Monday, March 17, 2008

2007/2008 Update

Well it was nigh on time i did an update. Its been really cool over the last year, hearing how many folk have actually read my blog and thankfully, its achieved what i wanted it to, which was give everyone who is interested in this kind of event, a really good insight into it at a personal level, to “feel” that they are there and what it is like.

So after the MDS, i had quite strongly decided that that was it. No more. Nada. Kaput. But hey, you know how it goes....

Once i got home, i was in a world of pain. I had shin splints in my right leg and had seriously strained the muscle at the front of my ankle, between the foot and shin. This was caused by movement at awkward angles travelling over sand-dunes. I had some blisters on my right and left feet and one big one on my left heel. Barring some other cuts and bruises, that was it.
It took me roughly two weeks to get rid of most of the above. The heel took about 6 weeks and the shins took about 2 months to clear up.

I rested a month and did very little, which was the rest of April pretty much. At the beginning of May, i went out and did some light running. What i found, was that after a mile or two, i was getting a lot of pain right across my quads. Believe me, it really hurt! So i was having to stop and walk after the pain got too much. Having had a word with a good mate of mine, Andrew Murray, we agreed that it was likely that it was still my body feeling the after-effects of the MDS. It would make sense after all, having pushed my body way further than i ever had before, specially far beyond my fitness level for sure.

So i took his advice and tried to run through it as much as possible. It wasn’t easy at first and was very uncomfortable, but eventually, things started to ease off and then i was suddenly fine. Once the shin problem also went, then i felt ok to run once more and settled into some steady running over the next months.

I had booked to do the Dublin Marathon in October, so my target for my training was that for the time being. During this time, i had spoken to my good friend Shaun once more (over in Australia) and he had reiterated about going back and doing the Marathon des Sables once more. I had already paid a deposit to do 2008, but was indecisive, not really wanting to go through that hell again, but the more we talked, he knew i would go and he was right. So i agreed to go again on the 23rd edition of the MDS, but that was at the back of my mind, as i was just doing to spend the summer doing training for the Dublin Marathon. Believe it or not, this was to be my very first road marathon!

Training was going well. I was running on average 5 times a week, doing roughly 6-10 miles each time, with occasional 10-13 mile runs thrown in. I peaked them at 15 miles, which i felt was ok and had a plan to do one 26 miler, a few weeks before the marathon.
Anyway, around the middle of September, while out training, i was running through a wood, stumbled and collided with a tree and proceeded to bash myself pretty hard. I finished my run, but the next morning, i woke up in a lot of pain. I tried to run once more, but couldn’t due to the pain. So i went to A&E, got myself checked out and found that i had a fractured rib! The nurse told me that i needed to rest for 6 weeks and THEN i could maybe think about starting slowly back on a running program again. Trouble was, the marathon was in 7 weeks!!

I felt pretty gutted, but the folk that know me, know that i hate quitting and not being able to do stuff, so i sat there, getting more and more annoyed by the day, chomping at the bit to go. 6 weeks huh....well after 3.5, i thought thats enough. The pain was down to MDS level ie. Bearable. Its amazing how your tolerance levels to these things changes when you constantly liaise with it *grin*. I was able to run again, slowly for sure, but the rib didn’t hurt too much, so i was able to at least train all week. I settled into a slow stride which i was happy with. Come what may, i was at least training.

Each week after, the pain went and i was able to speed things up some. Sure, there still wasn’t a lot of time, but i felt a lot better for having at least trained a little. The last week before the marathon, i managed to run a 12 miler and a 13 miler, so i knew at least, i could run one-half of it, which i would be happy with.

So my plan was simply that. I knew my fitness was ok, not great, but my durability, due to the MDS, was very high. My plan was to basically run slowly and as far as i possibly could and then power-walk the remainder. It would be a good exercise, to see where i was at!
So the weekend came of the marathon (which was held on Monday 29th October). I flew over to Dublin, checked into my hotel, which was superb. Dropped my stuff off, and then off i went to look for the registration hall, which was about 3-4 miles away! Typical Irish! Anyway i got there, there was a huge queue as expected, but within 30 minutes i was inside. I got registered, got my free goodie bag and then went to mill around downstairs and check out all the cool running stuff, none of which i purchased, bar for a fridge magnet for my mum (who would nag me to death if i didn’t get her one!). On the way back to the hotel, i stopped in a souvenir shop and got the kids a few bits each and then headed back to the hotel, picking up some food on the way (all carb heavy). Almost back, it started to absolutely pour down! I Thought “oh great, what the hell is tomorrow going to be like!”.

Anyway i settled down, ate, relaxed, watched tv and went to bed.
Morning, i got up changed and ready and went down early for breakfast. Again, i ate well and covered most of the carb heavy stuff. Spoke to a husband and wife, who were well into marathons, this of course passed the time. Time was getting on, so i got upstairs, got my stuff and headed out of the hotel to the marathon start, which was about 20 mins walk away, so not too far really and easy to find, as i had passed there the day before. The weather was dry, cloudy, but not too bad at all. There was the odd break in the clouds and you could see a patch of blue here and there, so maybe a little sun. It was cold, but that was ok. As long as it wasn’t raining!

I got to the start and handed my bag in and was ready in a few minutes and good to go, so i meandered over to the masses who were at the start line. I went and stood right at the back and when i say at the back, i mean like there was not one soul behind me! That was fun! Anyway while waiting, i spoke to some of the folk there, waiting for the starting announcement. Before i knew it, away we went!

The race itself went without any problems bar for one thing. My shorts, which had seen 2 tours of the MDS, the stitching split all down one leg. This was at around 12-13 miles and i felt some real discomfort. When i looked, my leg was bleeding, having chaffed for about a fair while in a large appx 8 inch line! So i stopped at the medics and they gave me some safety pins and Vaseline. I rubbed the vas in, so it felt slick over the cut and then pinned the material together and once again i was good to go!

I got to half way and i felt great. I originally thought i would run out of steam at this point and walk, yet mile after mile passed and i felt fine, so i kept on running, steadily passing folk. It wasn’t a race at all for me, not in any sense. My only target, was to finish within 5 hours.
When i got to about 22 miles, my legs started to hurt. Slowly at first and then it began to build, so buy 24 miles i was rather uncomfortable, but i figured i had ran all this way, i may as well hang in there and finish this way, which is what i did. I managed to run the whole marathon! Something i always felt i would be unable to do so. time was a little pedestrian, in comparison to some of my friends, but i didn’t care. I had done it and thats all that mattered to me.

My finishing time was 4 hrs 36 mins, which was superb.

My times throughout the race were:
10km 1hrs 11mins
13miles 2hrs 22mins
20miles 3hrs 35mins

Nice and steady. I was very happy! Job done!

Afterwards, i was very sore and for some days after, but what an effort and i was very proud of myself.

The end of that week, i headed off to Australia for a nice, well deserved break and to go see some of my great friends over there.

While there, i managed to do a little running, but picked up another calf injury that never did quite go away. It niggled at me all through November and December. January saw that clear up to a degree and i then decided to get on some long-distance walking events with my mate James. This would be good 22-25 mile solid walks, with plenty of ascent, so perfect training for the Marathon Des Sables. I was back to training with my backpack on, at that time, i was carrying approx 6kg of weight. Throughout the month, i increased that to 10-11kg.
On the 2nd LDWA event, i injured myself really badly in a somewhat freakish accident, which left me with a twisted knee, damaged outer cartilage, tendons, hamstring and calf. I was gutted and really worried as i could hardly walk. In the end, i got hold of a strong knee support. Once i tried it on, i felt i could exercise to a degee, although uncomfortable, it held my knee together and enabled me to carry on! So thats what i did. I cancelled all the remaining LDWA events that i had planned and went back to my own training routes, although not as difficult or as testy as the events, it would enable my to train and know that my knee could have time to recuperate as much as possible. Getting to the start, while injured, but in as best a condition as i could, was my main priority.

So here i am. Not maybe in as tip-top shape as i would have wanted, but willing to give things a real crack!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Alan Silcock - My personal experience:

22nd edition Marathon Des Sables 2007 – 25th March to 31st March 2007

Well the MDS this year was always going to be really interesting. The 2006 MDS was a very unhappy experience for me, with me having the hip injury that forced me to withdraw from the event. It took me an awfully long time to get over that and was certainly something I couldn’t just come to terms with. I always had the intention of going back and finishing what I had started. Keith Miller, a fellow member from 2006, aptly termed it “unfinished business”. I am a person of my word like that, so there was never any doubt that I would go back and fight another day.

My whole intention was to go in 2008. I had the forms ready to send etc, when I got a call from a good mate, who persuaded me to go again in 2007, instead of 2008, something I was very grateful for as I could then get things out the way a year quicker, so I could build on the fitness level I already had and not start from scratch, which I would have to do if I had gone a year later.

I went and got my hip problem sorted. I have a hip imbalance, which was causing the pain after a lot of exertion over a long period of time. So I was given orthotics for my shoes and had to wear them and allow my legs to get used to them. This took a little while for my muscles to adjust, but they did over about 2-3 weeks. After this, training went well and I didn’t get any injuries. I had the intention of variating my training between running and walking, with more emphasis on walking though. I didn’t train as intensely as I did last year. I gave my body a chance to rest, but what training I did, I always made sure that once a week, I made sure that one of the distances was a lot longer than the other training days. The summer came and went and I managed to get some really cool hill training in, making sure that I had enough in me to overcome anything that might appear on the MDS. Yes, things were looking promising and my training was exactly where I wanted it to be.

In October, I was out running and I began to get a pain in my right side. As with all things, I just shrugged if off and just put it down to a niggle and carried on. Next day, it got a little worse and so did the day after. This time, while training, it began to really hurt and I had to stop. It felt like a really bad stitch and I had never felt this before. Something was most definitely not right. At first, I thought I had pulled a muscle somehow, so thought I would have a few days rest and see how it went. However, the next few days, the pain got worse and worse. I got up out of bed on the Saturday and I felt really unwell. I am rarely ill and I felt awful. I was sat in the bathroom feeling sick and faint. I managed to get myself up and was in a lot of pain. Somehow, I managed to make my way to the hospital, where I went straight to A&E to get checked out. The nurse had a little prod and informed me that it was quite likely that there was something wrong with my appendix. They would take me up to the ward right away and operate tonight! WOW! I had never been in a hospital before like this and was really crapping it! So anyway, that night I had an appendectomy, which meant that I was out of action until after new-year. This pretty much totally ruined all my hard work and it was like starting all over again. Sat in the hospital bed, I really did think my adventure was over. How the hell could I do it now? I was absolutely devastated. All that effort for nothing! The next few weeks, I wasn’t very approachable and I just couldn’t get my head straight. It wasn’t really until I had a chat with Simon & Bob, two great mates of mine, that I felt like there might be some hope. Basically, they told me that I would have plenty of time to get back on track and be ready for the MDS. I think I just needed to hear something like that from people who had been there. It did help a lot though and though I didn’t feel too great about things, I did feel a little hope that I might be ok.

Due to this, training wise, I had to start from scratch with less than 3 months to go. All I could do was train hard for walking. There just wasn’t enough time to do much running. So I had to rethink my whole strategy pretty much and just keep myself in one piece, to give myself an outside chance of completing the marathon. My mind was in A1 shape and I was totally zoned in on finishing, but for the first time, I really did worry whether my body would have enough in it to complete the arduous task ahead. But my one saving grace this time, was that I knew full well, that it wasn’t all about fitness. How strong I was mentally and how big my heart was, was going to play a major part in this and I felt very strong that way. so for January and some of February, I just basically concentrated hard on building up fitness and durability. I had a full 12kg pack on every time I went training and I was feeling ok. Mid-February, I had a good chat with a few mates of mine from last years MDS, James Love, Bob Jack and Simon Owen. We talked strategy, I listened to all their advice and “top tips” and I set my plan in motion for the lead up to March.

Through February, I joined up with the Long Distance Walkers Association. Through the month and into March, I went on three events, all ranging from 21 to 26 miles, all on very tough terrain, with very mixed weather and each one was perfect for my preparation. Unfortunately, coming home from the last event, I got Tendonitis in my left foot which pretty much stopped my training for the last two weeks, though I did manage to do some runs on the treadmill to give my foot a workout to see how it felt. Speaking to the guys, they all gave me positive reviews, telling me that I was far better than I was last year and in much better shape. This really did surprise me, but it was damn good to hear anyhow!

So I got to go to the MDS at least in one piece. Maybe not in the condition I originally wanted to be, but at least not too bad. For the first time since October, I began to at least have a glimmer of hope that I could really do this. Being who I am, there was no way I was going to give this up without going down fighting with everything I had.

A few nights before going, I sorted out all my food and gear and I was ready. I felt I could cover 26 miles on foot with a 12kg pack, so I was confidant that I could tackle whatever was ahead of me, as long as I took it easy, conserved my energy and followed my game plan.

The trip to Morocco was a long one, but was fine. I arrived in Casablanca and had to wait for my connecting flight to Ouarzazate for approximately 4 hours, so I checked in my baggage and strolled around for a while, figuring out where everything was and then sat for a coffee and a read. Nearer the flight time, I went to gate 9a and went through, only to find a load of MDS competitors down there! I sat for a while and checked everyone out as you do and spotted a couple of Aussie guys, so I went over and sat and said hello. They turned out to be Andrew (#496) and Tony (#485), who had come from Dubai, but were Aussies and Paul Liebenburg (#523), a South African lad, who had been working in New Zealand. I sat chatting with them and it quickly became evident that we were going to become fast friends!

The flight to Ouarzazate went without any problems, though Paul’s luggage had gone missing on its way to Dubai, so was in transit behind him. Andy and Tony jumped in one taxi and me and Paul went in another and made the 10 minute trip from the Airport to the Hotel. We were staying in the Bel-Air, which was around the corner from the Berbere Palace, that I stayed in last year. Very nice hotel either way! I suggested to Paul that instead of a single room each, we doubled and saved some money. Seemed like a good idea, so we went with it. Paul was also keen to catch up with a mate (the mad scot), so we were going to hunt him down in the morning before we got on the coaches to go into the desert. Getting chatting to Paul, I was to find out that he had done the New Zealand Ironman just a few weeks before! Amazing stuff. He managed to do that in less than 12 hours – an awesome achievement.

Morning came round. We sorted our stuff and went for breakfast and looking for Jay Batchen, who was the organizer for our party, through his company, Dreamchasers. We found Paul’s friend at breakfast and he came and sat with us. He turned out to be Andrew Murray (#533), a Scottish lad, who had just traveled from Argentina, via Aberdeen, spent a half day getting stuff and then straight to Morocco! This trip was already turning out to be a lot of fun! Andy and Paul were absolutely hilarious!

