Desert Souls: The Marathon des Sables

Desert Souls: The Marathon des Sables

If someone were to say to you, “it will change your life”, would you believe them?

My first ever running race (school years excluded) was the Gold Coast Marathon.  Flat, fast, packed with cheering spectators and filled with elite marathoners.  I knew that it was going to hurt out there, but I had also arrived with the knowledge that the marathon distance would be a race-life beginning for me and that in time I would enter events that would take me off the road and back into the wilderness.

I had read Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run after finishing Born to Run and I was hooked and home.  I now dreamt of going far, of seeking out mental stamina in overcoming pain, of facing more fears, of travelling to iconic races and of getting back to the trails and tracks that I had grown up with.   It was therefore with little surprise that at the Gold Coast Marathon expo I found myself at the Travelling Fit stall and chatting with its founder Mari Mar.  Mari Mar spoke especially passionately about one of the races that she had raced in and was also the Australian agent for: The Marathon des Sables in Morocco.  The seed was planted.

I went on to run the Gold Coast marathon and again the following year, the Melbourne marathon, maybe the Adelaide marathon and the Paris Marathon (a Travelling Fit race and because it was run on my birthday) and a local 5km road race, before I signed up for the Marathon des Sables.

The Marathon des Sables would be my first trail running race and my first ultra-running race.  I knew no other soul that had entered, and I knew of no other person that had run it.  In fact, at that time, I probably knew no other trail and/or ultra-runners.

I researched and read relentlessly about the race as in preparing for the MDS I had no other information or experience to go on.  The MDS is a six-day 251 km ultramarathon held every year in southern Morocco in the Sahara Desert.  It is the grandfather of all multi-stage running races and has largely set the tone for multi-stage running races.  The first 3 days are made up of distances of approximately 35kms, followed by the gruelling long stage, around 80Km, the marathon stage and finally the 12km or so charity walk.  The Discovery Channel once named the MDS the toughest foot race on Earth.   Obviously, that is subjective but for this little black duck, it was enough for me to pee my dacks every once and awhile.

However, the distance, the brutal heat, the isolation, the calorie deficiency and running on sand dunes and up and over massive desert climbs alone were not what made the MDS so brutal.  What makes multi-stage races so particularly hard, especially when you are a wee thing like me, is the pack that you carry on your back which could weigh up to nearly 10kg when fully loaded with water and flares that made this race so hard.

You didn’t want to get your gear wrong as the fear was that the desert would eat your soul if you did.  No-one would be out there to save you.  No crew, no aid stations, no comfort, no love.  You were completely responsible for yourself out there and you would look like a complete twat if you were unprepared.  As this was my first ultra the MDS became my foundation for ultra-endurance running.   How awesome is that!  At that stage I knew no-one in the trail world and out there I had no-one.  It was just me.  Looking back now it is so surreal to think how idyllic those conditions were.  

Much of my gear I could only purchase from overseas, like my sand gaiters and my WAA pack which at that time was the recommended pack for the MDS.  International postage was a killer.  I grabbed an ultra-lightweight inner sleeping bag from One Planet along with a sleeping mat the size of an overgrown kidney bean and a blow-up pillow that deflated to the size of a rolled-up bundle of notes.  Thermal top and bottoms, a spare pair of undies and a seam sealed rain jacket.  Some band aids, a bit of anti-chafe, a Snow Peak titanium mug, an Esbit pocket stove and accompanying fuel tablets and matches, coffee bags, dried milk powder, granola, 7 dehydrated meals, 7 facial wipes, a tooth-brush head, toothpaste, a spoon, electrolyte powder, gels, nuts, bars and dehydrated sprouted grain recovery powder (so disgusting I had to hold my nose when I drank it and abstained from it altogether after 3 days).  A small camera, 2 x 700ml water bottles and one whopping big flare. 

