Tuesday 24 April 2012

MdS 2012 - Stages 4 to 6

On the morning of stage 4 I was a little all over the place. Instead of my run/walk strategy, I was now planning to powerwalk the stage due to my knee injury. For some reason it took me ages to get ready that morning - arriving at the startline with minutes to spare!

The stage itself was 81.5km long (approx 51 miles) from El Maharch to Jebel El Mraier. From the start I put my earphones in, turned the music up and went as fast as my legs could walk! I tried running a couple of times, but it just wasn't happening! This was hard especially as the stage starts were electrifying. People would surge off the line, while a helicopter would fly low overhead to capture the scene for TV. The adrenaline rush was incredible - but walk I had to.

As well as being long, this stage also took us over the Otfal Jebel - a 1.4km climb with an average gradient of 17%. The photo, left shows the technical descent (I'm 2nd from front). There were plenty of dunes throughout the stage also. Luckily, while my knee caused problems, my feet were still in good condition. Some minor blisters and hotspots - but nothing problematic. This stage will probably be best remembered as the stage where race leader and defending champion Rachid El Morabity fell with 1km to go, ripped a quad muscle and crashed out of the race! The MdS is savage, has no favourites - and no sympathy! For me, I completed the stage in 14:40.

A real highlight came as night fell in the desert. Our route was marked by green glowsticks attached to route markers, while competitors had to attach yellow glowsticks and fire up their headtorches from 7pm. That - and the first sign of the finishing line lights were welcome sights! It can get a little lonely in the desert at night! Otherwise, I felt pretty good - I was only walking after all. Amazingly, I climbed 3 places to 208th! Throughout the stage I constantly repeated a line from the poem "Don't Quit". Holly's mum had given me a coin with the lines on it before I left home. "Don't give up though the pace seems slow, you might succeed with another blow!". It's amazing how things take on a whole new meaning in a place and at a time like this!

My checkpoint strategy worked really well. Typically, I would pass up to 30 people at a checkpoint, and there were 6 on this stage! People were stopping to refill water, to rest, get shade from the sun, or to deal with blisters - I was just marching on! My new goal now was to get back inside the top 200. I'd probably lost about 3+ hours from where I wanted to be pre-race. Without the injury I would have been challenging for a top 100 place. But that was unrealistic now! The following day was a rest day for me - the final competitor finished Stage 4 at about 4pm Thursday afternoon (32 hours after the stage started). I hoped the rest would do my knee some good!

Stage 5 (Friday, April 13th) again started slowly for me. This was the marathon distance stage, 42.2km from Jebel El Mraier to Merdani. No major obstacles along the way, a perfect stage for running! I took a painkiller in the morning - but it didn't kick in until 2:35 into the stage. The relief in my knee once it did was incredible. I ran a bit... it felt ok... I ran a bit more - a little pain but managable! I had 14 miles to go, and I knew I had a lot of time to gain back if I was to break back into that top 200!

If anyone has seen a Rocky film - then this was my Rocky moment. Being able to run again - I picked myself off the canvas and started pumping with everything I had. Being well down the race field - I started passing a lot of people. From the stage results, I know now I passed about 300 people. Some tried to keep on my heels, I could hear them follow - but my pace was strong. It was the best feeling I had all week. I powered through a section of sand dunes - I was fresh and able to run after 3 days and more than anything, determined to get as much time back as I could. It's funny the things that happen at a time like this. At one point on the course, I ran over a rocky track that was so similar to a route I ran on Christmas Day (up the "bog road" to Sauce Creek - for anyone from home. lol). I couldn't help but think "This is why I ran on Christmas Day - for this moment!" It spurred me on even more! By the end of the stage, I was up to 204th overall and claimed back some time on those ahead. Given the way the start of the stage went - that was a major result!

Going into stage 6, the final stage - 15.5km from Merdani to Merzouga - I needed a strong run! I took my last painkiller 3 hours before stage start to give it time to work. I was going to run as hard as I could from the start, no matter what. I hoped for a tough stage - it was short, but I needed to beat 5 people by over 10 minutes to get into the top 200. The first 6.5km were flat and easy - the field was pretty bunched - not good! The next 9km were exactly what I wanted - big, tough sand dunes the whole way, the toughest stretch we had all week (the image left shows part of this). I ran as hard as I could, pushing as much as I could. I didn't know my position... was I ahead or behind those I needed to beat? If they beat me, then fair play... all I could do was my best, so I just pushed harder! I had my best stage finish of the week - 115th (not bad for someone without much pace on a short stage!), and climbed to my final placing, 194th overall! I couldn't really believe I'd achieved just that on the final day. I really wanted to run again the day after!!

Getting my medal on the finish line felt a bit strange. Elated to be finished, happy with how I'd finished, but a little frustrated - it could have been better. There was one thing I felt overall, however, looking back on the week as a whole. The MdS is all about making it to the finish line! Its 154 miles are brutal - and it finds out any problems, any injuries, any failings you might have. It tests you to the limit physically, and mentally, at some point and doesn't let up! Anyone who completes the MdS has overcome their own obstacles, their individual dramas and deserves huge credit for that, no matter where or when they finished! I'd achieved my goal, I'd completed the MdS. With that, I was very, very happy - and just a little tired!!
Now for the next challenge...

