Here it is. Craig’s amazing adventure – The MDS
The Toughest Footrace On Earth.
We talked to Craig a few weeks after the Marathon Des Sables on his journey to complete his awesome challenge. In his own words he talks about how he started running through to taking on the MDS and his account of this extraordinary race, for extraordinary people in an extraordinary place.
When did you start running?
It all started with chaps who used to work for me. We’re going back probably 13 years, we thought it would be a laugh to enter the Great North Run. Unfortunately it ended up being myself going up to the Great North Run for the first ever half marathon and I think I finished in 1hr 55 and came back and I had the bug. So I thought why not next do the London Marathon, so from then onwards, a period of about 8-9 years I think I ended up doing 12-13 marathons, and with the guidance of Neil Featherby from Sportlink managed to break 3 hours on three occasions, my best time being 2hrs 55 and then unfortunately the last three marathons I trained for I was either injured or ill just before the day, so I stopped doing marathons back in 2019.
What attracted you to the MARATHON DES SABLES (MDS), and just tell us a little bit about what the challenge is.
Okay, obviously like I said I stopped marathons because of injuries I cracked a disc in my back which meant I couldn’t run properly for about 6 months, though I tried I just broke down, so I decided to do walking. Instead my wife Tracey then took on the London Marathon which unfortunately got cancelled due to COVID. I then thought I really needed another challenge as it was my 50th Birthday next year, why not enter the toughest footrace in the world, the MDS. So reading up all about it, running across the desert in 40 degrees plus heat for 6 marathons in 6 days. I think it works out to 256km, mileage about 140-150 miles. It is roughly, they say 6 marathons, 6 days, it’s a little bit under, first day is round about 21-22 mile, second day is roughly the same, third day a little bit longer, then you have the double marathon day which is 2 marathons, which is 52.2 miles, and in the last day it is an exact marathon which is 26.2 miles.
What better challenge and as it happened to be the double marathon day on my Birthday. What better way to celebrate my 50th!
And this is all across the Moroccan Sahara Desert across sand?
Well it’s not just sand, it’s probably only 10% sand, the rest of it is salt lakes, rocky paths, rocky roads and little bit of climbing up mountains, but mainly salt lakes, dirt and stuff like that.
You’ve taken on this challenge, you’ve read about it, you’re up for it and you’ve entered. What did your training program look like to prepare for this enormous challenge?
I entered in June 2020, I was then running average 50 miles a week which I’d been running for the last 8-9 years with Neil Featherby training me, so I took it on my own back to carry on running with upping the mileage a little bit. I also planned to do a couple of ultras, one of which would have been Pilgrims but they got cancelled due to COVID. I was going to go away to a training camp in Tenerife that got cancelled because of COVID restrictions. I did one long week of running at the beginning of 2021 of 100 miles only to come back suffering from flu-like symptoms which then lead to a few unusual symptoms with my heart.
How were you feeling at that time when you had realised you had a potential heart problem, was that a low point for you and how did you get through that?
I wouldn’t say it was a low point, at the end of the day I knew I could resolve it, it was an irregularity in the ECG, not knowing what it was played on the back of my mind but I carried on training throughout. I just slowed training down rather than doing intensive work. I was just doing a lot slower work, so I still did 60 miles a week, much to the doctors annoyance but I said I wouldn’t stop. I went private and as far as I was concerned everything was clear. Unfortunately the MDS was cancelled in that April and put back to October which then gave me another 6 months to train hard again to get in the position where I wanted to finish in the top 100. Like anything I do, it’s always to my full capacity, I won’t just turn up and run it. Again unfortunately, in May I decided to rupture my tendon in my knee which meant I couldn’t walk or run for 3 weeks, so I only started running again in July properly. So I had July through to October, my plan had changed, my plan then was to finish in the top 200 and have a good final marathon.
During this time did you have anyone giving you specific advice helping you train for this?
I contacted a lady called Elizabeth Barnes, she is a two-time winner of the MDS. I initially contacted her just for a little bit of advice which she gave and then the plan was at the end she would give me all my nutrition, what kit I required and stuff like that. So the training plan was all done on my own back, her advice as with Neil Featherby was consistency, just keep consistent. Keep doing the miles. Keep churning it out, and get plenty of walking in.
As you got close to the date, your final preparations, tell us more about the food you’re allowed to take and about keeping everything to a bare minimum weight, how did you deal with that?
