can push on for hours and hours and endure the pain.

Running fast on perfect feet is one thing, but running on blistered, bruised and sore feet is quite something else.  In fact for me it proved impossible and for the last 3 days I resorted to walking/ limping in order to cover the ground.

The first 3 days my feet were in fairly good condition and I was able to run some good times and get some good positions.  A lot of people start the MDS cautiously, but I wanted to make my mark from day 1 and show myself as a serious contender for a top 50 spot.  I was very emotional at the starting line as I was expecting great things of myself and knew a lot of pain and effort lay ahead if I wanted to accomplish my top 50 dream.  I was extremely psyched up.

Early on in the race - clothes fairly clean and in good spirits
A couple of days later - feet starting to blister and my top half wasting away

Once the race started the pace was fast, and I think a lot of people were running way above their limits.  I tried to keep my heart rate under control but I realised that if I wanted a top 50 spot I was going have to push very hard.  My heart rate was 155 for most of the stage and that is way too high for me.  I was hoping that I would be somewhere near the finish by the time I hit the wall.  In the end I hit the wall about 1km from the finish and had to walk most of it, although I was only overtaken by around 6 people during that time as the field was rather spread out.

Apparently stage 1 was a very tough stage 1 compared to previous years.  There were rumours flying around that due to the reduction in the number of abandons year after year and people starting to question the toughness of the toughest footrace on earth, the organisers had decided to make 2012 a very tough course.  Some of the previous MDS competitors confirmed that it was an unusually hard day 1.  The route had a lot of jebels in it, and on the last jebel of the day the incline was pure sand.  I didn't see anyone even try to attempt running up the sandy incline.  Even in the top 50, people still tend to walk up the steeper jebels.  Maybe only the top 20 elite runners actually run up them, but they were too far out of sight for me to confirm whether or not that was the case.  Day one was also a very hot day.  It was amazing that for the whole 2 weeks I had been in Morocco acclimatising, it had been rather cool, and then as soon as the race started it got hot.  I found that the heat was no problem for me though, so maybe my acclimatisation had served its purpose, as other Brits were struggling a little with the heat.  I finished stage 1 in 42nd place much to my satisfaction and to the amazement of some friends and family following my progress back home.

Stage 2 was an absolute scorcher.  The organisers later informed us that the mercury had hit 52C at one point in the day.  Many people struggled with the heat and managing their rationed water.  In this regard I think it is better to run the course and be back in camp around midday.  The ones who walk the whole course end up being out in the hot sun for hours and hours, and they only have the same ration of water as those of us who arrive back in camp around midday after having run the course.  In terms of pace I took stage 2 a little easier than stage 1 as I realised I had gone off a bit fast on stage 1, just like many others had done too.  Nevertheless I managed to come 58th, which was also a good result.  The terrain was very flat (small sand dunes and a dried up lake) and a lot of people described it as a runner's day.  I probably could have done a lot better if I had gone slower on stage 1.  This time I didn't hit the wall though, and I managed to keep running the whole way.

By stage 3 I was starting to get quite a few blisters and bruised little toes, but I was still able to run.  Stage 3 was a real toughie.  I started very slow as I wanted to conserve energy for the long stage the following day.  By checkpoint 1 my position was nowhere near the top 50 and I was a little disconcerted, but after checkpoint 1 there was a very long shallow climb on sand, and I saw that almost everyone in sight was walking up it.  I am pretty strong and that kind of incline didn't bother me one bit, so I just kept on jogging up it.  Like this I was overtaking hundreds of people and by the time I hit the top of the incline I realised I was once again in a very good position (almost certainly in the top 50).  The descent was very rocky and it would have been easy to roll an ankle, but I am quite experienced in descending trails and was able to overtake more people on the downhill whilst still maintaining some degree of caution.  After the descent there were sand dunes followed by more sand dunes, and that went on for quite some time.  I put myself into four wheel drive mode and just kept on ploughing through them.  A guy later told me that I run like a tractor, and I know what he means.  I was very happy with my progress as I saw the physical state of those around me struggling with the terrain.  I felt very relaxed and my heart rate was low.  It was very hot though and I was wondering how long before the next checkpoint.  One Italian guy that I passed pleaded with me to give him some of my water but I couldn't as I had very little left and was also starting to get worried.  It took quite some time for the checkpoint to come into view, and when it did I breathed a sigh of relief.  After the checkpoint we had to cross a dried up lake, and there was a big sandstorm.  Visibility was very low and unless you were very close to the markers you could not see them.  I just tried to stick to the runner in front and he tried to stick to the one in front of him and so on, each of us hoping that the one in front was heading in the right direction.  Each time we saw a marker we knew we were heading the right way and it was very comforting.  After the dried up lake we had to follow a stony road to very near the finish and then cross a small section of stony ground to the finish itself.  On this flat stony section several people overtook me as despite being relaxed and not overly tired I didn't seem to have a second gear to change up into.  There were also a couple of people who had misjudged their pace and were walking, so I gained a few places by overtaking them.  More of less though I held the same position for most of the day after having overtaken all those people on the shallow sandy climb after checkpoint 1.  That day I was 45th overall.

