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Training for MDS with Mohamad Ahansal.

Running across the Sahara

21-Apr-15

Last updated: 15-Nov-18

By Mandy Davin

Friday 3rd April - Day 1

Boarding the plane from Gatwick to Ouarzazate I was surrounded by people who were going to be my Marathon des Sables neighbours for the week. Little did I know that some of them would end up being friends for life or that they would help me stay sane when times got tough. I sat with two people who were running for Walking with the Wounded and they certainly made the 3.5-hour plane journey enjoyable.

I remember looking around at other competitors, everyone looking super fit and organised. My training had had a slight set back during the final vital months. Throughout 2014 I was doing a marathon a month for charity and working 12 hour shifts the following day, so I was fairly confident about distance on foot. From November to February 2015 family life became a whirlwind, studying full time and working 46 hours per week. I found it difficult to train as much as most people around me on the plane probably had. I went to Morocco for sand dune and heat training with Mohamad Ahansal, who became my saviour and continued to give me guidance and support before, during and after the race.

Arriving at the airport and going through passport control I was whisked away onto a coach for the 6-hour journey to the bivouac. It went fairly fast as we were all handed a “road book” which became my bible during the course of the week. We were also handed a brown plastic bag. At first I thought it was a sick bag but later from reading my road book it was in fact a poo bag - take note, add a stone inside before using it as it gets windy at night. I arrived at camp late at night and walked around a dark field with hundreds of others to find a tent. I ended up in tent 131.

After all eight of us introduced ourselves, we went to have dinner, sat on the floor around a small table and chatted away getting to know each other. Walking back to tent 131 with our head torches on, we laid out our sleeping bags and went to sleep – or shall I say, tried to!

Saturday 4th April – Day 2

Waking up at 07:00am, I went to use the toilets for the first time. This meant taking my little brown bag to a canvas shelter which contained a toilet frame, attaching the bag to the edge and trying not to sit fully on the frame in fear that it would collapse, doing my business, tying the bag up and putting it in the bin outside – thankfully I took plenty of hand gel with me. Tent 131 all went for breakfast and then returned for further instructions. Today was all about getting out kit checked, weighed, collecting race numbers and salt tablets; these tablets are needed as during the day you can lose up to 15g of salt. We were also handed a SOS messenger so that we could be tracked by a friend or family and, of course, race officials in emergencies. As soon as we had this done we handed in our suitcase and relied on what we had in our pack for the week ahead.

Race organiser Patrick Bauer made a speech before we headed off to our last dinner of the week that was not self-sufficient; then we headed off to sleep for an early morning ahead.

Sunday 5th April – Stage 1

Sleeping on stony ground was quite difficult. I wanted to travel light so I took a cheap foam mattress so if I wanted to ditch it later I would not mind wasting £5. Sleeping inches away from five men and two other women who I did not know was quite daunting. I tossed and turned throughout the night so by stage 1 I was feeling quite tired. Today was the first day of being self sufficient, I lit my tiny cooker and heated up water to make my porridge and coffee; being a coffee addict I must have caffeine in the morning. We then made our way to the water collection van to get our water for the day, got the card stamped, set up our kit and made our way to the start line. Patrick Bauer stood on top of a van, made a speech, wished us luck, played ACDC’s Highway to Hell and off we went, 1300 excited, nervous people running across the start line with one thing in mind, to get back safely from the 36.2km ahead.

Running across rocky roads, small dried sand dunes and climbing through rocky Jebels sounds pretty straight forward and easy but with temperatures rising to 44ºC and carrying 8kg on your back, it’s a lot more difficult than it seems. Following route markings to avoid deep cracks and the many other runners ahead it was easy not to get lost or injured. That is, until we reached the rolling hills, which literally were loose rocks; watching my step slowly I managed to get down safely. Before reaching the finish line (at this point I was walking across the small sand dunes), I realised I was walking next to Sir Ranulph Fiennes. It was a pleasure to be running the same race as the legend himself.

Each day, during the course there were checkpoints with photographers, water being distributed and a chance to rest or seek medical help if needed. I decided to continue and eat as I went but it was refreshing to know we could stop and rest here.

Reaching the finish line I was presented with Moroccan green tea and a 10 second shower by a man with a hose. I made my way to tent 131, collected water, checked my feet for blisters, prepared dinner and went to sleep.

Monday 6th April – Stage 2

We all made our way to the start line to listen to ACDC again, I lathered myself in sun cream, knocked back as much water as I could and sucked on salt tablets. During the 31.1km route I only drank sips of water, as I did not want to run out. I then realised I was not going to the toilet, I didn't feel dehydrated but I understood not having a wee was a sign that I may be getting that way. I sucked more salt tablets and started drinking regularly. Most parts for me were impossible to run, I had not trained for rocky hill running so I was extra cautious with my stepping. Today was less distance but a very tough route. On the eigth km I walked up a “deceptive rising slope” which was the Hered Asfer Jebel, followed by a larger hill on the seventeenth km. My legs were strong, my mind was strong but now the heat was getting to me, I was starting to doubt and knowing there was a line behind me trying to climb up the hill I felt I could not stop and needed to move quick.