Elizabeth advised me the best way to be competitive in this event, there’s three types of competitors: the ones who want to race and do as well as they can, the ones who just want to run and just finish, and then you’ve got the walkers. Obviously being myself as I am, I wanted to be the race competitor, so I was told to keep the kit to the bare minimum, which the bare minimum weight is 6.5kg excluding your water, so once you’ve got your water on board which at 2x800ml is roughly another 1.6kg. So my plan was to keep my kit to 6.5kg including food and this meant for people, who don’t know, you have to carry everything except water, your sleeping bag, change of clothing, compulsory kits, toilet roll, any wash kit, everything has to be carried by yourself so you’re self sufficient. The only thing you’ll be given throughout the week is water and a little canvas tent the organisers put up with a rug on the floor. I had thought through what nutrition I was going to take, I tested it at work, it worked, I liked it.
I’d gone through everything with Elizabeth which had been reduced to bare minimum. My kit bag weighed 6.5kg with all excess straps taken off. All the food had been taken out of the original packaging and vacuum packed, everything was down to bare minimum. My calorie intake was down to probably 2,000-2,500 a day, and I’d be using up between 5,000-6,000 and on the long day up to 9,000 or 10,000.
All the food and everything you had to carry through the whole week, that was it, that’s all, you had to start with it and finish with it?
That’s correct. They do a kit check when you arrive in camp and you have to have a minimum of 2000 calories per day including the last day which they call a charity day which is not included in the time but still you have to theoretically have 14000 calories. You also must have a compulsory kit which includes your mirror, your knife, your compass, recovery blanket, and snake bite venom pump as well as the compulsory antiseptic alcohol wipes and stuff like that. It was heavy, 6.5kg doesn’t sound heavy but it’s heavy when you’re running over that distance.
You’ve got all your kit prepared, the big day has finally arrived and you’re off to the airport, how are you feeling?
I was feeling alright, I suppose I was a little bit nervous because I should have been doing it with someone else and unfortunately they couldn’t come along so I was on my own. I didn’t know anyone, not like that bothers me because obviously having your own business you meet people everyday. It was a bit daunting when SImon took me to the airport because I wouldn’t let my wife Tracey because she’d have too many tears, so he picked me up at 4am, drove me down to Gatwick and we arrived there at 7.30am. We said our farewells and I walked in the airport. I didn’t have a clue where I was going or anything, so yeah I was a bit lonely. As I sat in the airport, again not really knowing anyone, you could pick out the people doing the MDS as most people took their kit with them. You were advised to take your running kit with you, the complete kit, and your luggage to go in the plane. This was purely stuff for after the race because it’s been known for the Moroccans to lose your race kits. So if you carry your race kit with you, you can’t lose it. So yes that was daunting, a bit lonely, but once on the plane and in the boarding lounge you start chatting to people and it becomes a bit of a reality then.
What was it like when you stepped off the plane?
Initially it was “my God this is hot, I ain’t going to be able to run in this” that’s how it felt, walking across the tarmac of the airport it was horrendous, and then coming out of the airport the other side, even then I only had shorts and t-shirt on and I thought “this is hot, this is ridiculously hot!” And then we sat on the coach, obviously with no air conditioning and you just sweat, and sweat and sweat.
The reality of the heat suddenly hits, okay, so you then head off, what happens then?
We all boarded the coaches. This year there was only a 45 minute journey to camp. They give you a little packed lunch and you’re off.. While you’re on the coach you are given what they call the race book which tells you every day what’s on each day, your course, what day and what’s included in that run, but very cleverly they left the big day out. The long day was left out blank and it just said plainly on the page ‘handed to you after stage 3.’ You didn’t know how long it was or anything, there’s was rumours going around that it was going to be over 100km, because when you add everything up without that being 100km didn’t make 256km so that was quite nerve wracking but when you read it and you can work out which days are in the dunes, which days were not and you were told what tent you’re in. When you get to camp, you get out of the coach and it;s just as hot if not hotter and you’re walking across carrying your kit and also carrying your luggage which you’re allowed to keep for half a day. So this was on Friday, you get to your tent, you meet your tent mates, you introduce yourself and what you’re doing it for, the normal chit chat. The Friday and Saturday’s foods were arranged by MDS themselves, so you wander over (baring in mind there’s 800 people queuing to get food) queuing out in the heat for your food. Sometimes you’re advised not to eat the food because you might get food poisoning, so it’s best to eat a bare minimum and the least spicy food you can find. After the meal you go back to your tent and you try and go to sleep on a salt lake bed with rocks. It was horrendous!
