A day in the life of the Marathon des Sables

From the moment the sun rises at 5.30am to when it sinks behind the hills around fourteen hours later, a day at the Marathon des Sables can feel like a lifetime. Not in a bad way, not because it drags or it’s dull, but because so much happens in a single cycle out in the western Sahara that time seems to stretch. A second can seem like a minute. A minute like an hour. An hour like a day.

Each day separates out into two parts with a strange contradiction between camp life and the time you spend running in the desert. I like to call this enforced split personality Dr Jebel and Mr Hide. (Ed: for those that don’t know a jebel is a big, bastard sand dune mountain).

Everything in camp is precise. Where you keep your knife, the meticulous way you prepare your camping stove to heat water for your dinner, how securely you fix your sand gaiters to your shoes, where you position your sleeping mat and what you load into each of your 1,600 ziplock sandwich bags. Camp life becomes a factory-like production process, the sum output of which is to keep you alive.

You spend a lot of time moving things around when your life is in a bag. Having spent months agonising over every gram of weight, with every piece of tin foil carefully calculated to help you do what you need to do. From repairing your feet to washing your socks everything in your backpack has a job to do. At least that’s the theory. And so you fuss over it all, trying to find the perfect sequence for getting taking it out and putting it back into your bag.

Ridiculously, what you’re trying to do by faffing is to reduce the faff the following morning when the faffing will all start again.

Admittedly there’s not much else to do around camp. You can maybe queue to send your single daily 1,000 character email, visit Doc Trotters to get your feet patched up or forage for firewood. Other than that camp life is just you and your tent mates whiling away the resting hours on a 10 x 2 metre oblong of dusty berber rug.

Either way four hours feels like a long time when your only tasks are to drink water every 5 minutes, refill your bottles every 12km and keep putting one foot in front of the other every 0.5 seconds.

And so you faff, prat and chat. Prat some more. Fiddling with the straps on your bag or seeing if you can repack your medical kit to make it any more compact. This process and the attention to detail somehow makes time fly. No matter how fast you’ve run that day’s stage, the time between arriving back at camp and the sun dropping behind a lofty jebel, flies.

Yet when you’re out running, treading sand and kicking stones, it can feel like the clocks have stopped, leaving hours of just you and your thoughts. You’re trapped with your runner’s inner monologue that either pins you to a moment (not another bloody sand dune) or transports you, freeing you from the here and now, helping the miles tick by easily. Either way four hours feels like a long time when your only tasks are to drink water every 5 minutes, refill your bottles every 12km and keep putting one foot in front of the other every 0.5 seconds.

The only time these two lives cross over is when Running You reaches for something from your backpack only to realise that in your over zealous quest for the perfect packing solution, Camp Faffing You has managed to secrete that one vital piece of equipment somewhere annoying. If you’re not careful this little drop of self hate can be enough to pollute your stream of consciousness for miles to come.

That’s when you have to try and get your head up and look around you. Oddly doing this is tougher than you think. With the ground beneath your feet littered with fist-sized stones, you’re all too aware that every footstep could come with an ankle twist or worse. And so you spend hours staring at your feet, avoiding blister-inducing missteps. But when you do manage to life your eyes to the horizon, boy what a treat.

Back at home you do a lot of worrying about how fierce the Sahara is going to be, about how much it’s going to beat you up. Although you’ve seen spectacular photos that make running in the desert look like a dream, it’s hard not to zero in on the heat, the sand and the wind.

It’s not until you’re actually there in that all of those fears melt away. At least in the moment when you find yourself running across a vast salt flat, one of a long a line of tiny bugs scuttling across the vast landscape towards another huge mountain. Epic is a word that’s over used but at times there’s no other way to describe it.

However, of all the moments in 24 hours at the Marathon des Sables there is one that stands out above all others. It makes the corners of your mouth turn up, your leaden legs feel power once more and that thing that’s been beating out of your chest for the past hour rattle a little more proudly inside your ribcage.

It is of course, the moment you come over a hill and clap eyes on a Stars Wars like vision of three circles of tents a big, white arch and the surreal inflatable tea pot that means you’re nearly. Very nearly back home. And the pratting can commence one more.