Earlier this year, Mark Walters took on the Marathon De Sables, the toughest footrace on earth, to raise money and awareness for PAPYRUS. Mark has raised a staggering amount – over £32,000 – for suicide prevention. Here is his diary of the Marathon, including his preparations during the days before.
(Day Minus One) Friday 5th April 2019
An enjoyable evening with family, not entirely without stress which is mostly my fault as I keep on thinking I’ve forgotten something. There’s so much to remember with all this kit, so much of it being compulsory. I wake at 3.15 am and drive to Gatwick Airport. The plane is packed and everyone seems irritatingly jolly at that time in the morning.
There is a man standing in the aisle for long periods. This winds me up as it is one of my childish bug bears. I need to chill out.*
There follows at least an hour’s wait at immigration at Ouarzazate Airport followed by a six hour bus journey to camp in the heart of the Sahara. I sit next to Ciara, a doctor from Tipperary who is intelligent, fun and feisty. She is getting married in five week’s time, so god only knows why she is doing the Marathon De Sables now.
We finally arrive in the dark at about 8.30 pm and seven male Brits end up in the same tent. After being served dinner, we bed down and it’s chaos because we can’t see anything and I’ve already lost my head torch.
We are just about to get to sleep and in bursts a Frenchman and before we can even protest about his general intrusion, he is lying next to me, crashed out in a sleeping bag.
It’s absolutely freezing and my mattress has a hole in it so I hardly sleep a wink. Not for the last time I wonder what I have let myself in for.
(Day Zero) – Saturday 6th April 2019
Today is kit-check day and everything happens incredibly slowly. We just hang out in the tent mostly and talk rubbish with my fellow tent mates. We are seven Brits and a Belgian (it turns out Martijn isn’t French after all). We have a good cross section of people aged 24 to 55.
I also bump into my Facebook referral friend Kerri who I spoke to before flying out here. She is a striking American English blonde and her accent seems to move about in the same way as her heritage. In virtually her first spoken word to me, she declares that she is ‘not high maintenance’. Experience tells me that when someone says that, perhaps that the opposite may be true? Let’s see how that one plays out.
I spend all day resisting the urge to ask anyone the Saints score from the previous evening. It was 1-1 when I got off the bus so we probably lost. Although you never know!**
At kit-check we get our race numbers with our names and countries on. I notice that my tent mate Martijn is not even Belgian either, he is in fact Dutch. He claims that he explained that to me when he first met me. I am not so sure about that.
(Day One) Sunday 7th April 2019, 32.2 KM
We are given a road book which maps out the course each day of the week and this is our bible. However the more I look at it, the more worried and confused I get. I aim to be mid-pack so I will just follow everyone else…simple.
This is the easiest race of the week as the terrain is fairly flat and not too undulating. However, I just don’t know how my body will react and I am getting worried about day 2 which is supposed to be ‘brutal’ according to the organisers. I decide to implement my race strategy which is to run for nine minutes and then walk for one. This is for flat bits only and I will walk uphill no matter how I am feeling. The race to the first check point is uneventful apart, although I do witness two Frenchmen fighting each other in front of me. It is not clear why…path rage perhaps?
The race goes well until the final six kilometres which are really tough as the temperature gets up above 40°C and the wind disappears completely. I’m happy with the day but well aware that this will be a really tough week. Having finished, I walk back to my tent (number 80) and see many empty tents. This is encouraging as I have beaten all these people back. I get to my tent but find, to my horror, that I am the last one in. I pretend that I don’t care and vow to myself that it won’t happen again.
(Day Two) – Monday 8th April 2019, Dune Day 32.5 KM
Everyone is worried about the dune section which is a 13km stretch in the middle of today’s race. I decide that I will walk this entire section. It would be madness otherwise. The dunes are so big that we can see them from the start and by the time we get to them at checkpoint 1 they are like mountains. I start off and I struggle for any rhythm. The air just disappears and each step is exhausting. Mentally I am really struggling as I feel overwhelmed by the task ahead. I have my one walking pole which I decide to use but I can’t extend it properly so it’s only fit for a dwarf. I can’t believe that I have not tried to use it before…. serves me right!
By about halfway I start to feel better and my rhythm is solid. I can handle the heat and I start to overtake people. Towards the final kilometre of the dune with the end in sight, we see a helicopter circle and then land. We get closer and we realise that it there for a medevac. I pass by as one my fellow competitors is stretchered off the course and out of the race. A healthy young man with dark skin is motionless as he gets placed on the Ecureuil and the rotor blades start up in haste. I start to jog as I need to get away from this scene. It’s sobering and shows just how close we are to a medical emergency. We get to checkpoint 2 and the dunes are over. There is another 10KM to go but it is reasonably flat, albeit ridiculously hot.
I reach the end and am happy with my day’s work. I get to my tent and I am the last one again, but only by a few minutes this time.
Total blisters: 1
(Day Three) – Tuesday 9th April 2019, 37.1 Km
Running a third marathon in three days is very hard, no matter how well the last two went. My pack still feels so heavy even though I am regularly eating my way through my food rations.
