Survivors’ Stories: Marathon Des Sables 2016

Sitting by the pool at the Berber Palace having breakfast, surrounded by blistered and hungry but happy MdS 2016 runners, Steve Diederich of RunUltra fixed me with a gimlet eye, “It was tough this year, really, really tough. Very hot and with no humidity, people were dehydrating all over the place. If they didn’t manage themselves properly, they got into trouble straight away.” So, a tough year on the toughest footrace on earth…


The very first person I met when I got to the Berber Palace was Duncan Slater. He had made it all the way through the first four stages, only to have to drop out on the last stage. Crazy you would think, to pull out when you have achieved so much and you only have one marathon left to go. Perhaps, but Duncan is a double amputee and his stumps had been ripped to shreds. He almost certainly shouldn’t have gone as far as he did but courage is something he is not short of. He is aiming to be the first double amputee to complete. And he will definitely be back in 2017 having learnt a shedload of lessons to represent Walking with the Wounded and to finish it. One of the things he will be working on are the prosthetics he used to get up and down the sand dunes, they weren’t quite right. You have to go up sand dunes on your toes and then come down them on your heels. Each upward step, he could dig into the sand, each downward step ground the prosthetic into his joints. He expressed no disappointment or bitterness at not finishing just a determination to sort out the details and do it next time. What a man.


Claire Mahe is 5ft 2 and tiny. She approached the marathon with a very French insouciance. First of all her bag weighed a magnificent 12 kgs. That is probably about a quarter of her entire body weight. She brought wet food, a full set of cutlery, two phones including her work one which she answered as often as she got signal. Did she smoke? Of course! Chain smoked. And her preparation consisted of one zumba class a week and three x 10 mile runs. Her shoes started hurting her so she took them off and ran barefoot through the dunes. Her tent mates adored her and she finished. A will of iron.


“I won the long stage!!” was how Alex Gordon Lennox introduced himself when he bounced up to cadge a lift down to the Cos Hotel to collect his T-Shirt. Because during the long stage, the elites start two hours after the rest of the field, there is the opportunity for someone else to cross the line first, and this year it was Alex. How cool is that? I definitely count it as a win regardless of what time the speedy Rachid El Morabity got….


Inspiring and inspiration are words that are used a lot in ultra running and with good reason, people achieve incredible things, look at Duncan above. I am a real slow, bad, clumsy runner and so when I meet the elites I am always totally in awe of them but think of them as a different species who don’t suffer as we do. Harvey Lewis is one of the top trail runners in the world, a winner of races like the infamous Badwater. He was running for I Run 4 Hope and I went to interview him about his experience. He had a horrible MdS. He basically blew up on the second day but managed to continue and finish, which meant that his team got Second Place. If he had DNFed, they wouldn’t have. His personal placing was 92nd so I was expecting to meet a disappointed, frustrated and angry man. Instead I was met with a shining soul, “It was my first time in a multi-day, my first experience of a stage race. It was an incredible education. I went in with lofty goals of finishing in the top 10, maybe even the top five. It was an awakening and a reminder that there is so much to learn in the world. Even though I turned 40 on the longest day it reminded me that I am so young in terms of the planet. I have been training so hard but I just got the shit kicked out of me. I have to reinvent myself again. I don’t mind being beaten down. It is a lesson, an education, an opportunity to learn.”


Alex and Henry have known each other for twelve years, in fact Alex introduced Henry to the woman who he would go on to marry. I was sitting on my own at lunch so made them come and join me (Billy No Mates!) and watched them eat pizza followed by burger and chips. They had decided to run together and stuck to that the whole way. They spent a lot of time making up stories about the other competitors and giving out imaginary awards. Jose from Portugal won best calves, apparently they could have been chiselled by Michelangelo. At one stage Alex lost a contact lens so Henry had to guide him, ” Left a bit, going up, stone, stone, stone, watch the stone.” Didn’t they drive each other crazy? No, not at all, it seemed. But there was one thing… ” I like to be really organised,” said Henry, ” To be ready in plenty of time and Alex is a real last-minuter. Every day, he would decide to go to the loo just as we lined up at the start line.” “Yes, well it was quiet then, because Patrick was doing his speeches,” said Alex, “Also I knew it really wound Henry up!”


Like a lot of people, Dave Forbes used MdS to make a positive change in his life. “Having gradually put on weight, I had reached a peak of 105kg in Jan 2015. I decided to do something about it.  In March,  I got an
email about a charity place for the MdS and decided to pull out the stops. I turned into Forest Gump. A year later and 25kg lighter I was on the start line. Day one went badly wrong, but then I climbed through the rankings
improving daily. On the last day, the marathon stage, we started ahead of the leaders. We had come to some dunes and we could go either left or right, I looked at my roadbook and compass and chose the left path, the rest chose the right. At the next junction, I went right and when I came out of the dunes at around 3km I was at the front of the field. I looked out ahead onto pristine sand, everyone else was behind me. It was a surreal experience, having the rest of the MdS field following me for a few minutes! I finished 159th that day!”


Charlotte was one of my fellow volunteers this year and is running MdS 2017. Six foot of blonde, tanned gorgeousness, she is definitely a head-turner. She is also a no surrender kind of girl. Add a traditional Muslim country and a pair of very short running shorts into the mix and there was definite potential for eventful days. She had gone out for a run down through the town on Saturday and out into the fields. As she was running along, a guy leaped off his bike and started running after her. Startled,  she looked back,  and realised that he wasn’t just running…  With great presence of mind, not to mention quite a bit of dexterity, she snapped some pix of him as she speeded up and soon left him behind. A horrible experience but she told the story with such verve when she got back – complete with pictures that she took all the badness out of it. ” But why, Alice” she asked me, “Why did he have such an angry face?”

(Look away now if the picture below is too graphic for you….

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