Each tent holds 8 people, we were fortunate as one of the persons failed to turn up at the airport so we only had 7 in our tent. There were 2 brothers, young chaps sort of age 28-30, then there was a Portuguese chap called Valtar, he had his own construction business in London. Next to him was Ricky, again I would class him as an entrepreneur, probably worth millions. Beside me there was a chap of similar age (I can’t remember his name now) and at the end there was another chap. So there was 7 in our tent, all good chaps but only 2 had done the MDS before. Ricky did it 10-15 years ago, and when he finished he vowed never to do it again but he was back to do it more competitively this time and the other chap on the end previously failed to finish, so in all we didn’t have a lot of experience of doing the MDS between us.
What was the atmosphere like that night in the tent?
It was a good buzz with lots of stories coming out, some bad stories, some good stories. The thing I think people were more concerned about was the heat, it was hot, very, very hot and when you woke up Saturday morning, the temperature didn’t really go below 20-30 degrees and it was our free day. You get given a time where you have to hand your kit in for their inspection and that’s when you have to hand your suitcase back too. Anything you want to change over on your race pack has to be done before you have your kit inspection. Once that was done I stood out in the sun for an hour and was just dripping in sweat and that was around 11-12 o clock. Not realising what the temperature was, I thought it was only around 35-40 degrees, it wasn’t until later in the week we found out the temperature had risen to 50-55 degrees each day. After the kit inspections are done you go back to your tent, grab some water and then my plan was I went off and wandered for an hour, just trying to get some heat acclimatisation. I didn’t run, just wandered for an hour, did a couple of miles walking through the desert through the salt lakes and then back to the tent. I did exactly the same thing later in the afternoon as it’s just boring sitting around. Then it was time for your food and to prepare yourself and your kit ready for the morning for the start of the MDS.
The big day has arrived for the first race. What were the conditions like and how did you feel when you stood on the start line?
I woke up like I would normally do around about 4:30am. It was still dark and really hot. I didn’t sleep that well as I had a sleeping bag on top of me and just shorts on. You get up, you start preparing yourself. For me it was a freeze dried porridge in a cut down bottle, which I put the water in, I didn’t take anything to heat up food with me to keep the weight down, along with a red smoothie shake which gives me all the nutrients plus I thought I’d take a little dose of coffee to have a bit of a caffeine kick but that was so disgusting I binned that. By 7am the Berbers are coming round and dismantling your tent, so bearing in mind there were just wooden sticks holding the black canvas up. They’re coming along, they take your tent down, you’re just sitting there in the blazing sun. This is about 7:30am, it’s probably 80 degrees, you’re sitting there, you’ve got to get yourself ready, put all your stuff on your feet with some Gurney goo to protect your feet, get your kit ready, water ready, your energy drinks and everything packed in your pockets so you haven’t got to stop to get everything. Everything was packed in my front pockets for ease to get to that particular day. All I took each day was 6 sport beans and then there was a pack of high-five gummies which are energy gummy bears, so there were 6 of them as well, and I had 2 packets of 50g energy drinks. One had caffeine and the other didn’t. So the first one went in my first bottle, the middle part of the stage would be the gummies and my sport beans, the last part would be the caffeine energy drink. So that was me set up, all kit ready, I walked to the start line about 8:30am and Patrick, the owner and the interpreter of MDS standing on top of a Land Rover. They rran through the rules and regulations with his interpreter. Half an hour later, you’re still standing there and he’s still running through rules and regulations, celebrating peoples birthdays and music blaring out. Literally a minute before we start he puts on Highway to Hell by AC DC and the nerves really kick in!
Everyday it’s Highway to Hell. He’s standing on top of there shouting. Everyone is jigging around and I’m thinking to myself “what am I doing?”
And then we’re off. I was told by everyone I know: Neil Featherby, Elizabeth, all my friends and family “don’t go off hard, pace yourself, and the first three days pace yourself the first second and third day so you can then work hard on the long day and the marathon day.”
How did that go?
That didn’t go according to plan at all. I hadn’t run for a week so felt great, I was running at just under 10 minute/mile pace. The plan was to run at 12.5 minute/mile pace, run-walk, run-walk. So for the first 6 miles I went through, I felt great. The second 6 miles I felt great and all of a sudden we get into 1-2pm in the day and the heat starts to hit. I slowed down a little bit on the last stage but I came through and I got back to the camp but there was hardly anyone there. I thought there’s something wrong here, so I walked to my tent, none of my tent mates were there. The rule is if you get back to your tent first, you have to sweep the floor. It sounds bizarre but it means rolling the rug back, getting a stick and removing all the big rocks to make it as comfortable as possible so that was what I did when I got back. Half an hour later my first tent mate came back, sat there and said “You must have been early” and I said “I don’t know, I just ran it.” It wasn’t until the evening I found out I came in 29th – Idiot!
