Marathon des Sables Stage Four; Aferdou Nsooualhine to Tizin Igrs- 26.2 Miles

After finally being able to force my eyes open the stark truth hit me. I wasn’t feeling at all good. In fact I felt actually ill- completely lacking in energy and rather sick. This did not bode at all well for the day ahead and I lay there, desperately summoning the energy to a) get out of my sleeping bag and b) get ready to walk 26.2 miles over sand and rock to finish the 2009 Marathon des Sables.

I couldn’t stomach the thought of breakfast but managed to force a few spoonfuls of cereal down before the Berbers removed the tent from around our ears. What I really craved was a life saving and energy giving cup of coffee, so I set the kettle to boil even though every small movement seemed like a monumental effort. The water was boiling nicely after about ten minutes, so I reached out to pick the pan up and ended up knocking it over and watching my efforts drain away into the sand! I could have quite easily cried again at this point, but luckily nobody else in the tent seemed to notice my language…

I couldn’t comprehend how I was going to walk a marathon, and have never felt less prepared for one. I knew that my friend wanted to put in a fast time today, so told her I was just going to take my time and that she should go on ahead. Everyone else in the tent seemed in quite good shape, apart from a few blisters and tummy troubles and as it was the last day there was an air of festivity around the camp.

We lined up at the start for the last time, Patrick made his final speech and we were off- heading straight towards a rocky mountain and our first steep climb of the day.

Our first climb of the day

I walked with a friend from another tent all day who was also feeling less then great, and it was really pleasant as we chatted for the whole time which helped to take my mind of the fact I felt completely rubbish. Once we had left the mountain behind, we had a stony plain to cross to checkpoint one, where we were offered two bottles of water. We guessed that the next stage would be tough and were not disappointed! There were quite a few ‘walking wounded’ around at each checkpoint, including a guy using walking poles as improvised crutches, plus other folks who had been very poorly all week but completed the event in an amazing display of guts and courage.

By now it was really hot, and we used any surplus water we had to pour over our necks and shoulders and into our hats for a welcome, if brief, improvised shower.

Dunes and rocks… and heat

It was only a short stretch to checkpoint 2, but it was a tough one. The route crossed over an expanse of small rolling dunes, giving a roller coaster of short, steep ascents and descents which made my knee hurt worse and worse with each one. My friend was wearing a knee support she said she didn’t need (I am not sure if this was true), so took it off and kindly fitted it to my knee. We were feeling the full force of the sun by now, and I felt the now familiar salt crust stick to my skin. My lips were cracked and dry, and every time I opened my mouth to speak I could taste blood.

In spite of my misery I found myself intrigued by the large, furry caterpillars we found crawling in the sand, I have no idea where they came from or what they ate!

Dunes, dunes and yet more dunes!

Once out of the dunes, we walked uphill and came to checkpoint 2; I had completely lost my usual sweet tooth, and found myself craving savoury foods such as bread and cheese and roast dinners. Unfortunately all the snacks I had on me were sweets and peanut M & Ms, and I couldn’t bring myself to eat any of them. My friend had the opposite problem; she had developed an unusually sweet tooth, so I swapped her a bag of sweets for her rather stale pretzel and nut mixture, dipping into them during the day to try  to keep my energy levels up as much as possible.

After checkpoint 2, we descended steeply and crossed more sand and dunes- the pain in my knee was now agonising, and only eased off when we weren’t climbing or descending. I was also now suffering from diarrhoea, which was pretty inevitable given that approximately 75% of the camp were at this point. I sought refuge behind a bush but managed to lose my hand gel- it’s probably still buried in the sand somewhere.

Back on level, if stony, ground

Crossing yet more dunes and fresh agony to my knee brought us to checkpoint 3, and from then on the route was pretty flat until we reached a road and turned a sharp left to follow it. Surprisingly, we came to a wide river- I don’t know if it was only there due to the recent rains, but it had attracted a lot of kids who were having a great time paddling and swimming in it.
The road forded the river, so we ended up with wet feet- yep, wet feet in the desert! Well, why not- we had already experienced muddy feet… Shortly after, we left the road and started to climb again, perpetuated by several emergency toilet breaks for each of us.

A river runs through it!

A long, flat featureless stretch saw us approaching distant hills, which we eventually reached as evening approached and the sky started to turn pink. As a final sting in the tail and to make the final day as tough as possible it was soon obvious that we were going to have another steep climb. There was nothing else for it but to grit the teeth and suck it up- we were so close to the finish I wasn’t about to give up now! Several Land Rovers went past, and suddenly one stopped; a chap clambered out and fastened light sticks onto our packs as we’d be finishing in the dark.

Our final obstacle of the day

As we reached the brow of the hill, my friend suddenly let out a huge whoop, as she could see the bivouac at the end of a long dusty plain far below us.

Our final obstacle was a steep, sandy descent off the mountain, aided by a couple of officials, before our final long walk into camp. My knee was getting even worse and I could barely walk, so my friend lent me her walking poles to try to ease the pressure. It was getting darker and darker and I was struggling to see, but I just wanted to finish so I could stop walking. I couldn’t face the prospect of taking off my pack to try to find my head torch, so prayed we’d reach the bivouac before it got too dark.

Two figures suddenly loomed out of the failing light, who turned out to be two guys from my tent who had kindly come out to walk us in, having finished their race already. We were really touched by this kind gesture.

The light had by now almost completely gone and I had to face up to the fact that I could no longer see to walk safely, so mentioned to one of the guys that I was going to have to stop and get out my head torch. His reply was “Why don’t you take off your sunglasses?” I’d completely forgotten I still had them on…

We crossed the line amidst a blur of applause, and then Patrick Bauer placed my medal around my neck. He said a few words, in French- I can’t recall what he said, but heard the word ‘fatiguee’- yes I was pretty damn tired!

I finished!!!

All of our friends were there to cheer us in, it was so touching and emotional. I was barely functioning by now and my mind was finding it difficult to process the fact that we had finished and I could sit down and rest. Everyone from our two tents had finished, which was a cause for celebration although I felt oddly emotionless as it still seemed very unreal.

We had a meal provided for us that night, and I was able to indulge my savoury bread and cheese cravings. A large stage had been erected, and musicians from the Paris Orchestra flown out; a concert is always provided after the marathon stage. I ate my dinner to the sounds of classical music- after a week of privation it was pretty surreal hearing the music drift across the desert! There was even a soloist in a red dress, and we privately expressed our hopes that she’d be able to avoid the sh*t minefield around the campsite. I felt quite sad that our desert adventure, after over two years of training, floods, torrential rain and tummy troubles, was nearly over.

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