Marathon des Sables Stage Two; Erg Znaigui to Erg Znaigui 22 miles

I was absolutely freezing. I had no idea what time it was but the sky was still dark and the bivouac lay silent. I lay there desperately trying to get back to sleep, but there was no chance; the wind was blowing straight through both open ends of the tent, whipping round my ears and down my neck. I pulled my buff up over my face and tried to snuggle down into my sleeping bag to preserve as much precious heat as possible, and lay there, miserably waiting for dawn.

When the sun finally rose, it was apparent that everyone else in our tent had been just as cold and sleepless as me. It was still windy, and when I tried to boil up some water for breakfast I left it on my tiny stove for twenty minutes, but it was still stone cold. This wasn’t exactly ideal preparation for the second day of the Marathon des Sables, the toughest footrace on earth…

I braved the ‘camp toilets’ but decided afterwards only to use them in the direst of emergencies. Although toilets are provided at each bivouac, they are just holes dug into the ground with a plastic ‘squat’ seat laid over them with canvas partitions and door flaps for privacy which invariably end up covered in excrement. As for the seats, let’s just say that folk’s aims weren’t always that great, especially during bouts of diarrhoea…

Many didn’t bother using the toilets at all, and went behind bushes to do their business. Unfortunately some people weren’t great at burying or covering their waste either, so it was pretty disgusting at times. During the week about 85% of competitors succumbed to tummy troubles of some sort- it was pretty bad this year apparently, I’m convinced it was due to using the same facilities two nights running for days 1 and 2 as normally the bivouac is moved each day to a fresh location.

We slowly got our stuff ready, although we were all so cold and stiff we must have resembled a bunch of nonagenarians, and filed to the start line for our 8:30am start which inevitably meant that we would be listening to Patrick talk until at least 9am. It was so cold most people had kept their fleeces on and were stamping numbed feet and blowing life back into frozen hands- it seemed totally removed from race accounts I had read which spoke of standing around in the desert heat!

Finally we were off, and climbing, which soon saw us stopping to shed the extra layers. By the time we crossed a small plain, descended a rocky rise and turned left into some small dunes, the sun had come up and it was becoming quite hot. It didn’t take long before I was sweating.

Scenery on the first stage of day two

I tried to get my sunscreen out my front pack, but everything else fell out into the soft sand, so, cursing loudly, I had to stop whilst I tried to retrieve my equipment. As I climbed and descended the small dunes I came upon a small group of American runners. One of them was sitting down in the sand, and as I passed, I heard him remark to his colleagues that he thought the heat must be affecting him. A couple of minutes later I saw a flare shooting into the sky- it was quite spectacular, a little pink light on a parachute, which hung in the air for quite some time before dropping slowly to earth. Shortly afterwards an official on a dune buggy passed me heading towards them, and the American guy’s race was over.

Snatching a few moment’s shelter at checkpoint one

After a quick rest at checkpoint one I rejoined my friend and we set off again, crossing another wide, dark grey, stony plain, towards a range of low hills in the distance. It seemed to take us ages and ages to reach them. I had to keep stopping for a pee which worried me, even though I was drinking regularly. It was now so hot the sweat was oozing from every pore and instantly evaporating into a salt crust over my face, obscuring my vision.

Just to mess with your head…

Eventually we reached the rocky, barren hills and started climbing. Neither of us felt particularly great at this point and kept expecting to see the second checkpoint when we got to the top of each rise, only to have our hopes cruelly dashed by the sight of yet more hills disappearing into the distance.

I could feel my feet rubbing in a couple of places and started to question whether I was actually going to complete this event- I felt sick and this stretch was starting to feel endless. We had stopped making any attempt at conversation by now and trudged along in silence. It was such a relief to eventually follow the route markers left, out of the hills and stumble into the checkpoint where we both gratefully sank down in the shade. It would have been so easy to not bother to check my feet, but mindful of the fact that foot problems can make the difference between finishing or not I forced myself to take my shoes and socks off and dress the blisters which had formed below my big toes.

We carried on- over another plain, towards the range of tall dunes surrounding the bivouac. Although we were tired, and the dunes didn’t seem to get any closer, psychologically this stage seemed easier as our sickness had vanished after our rest and it felt that we were on our way home!

Yay- back into the dunes!

I quite enjoyed being in the dunes again, even though it was tougher going- I think I much prefer the changing colours and shifting sands of the dunes to the flat, featureless endless plains. We descended the final dune towards the bivouac and jogged through the finish line; everybody else in our tent had all made it home which was great. Everyone I spoke to agreed that it had been a tougher day than yesterday, it was certainly hotter, but I felt great after I finished; I was on a high and felt awesome and even managed a sprint across the camp.

Me and my friend decided to visit the infamous Doc Trotters, as we felt that they would make a better job of treating our feet than we could, especially as tomorrow would see us setting off on the notorious long stage. I must admit though that I also wanted to have the authentic Doc Trotter experience! The Doc Trotters are the medics assigned to carry out first aid and foot repair and have a reputation for butchery which I had decided to put to the test. Some of our tent mates had been given dressings and told to treat their own feet, but when we presented our plates we were given a ticket to access the medical tent. Once there we were instructed to wash our feet in iodine and put on blue plastic elasticated ‘slippers’ which resembled shower caps.

I was directed to a Doc Trotter called Maurice, and placed my foot on the stool in front of him. I was kind of expecting him to say “Ooh la la” but he didn’t… he indicated that he would cut into the blister (ouch!!) and then inject iodine into it… he made the cut- which didn’t actually feel too bad. He then reached for a small phial of pink iodine and warned that it might sting. Sting! He wasn’t kidding… I did my best to conceal my pain, but believe me, there‘s no pain quite like having iodine injected into an open blister. He seemed quite apologetic, but I gritted my teeth and said “C’est necessaire!”

After he finished the iodine torture, he dressed the blisters and they immediately felt much easier to walk on. We hobbled back to the tent, to find that emails sent by friends and family had been printed off and brought round, which was lovely, and understandably quite an emotional time for some. As the desert night descended, Rob came and landed a bombshell. The organisers had decided to make tomorrow’s long stage the longest stage ever on any MdS- 91 km, the equivalent of 56 miles! I guess this was to give us a real challenge to make up for missing out on the first day. My head reeled as tried to take in this information… after two hard days walking already this would be a huge challenge!

There was quite a sombre mood in the tent that night, as we tried to get some sleep before the long stage…


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