That is incredible, so you came in 29th and you had to do the housekeeping?
I had to do the housekeeping, yeah.
What was the chat like in the tent for the first stage, how are people feeling and how are you feeling?
Everyone was great. I got a little bit concerned as people said to me “did you take the last bottle of water?” On the last checkpoint for some reason I felt great and I didn’t take it and I’d already done heat acclimatisation training at Loughborough. They advised me to take on as much water as I possibly could. So, I hadn’t listened to that advice on the first stage. We were sitting in camp and we’d made all the food and I’d made some chicken risotto thing, again freeze dried, put the water in and left it outside to warm up in the sun. I just didn’t feel right. It took me an hour and a half to eat the food, nothing would settle, I had a recovery shake that didn’t really sit right with me either. The mood in camp and the rest of my tent mates was great. They were taking the mick saying “you said you were going to take it easy” It was all good banter. Anyway, we all went to sleep around about 9pm, I tried to get to sleep, I think by the time I got to 11pm and midnight I was being sick, which I put down to sunstroke and not taking enough water.
There were also quite a few other people being sick, I think they’d been hit by the heat, as people didn’t anticipate how hot it was. Which meant that on that particular night, the officials came round every night, and every single tent was asking for more water. They’d given us 4 bottles of water and by 8-9pm time most people were down to 1 and a half litres, of which you need to fill your bottles up for the first stage the following day. We were short of water because of the heat. People were drinking so much. To be fair to the organisers they came round at 7am and announced we’d be able to collect another 2 bottles of water every morning and at every stage there will be an additional bottle on top of what they were already going to supply.
You’ve got through the first night. How far was the next race?
The first race was just over 20 miles, and it was a fairly flat stage and I’d class running over salt lakes and a couple of small dunes, nothing major. That was Sunday. We’re now into Monday morning. I woke up not feeling great, I couldn’t really face any food so I had no breakfast at all. I kept to just water, prepared myself the same as normal. They came along and took the tent down. This time I took an additional bottle of water with me, carrying it. Again I stood on the start line. In the half an hour I was there, waiting to start, I felt strange so I had to sit down. I poured water over my head to cool myself down as it was so hot. My plan for that stage was just to run-walk and keep an eye on my heart rate. My plan was as soon as it reached over 140 BPM I would walk, and anything under 130 I can run. That’s what I did for all of that stage. That stage was tough. The second day is what they call the dune stage, which consisted of the first six miles to the checkpoint, and after that was seven miles of constant dunes up and down, anything between 50-100ft with no shade, just purely sand dunes. This was the Sahara Desert. It was hot but I got through it in about 2-3 hours but for some people it took 5 hours. That was over 20 miles that day.
While you were in the middle of those dunes how were you feeling?
Hot! It was a heat I had never experienced and I don’t really want to experience again. It was a case of the mindset ‘just keep pushing forwards, push forward hard, when you get to a hill slow yourself down because you’re going to overheat. When you get a chance, walk harder.” It wasn’t a case of running, there was no running in the dunes at all, it was just walking and striding out. I actually caught up with someone coming out of the last checkpoint, and we walked/ran the last 6-7 miles together. It was a tough hard day, especially on very low energy. I couldn’t even take my carbohydrate drinks, I had to dilute them by another 50-60%. I just didn’t feel like eating.
You’re then back in the camp with your tent mates getting ready for the next day. So how are you all feeling on that next day as there were some illnesses starting to break out?
So I got back to camp after the race. During the evening we were all called to the middle of the camp, no one really knew why. As we stood there, Patrick stood on top of the Land Rover again to announce that a competitor had died in the dunes. We had an inkling because one of our tent mates was actually there when it happened and saw someone taken ill.. Within 10 minutes there was a helicopter there taking him away, but then further along he saw another competitor taken seriously ill and unfortunately they didn’t make it. The atmosphere in the tent Monday night was very sombre, it was a hard day. As the evening went on there were more people being sick, and more and more people having diarrhea including myself.
People were saying it was with the heat causing the sickness and diarrhea. Other people were saying there was a norovirus going around. I really don’t know. All I can tell you is that I was lying in the tent and all you could hear around the big circles of the tents was hear people being sick, violently sick, all night long. The doctrotters, which are the doctors and the staff totalling 450 of the MDS were over run and couldn’t really cope. They were even putting people on intravenous drips. They had never experienced anything like it. The camp itself was in a mess, I potentially think it could have been a virus but I don’t know how. Most of my tent mates had it. Monday night I was seriously ill with diarrhea. I messed myself 2-3 times in my own pants and once in my son’s best shorts which he races in. They had to be thrown out. Bearing in mind that I took a very limited amount of supplies I had allowed only 2 pieces of toilet paper for each day. I used them very quickly that night and ended up using antiseptic wipes to wipe my bum which was, by now, very very sore.
