The Marathon des Sables, Morocco – April 2017

Dave was supported during the MDS by

Salba Chia – http://salbasmart.com/

Helly Hansen – https://www.hellyhansen.com

Brooks Running – http://www.brooksrunning.com

Tailwind Nutrition – https://www.tailwindnutrition.com/

Haglofshttp://www.haglofs.com/gb/en

Bloc Eyewear – https://www.bloceyewear.com/

The Beehive, Rome – http://www.the-beehive.com/

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All aerial photos, impressive landscape shots and full length portraits of me have been kindly supplied by the MDS.

The film below that I made should give you a solid idea of what to expect from the MDS experience. There’s a great 10 minute long interview at the end with my 2 tentmates Jeanne and Gareth who between them have 5 very respectable MDS finishes.

Watch the film on YouTube Here!

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On Day 4, after the Bedu had dismantled our shelter at sunrise and we were making ready for the 86km stage, I looked around and took a moment out from my preparation to focus on the bigger picture. My tentmates Jason, Gareth, Jeanne and Simon were pulling together kit that was scattered over the carpet that’d served as our mattress all week whilst beyond them over a 1,000 more runners were doing the same, some yahoo-ing, some telling jokes or gently taking the piss, others moving slowly, purposefully, painfully in silence. It was like I was in the middle of one of those epic 1950’s films famous for their armies of extras and I felt a little unsettled, confused and humbled, because this is not what I’d thought the MDS would be like at all.

I’d thought, months before the race, that at this stage my head would be full of me, me, me. I’d be working out how to beat the heat, the smell of stinky clothes, the tiredness and the feeling of calorie deprivation. How to plan my exertion during this 86km stage so that I’d be able to knock off the distance before midnight, how to handle the inevitable blisters and bouts of dehydration that were surely going to strike at some point, how to ease into a top 100 spot as my superior endurance began to show (yeah, I really thought that being a half decent ultra runner was going to be enough) and others dropped back, I’d be totally self-centered, I just wouldn’t have the bandwidth for anybody else…

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But that was before and now, well, all I could think of was how lucky I was to be there in the Sahara, among such a fine display of humanity. It might sound corny but that’s the truth of it. I was probably feeling the same as a soldier does, or anybody who goes through a testing experience which over time strips you and those around you down to something like your raw selves. Over the previous few days, sharing a tough running challenge and a small space with this group, eating simple foods in the midst of a vast, impartial, beautiful yet brutal desert, wearing nothing but shorts and, if it got cooler, a t-shirt, living with little between us at all really, it had helped me to see them all shine brighter than I’d seen humans do for a good long while.

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I knew they were all hurting, my tentmates, 3 days of hard running had started to take its toll, and they were moving gingerly as they hauled their rucksacks on. I didn’t join them, I wanted to watch them wander off; I already viewed them, and the hundreds of others around me, as heroic figures and now I wanted to complete the picture, see them walking as a group towards the start line. I knew that in everyday life they were probably just what I’d call regular people, back home. But this wasn’t everyday life, the desert had offered them an arena in which to show their best side and they’d all taken the opportunity like pros. They wove through the slanted light together, past disbanded tents and prostrate bodies that resembled prime time news reports of refugee camps. It was an odd sensation, for a cold fish like me, to feel such genuine warmth for a group of relative strangers, such admiration, and once they’d walked far and I couldn’t see them anymore I felt glad of that five minutes, of the contentment it had given me.

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Ok, enough of the feelings I hear you say, I’m doing the MDS next year and I started reading this for advice!

Apart from you should be ready for emotions and mind-play you could never foresee, I’ll try to offer something else that might be useful. In no particular order of importance, here goes. 