It took me well over seven hours to run/walk 31km. Back at the bivouac all emotions came flooding out and I cried, I really felt I could not do it. My tent mates talked some sense into me, another said she felt the same and also cried. We then vowed that time was not important, just making sure we were back at the tent each night within cut off time was all that mattered. I felt better, I read messages from friends and family who were tracking me, I inspected my feet for blisters and was relieved I still didn’t have any. I finally went to sleep after tent 131 cracked jokes and chatted until it got dark. I felt blessed I had ended up with the perfect tent mates.

MDS 2015 Tent 131

Mandy (far right) and Tent 131.

Tuesday 7th April – Stage 3

During the previous night my foam mattress took off in the wind when the tent was vacant, I found it in the morning a few tents down. I decided to cut it into three sections, gave two parts out and used my part for my knees for kneeling down in the tent and for my backside at night. I made a pillow with my upside down trainers covered in a waterproof bag and used my day clothes to cushion it. I used my bag to elevate my feet.

Tent 131 got into a routine; we had someone to control blisters and dress them, another who was the fire starter, a lady who was the bubbly one and often got us all laughing, two were nicknamed Gandalf and Yoda who stuck by each other with their wooden sticks, calming but humourous, the youngest just reminded me of my little brother with his jeans halfway down his backside, another lady who was my confider, and as for me, I have no idea what my role was... I must ask!

Being in a small space with seven other people, you'd have thought there would be some sort of conflict or disagreement but during Marathon des Sables tent 131 became strong. We were there for each other and we would see the last runners come to the finish line in the hope that they would arrive back safe.

After walking most of the day's 36.7km I felt exhausted. My left shoulder was now hurting from the bag, my arm was sunburnt after forgetting to apply cream in one section and under my arm I had chaffing from my water bottle. For the first and only time I decided to take Paracetamol and seek medical help for a piece of tape to apply to my arm to stop the rubbing. When I got back to the tent I found my first little blister in between my little and fourth toe. I looked around me at people who were hobbling, not walking properly, taped up on their shoulders and back from severe chaffing. I felt lucky and confused about why someone unfit like me could get away with one small blister.

Wednesday 8th April – Stage 4

My nerves on this morning were incredible, I was about to take on 91.7km, I had only ever done 50K, once! At the start line, tent 131 hugged, wished each other lots of luck and reminded everyone to take it slow, that we would see everyone at the finish line. I started the course with a “Sahara shuffle” it was not a run, jog, or walk it was just a slight shuffle through the mixed sandy stone terrain. This shuffle is all you can achieve in the desert. Mohamad had advised me many times “do not stop, just go and go, do not sleep at check points”. So I decided to move slow, steady, eat whilst walking, rest and sit if needed and check my feet if they were feeling pain but to not stop longer than 15 minutes.

My front bag contained nuts, dried dates, dried mangos, skittles and sour Haribo cherry sweets, it also contained my salt tablets. Every litre of water I would have two tablets, suck on them for a while until I could not tolerate the taste any more. Going through check 1 and 2 was quick, at checkpoint 3 I felt pain in my feet so I decided to sit and take my shoes off to inspect; I found no blisters but I massaged my sandy smelly feet to relieve the ache, they were just tired – I kept telling myself the tiredness would not last forever, the ache was only temporary, be strong, stop whining and get on with it, I knew it was not going to be a relaxing walk on a sandy beach so I had to deal with it.

After checkpoint 3 my slow Sahara shuffle turned into a walk, I looked around me, feeling so lucky! Lucky I had this opportunity to run the worlds toughest foot race, I was on the long day on Marathon des Sables, I had already run / shuffled / walked 134 Km and I was going to continue, I was going to do this safely, and I was going to get to the finish line and receive my medal. I was going to do it and no matter how tired I felt, no matter how hungry I was, I would deal with it and keep on moving. Running MDS is a matter of mental focus, if you don’t have a tough mind then you’re going to fail, if you’re a quitter when times get tough then you won’t receive your medal, this was not just a game of physical abilities. During the course, runners from all around the world greeted me as I would them, we’d chat for five minutes until we went our separate ways. These small talks kept me going and I felt honoured to meet so many inspirational people.

Time was moving fast, I was going slowly, the sun was going down and it started to get dark. Time to get the head torch out and glow sticks on so I was prepared for the night walk. I really wanted to run a little, my mind was saying, “run, run” but my legs were saying "no, stop!" They were feeling heavy, like a weight was pulling them down, I kept moving, ate my dates, took my salts and put on warm clothing.

At a checkpoint, I needed to sit so I found a tent to rest in and I met two men, getting ready to go. As by this time it was pitch black, I asked them if I could join them. I did not care that I had only rested two minutes but I did not want to be alone in the night. After pleasant introductions the three of us made our way across sand dunes in the dark. Two hours passed, it was coming up to 1am and the three of us we tired so we decided to rest on the sand dunes for 15 minutes. I lay in a position were I did not need to take my bag off but the sand dune was supporting me and took off all pressure from my shoulder. I looked up into the clear sky and searched for shooting stars, I did not want to move, I could have easily stayed there all night. We continued to walk bringing up the pace, I was lagging behind but told them I was ok but when they decided that at the next checkpoint they would sleep for 5 hours I told them to go on ahead as I did not want to do that.

