Beating the Marathon Des Sables
When I first heard of the Marathon Des Sables a few years ago – the 156 mile race through the Sahara desert which is often ranked as the toughest foot race on earth – I remember thinking ‘you’ve gotta be mad as a bag of snakes to enter that!’ I’ve read tales of people who’ve attempted it and to say it sounds brutal and grueling is a massive understatement. The more I’ve gotten into my running, the more respect I have for people who take this monster of a race on.
So, when I heard that a former member of our Run Dem Crew, Clair Draper, was doing it this year, I waited to hear her tale with anticipation. I asked if I could interview her about it and boy, am I glad she agreed. She sent her answers through to me over the weekend and I sat in a Starbucks and cried while reading her answers. I am absolutely bowled over by the sheer strength, grit and determination of this woman.
To give you a bit of background about Clair, she was in an abusive relationship for 10 years, finally found the strength to leave and her training for this race gave her a new found sense of purpose and well, I’ll let her tell the rest, suffice to say, I have found a new hero. Go put the kettle on, grab a tissue and prepare yourself to read the tale of one woman’s journey to a new life via 156 miles of desert running.
– How did you first hear of the MdS and what made you want to do it?
A friend I hadn’t seen for a long time told me about t. I wanted to raise money for Women’s Aid since they have helped me hugely in life and I feel I owe them a lot. Women’s Aid are a charity which supports women and children who have experienced domestic violence and abuse. They provided me with someone to talk to and also legal advice. They helped me to move on in my life and become happy again after ten years living in an abusive relationship which was violent at times. I had already run a few marathons and so wanted to do something bigger. This seemed like the perfect challenge!
– Obviously, it’s a very unique race. How did you train for it?
I have been running regularly for the past 10 years but the actual training program for this began approximately five months before the race. I became aware very early on that simply running a lot was not going to be enough. I live in Vietnam and so was fortunate to be able to train in very hot temperatures, reaching almost 40 degrees on some days. In the UK, runners I knew trained in heat chambers to get used to the heat of the Sahara desert, where temperatures range from between 40 and 50 degrees.
At the peak of my training I was running approximately 100 miles per week over five days with a backpack weighing between 5 and 10kgs. Since the race is self supported, you have to carry all the food and equipment you will need for 7 days. Since where I live is flat, I built in stair running which was the toughest part of my training schedule. Once a week I ran up and down 100 flights of stairs in an apartment block with no air conditioning.
Learning to run with a backpack was tough and meant that I had to work hard on developing my core strength. I trained with a personal trainer who is also an ultra runner. He helped me to work on my co-ordination and stability as well which was really important when running on rocky terrain and in the sand. It would be very easy to damage your ankles if your stability and co-ordination are lacking. I also did lots of yoga which I feel is highly beneficial to runners. Doing yoga after each training session meant that I stretched my muscles well and helped to avoid injury. I continued this practice during the MdS and not once did I wake up with sore muscles.
I went for weekly massages which is highly affordable in Vietnam and a perfect thing to do on a rest day. It also became apparent that I needed to pay closer attention to nutrition as I found I simply was not eating enough. I was advised to cut out sugar which I will admit was highly difficult, and I also drank far less alcohol; I just didn’t crave it when I knew I had to wake up and run for 6 or 7 hours the next day. In short, my life became all about running, stretching, core strength exercises and eating. I also built some trekking into my training plan when I went on holiday to Myanmar which was a great thing to do.
– Aside from the physical training, what else did you have to do to prepare?
I did lots of shopping! I became obsessed with my kit list and trying to source the lightest weight items that I could afford. I am 60kgs and not naturally strong and so this was important to me. I cut my backpack weight down to 9kgs on the starting line, followed by a further 3kgs in water. Aside from that, the one thing that any ultra runner will tell you is that doing a race like this is as much about mental strength as it is about physical ability. I meditate on a daily basis which I firmly believe helped me get through. To be able to escape mentally from pain while running is a very good thing. I also joined the MdS 2014 runners Facebook page and made some good friends, including my tent-mate Rebecca Bennett Drahota. We were able to talk to each other and share tips about our training which was invaluable.
– So you arrive there, start the race and due to getting lost on the first day, you arrived 5 minutes late to the last 5km of the race and were then disqualified. You made the decision to continue on alone and finish the race – how difficult was that decision? What was the driving force for you at that point?
I knew immediately that I was not going to go home without completing 250km in these conditions. At first I thought that I would have to check into a hotel and simply run around a town doing multiple loops until I had completed it. It meant too much to me to go home. I thought about everything I had done to get to that point and the fact that a year before my life had been a mess. It took so much strength to leave the relationship I was in, to seek help, to go to the police and finally get a court order. I had been sponsored to do this race and I was not going to go home without completing the distance. So, Rebecca and I managed to hire two guides who agreed to help us complete the race independently.
– Describe how your next few days went in the race. What were the conditions? How was your body reacting physically? What was going on for you mentally?
I went through so many emotions over the next few days, the first being absolute elation. I felt so happy to have another chance to complete the race and so excited to be doing it with my new found friend, Rebecca. I found the race to be extremely therapeutic and Rebecca and I talked lots about both our lives. I wasn’t expecting a spiritual journey but that is almost what it became. The landscape was mind blowing and instead of being part of a group of 1000 other runners, we were two women there, for the most part, on our own. Our guides took us to our starting point and we were able to follow the official MdS markers but behind the other competitors. They met us with water at our own checkpoints enabling us to complete our race following the rules.