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I remember scouring the internet for information about the MDS before I went and getting frustrated with most of what I found. Many of the articles were clearly just a lot of macho bullshit and several others were full of that most annoying and gutless of running journalist’s phrases, ‘well, ultimately it’s your personal choice’. Man, how that boils my blood…

I wanted to know what food I should take, they said it was personal choice. The same went for clothes, sleeping bag, etc. I wanted to discover serious information about how to stay healthy, they just spoke of what could go wrong. Dehydration, renal failure, ok, ok, I thought, you sound like my mum trying to warm me off by scaring me. I already understand there might be kidney issues develop on any warm weather run where water is scarce, so give me a bit more info than just naming it and then saying, you must drink before you feel thirsty. So, what, I spend all my time either thirsty and drinking, or not thirsty and drinking, even though we have rationed water? Not helpful…

That’s all to say, be careful of most of the reports of the MDS you find online, some deceive (for marketing purposes I guess) and others are just misleading. I shall try not to do that sort of thing. The truth is always subjective with this sort of event, but also, experience is hard won and rare and shouldn’t be hidden within polite indecision.

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Some go to compete in the MDS, others are content to complete. When a race is this irregular though (the course terrain and distance changes each year so a top 50 finish in 2017 might not equate to the same in 2018) and unregulated (like in all sports, there’s not much to stop a runner doping if they wanted to; there’s also nothing to stop a top runner have a fellow runner help them by carrying their extra food weight, much like the cycling teams sacrifice many so that one of their people might win) there seems little point in putting yourself in danger in order to register a higher position that you’d get if you played it sensible. Of course, I wouldn’t have taken notice of that before my race, but I’d be remiss not to mention it here.

I went into this race thinking that I’d have a good chance of doing well. I’d won the Canadian 24 hour men’s running championship a few months earlier and was in decent shape. I was so up myself that if anybody would have said ‘You can’t just go into this race with no specific training and still do well…’ I’d have answered, ‘I can do what I want.’ I was wrong.

I didn’t train well enough. I didn’t do hills or work on sand. I could have done, I have a wide beach only 5km away, but I didn’t bother because I was busy working and trying to balance a busy life and, ultimately, I was energetic enough to run marathons back to back at weekends but too lazy and weak-minded to travel 5km in order to train on the sub zero beach.

Which brings me to the next reason I didn’t do well in the 2017 MDS; I didn’t want it bad enough. If I had, I would’ve trained on the beach. My lack of ambition wasn’t apparent to me until the end of day 3 when Jeanne, who I’d passed a few kms back and who looked totally out of it, overtook me on the home stretch. She was calorie deprived but somehow found the energy to make a fast final 5km. This is something she did every day of the MDS, and something I failed to do, and that was simply because she wanted to do well more than I did. If you want to do well at the MDS, you really must train relevantly (on sand) and hard, no excuses.

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I got my food wrong, which also didn’t help (more about that later) and also, I might not have been in as good a health as I thought I was. Back home in Toronto a doctor had warned me about my high blood pressure, and about some high peaks on my heart rate. I’d ignored their advice, and this probably had something to do with my collapse and passing out on day 3.

Before I go on with what will be positive advice, I’ll talk of the only one real moan I have about the MDS experience. It does seem churlish to mention it, but it will possibly be important to runners who aren’t from Europe or the Far East. After the race we got assigned to hotels according to nationality. The Brits, Europeans and Japanese/Chinese/Koreans got nice 4 star places whilst us North Americans and South Africans got a 2 star place at which the food was pretty much inedible (even after spending a week eating couscous cooked over a fire). We weren’t annoyed due to the food though, more like, we felt part of the wider MDS family by then, like we were all equal, and now here was a very visible sign that this might not have been the case. It made us all pretty sad, really. I’m not sure how this can be rectified but I do hope the MDS organisers try to make hotel allocation fairer and more inclusive in the future.

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Now, let’s talk of feet.

What shoes to take? The info I gleaned before the race was that the vast majority of runners who didn’t get blisters wore either Salomon or Brooks. During my own race the 3 people in my tent who wore Salomon’s didn’t get hampered by blisters. I wore Brooks and didn’t get blisters either. On the other hand there were loads of Hokas and Asics outside the foot doctor’s tent each evening. So my opinion is, buy Brooks. They fit excellently, as long as you remember they size small so you have to try them on and get used to them first, and they’re vegan too.

