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The Marathon des Sables, what happens when things go wrong?

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Posted by Luke Tyburski of Luke Tyburski under Ultrarunning on 11 January 2013 at 12:00 AM

Luke Tyburski profile picture - Marathon Des SablesThe Marathon des Sables (MDS) is one of the toughest running races in the world, there is heat, sand, self sufficiency, and of course the distance to contend with. All these elements make it difficult to finish this “running” race, if you can manage to deal with these factors you stand a fair chance to cross the finish line, but what happens when things goes wrong?

I entered the 2012 MDS with the goal of finishing in the elite top 50, there were roughly 850 starters. I had never competed in a marathon, let alone an ultra marathon in the Sahara Desert covering 250kms in 7 days. 

What happened during my race shows no matter how much planning, and preparation you do, sometimes things just go wrong.

Day 1 - With 10kms to go on the first day my Illiotibial band in my knee (which I previously had injections for) tightened up like it had never before, I was hobbling like an old man. The pain felt like a sharp hot metal poker being jammed into my knee with each step I took.

Start line of Marathon Des Sables MDS

Day 2 - During the 38.5kms of day two I experienced some sand dunes for the first time, I managed to hobble up them ok, but coming down the pain in my knee intensified with each step. Hobbling and shuffling I managed to get through my second day of the MDS, but now my feet had become badly blistered, and It was only the end of day two.

With no sleep and needing the bathroom all night, the 35kms of the next stage didn’t look promising.

Day 3 - I had contracted a stomach virus and become ill through the night. I knew it was going to be a long day when after only 5 kms I had to “use the loo” and finding a bush to hide behind wasn’t always easy, I continued to look for bushes to hide behind all day. I finished the stage and headed to see the doctors who inspected my debilitating now infected blistered feet, I hobbled to my tent thinking “surely it can’t get any worse that this?”

Sand-dunes in the Marathon Des DablesDay 4 I had 81.5kms to run, but after struggling through the first 16kms I started to feel unwell. I was staggering, struggling to keep my eyes open, and my stomach was churning with each step I took. My stomach bug from yesterday had taken its toll and I was severely dehydrated. I managed to get to the next checkpoint, on arrival I was ushered into the medical tent and given an IV drip. With 57kms still to run in the stage, and only 2 hours of daylight remaining, it was going to be a long night.

After over 15 hours I completed the stage, I had toppled over 20kms of sand dunes in the dark, and managed to drag my painful sleep deprived body every inch of the way.

Day 5 - The following day was a rest day, I needed it, my feet were in bits with raw infected flesh exposed over each toe, a torn muscle in my groin from over compensating while running with a knee injury, and my body still feeling rough from being so badly dehydrated, even smiling hurt.

Dehydration risks in the Marathon Des Sables

Day 6 - The Penultimate day I had a full marathon to run, my shoes felt like they had thousands of razorblades inside them, my knee's pain had intensified with each step, and the thought of running 42.2kms made me a little sick.

With a few tumbles, a split in my tights causing a friction burn to my inner thigh, and more heat exhaustion from the blistering sun I finished the marathon stage of the MDS, one stage to go!

MDS Marathon Des Sables Luke Tyburski

Day 7 - With only a 15.5km stage to end the race, you may have thought it was a given to finish, but the MDS is never forgiving. I had 6.5kms to run through rocky, sandy landscape until I reached the biggest sand dunes in all of Morocco, they were mountains not dunes. I had just 9.5kms separating myself from the finishing line. 

Using whatever strength I had left, and any type of technique I could, running, hopping, rolling, crawling, and sliding to get up and down these massive dunes I did. After what felt like an eternity I crossed the finishing line of the MDS, received my finisher’s medal, and basically collapsed in a heap just like every other competitor.

Start line of Marathon Des Sables MDS

How did I finish the MDS when everything went wrong? Determination helped, so did mental toughness, and the months of dedication to my training and preparation, but it was the fact that no matter how bad I felt or whatever problem I had someone would always be encouraging and supporting me to keep moving forward. The Marathon des Sables is a magical race that takes every ounce of strength you have to finish, but once you do, its well worth it! 

Check out Luke's guides on Mental preparation for endurance events and Physical preparation for endurance events. You can also follow Luke's training and race preparation in his Youtube video diary.

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