As the morning progressed, I was sat outside the hotel waiting for the coach. My suitcase was placed in a room in the hotel, so that I wouldn’t have to take it to the desert with me (less hassle). I was sat with Tony and Andrew. Paul and Andy were about and another Aussie guy came over to chat and turned out to be Cliff McKinley (#531). He was a great guy and we got on well right away! Cliff, I had got to know over the months, through the Dreamchasers forum and we had swapped e-mails back and forth over the months, offering each other little bits of advice and information, which was great, so when we met, it felt like we had known each other a while and was great to finally put a face to them numerous e-mails!

Eventually, we all managed to get onto a coach. Jay Batchen came and sat next to me – poor Jay, after I managed to chat the hind leg off him. After a 4 or so hour drive on the coach, we eventually got to the Bivouac. We all got onto trucks and took off across the sand a few miles to the camp. Pretty much everyone who was on our lorry ended up in our tent! If not our tent, it was the next one, so was pretty cool the way it worked out.

We trooped along to our tents. We noticed that there wasn’t a totally empty tent, so we had to opt for the least empty one, which turned out to be tent 65. In there, there were already two people, so we piled in there. They were Lindsay McMurray and Malcolm Jackson. Lindsay is a scot and Malcolm is a kiwi. They both live in London. Also into the tent went myself, Paul Liebenberg, Cliff McKinley, Andrew Murray (all mentioned earlier), Shaun Bacon from Australia, and last but not least, Joe Bailey, a brit living in Paris, who wanted to come into our tent so he didn’t have to bunk with the French! (wise choice if you ask me!) So that was tent 65. A multinational bunch, who in the end, we nicknamed “The Motley Crew”.

Paul went off to the admin tent, to see what could be done about his stuff, as at that moment, he didn’t have any stuff to do the MDS! What an amazing tent though, as between us, we managed to scramble up a whole pack worth of stuff so Paul could go through the admin day without any problems. That’s one thing about the group in our tent that quickly became evident to all of us. We were all there for each other.

We sat there chatting for a while, getting to know each other. It took Andy about 5 minutes to let out a monstrous 15 second fart that had everyone laughing and nicely set the scene for an amazing week. I was asked about my pack, which was a shade over 7kg which I was very happy with. Everyone elses was a lot heavier and when we began chatting, I was asked loads of questions as I had been before. Very quickly the tent had an admin explosion as everyone started to whittle down their stuff and make their packs a little more sensible. Joe was hilarious. He hadn’t had too much time to prepare as his mate brought all his stuff over and seemed to have enough food to feed the tent with! Andy had hardly brought any food and so he started to collect everything off everyone else. We were already having a really good laugh. Andy and Paul were hilarious. Paul quickly got into two things he kept coming out with all week. One was “F*ck it, lets do it” and a phrase out of a song “I’ve got to move it, move it” – was really funny! Andy, you wouldn’t have imagined he was doing the MDS. He seemed so laid back and just so cool about everything. What a guy. Lindsay and Malcom were all biz, Shaun didn’t look too well and Cliff was great, and well prepared.

After dinner at the French canteen, we all settled and got to sleep quite early.

Admin Day – Saturday 24th March

Didn’t sleep that well to be honest, but then, I rarely do. The night was very cold, something very different than last year. Already I was going to have problems, due to not having enough warm clothing – definite top tip for next year – something warm to wear for night! Did manage to get a little sleep though. Joe talks in his sleep. Was talking about something but nobody could figure out what the hell he was going on about. Was very funny though and Joe thought it was really amusing when we told him. Breakfast at the canteen was nice and wow, Paul’s pack showed up! He was buzzing but he kept my Thorlos socks. That was ok as I only needed the two pairs that I had.

We went back to the tent and started to sort out our packs. Our time in the Admin tent was from 1-2pm. I was short on calories for the last day, so I got given some noodles for then, to bump them over 2000, just in case I got checked. With that, my pack was spot on. I went over to the Darbaroud shop and picked up my cooker and fuel tablets. Shaun had gotten a fair bit worse. He had the runs and was vomiting. Things were not looking good for him, but everyone was rallying around for him and not just from our tent. The support was fantastic. It was great to see and something that makes me feel proud of, being a part of it. As Paul and Andrew were doctors, they were keeping a close eye on him, to ensure he was ok.

So admin time came and off we went. Everything went a-ok. Malcolm got pulled aside and got spot-checked, but I sailed through without any problems. I got given my flare, some salt tablets, my water and medical cards and my race numbers, 543. When I got back to the tent, everyone else was done too – there were no problems with anyone, which is always a good thing! Now that was through, I was able to sit and spend the rest of the afternoon getting everything the way I wanted it to be. I tested my pack out and it felt good for me! I have trained with the pack being way heavier, so the pack felt very comfortable. We all took some pictures and then me, Cliff and Lindsay took a walk to the top of a nearby hill to have a look down onto the bivouac and take in the view. This was after Cliff, Andrew, Paul and Lindsay had all gone to the top of this massive sand climb that almost went to the top of the hill too!

We got back and Shaun was still not too good. He looked a lot better though and things looked a little more promising. He had been over to the doctors tent and was given tablets to take. Around 4pm, the Darbaroud video team came to our tent and filmed us all, which was really cool. That was a real laugh and we all had a moment on video! I got to speak a little and in my own normal fashion, the second the kids got mentioned, I started to fill up! But it was great to speak about what happened last year and everyone in the tent was very supportive. One way or the other, I hope the clip gets put on the dvd as it was great.

We went over to the canteen for dinner and got filmed again while we were in the queue! Was really funny again! This time, Andrew was top 5 and not Paul. Paul also asked the girl who was interviewing, whether she was single and if she would have dinner after the MDS. Was hilarious! Malcolm made out that his food for the week was olive oil to which everyone by this point was howling! We got back to the tent and all got to sleep, but as usual I couldn’t sleep! I was as nervous as much as you could be. I knew what was coming and what I went through last time. Did I have what it takes? Would my hip hold up? Did I have the right stuff? When it came down to the wire, did I have the heart to dig deep? All this was going through my mind. My stomach was churning away and that’s how I eventually drifted off to sleep, but a very restless sleep it was!

25th March – Stage 1: Irhs / Khermou – 29.3km

We all got up at about 5.30am and started to slowly function. Jo didn’t. he was still pretty much comatose for another hour. As with last year, I got up and said “Groundhog Day!” The reply was “fook off” or some such thing J I also said, “you know….i feel like going for a walk today”. (This was something a guy last year, Graham Williams kept saying. Something else that stuck with me!) That got some smiles. With the MDS, you quickly fall into a kind of routine first thing in the morning. The same applied pretty much for everyone. Mine was as follows: Eat breakfast, go and do teeth and wipe hands and face. Go do toilet stuff. Clean hands again. Sort feet out, then sort out pack and then ready myself. Around 7am, you went and got 1.5litres of water, which was your starting ration for the day. As you get the bottle, they stamp your water card and mark your bottle with your race number. This is so you cannot discard your bottle just anywhere. If you do this, you get a littering penalty, so have to be careful! This bottle of water was basically to last you up to CP1 so you had to be careful with that. Normally one of the tent members would go and get most of the ration for everyone. At this time I put my P20 sun lotion on. This stuff is great. You apply it about 90 minutes before going into the sun, so it can soak properly into your skin and then it lasts for 12 hours. It works a treat. I have really fair skin and burn easily, so it is a godsend for me J This was the first time I pinned my race number to my shirt too, using the safety pins from my pack, which is part of your compulsory items. My race number is 543.

Once everyone was pretty much ready (except Andy, who always had something to do), we took some photos of our group. I took one and then got my head ready for the start. I was really nervous and my emotions (as usual) were all sky high and I could feel my eyes brimming each time I thought of my folks or the girls, but I was also very excited and really looking forward to the challenge. Everyone else was really buzzing too. Amazing how that began to change over the week J I was feeling quite optimistic, as with my training, I felt much better prepared and was interested to know how my body was going to cope with what was ahead, especially the hillier elements of the course and also my feet. I went with my training plan to start and put both pairs of my Thorlos socks on to start, to see how my feet went. I wore my Adidas shorts, a buff around my neck and my cap. I also wore my short sleeve ron hill shirt. I was also using my Inov8 Roclite trainers. Would be interesting to see how they went for this week. I had gotten these on recommendation as nothing else was working for me.

Just before putting on my pack, I read the first of the notes off the kids. I had one of these of each of them for each day, to give me some impetus to keep myself going. They were as follows:

Jessica: Hey Dad! Well you’re there again, and this time, we’re gonna do this! Me and Sass are with you all the time. We might not be running with you, but were here in this tiny piece of paper. We’re in your head and most of all, we’re in your heart. Just think, while you’re chillin’ and havin’ a laugh with ur Aussie mates, me & Sass are stuck in school and college doing work. You’ll be getting a well nice tan, while I’m sat in class in horrible weather, my teacher going on about how much he loves Tony Blair. Woo maybe we should make him do the marathon too J hehehe. Always remember to pack clean underwear and take a newspaper when you go the toilet. I can just imagine you pulling that face in the picture that Sass took! Love you lots, just think of us at every check point and everytime you stop & everytime you want to give up. You’re doing this for us!!!

Note also, that Jess drew a little pic of a bbq, with “Stick anuva shrimp on the barby”

Saskia: Dear Dad, I hope your having a lovly time. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, I praid for clouds of rain to drop over you. Lots of love Saskia xx (NB: I have left all her spelling as she wrote it for me.)

Needless to say, as soon as I read these, out came the tears. I suddenly felt very alone. Then I took a deep breath, gathered myself and knew that they were there for me!

Once I put my pack on, I felt quite comfortable. Pack felt good on me. Was happy with the weight and I was glad that my training had been with a heavier pack. I filled my water bottles. One with just water and I put a nuun tablet in the other (nuun tablets are basically electrolytes). I was going to follow this format all week. Each CP I would place a new tablet in one bottle, but in the evenings, I would also drink some water and use them too.

In my front pouch went a few important items: compass, aspivenin pump, salt tablets, some dried banana, sand goggles (I was wearing my sun glasses), my swiss card, a few plasters and my Kendal mint cake, which was my food for on the move.

We got a notification to go to the start line, so we all began to make our way over there. Being the first day, we had to wait almost an hour before the start. Patrick Bauer went on about loads of things, some of which were useful and some of which was just typical welcome stuff. I didn’t particularly listen to all that, but once he began to talk about the stage ahead, I began to listen to what was being said, to be aware of anything that was ahead of me. The start was going to be at 9.30am and we had 10 hours to complete the stage. I stood right at the back, our little group split up at this point, but Shaun opted to stay at the back with me. With what had happened, he wanted to cross the start line with me. He was one amazing guy and I got plenty of inspiration from him at that point. Having been so ill, he was in one piece, looking good and he still opted to start with me! After some last minute hand-shaking and good wishing, it was all down to the job at hand.

One thing we were all going to come to know over the week, was that the Roadbook totally underestimates what is ahead.

The countdown came from Patrick and then we were off!

The last thing, apart from waving to Shaun as he took off, was the thought “right kids here we go”.

It had started to get quite hot as soon as the sun comes up and you could feel the temperature keep rising. I guessed it was probably around 38-40c at this point. I started as I intended to go for the week. A decent walking speed, head down and walking sticks in tandem with my strides. The first 2km or so was pretty flat and so didn’t really give any problems, then we came to a pass, which led through the Jebel Mech Irdane. It meant going over four hills and these were not little hills either. Each one was a decent climb and one had a sandy ridge that had to be climbed. This went on for about the next 6km, before I finally came down off the last ridge, down onto the flats and across a bridge and then over about 4km of uneven ground to CP1, which was at 12km. I got there and the place was really buzzing. There were loads of people there. I spotted Rory Coleman (a british guy who I had met last year) there and said hello. Rory was a fair bit ahead of me on the walk there, so I was quite pleased to catch up, so he must have been there a little while. This was to be the routine of it for the week pretty much. I did what I had planned in my training. Try and get in and out of checkpoints with a minimum of fuss. I spent 5 minutes there. I filled up my water, emptied sand from my trainers (the gaiter system wasn’t working at all really), did any other necessary stuff and then off I went!

Coming out of the CP, we headed south or so, into a section of dunes called Tizi Moulkhikh. They were not that big or anything and went on for about 4km. Slightly out of breath, but ok, I was to find that the dunes were split into two! I got through the first bit ok and was glad for a little respite in the middle, for about a hundred yards or so, before it was back into the dunes again! You could feel the sun blazing away above you while you were in the dunes, much more so than on any other terrain. It was probably in the mid-40s around now and I was sweating a lot. My hands were dripping and very slick holding the walking poles. I had to keep wiping them so I could keep the grip the way I wanted to. By the time I got to the end of these my legs were a little tired and I was sweating rather a lot, but I felt ok and determined. From there, it was straight into some undulating hills. Undulating hills, my arse! It was a series of three climbs which really wore you down. At the top of the 2nd climb, you could see CP2, which was situated right at the top of the last climb. It was about this point, I began to feel a little unwell. More of a queasy feeling really, but not wanting to take any chances, I slowed right down and let my body recover a little and get myself back into one piece. I just kept myself going, head down and concentrated on just getting myself to the CP, where I could see if I could figure out what was wrong. I eventually got to CP2 with some relief. You had the option of an additional bottle of water here, so I took it and just sat down, took off my pack and had a 15 minute break. I probably hadn’t drunk enough water, so I drank almost a litre of water and ate a few pieces of Kendal Mint Cake to get something back into my body. Let me tell you, this stuff is amazing. Don’t knock it until you have tried it! I had sat down next to two English lads, one of which didn’t look too great. Just as I was enjoying a piece of cake, he went and puked not two feet away from me! Oh great, that nearly went on my shoe! Looking around at that point, the CP really did look like a war zone! Some people there were really not in great shape at all!

I felt I had pulled myself together and so I got my pack back on and headed back out onto the course. I really did want myself in as tip-top shape as possible as I knew what was coming ahead of me.