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Trail shoe or road? I took road shoes, the Brooks Glycerin 14, and now, after the race, my shoes are still good to wear. They handled the terrain well. Sometimes you’re on sand, then rock, then hard desert. Jason took Asics road shoes and by day 6 one of his soles was torn right off, I guess he caught it on a bit of rock. The others had Salomon trail shoes and never had any complaints about them, so if you’re unsure, I guess go trail shoes as the soles should be able to cope best with the sharp rocks.

Do you really need to get shoes that are a size and a half bigger than normal to account for swelling? In some athlete’s opinion, such as respected runners like Stu Mittleman, we should all be wearing a running shoe that’s a size too big anyway, whatever the temperature or terrain. But most of us don’t do that. So I’d say, for the MDS you should have between and half and a full size larger than the shoe you are used to (and remember that if you’re buying Brooks, they come up a half size smaller than usual shoes so account for that). That way you can start off by wearing 2 pairs of socks – to help prevent blisters – and then if your feet swell too much as the week wears on, you can cut back to one pair of sock and the shoes will still fit ok.

You should also bear in mind that if you wear a shoe that’s way too big for you, and only one pair of socks, then there’s a chance of getting blisters just from your shoes rubbing. I wore toe-socks over my taping, then a pair of compression socks. Worked well for me.

Preventative taping is important. Tape your toes and hot spots individually before the race and during it using either paper tape or something more fabric based and stretchy. We used Micropure. There’s a great article on foot taping here – http://fellrnr.com/wiki/Taping

Feet also swell if you take too much salt and retain water. Unless you’re extremely acclimatized and knowledgeable about your own body I can’t see how you can manage this. I tried to walk that fine line of taking just enough salt to keep hydrated but not so much as to have swelling, and failed miserably. Maybe I was unlucky. I certainly haven’t heard from other runners of an effective way of ensuring you don’t take either too much, or too little, salt. The advice that I was offered was so often that old line ‘listen to your body’. I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but my body doesn’t talk that loud and however much I try to learn from the past, the future just keeps on throwing up new experiences that are very difficult to adjust to!

The runners that seemed to cope well with all circumstances were the ones who had done the race before. So, maybe if you really want to do well you might have to accept that most of us won’t achieve that on our first time of asking. That’s almost certainly true in my own case.

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Now onto items of clothing. On the whole, I don’t think your choices will matter that much. I wore my regular running kit that I wear for all road races here in North America, plus the arm protectors I shall mention later, and so many of the top runners involved in the 2017 race just had regular trail running shirts and shorts. Some had tight lycra or baggy regular kit, some had the kit that copies the cooling attributes of lizards (I’ve tried that stuff before, didn’t seem to make much difference to me) and some even wore cotton shirts, presumably to use the sweat they hold onto as a cooling device.

I wore arm warmers as opposed to arm coolers as that’s all I could get at the last minute in Rome (I planned badly) but I wasn’t bothered much about that; science tells us that it’s wind on your palms and forehead that cools you down, not on your arms, so it was more important to ward off sunburn (suncream is good but if you can’t wash it off for a week you might well not be able to sleep, such will be the stickiness) and I think in retrospect that was a good choice. My best advice other than this is wear kit that you are used to and that doesn’t chafe you when you’re wearing it with a backpack.

If you just want to finish you can afford to make many errors with kit. In our race there was a guy dressed as a cow from head to toe and another in a pink tutu playing a ukulele as he ran.

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If you go hard at the MDS you can come seriously unstuck but remember that if it all goes wrong and you catch it in time, you race isn’t necessarily over and you can just probably walk the remaining distance out with the fancy dress crowd.

What backpack? The 2 most popular packs at the race were the MDS pack and the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20. I chose the latter and was happy I did. It’s very comfy and as you empty the pack over the week you can roll the top down lower and lower to lessen its physical size. I had regular water bottles in it, not the ones with the bent plastic straws, and didn’t feel it hampered me. If you’re not looking for a top finisher place then you’re never going to be going so fast that you can’t take your bottle out to have a drink. I generally took a drink each time I was forced to slow down, in a dune field or any uphill section.

