Marathon des Sables 2014, a great adventure – Day Four

Last updated: 20-Aug-18

By John Bell

Stage 4: 09/04/14, Ba Hallou to Rich Merzoug, 81.5Km

This is what we came for. This is the day that decides whether we are to finish the Marathon des Sables or fall by the wayside. 81.5km in one hit, maximum permitted completion time 34 Hours. I am excited and good to go as we make our way to the front of the start line. Tent 145 is all in the right frame of mind for the challenge that lies ahead and we have established a firm bond between us. Daz and I again decide to run together.

The top 50 elite runners are to set off at 1200 whilst we are ready for a 0900 start. The leaders come to the start and shake hands with those at the front, speak to television crews and are there to cheer us on our way. The usual talk from Patrick followed by dancing to ‘Happy’ for the cameras – no doubt those at home will enjoy this on YouTube.

The messing about is over and AC/DC starts to signal the ten-second countdown – can’t wait to get stuck in. We get to 6 when a guy two places to the right of us collapses. You can imagine the rush to catch him, call a halt to the start so that he doesn’t get trampled by about 900 pairs of feet and gets the help he needs. The medics are brilliant, moving him swiftly to the side of the start lane, create a human barrier around him to protect him and get the rest of us on our way. This is not the start any of us were expecting and not a sight anyone would want to see at the best of times, let alone when about to set off on the longest of days into the desert. We don’t know what came of him but hope that this was only a faint rather than something more serious.

Daz and I were running steadily over quite uneven ground that required constant concentration and had got to about 4 km into the section leading to checkpoint 1 when his knee went. He was able to maintain a reasonable pace walking but couldn’t run on it. We continued together, constantly scanning the hills to our left to try and spot where the mighty El Otfal jebel was located. This is a legendary climb for those that undertake the MDS, about 1.5km of ascent, starting at 13 degrees and for the last 500m becoming a more challenging 30-degree climb. The last section has a safety rope that was most welcome.

We passed quickly through the checkpoint and immediately got into the climb. This was a little unnerving at times and it was easy to see how people could fall off with the weight of their backpacks, clambering upwards over boulders and sand. One wrong step and your ankle or worse would go. As the climb became steeper, the feet of the person in front were in your face, yours were in the face of the person behind you, the rock face was by no means firm and so this was an exercise in looking after each other, getting up to the summit as quickly as reasonably possible and trying to take in the breath-taking scenery. Eventually we just had to take a few photos that I am glad we did. Stunning.

Eventually we arrived at the top and took a few moments to enjoy the panorama around us. From this vantage point we could see right across two separate valleys. Daz knee and my feet coped well with the climb – the 1.5km descent took more of a toll. This was down through what our Road Book described as a rocky oued (river) bed. We had to clamber down over boulder after boulder, sometimes a small jump was required due to momentum which was jarring on knees and feet; shoulders also took a bashing from the movement of our backpacks. The rocks were predominantly sand coloured and consequently reflected the heat of the sun onto us from both sides.

The descent through the river bed – could it be any rockier? Photo credit: John Bell.

From there we hit a combination of stony tracks and sand dunes that led to checkpoint 2, 21.3 km into the day. At this point Daz sought medical attention on his knee but this proved to be a rather unsatisfactory experience. Not convinced the doctor/medic appreciated what Daz was enduring. He put some of the same tape that my feet were bandaged with down the side of the knee – a pretty half-hearted attempt in my opinion. No surprise that his achieved nothing at all and we may as well have saved the time spent by moving on quicker. Checkpoint 3 was 10.7km away but was more easily navigated in terms of difficulty underfoot than the last section. A hot, dusty, unforgiving couple of hours later we came to some sort of oasis which appeared to be accommodation you could rent – why on earth you would want to be there I don’t know, you may as well have been on the moon. We passed through a rocky gorge which reminded me of some of the scenes in Star Wars and out onto a vast desert plain. I could just see the Top Gear crew having a blast racing some botched together bangers across the plain whilst trying to ‘accidentally’ blow each other up.

At checkpoint 3 we were issued with glow sticks that we were obliged to activate no later than 7pm. We caught up with Duncan (Tent 145) who had stopped to get treatment for his feet. In the medical tent there was a woman, flat on her back, sobbing, not yet on a drip but clearly in some distress and undergoing medical tests/discussion with the doctor. Unlikely that she continued from there. We were only at 32km, 49.5km to go. We had intended to get Daz some proper treatment on his knee but were told there was about 30 minute wait. I found some shade behind one of the jeeps and got a few energy snacks down. Daz got fed up waiting and we agreed to head for checkpoint 4 (13.3km away) and seek treatment there. For some hours now we were both on Paracetamol Codeine for pain management, and whilst I could still run there was no way Daz could put any running pressure through his knee. We continued at as fast a walk as he could manage.