Coming out of the CP, I headed down some slopes and onto some loose sandy ground, which was quite awkward to walk on. It was like this for 2km or so and then it was straight back into some dunes again! I tell you something as well. The roadbook had it recorded as 3.5km of dunes….there was no bloody way that was only 3.5! it felt like it was never-ending! This section was very hard for me. I was so glad I rested at CP2 as this took a lot out of me, but I felt ok after the earlier lapse, so I just kept my head down and focused on getting through it. I was slow at times, but I didn’t really care. As long as I got through it, that’s all that really mattered. Pretty happy with my effort as I didn’t stop once, unless you count taking a few pics of the course! I got through the dunes in one piece, though towards the end I did start to feel a little off again, so I just kept drinking my water regularly and eating the Kendal mint cake, which was great. I just kept concentrating on the fact that the finish wasn’t too far off and I was going to make it no matter what. Glad the dunes were out of the way, they gave way to some uneven sandy ground which just sapped the energy out of you bit by bit, as it was rising steadily and you could feel this in your legs. I just took my time and kept it in my head that I would get to the top. Once there, I took a few seconds just to get my breath. From here, you had a great view ahead, out onto the plain, which I had to descend to and head across, Right across the plain, you could see the Bivouac. Woohoo!!!! It didn’t look too far, but its always deceiving and was about 3km away. I was very tired at this point as the dunes had took a lot out of me. Just as I was about to head down the hill, I spotted a guy who was sat down, looking a little down, so I said “hey” and introduced myself. His name was John and was in Tent 70 and was definitely not doing great. I asked him if he was ok. If I was sat there like that, I would want people to ensure I was ok, so being good-natured, I did the same. He said “Not really”, so I asked him if he wanted some company to the finish line. He agreed, so we headed down the side of the hill and onto the plain ahead. To be honest, though I had no doubt whatsoever that I would get to the end, I was really pleased for the company at this point. He was a cool guy and we chatted away getting to know each other and just covered the ground steadily together. It was a really cool joint effort. I was going to jog the last ½ km to the finish, but John couldn’t, so I didn’t bother and kept going with him. I just wanted us to finish together. Well we got there and I was really pleased. John came up to me and thanked me and shook my hand and said that If I hadn’t have come along there and did what I did, he probably wouldn’t have made it!! Wow I was kinda stunned at that point but really happy that I had helped him out. For me, this is what the MDS was all about.

I strolled into the bivouac. Now that I was here, I felt fine. Its amazing that you cross the finish and then all the hardships mere kilometers behind you, are just forgotten. I certainly wasn’t complaining that’s for sure. Once I got back to the tent, it really was great to see everyone. They had all finished miles ahead of me, but I didn’t care and I was really happy for them all. They all congratulated me and there was plenty of hand-shaking and slapping on the back etc. I felt really happy and just took in the moment. For me, I had beaten in the RAF team, woohoo!!! Malcolm’s shins were very sore and Cliff had some calf muscle issues (which was apparently an old tendon issue, which he mentioned would quite likely have to be operated on once he got back home to Australia). But you know what? They had gotten through it and they would be ok no matter what. We all had a pretty determined air about us in the tent and it felt pretty damn good to be a part of it. Cliff mentioned that if it didn’t improve by morning, he was going to walk with me. Hey it was cool! I was the plan B that the whole tent could fall back on if needed. I was going to get through things at my own pace and if any of them were struggling, they were more than welcome to join me.

How did I feel? Pretty tired, truth be told. I felt ok though and most certainly, a LOT better than I did at this point last year. At this point last year, I could hardly move myself, eat or do anything. This time, bar for being tired, I was fine, which was the most important thing. I expected to be this way, but was very glad that I didn’t have any type of injury or any blisters!!! I got through one day without getting any!! Wow this was utter bliss. Two of my toes felt sore though, where the sand had been getting into my shoes and crushed my feet a little. I would have to keep an eye on this tomorrow and see how it goes. The two pairs of socks thing certainly worked, but I don’t know how much longer I would be able to apply this, due to the sand problem.

I boiled some water, with the help of Cliff (top guy!). While I was doing this, I made a Rego Recovery and got it inside me and then ate my pot noodle and drank my hot chocolate. All of which tasted amazing and I felt great. Afterwards, I reflected on the day and felt very happy with my efforts. Sure it was hard and I didn’t go that fast, but I didn’t care at all. I finished and that’s all that mattered to me. I was going to finish and there was no two ways about it.

I went over to the e-mail tent and got in the queue. I emailed Michelle in work, who had kindly volunteered to send my e-mail around to my list of friends and family who were to get it (well I told her really, but hey she was kind enough to do it). I described what I could. Once that was sorted, I went to the phone tent and got on the satellite phone and called the kids. It was truly great to hear them and I could feel tears welling up. Jess was buzzing and Sass sounded ever so cute. I never heard anything so amazing just at that point, believe me. I was to learn later that my time for the day was 6hrs 31m. A really good effort, because it most certainly wasn’t easy!

Getting back to the tent, everyone was pretty much in their sleeping bags and asleep. I was writing some notes. Once I finished, everyone was asleep, bar me! I went and did my teeth and other sundry things and then it was in the sleeping bag and try to get some sleep. I never sleep well and it was cold.

26th March – Stage 2: Khermou / Jebel El Oftal – 35km

I woke up this morning just before 6am, bleary-eyed and not really wanting to get up, but hey you just had to. I could hear activity around the camp, and there was movement in the tent, so I just sat up, rubbed my eyes and took stock. Not time to get out of sleeping bag just yet, as it was still quite cold. Lindsay and Malcolm looked like maggots in their bags, was really funny. Andy let off his customary long fart and Jo still looked dead to the world as usual.

I eventually got out of my bag, went and did toilet stop and then came back, cleaned my hands and ate breakfast. Then I went and did my teeth. By this time the tents were being taken down and it was time to get sorted out. I didn’t really have any niggles to sort out, which was good. Two of my toes felt a little sore, but not too bad and still had no blisters! We went and got our water just after 7am and then I got on with sorting my backpack out. As I was ahead of time today, I took a few minutes to study the roadbook and familiarise myself with what was coming. Today was going to be really tough. This was the day with the massive 25% climb and I was always going to find this one of the hardest things on the whole course. This was where everything in my training would come to a head and test me to my limit.

Today was the day in which I dropped out last year. That was on my mind quite a lot as I was getting ready. I had butterflies in my stomach and felt really nervous, but also pretty determined and I was going to go down fighting to the last, if it came to that.

I took a few minutes to read the notes from my kids:

Jessica: Hello agen, second day and we need to get past this day more than anything! This is where you stopped last time & you gotta beat it. Hope the views r good. Wish we was there!! Missin ya so much, love you more xx “Well ain’t that cute, but its wrong…”(a quote off a cartoon called 2 stupid dogs)

Saskia: To Dad. We are thinking about you. And all of the sun and sand..While we are in the cold & wet. Roses are red. Violets are blue, don’t pooh in the sand we just mite see you. Hehehe love Saskia xx

(NB: once again, I have left spelling as they have written them)

Again, reading these notes brought tears to my eyes but gave me so much hope for the day.

I was ready quite quickly today and was waiting on the others finishing, so we could take a team photo again. So I went the toilet again. I tell you, drinking all this water to stay hydrated does weird things to you! I don’t think I have gone so flaming much in my life! This done, we all made our way over to the start line, as the start time today was to be 8.45am!

Again Patrick Bauer said his bit, but I wasn’t really listening today. I heard the time limit for the day was 10 hours and that’s all I pretty much needed to know today. I stood in the middle of the competitors, along with my tent-mates. They all knew what today was for me and they were all wishing me well. It was very touching to be honest, especially from Cliff and Shaun. They were really cool guys and it really did lift me in a way I can’t describe for the time ahead. Before I knew it, the countdown started and we were off! The gang charged off as I expected them to and I just did my own thing. I felt ok at this point, maybe aching a little from yesterday but I knew this would ease off as my muscles warmed up and in this heat, that didn’t take long at all. Pacing myself today was going to be very important. My two toes though, after about a 100yards or so, were hurting me. This wasn’t something I was counting on. I thought they would be ok, but it was becoming evident almost every step I took that it was pretty uncomfortable. I was going to leave them for now and see how things went. Could quite easily put up with a portion of pain, was already quite used to that and in a way, this was one of the things that the event is all about. Testing your mind against everything it threw at you. I was going to leave them until about CP2. I was in one of them strange quandaries. Do I leave the two pairs of socks on and my two toes were going to REALLY suffer – the toenails already felt very sore, or do I take off one pair, pretty much guaranteeing I was going to start getting blisters. oh boy!

So off I went in a southerly direction. It was across about 4km of rocky/stony ground, before entering the jebel Amessoui. I went across here at a steady pace and believe it or not, had to go pee like FOUR times before I got to the hills! I tell you all this water drinking lark wasn’t healthy. It was funny, as by now, you kind of came across the same people who were going at a similar pace to you. Each time you stop for whatever, people pass you and then you play catch up again, pass them, stop, they go past you and it starts all over again! But anyway, I got to the first hill ok. It was a pretty tough climb for me. I just went slow and got to the top without a problem. There were two hills close together so just wanted to conserve my energy here, yet keep going at a decent pace. I came down off the first hill and across the short valley, before starting the climb on the second hill, which again was quite tough, but I just kept at it and I eventually got there. Once at the top, I stopped for a second, took a deep breath and then took off down the other side. It was a short descent and then off across the flats!
Once on the flats, it was about 4.5km to CP1, so off I went across the flat uneven ground.

CP1 was at 10km. As I got there, once again, I spotted Rory Coleman and said hello to him. He was actually just leaving as I was arriving, but that was ok. I didn’t want to linger long at the CP as I felt decent enough to carry on, except for my feet, so I decided to take a few minutes and take off a pair of socks now, as the toes were very sore and I wanted to try and head off the damage on them before it was too late. That done, there was no other reason for lingering here, so took off out of the CP and back onto the course.

The ground was quite sandy for just over a half km, then went back to the rocky/stony ground for about the next 2.5km. This ground was ok on as you had a decent step and could make good time, though it didn’t do anything good for the ankles, shins and knees. At around 13km, the ground start to slowly rise. I could feel a hotspot starting on my left heel, but just left it, as I knew I would get a blister there no matter what I did to try and stop it. At about 14km, the ground started to really rise. It was a kind of rocky, gritty floor and we were climbing sideways up the side of a hill, not actually straight up. Put lots of pressure on the muscles on my left leg, to stop me slipping down to the left, while my right was getting sore, just gripping right. Got to the top eventually and then you went around the edge of the hill, with a drop off to the left and followed the ridge from there into a hilly area (oh what fun). My legs felt a little tired and I was sweating, but I felt ok. I wasn’t out of breath and was steadily drinking my water and eating the odd thing. The hills were not too bad really, was just one of them up/down/up/down things for about 4km. I just got in the zone and just kept going through it, not really thinking of much else at this point, other than to keep going and eventually I would get to the end of it. Eventually, I came down off the last hill into a rocky valley. Walking through there in a westerly direction, you could see some ruins off to the right, which were pretty cool. I didn’t take a picture, because frankly at this point, I just simply couldn’t be bothered. Just before 21km, I arrived at CP2. At last! Now I could sit and have 5 minutes and get the flaming sand out of my shoes. My feet were feeling a little sore just now. The hotspot had started to feel hotter and I think I would have a blister proper before much longer.

I found a decent spot and sat down for 5 minutes or so off to the right. There were quite a few people around here, but I just went off to the side and did my own thing, keeping my focus on what I was doing. It was very hot and I was sweating quite a bit, so I found a place under a cover by one of the jeeps, perfect! Dropped onto the floor and took off my pack and shoes. Awww the relief! I took off my socks and let my feet get some air. My heel was certainly getting worse. Not quite blistered yet, which was a relief, so I thought I might be able to prolong the actual blister for a little while, so covered it with some foam padding that I had. Couldn’t particularly do much more with it just now, so I put my socks back on, emptied my shoes of sand and then put my shoes back on. After this I ate a little and drank some water. Feeling quite well, it was time to get back on the move. A girl there needed some help putting her pack on. Nobody else moved or went to assist, so I did. Her shoulders looked really sore. Glad it wasn’t me!!

So I headed out of the CP in a westerly/south-westerly direction over some flat, rough ground, made my way across Oued Rheris and then began to move south-west across a plain that seemed to go on forever!

This flat ground went on for about 6km and was just totally soul destroying. It was hot and the area felt so vast. It was a really weird feeling, but I just kept my head down and eventually covered the distance all the way down to CP3, which was right at the bottom of the massive climb. Trouble was, ahead was a range going right across my scope of vision, so I wasn’t sure yet where the climb was. This was what I had been dreading today and was likely to be the challenge that would either make or break me. I had already gone further than I had last year. I can only hope that all the hill climbing I did would come good for me right now. Funnily though, I wasn’t panicking or scared or anything like that. I was a little “oh my god” but I was quite optimistic about the challenge. I kept myself positive and I felt that this was going to be mental as well as physical. When I arrived at CP3, I could now see where the climb would be. It was literally right in front of the CP, looked a climb of about 1km, with a 25% gradient (quoted from the Road Book). The bottom section was rock and then a massive sand climb to the summit, the last bit of which was rock. I could see little tiny specks at the top, which was of course people, who had clearly just stopped to kick start their bodies again. I could now see others climbing now too. Bar for the odd one or two people, who were clearly gung-ho, climbing right up the centre of the sand, it looked as though everyone was going up the right hand side of the sand slope, right up against the rock face.

I cleared through CP3, got my water and decided to take a 10 minute break and get myself in the right frame of mind, before climbing Jebel El Octal.

I went off to the right of one of the Jeeps, removed my pack and sat down. I then cleared the sand from my shoes, took off my socks and allowed my feet a little air, while drinking a lot of water and ate some of my food. I also took a few pictures and then studied the climb.

Well it was now time to do this thing. I felt very determined. I had to finish and this hill was in the way! I had plenty of time for this, so decided to just go with my game plan, just take it easy, keep going and I would get to the top. My feet were aching a little, as well as my shoulders, and I was sweating a lot. It was very hot. I took a deep breath, let it out and off i went!

I covered some flat rough ground after the CP and headed towards the hill. Getting closer, it looked HUGE, immensely hard and very steep. I didn’t care by this point, it was going to get done. The ground began to rise quickly. It was rough ground, mixed with loose, broken rock. This went on for a while. I just loosely followed the competitors ahead of me, kept my breathing regular and looked for good footing amongst the rocks. After a while, the ground leveled slightly and then began to turn to sand and then rise sharply. It was that sand that you put your foot in and it just sinks straight in. Man this was going to be hard. My legs were burning, sweat was dripping off me and I was breathing hard. This was where my training game-plan came to the fore. One foot in front of the other, nice and slow, just keep going, focus and don’t think of anything other than climb, climb, climb. I didn’t change pace once, just kept things the same and before I realised it, I had gotten close to the top. This was where it was that steep, that they had installed a rope system that you had to hold onto to keep ascending. I was tiring fast now, but I was close to the top, so I kept thinking “keep going, keep going, you’re nearly there Al”. I thought I had gotten to the top and just typically, when you got there, hidden, there was a little more of a climb to the summit. Don’t you just hate that? I got to the top of the sand and it was a last little bit of climbing on the rocks, scrambling up on your hands and knees literally and I was there!!! Wow I had done it! Looking back where I had just come from, what an incredible view! While I allowed my breathing to get back to normal and for my body to get a little rest for 5 minutes, as my poor legs were aching so much, I took a few pictures. The view was just stupendous. While taking pictures, I could see competitors still down on the plain, scattered as far as the eye could see! Well I had done it. I congratulated myself, turned and began to descend down the other side.