Because the MDS was such a prestigious and revered multi-stage race there was a decent bootie of information on the internet from previous participants.  There was one particular book I read with absolute intrigue as I was gobsmacked at the antics amongst competitors that took place in the race.  People went kind of wild out there, in the kind of get naked and get it on kind of way.  I didn’t finish reading this book until I was on the bus out to the first bivouac and told fellow Australian participant, Sarah, that this was a great book for information about the race but that some crazy shit went down out here.  When I completed the final page on my kindle on the bus, I realised that whilst the book was based on MDS events it was completely fictional!  How spectacularly daft of me.

I had a big tub in my bedroom at home where I kept each bit of my MDS kit.  From the Australian MDS Facebook page it became increasingly clear to me that I was well behind in getting my kit completed compared to the rest of the Australian and NZ contingent.  I had my pack which was especially important as I could train with it each Saturday morning.  Back in those days I didn’t head out the door well before the crack of dawn, instead I rose at leisure, brewed a coffee and sunk myself into something on the screen that took my mind off the hard week of lawyering that had just been.  Eventually, I headed out the door with my pack loaded and ran down to the beach where I would have a quick dip and then run back up home again.  40kms every Saturday, pack loaded, blazing summer sun and 2 cold crappy energy type drink at the North Adelaide golf course café on the route back up home.

It blew my mind quite some when I boarded the plan for Morocco.  I knew no-one that was going to the event and it was the first time that I had raced anything like this.  I wanted to pinch myself that this incredible adventure was real but at the same time I was crazy spooked.  I feared the distance of the long stage and the potential pain I could find myself in and be completely inexperienced at what that could feel like in the middle of the Sahara Desert.  I feared the night-time running on the long stage and getting lost out there on my own.  But most of all, I feared missing my children.  I feared being out there, alone, in pain and missing my children so much that it would feel like a burn scarring my heart.  This I feared more than anything.

I must have been exhausted when I got on the plane for the first leg to Dubai.  I had made sure all was well in my law office and at home and that I had enough groceries and meals prepared for my young folk.  On the plane I tucked into my flight meal whilst watching a movie and my fully loaded pack was on the plane with me.  Advice had led me to be cautious of keeping gear under the plane in case my luggage went missing (which of course it did when I went to the Jungle).  After my in-flight movie I nodded off to sleep.  When I woke, I had missed breakfast, so I asked for a coffee which they wouldn’t give me as we were about to land!  I had slept for the entire flight less a couple of hours from take-off.  Blimey, that was amazing.

From Dubai I flew into Casablanca and stayed the afternoon in a hotel near the airport.   Originally a few of us from Australia that had flown into Casablanca were to catch a flight directly to Ouarzazate, but that route had been cancelled.  Instead, my next flight was to Marrakesh which I almost missed.  Unbeknownst to me Casablanca was on its own daylight savings time to which my phone was unaware.  Fortunately arriving at the airport with luggage 15 minutes before your flight is ok in Morocco and furthermore my flight ended up being delayed.  I got the giggles when we scootered about on the tarmac in our shuttle bus as the driver went from one twin engine plane to another enquiring as to which plane was going to Marrakesh.   

I arrived in Marrakesh late in the evening and caught a taxi to my hotel.  I wondered through back-alleyways with a helpful local to find my riad.  The riad was incredibly beautiful and I was given mint tea while I waited to be shown to my room which was on the roof of the riad.  Next morning, I walked out of my room onto the roof top terrace and had the most incredible breakfast spread.  Heaven!! That evening I had dinner with fellow Australian runner Sarah and then wondered back to my riad via a marketplace strewed with infamous Moroccan leather gear.

Early the following morning Sarah and I met again and caught the bus across the impressive Atlas Mountains to Ouarzazate where finally we would be amongst the rest of the Australian and New Zealand contingent as well as runners from all over the world.  This was the moment when everything became real.  The majority of us were newbies and the newbie excitement was like a hit of heroin: powerful, frightening and with an intensity that would never quite be felt again.  The other Australian runners seemed quite reserved at first, and I was a little worried about being out there and not having anyone to muck about with.  Being toned-down in the face of adventure wasn’t really my thing. 