Owing to my top 50 overall position after stages 1 to 3, I had to join the elite start on stage 4.  Stage 4 was the long stage and was 81.5km.  The elite group, including myself, had to start 3 hours after the others.  This meant I knew I would be running well into the dark, which I wasn't really looking forward to.  At the same time however, it meant I was going to be continually passing the slower ones from the general start and that is extremely motivating, as opposed to being passed by people all day long.  My feet were a hell of a mess and I hobbled to the start line to stand next to the likes of the legendary Ahansal, wondering how on earth I was going to run 81.5km in this state.  Ahansal got us to start 30 seconds after the official start as a kind of joke to Patrick.  It was not as though 30 seconds was going to make any difference to me anyway, so I was happy to join in with the joke.  After the intentionally 30 second delayed start we all set off.  Almost all the others immediately went off ahead and I just settled into a very gentle pace that I hoped I could maintain for the whole 81.5km without needing to stop.  There were only 2 people that seemed to be running at close to my pace and I ran for quite some time with a lady from the US called Megan.  She told me that if I just kept going at my comfortable pace without stopping I would do a good time and would most likely finish before 1 or 2 of the other elites who had gone off too fast for their abilities.  She had done the MDS before and finished the long stage the previous year around 25th, so her advice seemed to be worth its weight in gold.

After the first few kilometres there was a jebel to climb and I caught up with a couple of the other elites just by plodding steadily up it.  There were places where we all stopped and walked too, in order to conserve energy.  When we reached the top there were 4 of us all together.  The downhill was very steep (around 20%) and the organisers had laid a rope down it, but it was mostly sand so I bounded down it without requiring the assistance of the rope.  Not long after that was the first checkpoint, and after a brief stop for an energy gel and to fill up my bottles I ploughed on.  It wasn't long after the first checkpoint that I saw one of the elites struggling.  It turned out later that he had to be put on a drip.  As the kilometres went on the walkers from the main start came into sight and then it was a great feeling to be passing one after another of them.  Almost all gave some kind of encouragement and I did the same for them.  The camaraderie was fantastic.  I was still running by checkpoint 2, but I was starting to slow up.  The pain in my feet was getting worse and worse and shortly after checkpoint 2 a bad pain started to appear in my groin, most likely brought on by my modified running style due to my feet.  Then shortly afterwards my knees started aching badly.  It was at this point that I had to make a decision - try to push on with my aim of top 50 and risk not finishing at all due to injury, or switch to self preservation mode, give up my idea of a top 50 finish and just make sure I finished it.  I opted for the latter, deciding that the idea of failing the MDS would be hard for me to live down unless I was on my death bed.  There would also be a lot of disappointed sponsors if I didn't finish, and Anny was coming out to Morocco to join me and I didn't want that to be all for nothing.  So soon after checkpoint 2 I began walking, and I never really ran again after that, save for a few steps in the soft dunes on the final day.

The hours dragged on and the pain in my feet became worse and worse.  Every step I took it seemed like my little toes were banging against the side of my shoes, and in their bruised state it was agony.  My steps shortened and I was limping badly.  By this time night was starting to fall and that only made things harder.  I didn't want to bang my toes on a rock and at times it was hard to see the terrain well with my headlamp.  The path was also not marked that well in the dunes and it was easy to get lost.  I was mentally and physically exhausted by the time I rolled in to checkpoint 4.  At checkpoint 4 there are tents to sleep in, and the medics said I looked terrible and needed to rest.  I wasn't arguing with them and was happy to get some sleep and continue in the morning, not giving two hoots about the fact that the clock would be ticking the whole time I would be sleeping.  Shortly before retiring to one of the tents I saw what I believe was a camel spider.  It was not as big as I had imagined, but it definitely looked like what I have seen in the photos on the internet.  At the point in time I saw it, it was heading towards one of the tents but after I alerted the occupants they swiftly moved it on.  Don't forget that the whole race we were sleeping in open tents and nothing was to stop the creepy crawlies climbing over us in the night.  But after the first night you are usually just too tired to give a damn.