Now this was hard. In fact, it was probably harder than the climb. This was all climbing down the rocks. My legs were shot at this point. They felt like jelly and I almost felt like they were not going to have enough in them to do it, so I just kept going slowly, but surely. Once I had gotten down so far, the climb opened up a little and I could then see an amazing view of the last part of the stage, the dunes, which were directly in front of the finish and the bivouac. Well if I needed something to inspire me at that point, there it was!

Reaching the bottom of the descent, I checked my watch and realized that the whole ascent and descent of that hill took me almost two and a half hours! But I had done it and now I had the dunes to overcome. That was nothing to what I had just done. I felt good now and massively determined, so I the dunes with what was probably my 15th wind and I was really shifting too. I could see people ahead of me and I was so determined to catch them.
I navigated the dunes well, passed the people ahead of me and then there was the finish! I felt that good just then, that I jogged to the finish, ahead of the people who were ahead and there, it was done.

Man, did I feel good just then. I HAD DONE IT!!!! I had finally gone further than last year. The day was done, I was very tired, but in one piece and I would live to fight another day. I wanted this so much, I really did, I just can’t put it into words. For me now, this was a whole new adventure and experience! I headed back to the tent and all my aches and pains were temporarily forgotten. Shaun was on his way to the finish line to see me in, what an amazing guy! He shook my hand and congratulated me, I was really choked just then. He took my water and strolled back with me, then I met Malcolm who was also on his way over, but he was limping slightly….oh dear! This was amazing. I got to the tent and everyone was there, congratulating, patting me on the back and making me feel just on top of the world. I seriously can’t describe how I felt just then, but I had a huge smile on my face and I felt damn good!

Once the euphoria was out of the way, I set about eating something and sorting my feet out, which were now quite sore. Cliff was a top guy once again and gave me a hand boiling some water on the stove, while I was doing a few other things. That done, it was time for my feet, so I took an initial look. Right foot felt ok. One toe, which was already sore, was no better and probably slightly worse and the toenail was also darkening and I had a few hotspots, which would likely turn into small blisters. My left foot though, was a totally different ballgame. One toe, the same as the right one, blackening and very sore. Little toe had a blister, but was minute and of no moment. My heel had turned into a blister. It covered almost the whole surface of the heel and was very tender. So out came the first aid stuff and I attended to it. That done, I patched my feet up, then went off to the communications tent to do an e-mail and then make a phone call to the kids. They were not in sadly (afterwards I found out that it apparently didn’t connect right), so I called my parents instead and just said hello and gave them a message to speak to the kids for me.

Returning to the tent, it was dark now. When I got back, everyone was in their sleeping bags and ready to sleep. Early bed, early rise it was. I still felt euphoric and was very happy with my efforts. I felt quite sore too. Tomorrow was going to be a real test for me, but you know what? I really was looking forward to it!

27th March – Stage 3: Jebel El Oftal / Jebel Zireg Ouest– 32.3km

Initially, I thought this would be an easier stage, it being shorter than the last one, instead of longer, but as it turned out, was just as tough, if not tougher.

I woke up tired, having not slept too well. I was aching from my efforts yesterday, but hoped that I would be ok once I warmed up and got into the groove of it. I was still on a high from yesterday efforts and this was a whole new adventure for me now. I had a spring in my step and a big smile on my face. Well a spring as much as you could under the circumstances. There was a fair wind blowing during the night, so everything was covered in sand, but by this point, you just didn’t care anymore.

I ate my breakfast first and drank some water, then went and cleaned my teeth/wash/toilet stop etc. Was starting to feel quite grimy now and rather smelly. The t-shirt was taking on a nice aroma by this point. Good job everyone else around here was just the same. I sat down and sorted out my feet. I decided to leave the plaster and foam padding on my heel as it was and not mess around with it and put some plasters around a few of the toes, which were now starting to feel a little sore, especially the two that were crushed by the sand. I was quite excited about the same ahead and really felt good. My body was aching a fair bit, but my determination was very strong. I was still getting great encouraging words from my tent mates. I don’t think they will ever really truly understand how welcome they were. They lifted me so much, that I really didn’t for one second feel I couldn’t do this. I WAS doing to do this.

With good heart, I finished up my pack, went and got my water ration for the start and before i went a spoke to Tony and Andrew (my aussie mates two tents down), I went off a little way and read my day 3 notes from the kids:

Jessica: “on the road agen….i can’t wait to get on the road agen” – “shut up donkey!” (NB: Shrek if you didn’t know) I’m still thinking about you, still loving you, pit I’m not there…could start singing, but I think I’d make it rain so not a good idea really. Keep going daddy!! “Well can I whistle” “NO!” “Well can I hum?” “mmm ok then” (NB: again Shrek)

Saskia: Dear Daddy, I bet your doing well this time so never give up this time. Love you lots. So roses are red, spiders are black, watch out now, cos there is one on your back. From Saskia xx”

Great kids aren’t they?

With tears in my eyes, I walked back to the bivouac.

Before walking over to the start, we took a tent picture once more. It would be fun at the end, to compare each day as it were and watch each person slowly change over the week.

Once everyone was ready, we made our way over and I strolled over with Andy. As was slowly beginning to be a custom, Cliff and Shaun both came over and shook my hand and we all wished each other the best of luck for the stage ahead. As was the norm, I went and stood by myself at the back of the competitors. I just felt better there.

Patrick Bauer began his speech. He brought up birthdays and other things, to which I only partially listened, not out of disrespect I must hasten to add, but I was keeping a nice sharp focus. Once he talked about the stage itself, I listened to what he said. One thing he brought up, was that we would come to some salt flats at around 13km and there was some grass growing there that was very sharp and would cut skin! So they had marked a detour for the competitors to follow.

Before I know it, he began the countdown and then we were off once again!

The first CP was at 10.5km. The ground to there was fairly flat, so nothing difficult so far. It was mentally tough, because the areas were so vast. We were trekking in a southerly direction, over rough flat rocky ground, which had sections of sand scattered here and there, to make footing awkward at times. At 5.4km, we passed a hill area on the left. From a distance, this looks like part of the hills on the horizon, and its not until you get much closer, that you realise this is not the case. At 7.6km, you also passed a small mound on the left. There were some buildings here, so clearly people lived there, though I still find myself surprised how anyone can live in these remote regions. I was sweating a lot at this point. It was literally flowing down my face and dripping off my nose. My hands were also sweaty and the strap off my gaiters was rubbing on my hands. On each hand, there was an area below my thumb which was becoming rubbed raw now and was quite tender, but it was a case of just grit your teeth and keep on with it. Once we passed a rocky peak on the left, you could see the CP ahead. I kept my pace nice and steady and eventually got there in good time.

The CP itself was at 10.5km and situated right in the middle of the gorge of El Maharch, which passed though the massive range of hills of El Mrakib and Jebel Maharch. There was also a solar pump here. First time I had ever seen one! I stayed here maybe 5 minutes. Emptied my shoes of sand, drank some water and ate some feed and then I was ready to go again. The gorge itself was around 2.5km long. The ground itself was quite hard but also very sandy. You had jeeps driving up and down the left hand side and the light wind was carrying the dust and sand over to the right hand side, where all the competitors were trekking/running. Wasn’t very pleasant but it was better than a sand storm anyday! Coming out of the gorge, out onto an open plane, across the vast area, you could now see the salt flats that Patrick Bauer mentioned ahead of us. The Salt flats covered the whole of the distance to the hills in the distance, which would be the next 3km of ground to cover.

It was very hot by now and I kept drinking my water regularly, as well as keeping a nice steady pace. My left foot was beginning to hurt somewhat, so I guessed that the blister now covering most of my heel was getting worse. I would sort it out later. While I was in the zone, I didn’t want to stop. Once out on the salt flats, you could see that nobody was following the detour around the grass and the competitors ahead of me had basically ploughed a path through the grass. The last section of the salt flats, the ground undulated quite a lot and the grass and brush had grown quite high and you had to try and pick your way through, not always knowing if you were quite going the right way, but every now and then, I would spot a competitor ahead of me, so knew I was going the right way. It was very hot here, but I felt quite good just now and my mind felt very strong.

Coming out of the salt flats, I found myself going across some sandy, rocky ground towards a large hill ahead of me, which I had to climb. It took me a while to get to the top, as it was quite steep, but I got there. Once I got to the summit, I took a few pictures. The view behind me down onto the plain was absolutely amazing. Looking down the other side, I began the descent onto the short sandy and very rocky valley, before having to climb yet another hill. The second climb was much harder as there was more sand involved and the going was a little slower here, but I got there in one piece! I again took a few pictures when I got to the summit, drank some water, took a few deep breaths and then began to descend down onto the sandy plain ahead. I passed through a very sandy passage in Jebel Ras Khemmouna, then a short southerly descent onto the sandy valley of Mziouda. I was feeling quite tired about now. All this trekking on the sand wears me down, but I kept going as best as I could. The CP was close now, so I could rest a little there.

I got into the CP, got my water and went off to the right to sit down. There were quite a few people here and the doctors tent was full. I took the sand out of my shoes as the next section ahead would involve a lot of sand. My heel was very sore and my toes were sore also. I took my socks off and let my feet get some air. It was quite hot, probably the hottest today had yet been, but it was nice allowing some air to my feet. I ate some food and drank a fair amount of water, as there was a lot of sand ahead. I really wasn’t looking forward to this section. This was going to be very hard for me, but I was up to the challenge.

Heading out of the CP, the ground immediately turned to sand and there wasn’t really any easy ground to use, so it was a case of gritting my teeth and just getting on with it. I was heading in a south-westerly direction now. Ahead of me, was a section of long sandy climbs. This was not going to be fun at all. Needless to say, it wasn’t. One climb was very long and very high. At the top of which, was a great view ahead and behind me. Once I got to the bottom of this descent, I stopped and emptied the sand from my shoes and then carried straight on, as I was starting to tire and I just couldn’t stop, especially at this point. Ahead, there was a very long climb, all sand and it was hard and tiring. After the long, steady climb, just when you thought it probably couldn’t get much worse, it just went steeper and turned into an 18% sand climb to the rocks a fair way up the hill. This was one of them training moments for me. Head down, deep breath and one step in front of the other. My going was quite slow but I didn’t stop. Ahead of me, there was a Korean competitor. He was clearly a lot older than me. I just had one of them moments, where I felt I had to beat him to the top and that was it! Off I went and took off after him. I eventually caught him and went ahead. He obviously wasn’t having this and so tried to catch me up again and it ended up like this to the top of the sand climb. The effort we both put in was absolutely amazing! Once we got there, we both reached the rocks at the same time, we looked at each other and laughed and hugged each other. Its amazing the things you share on the MDS. Upon reaching the rocks, we joined a small path which was the passage leading to the summit of Jebel Zireg. Once at the summit, I took a few minutes just to get my breath. I was very tired, sweating more than I probably ever have and my feet were killing me. Time for some pain-killers! My legs were also burning and my muscles were tiring. After some water and food, I followed the path descending from the summit which went in a south-west and then westerly direction. The ground was very sandy, but was also scattered with rocks. I was glad that all the major climbing was out of the way though!

Following the course here, involved some smaller, steady climbs and descents. I knew that the finish was less than 5km away so my mind was just focused now on getting there. I knew I had done this stage now, just a little further, the relief was beyond words! After a while, I passed a French guy, who was emptying sand from his shoes. He was starting again as I passed and so I said hello and we walked together for a little while. I can’t remember his name unfortunately, but he was from Paris, and was doing a documentary for TV, on the MDS itself. He explained that he wanted to go into a lot more detail about what happened at competitor level and thought it would be very interesting in a promotional sense for the MDS as anyone interested would be able to learn a lot more about the event. I thought it sounded amazing and he told me that he hoped so. It would be shown on Eurosport in June, so that was certainly something to look out for! Eventually, he stopped once more to take sand from his shoes. I just wanted to finish, so I said goodbye and shot off with a determined purpose to finish strongly.

I was now heading west/north-west and knew the finish wasn’t far. I passed two guys from the RAF team. One of them clearly didn’t look in good shape, but his team mate was helping him along. The ground around here was more rocky and small gritty stones, will slight hills. I passed some more RAF guys and mentioned to them that some of them were a little way behind, then a few minutes later a topped a hill and saw the finish! YES! Under a small tree off to the left was another two RAF guys, who were clearly waiting for the rest of their group. I had to admire their team effort and their attitude towards their fellow team-mates. Pretty impressive! Seeing the finish line, I picked up the speed as I wanted to finish well. Its amazing that when you see the bivouac, you tend to forget all the pain and tiredness.

Passing the finish I let out a yell of “YES!” I was so pleased with myself. I was still in this thing and I was so happy. I got my water card stamped and was given my three bottles of water and made my way back to the tent, suddenly feeling not so tired. Getting there, I found that Joe Bailey, one of my tent mates only finished less than two minutes ahead of me, so I was extremely happy with my effort. Everyone in the tent was very pleased to see us and we all congratulated each other on our efforts. It was a pretty amazing day and I was glad to get there, take my pack off and finally sit down and get my breath back!

I lay there for a little while, just reveling in the fact that I had done stage 3. I had totally surpassed my dreams of what I could do and I was still in good enough shape to go tomorrow. I then got up, made a recovery drink, then meandered over to the communications tent and sent my daily e-mail back home. I then headed back to the tent, made some dinner and relaxed. The hard work was done for the day. I then went and did my teeth etc and relaxed for the night. Tomorrow was the time to get serious.

28th March – Stage 4: Jebel Zireg Ouest / Ouest Du Kfiroun – 70.5km

I slept about 5 hours last night, which, out here, was pretty good for me. I woke up feeling tired still, but not too bad. I was aching still but I felt that I was good enough to give the stage ahead a run for its money. My feet though were another matter, as they were quite sore now.

There had clearly been some wind blowing sand around again last night, as everything had a layer of sand on again, but at this point, you just shrug and accept it as one of them things. Your skin though has grains of sand all over, even in your hair and everywhere. How you so want to wash, but you can’t.

I stayed in my sleeping bag as I made some breakfast as it was still very cold. The others were stirring, so I tried not to make too much noise. I wanted to get sorted quickly today so I could spend some time sorting out my feet and getting focused on the stage ahead. Today was going to be incredibly hard for me. I had only ever done 42km in one go before, so today was going to be a great deal more than I have ever done, and that was on top of what I had already gone through. Oh dear, this was going to be hard and then some, but I felt really up to the challenge and my determination was very much there. I only really had some light aspirations for the MDS, because, basically, all I wanted to do was finish. But for stage 4, I wanted to do this stage all in one go without stopping to sleep at all and I wanted more than anything to do it in less than 20 hours.