We talked, we ate, we walked, and some of us shared our fears: GRAHAM (NZ) “Becks, I’m shitting myself” BECK “Me too” (enough said).  We then piled into a number of buses and made our way into the desert.  Whilst on the buses we were at last given our race map book and for the first time, given details of where in the desert we would be racing for the next week.  Whilst stories of the MDS are plentiful, the remoteness and isolation of the race route was a key aspect of the event.  I assumed the MDS sought to control media access to where we were, but the isolation was also a key feature of the race and goes some ways to explaining why it is one of the hardest footraces on Earth

Upon arriving at our team Australia/NZ allocated tent which consisted of a rug on the ground and a simple blanket shade cover propped up by wooden poles in the middle and pegged to the ground and each side with full openings at the front and the back.   Some runners did a bunch of running warm-ups, many caught up with old friends but my new tent buddy and life-long trail sister, Kylie, and I just mucked about, joked and ate.

That evening we wondered over to the mess tent and feasted on succulent Moroccan food as we sat under the late afternoon sky. The curries were amazing, the bread was to die for, the chocolate mousse was insane and there was even beer and wine. 

Previously we had wondered together through the marketplace in Ouarzazate to buy clothes to wear and then disregard at the bivouac. There is a day and night where you are without your luggage and it is pretty nice to keep your race gear relatively clean and odour-less before you are living in it for a week.  But I had forgotten to bring throw away clothes.  I therefore bought some humongous granny undies and an impressive lilac pyjama set in Ouarzazate.  Kylie found herself an amazing bath robe.  We looked spectacular!!


We lined up outside a large tent for our mandatory gear check, our medical check, individual photo shoot and to collect our flare that we were required to carry on us during every stage.  We then handed over all our gear that wasn’t coming with us.  This was it.  This race pack was all I had for a week.  Scary and Awesome.

The Australian and New Zealand runners were assigned to 1 of 4 tents.  Whilst our tent mates were our kin out there, life beyond the MDS saw many of us, spread out over our 4 tents, become amazingly bound together.


I am not sure how the other countries were assigned their tents and I assumed much like ours.  The French were assigned the inner circle, protected from the elements, we were in the middle with other countries such as the USA and Korea.  The British however, were assigned the outer circle, open to the elements, and flew in late at night on a private plane.  They arrived at the Bivouac after we had all hit the hay and they clearly were not assigned a tent number as they ran like hostages to freedom into any tent with space that they could find.  I am not sure if they were even told which circle they should be in as many people experienced a British runner trying to squeeze in between them in a tent that was clearly not assigned to them.  No-one came to our tent, probably because we were pretty full.  We had 7 in our tent and as none of us in our tent pulled out, we remained a solid and strong 7 throughout the entire race.


I had no idea what to expect from the MDS and presumed I was undertrained and under-experienced.  I had looked over the favourites’ list published by iRunFar and I was thrilled to meet the infamous and beautiful Nikki Kimball who played a significant part of my future endurance run passion.

Day One was a hoot.  My packed caned and would for the entire race.  Even though the pack gets lighter every day as you chow through your calories, your back grows increasingly fatigued so you really feel like there has been little change in pack weight. 

I realised on day one that I was actually quite strong out there and that I was going to do ok.  Phew.  We had been told to take it easy on day one so that we didn’t smash ourselves for the rest of the race. Apparently, a mistake many people make.  So, whilst I ran strong, I also kept a bunch of energy in my reserves.  Being out in the middle of the Sahara Desert, running over beautiful sand dunes (Ergs) was incredible.  Temperatures would rise into the 50s (Celsius) and many found the heat debilitating.  The Australians, not so much.  Racing into the bivouac was incredible.  Our home in the desert.  I collected my cup of sweet mint tea, my 2 bottles of water and made my way to my tent.  This was heaven.

