156 miles through the Moroccan Sahara desert. Six marathons in six days. Through sand dunes, up hills. In temperatures which can rise towards 50 degrees centigrade. Oh, and you have to do it while carrying all your own kit on your back. Including the food you need to make yourself for dinner that night. Sounds like hell? Well 1,400 eager participants disagree and are preparing for the 30th running of the Marathon Des Sables which is underway right now.
While the race attracts elite athletes and experienced endurance racers from across the world, many of those taking part are complete amateurs who have decided to take on the challenge for their own reasons.
Men like Darren Blackmore, who competed last year aged 37, and who let us in on the highs and lows of taking on the toughest footrace in the world.
So what kind of shape were you in before you started training?
I was playing football once a week, running occasionally, maybe a little bit overweight for my size. I didn’t really take it seriously until about the beginning of November, about six months prior to the April race.
I did a bit of research online and discovered there were people that had been training solidly for two years, and were already doing 60 miles a week with 6 months to go. That’s when I realised I wasn’t going to be able to go out there and wing it.
How did you decide on the best way to train?
I know a really good runner who trains people for the London Marathon and started running with him twice a week. He wrote me up a strategy, which was something I had never followed before in my life. It included a lot of back to back runs – long runs on consecutive days without a rest – to replicate what you needed to do in the race. I started with eight mile runs two days running, then it went up to fifteen mile back to back runs, getting up to 40 or 50 miles a week.
What was the hardest thing about the training?
What was hard for me was that you are training for a run in the dessert and much of your training is done in winter here. I think it was a really hard process just because of the weather for me and just finding the time to do it. Balancing training, work and family life was tough.
What got you out of bed?
By focusing on the people that can’t do it, particularly my mate James Cowan who passed away from cystic fibrosis. That for me was the reason. Even when I was running and felt like giving up, I focused on that. When I finished the pain would be over but some people have a lifetime of it. It sounds really cheesy but that’s the way my mind worked.
As well as the physical preparation, you also need to think about strategy.
Yes, particularly what you carry in your backpack and what you can get away with not taking because everything you bring you have to carry.
There’s also the fact you are running in sand which you can try to prepare for with a lot of off-road running. It just gets you used to the feeling of your feet falling away from you when you’re running.
How do you prepare for the heat?
About three weeks before the race I went into the heat chamber at Kingston University. I began running at the pace I was running during my training sessions – race pace – and I just fell apart. It made me realise that I needed to focus more on the amount of fluid I needed to take on.
That is the key to getting through the MDS. It’s making sure that you have a drink every five minutes, it’s working out that you need eight sips every five minutes. Even when I’m not thirsty, take eight sips because once you’re dehydrated, it’s really hard to get it back. There’s nowhere to hide in the desert.
How do you prepare for the mental side of the race?
The only way you look at it is that you wake up at six o’clock and you make sure you go for that run. It’s snowing outside, it’s raining, you go, you do it. The way it is with the bad weather here, you sort of run through it to encourage you to carry on when it’s equally impassable whether, all be it hot and in a dessert. That’s the only way psychologically you can do it, there was no other way to prepare for it.
How did you feel at the startline?
You’re buzzing, you’ve got butterflies but you just want it to start.
The first day, last year, was about 18 miles of sand dunes. You generally don’t get that until a couple of days in and they decided to throw it at us on day one. There were a lot of dropouts on the first day, more than at any time – the fact that they had gone and put one of the hardest stages first knocked a lot of people.
Running on dunes is horrible. Before you get there it’s a breathtaking view, then you hit the dunes and you’re like, ‘this isn’t too bad,’ then 10km in you think, "Oh shit, I’ve got seven days of this".
Because it just gets hotter and hotter and hotter. Nothing cools down because you start at half eight in the morning and it’s like 30 degrees then.
What happens in the evening?
You finish the race no matter what state you’re in, the first thing you do is cook food. You literally – you almost do it before stretching, get your food on, get your little stove boiling, take on fluids and just rest. The four lads that were in my tent were serious runners and obviously the top Brit was in there, who I knew. It helped me just by watching what the top guys were doing.
You're in a tent with no back or front, open-faced. Sleeping is quite uncomfortable - you’re probably getting about five or six hours sleep a night, interrupted by people stepping over you to get to the toilet.
How’s the hygiene?
You’re sleeping in the same kit you ‘re running in every day so it’s not great. I did take wet wipes, the ones where you add water and then you have a bit of a wash down with that. Still, everyone's in the same boat.
Did you pick up any injuries?
The aching is obvious, you’re going to ache, and you did ache. Obviously patching your toes up takes a bit of time in the morning. I lost about 8 toenails and had numerous blisters but then some people don’t get anything. After 10 15 minutes into the run you don’t feel them. Which is why you don't want to stop - if you do, you have to go through that pain again.
What was the lowest point?
There was one point when I felt like giving up, I think it was on day four, it was a long day, a 50 mile day. I got about a marathon into it and I was just swelling up, my fingers were literally double the size and I felt terrible. I was just like, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, how do I turn this around? I’ve never seen my hands swell up like this, what’s happening to my body?’
I sat down at the checkpoint, cooled down, took on water, had some food and within 20 minutes my fingers deflated and I quite quickly I felt great again. It must have been the heat because if you’re dehydrated, you don’t turn it around that quickly. Luckily for me, the sun was going in the right direction and I ended up running the second marathon quicker than the first.
What most surprised you?
The variety of people doing it was quite surprising, all shapes and sizes. I think if you’ve got the right attitude – there are ex-soldiers out there with one leg, and just seeing people like that doing challenges, it’s pretty amazing. It’s also surprising how beautiful it is. And how hot it can get.
What's your most vivid memory?
At the end of the 50 mile stage you’re running in moonlight. I was with an Italian guy whose torch had run out of batteries and was really struggling so he was with me and there were these two other lads. We saw the finish line light in the distance and it must have been a kilometer out, but we decided to race it, an all-out sprint finish. I actually fell over into a swamp but I got up and finished the race and my my heart felt like it was going to literally jump out of my body.
Do you have any quieter, 'zen' moments when you’re completely in the zone?
Yeah, in the middle of the dessert it can feel like you're running on the moon. The ground beneath you is all crunchy because you’ve got sand with the ground and the earth, and your feet are hitting the deck and sinking in about an inch. You can run for 15 minutes and you think it’s seconds. You’re completely away with the fairies. That’s how it felt, like a natural high.
What did you learn about what it takes to finish?
You learn that not everyone is cracked up to do it. If you’re physically fit but you’re not mentally strong, that’s the end of it. I did see a lot of people there that look in great shape but they’re just not mentally up for it.
How did you feel at the finish?
I think I shed a couple of tears and I needed a moment on my own to be honest. I was elated of course but it’s quite a solitary run as well. I didn’t really have anyone to share the experience with. I just took a moment to myself and yeah, that was it. And then you do a little charity run the day after.
Hang on. They make you do a charity run after you've finished the race?
Yeah, there’s an 8km ‘fun’ run for UNICEF and you have to do it to get on to the coach!
The race is over, they’ve even flown an orchestra out to the finish line but there’s no food and you’re all sitting there starving. I must say I’ve never seen a buffet go so quickly as the one they put on when we arrived at the hotel. It was unbelievable.
Darren finished 249th (out of over 1100) and ran on behalf of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust