Marathon des Sables Stage Three; Erg Znaigui to Aferdou Nsooalhine- 57 Miles

I scrabbled up the slab of rock in front of me, rising like a broken tooth out of the darkness. I had lost all trace of the route and had no idea where I was, I only knew that I had to climb this mountain, but I was so very tired and my ability to balance had completely deserted me…

Head swimming from fatigue and loss of balance I reached for the top, feeling the rough stone beneath my hands- only to see yet another slab rise up in front of me. My foot slipped and I heard a rock dislodge and tumble down into the inky blackness. I had lost my friend and there was nobody else in sight. I knew the most sensible thing would be to descend but the only though my brain was capable of processing was to keep ascending… if I reached the top then surely I’d be able to see the glow sticks marking the route and get back on track…

I reached the top of the next slab only to see a sheer wall rise in front of me. This was it. I was lost- my race was surely over. After two years of preparation, hard training and the disappointment of the floods, the Marathon des Sables had beaten me. I started to cry- tears of fear and frustration.

I had slept much better the night before as it had been considerably warmer. You need to be an early riser on the MdS as come 6am the Berbers start taking down the tents with cries of ‘Y‘allah! Y‘allah!’, to move them to the next bivouac. Whether you are ready or not, they will literally lift the tent off you, leaving you sitting on your rug in your sleeping bag or, like some unlucky folk, half dressed.

It was going to be hot today; the sun was already very warm and the sky was the sort of cloudless deep blue rarely encountered in England. I ate a hasty breakfast, packed my stuff and made my way to the start, ready as I ever would be for 57 miles of the finest Saharan desert…

The fifty top runners were to set off at 12pm which meant that I would get the chance to see them in action for a change. I felt pretty good, and my feet, although slightly tender, were not in bad shape. After the usual announcements and rousing music we were off and heading across the sand into a headwind. I passed a four wheel drive, completely stuck in the mud, waiting to be pulled out.

Stuck in the mud!

My friend wasn’t feeling too good so decided to drop back and walk at a slower pace. I felt quite strong, so carried on, following the route over a small plain before bearing left into a range of low rocky hills. Thanks to the rain earlier in the week the desert landscape had been transformed from a barren wilderness to quite a lush, green landscape with lots of small, round yellow flowers which smelt lovely. I imagine that the colours of the Sahara usually consist of gold, brown and grey, but the recent downpours had added a touch of green, white and bright yellow to its palette.

I was still feeling good and walking quite strong. I saw a land rover driving to my left and watched at the lead runners passed me, running strongly over the rough terrain- they would be home long before me!

The lead runners- the first and last time I saw them in action!

I stopped for a few minutes at the second checkpoint, but as there was a sixteen hour cut off to get to checkpoint four I didn’t linger long. I carried on, passing hills flanking me on either side and watching the frequent dust devils whirl their brief but furious dance across my path, and then I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye.

I looked to my right to see a herd of small black and white goats. As I stared, I realised that they had a shepherd with them; dressed in brown robes and blending into the scenery he looked completely at home in this harsh desert environment. In contrast, I felt gaudy, scruffy and completely out of context. I was supposedly kitted up for the desert yet was sweaty and sore. He was wearing simple garments but looked totally comfortable. I had paid quite a large sum of money to be here supposedly for pleasure. This was his life; tending goats in the desert was his existence. Feeling somewhat humbled, I noticed him watching me, so put my hand up in a gesture of friendship, which, after a moment’s hesitation, he returned.

Desert scenery- looking more lush than usual

Just before checkpoint three, several children in jumpers lined the route, although my eyes failed to pick out any dwellings nearby so I have no idea where they came from. They would walk alongside me for a few minutes, saying ‘Bonjour’ and ‘Ca Va?’ before pointing to my buff and saying ‘Donnez- moi!’ I just pretended I understood absolutely no French at all, and they soon became bored and drifted away.

I reached checkpoint three, and rested while I waited for my friend. It was getting dark so we were given glow sticks to fasten onto the backs of our packs, and decided to walk through the night together as we knew we wouldn’t make it to the bivouac until the next day.

Setting off from Checkpoint three

Strangely enough I had been feeling great up until then, but as soon as we set off I started to feel very tired and a little sick. It was completely dark by now so we followed the glow sticks now marking the course. For some reason I became convinced that there was a road just to the right of us and couldn’t understand why we weren’t walking along it rather than struggling through sand (It was easy to hallucinate- one of my tent mates later told us he was convinced at one point that there was a large coniferous forest to his right!)

We made checkpoint four well within the time limit and I boiled a kettle of water for a brew as we could afford to stay for a while. Some people had decided to sleep here for the night, which in hindsight was a sensible decision for walkers, but me and my friend decided to press on, so after a drink and some snacks we set off into the desert blackness.

We were immediately faced with dunes and some pretty steep sandy climbs which saw us struggle a little, but just as we left them behind my tired and befuddled mind was struggling to process why the long line of glow sticks in front seemed to be going up towards the sky. I soon found out when we found ourselves at the base of a huge rocky mountain and started to ascend steeply. We suddenly realised we had lost the glow sticks and I noticed that there were people climbing to my right who seemed to be having an easier time of it, so I stumbled towards them, losing my friend.

Once I realised I had lost both my friend, the people I had been trying to reach and the glow sticks, I made the totally stupid decision to try to climb to the top of the mountain to get a better view. Just as I had burst into tears and resigned myself to the fact that my race was over, and that I would have to wait for the helicopter to lift me off this damned mountain, I heard voices below me.

I looked down and could see several bright lights which could only be head torches. Maybe I wasn’t finished after all! I called out rather desperately ‘Does anybody know the way?’

A group of three people shouted ‘We’re coming up to you’ and started to ascend. After a few minutes, they shouted that they had found a path. I managed to slide down to them on my bum, although my front pack decided to come unclipped at one side, so I had to try to stop my water bottles from sliding out and stop myself sliding completely down the mountain. I could have hugged my rescuers but as I had been walking in the desert heat all day and half the night the gesture probably wouldn‘t have been too appreciated, so we followed the path to a pass where we picked up a steep rocky track down the other side. It wasn’t the route we should have taken, but we could see the glow sticks marking the route in the distance so knew we could get back on track.

I told them I had lost my friend so would wait a couple of minutes to see if she arrived. One of the group responded with ‘I think you should set off your flare!’

No way was I giving up my race that easily! I told them to leave me and after a few minutes decided that she would probably make her way to the next checkpoint, so I made the decision to push on and rejoin the route. It took me ages to get down the mountain. I am not great at descents anyway, but my complete lack of balance, plus the fact that every time I put my hand down to steady myself I placed it on some spiky plant, made it really difficult. My front pack came undone again, and I ended up holding it all the way to the next checkpoint.

Finally, after much cursing, I was down and back on route, but felt completely wiped out. I was back in dunes; steeper and higher than before, with the wind whipping the sand in my face at the top of each one until I managed to convince myself that we were going to have a sandstorm.

Well trodden path!

After what felt like hours, I caught up with a group of people, and spotted my friend- she had joined up with another competitor and found the correct path up the mountain where she had also decided to press on to the next checkpoint assuming I’d find my way too. It was a real slog through the dunes to checkpoint five. The route switch backed and presented us with steep climbs through shifting sand, even steeper sandy descents and the occasional respite of an easier walk along the crest of a dune. I’m still not sure how we managed to follow the glow sticks and avoid getting lost. I was completely walking on empty, literally concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other and trying not to think about the many miles we still had to complete.

Traversing the crest of a particularly high dune, my water bottle dislodged itself and rolled all the way to the bottom so I had to retrieve it. I was so exhausted this felt like the end of the world… In fact I think I cried. Again.

