Marathon des Sables; The Final Update!

A week on from completing the 2014 Marathon de Sables I’m still not quite sure how to describe or explain the experience. It was everything I imagined and more. And in some cases less (but not many cases of that!). Here is an attempt of describing how it felt on the final day.

The Finish

After 18 months of training I was stood at the start line of the most exciting marathon I have been involved in. It doesn’t take much, considering I’ve only run 2 marathons before (if I exclude the ultras). Nevertheless it was promising to be an interesting day. The top 200 were being held back by 90 minutes. Disappointingly I was position 201 going into the final day. To say I was gutted is an understatement! I wanted to be with all the quick guys chasing the rest of the pack down! However, that all changed as we were milling around at the start line and one of the guys from tent 110 announced to me that I was the fastest guy on the start line. The fastest guy out of 800 people! Oh shit… I’ve never been the fastest guys at the start line before. And most likely I’ll never experience that again! For a very brief second it was excited, then I had an “oh shit” moment at the prospect of navigating (well following the pink rocks) with with lots of people following! The reality is there were plenty of people around me who are quicker at marathons, it’s just my cumulative time over the first 4 days was a few minutes quicker – I think my double marathon nudges me ahead of some guys who are quick at the “short” stuff. I had no doubt there would be faster runners who would be keen to lead the group off and set the direction. Just like the other 4 days, I planned to let them shoot off and then chase them down as the day went on. I wanted to run a 5 hour marathon and hoped to beat the front of the elite group home. I was assuming they would run 3:00-3:30 marathons so it would be pretty tight (almost impossible) with a 1hr30 lead – but figured it would be exciting to try!

Before we knew it music was blaring over the speakers, helicopters swooping over our heads and we were off. The final marathon was under-way! The chase was on! Run! At the first check point I was still feeling fresh and the temperature was still cool so I pressed on. A  number of runners were stood refilling water bottles, so I continued with my week-long tactic of always moving. Even though it means carrying the empty bottle in my bag, I wanted to save that precious minute in my attempt to stay clear of the elites. Over the next 11km we ran on some awesome trails and flat stony plains. Having taken 80 mins to get to the first CP I spent the whole of the next leg thinking of the elites that would now be chasing me down. Not that they knew they were chasing me but it certainly helped keep the legs turning. As I checked in at CP2, I noticed that there were very few foot prints in the sand and not too many bottles in the waste bin; I seemed to be doing OK. I grabbed my 1.5L bottle of water and poured half on my head (much to the amusement of some cameramen and the check point officials) and half into my drinking bottles. In all the excitement of running I hadn’t been drinking as much as I should have done. it also meant I hadn’t been taking much salt on. So I swigged down a belly full of water and 3 salt tablets. All of these checkpoint shenanigans lasted no more than 20-30 seconds and I was on my way again.

Early morning miles

 

With my legs starting to burn and my hands throbbing (a sign of dehydration) I set off for the final CP whilst slurping on my carb drink. This was may favourite leg of the whole race. Perhaps in my life. Bold claim, I know! But it was truly epic, the route, the company, the solace, the views, the climb up to a jebel pass and then a few km up high before a fast decent into a lush green check point I ran hard. I was still ahead of most of the 800 in the early start and none of the elites were in site. In fact, I could barley see anyone in front of me. As I arrived at CP3, I received a huge applause from some families that were in Morocco to see their friends/family finish. The CP staff were also extremely attentive and rushed… I got the impression I was near the front and they did everything they could to get me in and out as quick ad possible. I declined half of my water ration in an attempt to save time and repeated my speedwalk and water admin departure from the CP. This was going better than I had planned and I could sense the finish.

No more CPs left in the MdS 😦 no more “beep” as I cross the CP entry gates, no more practising my pronunciation of  “Bonjour, six deux six”. The next “beep” would be as I crossed the finish line! Best a get move on. For about 3-4 km we were running along a dried up river bed… I say running…. it was a jog! My shuffle was still reeling in one or two of the front runners of the early start. I could see them in the distance in the river bed. As we neared the end of the river bed I was overtaken by a camera crew in a Jeep who jumped about 400m ahead and set-up their tripod. Surely not for me…. nope, just the winner of the day, Abdelkader el Mouaziz! His PB for a marathon is 2hr06min! I could see him in the distance behind me. Minutes later was I running alongside him, albeit for a matter of moments… what an phenomenal athlete! His exit from the river bed was effortless, he dashed up the side of the rocks to climb onto the plateau.  I clearly looked bemused as the Camera crew pointed me towards the trail of footprint I should be following… there were 5 maybe 6 sets of foot prints in the sand.