Day Two was my birthday and the entire MDS contingent sang happy birthday to me (and no doubt anyone else that had a birthday out there) before we set off for the day.  We has also sang the obligatory pre-start “Happy” song before we set out.  It did my head in that song because I just wanted to get out there and into the day before the blazing sun scorched us.  Standing around singing bloody “Happy” before we greeted our pain for the day was difficult (in polite terms), but when I got back to Australia, and heard the song being played on the radio, it filled me with joy.  Funny how that happens.


Each day started with running under the magnificent big MDS arch, standing impressive in the middle of the Sahara, the bivouac to one side, helicopters abutting the edges of our camp, Land Rovers littering the landscape, the teapot reminding us of what awaits us at the end of each day.  We were restless let us start, the sun is already punching its heat at us.


I loved Day Two.  It was an awesome way to spend my birthday. 

Day three was my first experience with nausea.  Yuck.

I guess my nausea came about by a lack of calorie intake.  Nausea never stops me from running but it sucks and back then I had no idea how to manage it.  I gritted my teeth, hoped that no-one would talk to me as this only made it worse, and pushed through to the bivouac.  Back in my tent I only had my foul organic sprouted recovery drink to relieve my nausea which obviously I was going nowhere near and may have already ditched the packets by this stage and perhaps a sweet electrolyte drink which I also wanted to gag at.  All that was left was my dehydrated food for dinner which I would wait until at least the beginning of a reasonable dinner time hour to consume.  At this stage it was only about 2pm and I felt horrid. 

Later that afternoon Margaret, 2 tents down, came to the rescue with some dried ginger and told me she used milo as her recovery drink.  Disaster brings knowledge.  For many years to come I never raced without a zippy bag of ginger in my hydration vest, and I made stark improvements on my recovery drink choices.  I still made mistakes, but I was improving my powerful bag of knowledge at every mistake.

Day Four was the long day.  This was the day that had me scared.  This was to be my first ever ultra-day and I had a heavy load still in my pack.  This would also be my first night out running and I was in the middle of the Sahara Desert.  The fear of pain consumed me.  You had two days to complete the long day but if you got in on day one you had day two off. 

We took off from the start and in usual MDS fashion everyone ran on the trail together towards check point 1 and the first djebe climb of the day, in the distance.  I and a handful of others ran parallel to the mob about 75 metres to their right.  I could never understand why over a 1,000 people bunched up tight together when we had the whole desert to ourselves. 

First check point and then we climbed.  The climb was big and there were those, of course, that pushed and shouldered their way in front of others to get to the top first.  I hated this part of racing: people out there that were so consumed about their own manufactured sense of importance and ego that drove their behaviour.  We had 70 odd kms in front of us for crying out loud. 

Climbing down the other side of the djebe I teamed up with another British runner and walked across the enormous salt pan in front of us.  An experienced MDSer said to walk during the heat of the long day, 12 to 3, in order to keep energy available for the rest of the day.  I took this information to heart and walked from 12 to 3 but in retrospect I really didn’t need to. The British guy and I chatted as we walked across the salt flat and stayed pretty close to the track that had been forged by the runners in front of us. 

I turned to look back from where we had come as this pass was endless and saw another British runner coming along, dressed all in white and his face mostly covered by his legionnaires hat.  He ran slow and his shoulders slumped with the weight of his pack, the heat of the sun and the fatigue of the race made him look like eagle fodder.  We watched him come up to us and wondered if he would stop and chat or if he would simply go around us and continue on his way.  He did neither.  This lonesome runner slowly made his way up to us and ran within our arms-length, staying perfectly on the sort-of track and passed through the middle of us without a word.  It was the darnedest thing.  He was so focussed on what lay in front of him that all his mind could give to him was a dedication to the trail without deviation. 


The British guy and I discussed running through the night together however by the first climb it became apparent that his climbing legs and energy were pretty slow going.  On the first climb I waited at the top, however by the second climb I kept moving and eventually he disappeared behind me.  I moved forward at a nice pace and started to pick off the people who had been moving faster than me during the heat of the day.  By late afternoon I met up with Phil, a lovely dude from NZ who I had not yet run with.  He had left behind some of his tent buddies and was ready to blaze a trail into the night.  We ran all through the night together.  It was a blast except I was bogged down with nausea again.  Hours of running without fuel and it sucked.  But fortunately, the thrill of being out there kept one moving.

