How do you find yourself taking on the Marathon des Sables, renowned as the ‘World’s Toughest Footrace’? 250 kilometres across the Sahara in six stages over six days in the toughest of conditions; searing heat, gruelling sand dunes and the most inhospitable of environments. You do it by scaring yourself, challenging yourself and never accepting the limits of your endurance.
In 2015 my business partner and I challenged ourselves to complete the ‘Hellespont’; an open water swimming event which at that time we thought far beyond our capability, having never swam outside of a pool or anywhere near that distance. This annual event is a cross-continental open water swim from Europe to Asia across the Bosphorus. Filled with triumph (and a fair few drinks) having just achieved what we’d thought impossible six months before, what better to do than accept the challenge of the Marathon des Sables. It was only a few weeks ago now that I was stood in the Sahara wondering what I’d actually let myself in for.
Being applauded by some of the hundreds of volunteers on arrival at Ouarzazate (The ‘Door to the Desert’) in Morocco was some experience although again it did beg the question of what exactly I had let myself in for. Arriving at our first bivouac after a punishing seven-hour bus journey further south into the desert was surreal; the place was akin to a cross between a ‘Mad Max’ camp and a Global Gathering for all the Ultra Runners and general ‘nutters’ of world from what I could see! Looking like a new recruit going on exercise for the first time I spent much of my time the next day ahead of registration unpacking and repacking my kit having brought so much based on the notion of ‘you never know’. I think come check in I was the heaviest pack in the 1,200 person field with it weighing ‘officially’ 14.9 kg ahead of the 15 kg cut off. Unofficially it was closer to 16 kg! How anyone can survive for a week self-supported on only six kilos is something to me; at six foot four, I’m in need of my food.
I had heard of the infamous MDS start line but until you’re standing there on day one, ready to take on six marathons across the Sahara self-supported, listening to ACDC’s Highway to Hell blasting out with helicopters buzzing you at low level, then you really can’t comprehend the feeling and magnitude of the event. I was told afterwards when I got home by my wife Amanda that even just watching the start on the webcam made her want to do it. With the countdown in full swing, initiated by the legendary race creator Patrick Bauer, this was it. There was now no turning back and as sure as anything I wasn’t going to let this challenge get the better of me.
With the temperature peaking at the mid-50s during the week, the heat was intense and managing and balancing intake of water, salts and electrolytes became critical. Some chose a more bravado approach only to their own demise, with a very serious casualty being airlifted out on day one; needless to say, more would succumb to the harsh environment. Throughout the race, I’d told myself to take it slow and steady – I came with a view to complete and not compete. To not finish was unthinkable as several friends reminded me. The desire to finish only intensified as the days went by. While the distance dropped on day three it was by far the most challenging day, commonly being referred to as Jebel day, the term for Moroccan mountains. As if sand dunes alone (now starting to become everyone’s nemesis due to the draining effect they have on your legs) weren’t enough, we then found out that there were steep technical climbs and descents over unrelenting terrain. The MDS really was living up to its hype in every sense; it was, in short, brutal. It wasn’t just the climate and terrain that was challenging; administration in a dusty and hot environment on rationed water whilst looking after one’s own medical aliments and blisters was yet another factor in what gives this event its reputation.
The eve of the legendary ‘Double Day’ was upon us, a double marathon designed to stretch you to your absolute limits. My plan was to go out hard and eat up the mileage, a plan which did in the most part go as planned. That is, if not for a slight Haribo-related meltdown and a potential issue of an International Rescue operation thwarted; just think inReach, sticky Haribo fingers fumbling around and a SOS button… no more need be said at this stage. The day was without doubt not only the hardest element of the event itself but the toughest thing I have personally ever undertaken. We were told this day was normally about 10% sand dunes – I’d like to know who and where that came from as I’m pretty sure I did nothing but spend my day in one endless dune! Some 17 hours after starting I wearily caught a glimpse of the bivouac although, as I had become accustomed to, the race creators were very good at playing tricks on you. What looked to be within touching distance turned out to be another agonizing hour of swaying across the sand in a state of abject exhaustion and sleep. Crossing that line never felt so good, although the reality of knowing there was another marathon to come loomed but that could wait until after some rest.
It was the final day, the official desert marathon as they called it. The mood was mixed, a sense of elation at being here and knowing the end was in sight whilst in fear and discomfort of knowing there was one more day of dragging our weary, bruised and beaten bodies across the desert. Personally I think the occasion took over and some reserve tank came out of nowhere. I felt great, and knowing that if I just kept it going I’d complete it drove me on to the finish line. I’d spent the last few days running (a loose term) with an ex Royal Marine medic but as he slowed with a thigh strain I decided to push on for the final 15 kilometres, running throughout at a speed I’d not previously managed on the first day!
The MDS is something I had always wanted to do and here I was, bearing down on the finish line having been on a roller-coaster of emotions throughout the week but ultimately an absolute sense of sheer elation overcame all. I’m sure as I crossed that line I said I’d never do it again, yet here I am again reflecting on such an incredibly rewarding and life changing experience, both physically and mentally, that now I find myself saying never say never. Achieving this wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my ever-patient wife Amanda and darling little girls Ella and Mila. They support me throughout in all I do, both in terms of challenges, deployments with Team Rubicon and life in general. I hope it can inspire them and others alike in the same way that so many of us seek to make a positive difference and leave a lasting legacy.
Marathon Des Sables is without doubt one of the greatest things I’ve ever done and indeed the hardest; it has created lasting memories that I will always cherish. Having left my ‘demons’ in the desert, I’ve come back with a renewed sense of purpose and a belief in what you can achieve when you truly set your mind to something. Ultimately when I think about it, it’s these elements that make Team Rubicon so important to me and why I will continue to push myself through such challenges. It’s in the hope of not only bettering myself and overcoming adversity but in spreading the word about what we do and trying to raise more funds for what we know is such a great charity!
You can still donate to support Nick’s epic Marathon des Sables