Marathon des Sables – Chapter 10 – The Event Day 1

Marathon des Sables
Day 1

My food routine, which I will now explain to you, was worked out over the 5000km of training. I know it sounds oppressively anal, but you must remember that I have type 1 diabetes and food is of vital importance to me every minute of every day. The considerations when choosing the type of food I was bringing with me were the amount of carbohydrate, the number of calories, the weight of the food and the ruggedness of the food. This last one meant that it needed to withstand the rough handling and the extreme temperatures of 50C plus that I was going to be enduring.

My food cycle spanned a 90 minute period, which was repeated over and over and over during the walking hours. At the start of the 90 minute cycle I would have a fruit strip. These are individually wrapped strips of fruit pulp that contain 23 grams of carbohydrate. After eating one of these I would have an almond to clean my teeth and provide a variation of taste and texture. All of this was washed down with a few mouthfuls of water with the electrolytes in it. Twenty minutes later I repeated this process, then twenty minutes later again. At the 60 minute mark I replaced the fruit strip with a sports gel, which provided 26 grams of carbohydrate. There was enough carbohydrate in each sports gel to cover a 30 minute period. In addition to the almond, with each gel I would also have a salt tablet, washed down with extra water with electrolytes. Thirty minutes later the routine started again.

This routine was finely tuned and had been worked out over a long time and many, many kilometres. And joy of joys, it worked. At no point on day one or the next two days did I have a problem with my sugar. This seemingly complex, detailed and anal routine worked brilliantly.

Day #1 was a total distance of 29km with two checkpoints. The track passed through desert countryside very similar to what I had already experienced in Saudi Arabia, being a changing combination of rough stones, flat, endless mud flats and salt pans, hills of rough rock and some sand. It is one of the common misconceptions about deserts that they are made of rolling sand dunes. Of course there are places like that, such as The Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, but the majority of the desert is boring, flat and dry. I learned at the end of the day that the temperature got as high as 45C at its peak.

Starting at 8:30am, I finished the stage around 4pm. My sugar was fine throughout the whole stage, as was my food, my salt and my water. The gear all worked as planned, thereby justifying the many long, hard hours I had spent training, both around home and down at Wilsons Prom. In fact the only real difference between the Wilsons Prom walks and what I was encountering now, apart from the lack of greenery obviously, was the heat. But, and this is as surprising to myself as it is to everyone I have told, I don’t remember giving the heat even a second thought in the Sahara. Maybe this was because I was so utterly focussed on the job at hand.

Everyone soon fell into the routine that they would follow for the rest of the event. For me this meant just plodding along, one step after the other, at a good, steady pace of approximately 4kph. People went past me and I later I went past them. For hour after hour the walking continued. I had my desert hat and wrap-around sunglasses on, so the sun and the glare did not pose a problem.

At around every 12km there was a checkpoint. The checkpoints were where they registered the time of your arrival, clipped your water card and gave you a bottle of water, and where you could rest in the shade of a tent or see the medical staff if necessary. Already at CP1 there were a couple of people having their feet attended to, so I didn’t like their chances of getting through to the end.

An interesting part of the event was that the end of the allowable time throughout the event was marked by two camels being led along by Berbers. So long as you stayed in front of these camels, you were travelling within the allowable time. If you fell behind the camels it meant your time was slower than necessary to finish the stage, and therefore possibly the event, within the allowable time. Luckily for me I didn’t see the camels on day 1.

After walking almost non-stop for a bit over seven hours in the blazing sun and temperatures up to 45C, I finally arrived at the bivouac for that night. It was quite a relief to know that I could now sit down in the shade and rest. The arrival routine, after crossing the finish line and being automatically registered as having finished, was to stagger over to the “water tent” to get the water card clipped and to collect the four bottle water allotment for the night. The four bottles of precious water were to last all needs and requirements until the next water distribution, which wasn’t until 7 o’clock the next morning. One of the little things that I’ve learned that I will know in four years is to reserve a bottle of water from this allotment for the start of the stage the next day.