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Food. I got this mainly wrong. For my running fuel I took Tailwind, and that was a good choice. It dissolves easily into water, makes warm water taste ok and you feel the energy rush very soon after you drink it. I didn’t take enough of it though, I had about a 100 calories an hour and that was at least half as much as I needed. But for my solid food I made the mistake of loading my calories on breakfast and dinner, and of taking all practical dry food and no treats. If I were to do it again I’d split my calories up so that I’d have a small, 2 or 300 calorie breakfast then 1200 or so to fuel me during my run, including some solid food that was tasty enough to look forward to, and then a 7 or 800 calorie dinner which would feature solid snacks, such as salty nuts. For non vegans peperoni sticks seemed a good choice and if I was to do the race again I’d check out some of the many vegan substitutes for things like biltong. Snacks that I could look forward to would definitely be near the top of my fuel list!

I did the event on a vegan diet and plenty of runners I met there were vegetarian. Long gone are the days when a non-meat diet causes raised eyebrows, or concerns about whether you can function as an endurance athlete on it or not. The meals that the organization supplied pre and post race would be fine for a vegetarian as there was always a veggie choice although the packed lunch we got on the bus had a preloaded meat bun in it that had to be thrown away. Probably the best place for it, it looked very dodgy meat, I don’t know what the MDS was thinking serving us that sort of crap food, only the most desperate and voracious of carnivores would have eaten it. 

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I had a sleeping mat to try to ensure a few hours sleep each night (otherwise you’re lying on very stony ground) and a Haglofs sleeping bag, good down to +5, that was plenty warm enough. On a few nights I never even got into it, such was the warmth. You can’t predict how cool the nights will be but I would say you should be fine with a bag that’s good down to about +5, maybe even +10. I liked my Haglofs bag as the bottom opens up so if it was to have got cold enough I could’ve worn it like a full body fleece and walked around in it. It meant I didn’t have to bother about taking an extra set of clothes with me, in case of a cold night.

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About my own race…

Day 1 was super easy and enjoyable. The MDS people know how to choose a good pre race music playlist and Patrick Bauer, the visionary behind the MDS, is an entertaining showman whose stage each day was the roof of a Land Rover parked beside the start line. In his speeches he pushed for us to remain kind hearted, to think of each other, to give it our best and to enjoy the feeling of being in the great, beautiful Sahara. So many people nowadays are afraid to stamp their own personality on an event and as a result many races take on a uniform, uninspiring blandness that allows little space for real individuality but thankfully Patrick isn’t one of those people and the MDS is all the richer for it.  

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All 1167 of us gathered to make a huge ‘32’ – this was the 32nd edition of the MDS – and after a helicopter had flown overhead and captured the moment and Patrick had offered birthday wishes to 6 of the competitors and blasted out ‘Highway To Hell’ – the unofficial anthem of the MDS, we were off.

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The 30km route was mainly flat, hard desert, with a few dunes at the start and at the end. It was cool, too, so my thoughts as I ran were, I’ve been told this is an easy day and it’s not very warm, only 27C, so let’s run hard here and make the most of these favorable conditions. So I did, and I finished 1st in my age group.  

Day 2 was harder, 39km with lots of sand dunes and a crossing of Jebel el Oftal, an impressive mountain offering stunning views from the summit, after 34km.

The heat began to bite in the gully up to the top of the mountain. It must have been 53c in there, no wind at all, deadly. And then came the sandy descent, a 20% slope dropping us over 250 meters in less than a quarter mile. I struggled, walking the final few kms, and finished back in 7th place in my age group. But I felt ok, and still thought of myself as being in with a chance of a high placing.

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Day 3 involved 3 mountain passes, sand dunes and firm desert tracks spread over a distance of 32km. Probably the best day so far scenically but unbelievably tough towards the end as the sun beat down cruelly on a bare, stony plain and raised the temperature to over 50 degrees. Despite this, though, there was a stunning display of sportsmanship when the leading British competitor, Thomas Evans, lost his check card at CP2 and the 3rd place Moroccan, Mohammed el Morabity, found it and returned it to him, even though it meant he lost some time. Brilliant, honorable and selfless; if I was asked to mention a moment that summed up what I would like the MDS to be, that would be it.