With 5km to go I crossed the “stony plateau” described in the road book. I could smell the finish. I could also sense a couple of elites not too for behind me. One of the marshals gave me a great a cheer and  said “they’re about a half a km behind you. you’ve got 5km to go!!”. As I started the descent down the rocky hill I kicked a rock so hard I screamed. And swore. I swore lots! but F#@K it.. I had lasted all week… there was only 4km to go I wasn’t going to stop and check it now! From a quick glance over my shoulder and I could see Danny Kendall and Carlos Sa – the fastest two Europeans in the MdS (British and Portuguese respectively). 300m behind.. and they seemed to be speeding up. As we hit the final descent onto the last 2.5 km of dunes Danny flew past me. Shortly followed by Carlos. I felt like I was stood still – I think they were locked in a head to head race for the marathon stage (if I remember rightly Danny needed to beat him by 5 mins to over take him on the overall GC). As I crested the first dune and I could see the finish… I overtook one last person and then ran as hard as my legs will let me for the last 2 km of dunes.

250km later!

Choked with tears, excitement and some dehydration I collected my medal, tried to smile for the camera and gave Patrick a big sweaty hug! I then hobbled to the water tent to collect my 4.5L ration of water before slumping in a heap to recover. I had a brief cry (not sure if that was pain from the marathon, the relief of finishing the MdS or disappointment that the best 18months were about to be over). A few harsh words with myself and I soon realised I should gather my shit together and cheer in the rest of tent 110! We had been together all week and the best part for the others was just about to happen. By the time I dropped my kit at 110, Andy was also home and dry. We wandered up and cheered in the rest of the troops. First Chris, then Gerrit… a short while later Tom, Matt and Adrian made it over the finish line of the 250km hammering.

So that was it… the last day in the MdS. How did we get there? Well, I had intended to write a detailed review of  each day when I got home. But in all honesty I have been pretty tired and still trying to get my head around what happened over those 10 days. When I finished the race and for the first few days after the run I didn’t feel like I had been running at all. Let alone 250km in the desert. By Tuesday I was tired, the adrenaline and endorphins had all died away and I was left genuinely exhausted. I’ve been napping most days and having lots of sleep every night. Recovering is the easy bit: eat, sleep, stretch, eat, sleep! So, there’s my excuse for not writing a full report of the week. Also, I kind of like the short summary that I sent from the desert. It captures it as it happened…. so there you have it. the MdS 2014.

Thank you

There are countless people I want to thank. so in no particular order… here goes.

The office – thank you to everyone in the office. You have put up with a lot of running chat (sorry, but that will likely continue). The support has been phenomenal!

Mum and Dad – I know you didn’t really want me to do this when I first signed up. I blame dad! He did Kilimanjaro – that got me hooked!

BMHAC – great club, great coach and great Sunday morning runs!

Ruth & Luc – The endless lunchtime running chat, the company on the treadmill, stretching, Wednesday runs to work, kit chat, all the stuff that non-runners hate. Awesome work at London by both of you! Ruth posting a “good for age” time and I think Luc securing a “Championship Start”! Both huge achievements!

Mike – Epic training partner. Enough said!

My mates – all of the guys I should have been out drinking with for the past few months… it’s time to catch up on those nights out!

Tent 110 – you know how much fun and pain the week involved. Awesome tent mates.. looking forward to a catch up beer soon!

Lucy – a HUGE thank you to you. I know I have been obsessed with the MdS for the past 18 months. Thank you for being so patient (most of the time ;)) and putting up with all my stinking kit, washing and early mornings. I’m looking forward to a few normal weekends just as much as you are 😀 xx

What next?

No idea. I haven’t planned anything yet. I’ll perhaps run a few road races and work on my speed over the summer.. I popped to ParkRun this weekend and found it hard going, so need to get back down to BMHAC soon.  I’d like to run a sub 1:30 half and maybe a quick marathon. who knows. In the meantime, lots of food, sleep and rest is needed.

Until next time…. no, not the next MdS, just the next adventure….

Rob

p.s I’m still counting up the cash donations… looks like we’ve smashed £6k… will update tomorrow!

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MdS Heat Acclimation

A big factor when running the desert is the heat. That’s pretty obvious. How do you train for it? Easy – you spend as much time as possible running and exercising in the heat. How do you do that when you live in England and it’s Winter?… not so easy.

Well, I have three things in mind:

  • Bikram Yoga (Yoga in a hot room
  • Running on a treadmill wearing lots of layers and with the heaters on
  • Use heat acclimation chamber

I’ll share some more the first 2 when I have actually tried them. For now, I wanted to share with you my first experience in a heat acclimation chamber.

The Prep

I spent most of Wednesday eating well and hydrating myself ready for a 1 hour session in the heat acclimation chamber at Kingston University. I drank about 3 Litres of water during the day and ate pretty well, some good carbs and the old faithful banana just before running. Perfect prep, well that’s if you don’t end up sitting in a car for 45 mins trying to get across London. Nature called… luckily, like most avid runners, my car is full of bottles. So, at the next set of lights I dashed to the boot a grabbed a 500, then changed my mind and grabbed the 750ml! I hoped back into the front and proceeded to top-up” the old 750ml race freebie. I’ve had pre-race nerves before, but never pre-training nerves!

Pre-Run Blood Analysis

Pre-Run Blood Analysis: haemoglobin and heamatocrit

On arrival I was met by a great guy called Chris. He gave me a decent intro into the session and proceeded to record some pre-run stats.