MdS 2012 - Stages 1 to 3...

The first thing you notice on arrival in Morocco is that the runners stand out a mile. They're the ones with the Raidlight, OMM or Innov8 backpacks. They're the ones with too much energy to sit down and - if you look a little closer - they're the ones with velcro glued to their trainers (to secure gaitors - which keep the sand out)! They wear sunglasses on their heads at the airport because they are afraid that this essential piece of kit will get broken, and airport security suddenly realise that a lot of people are carrying backpacks full of ration packs and jelly beans! Welcome to April in Morocco - home of the MdS and 860 crazy people!

After a 6 hour bus journey (where our bus broke down once!) and a brutal 20 minute army truck ride, we arrived at the bivouac - a tented town set up at the beginning and end of each race stage and an incredibly impressive sight. Tent 79 (with Kerry flag flying proudly) would be our home for the next 9 days. The Berbere style tent housed 8 people (at a squeeze) - with just a rug separating us from the desert floor. Not the most comfortable of surrounds - but all part of the charm of the MdS. No comforts, nothing easy - go hard or go home!

Stage one, April 8th was a nice gentle 33.8km (22 mile) introduction to the desert (not!), from Ammouguer to Oued El Aatchana. Standing a little nervously on the startline at 8:30am that morning - I looked to my left to suddenly see my hero of the MdS and 4 time winner, Mohamad Ahansal, appear by my side. A little internal battle started in my head - should I leave him be, or ask for a photo? I plucked up the courage and a little pigeon French to point to my phone and ask for a quick snap. Handing my phone to a French guy standing beside us - I pointed and asked if he could take a photo. He failed first time, handing the phone back with a typical French shrug. Mohamad stood, checked my phone to see if I got a photo - and then asked the French runner to take it again. This is the result - a completed legend and probably one of my biggest highlights during the week!

The stage itself went pretty well for me. The image, left, was taken just off the start line. Temperatures reached 46 deg Celsius. My plan was to run at a comfortable pace for 9 minute intervals, and walk for one minute, depending on the terrain. During that minute I would drink and perform any adjustments needed (backpack, etc). It worked really well. I kept my heartrate below 150bpm as much as possible and felt very comfortable. The stage itself passed some picturesque ruins and contained a few sharp jebel climbs and some rocky terrain. Nothing too difficult. I finished in 4:34 and in 143rd position. A nice start - lots left in the tank - just as I'd hoped for.

Stage two saw temperatures reach 51 deg - the 2nd hottest day ever recorded at the MdS. It was a 38.5km route from Oued El Aatchana to Taourirt Mouchanne. The abiding memory of this stage was a 10km stretch between checkpoints 2 and 3 across a dried up lake bed. It was desolate, endless and mentally brutal! Many people suffered here! This was followed by our first section of sand dunes. The organisers had given us one extra 1.5 litre bottle of water due to the conditions, but even this wasn't enough. Dehydration and cooling was a problem - and pacing was critical. I finished in 5:20 - a tough day completed and in 150th position overall. At this point I was happy with my position and my strategies both in race and recovery. I felt strong and things were going well - but I knew my knee would cause problems at some point!

Stage 3 was a little cooler - and a 35km hop from Taourirt Mouchanne to El Maharch. Some big climbs and some big sand dunes! From the very beginning - like most mornings - my knee started to hurt. But this time it didn't ease off, and it didn't get better. I ran/walked to the first checkpoint at 12km. From there it stiffened up and the rest of the stage was agony! Every climb, every descent caused shooting pain. While I could walk the flat sections, running was impossible! Worse was the fact that I had felt great in the morning and physically felt I could run really strongly! I decided to stop trying to run and powerwalk the last, flat 10km as fast as I could (80 minutes). I finished the stage in 5:30. It was slow and I lost a lot of time! My placing dropped to 211th overall. I was gutted, dejected and very frustrated! I was randomly called in to baggage control immediately after the stage. This is where you have to show that you have all the compulsory items in your bag (e.g. headtorch, anti-venom pump, etc), plus your daily food requirements. After a bit of flustering, fortunately I found all the items required!

Worse was to follow that night. A terrible sandstorm blew up, blowing sand everywhere - and I mean everywhere! Already feeling down about my knee, my misery grew. Lost in my own thoughts, a tentmate - Paul - took the photo opposite. This was my lowest point. Waiting for my food to rehydrate, being sandblasted (you can see the grains flying about in the image) and my knee aching. That night I curled up in my sleeping bag - and felt miserable for a while. But in the MdS you can't wallow for long. "Go hard or go home" - right? Lots of other people were suffering as much and more, and my tentmates were each bravely battling their own specific problems - that proved inspirational too! Time to rethink my goals and strategy. I decided I would powerwalk my way through stage 4, the long 81.5km stage. Earphones in, head down and save time wherever I could!

