What is the Marathon des Sables?
The Marathon des Sables (or “MDS” for those wanting to sound like they are in the “know”) is a 6 day, 250 km race across the Sahara Desert which the Discovery Channel described as the “toughest footrace on earth”. There is a degree of self-sufficiency (you carry everything but water and tents) and each stage has a number of checkpoints with cut off times. It was thought up a Frenchman and I am told entry for ex members of the Foreign Legion is free, so how hard can it be? A more balanced description is available http://marathondessables.co.uk/.
How many marathons have you run and what’s your best time?
This is where my story may start diverging from the stories of some of the other competitors. I’ve never run a marathon; indeed, running for any distance is not something I have accomplished very often in the last 20 years, without ending up on the treatment or operating table.
With all your travelling, you must have an advantage being acclimatised to the heat?
Sadly, most of my travelling has been in the mountains, which are not known for their warmth. Being acclimatised to the heat would be an advantage. Some of my fellow competitors have been training in Lanzarote, some have been hiring the heat chambers used to help Formula 1 drivers prepare for races. I haven’t managed to fit in either of these things; but my wife has used the MDS as an excuse to turn the heating up at home.
How about the challenges posed by sand dunes and the sand generally getting everywhere?
I did go on holiday to the Costa Brava last year, to practice running/walking on the sand and toughen my feet up. My feet blistered on the first (and therefore last) day of walking on sand. My wife reminded me I’ve never been good in the heat or sand.
You don’t have tough feet then?
No. I never have. I remember over 30 years ago when I did the Ten Tors expedition on Dartmoor, I blistered my feet so badly I was taken to hospital after I finished. That hasn’t happened since, so maybe they are improving.
I understand you have to carry all of your own food with you?
Yes. I need to carry at least 2000 calories per day. I’m not planning to take a stove or fuel, so will only be eating dry, cold food. Currently the core of my diet is looking likely to be cashew nuts, jelly babies and Pepperami.
What about the camels?
The camels bring up the rear and act a bit like a “devil take the hindmost” time check. If they catch you then you are out of time. I googled “Camel Racing” and understand they can run at 40mph; luckily, I don’t think they will be trying to overtake.
What has been going well in training?
Well, I have managed to maintain some (too many) fat reserves to compensate for the small amount of food I will be carrying and I have developed a taste for spicy Pepperami. I have also been buying lots of new (and lighter) gear. I am now the proud owner of items such as Dessert Gaiters (which Velcro to your shoes to keep sand out), “Guerney Goo” to stop chaffing, socks with separate toes (like gloves for your feet), a venom pump (in case a snake is also in search of extra calories) and, counter-intuitively, a “Yeti” sleeping bag. I also read Mo Farah’s training tips. Alongside the more traditional activities such as running, he drinks coffee as an integral part of his training regime. I’ve chosen to ignore the running bit and have invested in a Nespresso machine.
Do you actually have any chance of doing well?
No. I definitely won’t be challenging the leaders (I suspect they will be running faster than I walk), and like on Everest there is a distinct possibility of being overtaken by a septuagenarian. However, it seems possible that 6 consecutive days of fast walking could see me complete in the required time.
You’re mad – why are you doing it?
Bravado. Shortly after climbing Everest (Full story: https://markdicksontravelandphotography.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/climbing-to-the-top-of-the-world/) I was at Lords (that’s the one in London where the only “waters” you take are preceded by a “pop”) with friends when a couple of much younger guys sat next to us. As the cricket slowed, and the effects of a few drinks kicked in, I got talking to one of them. It turned out he had just completed the MDS, so I bet him I would do the MDS if he climbed Everest. I’ve never seen him since and we aren’t in contact. I have no idea if he climbed Everest; but a bet is a bet…………