Marathon des Sables 2021 - Day 4 (82.5k)

Today was the big one, finish this and the consensus around camp was that the back of the race had been broken.  As I was in the top 50 I had a delayed start of 11am, which for some reason ended up being 10am.  There was a lot of sickness amongst staff as well as competitors and the thinking was to try and get everyone through the earlier CPs as soon as possible.

After starting, for some reason I didn't feel brilliant and was certainly down on my relative overall position.  I then started to develop a back sore within the first km.  I contemplated continuing and just ride it out, but it was too painful to ignore.  I took off my rucksack to try and bash whatever it was in my bag causing the rubbing.  As it turned out an elastic compression strap that I hadn't secured properly had found its way to my back so was easily sorted.  It only took 20 seconds to sort and I was glad I did as even a few minutes more of running like would have caused significant damage to my skin.

Passing the camel.  Usually if you are passed by it you are out of the race.  In this case as I went from the elite start I passed it!

One of the few times walking on Stage 4 - a short sharp sandy jebel lay ahead.  The valley we had come from is in the background.

After a few more minutes the leading three ladies were alongside me and I tagged onto them.  I must admit I did more following of them than sharing the work, but eventually my pace settled and I think it just took 15 or so minutes for my legs to get going that morning.  Once things had settled down we reached the first jebel to climb what was mostly soft sand and I made it a mission to continue running as much of it as possible.  I dropped the leading ladies at this point and overtook a few other runners, including passing a tent mate of mine from the first wave who had decided to call it a day.  The other side of the jebel was equally soft sand and I remember enjoying the descent by a combination of jumping / striding a good 10 metres with each footfall.

What comes up...

...must come down!  This was a really fun bit, I got to the bottom in about 20 seconds.

It was already at this point that I started to overtake some of the earlier starters and where there was a British competitor I made an extra effort to encourage them by name as I passed them.  More often than not I would receive equal encouragement in return as one of the leading Brits.  In some ways it acted as an extra spur for me and although the terrain was up and down with the odd sandy bit I was storming along.  It was difficult to judge my pace but I just went with it and I flew through CP1 and it was much the same to CP2 except that I passed the bulk of the earlier starters during this section.  I was feeling reasonably good, not just running but going at a good pace.  I had absolutely no idea what my race position was though, as I had a fairly slow start amongst the elites and then the race got mixed up with the earlier starters.

My pace to CP3 continued to be decent and I just chugged along, again making an effort to run everything where possible.  I overtook a few what I think were from the top 50 but by this point it is difficult to discern who is elite and who is the front end of the mass start.  At CP3 I made a conscious effort to have a quick 3-4 minute break and I had a sit down at the tent to have a mouthful of food as up to this point I had only consumed a handful of macadamias.  In fact from this point onwards I barely ate anything else.

Out of the CP and starting to feel a bit more ropey now.

Between CP3 and CP4 were a series of dunes and I was now beginning to struggle in the heat of the day, although in fairness I didn't feel anywhere near as hot as the previous two days.  There was also a small breeze that helped a bit.  I had to walk and I felt that at this point the wheels were coming off.  Whilst only one person overtook me, I was definitely falling back relative to others.  I eventually managed a shuffle which turned into a decent run.  At CP4 I knew I was having a decent day as a couple of other elites I was with were ahead of me in the overall rankings, so I guessed I was probably in the top 15, maybe a little higher.

Between CP4 and CP5 it was mostly flat and the usual mix of terrain.  I was having another good section and the heat of the day was starting to fall away as by now it was about 5pm.  Despite my good pace I had a quick look behind and was surprised and taken aback to see a small group of 3 runners closing in on me about 200 metres back.  I continued to work at a good pace, always running and they never did manage to bridge the gap to me and in fact I dropped them to the point they were well out of sight.  About half way to the CP I felt something flapping in the sole of my foot and soon realised part of my sole had come away.  I pulled off the remainder and was now slightly worried as if my shoes fell apart it would be game over.  Thankfully, being normal road trainers meant that the sole was comprised of lots of pieces rather than a single mould like off road shoes.  It was just one bit off my heel that had come away and as long as the rest stayed put I should be ok.  I overtook a British competitor who told me he was third from the mass starters and he thought I was 9th overall.  I was amazed and I now made it my mission to finish in the top 10.

Carrying a water bottle in my left hand - I just cant get on with bottles with long straws.  I usually carried an extra water bottle as 1.5 litres (2 x 0.75 litre sports bottles) was usually not enough between checkpoints.