It was hard to get any decent sleep with people leaving at all hours of the morning to try to complete the long stage before the time limit.  But for me it was far too cold outside to leave the comfort of my sleeping bag, and it was also still dark.  I decided to wait till first light before heading off.  By the time I headed off it was around 5.30am.  Progress was still slow but at least it was light, and that helped me mentally.  I decided that to complete the remaining 30 something kilometres under the time limit I just needed to keep plodding/ limping slowly onwards.  At the next checkpoint I saw one of the other former top 50 boys who I had walked with for around an hour the previous night.  He had also been having a lot of problems with his feet but had decided not to rest and to try to run on to the next checkpoint.  When I saw him he told me that he had slept at checkpoint 5 but that his feet had swollen so badly when he took his trainers off that he had had to cut his trainers in half to get his feet back in them and that he had no hope of continuing and so was abandoning.  That was when I knew that my self preservation strategy of walking instead of running was the right choice, as otherwise that could have been me abandoning the race.

After the final checkpoint on the long stage there was a huge thunderstorm and I was caught in the middle of it.  The rain came before I had a chance to put on my waterproofs, so I was already wet by the time I got my jacket on.  The temperature dropped and I started shivering frantically.  I was worried that I would get hypothermia and by the time I arrived back it wouldn't be far off.  It would take me 30 minutes wrapped up in a foil blanket to feel warm again.  That however was not the end of it.  Part way through the storm the skies opened up and big hailstones pelted down on those of us still on the course.  There was nowhere to shelter and I wondered what else could go wrong next.  It was so terrible it was as if someone was playing a big joke on us.  Each and every hailstone stung as it hit.  After a few thousand or so had hit me I just didn't care any more - nothing now was going to stop me getting to the end.  I finished the long stage 681st.

Stage 5 was the marathon stage and I knew I would be limping the whole way, which was kind of depressing.  I hate walking when running is an option, as walking just takes too darn long.  There was also a time limit to get to the final checkpoint that meant I would need to keep up an average of around 4km/h.  That may not sound bad at all, but it is if you can only limp with baby steps.  I knew that to be at the final checkpoint before the time limit I could not afford to stop and rest at any point during the day.  In the end I made the final checkpoint half an hour before it closed.  The time limit to complete the final section was very generous and I knew that time would not be an issue.  Nevertheless I wanted to get to the camp as soon as possible as I knew Anny would be waiting for me at the finish.  She had paid to fly out to Morocco with the friends and family package and they bring them to meet us for the end of stage 5.  I had had no contact with her since the race had started as I didn't have my mobile with me, but I guessed that she would have seen my times had changed drastically after stage 3 and figured out that something was wrong with me.   I also knew that she would be extremely worried.  After 10 and a half hours I hobbled to the finish line as darkness was falling around me, and Anny threw her arms around me and burst into tears.  I was expecting her to ask me to drop out of the race upon seeing my current state but she didn't.  I think she could see how much it meant to be to finish the race and I reassured her by telling her there were only 15.5km left to go the following day.  We spent an hour or two together, during which time Anny was able to get an inside view of the Doc Trotters medical tent (she refused to look at what they were doing to some people's feet as she was a bit squeamish), and then she left me so I could get some sleep ready for the final stage.  Everyone else was already in the tent and glad to see that I had made it back, and we all then went straight to sleep.  In fact I was so tired I didn't eat anything before going to sleep.