I felt overwhelmingly emotional at times; grateful to be there but also feeling fatigued and drained. I don’t remember experiencing any real physical pain but I had to burst blisters every night. I lost four toe nails and had to use a safety pin to drill holes to attempt to alleviate the pressure. My shoulders ached but nothing was unbearable. It is the only race I have ever done that I didn’t want to end. My colleagues at work recorded motivational messages for me which I put into my iPod shuffle. These had the effect of motivating me, pushing me on, making me laugh, but also making me cry. At one point I had to just stop, sit down and cry. I began to realise that my story had affected other people too. I had so much time to reflect on my experiences; the woman who I was when I first met my ex-boyfriend, who had very little self belief and confidence. The many times I held my breath and sat with my eyes transfixed to the floor trying desperately not to make a situation more volatile. Then I also reflected on the journey I had made since then. Both my parents died recently and I spent a long time talking about them and thinking about them. I was able to grieve in the desert in a way that I hadn’t before. All of a sudden there was nothing to do except for walk or run from 9am until sunset.
– What was the most difficult point for you?
In all honesty, the most difficult part was knowing that this experience was going to come to an end. I had bonded with Rebecca and didn’t want to say goodbye to her. I had fallen in love with the landscape of the Sahara and didn’t want to leave that, and moreover, training for this race had taken over my life. I wondered and was worried about what I would do to fill the void.
Physically, the most difficult part was when I got lost on the first day. We climbed what we later found out to be one of the highest sand dunes in the Sahara. It is not included in the race because it is so dangerously steep. I am anxious of heights and with every step I took, I seemed to slip down. I was incredibly grateful that I had walking poles to help me but it was tough. We were lost, without water in the hottest part of the day and once we had reached the top, we were still lost, but this time walking across a narrow ridge of sand with a steep drop either side. But no-one else was going to get us out of that situation other than ourselves and so we just had to get on with it, which is why I felt so indignant that I needed to carry on. I knew that no other part of the race would be as difficult.
– What were the highest and lowest points?
There were many high points so it’s difficult to choose. I would have to say the landscape; falling asleep under a blanket of stars and watching the most spectacular sunsets and sunrises around our camp fire. Our guides were phenomenal; they made the fire, sang and played instruments to entertain us. They were exceptionally kind and caring and even made a finish line for us to cross at the end.
The lowest point for me was on Day 5. We didn’t realise but we had covered 50km the day before and 50km on Day 5 too which was more than we needed to cover. The oueds (sand beds) were never ending. It was becoming dark and we seemed to be nowhere near the end of the day. My legs ached and the scenery had become boring. And then, after that we had to cook our food. I was so tempted to just fall asleep but knew I needed nutrition. I also knew I had to go through my yoga routine and so I did all of these things and the next day felt brand new again. The lows never lasted long but the highs were never ending.
– How did you stay motivated?
Music is a big source of motivation for me. I knew my iPod wouldn’t have enough battery to last the whole race and so was selective about when I used it. I had so many different types of music that reminded me of many things that made me smile. Rebecca motivated me hugely and most importantly, I stayed motivated by knowing that I was doing something good; not only for charity but for me personally, mentally and emotionally. I had never been so fit in my life and I was proud of what we were doing.
– Describe the moment you knew you were going to finish and what it felt like to cross the line.
I don’t think I have ever felt so happy in my life. We joined back in with the runners at the back and ran with them instead of far behind them, which was controversial but people were mostly happy for us. Knowing that we could not cross the official line, two officials celebrated with us before we went on our separate way to our camp. They hugged us, jumped up and down with us and invited us to jump on their jeep to watch the helicopters flying overhead. We then proceeded to our own finish line which our guides made for us. I felt overwhelmingly proud and happy, but also sad that I knew it was all over.
– How were you physically after you finished?
I was actually okay. My feet had blisters and nails missing, but my body was fine. I stretched and did my yoga routine that evening and again in the morning and it wasn’t until I saw the other competitors back at the hotel at the end that I realised this was actually unusual. Lots of people were in real pain but I just felt amazing. Although I had lost a lot of weight since I only carried 2000 calories a day and had burned off far more than that.
– What are your top 5 bits of advice for anyone considering doing this race?
1. If you’re thinking about it, go on and do it. Anyone can do this with hard work and determination (provided you are in good physical condition).
2. Build up your core strength and good technique. Good posture while running with a backpack is essential for avoiding back pain.
3. Lose your ego. Very few people run the entire thing. Accept that you will most probably walk a vast amount of it and know that if you average 4 miles per hour you are in the top half of finishers.
4. Listen to your body and respect it. The people who I saw injured had continued to push themselves beyond their limits which can lead to injury.
5. This race will change your life. It is the ultimate of ultra runs and there is nothing quite like it. Go. Do it. And see how incredible it feels to achieve it.
– What have you taken away from this whole experience?
I came away from this experience feeling invincible. I know how strong both my body and my mind can be and now I feel unstoppable. I have well and truly got the ultra running bug and have now signed up for a 250km multi-day race In Ecuador in July 2015. This will see me running at altitude, up and down volcanoes and mountains. It’s a different challenge entirely and I’m excited to find out where it will take me physically and mentally. Watch this space!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just a shout out to Run Dem Crew and thank you to Glenn Hancock who took me there for the first time! I started running with the crew after I had walked out on my relationship. I was homeless for three months, moving from place to place with all my bags. I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going but RDC gave me a new routine. I met new people who motivated me and I felt so much crew love when I announced on their FB page what I was doing. People I didn’t know sponsored me and wrote me messages. When I went back recently they welcomed me back. It is a very special place to be with so many fantastic people making it great.
Whew! I cannot thank Clair enough for agreeing to be interviewed. I think you’ll all concur, it was well worth it. Now, on those days you don’t feel like working out, think of Clair running up and down 100 flights of stairs with that backpack in 40 degree heat, with no air conditioning! I know I will!