I was close to CP5 just before 6pm and I couldn't remember what the rules said about putting on your headtorch and luminescent light stick.  I fiddled around my rucksack to get my handbook out but couldn't see anything immediately obvious about timings.  I lost a couple of minutes and in the end decided to just continue to the CP and see whether they said anything.  There I was told it was 7pm but they advised to switch on my head torch now which I duly did - apart from anything else there was barely any light at about 6.30pm as it was.  As before, I decided not to hang around and pressed on to start the climb up the big jebel (mountain).  It was huge.  It started off fairly runnable along rocky ground, before hitting what can only be described as a huge sand dune.  It wasn't a dune, but clearly sand had blown off the mountain and over many hundred of years had turned the rocky climb into nothing but a steep sandy ascent.  It was at this point that I passed the last two starters from the mass start.  One of them was an Irish competitor I met on the first day and was very strong but had a 3hr time penalty for needing a drip on the first day.  Whilst I made my own way up, it was unbelievably slow progress.  I would never have thought sand could settle at that angle.  I could only muster about 20-30 steps at a time before having to take a quick breather as my legs sank deep into the sand and in practice 30 steps usually equated to be about 10 metres.  To be honest I swore like a trooper all the way up and by now it was pitch black so I couldn't even see where I was going or how far was left.  I eventually decided the best way up was to climb on all fours as it was too steep to stand up and several times I almost fell over backwards.  Very near the top there was a rope to hold onto to get through the last section to the peak and even then it was still very slow going.  The Irish competitor and myself got to the top at roughly the same time.

At the top of the climb my quads were burning like hell and any energy I had at the start of the climb had well and truly gone.  On the descent in the pitch black I had to follow pink glow sticks and by and large it was pretty obvious to see the next one ahead.  On the odd occasion where you couldn't, as long as you went in the same direction you would eventually see another.  Where the ascent of the jebel was extremely sandy, the descent was the exact opposite.  Quite technical, exacerbated at night, various rocky outcrops and I knew I was going quite slowly.  However, my quads were gone and if anything made worse by the descent and it was ankle turning territory.  As the ground flattened out there was 5km or so of moderate dunes.  The organisers placed the glow sticks in a straight line.  In the day time you can weave your way around to find the best line through the dunes, but at night you often had to hit them front on.  Early on in the dunes, I was overtaken by an Italian competitor and the light from his headtorch went off into the distance.  I looked back and I could see two more headtorches gaining ground on me.  I was pretty sure these were elite runners so my net 10th was under threat.

Eventually my quads started to come back to me and I was starting to move beyond a shuffle, despite going through a dune section that was not my forte.  Not only that, I was starting to catch up the Italian runner who at one point must have been a good 500 metres ahead of me.  I actually ended up catching him about one minute from the final checkpoint, CP6.  As I caught him, he said to me he was going to the toilet and he would see me the other side of the CP.  Not likely!  I went through the checkpoint, took my water and didn't even bother replenishing my bottles.  Frankly, I legged it.  I ended up running the final 10km with a 1.5 litre bottle of water in each hand.  Occasionally I would look back and I was convincing myself that I was getting caught and each time this acted as a spur to push on.  At my fastest I was running 5.20 mins/km - ok not great in theory, but try doing that carrying two 1.5litre bottles of water, a 4.5kg rucksack, off road, at night, having done 80km earlier that day!  Even with that effort I didn't feel like I was pulling away.

I ended up crossing the line at about 9.15pm and made a conscious effort not to collapse before the webcam in case my wife was watching.  The collapsing happened after - I was totally and utterly buried.  I had run that last 10km so hard and whilst cool by MdS standards I had still gone to my limit.  I had also not taken any salt tablets which I had been taking religiously until now.

It took me ages to get to my tent which was always the furthest away in camp.  I even needed another person to help carry my water for me.  I reached the tent and collapsed on the floor.  One of my tentmates was already there as he had dropped out during the day.  Whilst he was still recovering I have to say he really sorted me out.  All I could say was 'help me'.  He got out my sleeping bag and just generally sorted me out a bit.  I was having a bit of hot and cold flushes which I've experienced before on JOGLE where it seems to be just a symptom of a very long day that was close to my limit.  After a couple of hours I was sorted and I tried to get a few bits of trail food down me.

Despite my efforts, sleep was virtually impossible.  Legs extremely sore with a sort of pins and needles sensation and the body still pumping from the efforts only a couple of hours earlier.  However, I had the benefit of a full days rest ahead of me.  Whilst I thought I had probably finished 9th, it actually turned out to be 8th and pulled me up to 11th overall.  Remember me saying that I was convinced the Italian runner was chasing me down near to the finish?  Well, what I thought was a 30 second gap turned out to be 8 minutes - such was the foreshortening effect of the headtorch.  Oops!  My day had been so good that I beat Matthieu Blanchard who came 3rd in the 2021 UTMB race.  I'll take that.


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