We came up over our last decent hill and to our delight we saw the lights of the bivouac.  We high tailed the trail giving it every last piece of energy that we had.  Alas, the lights were insanely deceiving, and we were actually 5km away from the bivouac when we first saw the lights.  Come on!!!!!

Upon entering the bivouac, collecting my water bottles which Phil had to help me carry as my left shoulder was pretty $#^&$%.  I had broken my collar bone coming off my bike some years back and it always reared its painful head when I ran with a pack.  I found some comfort in lowering the shoulder strap down my upper arm a bit to almost hold the shoulder snugger to my body.  Not ideal for running but it worked somewhat to ease the pain.  I also ended up carrying my waist bag.  Kind of like a bum bag/ fanny pack that strapped on to your pack which you wore around the front over your belly.  A good place to keep snacks and first aid gear.  It was rotten awful though when it bumped against a nauseated tummy so carrying it was a better option.  Again, not conducive to a good running style though.

Getting to bed that night was amazing.  I felt like I stunk rotten because I did stink rotten, and my body ached.  Sleeping was painful, constantly moving from left hip to right hip and back again as aches set in.  We all had restless legs that night as we moved from side to side trying to get comfortable or less uncomfortable.  Everyone from our tent made it in before daylight which was pretty awesome.

It was great to have the following day off but blimey it is easy to get bored quickly out there.  It was stinking hot so really hard to get comfortable and every moment you were out there was a gentle reminder that you had crap food in your pack and few calories to consume.  Another dehydrated meal for lunch and one for dinner.  We all waited to receive our warm can of coke from the organisers.  It was ok.  I had been concerned that the taste of it would having me longing for more, but because it was warm it wasn’t all that spectacular. 

Throughout the day we watched people coming in from their 2 days out in the desert and an almighty crowd gathered to welcome in the final runners.  Gutsy things they were.  I can’t imagine what it would be like out there for 2 days and a full night.

The last runners looked beaten and broken and as with most days out there they had little recovery time.

The Long Day is what makes a multi-stage race.  It is where the most amount of pain is spawned.  Going into the long stage you are already fatigued, sleep deprived, calorie deficient, bruised, battered and blistered.  The long day is daunting and as a newbie I was spectacularly spooked.  Once you get through the long stage though you are there, you are a finisher.  Even though there may be 1 or 2 big days to come, you know that there is no backing away from that finish line.  The Long Day makes you an unsupported multi-stage athlete and it is frikkin awesome.

The day after the long day was the Marathon Day, the second longest day after the Long Day and a heap of it was through flat trail of deep sand.  Whilst it was a big number of kilometres, we all knew the amazingly special Marathon des Sables medal would be hang around our necks by MDS founder Patrick Brauer when we hit the finish line.

At a check point Patrick Brauer’s interpreter and right-hand person came up to me and asked if she could help me put hydration tablets into my bottles.  Whilst I declined her offer and started screwing off the tops of my water bottles, she asked me what time I had come in on the long day.  I said that I wasn’t quite sure but that it was before midnight at which point an English guy turned around to take a look at me: clearly, I got in before him.  She then asked me how were my feet to which I replied: covered in blisters but that I was fine.  The same English guy turned around again and said “yeah, that’s because Aussie chicks are tough”.  Oh my gosh, that made me so proud.  I beamed.

To think that under a week ago, this was all new to us.  And then over a number of days our worlds had changed.  We had pushed ourselves as hard as we possibly could, driven every ounce of capability into the deep hot sand of the Sahara and came out as changed souls.  We now longed for far-away places, the remoteness, the lack of control.