I went to do my teeth and wash/toilet etc. While I did that, I looked around and you could notice that the race was starting to take its toll on people. You could see a lot hobbling and limping about, but this was part of what you were doing. You just couldn’t stop without throwing the kitchen sink at it first. I read the notes from the kids while I was away from the camp a little:

Jessica: “getttt up ahhhhhh, getttt uppp ahhhhhh” (NB: James Brown song), I think you’ll need a pick me up right about now. As you’re running through the night, look at the stars, I will be too. We’re still looking at the same sky, ur not that far away. Hope you’re feeling ok, coz if yer not, it tuff!!

Saskia: Dear Daddy, I hope your feeling great. Heres a joke. Twinkle twinkle little star, santa drives a big red car. Just don’t say “god help me” Lots of love from Saskia xx

Still trying to figure out what that meant, but hey never mind. It still cheered me up and I was missing them very much. A few tears came, but I was ok and it just toughened up my resolve that little bit more. I wasn’t just doing this for me, I was also doing it for them. I let my thoughts drift onto what everyone back home would be thinking. One thing I hadn’t mentioned much about, was the e-mails I had been getting from everyone. They really were a morale booster for me. I was very tired each night and getting them just lifted you, knowing that friends and family were there rooting for you all the way. That in my mind, I applied my P20 sun lotion. I put a lot of it on today as I knew I was going to be in the sun all day, so wanted to be as protected as possible. That done, it was time to prepare for the day!

I sat back down and took a look at my feet. My toes were not too bad. (its funny how you regard “not too bad” anymore. Back home, you would be horrified, but here, if you could walk, you were good to go.) The two sore toes were still sore but hadn’t got any worse, though the two nails had darkened more and were quite tender to touch. I had a small blister on my little toe on my left foot and a blister on each of the two sore toes, so I treated these and patched them up with plasters, then took a look at the left heel. Off came the tape and padding and….oh dear! It didn’t look great. Nice big fat blister there, but wasn’t too full yet, so I treated it as it was, burst it, dried it out with friars balsam, put some plaster and foam padding on it and covered it with a fair amount of tape. This all done, with a little cursing at its finest. Best I could do for it just now, so it would just have to do. Everything else was fine, though my legs were aching a little, but that was tough really. This just had to be done. I decided that today, I wasn’t going to use my MP3 player. Today was all about me. I was going to be by myself and my thoughts today. I was very nervous, but also of the mind, that if I got through this, then I was there. Nothing would stop me then, so this was it. This was where it got really serious.

Malcolm still had problems with his shins, Cliff already had leg problems and was indecisive on how to tackle the day, but settled on starting running slowly and seeing how it went, Lindsay was pretty much fine, Paul was ok, bar for the fact that the bottoms of his trainers were starting to fall apart, so he started to make use of my epoxy resin, which when stuck on, stayed there! Andrew looked a little ill and might have caught a little of what Shaun had had maybe. So he was making a few toilet stops. Joe was asleep until almost the last minute of having to do anything and Shaun was literally chomping at the bit to go. Amazing how a few days had turned things around for him and I was really happy for him too. Cliff and Shaun were turning into solid friends and I couldn’t help but hope that the day ahead went really well for them.

We got called over to the start line, so this was it. We took a group picture, then all headed over. Once there, we all wished each other well for the day ahead and then Patrick Bauer did the usual people’s birthdays etc, then began telling us about the stage ahead. On stage 4, the top 50 male competitors and the top 5 female competitors start 3 hours behind the main field. We would have 36 hours to complete this stage, but there was a cut off time to get to CP4, which was 16 hours. If you were not there by that time, you were disqualified, so that was my first target, to ensure that happened.

The countdown began and then we were off!

I kept my thoughts focused and the game plan in place that I had made all along. Nice and steady, no heroics and save my energy for when I would need it the most. I knew that I would get to a point where my fitness would fail me and then it was all about how strong my mind was going to be. I had words in my head from my dad “do me proud son” and I tell you, I was in tears just thinking about it, so just shook it out of my system and grit my teeth and put my head down.

The first 3km was across slightly uneven ground, rocky and sandy and awkward to get a great footing, but the field was spreading out quite quickly ahead and behind me, so I just looked for good areas to traverse and kept going. The ground then rose and I was aiming to go across a sandy pass through Jebel Zireg. Once at the summit, I descended between the hills, down into the valley, following alongside the hill to the left. Footing here was a little awkward as the path sloped to the right all the time. The ground here was quite stony. At 6km, I headed through a sandy pass to the left, then descended off the hill and down onto the plain. Again, footing was a little difficult on the rocky path, which sloped downwards to the left. This was followed downwards until I came to level ground on the plain below. The ground here was mainly very rocky, but also sandy in places too. I followed this in a east/north easterly direction, heading towards CP1, which was at 10.5km. You could see the CP from a fair way away, which was good. I felt very sweaty and quite tired, so the day certainly wasn’t going to be fun for me! Once I got to the CP, there was a long queue at the CP gate i was meant to go through and got delayed here for about 25 minutes, which was annoying the hell out of me!

Once through, I sat for 5 minutes, took off my pack and let the sand out of my shoes and gave my feet a little air. I noticed that with taking my shoes on and off so much, my knuckles were sore and in places the skin had come off and they were raw to touch, but nothing I could really do about that just now. I had got used to the stinging feeling when my sweat went on the open cuts. My feet didn’t feel any worse, so I just left them as they were. Not really wanting to hang around, I got up, donned my pack once more and set off.

Leaving the CP, I had some spare water left in the bottle, so I drank that before disposing of it.

The trek to CP2 looked as though it was pretty much just a easterly march across flattish ground, though it was sandy in places and quite rocky. NOT the kind of ground you wanted with a blistered heel. But anyway, I kept going and just put up with the pain. Nothing a few painkillers couldn’t nuke.

Around 16km, the ground started to rise slightly, so it was a case of digging in and keeping going. I was tired and didn’t want to slow down too much, so I just kept at it at a fairly even pace. Eventually, the ground started to get rockier and footing wasn’t that easy in places, so had to be careful. The odd stubbing into the foot, gave way for a few choice swear words. The ground leveled off slightly but was still rising gently. I decided that I would rest a little while at CP2 when I got there and just get my breath. I had plenty of time, so it didn’t matter too much and the sun was blasting down too! Going through a pass in between the hills, the track turned north-east and became quite sandy, so the quads and calves started to burn as I dug in. I could see the CP ahead! YIPPEE! It was a sight for sore eyes just then. I was struggling and was tired and my feet were bloody killing me!

Getting to the CP, I was very happy. I could finally rest for a little while. You had the option here of an extra bottle of water, so I took it and as was the norm for me, I headed off to the right and sat down in the shade next to one of the jeeps. Off came the pack and my shoes and socks. I ate some food and decided I would have a look at my feet. I had gotten another blister on my right foot, but that was all, so I popped that, cleaned it with friars balsam (with a few swear words thrown in) and stuck on a few plasters. My two sore toes were now very sore and I left my left heel alone, but it was also very sore. Not much i could do with it just now, so I left it nicely padded as it was. I would keep going on it and see how it went. I put my socks and shoes back on and started getting ready to go, when I noticed Tony and Andrew stroll into the CP. They looked very tired and poor Tony was limping very badly. I walked over to them and said hello. We were all glad to see one another just then. Tony limped off to the Doctors tent and I said to Andrew that I would walk with them for a while. I was feeling a little low, so a little company would be good and it looked as though they could both do with some support anyway. They were mates, so I wasn’t going to leave anyone behind me like that! In the end, Tony was in the Doctors tent about 45 minutes. Things were a little grim. Andrew apologised and said I should go and I told him that I had given my word to walk with them, so I was going to it and that was that. Tony came walking, well, limping over and he didn’t look good at all. So I told them that we would take it easy, but keep going. It was easier on the move than it was being still. It was when you stopped and started again, that your feet would hurt all the more. So we got our packs on and made our way out of the CP in a E/NE direction, down a sandy slope and across Oued Rheris. This was very uneven ground, comprising of mainly packed earth, fech-fech (a very fine powder caused by the erosion of clay-limestone terrain) and tamarisk trees. We made our way across here for about 3km or so, before getting back on more normal ground again, well rocky and uneven that is. We had about 2.5km of luxury before heading into 2.5km of dunes, which needed to be crossed before we could enter CP3. Oh bloody great. We all just took one look at each other and really, words didn’t need to be said. I just took a deep breath and off we went into the dunes.

It was at this point that Colin, a mate of mine showed up literally out of nowhere! Well there you go! I greeted him and introduced him to the guys and off we went together into the dunes. The four musketeers! This was quite a tough section, as the dunes were quite big in places, though we did try and navigate our way through them as best we could using the smaller dunes, but either way it was very tiring and it was definitely telling on my three mates a lot more than it was on me. This section was not fun.

About half way through the dunes, I noticed that we had lost Colin. No idea where he went. We waited for a few minutes and he didn’t show, so we just assumed he had stopped. I shouted and there was no answer. He’s a really tough guy, so I knew he would be ok. Getting to the top of one dune, it was so hot here. I was sweating hellishly and when I looked at where we needed to go, I noticed the tops of the flags that the jeeps had at the CP. WOW! I mentioned it to the guys and it was the CP as well! That kind of gave us a little more impetus and we set off with a little more determination.

We got there and decided that we would make a very quick stop and keep going. I wasn’t going to mess with my feet yet. I would wait for CP4 to do that, so I just emptied the sand from my shoes, ate a little food and drank some water, refilled and I was good to go, as were the guys. We all felt tired and Tony’s feet were pretty mullered, but respect to him, he was up for it still, which was cool! Patting each other on the back and bolstering our resolve, we set off east towards CP4. As we went across the valley, you could see some dwellings off to the south, though in my opinion you would have to be insane to live in these parts, but hey to each their own! The ground was very rough here and began to steadily rise towards out next climb, which was about 1km ahead, called Jebel Foum Al Hopaht. We all just grit our teeth and got on with it. I was in the lead, then Tony, then Andrew. We kept that order pretty much now and I just kept stopping and shouting support to them and we kept going up the hill. The climb was all sand and was very difficult, but each step took us higher. Eventually we got to the top of the sand and then the climb was rocks and it was a steep (25%) climb to the summit, but we were very determined and we got to the top in very good time. I got there and drank some water, some 5 minutes later Tony arrived and then Andrew following. I felt quite good, but the guys looked really tired but very happy to have got to the top. We all congratulated each other on a good team effort, rested a minute and then walked across the summit and then down the footpath in the oued river bed to the bottom. This took quite a while to do as Andrew was very tired and wasn’t having a good time of things, but we were a team and nobody was being left behind so me and Tony waited when we had to and we continued together. Getting nearer to the bottom, the sun was setting and we began to lose light, so we were very glad to have gotten that climb out of the way in daylight. Ahead we could see the stretch of dunes between us and CP4, our first cut-off. We had to head across 1.5km of very rocky ground before we came to the dunes. Half-way across, I suggested it was a good time to swap gear around before we lost too much light and were at the dunes. I took off my sunglasses and cap and put on a buff instead. I also put on my long sleeve t-shirt under the one I had on as it was cooling down quite a bit. We also broke our light sticks and placed them on the back of our packs, so others would be able to see us (we got given these at CP3) and last of all, I put on my head torch and I was ready. As we were doing this, Colin, a lad I mentioned earlier, turned up! WOW! It was really good to see him and one more to add to the team once again! I asked him what happened earlier and he said he was just plodding away and when he looked up, we were gone. So I just assumed he had gone off course or something. But he was here again and that was the main thing. Full of high-spirits, we entered the dunes in the dark! I knew it was an almost easterly direction to CP4 and we had about 8.5km of dunes to cover. The guys were all tired. I wasn’t great but I felt very determined and took the lead and they just followed. I actually felt really good myself for helping these guys. This is what the MDS was all about for me. Helping my fellow competitors in hard moments such as these and it was moments like these, that I knew others would do the same for me.

So we kept trekking up and down the dunes, following the light sticks in front of us and looking for the direction markers, which also had light sticks on. Every now and then, I would stop and rest a little and would make sure the guys were caught up and we were together.

After a short while in the dunes, the inevitable happened, we had a sand-storm. This was not funny at all. I couldn’t put my goggles on, because I then wouldn’t be able to see in the dark, so what I did, was pull the buff on my head down and the one around my neck up, so that I was left with just a tiny slit that I could see through, then used my left hand to cover that side of my face, as the sand was blowing from the north/northeast. This actually worked quite well for me, as I found I could navigate using my right eye just fine. There were other folk ahead of us as well, so we knew we were going in the right direction, or, we were all getting lost together!

Around this time, my feet really began hurting me. My poor heel was really letting itself be known and my right shin had begun to hurt a little too. Just what I needed, another problem. I knew we were not too far from the CP, so I decided I would have 15 minutes there and take stock of the situation. The guys were still with me, though we had once again lost Colin. I was a little worried for him in the sand-storm but I knew he would be ok and couldn’t be too far behind, wherever he was. Tony was still hobbling along badly and Andrew didn’t look good at all. It was now quite cold and his skin had started to look pale. I kept saying supportive things and we kept going.

Eventually, after getting battered by the sand and wind for a few hours, the wind died down quite a bit and it allowed us to get better bearings. By this point, I was about 50 yards ahead of the other two, but was keeping an eye on them. I could have motored off at any time and I felt up to doing that, but I didn’t want to leave them behind. I felt compelled to ensuring they got to CP4 ok. I wouldn’t have felt right within myself if I didn’t do that. With all the work going up and down the dunes, my shin was hurting more now and my feet were aching. Funnily enough though, my shoulders were not. It was getting quite cold now and I didn’t really want to keep stopping because it was freezing then.

From quite a way off, we could see the CP. It was all lit up and it really was a sight for sore eyes. The guys were down the dune behind me, so I told them and they managed a spurt up the dune to have a look and we all patted each other on the back then and shook hands. They both looked absolutely shattered. I told them that I was going to go ahead as I needed to do some work on my feet as I was carrying on and off I went.
I motored to the CP and got there at 8.50pm, which was exactly 12 hours from the start this morning. I was 4 hours inside the cut-off, so was very pleased there. Job one out of the way! I sat down right opposite the entrance to the CP so I would be able to see the guys coming in. It was still quite windy so I had to be careful with everything or it got blown away. I put the water in my bottles, with an electrolyte table and drank the rest, along with eating a little food. I had an emergency half-bar of Kendal mint cake left, along with some other things. These were for the hours to come, when I knew I was going to need everything I had in me to finish.

