Marathon Des Sables 2023
Wow where do I start.
People ask me why Marathon Des Sables (MDS) as it’s so different from what I normally do in the world of triathlon.
My answer is this You only get one life and if you live it and truly test yourself one life should be enough.
So that’s the reason to test myself to the limit they call it the toughest foot race in the world for a reason so for me it was going to be my ultimate test and myself and Em agreed many years ago that my 40th year would be the year to hit the bucket list event.
So for a race that normally has a 5-9% DNF rate why was the 2023 edition so much harder with a 30% DNF rate yes nearly 321 people out of 1085 starters didn’t make it to the finish which is an incredible stat when you think about it.
They moved the race from its normal end of March early April slot to the end of April early May which made for hotter temperatures and an increased chance of Sandstorms, and we got them both! Fortunately, the sandstorms did drop after the first two stages, but the high temperatures stayed in the shade if you could find any it was 37-42 degrees and out in the dunes it was recorded to be 53 degrees. It was insane.
The MDS is unique, and it starts with you landing in a military airport you are filed through passport control with what feels like some locals pretending to be official airport staff waving you through. You are then rushed onto a bus and driven straight to camp 1 and directed to your bivouac (tent with only 2 sides). My tent was number 94 and this would be my hotel for the next 8 nights along with my camp mates James, Michael, Stewart, Alex, Carl, John and Nick. In tent 94 we had 3 military guys, 2 firemen, a class ultra-runner from Wales, Nick who was only 25 and had no toes on one foot after a work accident a few years prior. We all had different reasons for been there but was also all there for the same thing as well. THE TEST
Day 2 at camp is admin day and bag check etc and this is when you have to make the final decision on what to keep and what to put in your case of which they take from you and put in storage 6 hours bus drive north at the hotel so it's waiting for you in 8 days’ time.
The bag check takes hours queuing in the sun to finally get your turn and after that it's no turning back.
Day 3 The start of self-sufficiency you now carry everything to last you the next 7 days and the 256km
Stage 1 23 miles
This was the longest of the first 3 days and my pack weight with water was its highest at just over 9kg’s. My game plan was to keep HR below 145 bpm and that’s exactly what I did. I shuffled/ran anything that was flat or downhill and walked any rises or dunes. Check points across the stages are generally every 12km and at each check point you can get either 1.5 litres or 3 litres of water depending on the rules for the day. After checkpoint 1 it was clear to me I was obviously fairly well placed as not many others was around me.
Stage 1 the race lost 37 people.
Stage 2 19 miles and climbed 3 Jebels.
Stage 2 was the shortest stage 19.5 miles but included 3 big mountain climbs called Jebels it.one of which was so steep and up soft sand it was roped so you could pull yourself up. Stage 2 was also the day we lost one of our tents 94 teammates James unfortunately he collapsed with heat stroke in the last 4 km of the stage in the dunes and had to get air lifted out by the helicopter after having 4 IV bags to bring him around. Back in the tent that night we were all gutted and it hit home just how hard it was going to be. The realisation was then made even more as a few tents down from us 1 person had a heart attack luckily the medics brought him back and the helicopters took him away for better care, The MDS is expensive to enter but once you are there you start to realise where all your entry fee goes.
Stage 2 the race lost 106 people that day.
Stage 3 21 miles
Day 3 was hot and noticeably hotter out in the exposed areas than the previous 2 days and a lot of people had started to get ill. This was most likely a combination of things dehydration as your water is limited each day so you just can’t replace how much you lose through sweat loss after each stage, heat exposure, virus in camp. You can ask for more water but for every extra litre you get you get a 30 minute time penalty.
After stage 3 I still felt fine, and my HR had not gone over 145 over the 3 days so I honestly feel like effort wise I was doing exactly what I should have been and not going to deep.
Stage 3 we lost 2 more tent mates during the stage Stewart and Nick never made it past CP1 this was a real blow and, in the night, we lost another Carl as although he completed stage 3 he ended up in the medical tent with a core temperature of 41 degrees which is seriously high and the medics pulled him out the race as his temp wouldn’t come down.
