Before The Race – The Calm Before The Storm (Literally)
We arrived at Ouarzazate a few days before the start of the race so we won’t be too stressed from international travel. Having never done an ultramarathon before, never mind a multi-stage one, we had to be cautious. We stayed at the Hotel Ouarzazate Le Riad, where we met fellow MDS competitors from all over the world and Canada as well as it turns out. Ouarzazate is the closest city to the Sahara Desert, just 6hrs drive away from the western frontier of the Sahara. It is a beautiful city, but we weren’t in a tourist mindset for obvious reasons. After spending a few days acclimatizing, we finally departed for our bivouac in the morning of April 8th. When we arrived, we were greeted by the view of the giant sand dune that we have to conquer for the first stage of the race in 2 days time. It was very intimidating for anyone who hasn’t seen anything like it! Patrick Bauer (MDS founder and race director) is playing games with our heads. As the race unfolds, we found out that this was just the beginning of his mind games.
1st Stage 34k- Difficult Moments
The night before the race, we experienced what felt like a sandstorm. The locals call it strong winds, but for westerners like myself, 50mph winds blowing into your semi-exposed bivouac with your sleep bag and your face covered with sand … it sure felt like a sandstorm!
Race morning came and the wind did not die down. We ran against the strong headwind up and over the sand dunes. There was literally 10 miles of sand dune we had to traverse before we got to the first checkpoint. By the time Paul and I got to it, we were exhausted. Our packs were way too heavy to compete in these conditions. Most of the competitors who showed up to compete have their packs weigh at the minimum amount (6.5kg) or they are generally bigger athletes who have no trouble carrying a bit of extra weight. Us being 140lbs soaking wet, carrying an 8.5kg backpack was simply too much to be competitive.
The difficult moment came at 20k (4k before the last checkpoint) when I had to take a 5mins break because I was simply overwhelmed by the wind and the sand. I needed a mental break from the onslaught. Paul stuck by me because he was feeling ok. From the last checkpoint (24-34k) to the finish, we were merely in survival mode. I was trotting along, but could barely see anything in front of me. I was constantly worrying about sand getting into my contact lenses. Unfortunately for Paul, he began to experience some serious cramping. By the time I realized he was suffering, I couldn’t see him anymore so under those conditions, the only course of action was to forge on and hope he will finish. Paul didn’t take enough salt during the run and paid the price dearly. He thought about quitting in the last few kilometers because his legs seized up and there were still many dunes to climb. You cannot imagine what it feels like for Paul to think about quitting so early into the race. It was an emotional moment for him. That was the moment when the line between quitting and finishing blurred.
When he finally crossed the finish line, I had to immediately get him to take many salt tablets for the cramping to subside.
One down, 5 stages to go!
2nd/3rd Stage 41k/37k – Hitting Rock Bottom
More sand dunes during 2nd/3rd stage. We had a lot of stomach issues and nausea set in. I severely underestimated the amount of electrolytes required(we brought some with us for the race) in completing each stage of this race. As a marathoner by trade, we usually cover the marathon distance in 3-4hours fairly easily. But over the sand dunes in 45C heat with 8% humidity and limited water supply, your body acts up in ways you do not expect.
I quickly realized that we won’t be able to complete this race without consuming some of the salt tablets given to us pre-race. There must have been a miscommunication, but I was under the impression that we need to chew the tablets before ingesting the pills with water. We can laugh about it now, but at the time, nausea was very real. It was no fun at all. Imagine taking salt tablets on a continuous basis that made you want to throw up. For Paul, the camel broke its back in the latter part of Stage 2. For me, I was on the verge of quitting in the beginning of Stage 3.
We decided together that we were going to walk the entire 3rd stage to save energy for Stage 4 and get a second opinion about the salt tablets after Stage 3. 9.5hrs of hiking through the Sahara Desert was much tougher than your can ever imagine. Running out of water was very real and out in the desert sun that long zapped a lot of energy out of your lifeless body. It was a very humbling experience and really tested our mantel. We were determined to finish by any means necessary. If we had to crawl to get it done, damn it, we will!
Long Stage 84.4k – You Are Tougher Than You Think
After consulting with fellow Canadians in our bivouac, we found out the proper way to ingest the salt tablets was to simply swallow them with water without chewing. That made a lot of sense because chewing them was certainly NOT an option! We must have been the only fools who attempted that, but nevertheless, we found out something about ourselves. If we are mentally strong enough to handle all these adversities, nothing will ever break us and we are not going to be denied our MDS finishers medal.
Our strategy for this stage was simple. Run the first 20k of the race, and walk/run the rest of the stage. Conserve our energy for the last stage and see what we are capable of in the marathon stage … where our strength lies.
Even though we had a full day of rest before the last stage, it didn’t feel like a rest day at all. The reason: you are never comfortable at any given time. The desert sand kept blowing into our bivouac, making our lives miserable. My air mattress was slowly leaking from a small puncture, leaving me having to inflate the mattress every 45mins during the night. No meal was ever big enough because you are in constant caloric deficit: our 2000 calories ration per day was simply not sufficient. After 5 days without a proper shower, it was next to impossible to get a good night’s sleep. The psychological toll your mind takes was just as exhausting as the physical toll your body takes running 257km over 7days. Nevertheless, I was quickly reminded that everyone is in the same boat, and every KM of this course had to be earned through blood, sweat, and tears.
Marathon Stage 42.2k – We Belong
The race format for the last stage is set so that the Top 200 athletes start 1.5hrs after the general mass start. For us, this means we have a good chance being at the very front and an opportunity to see the leaders zoom past us at superhuman speeds!
