Marathon des Sables 2021 - Day 1 (32.2k)

We waited at the start line which became the usual pattern of an extremely long speech including translation into English, resulting in an off somewhere between 5 - 15minutes late each day.  I was about 3 rows back, so fairly well positioned and it was clear that even at 9am it was going to be a warm (!) day.

Start - Always impressive, as was the helicopter piloting skills.

The first few km was a mixture of flattish but stony ground and it seemed to be similar to any other race e.g. some very fast starters who didn't look like they would hold their position and then a main group of about 15-20 runners.  When I say group, it was more a case of people spread over 50 or so metres and taking slightly different lines especially once we transitioned into some dunes.  At the time I thought these dunes were reasonably substantial, but with the benefit of hindsight, they probably barely meet the definition of dunes.  It was through these that I realised I was awful at tackling them, for some reason I always lost of bit more ground and had to expand more energy to hold on.  I just seemed to break the sand more than others and as the week progressed I think I managed to work out why - I have a natural tendency to lean forward whilst running.  This is great when going up normal hills, but up a dune it means my centre of gravity is slightly biased towards the front and when combined with a front foot strike it meant I broke through the surface tension of the sand more than others.  As the week progressed I tried to be more flat footed, but its easier said than done to completely change your gait in the space of a few days.

As the dunes finished I had lost touch with the leading group which was fine with me and I was in touch with two other British and Irish runners.  I also slipped ground from them over time, but soon caught then up again as we hit a stone track going up a steep hill.  I consciously wanted to keep running rather than walk, so by the other side of the hill I was ahead of these two runners all the way through to the first CP.  On the way I had a slight fright, such was my demand from liquid from my water bottles, that I squeezed too hard and the nipple fell off.  Thankfully, it clipped back on, but it happened a couple more times during the week.

Going up the first climb.  Note my 'Staffordshire' county badge on my left arm...

Going through CP1 I consciously didn't want to hang around as I thought by doing so breaks up your rhythm and once stopped it can be hard to get going again.  It was already hot at this stage, but I felt that I could cope with it, things were going ok but I genuinely had no idea what position I was in.  If I had to hazard a guess I thought I was probably 20th.

The next stage to CP2 I remember as being mostly flat, stony and hard ground, interspersed with a few more technical sections.  The heat really started to ramp up and I remember it really being quite difficult to press on at this pace.  There was a sort of internal battle going on in my body between it being too hot to put in any meaningful effort and the pace feeling comfortable.  At time wore on, the heat increased and my legs felt increasingly heavy.  That said as I left the checkpoint I felt in reasonable condition, overtook a runner or two and was going at a good lick.  However with about 4km before the CP I was overtaken by the other British runner who was going at a pace I just couldn't handle.  He gradually went off in the distance and from this point on I was more or less by myself.  The temperature was just getting hotter and hotter and was now at a level I was struggling to deal with.  The CP came in just the nick of time for a quick 2 min breather.

Looking strong, not necessarily reflecting how I actually felt!

The final CP I remember as being much the same, other than further lump and bump type sand dunes with lots of different options to take in terms of line.  About halfway between the final CP and the finish I was now really starting to struggle and the sand just saps what little strength you have.  The organisers also have a habit of putting the finish where you can see it in the distance and no matter how hard you try it never really feels like getting much closer.  I struggled through these dunes and I was by and large by myself with no one ahead of me in sight, nor was there anyone behind me.  However with about 2km before the finish I saw someone slowly walking through the dunes so I made it a target to try and catch him.  This was soon achieved and frankly I was now on my last legs myself, the heat was almost unbearable and all that was left was a steepish 70m ascent over rocky ground and a further 500m to the finish.  I made sure I ran all of this and I crossed the line in about 3hr 15mins.  Despite the slow time, this was by far the hardest 20 miler in my life.

I still felt in control at the finish which was something, but I must admit it made me fear the rest of the week somewhat.  That said, the first day was done and at the finish I was told that I was 11th - far higher than I had imagined.  A damned good day overall.

All that was left was to collect my water ration of 6 litres and a small expresso shot worth of sweet tea that you get at the finish each day.  The water is meant to last all the way to CP1 of the following day.  The problem being an earlier finisher (about 12.30pm) is that you are just as dehydrated as everyone else, but somehow you have to make the same ration last much longer.  In the end it looked like it had been carnage out there with 30 or so runners having dropped out, with plenty more having finished but needing a drip.  The water rules were relaxed and to be honest I was glad as there was no way I had enough to last the evening.

Dinner was a Chili Con Carne and it was great.  I soon realised it was so hot that I didn't need the Esbit cooking blocks and I just hydrated my dinner in a water bottle I cut up and left it in the sun for a few hours.  Overall, I felt fairly decent but it was already clear this was going to be a hot year of the MDS.


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