We found ourselves confronted with the second jebel climb of the day (Mhadid Al Elahau) which had a 13 degree gradient followed by a track running along the crest for about 1km. The views into each valley were stunning but we didn’t have much time to enjoy them as we had to focus on where each footstep landed. Down on the valley floor we caught up with various fellow travellers and together we all headed for the next hill. We arrived at the foot of a sandy ascent and the light had fallen to the point where head torches would soon be required. The glow sticks were activated and duly placed in a visible mesh pocket on the back of our packs, torches were put in place and we continued the climb.

Daz knee was clearly giving him significant problems and by now and he had moved on to Cocodamol to try and manage the pain. Darkness had fallen and we had to move through an area of soft sand that would have been fun in daylight and on good legs, but must have been excruciating for him given the descent and following traverse, which was across a slope. I became increasingly concerned that Daz would be forced to pull out although this remained an unspoken thought. My job was to keep the wheels firmly on and provide encouragement. Any hint of negative thought in terms of distance to go was quickly turned to a positive in terms of how far we had come. I knew if we could complete this day, we had a day of rest followed by a measly marathon stage and that Daz would be able to cope with that. Eventually we arrived at checkpoint 4, still significantly ahead of any cut off time and found a jeep to put our feet up against – literally. With our feet elevated to help with fluid retention, which occurs in the extremities – cankles and sausage fingers are not an attractive look – we took on more salt, food and contemplated the next few stages.

Fortunately Steve, the head of MDS in the UK, wandered over for a chat and to make sure we were ok. We explained our concern at not being able to get proper attention on Daz knee and in the blink of an eye, he whisked him in front of a doctor, translated perfectly into French what the problem was and in about 15 min a happier and more confident team mate re-appeared with his knee covered in padding soaked in Ibruleve and armed with Tramadol. For those who are not familiar with this, it is a narcotic-like pain reliever with opiate qualities. This was ditched in favour of Dolpamine, which is 1000mg paracetamol in one hit. Consequently we were able to crack on at an increased pace without talking to imaginary pink camels. As we set off we saw many people crashed out in temporary bivouacs, some cooking dinner and others exhausted for the time being. We had completed 45.3km by this point so I guess this was to be expected.

Arriving at the summit of El Otfal jebel. Photo credit: Cimbaly and V Campagnie MDS2014.

A green laser beam was set up to lead us into checkpoint 5 which we gained relatively quickly. We came across a group of guys in in pink tutu’s and after about three minutes moving at their pace, decided to push ahead as some of them were clearly on Tramadol and were in danger of driving us nuts. Motivation from any source is good to keep you pushing yourself when all you want to do is stop and rest. By checkpoint 6 we were firmly in ‘grit the teeth and get the job done’ mode. Conversation had given way to shared silence and we pulled each other through, eventually resorting to music for the first (and only) time. The final leg was mental torture as we could see the camp from about 6 Km away. To our right we could see the sun beginning to rise and in front of us people who had soldiered through alone and who were now in a zombie like state, drawn to the light of the camp. We overtook a few of them along the way and eventually crossed the line in 21 hours 36 min. Whilst a good 12.5 hours ahead of the cut-off time, we both felt that with better luck we could have done this in around 16 – 18 hours. My feet are trashed but nothing that will prevent me getting to the finish.



                                                                                                                                                                                                             The view from the bottom. Photo credit: John Bell.


"We passed through a rocky gorge which reminded me of some of the scenes in Star Wars"

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REVIEW Marathon des Sables 2014, a great adventure – Day Four

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Date Range

Global - Virtual


A virtual race which can be run at any time shown on the dates shown, on any type of terrain in any country.

Suitable for

For runners from beginners to experienced as you choose your own course and challenge based on the guidelines and options set by the virtual race organiser.

Endurance - Multi-activity


An ultra distance race including at least two of the following activities such as running, swimming, cycling, kayaking, skiing and climbing. It may also include different climatic conditions (eg ice, snow, humidity, cold water, mud or heat).

Suitable for

Experienced multi-skilled athletes who have trained for the different activities included in this event. Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements and any specialist equipment required such as a wetsuit, skis or a mountain bike.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with very challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity, heat or at high altitude)

Suitable for

Very experienced long distance ultra runners (min 3 years’ experience) or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races is often subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Purchase of specialist kit is often recommended for these races.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with some challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity or heat)

Suitable for

Experienced runners who have completed at least 4 ultras in last 12 months, or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements.



Increase of up to 1500 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed several ultra distances or similar events, or are doing long distance running regularly, with elevation shown.



Increase of up to 1000 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed at least one ultra in last 6 months or are doing long distance running (>26 miles) regularly, with elevation shown.



Very little change < 500 metres

Suitable for

First ultra event. Runners completing a marathon or doing regular long distance running (>26 miles) in the last 6 months.