While sorting out my feet, I reflected on the fact that CP4 was at 42km, which is the distance of a normal marathon. This was actually the furthest distance I had ever covered. I still had 28.5km to go just to finish! It was a little demoralizing as I was very tired and my legs were aching quite a bit. My poor feet were screaming at me and I was quite cold as well. I wanted to get sorted quick before I got too cold.

My feet hadn’t really gotten any worse, they were just aching a lot from being on them for 12 hours. I let them have some air and massaged a little life back into them. That done, the socks and shoes went on, with me grimacing in pain from the cuts on my fingers and knuckles and on my hand too. As my last shoe went on, Tony appeared. He walked straight past me and then around the CP twice before stopping. I called to him and he looked like he didn’t know where he was. The poor guy looked absolutely knackered. Then Andrew appeared. The guy didn’t look well at all. His face had a grayish tint to it and looked as though he was ready to drop. Our original plan was to walk all the way together but they both said that they simply couldn’t go another step. They thanked me for getting them here and I just said “Don’t be silly, that’s what mates are for” and then they went off to sleep somewhere, while wishing me good luck as I planned to carry on. There was no way I was going to stop now!

I waited for another 5 minutes, looking for others to leave the CP, so I could travel with them, but nobody was moving! So being impatient, I was getting really cold too, so sod it, off I went on my own. I could see people a way ahead of me, so there were others out there. I could also see the laser from CP5 too. We were advised of this and it helped a lot! I also had my roadbook out and my compass in my front pouch. Being on my own, I kept checking to ensure I was going in the right direction as I didn’t want to get lost out there on my own! Once I got moving, I warmed up a little so that was good. I was heading in a northerly direction now, almost a straight line to CP5, so that was good, but I kept my compass handy anyway and checked it every 30 minutes just to be sure. CP5 was 10km away, so I figured about 3 hours to there. The ground was sand to start with as I was coming out of the north side of the dunes, so for a little while, it was more of the same. It didn’t take very long for my feet to get sore again and my leg to hurt, so it was time to take some more tablets, to hopefully help with the pain. If it didn’t, it was tough, as I was going to keep going regardless and just deal with it.

After a while, the ground started turning rocky, so it became rather unpleasant on the feet. That was just one of them things, but it meant that I could pick up the pace a little and keep a steady stride going over the rocks. The light was quite good, so I could see all I needed to see really and ahead, I could see a big green laser firing straight over my head and behind me, so I knew it was all good! The ground dropped slightly and I passed over an oued. Footing here was uneven, with a mix of sand and loose rocks. I just kept going. I was tired. There was no way around it, I really was. My poor legs were aching and I needed to rest, but I just couldn’t stop. I knew that if I stopped, then that was it, so I just kept telling myself to keep going, keep going, keep going. Each step I took was closer to CP5. Coming out of the Oued and past a rocky peak on my left, I was about halfway to CP5. I was going well and I was gaining on people in front of me, so I was going at a decent pace too.

Passing the peak, the ground was undulating and kept changing between rocks and sand. I was ok on one or the other, but it kept throwing me off as it changed and my legs were tiring badly. I really wasn’t enjoying myself just now, but then it had been hard going for a while for me. My poor body was taking a battering and I knew that it was only my mental strength keeping me going. I just couldn’t give in. I just kept thinking about my kids and it kept my resolve there.

The last 5km to CP5 was just low hills going up and down, sandy in places, but mainly rocks. Each time I got to the top of a hill I thought I was there. The laser was getting lower and lower and I knew it wasn’t far, but each time I thought I was there, there was another hill. It was quite demoralizing. I was really, really tired and just needed the CP just now. I didn’t have much left, but knew if I got there, I would be ok with a little rest. Just as I thought I was never going to get there, I got to the top of a hill and beyond, the ground flattened out and I could see the base of the laser. Beyond that, I could just about see the CP. WOW! Suddenly finding energy from who knows where, I stuck my head down and went for it. I couldn’t look ahead because the laser was so bright and it was pointed directly at me and was hurting my eyes a lot. I passed it in time and then I could see the CP proper! YAY! I got there and was I so glad to see people. I had passed about 6-7 in between, but this was just different and I was so happy and relieved. A little rest at last!

I shook the guys hand at the CP and told him how glad I was to get there. He was clearly French and just looked at me and smiled. Weary and in lots of pain, I slowly hobbled into the area beyond the jeeps and sat off to the right by a generator to stay warm. My feet were absolutely killing me now and oh the relief in being able to sit down and rest was like nothing I could explain.
I took off my pack, shoes and socks and gave my feet a nice rub and it made them feel better. They were no more damaged than they were, just badly fatigued. The bottom of my back was very sore. There was clearly a small gap in the tape I had put there to stop the rubbing and I could feel that there was now an open wound there, the skin having been rubbed raw. I was exhausted physically, but mentally, I still felt massively determined. I was going to bloody well beat this. I ate half of the Kendal mint cake I had left. It was nice to eat something. I also ate some dried banana too and drink a good amount of water. I started to get cold, so I emptied all the sand out of my shoes. As I was doing this, a cameraman was filming me. I should have been happy that he was doing so, you know “hey I might be on tv” or something, but all I could think of was “if he doesn’t get that bloody thing out of my face pretty sharpish, I really was going to punch him”. Clearly with being tired, my patience had most definitely wore thin! I got my shoes back on. Man did that hurt and I got myself back on my feet. No time was a good time to go. Nobody seemed to be moving and it looked as though some were sleeping here as well, so again, I took the bold, probably stupid decision to go on my own again. I couldn’t wait any longer. It was really cold and I had started to shiver. If I didn’t move now, I was going to be in trouble. The first hundred yards or so were sheer hell on my feet. Really, I just don’t have the words. I just grimaced with the pain and kept going, saying to myself that the pain would go away once I got moving proper and I warmed up a little. I deliberately picked up my pace so that I would warm up in the cold.

This next section was going to be quite tough. CP6 was 12km away and I was very tired. Having had a look at the roadbook, The direction would be northeast until I went in between the two big sets of hills and then turn north. The terrain didn’t look so good either and I really wasn’t going to like this. But, it had to be done. The first 3km was on similar rocky ground, which undulated slightly, before heading across into a sandy ouer river bed. This was a nightmare to cross here. I found a decent route off to the left though, which was harder and easier to traverse than on the river bed itself. I wasn’t complaining, so I kept going and followed this route as far as I could before the ground became sandy and very difficult to walk on again. It was very dark here and I really could see much other than the light markers and what was in the range of my head torch light. Everything else around me was just a dark shade of nothing. That was ok, because right now, I couldn’t care less about very much really, other than CP6. I crossed over numerous sandy hills, one after the other and they just seemed endless to me. It was very hard going for me here. I was exhausted and felt like I was running on empty but my mind was very strong and I wasn’t going to give up. Its funny when the roadbook says “occasional small dunes”. Hmmm yes, indeed! Occasional my butt.

Turning north, I knew I was about 3km away from CP6. Not far to go now, I could do this. It really was freezing now, but I was going about as fast as I could and was breathing heavily and sweating. Only way I could stay warm really. The ground here was very hard to walk across. It was just loose sand and it wore out really badly, but I just couldn’t stop. Now and then I could feel tears building up because this sucked really bad just now but I couldn’t give in. The terrain was also uneven too and I actually fell over 3 or 4 times not seeing the ground rise or fall. The light in the darkness doesn’t always give you an idea of the depth, but it was ok, as I didn’t injure myself. Eventually the ground changed from loose sand back to rocks and I was ok on this, except for my shin really hurting and my poor feet hurt more than I have ever felt pain, but in the distance to the north I could see lights and that could only mean one thing… CP6!!!!! Oh thank god for that! Stiffening my resolve and finding energy from god knows where, off I shot on a beeline for the CP. I must have stubbed my feet on the rocks about 50 times during this time, but you know what, I really didn’t care, I just had to get there. Eventually, by miracle, I got there and a French girl clipped my water card and said “well done, not far to go now” and I smile and said “merci” and stumbled to a generator and literally sat on it. I was really cold.

I took off my pack and decided I would have about 10 minutes or less, depending how long I could take the cold. I took off my shoes and socks and gave my feet a little air. I was in a lot of pain, so I took some more painkillers, drank some water and ate the rest of my Kendal mint cake to give me a last burst of energy to get to the end. It was only another 6.5km to go. It didn’t seem far, but when you take into account that your legs are killing, shin is really sore, feet hurt worse than ever and I am literally exhausted and need sleep and the fact that most of remaining terrain is sand dunes, things are not quite that easy. But hey what the hell, I was totally going to do this. I got out my last t-shirt (one I wore around the camp) and put that on as well, under my race shirt. Didn’t make too much difference really, but every little bit helps. I was beginning to shiver with the cold now, so it was time to go, so I slowly managed to get on my feet. Oh did it hurt! There were others getting ready to leave too and others were sleeping here in tents too, but I wanted to get going as I couldn’t wait any longer, so off I went. It was direct east all the way now to the bivouac. The fact that I was not too far away now, really did give me renewed energy and I went as fast as my body would allow me too. I could see people ahead of me, scattered into the distance and I just kept thinking “I have to catch them, I have to finish” and totally ignored all the pain I could feel. It really didn’t matter, because I was going to finish now, no matter what happened. I had come this far and couldn’t believe I was still going. The first 2.5km was flat, stony ground. It was easy to walk on, except that each stone sent searing pain into my feet, but I just kept going. Before getting to the sand, I had passed 4 people and I kept going. Some of the dunes were quite steep and they were really hard to climb for me. But I persisted and kept at it. Four guys in them white suit things passed me going at a pretty fast pace. I just thought “no way they are going to beat me here”, so I redoubled my efforts and went after them, keeping them in my sights, gaining slightly all the time. In between each dune, as you were coming down the side, the ground turned rocky and harder, so it was easy to cross and then would turn to sand again going up the next dune. I kept my head down and kept my legs pumping away as fast as I could. I was breathing very hard with the effort and was actually sweating pretty bad, but that was ok. I passed the four guys at the top of one dune, where they had stopped. I looked to see what they were staring at. In the distance, you could see the lights of the bivouac. Well! That was all I needed, I went off like a demon.

It was really hard though. You got to the top of a big dune and you could see the bivouac and then you would go down and you couldn’t. I kept at it and I saw some more people in front of me, so off I went after them, following their route. I went around the side of this massive hill/dune and was passing the people there, when I could see the finish line about a half kilometer away and I broke into a jog. I just had to get there. My body was in so much pain, but I didn’t care. This was more important and the pain would go away. I passed another two people within about 100 yards of the line and kept going until I got there. There were only 2 officials there and it was quiet and empty, but I didn’t care. I was there and that’s all that mattered. I can’t put my feelings at that moment into words, but it was one of the best feelings I have ever experienced. I had done what I honestly thought was beyond me and more than that, I was within 20 hours! YES!!!! I wasn’t sure how much, but I knew I was, just about. I had my water card clipped and got my water and headed off into the bivouac, quietly as I could, but with a smile on my weary face. I felt more tired than I ever have in my life, but just now, it didn’t seem to matter. I had actually managed something I thought beyond me. I couldn’t want to ring my folks tomorrow and let them know I was ok. I felt ecstatic, probably beyond words, but boy, I felt bone weary. I felt more pain than I probably ever had and really needed rest. I was so glad that I had a whole day ahead now of doing nothing. I looked at the time, it was 4.53am and I was tired beyond words.

I got back to the tent, which I found surprisingly early in the dark. They had had a sandstorm here too, as the tent was pinned down to try and stop sand getting in. Problem was, I couldn’t get in either! “How the hell do you get in here?” I said, I heard shuffling round and Malcolm popped his head out and came out. He had a big smile on his face and said congratulations and hugged me and told me, “you can say what you want about us runners mate, but what you did was endurance. I don’t think I could’ve done that”. I just said thankyou and he took my pack and helped me into the tent. Energy suddenly left me and I just crashed to the floor. A few of the others had also awakened, I think Paul, Andrew and Lindsay, I couldn’t tell really, but I remember Lindsay saying “good on you mate, you should be proud of yourself”. It was just then, that what I had achieved all came crashing down on me. I couldn’t speak and I just started crying. It was a most fulfilling feeling just then. Respectfully, the gang left me be. I actually felt numb and my poor legs were just in agony, so I took some more painkillers, to hopefully help. I made a recovery drink and drank some water also. I was just too tired to do anything else, so got out my sleeping bag and just crashed as I was. Within minutes, I was asleep.

What an achievement!!

29th March – Rest Day!

Well, I ended up having about 2.5 hours sleep, before I was woken up by everyone else in the tent. I felt ok, but was really aching and tired, but I would be fine. I needed to eat something anyway and wanted to kind of keep in a routine with everyone else. I didn’t have to do anything all day really, so could rest as much as I wanted to. One thing was for sure, I would be staying out of the sun as much as possible today, for a bit of respite!

Once everyone saw I was awake, I was overwhelmed with pats on the back, hand-shaking and congratulations from the rest of the tent. Really, it was very touching. It was just so amazing to me, that at the start of the week, we were pretty much just a group of strangers, but by now, we were a close-knit friendly bunch, supporting each other in anyway possible. I was so happy and relieved and it was great to know I had their support. I spent a little time telling them about my time out there and listened to all their awesome times. I really was impressed! But then, they were also impressed with my effort, telling me that I should be proud of what I had done. Realistically, I was. I had gone over to the admin tent too, and my time was finally up mid-morning. I had completed the stage in 19hrs 37mins. So I had achieved my aim and I was placed in the 580’s, which was fine, as I wanted to stay under 600, so I was over the moon with my effort. Now that I was walking around, I actually didn’t feel too bad either. My shin was still hurting and my left heel felt pretty sore, but other than that, I felt ok. Either way, I would give tomorrow my all anyway.

I headed back to the tent and then ate my breakfast, which I had forgot to do earlier. I then did my teeth and all the other stuff you do. As I was staying out of the sun, I didn’t bother putting on P20 lotion. I took some tablets for my shin and helped Andy sort out his trainers again, which were in need of some running repairs with the resin stuff that I had. Paul also used it too, as parts of the heels had come off his trainers as well. There was a really good, positive atmosphere in the tent. All of us had managed to keep going so far and that was a great morale booster for everyone. It was just so nice to relax and do nothing much at all. After all this, I was shattered still, so decided to have a little sleep and woke up a few hours later, somewhere around lunchtime. I ate some of my food and decided to then have a look at my heel. I carefully took off the padding and tape, which was covered in sand and oh dear, my heel looked pretty bad. What was left of the thick top layer of skin was a white colour. The second layer was also pierced and it was through into the third layer. I knew much more and I was in real trouble. There were grains of sand in there, so I had to clean it, so I used a wet-wipe first and then some friars balsam, which REALLY hurt. At the end of it though, I knew it was clean. I put some layers of plaster over first and then used some cotton wool pads and then put some foam padding on top of that and then some strong tape to seal it all off. I was going to leave this now, unless I really had to look at it again. I was hoping that with all this padding, it wouldn’t go any worse and I would just have to be careful. If it hurt, well then it hurt, but I was still going to finish. Thing is, here is me worrying and then everyone was looking at Joe’s feet. OH MY GOD! His feet were really trashed. I thought my heel was bad! His feet really were in a bad way. He had been for some heavy sessions in the doctors tent and no wonder! Cliff took a picture of his feet and I just grimaced and was just glad that they were not mine! Cliff had more tape on his feet than I have ever seen in one go! But he was ok and you could see him tentatively removing some, checking his toes and then reapplying tape. Again, his feet didn’t look good either.
I stood up and flexed my right leg a little and yes, the shin was definitely going to really hurt tomorrow. I had a pain down by the ankle at the front. I would tape it and see how it went, but would leave it for now.

