The strapline of the Marathon Des Sables (MDS) is that it is ‘the toughest foot race on the planet’. The Discovery Channel described it as such and the words have stuck. The event has always held a sense of awe for me when thinking about the challenge of racing six marathons in six days across the Sahara desert. It has been on my list of things I would like to have done but have not had the courage or determination to attempt. Eighteen months ago, I decided to change that and signed up to compete in the MDS 2018. It was all I expected, and much more.
The MDS has been an incredible experience for me and a test of my personal resilience. It provided also insight, which I was not expecting, into the importance of social networks in challenging and stressful environments. There is more on that below, but first let me explain the nature of the race.
The MDS begins with arrival on a chartered flight with other participants into the tiny airport of Ouarzazate in North Africa. After this follows a 6-hour bus journey into the depths of the Sahara desert. On arrival there is a tented camp with a large circle of simple shelters, little more than cover from the sun and a traditional mat lying on the desert floor. The race organisers, film crews and medical teams have real tents and facilities but competitors have only the sun shelter. The camp moves to a new location each day after the start of the day’s race. We must be totally self-sufficient in equipment and food for a week but a daily water ration is provided. The more comfortable you want to be the more you have to carry. Most people travel light and accept that discomfort and hunger are all part of the experience. My back pack weighed in at about 8kg including a week’s freeze-dried food.
The race is an individual timed event broken down into five stages. There is a marathon a day for the first three days. On the fourth day there is a double marathon followed by a rest day. The terrain is difficult and challenging and almost everyone races into the night of the fourth day with many continuing through the rest day to complete the long stage. The sixth day is another marathon to round off the timed event. The seventh day is a short 8km not against the clock when you can relax and enjoy the desert and the dunes without pressure to push on.
Tents were allocated by nationality, but who ended up in which tent was selected at random. I ended up with seven other people from the UK who I had never met before. The people in Tent 119 became my close confidantes as we shared the time between stages without being able to hide behind any sort of façade. The most personal of aspects – hygiene, foot maintenance and preparing what little food we had – were shared activities. After the individual effort of Day 1, we all shared our experiences and saw each other at very low ebb. Running a marathon is hard; running a marathon in stifling heat over rocks, mountains and rolling dunes of soft sand is much harder than you can imagine. I felt sure that some of our number would not survive. The blisters and haggard faces after Day 1 did not bode well but the social interaction kicked in. Although each stage was an individual effort, Tent 119 became a team of social support. All eight of us completed the race when overall 10% did not. I feel sure that the informal dynamics of our ad hoc team were part of our success.
The long day was 86 kms of individual effort against the clock. My character is to look inside myself for the courage and determination to see it through. At 60kms when the sun had set and I had only my head torch to light the way I entered a very dark and difficult place. There had been in this middle section 20km of continuous dunes up and down soft sand. I had been to Cornwall during my training and been running over dunes but had not prepared for such mind and body sapping terrain as this. Comparison of times with marathons run on roads without carrying a pack is meaningless. It was outrageously beautiful but also outrageously hard. I completed the long stage in 350th place out of nearly a thousand competitors arriving back at our tent at 1am. Our fastest tent member, an experienced ultra-runner, was already in his sleeping bag and he greeted me with a few friendly words of support. Three members of Tent 119 took a different approach. They decided to rely on mutual support and adjusted their individual pace to be able to stick together arriving at the tent together as a three-some just before dawn. Others arrived through the rest day having trudged through the night and the next day on legs which could no longer run carrying a pack on soft sand.
We had two nights in a good hotel when the race was over. The members of Tent 119 chose to eat together and stick together. I now know these people better than some friends I have known for years. I reflected that in modern commercial operations there is increasingly remote working and home working which in theory works just fine. MDS is an individual event and the results are listed individually but the informal social support of Tent 119 has been crucial to our success. I am left with the thought to never forget that employees need informal social interaction to perform well particularly in stressful and challenging times.