Daily Express, May 24, 2007

DESERT RUNNER

DUNCAN CRAIG heads to the Sahara for the ‘toughest footrace on Earth’

THE bracing desert wind swept through the bivouac, kicking sand into the makeshift tents and sending a collective shudder through the huddled, weary competitors. The rising clamour gave warning that the ruthlessly efficient burghers had begun their detested work, moving from tent to tent, unpegging and lifting, disgorging sleepy runners and sand-encrusted kit into the chill Saharan dawn.

As Tent 77 was whipped away, I pulled my sleeping bag high over my head and tried to hide from a daunting, inescapable truth – the most gruelling day of the toughest footrace on Earth had arrived.

The Marathon des Sables was conceived nearly a quarter of a century ago and is now a truly global event. Among the 757 competitors who assembled in the Moroccan Sahara last month for the 22nd instalment, 30 nations were represented.

The premise is simple; the execution excruciating. Self-sufficient save for water and the “accommodation”, which is rolled up and taken by truck to each day’s finish line, runners must complete the equivalent of nearly six marathons in seven days. Temperatures are savage, the terrain worse.

I unzipped my sleeping bag and tentatively stood. Dawn lit the vast, desolate landscape, spectacular and largely ignored. The camp was a frenzy of “personal admin” – packing, abluting, refuelling – but silent with foreboding. Minds were focused on the 45 miles that awaited. Sixty-three miles in the previous three days had taken their toll.

My legs were numb, my back creaking and chafed from my 13kg pack. Comparatively, I was in good shape. We assembled at the start, watched listlessly as the Eurosport chopper made repeated, dramatic flypasts, and nodded our heads almost imperceptibly to the booming europop. From atop a Land Rover, race founder Patrick Bauer counted us down: “Dix, neuf, huit, sept, six, cinq…”

With premature burnout an overriding concern, my flatmate and fellow competitor Blake and I had resolved to treat Stage 1 as an acclimatisation day. Fighting our competitive instincts, we had taken a leisurely five-and-a-half hours to cover the 18.3 miles.

We were thankful for this restraint on Day 2, as the course took us over an 800m ridge with a 30% incline. Known locally as “the climb that cleanses you of your sins”, it cleansed several competitors of their emergency flares as lungs and legs surrendered and, in one case, a stroke took hold.

Known locally as ‘the climb that cleanses you of your sins’, it cleansed several competitors of their emergency flares

Days 2 and 3 saw me markedly improve my position in the field, and messages sent through the race website betrayed a stirring of vicarious competitiveness among hitherto cautious loved ones (save for my anxious girlfriend – “What are you doing?! Slow down!”)

“Quatre, trois, deux, un. Allez!” We set off and almost immediately found ourselves in energy-sapping sand. Gratuitous cruelty is an MdS trademark. We stuck to our strategy of slowing to a walk for a period every 30 minutes to take on fuel and water. As each of us flagged, the other took the lead.

Twenty-seven miles in, Lahcen Ahansal steamed past, at the head of the top 50 runners, whose start had been delayed. The Moroccan went on to finish the 45-mile stage in an astonishing 5hr 35’21, en route to his 10th consecutive title.

Darkness brought with it a sandstorm and the opportunity for Blake to don his much-ridiculed swimming goggles. Oozing “I told you so”, he took the lead. Eyes stinging, I followed. After an hour, our head-torches illuminated the penultimate checkpoint and four miles later we stumbled into Bivouac No 5. Our time of 11hr 37’20 was the 162nd quickest.

The rest-day that followed was one of conflicting emotions – elation that the long day was behind us; shock and sadness at the announcement that French competitor Bernard Julé had died during the night from a heart attack.

Emotionally drained, some competitors wept openly during the minute’s silence. Stones were laid at the site of the 49-year-old’s tent, and there was an added poignancy to the delightful MdS tradition of the entire bivouac lining the finish to cheer home the stage’s last competitor mid-afternoon.

Strategy had dominated the early stages of the race, but for Day 5 – the only stage of exactly marathon distance – I resolved to hold nothing back. This I duly did, narrowly missing out on a top 100 spot and leaving myself utterly spent. Had the final stage – across the Merzouga dunes, the highest in Morocco – been any longer than seven miles, I’m not sure I would have made it to the finish line to collect my medal.

“Finishing is forever,” an MdS veteran once told me. So, too, is my retirement from crazy ventures.

INFO: Training programme courtesy of Dr Ross Sherman, Kingston University. For sports science consultancy in biomechanics, physiology & psychology, for all abilities, contact r.sherman@kingston.ac.uk

DUNCAN’S RESULTS/TIMES/TEMPS

STAGE 1: 18.3miles (43C) – 5hr 26’44 (443rd)
STAGE 2: 22miles (40C) – 5hr 39’46 (211th)
STAGE 3: 20.1miles (45C) – 4hr 29’27 (172nd)
STAGE 4: 45miles (35.8C) – 11hr 37’20 (162nd)
STAGE 5: 26.2miles (42C) – 4hr 34’19 (116th)
STAGE 6: 7.3miles (37C) – 1hr 47’36 (361st)

TOTAL TIME: 33hr 35’12

FINAL POSITION: 189 of 745 competitors

(17TH of 225 British competitors)