No plan survives contact with the enemy

(the enemy in this case is diarrhoea and vomiting)

After an extensive training programme lasting some 18 months, I went into the Marathon De Sables 2021 high in the belief that I could place well. I ’m not an elite athlete of course but top 50 was my aim and would be an achievement to be proud of. 

My training had consisted of long runs, tempo runs and weighted hikes, even setting the FKT for the Wainwrights all supported by Missing Link coaching so why should I not indeed aim high. 

After 18 months of delays it was all go. The obligatory PCR test came back negative, we all joined up at London Gatwick Airport ready for the flight to Morocco. The queue at check in was an opportunity to look at other competitors, their kit and to generally get a feel for the atmosphere. The flight was eventless and we arrived in Morocco to the sound of a local band and dancers, all very nice I thought. I noted that the temperature on my watch read “feels like 59 degrees”!!! Higher than I was expecting but maybe my watch needed to adjust and I would acclimatise over the coming days.

Our transit to the first camp was less than a few hours, and as we pulled up we could see the traditional camp set up. There were a series of black tents called bivouacs, this is where we would sleep in groups of 8, and the bivouacs were arranged in a large circle. The black bivouacs were flanked by white tents consisting of doctors, media, catering and email facilities. This camp would move around the desert and meet us at the end of each stage. All very impressive considering the timings and logistics. 

The first few days of camp life was simple; find your tent, secure a spot to sleep, sort your admin (hydrate and take your salt tablets), sort and resort your running pack and eat food put on by the camp staff. The food was very nice and a welcome surprise. 

After two days of camp routine it was finally time to get to bed ready for stage 1, a 32km day to introduce the competitors to the heat and terrain of the next 7 days. I felt good, I have eaten well, drank lots of water and started my salt routine which meant two tablets with every water bottle. When I was running this would increase slightly but I was building to that. 

At around 12am, abruptly awoken by a stomach rumble that signalled an immediate need to find the bathroom. Thankfully after years of training in the military, I knew the importance of having the essentials to hand and I had my head torch and toiletries in easy reach and as I shuffled out of the tent clutching at my stomach, I did all I could to get as far away as possible but I could not make it to the toilet. For the next several minutes I felt the energy sap from my body as I stood there in near darkness, naked and depositing the contents of my stomach on the desert floor. 

This went on for 5 hours! Not the ideal start I thought, but let’s get on with it. As the camp woke and competitors started sorting kit for the race I started to feel even worse and it was clear my plan to do well would need to be adjusted! I quickly went from competing to completing the race. But the question was could I even make it through the first day. 

As we walked to the iconic start line, where Patrick welcomed everyone and played Highway to Hell, I did not hear anything, this was on account of me once again being sick over the barriers.  A competitor, on seeing this, asked if it was nerves. I wished it was only nerves! As the helicopter flew overhead to people waving arms and jumping for joy, I was once again vomiting over the barriers only feet away from the high ranking dignitaries. What must they have been thinking!!

So, it was clear, time, speed and cadence were not the things to concentrate on today. It was where is the nearest bush and just replacing all the water that was coming out. I just needed to make it to the end of stage 1. Surely, I could hike the route within the time. Well, I had to try as that’s all I had left if I didn’t want my race to be over before it even got started. 

During the day, I continued to stop periodically to empty my bodily contents. I was now becoming worried that I was not going to be able to hydrate adequately enough to replace all the lost fluids and nutrients. This was essential in temperatures that hit 59 degrees. 

Just make it to the end of stage 1, replace the nutrients and recover well ready for stage 2 which once again saw the group cover 32km. It was named Dune day on account of the 13km we would spend wading through soft sand. Sadly, I was not able to take on any food between stage 1 and 2 so went out there running on fumes. 3 days came and went and I was still not able to take food on or keep food in. I had managed 3 days of  30-35km with no food but the accumulative affect under these conditions were taking its toll. 

During these first three stages a total of 241 competitors had dropped out 39, 81 and 121 respectively. One of these were a fatality, a French runner that sadly lost his life on the route after all attempts to save him had failed. The mood around camp was low. Sleep was broken by needing the bathroom or listening to others in the same situation. Most competitors had stopped using the bathrooms and did all they could to simply get as far as possible before they let go. 

So came day 4. I woke well and even managed a few mouthfuls of food. Could this be, just as the event gets going I could replace what I ’d lost and make good progress. I knew that I needed to be careful as my stomach could react badly to the increase in food and calories. 

Stage 4 is the long day, a 82km route. The plan was to take it nice and simple, just get to the end. After 3km however it was clear that that was going to be much more difficult. The reason, I was hidden behind a dune in the all too familiar position and the food I have greedily consumed was gone and so was the energy I needed to power me through the day. 

How on earth was I fuelling my efforts? I had indeed put a few kilos of weight on in anticipation for some weight loss as I had experienced this during my Wainwrights record setting round. Surely the well was going to run dry soon as I had not taken anything onboard and any morsel that I had managed to nibble had gone to feed the insects of the desert.

After another trip to the toilet and round of vomiting, I went down hill quickly, I had nothing left in me. I finally made it to checkpoint 1 and went straight to the doctors tent to get some attention. I stayed for 60 minutes getting medical attention for much of that time. So I decided I should not go on, for my safety as I had started to become disoriented and started to stumble a few times, normally this is ok for me but as I was not able to keep the food down and had 70km to go which included a night section over a jebel (mountain). I did not want to become a problem to other competitors or the course staff. I stopped my watch and resigned to withdrawing.  I then thought about those who had donated, those who benefit from the donations, how could I let them down. They suffer far worse than this and have no option to quit. So as the doctor tended to another casualty, I readied myself and left the tent for leg 2. 

After only a few kilometres I was on the floor and not sure how I even got there. My pace was slow and I was beginning to become disoriented again. I should have stayed at the last checkpoint! The next 14km were painfully slow, and I had no option but to withdraw from the event at the next checkpoint. It was such a shame, I had so much more to give, my training was perfect but sometimes that’s just the way it goes. Make a plan, adapt and continue to adapt! 

Oh and it is true there is a man with a camel that follows at the back of the pack picking people off like the grim reaper. 

In the days that followed I recovered at the hotel whilst cheering on all those that had managed to continue and complete the course. There were finishes of all levels and it was great to see the joy in their faces as they joined us at the hotel with their medal and finisher T-shirt’s. 

Our tent, tent 55, were all doing the MdS to support Walking with the Wounded, a military charity supporting veterans with mental and physical health challenges. We were a mixture of military and non military people. I could not have wished for a greater group of people to have shared this experience with. The tent covered all types of competitors from Josh and Katie that pushed at the front of the pack to Lucy that walked the entire route checking on everyone and handing out morale with every stride.

Then there was Jack and Jamie that adjusted their approach depending on how they felt and their level of illness as they too had suffered with D&V. As for the 3 of us that did not finish we were each struck down with D&V. Sean and Ryan had helped others on the stage before they had withdrawn from the race. Ryan had even carried a stretcher with an injured competitor and Sean had carried kit for another competitor in a bad way and subsequently withdrew.

At the hotel we reunited and shared stories of our experiences over drinks. I ’m glad I stayed to see them finish and congratulate them for their unbelievable efforts. 

For me, there is unfinished business in the desert and I will be back to complete this epic adventure. I only hope the next group are as much fun and as supportive of each other.

All photos Christopher Gaskin/MdS

"After only a few kilometres I was on the floor and not sure how I even got there."

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