Stage 3 the race lost 72 people that day 3 of which was from tent 94 so we were now at 50% from when we started.
During the night after stage 3 Tuesday was also the night when MDS changed for me from racing it to just surviving it as I woke up in the night numerous times to be sick and with diarrhoea. Basically, I was in the sand in the night with everything in me coming out both ends, and I wasn’t the only one at one point about 10 of us was all lined up spewing and s******g everywhere it was very grim but at least the stars was out. Heat, severe dehydration, virus it could of been any or a combination of all 3 is the most likely reason.
Stage 4 56.5 miles
This came at the worst possible time for me as at the time I was 21st overall so because I was in the top 50 I had to start in what they called the elite runners wave 3 hours after everyone else. I couldn’t eat anything that morning everything I tried to eat just came straight back out at either the front end or the back end. I asked if I could start in the earlier wave to give me more time as setting of 3 hours later, we still had to make CP2 and CP3 cut off times which was the same times for the people with a 3 hour head start. They said you can but it will be a 3 hour time penalty. Looking back now I should of taken the 3 hour time hit as I had to work and suffer probably more than I ever have in my life to hit the CP3 cut off. I was struggling this was the point when I was close to passing out, out of water, mouth froffing, staggering in the sun, no energy as was still not able to keep anything in. A few times I swallowed my own sick just to try and keep some liquid and nutrients in the body. Anyway, I made it to CP3 and after that the cut offs are a lot more friendly as it’s a through the night stage for most, they allow you to stop and sleep at check points if needed. On the floor mind no beds or anything. At CP3 I gave myself 30 mins to try and recover a bit and get my temp down and then after that it was literally a walk/crawl/shuffle through the night. Check point after check point trying to get the most done through the night under the stars as it was a lot cooler. CP4, CP5,CP6 all done in darkness with the head torch limiting my stops at each one to 20 mins this obviously kills your average pace on the tracker but if I was going to get through this stage it was the only way id make it. At CP6 you can have a sugary Moroccan cup of tea and I must say at this time it was probably 6am this was the best thing in the world the sugar was amazing. As I hit CP7 the sun started to come up at first this was great watching the sun rise but as soon as it was up the heat again intensified. At this point I still had 10 miles to go and I was totally empty. Others was struggling too and together we got each other through I met all sorts of people on that stage and went to a dark place mentally. I thought about Emily and Harriet lots, My mum and Dad, I cried in places, I thought about all the money i'd raised for charities, how everyone tracking me would be thinking what the hell is going on I just couldn’t let everyone down. The mind plays tricks on you I just had to grit my teeth and keep going one step at a time. Anyway, I made it and got back to my tent after 24 hours 20 mins my tent mates was all back they had been asleep been to medical tent to see if I was in there, they had marked me down as number 5 to go out of tent 94. But I was back and still surviving just. The rest of that day was all about forcing whatever I could into me water, electrolytes, salt tabs, dry food anything to get through stage 5 the marathon.
Stage 4 lost 119 racers that day
Stage 5 26.2 miles
Luckily, I could eat again without been sick, so this was a game changer all of a sudden I had energy again. Somehow, I was still in the top 200 so again I had to start in what they called the elite wave on marathon day the top 200 start 90 mins after everyone else. Today I had to be smart and just make sure I got around 3 CP with 2 flat sections and 1 big dune section. After 1 mile into it I could run (MDS run so like an Ironman shuffle) so I just tapped it out. About 2 miles after CP1 I caught up with Mike and Alex both from my tent who had set off 90 mins before, so this gave me a huge lift I walked with them for about 5 minutes just chatting and it was great as we knew we was all going to make barring some disaster. After 5 mins I pushed on to get it over with as quickly as I could. In true MDS style the last part before CP3 was crazy hot crazy leg zapping soft sand dunes but by now you had come to expect nothing less but torture.