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I finished in around 5.5 hours but a couple of hours after arriving in camp I felt an odd feeling in the pit of my stomach, something I’d never experienced before, and tried to walk to the toilets, which were basic structures erected about 100 metres from the tents. I made it about halfway and collapsed. I woke to find my tentmates standing over me, sheltering me from the sun. I’d passed out, they said, hit the floor, tried to stand up, passed out again, and now here we were, the medics were on their way, I felt stupid, I’d never feinted before, except when I was in hospital 11 years ago and that was due to internal bleeding and a life or death situation. This wasn’t like that, was it?

The medics said to rest, and to drink a litre and a half of salt water. They said my blood pressure was dangerously low. They thought it was dehydration, but it might not be. I wasn’t going to leave their tent until I could piss, they said. A couple of hours later they were ready to let me go. I didn’t want to leave really, they had comfy beds in there and a fan, it was heaven, and it was also a good opportunity to meet other runners. Like the northern English squaddie with the fractured ankle, making fun of it all and battling on, pondering over plans for how he was going to finish the race with a busted ankle, and Alex, the young guy who used such words as ‘cherish’, which reached my ears as fresh air. Who uses such words nowadays! Not enough people, for sure.

But I knew I had to make way for other runners, so I got up to leave. ‘Have you peed yet?’ a doctor asked. ‘Not yet, but I feel like I might do soon,’ I said. ‘Ok,’ the doctor nodded, ‘come back if you don’t do it inside an hour.’

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I had a rough night. I was weak, the colour had gone from my face leaving me a deathly white, I wasn’t invincible anymore, the desert had corrected my arrogance, I had to readjust my ambitions. It wasn’t clear now if I could even finish the race, let alone get a top placing! I had to play it very smart indeed if I was to get through the next day, the 86km stage.

I decided to run if I could but not to be afraid of walking it all if I had to. And that’s pretty much what I did. The first 10k I ran, the rest I walked/jogged. The scenery was magnificent and I made sure I took it all in but it was hot, very hot, once again. I passed a Moroccan lady, Touda Didi, who’d won the MDS twice before, she was on her knees vomiting by the side of the track. A Dutch girl stopped to hand her some solid food and soon Touda passed me but later I passed her again and thought, she looks so bad, if she gets through this day she’d have pulled off some sort of miracle (she made it, what a lady).

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I started to feel sorry for myself at one point but I quickly remembered how lucky I was to be there. We had water lined up for us every few kms, we had the certainty of a safe camp, too, whilst elsewhere in the world people were enduring exactly the same heat, and severe landscapes, as they escaped as refugees from their own homes. They had no water, no certainty, what a hell they live through, as do the soldiers who serve overseas; regardless of if you believe in their missions you can’t deny the harsh conditions in which they function, and the uncertainty that plagues their lives, day in, day out. Then there were the experiences of my ancestors, fighting the world wars, enduring great hardships; what I was facing was simply nothing much compared to their everyday existence for so long. These were the thoughts that filled my head as I walked.

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I took the distance checkpoint by checkpoint. My only goal was to make sure I was sat in the bar with my tent mates, healthy and enjoying a beer, at the end of the race. I wanted that feeling of camaraderie, it was more important than running, getting a good placing, or even a medal.

I loved the night stage. The moon was near full and at times I didn’t need my headtorch as I crossed dune after dune. I saw plenty of scorpion and a camel spider, too, which stopped me from sitting down outside of the checkpoint areas. A blessing, really, as I was so tired at times, and the cool sand seemed so inviting…

I reached camp at about 6.30am. Gareth sat up in his sleeping bag as I approached and exclaimed loudly, ‘Fuck me, it’s vegan Dave!’ He said they didn’t think I’d make it, I’d looked so awful and out of it the previous morning, and now I appeared full of health. Well, I didn’t feel so healthy, but I guess a leisurely stroll through the Sahara had done me the world of good!

The sun rose as I lay down on my mat, that meant I had the rest of that day to rest up, and try to recover for the final day of competitive running, the marathon.

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I slept little but nevertheless felt good the next morning and decided I could run again and give it a good go. It was a satisfying day, the first half marathon on hard desert, the next 10km through sand dunes and then the final stretch on hard desert again. I caught Jason at the 21km mark and fell in behind him.