  • Haemoglobin – 15 g/dL (normal range is 14-18 g/dL)
  • Haematocrit – 48 % (normal range is 40-54 %)
  • Naked body weight – 86.3 kg (despite shedding 15kg for the MdS, I’m still kinda heavy for an ultra runner)
  • Resting Core Temp – 37.1 ºC
  • Resting heart rate – 90 bpm (usually 43 – I must have been nervous)
  • Water content of bottles – 1500ml
  • A signature to say I won’t blame him if it goes wrong

The Run

Well, I wasn’t expecting it to be easy. But I also wasn’t expecting to be horrible. Part of my job involves me training as Fire Fighter in case of an incident at the facility where I work. This involves a few days training each year in very hot and very horrible conditions wearing breathing apparatus, air cylinders, heavy gear and dragging fake casualties out of buildings. I have experienced the discomfort that comes with exercising in the heat… though, when you finish a training exercise there is cold water and fresh air. As I found out when I ran a few time in Egypt earlier this year – the heat is relentless.

Anyway, with a reasonable sense of comfort when I walked into the 40 degree, 20% humidity chamber I decided to push myself and see where my break point was. I didn’t want to go too easy and not learn from the experience. So I loaded myself up with a 7kg pack and set off at a decent pace. Picking the pace was confusing to start with as it was in km not miles, so after a few mins of testing my maths at 40 degrees I settled into my half marathon pace.

Heat Acclimation Chamber

Heat Acclimation Chamber

Now, in hindsight, this was more than a challenge… I set of at my half marathon training pace but also had 7kg on my back AND 40 degrees AND <20% humidity. Of course, it was a matter of time before I was gasping for a drink and burning up. 25 minutes into the run I had to knock the speed back to a more casual jog. My core temp had risen from 37.2 to 38.1 and then to 39.1. When you approach and exceed 39.5 and things get interesting. Although it sounds small, 0.5 degrees is a big increase… but still, I backed off to learn the feeling of where the high 38s are and where 39+ begins. For the next 30 mins I tried varyious speeds of walking, jogging and incline changes to test out my reaction to the extra effort. I would say that once “cooled” back down to the high 38s I was comfortable.

Feeling a little warm!

Feeling a little warm!

Once you are hot and your ability to cool down is limited by the ambient air temp and blood temperature, it can take a while for your core temperature to drop a mere 1 ºC. Escpecially when you’re your burning calories and generating more heat! Lesson- do not over heat in the first place. Slow and steady wins the race. I’m getting de ja vu!

Post run

After the run, Chris took all of the key data again and pointed my in the direction of towel and some scales to get my post-run dry weight. I had sweated a whopping 2.2 litres of water in 1 hour. Now, if we extrapolate that out to a 6 hour run, that will be at about 13 litres That’s approximately the daily ration of water. Chris tells me, I sweat more than the average person, but not the most he’s seen. I could have guessed that by looking at my t-shirts after a spin session or circuit class – but it’s nice to see some numbers! I therefore need to be sensible with my water ration, avoid over exerting myself in the peak of the heat (pretty obvious) and not waste water splashing it on my face etc…. I’m sure it feels great, but is an inefficient way of cooling down.

So what did the key stats tell me:

  • Body weight- I lost 2.2kg in sweat
  • Blood (Haemoglobin – 16.4 g/dL and Haematocrit – 50 %) – despite sweating a lot, I kept myself hydrated. When you’re dehydrated the haematocrit % increases as there is less water in your blood. As a consequence the blood thickens, this makes pumping the blood harder, your heart works harder, burns more calories, generates more heat, you sweat more, the % increases and you heart has to work even harder. This gets rapidly worse! So, stay hydrated!
Me wearing a 2.2kg t-shit

Me wearing a 2.2 kg t-shirt

After a nice cool shower, Chris gave me a de-brief on the session and explained my stats. He’s a keen ultra-runner himself and a very knowledgeable Sports Scientist – I was all ears! As I sat recovering, he kindly topped up my recovery shake with water. Unfortunately the shake had been in my bag for the full run; I am not looking forward to warm protein shakes in the desert!

Next steps

Over the months of December, January and February I’m going to be running on the treadmill with lots of layers and hopefully a heater nearby. I need to get used to the walk/run/walk and get a better feel for my fluid intake over extended periods. I’m also planning to start a Bikram Yoga (hot yoga) session once per week and then up this to 2 or 3 sessions per week by March. Then, in the final week or two before I head to the desert, I will be heading back to the heat chamber for some final heat acclimation session. The benefits of heat exposure are short lived (perhaps 1-2 weeks) so I’ll get the most benefit from hot, yoga, heat chamber and the saunas by maximising usage in the final 2 weeks. I just hope I don’t turn up dehydrated 🙂

If it wasn’t already obvious, I would absolutely recommend spending some time in a heat chamber- it was incredibly valuable! I know it isn’t cheap, but this is up there with the best £50 I have spent on training/equipment so far! Even if you can only find the cash to do 1 session, I would!

Time to get a sweat on!

Rob