I figured I could save minutes at each checkpoint by performing all my preparations before arriving. The image, left (not me!), was a typical checkpoint scene - cards punched, collect your water and fill your own bottles, then add electrolytes before dumping the empty waterbottle. I decided I would unscrew the tops of my bottles, and drop my electrolyte tablets in before getting to the checkpoint. I would then take my water and walk straight through, without stopping, and fill my waterbottles as I walked on. I would take the empty bottle and dispose of it at the next checkpoint. This strategy would save me 2/3 minutes at each checkpoint! I would walk fast and stop for nothing! I felt a little more upbeat. It was a whole new challenge, and a different way of looking at my problem. Could I walk it in a fast time? Bring it on...

Preparing for the Marathon des Sables - Mentally, Physically... and a light backpack!

In this blog, I will try to retell as closely as possible, my experiences of the Marathon des Sables, 2012. The event, for me, was the achievement of a long held ambition - something I have probably dreamed about for the past 12 years since completing my first marathon. I have always said that I am not, and will never be, a good runner. I have poor technique, and I am not genetically designed to be good over long distances! But I do enjoy it, and what I can do is make the best of what I have and know.

I ran the MdS to raise awareness and funds for 2 great causes, PIPS Programmes and Facing Africa. During the months of preparation I met some great people, had great fun and hopefully got some good publicity and funds for these causes. Now that it's complete - it's the journey that you remember the most. This blog will hopefully tell my story of preparing for, and completing the 2012 Marathon des Sables. I already have plans for the next adventure in place... but for now that can wait! :)

To prepare for the challenge of running 154 miles over 6 days through the Sahara desert, I really focused on 3 main things. First - mental - break the race down as much as I could in my own mind! While everyone around me was building it up, privately I was breaking it down. Distance? "No problem" - I could run 25 miles comfortably and I would be running at a slower pace. Just recover well each day! Heat? "No problem" - stay hydrated and my body will have all it needs to cope. Terrain? "No problem" - only 25% was sand dunes. That meant 75% was either flat, rocky terrain, or dried up earth. I've spent my life running forest trails, so I could cope.

Second - diet - I planned to only eat approx 2400kcal per day (minimum allowed is 2000kcal). I would typically burn 4500+ kcal per day - so I trained my body to burn its own fat stores. The logic being that my calorie deficit would come from around my own wasteline! My race day plan was to eat a minimal breakfast - 50g almonds. This would stimulate my body to focus on burning my own fat stores while running. I kept most of my calories for late in the race and for recovery afterwards. Eat plenty after each run and my muscles would be refuelled for the next day. I made up a 4:1 carbohydrate:protein solution (powder form which I mixed with water) which I took immediately after each run, while my evening meals were dehydrated, high energy expedition food packs. Light in weight (approx 150g per meal) but high in calories (800kcal+). As a strategy, this worked perfectly - though I did get sick of almonds each morning! Luckily, I had some peanuts also and some great tentmates who shared some spare food during the final day!

Third was my physical preparation - focus on back-to-back runs in the months before the race to optimise recovery. Focus on leg and core strengthening exercises and focus on running with my backpack on to help my body adapt. I trained on the types of terrain I would find on Morocco - to help my body adjust, and to help my feet get used to the varied movements. When possible, I trained on the sand - 25% of the race is still significant and running on soft dry sand is a very different technique!  I also lost about 6kg of upperbody weight (mostly muscle) to help my legs cope with the added load of the backpack.

To keep my backpack as light as possible, I excluded every possible comfort I didn't need. I selected the lightest of everything I could find and tried to make it lighter! This included a titanium cup and spoon. I got a tiny cigarette lighter (not in picture) and burned half the gas out of it. I took a half sized toothbrush and I counted exactly how many skittles I would need over the 7 days (for your interest - each weighs about 1g and has approx 4 kcal! lol) - and took no more. This might seem totally insane (which it surely is! lol), but with this attention to detail I ended up with a backpack weighing just over the minimum required for the MdS. Some people had backpacks weighing 15kg - twice the weight of mine! To me - thats insanity!!

Each of these strategies worked perfectly - to a point! Mentally I felt relaxed and confident heading to Morocco and my diet was excellent. My physical training went superbly... until a freak ankle injury during an ultra run in December 2011 upset the applecart. In hindsight, I should have rested it more - but in my frame of mind I decided a week was too much and resumed my training. It's hard to rest when you feel so good!

I decided to run less on the forest trails to protect my left ankle and more on flat roads and sand. I didn't want to run on tarmac, but felt I had to! While it meant I could run without much ankle pain - by compensating and by being unable to do some of my leg strengthening work - I inflicted a much worse injury on my right knee. Two in fact - bursitis under the IT band and acute patellofemoral pain caused by my patella tracking slightly off on knee flexion. I missed just over 5 weeks of training at a critical stage, between February 12th and March 20th. A cortisone injection was required to cure the bursitis - but it was a little too late to fix the second injury. I didn't even know it was there until I started back running on March 20th - with the MdS starting on April 8th! In short - I entered the MdS with a ticking timebomb in my right leg - and I knew it!! However, I'd made my mind up - I'd crawl to the finish line if I had to! Roll on April 5th and my flight to Morocco...