The rest of the day and evening was taken up with reviewing the day with the other tent mates, going over the gear and making repairs and adjustments where necessary, inspecting feet and tape and preparing and eating the evening meal. For me, apart from the ongoing fruit strips and sports gels, I also had meal replacement bars, powdered milk (yum) and a freeze dried meal. My learning from the previous night was that I didn’t need to use the stove to heat water for the freeze dried meal. All I needed to do was to add the water to the meal in the Ziploc bag, seal it, then leave it to sit on the ground in the sun for 10 or 15 minutes. By that time the meal, while not gourmet, was at least edible. There’s nothing better than sitting on the stony ground in the middle of the Sahara desert after walking 29km through the heat of the day to change your ideas of what is edible and enjoyable. Cordon bleu it wasn’t; nutritious and edible it was.

Not long after the sun disappeared, everyone in the tent settled down for a rough, uncomfortable, uneasy sleep on the rocky ground. Snuggled up in my sleeping bag – bliss.

Marathon des Sables
Day 2

Day #2 and the routine started again. Not long after the crack of dawn the teams of Berbers, in a whirlpool of waving arms and cries of “Yella, yella!” hoisted the tent from over us in one unceremonious swoop. It was funny to see as they rapidly moved down the line of tents, everyone still lying on the ground rugs in their sleeping bags, but now exposed to the sky.

We all went through our morning routine of food, checking and packing our gear, checking and adjusting foot strapping, lining up to get our morning water allocation and performing our personal ablutions, not necessarily in that order. Being a morning person I was reasonably comfortable with the process, just working my way through the necessary steps. But someone like Sam, who is a self-confessed and well-established night time person, struggled with the abrupt and early start to the day. One of my important morning activities was to ensure my various pockets contained the right amount of fruit strips and sports gels. I could fit enough in there for about 8 hours, so any distance less that 35km was covered. For anything more than that, I would need to “recharge” my pockets at one of the checkpoints. Another of my standard activities was to put the electrolyte tablets in my water bottles.

On day #1 I was using three electrolyte tablets per bottle, which was the recommended amount. But I had figured out that at that rate, I was going to run out of the tablets before completing the final stage. So I reduced the amount of electrolytes from three to two tablets per bottle, which should give me enough tablets for the final day, and increased the number of salt tablets that I was taking from one per 90 minutes to one each time I ate a fruit strip or sports gel. That was the theory. The reality was yet to present itself.

As this day was the 5th of April and my birthday, the whole group sang Happy Birthday to me at the start line. It’s great hearing a thousand strangers sing you Happy Birthday with a French accent. Interestingly there were two other people also celebrating their birthday on that day. I found this interesting simply because, with 1000 people in the event, statistically there should have been three birthdays on each day. And on the 5th of April there were. That’s another one of those things that maybe only I find cute.

After the housekeeping announcements, the music and the countdown, we started the stage again to the music of AC/DC blasting out “Highway to Hell”. With the temperature set to reach 50C that day, it was an appropriate song. The helicopter swooped over us as we all as we streamed out into the hazy yonder.

We soon found ourselves trekking across a long, flat, boring wasteland with the occasional scrubby bush. Way off in the distance I could just make out a hazy, almost invisible line of blue hills. As we were heading directly towards these hills I wondered whether we were going to cross them. I thought “No, surely not. They’re way too far away and look way too big.” If I had bothered to look at the roadbook, which has a map for each day’s stage, I would have known if we were. But my approach is “what will be will be”, so I didn’t bother with the roadbook and map. And sure enough, we did.

CP2 was about a kilometre before the base of the line of hills. But before I got there, as I left CP1 and headed out across yet another endless flat plain, my decision to reduce the electrolytes chose to tap me on the shoulder with the force of a baseball bat, and tell me that it was a bad idea.

Three or four kilometres from CP2 I started to feel my feet and legs losing co-ordination. Soon after I could sense that I was having trouble walking in a straight line. Then I started to suffer the teeth-clenching cramps in my hamstrings, my groin, my feet and my calves as I struggled to take each step. All of this came over me within a period of only a few minutes. Having felt all of this during my training at Wilsons Prom I knew what it was, but that didn’t help get rid of it.