Mid-Afternoon, we all got an announcement that the last competitor was approaching the finish, so the whole camp emptied literally and went there to cheer her in. It was truly amazing and it showed me how fantastic the folk are on an event like this. It was very moving. Everyone was cheering and clapping in Diane Heath, who looked utterly knackered and was being helped to the finish. Absolutely amazing stuff! It was so cool to watch. Her time was a little over 30 hours. Now THAT was endurance! What a brave effort!

I went back to the tent (limping slightly) and then decided that I would go and do my e-mail now and call my folks, as there wasn’t a queue. E-mail done and I couldn’t get hold of the kids, so I called my mum and dad. My dad came on the phone and then my mum. They were absolutely ecstatic with the news and my mum kept saying that she KNEW that I would do it. Apparently my dad hadn’t stopped talking about me to everyone! How embarrassing! It was just good to hear from them and hear how pleased they were. I told them a little about the day and how I felt and my dad just said “hang in there, you’re almost there now. Go do us proud”. I was tearing up then so I decided to go, so I said bye and paid the official for the call on the satellite phone.

I went back to the tent and just lay down and relaxed for a few hours before food time. There were some of the uber-athletes in the next tent sat on this little sandy ridge posing. It looked quite funny. I also noticed before lying down, that Colin had arrived mid-morning, so I popped over and congratulated him and then I saw Andrew and Tony, my two aussie mates. They had made it in after Colin, but they had got here. They looked alright, though Tony’s feet were pretty bad. Who cares, they were there to fight another day and that was the main thing!

I slept a little then (Cliff took a photo while I was asleep!) and then ate some food and had a recovery drink and took some tablets. Through all this, I had forgotten to read the notes from my kids for today! So I got them and went off for a little walk, to have some privacy to read them:

Jessica: “Not a happy ducky at all, Sass has put what I was gonna say today, yesterday. If ur standing on the top of a dune, “god help me”, u’ll be close enuff, so he might be able to hear you…ur nearly there now dad, don’t let us down!! Love you so much xx”

Saskia: “Dear Daddy, Here is a good one. Why do penguins like ants? Answer. Because they sleep at the antartica! (sheesh) Bet you never knew that one. Love from Saskia xxxx”

I was really, really missing them about now. I knew my dad would have spoken to them by now and that they would be so happy with the news. When I got back to the tent, we had some e-mails, so I got to read some more that had been sent to me. These were great and I was so grateful for all the support that everyone was giving me! We also got given a new number to wear for tomorrow, as it was marathon day and we got a free can of pepsi! Woohoo! I was going to enjoy that! There was a spare going too, so I snaffled that as well and had that. Oh the luxury. It was sheer bliss!

NB: Oh I almost forgot to mention. Eek! Earlier during the day, we were all notified to go to the centre of the bivouac. When we got there, Patrick Bauer announced to us, the death of one of the French competitors. It was very sad and it left an awful gloom over the proceedings. I simply felt for the guys family, but respectfully thought that these are the risks of doing such extreme things as these. Either way, it was very sad and you always wish that it wouldn’t happen. Poor guy.

I was quite tired after my food and my hot chocolate (yum yum), I so I got in my sandy sleeping bag and just relaxed for a while and then just fell asleep.

Tomorrow would be my very first ever proper marathon!

30th March – Stage 5: Ouest Du Kfiroun / Erg Chebbi – 42.2km

I woke up at about 5am and felt ok and I needed the toilet, so went. The camp was still quite and it was semi-light and quite cold still. I felt quite alive though! The feeling in the camp was that we had all done it now, but I only half felt that, because I knew there was still a really tough marathon ahead of me today and would certainly not take things for granted. My heel didn’t feel too bad and my shin wasn’t playing up yet, so that was ok.

Getting back to the tent, the other folk were beginning to stir a little, but I just got back into my sleeping bag and had another 30 minutes or so. It always seemed to be Cliff getting up first, so I got up then too. I had probably slept the most last night of all the days on the MDS so far. It was quite cold still, so I stayed in my sleeping bag and made my breakfast, which I really enjoyed (jordans tropical mix with nuts and raisins). While I was eating that, Shaun mentioned that he had some pistachio nuts he didn’t want, so I took them off his hands. They would do nicely for today as my Kendal mint cake for today had melted a little (damn). I knew this might happen as it was right at the bottom of my pack. Oh well at least I knew. If he hadn’t offered the nuts, I might have been a bit stuck today! I just adjusted my dried banana bits and made a bigger portion for today as I wouldn’t probably need any at all tomorrow. So that was my food for today sorted out. I didn’t touch my feet. They were good to go today. Well not good, but you know what I mean.

I went and did my teeth and cleaned myself a little and read the notes off my kids for the day!

Jessica: “Second to last day dad…COME ON, YOU CAN DO IT!! I no u’ll be feelin rotten, but u’ll soon be coming home soon n just think, u can eat all the food you want, just don’t thinku’ll look at a pot noodle the same ever again LOL! Love you xxx” (actually I was really enjoying the pot noodles!)

Saskia: “Twinkle twinkle little star, santa drives a jaguar, an ex J 6 (bless her), it may be the bigger the boot, more toys for me! Dad I really miss you and twinkle shoes too! Haha Love from saskia xx”

(no I don’t understand that either)

Sigh. Not long now and I would see them again!

Back to the tent and it was being dismantled, so it was time to get serious for the day, though it was hard to do that with Andy and Paul around, funny guys!

My feet sorted, I put my shoes on and decided to change my gaiters as the ones I had on were looking scuffed now. Paul wanted one of them, as hs were looking a little trashed. My pack had begun to feel extremely lighter, which was all good, so I shifted things around in it and tied things a little tighter to compress the pack a little, so that things inside wouldn’t be shifting around and maybe give me a little comfort. I was back to wearing my legionnaires cap again and a buff around my neck. My hands were very sore. I had put a little plaster and tape across the back of my hands, where the strap from the walking poles had rubbed the skin raw. I knew it wouldn’t stay on too long, but every little bit helps! I had gotten my water and had the card stamped and filled my bottles, putting a nuun tablet (in one of them). I was actually doing this regularly, even if I haven’t mentioned this in days gone past. This done, I was good to go and so waited and spoke to the rest of the guys, while listening out for the announcement to go to the starting line. The patching on Andy’s shoes looked good and should hold, as were Paul’s heels, though I was a little more pessimistic about them. Anyway, we got a team picture and then made our way over to the start line, having been given the nod to do so.

Over at the line, we all wished each other good luck. I had a feeling that today, it was going to be a fast one for the field today. I was just going to do my own thing and leave that to everyone else. There was a tricky dunes section later in the day, so I wanted to make sure I had the energy for that.

Patrick Bauer began to speak about the day ahead. He mentioned some birthdays etc and went on to say that he was dedicating today’s stage to the French guy who had died, which was fitting.

There was an announcement for Rory Coleman too. This was his (I think) 500th Marathon and so he got a round of applause for that and then the countdown began and we were off!

I was at the back as usual, which was fine with me. Having checked the roadbook, I knew what was ahead so I would go fast when I could and just hang in there when I couldn’t.

We headed south-east to start with. The sun was bright and it was hot and iw as already sweating. I had to cross a stony plateau to start with and then we descended into the valley of Ziz. The ground here was rocks, loose dirt and sand, with some vegetation thrown in. You were fine, so long as you were careful of your footing. At about 2.5km, I came to the centre of the oued Ziz river bed (which went across the middle of the valley). Here, there was a crevasse that you had to climb down, cross and then ascend on the other side. The footing here was very suspect, so had to be extra careful. There was not many crossings either, so people were crossing it pretty much in single file, but I was across in about 5 minutes no problem. I then had to make a toilet break! Carrying on down into the valley, I came to some salt flats and found I could make better time here, so I picked up my speed a little, while the ground wasn’t sand! My feet didn’t feel too bad yet, so that was good. My legs weren’t even aching, but my shin wasn’t right already. I was getting little stabbing pains, so would keep an eye on that, but I took 2 tablets anyway. The ground after this was little bumpy hills, sandy and rock with vegetation all over the place. I just picked a decent line and kept going as quick as I could, using the energy while I had it. Crossing a big track, I kept motoring along until the ground began to turn sandy and then walking became difficult again. I was now between two hills either side of me walking east. I knew once I was past these, the course turned north-east and CP1 was there, so there wasn’t far to go now. My pace understandably slowed going through the sand and my shin began to twinge, but I grit my teeth and kept going. Once I was past the hills, I could see the CP ahead. Good stuff! I felt ok still so that was a good thing.

I got to CP1, had my water card clipped and went and sat down for 5 minutes to get my breath. I felt ok in myself, so I took my shoes off, emptied the sand and ate a few nuts and dried banana and drank some water, while filling the bottles too. I didn’t want to hang around here, so once I was done, I put my pack back on, wiped away some of the sweat on my face and off I went in a NE direction.
The next 3km was just undulating, rocky ground. Up, down, up, down, but it was solid ground and I was able to keep a decent pace up. My feet began to feel a little sore with walking on the rocks, but nothing too bad, so that was alright, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as I was going to keep going regardless. Crossing a track, I could see some dwellings on the left. I won’t say houses, because I couldn’t call them that. Still a strange place to live, if you ask me! The next 5km was pretty flat ground. I went across a few tracks, but the ground was good to make up some time at my quickest walking speed. 3km before CP2, I encountered another section of small sand dunes. They were not particularly difficult, but just slowed me down and sapped my strength. Some of the people I had passed making good speed on the flats, now passed me as I slowed down in the sand. Once in the sand, my shin started to hurt more. The constant ascending and descending the dunes with my foot at different angles, was clearly affecting my shin now, but never mind, I just had to keep going. CP2 was situated in the middle of the dunes. Past the CP were more dunes that had to be crossed. Here though, the ground was a flat after the first dunes section, though still sandy in places. I got to the CP and found Rory Coleman there, with some other brits, so I sat with them and had 10 minutes there, to give myself a little time before going into the bigger dunes. I gave Rory one of my gels as I had one too many and didn’t really need it. I ate one also and then some nuts and drank some more water. I took off my shoes and emptied out the mass of sand that seemed to have found its way in. My toes were hurting once again (more than normal) and my shin was very sore. My heel was throbbing and not feeling great but I wasn’t feeling any more pain than normal, so that was ok. If I could stand on my feet, I was good to go and that was all that mattered. CP2 was at 21km, so this was effectively half way today. However the next 6km or so was the dunes ahead of me, so this was going to be pretty tough going. Seeing no point putting off the inevitable any further, I put my pack back on and left the CP and went into the dunes, following the tracks of everyone else who was ahead of me.

The first half km ahead was flat ground, though sandy. Once past that, it was the dunes proper. These were called Erg Znaigui and I was heading in a northerly direction now. When I got to the top of the first dune, the dunes ahead almost went on as far as the eye could see. At the far end of my vision, I could see ground that wasn’t sand, but that was a long way off! Oh well, there was no putting things off I guess and I wanted to keep good time as best I could. My body was starting to hurt again now, the prior stages now catching up with me. Stubborn as I ever was, I would keep going until I dropped. So began the hard slog through the dunes.

I began to take note of where everyone else was going and tried to pick good lines through the dunes and not walking in everyone elses steps as much as possible. It actually did at times, make walking on the sand a little easier. I knew the technique for walking/running on the sand, but due to my weight, I couldn’t quite carry it off quite right, though it did work at times, so at least a partial success rate was better than nothing! It was a hard trek for me and took quite a long time and it probably ended up feeling twice as far as it was! I just kept on thinking that each dune ahead was closer to the end of it and I carried on in that frame of mind. I was actually quite surprised that only a few people actually passed me on this section. I wasn’t exactly going quickly and was in a lot of pain with my foot and my shin, but well there you go, maybe they were just as tired as I was. Shrugging off that thought, I just kept at it, occupying my mind with everything I could dredge up. The dunes became fewer and fewer and finally, I came out of them on to flatter sandy ground, which then led across oued Khnag, which was also sandy, with small dunes, so I criss-crossed my way through this. I could see CP3 now, which was situated on a small hill and was visible from quite a way off. That was just what I needed just now, as I was beginning to struggle and it was only my stubborn determination that was keeping me going. The pain in my shin was now shooting up my leg and my left heel felt plain weird, best way I can describe it and it was NOT comfortable at all. But I just kept saying to myself “hurt all you want, I am not stopping” and gritting my teeth, I picked up my pace to get to the CP as quick as I could.

Getting to CP3, I took my water from the official and decided on 10 minutes here. I went off to the right and took off my pack. I ate the remainder of my nuts and some dried banana, then washed it down with a fair amount of water. It was damn hot now and I took a few deep breaths. CP3 was situated at 31.2km, so it was a 11km dash to the finish now. From here, you could actually see the Merzouga dunes to the Northwest and they looked massive already! Tomorrow was certainly going to be very interesting as that was the final stage, across them! I took my shoes off and emptied out the sand, but left my socks on and just rubbed my feet. I also took 2 painkillers as my shin was going to hurt and then some for the last 11km. Touching my heel, it really did just feel plain weird. Ever remember them sweets called flying saucers? Well when you pressed on my heel, it kind of felt like that. You could feel something pressing down and was loose from whatever was below it. It was just a very uncomfortable feeling and I wasn’t really sure I even wanted to know what it was, so I just left it alone for now. I only had another bit to do, so would check it out when I got back. I was really struggling here, make no question of it, but I knew I would do this. So not putting things off any longer, I got up, donned my pack again and off I went, slightly unsteady at first due to the pain in my legs, but once I got my stride again I was fine, though the ground was now turning rocky, so each step hurt my feet to varying degrees. The oued was still to the left as I was walking along, so I decided to walk in that, instead of on the rocky, uneven ground, as it actually felt easier on the feet and I was still able to make a decent pace of things. I decided to stop using my walking poles here and just carry them in one hand. I was gaining on people ahead of me all the time, so I was pleased about that. Keeping that in mind, took my mind away from the pain I was feeling in my shin. Bar for a large track I had to cross, the next 7km was pretty flat, very rocky ground, so I just stuck my head down and kept concentrating on keeping the same pace and zoning out the pain I was feeling. During the next 7km I passed about 10 people, which was quite a confidence booster, coming up to the undulating hills that covered the last 4km. I knew it wasn’t far now and I wanted to try and finish as best as I could, despite all the pain. I was walking direct north now. The hills ahead were not particularly steep, but did blank out what was ahead until you got to the top of one. I was quite desperate to get to the bivouac now and rest my feet, so my body would slump at the summit of each hill, when I realised that there was another hill ahead! Anyway, I kept going and I got into a routing of trudging away up a hill, getting to the top and then jogging down the other side, to give myself a little momentum. I just wanted to finish now and the pain, I can’t describe. The sooner I finished, the sooner I could rest. I felt about as focused as I had been for the whole event so far and my determination to finish was sky-high just now.