At that darkest time, how were you feeling and what did you miss the most? What was going through your head then?
There were never any thoughts of quitting. On the first day there were nearly 150 people who pulled out. The second day was about the same. This was due to the heat. Not finishing was never an option for me. My worries were just getting food and fluids into me. I knew for a fact I didn’t want to end up on a drip. My main thoughts were to get through this and home to my family.
Day 3 which was Tuesday, my plan changed completely. It was just ‘let’s just get to the finish of the race now, I’m not worried about getting in the top finishers. I just want to get to the end in one piece.’ So Tuesday morning I woke up feeling pretty rough. I daren’t fart, to put it bluntly, as I didn’t want to mess myself . So I was walking, holding my backside, clenching my bum cheeks together all the while. It was grim but it was basically what I did for 4 hours out on the course. A couple of times I found a small cactus plant that I had to go behind and take relief. It was a case of drinking as much water as possible. I managed to get my gummy bears and sport beans down but I couldn’t take any carbohydrates.
Tuesday night I got back to the camp, again it was a longer day over 24 miles. II was thinking “ get back to the camp in one piece and try to get some food in me”. I couldn’t eat any of my freeze dried food. I hadn’t eaten for 2 days. I managed to get some Huel into me Tuesday night because I thought if not I’m never going to complete the long day which is Wednesday.
My other tent mate chap Ricky, he didn’t suffer. Valtar, the Portuguese chap, was really ill Tuesday night (I mean violently ill to an extent I thought he wouldn’t start). Then there was a young chap called Oscar, one of the brothers, he was in a bad bad way. He was on a drip that night and came back late. Another team mate had seen the French competitor pass away. He’d already quit so we’re down to 6 in our tent. The tent wasn’t in a great mood. The biggest thing for all of us that we knew Wednesday morning was that we would be starting early as it’s a long day. We assumed we were starting early anyway.
Every night when you get in the tent and once most people are back, the officials come round with your emails. This was actually the highlight of the day where people would give you messages of encouragement and love, saying how well you’re doing. These came from friends and my family. I can’t explain how much it means to receive these emails. You see people sitting there reading them with tears in their eyes and running down their face. You’re alone. The only communication we were getting from anyone in the outside world was these emails, and to receive an email saying you’re doing really well from friends and family was amazing. On Tuesday night that was a highlight in quite a dark moment of the race for me.
The morning of the big day. How were you feeling?
I felt great when I got up. Until the officials came round and handed me a piece of paper. It read – ‘you are 49th’ which meant I would start 3 hours later than the named field in the top 50. To be honest I sat there and could have sat there and cried. I said “can I change?” and they said “no you can’t” I then said “I don’t really want to be….” They said “No you can’t change.” So that meant all my tent mates went off at 7:30am, I was guided to some more tents to sit in the heat for another three hours and go off around about 11am. I went to a tent with some other English chaps, and they were saying the same thing that they wished they hadn’t gone so hard and not got in the top 50. Luckily for us they brought the time forward to 10am obviously because of the heat. The day before the temperature had risen to 56.9 degrees in the dunes. There was a lot of worry about the heat and what we were doing to the competitors.
So we were allowed to go off at 10am, not as previously told, and fairly nervous because basically the top 50 aren’t really athletes, I am not really an athlete, I’m a Joe Blogg who runs a business. We all went off and I was probably 2nd from last. It was a case of having to get to the first checkpoint before a certain time otherwise you would be eliminated. My plan was to run-jog-run-jog, and as the day went on I just kept doing it and that was what I did. I just worked my way through the field. You start catching people up, you see someone else in front of you. You take them on. You take someone else on. I told myself now you’ve covered the best part of 40-50km (30-35 miles). The plan was to stop at checkpoint 6 which was just over half way to have food. So I stopped and sat down. I sat in a deckchair which was the most comfortable chair I have ever sat in I think. I drank my Huel and 5 minutes later I was off again. I felt good, so I was going to keep pushing on. I actually then put on my earphones, I hadn’t had them out before. When I had my injury I had worked out a good walking style. A fast walking style. I did a long run with Neil Featherby where he taught me to really stride out and the importance of being able to walk fast because walking to running uses totally different muscle groups. I’d done quite a bit of walking so my walking speed was good. I still managed to walk at 15 minute 4 mile and hour pace, which meant I was still covering the miles. I didn’t hit a dark time, the hardest of that stage was when I came to the jebble which the Morrocans class as a mountain. And it was a mountain! It was a sandy face which I had to climb up the middle. My breathing was horrendous, and my heart rate went up to nearly 190 BPM. It was pitch black by then so this was the middle of the night, I was probably talking around 11pm. To my right of the volunteers saying “you need to go up the rock face.” I said “really?” and they said “yes go up rock face!” So there I am going up a rock face holding a bottle of water in one hand and my backpack and rope in the other hand trying to pull myself up. We get to the top of this mountain which must have taken half an hour, started going down the other side and I caught up with a French female competitor and also followed a Portuguese competitor as well down the mountain.