As I staggered along I started having more salt tablets. But it seemed that no matter how many I had the cramps and staggers wouldn’t go away. I stumbled on, taking more and more salt tablets. Instead of one per twenty minutes, I was now having one every ten minutes. And sometimes I would have two together.

But alas, it wasn’t enough. While stumbling across an area of rugged and sharp rocks I staggered like I was amazingly drunk, lost my balance completely with a 14kg backpack on my back and fell flat on my face, cutting my hand and grazing my arms. I couldn’t even lay still and flat on the ground, trying to roll around and flailing with my arms and legs.

This was quite frightening.

From out of nowhere a 4WD with a couple of doctors in it appeared and they started to bring me around. They got me to sit up, which still wasn’t easy, and sit in the shade of the car. They took my temperature and tested my blood sugar, all the while basically ignoring my pleas that I was OK; it was just my salt level. Of course they ignored me because they were the ones with the years of education, so they needed to convince themselves of what was wrong.

They found that my sugar was fine and my temperature was fine, so I must be suffering from not enough salt. In my mind I thought something like this –    😐    Then they started to admonish me for not drinking enough water, not taking my salt tablets and basically not doing the right things. I didn’t argue because what was the point? I was drinking all of my water and I was taking many more salt tablets than I was supposed to, so their scalding was misdirected. I knew that so I just smiled, popped a salt tablet in my mouth and said thank-you. One of the amazing things about low salt is how quickly you can recover with a rest and a drink of water.

After my brief rest I was able to get back up and continue, almost as if there had never been a problem. Now I was pushing salt tablets down my neck every five minutes, that is twelve per hour – seriously. This seemed to be enough to keep the problems at bay, for now.

Eventually I got to CP2, did the usual checkpoint things, then headed off towards the now looming hill. Remember the hazy line of hills I was looking at earlier? Well here they were and they looked daunting. From a distance of a kilometre or so I could see a tiny ant line of people making their way up. I sighed and prepared myself for the inevitable slog.

The first part was just a rocky track making it’s way up, but this became a drift of sand. This was quite difficult so by the time I got to the top of that I was huffing and puffing and my legs were complaining. Next came a rocky path up a steep, dry creek gully climbing over rocks. Just as I got to the top of this bit and was about to climb out, I came across two people prostate in the gully with intravenous drips coming out of their arms. It hadn’t occurred to me but the conditions were now bad enough that people were dropping. There were medical staff in attendance so I stepped around them and continued up. In a macabre way those poor people made me feel better. They were suffering big time and I hadn’t even realised the conditions were tough.

I joined the ant line of people climbing up the rocks. This was tough and there were heaps of opportunities to fall and break your neck, especially with a heavy backpack on. Meanwhile the helicopter was swooping and whooshing overhead in an ear-shattering roar.

Finally, at last, I made it to the top. This was a saddle between two peaks with support people there to help as people staggered to the top. My legs were cramping so I sat down for a rest and again I received the advice to drink more water and have a salt tablet. But by now I knew that I just had to rest for five minutes and I’d be fine.

Once rested I took off again, now heading down to the bivouac. My time, while not brilliant, was OK, so I just trudged along down a dry creek bed. It was strewn with boulders and was a great place to “do an ankle”, but my experience walking in the same sort of country side in Saudi had taught me to be careful, so all was OK.

The rest of the stage went without fuss and I finally made it to the bivouac.

The rest of the day and the evening followed the routine that had now developed. Water allocation, check and repair gear, check and repair foot tape, talk over the day’s highlights with the tent mates, have my evening medication, prepare and eat food, prepare sleeping area for the night, a little socialising with neighbouring tents, settle down for the night and suffer the hard ground. Easy really. One addition for the food tonight was mashed potato. Even though I didn’t add quite enough water and the mashed potato was a bit more chewy than it should have been, as a supplement for the freeze dried food the mashed potato was a success.

The day ended under a brilliant dome of stars. You haven’t lived until you have seen a night sky in the desert.

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