Marathon des Sables Stage One; Erg Chebbi to Erg Znaigui- 19.5 Miles

I lay in bed feeling a tinge of excitement and more than a tinge of nervousness. This was it- after two years of preparation, floods, torrential rain, mud and disappointment we were actually going to start the Marathon des Sables!!

As we waited for the coaches to arrive to take us to the start I was relieved to see that it was a nice day- sunny and dry but not overbearingly hot and more importantly no clouds in sight. Oddly enough, I had mixed feelings about this- the cooler weather would make for easier walking, but I felt that we weren’t going to be as challenged by the heat as we should have been and wondered whether I would feel cheated as a result.

After the inevitable queue and sitting on the coach for ages we were on our way, and heading straight for the Erg Chebbi dunes, the second highest in the Sahara. A shout went up as they came into view some distance away and I looked out of the window to see towering mountains of red gold sand on the horizon. I suddenly felt very nervous and a little bit sick; cooler weather or not this was going to be a huge ask…

The coaches pulled off road, and we could see that the start line had been erected along with the official race inflatables and banner. But first, we weren’t at all surprised to discover we had to queue for water, which, as usual, took a while. For the first time my race number was written on the cap and the bottle- if either is found discarded on the course you face a time penalty. After lining up for inevitable photos and a last minute panic toilet break it was time to start the race. So, after the dramatic events of the past two days, finally there we were at the start line of the 2009 MdS. 1000 fully trained and awesomely fit endurance athletes. And me.

Patrick was standing on top of a Landrover, giving a speech which was very occasionally translated into English, although it was rather pointless as a lot of what he said was drowned out by the helicopter filming the race for Eurosport circling overhead. A few mad souls were celebrating birthdays, so we had to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to them all, then stirring music played and we were finally counting down to the start- “10- 9- 8- 7- 6- 5- 4- 3- 2- 1- Allez!!”

We’re off- and headed straight for the dunes

It took a while to pass through the start line because I had kept to the back, but eventually I was through and couldn’t believe I was actually starting this bloody event! It felt totally unreal, almost as though I was almost having an out of body experience… I waved to the helicopter filming overhead, and my road book fell out of my front pack. Not a good start! In fact, the front pack was to plague me all week as the top straps kept coming loose, meaning the whole thing had a tendency to tip forwards and pitch its contents onto the sand.

We passed a camel safari full of surprised tourists going the other way, and then we hit the dunes- perfect curves of red gold sand, straight out of a picture book and just as I had imagined the desert to be. They are quite steep and climbing them takes some effort, but I suspect that the sand was more compacted than usual due to the rain. Coming down is great fun though, and easy even for me; just let your feet slide! Some of the descents are a sheer wall of sand but there’s no danger of hurting yourself even if you overbalance.

In the dunes

There were locals on bikes keeping us company, plus young boys trying to sell us necklaces with fossils- this made me smile as they had plagued us constantly in Ouazazate and Erfoud, and someone had remarked that we would probably come across them in the middle of the dunes! I caught up with my friend, and we walked the rest of the stage together.

We walked for a few minutes with an American guy, who appeared to be very impressed that we had actually been at the first bivouac and wanted to hear all about it. We felt quite pleased that we were there, as we seemed to have attained a celebrity status!

The dunes went on for around 13 kilometres, mountain after mountain of sand. They were rather energy sapping as sometimes the sand would hold firm underfoot and the next moment you would sink knee deep. My gaiters did their job nicely; they didn’t let a single grain of sand into my shoes all week. Although the dunes were tough I found myself quite enjoying them and really felt the benefits of all the hill training I’d done. I don’t know if it was as hot as usual for the MdS but it had certainly become very warm.

Eventually we left the higher dunes behind, and gradually descended to a plain and the first checkpoint, where we were given more water. At each checkpoint you are offered either one or two bottles of water. We quickly learnt that if you are offered two bottles it means that the next section will be exceptionally tough.

Crude tent shelters are erected at each checkpoint, so we stopped for a few minutes respite before heading off again, this time over a featureless and seemingly endless stony plain.

A typical endless stony plain

These desert plains seem to be a feature of the event- you can see a mountain range in the distance, and assume that you are walking towards it quite quickly, but two hours later you are still walking towards it and it doesn’t seem to be any closer. Someone told me that the organisers are particularly fond of putting in this kind of terrain to mess with your head. The route had been planned the day before and marked out with yellow and orange signs so was fairly easy to follow.

Usually the road books would be used for navigation but we would have to rely on following these signs all week. Occasionally instead of erecting a sign the officials would mark the route by spraying an object with pink or orange paint, such as a rock, bush or, on the last day, a dead camel.

It was even hotter now and I was sweating constantly, remembering to sip water every few minutes in an attempt to stave off dehydration. After walking towards the same range of hills for what seemed like hours we finally reached a ruined village and fort with the second checkpoint just beyond.

Typical desert scenery on the MdS

We stopped for another rest, and I changed my sodden, sweaty socks. Another member of our group came in and said that she had just seen a guy being given an IV drip; he had been pulled out of the race due to severe dehydration. I later realised we had been talking to him less than an hour before, which was pretty sobering.

After the checkpoint the route passed along hillside covered with small rocks which threatened to turn your ankle. We followed the signs to a sandy track, then heard shouts; one of the organisers called that we were going the wrong way. They had had to reroute the course up and over another hill due to floods in the valleys so we walked towards a couple of four wheel drive vehicles parked in the distance as markers back into the dunes.

The Erg Znaigui Dunes

I was quite pleased to see the dunes again, and they were beautiful; the evening sun created deep purple shadows accentuating the sinuous curves of the dunes, and they glowed a perfect yellowish gold in the fading light. As we reached the highest point we suddenly had our first sight of the bivouac.

The Bivouac

All that was left was a gentle descent out of the dunes towards the camp. Our friends had found a tent, and we collected our water ration and sorted our kit. It felt good to be in the bivouac at last, and I made my first attempt to cook a meal. It was so windy, it took nearly a full pack of Esbrit tablets to boil even a little bit of water.

We were all very tired, although not in bad shape, so as the setting sun turned the dunes deep purple, we clambered into our sleeping bags and tried to sleep. Rob had told us that the following day’s route would describe a large circle back to the bivouac, rather than moving camp to a different location- another first for the Marathon des Sables.

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