Another note – I took my Oakley prescription sunglasses with me which I was very well looked after by Radley and Katie from Coleman Opticians. They’re brilliant, they change with the light so they were excellent. I didn’t even think about wearing them at night so I had to take my glasses off and they didn’t really work which meant I couldn’t actually see anything of any distance! The organisers put little fluorescent beacons< like you get at raves, they have them every 500m. So there I am squinting to see if I can actually see them, and as soon as it goes dusk you have to have one of these in your own backpack to activate as well so people know where you are so you can be guided too. By the time it was getting to midnight, people were getting less and less and I was hardly seeing anyone, maybe one person an hour. I couldn’t follow people as there was no one to follow. Trying to spot these fluorescent beacons was difficult as my eyesight isn’t great.
Coming down the mountain I had 10 miles to go. As I came down this French lady competitor in front of me fell. I stopped to see if she was alright. She said she was fine, so I carried on. I had 10 miles left. It was a case of head down, walk as hard as you can, and listen to the music. I hadn’t gone into any deep thoughts before then, but that was when the deep thoughts came. Through every race I carried a picture of my Dad in my back pocket. I kept saying “come on Dad we haven’t got far to go now.” I continued relentlessly, by myself, talking to myself, talking to my family, listening to music as my son Callum put together a little iPod Shuffle which was great. I found myself singing along, in the dark, alone in the Sahara Desert to get through this stage.
What were you singing to?
Coldplay, there was a bit of Elton John, a bit of A-Ha and all sorts music which was just great.
The hardest thing on that stage was that you could see a light, as good as my eyesight could see, of what I thought was the finish. I thought that couldn’t be very far. 6 miles later I arrived to the finish line.
How long was that day?
14 and a half hours! I crossed the line in 29th place. Now it was a case of just getting back to the tent. When I arrived one of my tent mates had pulled out. Valtar was already there. I didn’t eat, I just laid down and went to sleep. It wasn’t as hard as I expected, physically or mentally but I was suffering with a severe bad blister on the bottom of my foot, and both big toes were really, really hurting then.
As the next day dawned, there were people still coming in and that continued all day long. Every time someone comes in, most of the camp starts cheering and clapping because it’s a massive achievement to complete that stage especially in those temperatures. Now it was a case of resting and trying to get food down. Luckily Valtar, who went home at 6am that morning, left me two portions of Huel which is basically my food for the rest of the week as I could just not stomach the freeze dried packed food. It just didn’t sit well with me. Obviously, as soon as someone comes in you would cheer them on and applaud them.
I didn’t mention this but on the first stage of the long day, Oscar, one of my tent mates, was quite ill and had to be put on a drip the night before this stage. When I turned up to the first checkpoint, bearing in mind I was one of the last because I started at the back, he laid there and my thoughts were there’s no way he was going to finish. I wished him all the best, I knew Valtar was pulling out. He said “I’m pulling out, I’ve done it. I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve.” I just wished Oscar all the best and carried onward.
At 12 o’clock the next day Oscar came rolling in. I couldn’t believe it, it was amazing. Some of his stories, like mine, having diarrhea, were really shocking. He said: “I was going along, I was in such a state and this is what people put themselves through. I was laying there, messing myself. People were coming along asking if I was alright but I was saying I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I got myself to a stage where I just managed to get up and keep going. I’d run out of toilet paper so I was actually using the race book to wipe my bum on! That was how bad it got, I had no clean shorts left, no clothes, just one pair of shorts and a top I was wearing and that was it.”
The last race.
I suppose you can call it the recovery day but I woke up about 8am and tried to waddle over to the doctrotters tent because my feet were in such a state, both big toenails were blistered all the way round. Blood blistered. I had a massive blister on the bottom of my left foot, probably nearly 2 inches in diameter.