I got to the summit of a hill and in the distance maybe 1km away, I could see the finish line and the bivouac beyond!!! YES!!! Next to the finish line, I could see an Argentinian football shirt! That was Andy Murray, my tent-mate and there was others stood with him. Looking again, it was my other tent-mates! Oh my god, that was amazing! I had tears in my eyes, I really did. Nobody had ever done that for me before and it was just so cool. I raised my arms and they saw me and started to cheer and wave at me! This was just the most amazing feeling ever. Sod this, I took off my pouch around my waist and held it with my poles in my right hand and started to jog to the finish at quite a decent pace. I also passed 3 people on the way to the finish too. I felt great just then. There was no pain and I was feeling better than I ever had. My friends had come to cheer me in and how I felt, I really can’t describe it. You would only know if you yourself were standing (or running) where I was. That moment will truly stay with me for as long as I live – a truly unforgettable experience. I flew to the finish and got marked in and I let out a huge cheer, with a big beaming smile across my face! It was so amazing. I had now done the MDS. Stage 6 tomorrow, I knew I would get through and nothing was going to stop me. If I wasn’t going to finish it, it would have been today. I had finished my first marathon and I just felt like the most amazing person ever! My tent-mates were all patting me on the back, shaking my hand and congratulating me. It was just precious! I got my water ration and had my water card stamped and then we made our way back to the tent, to talk about how the day went for us all.

I checked later and my time showed as 8hrs 24mins, which I thought was great for me! I was still in a little shock, because I simply couldn’t believe I had gotten this far. A truly amazing achievement for me and I felt like I truly was on cloud nine.

I was glad when I got back to the tent. My leg was really sore and my poor heel felt like real hell. I wasn’t even going to touch it. No point now. I dropped my pack and crashed to the floor and just had 5 minutes of doing nothing, other than lie there totally cabbaged! I then sat up and while talking to the others, I made a recovery drink and gulped that down and took 2 painkillers. Cliff was boiling water, so he was kind enough to boil some for me too (good lad) and then I had my customary pot noodle and a few remaining nuts I didn’t eat earlier and I found a piece of Kendal mint cake that hadn’t melted too! YUM! That done, I slowly walked over to the e-mail tent and did my daily message back home. This would be my last one now. Getting back to the tent, we also received our last lot of e-mail messages from family and friends too. This was a nice morale booster ahead of tomorrow.

Speaking to Shaun, him and some kiwi lads had a Haka lined up before the start tomorrow, so that would be really cool to watch.

Morale was sky-high back in the tent and understandably so. There were a lot of battered and bruised folk around, but it didn’t matter anymore. Short of utter disaster, everyone would finish tomorrow. I checked the roadbook just for clarification. It was 5.7km across rocky flats, before hitting the massive Merzouga dunes and then it was 6km of them. It wasn’t far but it would still be tough, especially how I felt! Mentally though, I was about as strong as I can ever remember myself being and I think that would pull me through tomorrow regardless of any problems.

Round the tent, spirits were why, but we also had walking wounded too. Poor Joe, his back was marked a fair bit and had open cuts and his poor feet were the stuff of legend! My heel had nothing on his feet, let me tell you. A damn brave lad! He had the idea of cutting off the top of his trainers to let air in for tomorrow. Not the greatest idea, but if it helped him, then cool. Malcolm’s shins were not good at all and you could tell he was in a fair bit of pain, but total respect again. His mind was very strong and that would pull him through tomorrow. Lindsay, Paul, Shaun and Andrew were all pretty ok and good to go, though Andrew and Paul were still making running repairs to their trainers. Glad the resin stuff that I had brought with me helped. Cliff was also limping a little, so his tendons were hanging in there and his feet were also pretty mullered, but once again, damn brave and was going to duke it out for the final stage. My total respect to them all! They had been there all the way for me, right from the very start. When I needed them, they were all there for me and I would never forget them all for the rest of my life for that. I was damn honoured to be part of this little team and we all shared something really special.

I went and did my teeth and had a little clean up and went back and got in my sleeping bag. I was very tired, but was really looking forward to finally finishing what had been an amazing quest for me.

With a smile on my face and the thoughts of my kids, I went to sleep.

31st March – Stage 6: Erg Chebbi / Merzouga – 11.7km

I woke this morning, having slept quite well for a change. I felt quite excited already about today and just couldn’t wait to get it out the way and get that damn medal.

We all took a while to get up today. There wasn’t as much planning needed for today, so I think everyone was of the same mind really.

Once we were all up, everyone started culling their packs to make them as light as they possibly could. Was quite fun to watch. All the stuff was put in bags, because the tent guys, came and took them and would take them home. I ate my breakfast and actually felt quite good, bar for my shin and left foot and my 2 black-nailed toes were very sore to touch. Again, nothing 2 painkillers wouldn’t do for the time being! Checking my pack, it felt so light, that when I put it on, it felt like nothing was there. GREAT! I went over to the middle of the bivouac and got most of the water for the tent and distributed it when I got back. We were all pretty much sorted quite quick today and we were all understandably in very high spirits.

I took a few moments when I was ready, to go and read my final notes from the kids:

Jessica: “last day, dad, don’t feel down coz we’re not around. We’re with you really!! Don’t stop now, just think that we’re at the finish line waving to you. We’ll hold yer hand every last step of the way. See you soon, love you with all our heart, Jess”

Saskia: “Dear Dad, I am totally missing you. Also it’s your looky day. You have done it, Go on dad you can do it. My hamster is saying, “you can do it. Win that medal”. I love you from Saskia xx”

Reading them hardened my resolve and I knew today would be just fine. Strolling back to my tent mates, I thought about how I would do today. I was tempted to try and run some of it, but didn’t know how it would affect me, so I thought I would try the first 50 yards or so and see how I felt. We took a picture and then had to head over to the line. Nobody knew about the Haka, as it had been arranged in secret, so this would be fun.

Getting over there, I stood over to the right of the start line and Patrick Bauer announced things as he normally did. Before he went on about the day, he mentioned about the Haka and the guys went and stood out in front of the start line and went at it. It was absolutely amazing. I was most impressed with it and it went down really well with the competitors and they got a roar of approval from everyone. Once that was done, they got back into their race gear and Patrick Bauer began to talk about the stage ahead. We all knew what was coming, so he could have talked about the weather in Russia for all it would have mattered. Then came the time for the countdown! I shook hands with Shaun and Cliff and wished them both good luck, like they needed it! I was stood behind Malcolm and Lindsay. I knew Malcolm wasn’t going to run too fast due to his shins, so I thought I would run behind them and see how it went.

Then we were off!

This was going to be fast! The competitors spread out pretty fast and I had this massive adrenalin rush! Sod the shin and the hell with it, I am running this and off I went! I was right behind Malcolm and Lindsay and their pace was perfect for me. We were running on the flat rocky ground, so it was all good. I wasn’t feeling any pain, I was just totally zoned into running and it felt great! After the first 1km, I let Malcolm and Lindsay know I was there and we then all ran together. What was so cool about it, was that I was passing people! Didn’t happen that often for me this week, so I was really enjoying this! The first 5km or so went by really quickly and I felt just fine, then the ground began to turn to sand and this was where it would become hard, so I kept running as far as I could into the dunes. My body actually hurt less running then it did walking, but I knew that my energy levels wouldn’t allow me to jog all the way to the finish. The flat ground began to slowly undulate and then began to turn into small dunes, which slowly began to get bigger and bigger. I kept pace with my 2 tent-mates for about the first 5 or 6 dunes, then I just couldn’t keep up after that, so I wished them good luck and kept at it as best as I could.

This little section was immensely hard. I was giving it my all as best I could. I was sweating immensely and breathing very hard. Frankly, I was knackered on these dunes, but my desire to finish as best I could was still there, so I kept my legs pumping away. From a way off, you could see the water tower, which was where the finish line was. It was all the impetus I needed, to keep my tired body moving. My shin was hurting with a vengeance now and my poor heel was giving me pain like I had never felt before, but nothing was going to stop me now!

It was just a case now of keeping going, over one dune, down the other side, across some sand and then up another dune and then down the other side. This felt so repetitive after a while and I just wanted to get to the end. I really was shattered. I had also stopped using my poles again (had used them a little in the dunes, that’s all) and preferred to walk freely just now. Getting to the top of a particular big dune, I could now see the water tower quite clearly, so knew I was very close to the finish, so hung in there and went as quick as I could. My legs really were killing me and I was gasping for breath, but that just seemed like a side issue just now. I was almost at the finish! Tourists on camels and folk walking about in the dunes were going past me and clapping and cheering, it was a great feeling and I had a big smile on my face. The sand now had stones in it and was a little harder, so I was able to get better footing and ascending wasn’t too bad now. I got to the top of a dune and I could see another dune in front and then beyond that, the finish line! Two guys were just going over the hill ahead, but hey that was the finish. I always said to myself, that if I can, I wanted to finish with a flourish, so I undid my waist pouch and held it with my poles and shot off as fast as my legs would take me. All tiredness and pain forgotten. I went over the last dune like it wasn’t there, hearing an aussie guy shout after me “go on mate, well done!” I wanted to catch them two guys. I shot down the hill and the finish line was maybe 200 yards away. There were people clapping and cheering all around me. It was just beyond words. I could see Patrick Bauer on the line, awaiting the finishing competitors. I had tears in my eyes, but would hold them in. Blasting down to the finish, I caught the two guys in front of me and finished on the same time as them! It didn’t really matter in the whole scheme of things, but I just felt I needed to do it, finishing in style and all that!

I got a hug off Patrick Bauer and people around me were patting me on the back and congratulating me and then I got my medal from one of the french officials. What was amazing about it, the guy who gave me the medal, was the same guy who picked me up in a jeep last year, when I had to pull out of the race. Karma or what? You decide. For me, it was just the perfect ending to a most amazing adventure for me.

I walked past the finish area, was given a packed lunch and a bus ticket! So I headed over to the buses and found my one. I was so relieved to have finished. All week, I had this feeling in the back of my mind, of what would I do and say if I didn’t make it? Well none of that mattered now, I had finally laid last years ghost to rest and achieved what I wanted to achieve. I had completed the Marathon Des Sables. In the whole scheme of things, my time and position were totally irrelevant. None of that mattered. If anyone came along and scoffed at it, well then they just don’t understand what it is all about. Believe me when I say, stood at that finish line, I looked back behind me and thought “anyone who comes over that hill down to the finish is a champion” and its very true. Lahcen Ahansel, at the award ceremony the next day, said it almost in the same way.

Just for the record, my finish time for stage 6: 1hr 57mins, position 433.

For the whole of the MDS, Total time 51hrs 54 mins – position 589.

For me, it was the end of a 2 year quest. I had finally done it and I can’t put into words how much it really meant to me. Friends and family around me, who have been with me on my adventure, will know without me saying.

Coming home, reflecting, one thing was for sure, I would miss my tent-mates. In that very special week, we had created a real bond of friendship. We helped and supported each other, through the high and low moments and everything the 6 stages threw at us and more importantly, we all finished too. I was at the back of the team, but it didn’t really matter. I felt it did, but more than once, they all told me it didn’t and in a way, I had my own things to be proud of.

One final thing I came away with was the fact that I had made some really good friends from my adventure. Andrew Murray I have seen a few times since and we have had some really good laughs, Malcolm Jackson, we keep in constant touch. That guy was a hero for me. He was there in a few really low moments I had and said just the right things to pick me up. He will never really know that, but I will thank him forever for that. Paul, Lindsay and Joe, though I would dearly love to keep in touch with them, they clearly have their own lives to live and whilst contact may/may not be made, they will always know they have a friend for life. And finally, we have Cliff and Shaun, two absolutely amazing guys. I really can’t find the words. Both of them have said some really amazing things to me. Through the week in the desert, you cannot hide anywhere. What folk see, is the real person that you are. This was very important to me, due to past issues in my life and what they had to say to me after the MDS will always live with me. It was just so nice, to see folk truly appreciated the help and assistance that I genuinely offered. The whole group all had good things to say about me too, and I was most flattered with their words.

For me, I was amongst a tent full of very good athletes, some better than others, but all better than me, yet they all made me feel, in my own way, that I also achieved something, maybe more than they did. I could only but sit and admire some of the times they were all setting for each of the stages, and there was me, coming in towards the back of the field…..BUT, I still finished. What Malcolm said to me at the end of Stage 4, probably summed it up the most, “We may all be runners, but staying out there for that length of time, is real endurance and I couldn’t have done that”. That, I will take away with me and hold the MDS in my own perspective. I felt extremely proud for having finished the event, but more importantly to me, was the experience I had. That means more to me than anything else put together. Finally, I had achieved one of my dreams.

What now?

Well. I have my name down for 2008. Realistically, I don’t want to go back and just do the same thing again. I am NOT walking it all again. I cannot do another 51 hours on my feet. I still can’t actually believe that I did it either! I am going to train to run, so I want to go back again and give it my best shot and be able to walk away, knowing that the MDS brought out the best in me. Shaun from this year will be there, my training pal Rich is going, my mate James is going to be there and a number of fallen comrades from 2006 will also be there. What will make 2008 special, will be to finally finish with them. That will complete my MDS experience and I will finally be able to put it to rest and reflect on such an incredible quest.

My advice out there to anyone is this. If I can do it, believe me, anyone can do it. If you have a dream, go and live it. Don’t sit there and let the chances in your life go by.

Finally, I just want to thank everyone who helped me in whatever big or small way that they did. I don’t really need to mention names. They know who they are and I will never, ever forget the support that I have been given.

One last thing i will leave anyone who chooses to do something like this: Pain is temporary, Finishing lasts forever. NEVER forget that.

Thank you so much, Alan Silcock.