Marathon des Sables 2021 - Day 2 (32.5k)

Another night of terrible sleep ensued which made me even more glad of the sleeping mat as it least meant I was reasonably comfortable.  Overnight, things started to fall apart somewhat at camp, various people were starting to come down with severe sickness, vomiting, diarrohea or both.  We are not talking about the odd person either, it seemed quite prevalent and the onset quite sudden. At the time I put it down to the very hot previous day and symptoms of heat distress.

I had my mix of granola for breakfast, but frankly it was a mistake.  In normal times, I love granola and I can eat it at all times of the day, but today it just didn't sit well.  With the benefit of hindsight I think the carbs were just too complex for my stomach to process.  What my stomach craved was something pretty simple to digest and it just couldn't process what I was giving it.  I went to the start line feeling rather delicate.

I was a little worried about the race from this point onwards.  Convention dictated that having a marathon background meant I expected my first day to be my best when I was at my freshest.  I also knew today was 'dunes day' which included a 13km section of non-stop dunes between CP1 and CP2.  I set off to CP1 and whilst not feeling great I ran almost all of it, but at a much slower pace than the previous day.  Despite the dunes being between CP1 and CP2, the first 13km was almost all mini dunes and soft sand - how can this not already be called dunes!  It was a bit of an art knowing when to run and when not to, but as a general rule if it was flat or downhill I ran it regardless of the terrain, and if on good ground uphill I would also run.  The only exception would be where there were uphill sandy sections with soft sand.  I was going backwards through this first leg until I eventually managed to tack onto another runner and stop the rot as I reached CP1 probably in about 15th place.

It was clearly so much hotter than the previous day and there was no breeze whatsoever to work with.  At the CP I could see why the section ahead was called dunes when the previous section wasn't.  These were huge, some must be as tall as some city skyscrapers.  All really soft sand where your legs sink calf deep into them as you try and scramble to the top.  This was one of the few sections where the course was not marked, but even in my relatively forward position it wasn't problematic as it was clear where to go as the leaders tracks were easy to see, even if sometimes they meandered a bit all over the place.  Where I was able to I tried to run the first couple of km, but it was unbelievably hot at this point, something not even close to what I have ever previously experienced.  No wind, sun beating down and heat radiating up from the surface of the sand.  Not an ounce of shade to be hand.  Very quickly I could feel like I was in the red zone.  Normally when you feel like this it comes on over time, but I knew I had to react to this and fast - I went from fatigued but ok to deep in the red zone in a matter of seconds.  I stopped to a slow walk and am still convinced as I type this that had I waited another 60 seconds, I would have probably collapsed.

Having to walk this bit - hottest temperature I've ever experienced.

I trudged on, but any thought of running was out of the window.  I was starting to lose places hand over fist.  Over this section I must have lost something in the order of 20-25 places and depressingly I did not overtake a single person.  Some two hours after entering the dunes I got to CP2 and not before time.  I staggered to a tent to get some shade and just took off my rucksack and lay in a bit of a heap for 5 minutes.  It didn't really help to be honest, it was too hot to recover in a meaningful way.  What did help though was the knowledge that the finish was only just another 6.5km away and what did motivate me was the knowledge that if I made decent progress I could end the suffering.  I trudged out of the CP to hearing another competitor telling a marshal that he saw a female competitor a few km back making good progress but then just suddenly sat down in the beating sun.  Not a good idea and just showed how suddenly the heat ended peoples races.

This photo looks most impressive, but in reality just trudging!

I somehow managed to muster a slow jog out of the CP through some mini dunes, before a long stretch of relatively hard stony surface in a straight line to the finish.  By now I was just getting pissed off if I'm honest and just started to run harder and harder and this time it was me who was doing the overtaking.  Towards the end of the stage I was knocking out 5 minute kilometres and I must have overtaken around 10 people.  I crossed the line in what I now know to be 32nd place, although I only knew that from the email messages that camp distribute each evening.  It was a hell of a day.  I staggered to the tent, but I was good for nothing and just lay there in a bit of a heap.  The heat was equally insufferable inside the tent even with a bit of shade.  It was the first time I genuinely had doubts about whether I could finish.

Not entirely sure where this was taken but well reflects the amount of sand on Day 2.

If I felt bad, it seemed worse for most others.  Upwards of 100 people dropped out that day and it made me appreciate it all the more to have listened to those warning signs early on in the dunes.  What was worse though, was that those who were finishing were often in a very bad state and the sickness going round camp was much worse.  As for me, I could just about muster some dry food, but I binned my evening meal as I just couldn't stomach the thought.

We found out that evening through an announcement that a competitor had died due to a heart attack on the dunes.  Many of us (me included) were thinking whether it was wise for the event to continue and I must admit to briefly considering dropping out.  One person wasn't going to go home to their family and I didn't want to be another - no race is worth dying for.  Due to how I was feeling both mentally and physically, I decided I would take tomorrow easy - it was no longer about race position (I had only dropped from 11th to 13th overall despite my bad second day), it was about finishing.


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