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He suffered in the sand dunes as a windstorm hit us and was out of fuel, too, so I shared my final portion of Tailwind with him with 8k to go. It would be enough, I thought, to get us both to the finish line.

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Then a fellow runner passed and asked me to get a gel out of his backpack, he had 2 in there and he invited me to have the other. Jason still looked rough so I passed him it, and straight after he’d downed it I thought, ‘Oh, that’s going to kick in pretty soon and I’m going to have trouble catching up…

We were all so calorie deprived that an injection of power, such as you get from a gel, has a powerful effect on body and mind. Sure enough, Jason picked up the pace with 5km to go. I hardly kept up, and seconds after we’d crossed the finish line and had our medals hung around our necks by Patrick I vomited and collapsed into the shade of a Land Rover.

In retrospect, I wouldn’t have had in any other way. It was good to finish, in one piece, and know that for this final day at least I’d done my best, made mostly good choices, and had left everything I had in me out there in the desert.

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All that was left for us to do was the charity stage, a 7km non-competitive plod through the Merzouga dunes. The MDS supports several initiatives in Morocco, and this walk was for them. Many of the competitors didn’t understand what the charity stage is about but it’s basically to raise awareness of the charities that the MDS partners support.

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Firstly there’s the SPORT ÉVEIL ACADÉMIE, which introduces around 250 children per year to athletics and also offers afterschool snacks and seaside stays. Then there’s the FEMMISSIMA – CENTRE D’ACCUEIL POUR LES FEMMES, which ensures that whilst children are initiated to the joys of sport, their mothers can benefit from literacy classes. Some 40-50 women attend this programme every year and over the past 3 years, 6 women have obtained a diploma approved by the National Education system. Finally, in addition to attending the literacy classes offered by Femmissima, twelve women from the Isfoutalil neighbourhood, in Ouarzazate, make jewels and small objects that are sold within the region via the COOPÉRATIVE BEIJA. Since the founding of the charities 6 years ago all these activities have been held in a rented centre but there’s currently a  project in progress to build a new home for them all. It’s great that the MDS is offering these chances to Moroccan people – we visitors gain so much from the country during our time there it’s only fair that the locals gain too, in a very real way that outlasts our own visit.

Is the MDS the world’s hardest footrace, as many like to call it? For me this is a non-question, as any event is only as hard as you want to race it. Many walk the MDS and enjoy it completely. I can understand why; the scenery, the feeling of the desert, and the camaraderie experienced are a unique combination.

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Is the MDS a life changing experience? I believe it can be, if you let it. Some competitors ran with headphones in, all that seemingly mattered to them was to finish quickly and appear high on the leader board. I understand that mentality and for sure, sponsors and supporters want runners to perform impressively so there’s a certain pressure to run hard but my advice would be, leave your headphones behind and let the desert, and the occasion in. There are many ways in which you will be put to the test during the MDS, and much time alone after each test for you to evaluate how you reacted and what this means for you as a human being. At times during MDS 2017 I felt foolish, happy, inadequate, in control, lost, embarrassed, proud, overwhelmed and so much more. Now I can see that before the race I was often just playing the part of being me in some sort of soap opera based on how I thought life should be. Afterwards it hasn’t been so much like that, I’m less interested in what others think but at the same time more genuinely interested in them as humans, I put less value on haste and more on getting things done efficiently and with the maximum amount of personal satisfaction. Joy and hard work are more obvious bed fellows, and life is better for having come to that realization.

After the race everybody in my tent said they wouldn’t take part in the MDS again.

‘I’m one and done,’ said Simon, emphatically. I agreed, as did the others. But asking somebody straight after the MDS if they’ll do it again is akin to asking a woman who’s given birth a few minutes before if she’d like more kids. The pain is too recent, the temptation is to offer a firm ‘No!’ 2 months later Simon messaged us all and asked, ‘Is anybody else thinking of signing up for MDS 2018? I keep thinking of it when I do my long runs…’

I had to admit, it’d started to cross my mind…     

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I might well have missed out exactly what you want to know, if that’s the case email me on dave@trekandrun.com and if I can help, I shall.

If you want to know more about the MDS visit http://marathondessables.com/

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