The doctrotters give you a number, a bit like going to the supermarket and queuing for your meat. You sit down, you wash your feet in a saline antiseptic solution and then they call you in. All you can hear from inside this tent is blokes and women screaming, and you think “oh my God, what am I doing?” I sat down in there and a very nice lady and she said “oh they look bad!” They lanced my big toe, it wasn’t too bad, then they put iodine in it. It did sting a little bit but not too bad. They squeezed it and bandage it. Then they did my other toe, and then she spotted the back of my heels. What had happened on the long day was that I hadn’t done my gaiters up tight enough, so all the sand had gone down in between the gaiters and my heel, and rubbed up and down. So a patch from my ankles right round the back of both legs had blisters like you had been badly sunburnt. The back of both ankles were completely blistered, so she put a bandage and iodine on them. Didn’t pop them, just iodine on them. And then she did my big one, I didn’t scream outwardly, I just went “arghhh” but that really hurt. She pumped the iodine into my big blister, oh my word. The pain. I walked back to the tent with plastic covers on my feet. That was hard. Then at 5pm, to our delight, we all received a cold can of Coca Cola. Oh my word, it felt like the best thing I’d ever tasted… ever!
Yep, yep! They put on music like the Christmas advert!
The final day?
So I wake up in the next morning and I’ll be honest, my feet were in bits. I thought I just needed to get to the finish, my plan had been to run a sub 4 hours for the last day and I wanted to finish in the top 50 of that day. I didn’t know where I sat in the whole competition but I just wanted to finish top 50 for that day. But I knew from the moment I got up, it was just getting to the finish that mattered . I couldn’t walk properly, I couldn’t run, it was a case of just getting your shoes on and keep moving forward, and that’s what we did. I crossed the line in I think about 5 and a half hours, something like that. Not what I wanted, but it was” job done” and I finished the event.
How did you feel when you crossed that line for the last time?
Not as emotional as I thought it would be. It was nice to see Patrick there, obviously it’s a bit different with the COVID, normally there’s a big embrace with Patrick it wasn’t, it was a fist bump.
I was given the medal. Once I got my medal I did my daily thing and went over to the camera to blow a kiss to, well it should have been to my wife but everyone else was claiming a kiss. Every day you finish you get a sugary tea, which is a Moroccan speciality. It was only a little cup but that sugary tea is amazing. Then you go and get your bottles of water and it’s back to your tent.
The final evening.
The final evening of the actual marathon they have a presentation for all the winners, the top 10 male and female winners, and teams. You go back to your tent and get up for the charity day in the morning.
The charity day is to raise money for schools in Morocco as they are quite a poor country. The way they raise money on a normal year is by having rich people fly in. They hire a paid for luxury executive tent which has a shower.. We’re talking about people paying anything between £10,000-£12000 per place. They then get the opportunity to walk with the rest of the competitors to finish the race in the charity stage. These people love it because they can say they’ve done the MDS. They theoretically haven’t, but it’s great for the charity. On a good year, Patrick will raise anything between a quarter and half a million pounds for the local charities, and a lot of this will go back to the schools.
The final charity day
So you get up, you walk your charity day, and most people walk it which we did, and you get to your coach and then we have a lovely 5 hour journey back to the hotel.
This was hard again especially when your feet were absolutely obliterated. I didn’t even go to the doctrotters when I finished the marathon, I only had 6-8km to walk and thought I could do that.
Back to the Hotel.
The scene on the way back was quite funny. We got on the coach and they said we’ll stop half way for everyone to have a comfort break. I didn’t really want to get off the coach, I couldn’t really walk because of my feet so I sat there and I looked out of the window, and all I could see was a row of 2 or 3 coaches stopped. Within 50 metres of the coach there was just a row of men pissing, they stood to the back and then you saw all the women just bopping down and peeing everywhere. It was brilliant!
Anyway we arrived back at this hotel, you can decide who you want a room with so you try and room with someone who’s been in your tent. So I went with Ricky, and another chap. We did rock, paper, scissors to see who got the big bedroom with the en-suite and I won. II had this massive double bed with en-suite bathroom, it was amazing, and then they had a single bed each.
The best thing was just getting in the shower and being able to clean your teeth properly and having a proper wash. For the whole week I’d washed myself everyday. Standing there bare naked in the desert as you do, using the little wemi wipes. Both men and women did to be fair. It was just nice having a shower and having water run on you rather than getting cold water out of a bottle and washing yourself.
What was going on in your head at that point?