Eventually the dunes gave way to the lights of checkpoint five, but we were both completely spent and struggling to keep our eyes open. It was clear that there was no way we could carry on without a rest. There was no room in the rough shelters so my friend climbed into her sleeping bag and sat down outside the entrance. I just couldn’t be bothered with the effort of getting mine out, so wrapped my emergency blanket around myself and fixed my front pack. I soon became really cold, and decided I was being stupid. There were some people leaving the shelter so I got my sleeping bag out and climbed into it, shoes, gaiters and all. Unfortunately just as I closed my eyes a group of French runners decided it was time to get up and decided to make as much noise as they possibly could!

I did manage to doze off for a bit, and when I woke it was light; me and my friend packed our kit and staggered off into the chilly dawn. We were walking quite slowly but did manage to overtake a few folks who looked even worse than we felt. The chill soon gave way to the kind of energy sapping heat which I guessed would usually be encountered in the Sahara. The route was mercifully easier, with just a few small rocky climbs and stretches of flat sand. We reached checkpoint six, and both agreed to collect our water and walk straight through, rather than stopping- I think we both felt that if we stopped we wouldn’t get going again!

After leaving checkpoint six behind, I began to feel really bad; my stomach felt quite painful and my right knee had started to hurt. I kept imagining I was losing consciousness, and convinced myself that I was coming down with sunstroke- it was a really odd feeling, like a complete detachment from my body. In hindsight, though, I think I was so tired I was literally nodding off whilst I was walking! My friend was feeling stronger but kindly slowed her pace down to walk with me, which I appreciated, given the fact that I had developed a tendency to double up in pain after every four or five steps.

Mercifully the route was now completely flat, though stony, passing through an area of small dry shrubs. As we neared the bivouac it became busier and several four wheel drive vehicles passed us patrolling the route. I made an effort to appear okay, still expecting to collapse at any moment and wake up in the helicopter. My knee was becoming really painful with each step and I was worried that I had done some serious damage to it.

Desert greenery

Eventually we saw the bivouac, in a natural basin surrounded by the now familiar flat topped hills. Our tent mates had all finished and were waiting for us as we crossed the line, which was lovely. I must have resembled a zombie as I stumbled to the tent, and sleep was the only thought I was capable of thinking. After a few hours I woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed, and ate a pot noodle. My knee was still hurting so I visited the Doc Trotters tent and asked for a support bandage; a woman wrapped a stretchy kind of bandage around it but I’m not convinced it did much good.

A few of my fellow tent dwellers decided to treat their own blisters rather than face Doc Trotters. This made for quite a few amusing self-inflicted ‘iodine moments’ and some great photo opportunities!

During the afternoon, the organisers actually decided to give us a nice surprise rather than a stony or sandy one- a small can of fizzy pop each which went down a treat!

At around 8:30pm we were given an announcement that the last competitor was approaching the finish, so the entire bivouac assembled to cheer him in. What an amazing feat of endurance to be out there on the course for so long. In fact I was to hear many epic tales of heroism and endurance from that day… like the guy in a neighbouring tent who was so dehydrated after sickness and diarrhoea that he staggered into checkpoint one, expecting to retire, was hooked up to several IV drips and went on, not only to finish the stage but to complete the race. Or the guy who thought he had a stomach bug and kept driving himself to continue, only to collapse with a serious infection which required immediate evacuation to hospital by helicopter.

Interestingly enough, we caught up with him in Ouazazate where he had luckily made a good recovery. He said that as the helicopter flew him over the course he heard the pilot remark that it was the toughest course he had ever seen on the MdS.

By the time we returned to the tent I literally couldn’t keep my eyes open, and couldn‘t face eating, but knew I had to try to force something down to try to replenish my energy stores. I made up a sachet of custard powder and cup of coffee, and ate about 3/4 of it before falling asleep. I was so tired, I couldn’t stay awake a moment longer.

Before setting of that morning we had been told that the last stage, usually a ‘fun run’ of around 10- 13 miles, had been cancelled. We weren’t told why but I found out later that it was due to the logistics of finding an area accessible to the coaches who were due to collect us. Although my initial reaction was disappointment- another stage lost- as I drifted into an exhausted sleep I was quite thankful that there was only one more day to go…

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