Walking alone, my eyes closing, I twisted my ankle, my torch was running out of batteries, and I was in pain mentally and physically. The head torch light was getting dimmer and dimmer, no one was in front or behind me, I was scared, felt lost and I was angry at myself; for not training better, for thinking I could actually complete the MDS. I was thinking all sorts, swearing out loud, talking to myself, singing when along came a man called Dean. “Are you ok?” he asked. Instantly I said yes, thank you, but then I realised I was not. He knew I was suffering fatigue so we walked together until the checkpoint and rested in the tent for one hour. Getting up from the tent after the hour took a lot of will power, it was cold, windy, and we were both exhausted but we had each other now.

Out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere a man from Malta appeared he asked if he could walk with us for the remainder of the night. The three of us chatted away until the moon went and the sun came up, stopping regularly to lean over to get the pressure of the bags off our shoulders. In no time we were approaching the second to last checkpoint. I have no idea how or where it came from but my body was suddenly overtaken by a surge of energy, my walking pace got quicker and I felt like I wanted to run. I asked the two guys if it would be ok if I ran a little ahead for a few minutes. I though it would not last long, they said yes and off I went.

I ran like the wind without stopping, at checkpoints 6 and 7 I got my water and I continued to run, not fast as my legs were still aching but running, up the hills, down the hills, across the stony dried up river, until I saw the finish line in sight. I ran to the finish line and cried. It was just coming up to 11:00am new day, I got to my tent and was greeted by a few tent mates and I cried and I lay there not wanting to move an inch.

Thursday 9th April – Day off

I rested for a few hours until I thought it was a good time to do some washing. It was 40ºC but I had no choice but to change into my nightwear, long compression recovery skins and a long warm lightweight jumper. I took my top, trousers and underwear and put them in my made up “washing machine” by cutting a water bottle in half, popping in one piece of clothing and adding water and a baby wipe for scent. I attached the bottle back together and laid it in the sun for 30 minutes. Shaking the bottle a little and drying out the sopping water I put my top on the tent to dry and repeated the process until I had a nice clean (ish) running outfit again.

I spent the remainder of the day chatting with tent mates, who I knew by this point would be friends for life. I also went to other tents to well wish other runners who I had met during the week, reflecting back on the night from hell – the long stage- and drinking Coke! Yes, they gave us a can of cola and it was the best thing ever! I got back to the tent to find a load of messages from friends and family, I felt overwhelmed that people were actually tracking me through the night! I’m a member of a Facebook running group, Bosh - where one lady had posted out to people asking them to send me messages of support. I will never forget the messages I got and I wish I could personally thank every one of them.

Friday 10th April - Marathon day

I woke up confident, less tired than usual, wearing clean (ish) clothes and with my feet feeling great – I couldn’t say the same about my shoulder but by this time many people had dropped out due to injuries and I felt blessed that I was still here. I looked at the road map and realised there were not many hills today, I was happy about this and happy that it was an actual marathon, too. Yes, I’d suffered on the 36km stage but the year before I did eleven marathons in eight months and I believed I could easily do this one. I remember telling Mohamed that I would push myself today, that it did not matter if I got a blister because the long stage has been completed. As usual, at the start line tent 131 wished each other luck and promised to see each other at the end. The elites started 3 hours later so we could finish roughly at the same time.

I wanted to run as far as I could and to prove to Mohamed his training across the sand dunes did benefit me. 20km in I was running / shuffling until I got to the checkpoint and felt tiredness set in, only having dates and dried mango I became sick of them and realised I should have mixed my food a bit or at least taken some energy gels or shot blocks. As much as the first half of the marathon went well, my legs decided the only option was to walk and shuffle every few minutes. When I reached the finish line there were many people there to greet all the runners coming in. I got my medal, took my water and headed straight to my tent to be greeted by my new friends.

MDS 2015 training at Merzouga

Sand dune training at Merzouga in February 2015.

Saturday 11th April – Charity stage

Today was an 11km run through the golden sand dunes of Merzouga, the exact place where I trained with Mohamad Ahansal so I was excited to be coming back. Tent 131 decided we would all walk and finish it together, as a team. And that is what we did, walking up and down the dunes, chatting, laughing, and enjoying every moment. It was like a river of blue (we were all wearing the UNICEF t-shirts), across the dunes all feeling the same, exhilarated that we had completed Marathon des Sables – the toughest foot race on earth.

I was often asked out there if I would do MDS again and without any hesitation I said no, as much as I loved the whole experience I could not possibly face another sand dune again. Until the next day, when I emailed the organiser and got a place for MDS 2016.

For someone who’s been running for just over a year, someone who could not run a mile two years ago without being out of breath, someone who was unfit and would never in a million years have thought she would participate in anything as brutal as this I have to say, I am very proud of myself and if I can do it, so can you. Put your mind to it, you get what you want.

I set up a blog about my running to try and inspire people who say "I can't even run to the bus stop". If I can do it, with the right guidance, anyone can. 

Mandy Davin

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