I wanted to get home, I’d finished. This was the Saturday night, I knew I had all day Sunday there to lose time. We weren’t allowed in the pool, so we couldn’t do that, so we had the meal that night and a few beers then went back to bed about 9pm as we were all shattered. Didn’t really sleep. I got up, had breakfast and then I suffered major diarrhea again because I hadn’t gotten over the bug. We then all went and collected our t-shirt. We were just basically wasting time for the day on Sunday, but all I wanted to do was get home and see my wife and my family. I’d already phoned them. The first thing I did when I got back to the hotel was phone them I spoke to Tracey and she was obviously very relieved to hear from me, and I thanked all friends and family who managed to keep the death incident away from her as she would have been an absolute wreck if she hadn’t found out about this on Monday. It was now just a case of waiting for the morning to come and to get the coach to the airport, get on a plane and go home.
What thoughts do you have on this incredible achievement?
I can thank Neil Featherby for what he’s done over the years and I can definitely thank Elizabeth Barnes through her experience of running the event, and her expertise on what to take and what not to take, and how to prepare.
Would I do it again? I think the answer would be no. I don’t think I’d ever be able to beat where I finished, which was 34th. I didn’t anticipate that. To finish in the top 100 was my plan initially, and then I got injured so it was just a case of finishing. I’ve got to be careful here because there’s people who want to do this event and it’s a major event, and it probably is one of the toughest races in the world and it was definitely the hottest year they’ve ever had due to less than 50% finishing the race. Would I do it again. No. The reason being I challenged myself once and I don’t believe it’s a challenge to do it again. If I did I would have to come in the top 25, and I don’t feel that’s feasible because of one, my age and two, the hours I have to train. But for anyone who wants to do it and say they’ve done one of the toughest foot races in the world, it is an amazing event, it is organised really well despite what’s been put in the press lately. You’re well looked after. But it is tough and it is what it is ‘the toughest footrace in the world.’ Don’t expect to sit there on a nice porcelain toilet, you’re not going to be sitting on a plastic bucket with a bin liner in. Don’t expect to be clean because you’re not, you’re going to be dirty. Really dirty.
My advice for anyone whos doing it coming up would be to:
- Train consistently – get the miles in but do walk because people just think you’re going to run but you’re not, you’re going to be doing a lot of walking, so walking is a massive part of the challenge. Unless you’re really elite, like Rasheed who won it, but you’re not.
- Take a variety of food – because I didn’t and I suffered.
- Make sure your pack is as light as possible – which I did. It makes a hell of a difference.
- Heat acclimatisation is definite – I did do it but I don’t know whether it helped or not. We didn’t plan it for being that hot but I do think that somewhere along it must have helped.
Do you have any other challenges that you fancy taking on?
I’m going to take 6 months to get myself back fit again. Hopefully, he doesn’t know yet, but I’ll go back to my old coach and get him to train me to run a sub 2.50 – 2.45 marathon, that’s my plan for the next year, in 2023 not 2022. So I will have a year’s worth of training. For everyone who knows me, I won’t stop, I’ll always be doing something.
We finished the challenge, we’ve have the money in and I think we’ve raised £2750. That money will be handed out to our charities.
First one being The Feed, which Rock Solid has supported for the last 5 years now. We will also give a percentage to Hallswood Animal Sanctuary, which again we have supported for 3-4 years. The last one is to Holt Youth Project, which one of my longest customers Kevin Abbs, the owner from Crayford & Abbs is part of and high up in there, and we liked to support them for the first time and hopefully many more in the future.
Talking to my wife on Saturday before it started, I actually put the phone down on her because I was so overwhelmed and crying. I couldn’t speak to her. I don’t know why. I didn’t have any of those feelings when I was walking, even when I was talking to my Dad in my pocket and patting him and talking to him “Dad how are you,” looking up at the sky and the stars, all this stuff, I didn’t have none of that but speaking to Tracey before I started was a difficult. In a way I was so glad my phone was taken away during the race because if I had to speak to her every night, I would have been a mess.
And that’s something I need to get across to everyone. One thing I’ve taken from this experience which I haven’t mentioned is the fact that people don’t need to live on mobile phones. We can communicate with people without them. Spending a week in the desert with strangers, and actually talking to them rather than seeing people who live day to day with their face in their phones. Actually physically talking and having real conversions rather than through text messages. That’s one thing I will take from this experience. I’ve learnt I can live and my business does run without me having to be there and being on it 24/7. I have good team that can run the business for me without me worrying about it, and that applies to everyone. You can go away, you do not need your phone.
Many thanks to Craig for sharing this amazing adventure.