I really enjoy the day although I don’t remember so much about it for some reason. I use my ipod for the first time and this seems to help. I sense a greater pleasure from just being out there competing against 51 different nationalities. The Sahara is ridiculously beautiful and varied, with terrain that I have never been close to seeing before.
For the first time in the week, I feel I am in control, rather than the desert being in control of me.
I get back to my tent and as predicted, I am not the last. I have left Jim (military) in my wake and I let him know, when he gets back, that I have never felt better.
Then I take my socks off! It’s so bad that I have to visit Doc Trotters twice that evening.
Total blisters: 9
(Day Four) – Wednesday 10th April 2019, The Long Day – 76.3 Km
I don’t sleep well as my feet hurt so much, but maybe I am just terrified of running 76-odd kms the following day. I can’t even work that out in miles….I still can’t.
I delay putting my feet into my shoes as I know how painful it will be. I can delay no longer and it’s awful. My big and little toes are really sore, and my ankle blisters are even worse. Every step to the starting line is agony. I can only wince with each step and anyone who attempts to converse with me is met with short shrift.
My Garmin watch buzzes after 1km and I grimace at the sheer ridiculousness of running a further 75kms. I’m OK to the first checkpoint and then I start to slow to a walk and my head starts to drop as the day gets hotter. My plan is to get to 50kms by dark and see how it goes at night.
I enjoy running at dusk as it’s much cooler and the sunset is beautiful. I am looking forward to running at night but I am left disappointed. My borrowed head-torch is weak and I struggle to see much ahead of me. And then I kick a rock full on, with my big toe. The pain shoots up my leg to my thigh where it remains for a few minutes. This is my lowest point and I still have nearly 25KMsto go. It seems little compared to what I have done already today but it turns out to be a long way when you can’t see very much.
After being out in the desert for 17 hours, I eventually crawl in at 1.30am behind two Frenchmen who I have been following, mainly because of the light they offer. There is no welcome other than the silence of the night. Taking my shoes and socks off is the greatest pleasure and I crash out for the night.
(Day Five) – Rest Day
I wake up later and just lie there thanking the lord that my nightmare is over. I spend most of the day in Doc Totters. At least it’s quite social in there.
Total blisters: 11
(Day Six) – 42.2 Km
Today is the final race and whilst it will be very challenging, I know that I will get this done. I only wear toe socks and this makes a massive difference even though my feet are still shredded. Why didn’t I just wear toe socks on the long day?!
After 2KMs there is a mountain to get over with ropes even. I am not quite quick enough from the start and get stuck at the foot of the mountain in a queue for 45 mins. That is a shame because today I feel great and I run more and faster than any previous day. The Sahara is more beautiful today and more varied than ever. I do my best to take it all in as I will most probably never see the likes of this again.
I get to the final checkpoint and I feel better than I have done all week. I don’t even bother drinking my water ration. I just pour it on my head and I feel so alive. The final 10KM is a magnificent stretch down to the finishing line across this enormous valley of sand and it just feels great to see and hear the buzz of the finishing line in the distance.
I am second back in my tent but I don’t stay, and rush back to the finishing line to watch my tent mates and others come in. It’s quite emotional and there are a few tears from the 20-somethings from my tent who have finally cracked.
There is no way I would have attempted this in my 20s and there is no way any of my friends would have done so either. So fair play to these boys as they all absolutely nailed it.
I remain at the finishing line throughout the heat of the afternoon engrossed in the excitement and I remain there until the final competitor is across the line. It is getting dark now and the last person is just coming in. With the ‘camels’ closing in, an elderly Japanese gentleman who is bent sideways with cramp somehow staggers over the finishing line and collapses into the arms of race organiser, Patrick Bauer.
Many of the runners cross the line in tears and I am envious that I did not feel as emotional and broken as they do. Maybe I didn’t quite push myself hard enough or maybe I am just emotionally bereft, as I am often told!
Total blisters: 12
(Day Seven) – Charity walk, 6.3km
This is a compulsory walk even though we have all got our finisher’s medals. The adrenaline is gone and my feet hurt like hell. I can understand why Sir Ranulph Fiennes refused to do it when he raced two years ago….so rumour has it.
(Day Eight/Nine) – Le Berber Palace Hotel, Ouarzazate
The hotel is distinctly average and nothing really works but it is relative luxury and we are so appreciative of all the stuff we usually take for granted…… beds, soap, fruit, electricity etc.
Unsurprisingly we all get drunk and ripped off by the locals.
At the awards dinner for the British team, Kerri wins the trophy for “neediest runner” of the week award. I feel vindicated in my own mind as my original instinct is proved correct.
Ciara asked me three times to come to her wedding before passing out next to the bar. Fair play to her however, she asked me again at breakfast!
I didn’t learn much else, other than it’s great to sleep outside, hang out with strangers and not know what’s going on in the world for a few days.
*It turns out the annoying man standing in the aisle on the plane out is in fact suffering from prostate cancer and has vowed to run the Marathon De Sables every year from diagnosis until his death. This is his fourth Marathon De Sables and I hope he enjoys many more.
** We lost 3-1
If you’d like to support Mark’s fundraising efforts, and help to save young lives from suicide, please email email@example.com.