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Carl Marston: Trek across the Sahara was a tale of blisters and Berbers

PUBLISHED: 16:00 25 May 2018

Carl Marston at base camp before the Marathon Des Sables. Picture: Carl Marston

Carl Marston at base camp before the Marathon Des Sables. Picture: Carl Marston

East Anglian Daily Times running columnist Carl Marston explains how he conquered ‘the toughest foot race in the world’ – the Marathon Des Sables

Carl Marston, fourth from left, and the rest of his tent line up before the final stage. Picture: Carl MarstonCarl Marston, fourth from left, and the rest of his tent line up before the final stage. Picture: Carl Marston

Iseem to have done things in reverse as a runner.

I started out running cross country events, road races and marathons (I struggled around my first 26.2-mile course at Bungay as an 18-year-old, back in 1984) and eventually dipped my toes into the ultra scene just over a decade ago.

As for now, I take part in mainly parkruns!

I suppose that is swimming against the tide. These days, many future marathon runners start out by testing the water at those ever-so-friendly, low-key, parkruns, getting a feel for the 5K distance until, suddenly, they are hooked.

While now I am content to nurse my injuries (and there are always many of them cropping up – I can sneeze and instantly tweak a calf muscle!) at various parkruns around Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and sometimes further afield on a Saturday morning, there was a time when I used to enjoy eating up the miles.

The tougher the better, in fact, which brings me to the Spring of 2005, the year that I ran the Marathon des Sables (the Sahara Marathon), in north Africa.

It seems like a life-time ago, and yet it is the sort of event that sticks with you for a life-time.

It might not be what many claim it to be – ‘the toughest foot race in the world’ – but it was certainly the toughest event I ever encountered.

So, I think it’s apt that I should recall this one, above any other, as the subject for this column.

I was one of 777 runners who lined-up for the 20th anniversary of the Marathon des Sables, in April of 2005, to tackle a total of 151 miles over six stages, spanning seven days.

Approximately 200 of the field had crammed onto a charter flight from Gatwick to the Moroccan outpost of Ouarzazate, armed with heavy rucksacks and weighed down with the worries of the world.

In fact, the Brits were only outnumbered by the French.

We were afforded the luxury of just one night in a hotel, before the whole field was carted from Ouarzazate into the Sahara Desert on a convoy of coaches. There was no escape. The five-hour journey felt like an automated death march, and dinner at camp that night felt like the last supper.

I didn’t know quite what to expect. I was prepared for the searing heat, and the onset of blisters, but I wasn’t quite sure how my body would react to the alien conditions.

Preparations during the English winter had been adequate, with one ultra race – the Thames Meander – proving how I would fare through 54 miles on the Thames towpath in February. I had a sneaking suspicion, though, that the Sahara Desert might have a few nasty surprises up its sandy sleeve.

Stage one was billed as a relatively sedate 29km opener, giving runners a taste of what lay ahead. But in truth, it was a shock to the system.

Temperatures rose into the mid-forties (centigrade) during the afternoon, and most people suffered. We were also blessed with our first series of sand dunes to cross, which transforms a purposeful stride into a slow shuffle. Blisters, everybody’s worst nightmare, popped up uninvited from the very first day. Each Berber tent (basically a black canvass roof and a few wooden sticks for support) housed eight runners, and two of my tent-mates were plagued with sore feet after the opening stage.

Being the 20th anniversary of the “Marathon des Sables,” and to mark the occasion, and win the debate over this being the toughest foot race in the world, the organisers decided to transform the usually harmless leg two into a brute of a stage, incorporating a 3,000ft climb up Jebel Hered Asfer, which apparently is Arabic for the mountain that “cleanses all sins.”

Even the front-runners suffered on this dangerous ascent and tricky descent.

In fact, the third-placed runner, a Frenchman, took a tumble down the mountain and was forced to retire from the race with a compound fracture.

There was no respite on day three, which is traditionally known as Dunes Day. We were not to be disappointed. This 41km route included an eight-kilometre stretch through some beautiful sand dunes.

There was also a sting in the tail on this stage, because the temperature leapt to a mesmerising 51 degrees centigrade during mid-afternoon. I kept myself well covered up throughout the week, with factor 50 sun cream on my face and legs, and a Saharan cap and mountain goggles for protection, but the dead-flat last 10 kilometres to bivouac four was soul destroying.

Stage four has always been the longest of the race. By now 28 competitors had called it a day, leaving the rest of us to tackle the 76kms across stony terrain, mixed with a few sand dunes. You had a generous time limit of 36 hours, because the Thursday was designated as a rest day.

I felt “good” until half-way, but the last 10kms from the sixth and final checkpoint to the finish were my worst of the race, following the fluorescent way-marks with my head-torch. I crossed the line at just after 10pm, at which point it suddenly dawned on me that we now all had a very good chance of completing the race. The worst was over.

I actually looked forward to the last two stages. The first was a full marathon, and by now our rucksacks were much lighter (about 7kgs rather than the original 10-12kgs), due to the consumption of most of the food.

I had gradually worked my way through the field during the course of the week, posting my second best finish of 119th on the marathon stage, before running as fast as I dare to record 78th spot on the last 20km stage. It gave me a final finishing position of 207th, in a combined time of 38hrs 09mins 36secs, though really this is immaterial.

In a way, I felt a little bit of a fraud, because towards the back of the field was where emotions were running at their highest. There was a lot of pain and tears, as runners tried to nurse “trashed” feet to the finish. Many ended up on crutches, and a couple in wheelchairs for a few days after the race, so perhaps the medal at the finish meant even more to them.

I had mixed emotions at the finish, which was in the small Berber village of Tazzarine. I was glad that it was all over, and relieved to have escaped with such little pain.

The medal around the neck felt great, though I must confess that the packed lunch was my highlight – bread, sardines and fruit, with not an energy bar or pot noodle in sight.

Back home and just a few days later the Sahara had already seemed a distant memory. People keep asking me the same question – would I do it again?

Maybe in another lifetime.

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