“You are lucky”, our coach driver informed us, “It hasn’t rained here for twelve years!”

We certainly didn’t feel lucky as we peered through the rain streaked windows at the desolate scene before us- a darkly threatening sky with torrential rain driven by the winds into horizontal sheets, turning the desert sands into thick, sticky mud.

It all felt strangely surreal- this was supposed to be the Marathon des Sables for goodness sake, the self-billed Toughest Footrace on Earth- famous for its intense heat, dry sand and enormous dunes! All of our equipment had been thoroughly tested and carefully selected with this in mind… we were completely unprepared, both physically and mentally, for rain and mud!

I had arrived at the Travel Lodge near Gatwick on Wednesday night, and met up with my fellow nutters who were to form our two tents for the race. We shared a nervous meal as it began to hit home just what we had signed ourselves up for. No backing out now- after more than two years of training, research, extensive kit testing and yet more training we were actually about to embark on the greatest adventure of our lives.

Arriving at Gatwick the next morning after a rather sketchy night’s sleep we immediately spotted our check in desk due to the queue of people sporting red Raidlight rucksacks which appears to be the brand of choice for the desert. We joined the queue, little realising that this was to be the precedent to a whole week of queuing… it is an established part of the MdS- queue for meals, queue for the bus, queue for kit tests, in fact just come prepared to queue for everything and bring a lot of patience with you!

Given that ours was the only plane to arrive at the tiny airport of Ouazazate, I assumed that passport control would be a relatively straightforward procedure. Wrong… it took over one and a half hours due to the passport officials’ tendency to wander off every so often and chat amongst themselves for several minutes. In fact, I was one of the last to be let into Morocco.

The hotel used for the British competitors- The Berbere Palace- is quite striking at it does indeed resemble a kind of rose brick desert palace. The rooms are set in the grounds at the back of the hotel, in a kind of pleasant little village, although it can be quite a walk depending on which room you have been allocated. I would recommend taking a case on wheels as by the end of the week I was cursing my heavy and awkward battered canvas bag. The main hotel itself is worth an explore as Ouazazate has been used for filming many major movies and a lot of the props and sets are displayed here.

The Berbere Palace, Ouazazate

The food was very nice; a selection of pasta, couscous and rice dishes, plus a variety of salads which we avoided to try to dodge potential tummy issues. One guy at my dinner table remarked that it was going to rain the next day, on the premise that he is from Manchester and it always rains wherever he goes. Everyone chorused- “Don’t be stupid! It’s the ******* Sahara Desert! It doesn’t rain in the desert!” Boy was that going to come back to haunt us…

We had been advised that we would be setting off for the desert at 9am sharp the following morning, but then received a phone call at 6:15am to inform us that this had now been changed to 8am. We leapt out of bed, panicked, rushed round, ate a hasty breakfast and boarded the coaches. We were still there at 9am and a few of us started to get off for a toilet stop; it is pretty unfortunate that they encourage you to drink plenty of water and then keep you hanging around for hours! As we waited, the fabled road books detailing the route of the race each day were distributed and there was a sudden and profound silence as everyone frantically skipped through the pages to see what was in store for us; it was apparent that dune day was to be day two and the long stage was to be 50 miles.
Eventually we were on our way, heading into the mountains and straight into a terrific storm. The rain was torrential, and I think we were all expecting it to ease as we drove further south. After all, the desert was several hours drive away and it doesn’t rain in the desert… does it?? The coach generally stops for a few toilet breaks- blokes to the right and ladies in bushes or behind whatever cover you can find to the left. This was our first taste in performing toilet habits in front of large numbers of people, and one girl was heard to say “I can’t go! I’ve got stage fright!”

A packed lunch is given on the coach, and as we ate we noticed that the rain wasn’t easing off at all, even though we had been driving for several hours and were by now obviously in the desert. Finally we reached the end of our road, where our driver made his grim pronouncement and as I looked around I could see my own disbelief and dismay echoed on everybody else‘s face. As the bivouac was around 20 minutes away we were collected by army trucks, as is quite usual depending on where the first bivouac is. The trucks were quite high, which made them very difficult for short folks like me to get into, but eventually we were all in and holding on as the truck shot through wet sand, mud and sheets of water. We were jolted back and forth and at one point were thrown in the air to come crashing back down. My coccyx hasn’t been the same since.

It was strange clambering down from the truck and seeing the bivouac for the first time. It resembled all the pictures I had seen in the online blogs I had eagerly devoured; the black tents for the competitors ranged in a horseshoe shape and the white tents for the organisers just behind, and yet it looked utterly different as it was a quagmire of wet sand, pools of water and muddy rivulets running straight through the camp. And all the while the rain was teaming down. Usually the tents are grouped according to country but we were told to pick any tent in light of the conditions, and some members of our group had already chosen two side by side.

The Flooded Bivouac

The rugs covering the floor of the tents were soaked through, and our tent was completely flooded in one corner. Waterproof covers had been placed over the tents, but these proved to be totally inadequate- we tried to make urgent modifications but were fighting a losing battle. The race helicopter was flying back and forth overhead, no doubt surveying the dismal scene, and the whole thing was quickly starting to resemble a refugee camp.

Various organisers were walking to and fro, identified by their beige jerkins, and told us to move to the organisers and press tents as these were four sided so might offer better shelter. The trucks had stopped bringing people to the bivouac at this point, and some of the French coaches had been stuck for hours due to flash floods making the roads impassable. At this point we gave up the struggle to find a dry tent and huddled around the mess tent, shivering and up to our ankles in mud like a bad day at Glastonbury.

… Like a Bad Day at Glastonbury

Eventually we were told that we would be served dinner and then would be evacuated from camp to a hotel as conditions were deteriorating rapidly. I couldn’t believe it- so much for thinking no more rain and mud after training through the winter! We could read the same unspoken thoughts in each other’s eyes- is this it then? Is our race over before it’s even begun? All this anticipation and training for nothing? It seemed so cruel…

Dinner was actually very good and the cooks did an amazing job given the conditions they were working in- hot soup and red wine which we ate off the bonnet of a nearby Land Rover whilst I wondered whether it is actually possible to catch hypothermia in the desert. An official walked by, shouting that an army truck was coming to transport us out, so we lugged our bags to the front tents and waited… and waited. I was surprised to see Patrick Bauer, the organiser, walk by, raising his arms skywards saying “Inshalla” (God wills it).

The trucks arrived at last,  and we had another wild and bumpy ride through the dark to the nearby desert village of Erfoud where we were checked into the Hotel Salem. I must say, they coped admirably with the prospect of accommodating several hundred wet, muddy and demoralised people. A few folks did actually stay at the bivouac overnight, I’m not quite sure if they were overlooked or actually chose to stay.

It still seemed strangely surreal- we were finally warm and dry, but had no idea what was going to happen now and whether we would still get to race…

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