After CP3 it was 5 miles to the finish just 5 miles I was so emotional knowing that was it for the check point next it was medal time I was going to complete and survive the MDS. Coming over the finish line I did the OTCF aeroplane which id been saving all week for this day to only find out the live video feed crashed so no one actually got to see it. Totally gutting as I knew everyone would be watching and tuning in. I was so relieved to finish and get the medal as I never want to go back on do it again plus I think Emily would divorce me if I even suggested it.
Stage 6 6.25 miles
Myself, John, Michael and Alex did this together on the final day these guys will be friends for life and to cross the finish line together with a hands up in the air is something ill never forget. We all went through it at some point, and we all came out the other side with our medals. TENT 94 Kudos
I can honestly say the MDS was the hardest week of my life but also one I’m most proud off. I turned up and raced it and gave it my best shot. For 3 days I was in the mix and yes my body broke during but I kept my mind strong. I went to a place I’ve never been before and came out the other side of which I’m immensely proud to of done as I believe most wouldn’t of finished stage 4 with what I went through. I've seen grown adults crying, passed out in the sand, withdrawing themselves from the race crying as they had kids at home and was truly fearful for their lives. It’s just crazy and dangerous but I guess that’s part of the attraction and I’m pleased to of done it in one of its toughest years in its 37-year history. The stats prove this. I lost 7.6kg door to door from weighing myself at home before I left to arriving back home. No scales in morroco so it was probably closer to 10kg at the end of the race as we had 2 nights in hotel before flying home.
For me the MDS lived up to the hype of been the TOUGHEST FOOT RACE IN THE WORLD and that bucket list is now ticked for me no regrets I gave it my all and got the medal. Ironman’s or long distance triathlon will seem easy from now on. So what's next first it's a trip to Euro Disney with the family of which I'm very excited about and yes I still have 2 M dot events to do as after the Kona debacle Ironman have given me 2 x credit notes valid for 2 years so at some point i'll be on a start list somewhere either end of this year or next i'll decide in the next few weeks.
Massive thank you to everyone who sponsored me the total is at just short of £4000 so I'll top it up to 4K and will be split between the 2 charities Sobs and Nott/Lincs Air Ambulance. Huge thanks to everyone who emailed me while I was out in the desert it was a great lift every day getting your messages and a highlight in our tent reading them out to each other. Shout out to the doc trotters for taping my feet up each day they really do an amazing job. As always, a massive thanks to Emily and Harriet who never give me any grief when I go off and do these selfish challenges.
Thanks for reading and till next time!
Below is a daily Summary from Ian C a British reporter who has worked at the MDS for over 10 years
Race Distances – The DNF rate in 2023 is without doubt a result of the intense heat, however, I do feel the race stages also contributed.
Stage 1 at 36km was a long stage. When one considers that day 1 is ‘typically’ 29-32km, the additional distance adds to an immediate stress and strain. It’s easy to look on and say, but it is only 4km to 6km! True, but 4 to 6km for some can be 2 to 3-hours in the heat. It takes a toll.
Stage 2 was a beautiful stage and a classic distance; however, this stage had more technicality and additional vertical gain, this in itself added a stress and strain, add intense heat and sandstorms towards the end of the day, plus carry over fatigue from stage 1 and we can see how 106 did not finish.
Stage 3 is always a cautious stage as many want to preserve energy for stage 4, the long day. Starting with km after km of flat running, the stage was in comparison to other stages, an easier day, however, 72 abandoned.
Stage 4 at 90km was the second longest ever stage of the MDS, coming in a brutality hot year, it was always going to be a tough challenge. A beautiful route that included climbing Jebel Otfal, the route had relentless soft sand and intense heat. Darkness and cooler temperatures were the saviour of many runners and despite this, 119 did not make the line.
Stage 5 and the medal is in sight, no matter how tough the day is, the hug and kiss from Patrick makes one more day of pain manageable, despite this, sadly, 3 did not make the line.
1440 entered the race
1085 people started the race
Étape 1 : 37 abandons
Étape 2 : 106 abandons
Étape 3 : 72 abandons
Étape 4 : 119 abandons
Étape 5 : 3 abandons
Total : 321 abandons
DNF rate 30%