On the final morning I woke up in good spirits despite the waves of pain passing through my body.  Everyone who has made it this far knows they will most likely complete it.  In fact there is not even a time limit on the final stage, so you could in theory crawl on your hands and knees and still make it.  I was very hungry and tried to get hold of any spare food that people were offering.  Usually there is plenty of spare food around, especially in the first few days but now and again even in the last few days.  People tend to get sick of the same food day after day and hardly eat anything unless they can scrounge something new from someone else.  This was certainly the case for me, and there was no way another freeze dried meal was going near my mouth.  I took 2 Tramadol tablets to numb the pain in my body (apparently it is in the same family of drugs as morphine) and prepared for the start of the final "sprint" stage.  The first part was rocky ground and all I could do was limp until the Tramadol kicked in.  After that we went into the dunes and on the soft sand I found I was able to shuffle along at a pace faster than walking alone.  I kept up my shuffle on the uphill, downhill and flat as this was where I had spent my 2 weeks of acclimatisation training, so I was happy running/ shuffling in these dunes.  After a while though the pain in my knees came back - caused by 42km of limping the previous day.  I decided to walk and avoid the risk of a knee injury and having to abandon this close to the finish.  Nevertheless I finished the final stage a little quicker than I had expected.  Some of my tent mates had struggled more than me on this final day.  In the end I finished the stage 643rd.  It was great to be able to share the moment of finishing with Anny.  She was half expecting a tear or two at the finish line, but I told her those had been shed the previous 2 days when I was struggling with my mind, not knowing whether I could force myself to finish or not.  The final day was basically just a relief rather than a surprise at finishing.

Overall I finished 553rd out of 795 finishers and there were 59 people who abandoned.  Here is the breakdown of my times and positions for each of the separate stages:

Stage 1 - 42nd - 3H36'04
Stage 2 - 58th - 4H23'44
Stage 3 - 45th - 3H45'27
Stage 4 - 681st - 26H00'29
Stage 5 - 787th - 10H30'36
Stage 6 - 643rd - 3H11'15

Over a week on and my feet are recovering nicely.  I lost one toenail but other than that I am fine.  Some of my tent mates had stress fractures so those may take longer to heal.  Others got infections in their feet and had to take antibiotics.  By next week I am sure I will feel fine again and be able to gently ease back into training.  At the moment though I have a stinking cold/flu and am not even tempted to go running.  I am trying to feed myself up and strengthen my immune system as it was pretty weak by the time I finished due to lack of sleep, physical exhaustion and heavily restricted calories.  There are so many challenges to face in the MDS and I definitely think it deserves to be considered one of the toughest footraces in the world (although I will certainly not go so far as to say "the toughest").  It is a serious exercise in self management and mental toughness.  You have to deal with extremes of heat (and even cold at times), rationed water, damaged feet, long distances, restricted calories and lack of desire to eat (despite knowing you have to in eat order to recover).  But everyone in the race is part of one big family and they try to help each other through the tough spots.  The guys I shared my tent with were a fantastic bunch and I really hope to see them all again.  Everyone in tent 72 made it to the finish and we all helped each other out as each of us struggled with our highs and lows.  Tent 72 rocks.

The occupants of tent 72

Gear wise I was happy with a lot of my choices and will probably write a separate post later about that. A couple of things that I didn't get on so well with though were the Raidlight bottles (leaky and hard to open the valves), the PT03 desert shoes and the freeze dried food (too many of the same flavours day after day).  My decision to not take a sleeping mat worked out absolutely fine though and it was never uncomfortable for me sleeping on the Berber rug alone.

I hope you continue to follow my blog as I start preparing for my next challenge - a sub 3 hour marathon.  Just as this was, it will be a journey of ups and downs that I want to share with you every step of the way.  Writing things down helps me to achieve them, so I will continue to do it.

6 comments:

  1. Wow it sounds like a brutal race. Congrats on finishing and listening to your body when you needed to.

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  2. Thanks. Yes it was rather brutal. Amazingly many people seem to go back for more though. I met a lot of people who had done it twice or more. They say that after a few weeks you forget the pain and you just want the whole experience of mind over matter again, and the surreal scenery.

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  3. Good job Paul...you made wise choices. Congratulations!

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  4. Thanks Martha. I had a feeling that the dull ache in my groin in the weeks beforehand was going to come back and haunt me during the race.

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  5. The "Megan" from the US who gave you advice about going at a comfortable pace was most likely Meghan Hicks. She is one of the top female US ultrarunners. You can read her blog about her MDS experience here:

    http://www.meghanmhicks.com/2012/07/04/2012-marathon-des-sables-this-is-what-its-like/

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  6. Hey Femi. Yes thats her as it says on the irunfar website that she was in the late start as the 5th placed women, and I was also in the late start too. We were the only ones that went off at a real steady pace in that pack. She managed to keep going though whilst I stopped and walked after a while and never ran again for the rest of the duration of the MDS due to feet problems. How is your training going by the way? I was late leaving work tonight so I went to the track instead and did some Yasso 800s.

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