What was especially wonderful about having the MDS as our first ultra, our first trail race, was that it set the perimeters of not only what was possible but what was expected.  Or more so, what was not expected.  You poured every ounce of your being out there but there was no glory.  There was no one to congratulate you, tell you that you were awesome, no fan club, no spectators, no crew, no family, no-one.  You couldn’t complain about your aching shoulders or your blistered feet because everyone was in the exact same boat as you.  You flogged yourself and you said nothing.  My god I loved that.

Out in the desert we had a medical tent, a communications tent and in the distance was the volunteers (medical staff, logistics, etc).  There were strict rules about our space.  You weren’t allowed to entire the athlete area with food or drink of any kind.  This was no doubt so that we didn’t get food given to us but also, so we didn’t have people eating real food in front of us when we were all so hungry.   In races to come it did my head in when people would eat in front of us, walk around with dinner plates and fizzy pop!  This is also the trouble with running the MDS, everything was done so professionally after no doubt years of race experience that other races missed a lot of detail.  But again, what they lacked in detail they would make up for in wildness, but that is another story.

Every day we were able to send an email to one person.  Often this person would distribute the emails to friends and family and to social media.  They were pretty special these emails because they were so real and raw.  There was a word count to keep people moving quickly through the communications tent as no doubt some folks were likely to send an entire chapter to friends who were no doubt interested but never that interested, right?

In the morning before we headed out or in the afternoon when we got back in, we received our emails from loved ones.  They were insanely important.  I treasured these emails from those that I loved.  Despite wanting to keep every ounce of weight down I stuffed all my messages into my pack and read them every day and brought them home with me.

Getting close to the Bivouac and finish line at the end of the Marathon Day I sucked back a gel to give me that last energy boost.  However, throwing it down into a belly that was completely overwhelmed with what I had achieved, the insane euphoria that I felt, that my world had just taken a new course, I started to feel like I might throw up.  One of my tent buddies ran past me and said, “let’s go, let’s race in together”.  He was a bit intrigued as to why I was slightly running away from him and not directly towards the finish line arches.  I wasn’t quite sure when I might need to barf!  I crossed the finish line, got my medal, got given a massive hug by Patrick and then bolted for the side of the finisher’s shoot ready to barf.  I didn’t.  Another lesson learnt: one can run whist wanting to barf.  My mum had been watching on the race camera back home and asked later if I was throwing up.  That was my plan but luckily, I didn’t quite get to the throw up part.  Beck who is always smiling out there was finishing the MDS with a puke face.

Every day when we came in, we would approach the ginormous tea pot in the sand and receive a delicious cup of sweet Moroccan mint tea.  It was heavenly.  But it was no longer heavenly once I had a medal around my neck.  I felt no love for this tea.  Where was my beer!!

Alas, this was not to be.  This year we were told that we would be staying at our Bivouac and consuming the meals that were in our packs, our dehydrated food, and that we would all gather to watch and listen to the Paris Opera that had flown out to the Sahara Desert to entertain us on our last night together as we sat in solidarity.  I couldn’t help but think how much better the night would have been had we been served beer and Moroccan curry as we watched the Opera under the Moroccan Sky. 


The following day we were provided with blue UNICEF t-shirts which were a welcome change to the grotty t-shirts we had worn all week.  My race t-shirt didn’t leave the bivouac.  We were also given clean bib numbers.  The solidarity day is 7km and it is seen as poor form to run it.  It was a wonderful day.  I crossed the line with my new trail sister Kylie, Nikki Kimball and another American.  Kylie and I then searched out beer!!

Back in Ouarzazate we ate like troopers, drank like thirsty camels, danced at discos and traded pain killers across an empty dining table littered with bottles of wine and glasses of beer.

Something happened out there in the Sahara that year.  We all got lucky.  We all found each other, and we haven’t left each other’s side since.  We became a family and we have gone on to run races all around the world together.  None of us really strive for podiums or accolades as that has never really been the purpose for us.  We just love heading out to the wild remote yonder to see how far and how hard we can go.

I didn’t think the MDS would change me, but it did.  It changed my world.


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