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Friday, 15 April 2011

Marathon Des Sables Diary, Stage 4

Stage 4 (82km)
Today truly is the highway to Hell. 82km of it. This stage is what the Marathon Des Sables is all about, and what makes a man of you. Your whole race time and ending race position is really all about this day – if you are (unlike me) well fuelled you can do the full stretch without a break, and jump up 200 places at least.

As we start off,  it’s a hot morning, and getting hotter, and takes us up and down craggy hills and through sand dunes, sapping the energy ahead of the long parts to go. At lunchtime it gets to 51degrees and people start to get heatstroke. The change of the terrain and the fact i can’t run through much of it(I simply don’t have enough energy in my body because of the dairea and my food deficiency) makes my blisters worse. Going slow on these days is worse and harder than going fast as your out in this heat longer than the others. I haven’t been affected by the heat though fortunately, but as i spend 30minutes in the medical tent at sundown at checkpoint 3 (39km in) to tape together my feet (they are a bloody mess) I notice some pretty strong runners dropping from heatstroke – it’s a dangerous and even fatal business out here but they often drug themselves up to the eyeballs and carry on.

 Anyway, I get my headtorch on and set off in the dark up a rocky hill. One guy in front dropped his water bottle so i pick it up and start shouting after him. I realise he was also going the wrong direction so i chase after him and after 500m caught him, he was an old Frenchie who spoke no English, so i walked with him back to the right path as some people get a bit crazy around now. Talking of crazy guys, after some time we catch up with the only Finnish and Swedish runners. the Finn eats Lard for breakfast and foxtails for snacks. He tells me they taste like crap but i would like to try one anyway. So we run with them a fast pace until we all start to get delirious, and then in time reach the checkpoint 4 (55km). Quite lucky timing though as i started shivering uncontrollably, I think due to my body having nothing in it, so i have no choice but to force my last remaining liquid food down me (very tasty actually, my only good food option) and eat my last sausage and get myself inside my sleeping bag on my ground mat and hidden under there until my body got back to normal functioning again. It was 10pm by this time so i drifted in and out of consciousness and eventually dropped off.  This, for the first time in the race im thinking that it could all over for me. My mind and spirit are still strong but my body had finally broken down. I simply don’t have enough fuel to keep going. However, bizzarely throughout surreal and crazy dreams, at 1am i woke up again and force myself to pack up and go, otherwise i would be out of the race and would feel a total fool– but I still have almost 30km to go and have to do that before the sun got hot again – another 50+degree day could finish me off and I need to rest properly.
However, destiny had another plan.  9 km into the next set of sand dunes, and there are no more markers. It's 3am and pitch black except for the sliver in front you can see from the headtorch (the stars are beautiful in the desert if you switch it off) The light sticks that guide you every 500m had disappeared so i had to take an executive decision (it was too cold to stand still) and march (with my sleeping bag wrapped round me to keep warm) on towards a vague light ahead which i guessed from the map to be the next checkpoint. Luckily after 30mins or so a buggy comes towards me and  tells me children from a village a few km away had stolen the lightsticks but i was going pretty much the right way.

But by checkpoint 5 im frozen solid as its 5am, the coldest time of night (around freezing) so I had no choice but to lie down in my sleeping bag with the hat on for 2 hours until the sun came up and started heating the place up. The final 20km i run straight into the increasing heat, and in the same direction so i now have my left arm much darker than my right because I was slogging all morning in a straight line with the sun on my left. Finally i arrived at the finish at 12.30 – a pretty awful time but i was at least in good shape and a lot of people were behind me (18 dropped out that stage, more than any other)

  Out of my tent, 2 of the 5 dropped out here – one guy sensibly said that he’d taken painkillers and when they wore off he knew he needed to stop or injure himself badly (if only all the runners were sensible enough to do that!) and the other, the veterans champion of the 2009 race, was utterly broken and simply couldn’t walk, let alone run,poor bugger.  The day rest though was useful to rehydrate, wash for the first time, change socks and underwear (I even brought 2 pairs of both- luxury), and eat – surprisingly todays food tasted almost ok, and I was able to put down 2 full meals, rest, and get my feet bandaged together at the clinic. It turned out to be a scorcher of a day again, over 55 degrees, and the Scandinavians managed to sleep in until 6am at that checkpoint, then get properly lost in the desert, losing over 4km and coming in late afternoon, spending 2 full days completing the 82km stretch which is damn hard work (much harder than sprinting through in 9 hours, when you have limited food and energy) 

Anyway, with almost no food left, I cheerfully lounge around, forget that my feet look like theyve been mangled in industrial machinery, and fall asleep as soon as it gets dark, totally unprepared for the 42km marathon stage which start with the sunrise the next morning....

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