The strategy for the last stage was to run as much as we can, and try to crack 5hrs. Given the quality of the field, that should land us close to top 100. Paul and I tried to track down as many people as possible. Overheating and water supply wasn’t as much of an issue … as long as you run fast enough to get from checkpoint to checkpoint before you run out of water! The trick is to find that balance and optimally cool your body without wasting too much water. We finished together in the time of 5:00:10 and we celebrated the achievement with a victory lap by being the first Canadian to cross the line! A very hard fought race.
It was a great way to finish the race. It was an affirmation that we belong and are capable of running with the front runners if we dial in our nutrition and gain a bit more desert racing experience.
Some medals are earned through pure physical endurance, but MDS has a special place in our hearts because it was a battle of the body and mind, overcoming adversities, and conquering your demons. The race course is designed in such a way that they tempt you to DNF. There are no KM markers along the course, you can’t see any checkpoints until 500m from them, and the ones where you can see them, they are 10km away, and you can never seem to get there fast enough. They even have lawn chairs, campfires, warm tea set up at one of the last checkpoints in the long stage to tempt you to stay there, take your sleep bag out … making you think twice about finishing the race. There are no easy stages in the MDS and every single KM of the race was hard earned.
Anybody who has the audacity to challenge themselves and finish this course has our respect. This race wasn’t simply an athletic contest, but a test of one’s mental strength. Your body is only as strong as your mind is willing. MDS will definitely put that to the test. Out of about 1200 people who signed up for MDS 2016, only 973 completed it. That’s an astounding number of dropouts considering the cost of registration/flight/equipment and ‘lost’ vacation time. Then again, we have been told by the race organizer and fellow competitors who competed before that this was the toughest and longest MDS that was ever staged!
Thoughts After The Race – Paul
MDS is definitely more than just a tough endurance race. You get to experience something magical because the Sahara is an otherworldly place.
Out there in the desert, we were denied all the comforts of life. Basic things like water, salt, and a blanket over your head matters more than you know.. You truly get to appreciate life in its simplest form. We are grateful for the experience.
Aftermath – Doing It All Over Again
One of the toughest challenges in chasing after the 8 Deserts WR is resupplying for the next race. With our 2nd race in just under 2 weeks, over 10,000km away from Morocco over in Namibia, it is an absolute nightmare trying to formulate a nutritional strategy for the next race. We learned so much from our first race, but we can only apply some of what we learned for our next race because the window of making big changes is simply too small.
Simple things like getting our sleep bags machine washed and dried is a big hassle because dryers aren’t very popular in Morocco! But the coffees and orange juices here are AMAZING!
Team Canada – Proud to Represent
Aaron (#606) – The ER doctor and perhaps mentally the toughest member of Team Canada. Generous to a fault, the 3-time MDS finisher decided to come this year because he wanted to give a medal to each of his three boys. One thing we know, do not ask him for nutritional advice! Lol.
Karim (#609 – 2nd Row, 2nd last on the right) – One of our tent mates and a great trail runner, he gave us hot water when we needed it most. You cannot imagine how much that meant to us when we had been eating cold dehydrated dinners for the past 5 days! His nickname is MacGyver because he seems to have a solution for everything.
Alain (#600 – 3rd on the right) – Another tent mate of ours who’s a dedicated triathlete. As steady as they come when it comes to stage racing, he is a fellow adventurer whom we might meet up again next year when we set off for the Arctic Desert Ultra!
Jeanne (#610 – Pink Cap) – Tough as nails. A 2 time MDS finisher, who legend has it completed her first MDS in 2014 even though her gators were busted up on the first day of the event. Let’s just say that painkillers was her best friend for the rest of the week!
Gareth (#612 – Tall Guy behind the ladies) – An outstanding athlete who came to MDS looking to mow down the field. He came here to suffer and to push himself to the limit. He got what he bargained for and more. 😉 Can you believe this crazy guy will be competing in an Ironman to qualify for Kona in a few month’s time?
Elizabeth, Carol (#604, #603 – Yellow Hats) – Two lovely ladies whose looks can be deceiving. There’s no quit in them. While the boys complained day and night about the race conditions, they just kept on going. Always have a smile on their faces even though there was nothing to smile about. Elizabeth is also a 2 time MDS finisher!
MK, Anne (#599 – First row 2nd from the right, #598 – First row 5th from the left) – Mother and daughter duo looking for an adventure. It was hard to find time to chat with them because the camera crew was always following them around 🙂 Loveliest people we know. Again, looks can be deceiving. Who knew that MK has climbed some of the biggest mountains in the world?
Isabelle (#611 – LR corner) – Don’t mess with this lady, or you will get yourself arrested and ass kicked. An OPP by trade, she has her aspiration on becoming a member of the SWAT team. She kicked our ass in MDS … literally.
Jacques (#304) – The happiest guy in the desert. Jacques always had a smile on his face. Somehow, he managed to conjure up clean laundry and daily coffees in the middle of the Sahara Desert!
Jason (#608) – This quiet tough guy has SEVEN kids! Raising them must be tougher than finishing the MDS Lol :-). He’s not in the photo because no one really knows what he’s thinking or where he is half the time. 😉 We still love you Jason!
Other New Friends – Notable fellow MDS finishers
Ridouane (aka Reid #522) – A humble newbie runner who placed 146th in the MDS after only 1 year of training! Extremely impressive!
The White Brothers – Amazing individuals who came here from different continents to honor their grandmother’s passing and to raise money for their respective charities.
There are many others and many stories to tell, but we’ll save that for the memoir!