Classic midlife crisis behaviour it may be, but last year I gave up drinking and set myself a 12-month challenge. And, as sports cars and extramarital affairs aren’t really my thing, I looked elsewhere for something that would really test me and raise money for Children with Cancer, too.
The Marathon des Sables (MdS) – or “Marathon of the Sands” – has always held a macabre appeal for me. This year’s, the 34th, was to cover almost the equivalent of six marathons in the Sahara desert in southern Morocco over six days. I am 45, and have run a total of six marathons in my life – none of which were across desert terrain while carrying my food, clothes, and sleeping bag.
At 6ft 2in and 13st 5lb I’m not exactly built for long-distance endurance running. But it wouldn’t be a challenge otherwise, would it? So I signed up – along with, it turned out, a load of similar-minded individuals all working out their midlife crises in the desert. Less MdS, more MLC, maybe.
The preparation was as much mental as physical. I thought about the race every day. I researched constantly, reading books and online blogs, joining Facebook groups – I even had a photo of the 2018 event as my screensaver. I knew that conquering doubts would be key to completing the event and found that the work of the ancient Stoics (“Our perceptions are the only thing that we are in complete control of”) was incredibly powerful.
I ran up and down Primrose Hill for hours on end to try to replicate the jebels (hills) of the desert. The terrain would be a mixture of massive sand dunes known as ergs, wide, dried-out river beds known as wadis, stony paths and jebels, passing through several small villages. I slept some nights on the floor to prepare for a week of discomfort.
There was a palpable air of excitement on the MdS charter flight, as a few hundred nutcases compared kit and training regimes while stuffing our faces with Pret a Manger sandwiches to pile up calories. The chat was driven by nervous energy but it was an overwhelmingly positive and friendly atmosphere, which would be the theme for the week.
Britons make up about 40 per cent of the entrants, but there were 53 countries represented on the buses for the eight-hour journey into the desert. We arrived at the bivouac base camp in El Borouj in the dark at 8pm. After some food, it was time for bed: mine was in Tent 56, a structure that consisted of a blanket over some poles with eight of us lying side by side on whatever mat we had brought with us. These tents are pulled down at 6am every day by the team of Berbers who then drive to the next bivouac to erect them again. The first thing that hit me was how cold it gets at night; the low temperatures really tested my sleeping bag selection.
Saturday was spent packing and repacking my race rucksack before handing in my “big bag” in to await my return. As I said goodbye to mouthwash, iPad, books etc, it all started to feel mighty real. My rucksack still weighed in at 10kg with water (about the same as one and a half bowling balls).
The 350 people who work on the event include more than 80 volunteers from all walks of French medicine. I had one set of blisters treated by a Parisian heart surgeon.
Next day, it was time to start: 20 miles across small dunes and stony plateaus, through the small village of Merzane where we met the first of hundreds of kids who would follow us asking for cadeaux, and across the large wadi at En Nejjakh.
Day Two was known as Dune Day, from Tisserdimine to Kourci Dial Zaid through the infamous Merzouga dunes – this year lengthened to eight miles of the day’s total 22.2 miles, which took us through Erg Chebbi, a sea of towering dunes. I absolutely loved it. Shifting sandy peaks as high as mountains went on and on as far as the eye could see. Rather than “me versus the environment”, I felt at one with the desert, totally at home, even in the searing temperatures of 40C (100F), and I felt that I could go on forever. I was so glad I’d decided to take walking poles to make these sandy summits that little bit easier to climb and give me an advantage over those poor souls who had opted to save some weight.
Day three was my twin boys’ 10th birthday, and I felt them with me as I covered the 23 miles from Kouci Dial Zaid to Jebel El Mraier. The run was starting to take its toll – the number of people on drips due to dehydration was on the rise, and one runner needed a helicopter evacuation. I had a journal with a daily quote and good luck notes from my family for each evening. Having my children tell me how proud they were of me was an amazing motivation.
The Long Day dawned: 47 miles from the Jebel at El Mraier to the bivouac at Rich Mbirika. The fastest runners would complete it in around 10 hours, but I planned to rest at stages and take around 24 hours. Some buddied up and ran together but I preferred being on my own, running the flat ground and walking tougher terrain (most of the time). Maybe it was the strong painkillers I had taken for a deep blister on the sole of my left foot, maybe it was dehydration or even mild sunstroke, but I definitely had an emotional and spiritual experience that afternoon.
The Stoics called it sympatheia, a connectedness with the cosmos and a feeling of belonging to something larger. The kaleidoscope of colour in the sand, from rich butterscotch one minute to vivid orange the next, combined with the bright sun and deep, clear blue desert sky, were too powerful for words. When the sun started to set and everything around seemed to glow various shades of red as the desert prepared for the transition from day to night, it was almost too beautiful for my senses and sleep-deprived brain to absorb. Like all endurance events, the MdS is a selfish challenge to undertake, requiring family support to allow you to train and complete the event. As I crossed mile after mile, I was acutely and overwhelmingly aware of these sacrifices. I shed a tear or two that afternoon.
I made it to the final checkpoint of the long day at 38 miles at 11pm, having run by torchlight for four hours, and decided to rest until sunrise at 4am. The final nine miles as the sun came up were as stunning as anything the day before. After covering more dunes and even crossing a river I made it home to the tent at around 8am, 23 hours after I had set off.
The motivation to get through the 26.3 miles of Marathon Day was clear, even for a friend who had ruptured his Achilles tendon the previous evening: a medal lay at the end. Everything was aching but I set off in good spirits. After 5.2 miles we had to climb Jebel El Oftal, an iconic section of the MdS. The 1.25-mile stretch to the summit is up a 25 per cent slope with some technical sections needing ropes. I found the rocky descent harder, as each rock seemed to find the painful blisters on my feet with unerring accuracy as a herd of black camels galloped past me mockingly.
The race organisers have a twisted sense of humour and the last 6.2 miles included another steep climb (Mhadid Al Elahau) with a 13 per cent slope through sand. One runner was pulled out of the race with less than 10km to go.
But finally, I was a finisher of the Marathon des Sables. Founder Patrick Bauer put the medal around my neck, gave me a kiss on the cheek and my ration of water for the night and sent me on my way to hobble back to my tent. I felt a mixture of emotions – mostly pride, pain and exhaustion. It’s a potent combination.
MdS was everything that I hoped it would be and way, way more. If only I could bottle that feeling and take a swig whenever I need a boost. I met friends for life, witnessed feats of endurance that will inspire me forever and spent a week in one of the most beautiful places in the world, pushing myself to the limit. I hope I have returned as a calmer man and better husband, father and friend. I am heading back to the desert with my family for a holiday later this year so they can experience it too. The smell of a campfire fuelled by camel dung, the up and down sing-song chatter of the Berbers as they cheerfully try to stop your tent blowing away, the heart-warming desert sunset when day melts away into night. In retrospect, perhaps it was more midlife transformation than midlife crisis.
For more information about the Marathon des Sables, see marathondessables.co.uk.