There are many things that we are grateful for at Camino - one of these is the unique and personal relationship that we find ourselves in with our coached athletes - especially when they are facing their fears.
Anna's story is exceptional. It would be difficult for us to even begin to share the ins and outs. If you check one of Anna's last Camino blogs you get a small window into the regular and serious nature of Anna's many operations. The act of running post operation is everything. The sheer determination that Anna expresses to not only run but to return to a podium level of running is where the story is.
Add to the mix Anna's appearance on Netflix's Human Performance Episode 1 where Anna is being pulled from MDS with extreme heat exhaustion and then the programme of training both mentally and physically to get back on that 'camel'!
So Anna asks the question 'Was it mad to go back?' - Only Anna knows - however we know that it was far from an easy. No stone was left unturned in the pursuit of this challenge. So many dramas happened in version 2. Whatever Anna did - we were already so proud of her - we continue to be proud of her x
Anna's MDS Story Mark II:
Two days before I flew out to Morocco I arrived home to find a package had arrived from my friends at Walk Once More – the charity I had bought my place from for the Marathon des Sables. I wasn’t directly fundraising for them, I didn’t even know them personally, I had just given them a small contribution by way of purchasing the place from someone who could no longer take part. The package contained a good luck card, an origami camel, a four leaf clover and some inspirational charms including a couple which said ‘fearless’ and ‘brave’. The kindness and thought that had gone in to it was too much – I had been on the brink of a breakdown for weeks and I just sat down on the sofa and cried my eyes out. The support everyone had been giving me in the lead up to this attempt had been overwhelming and although I know it was only as they wanted me to succeed for my own sake, I was really scared of letting everyone (and myself) down.
I have needed to go back to the Sahara to prove to myself that I could do it, but I had been in peak physical condition in October 2021 – smashing PBs all over the place and with 3 years preparation in the bag – yet I DNFd when my body had just not coped with the conditions. I’m not sure why I thought I should be able to complete the event this year with only 10 weeks consistent training following 18 months of surgery and disruption and a lot of tapering/recovery from four 100 mile races with little training in between. I wasn’t ready, it felt like madness and I panicked.
Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results
The only thing I had managed to do this time which had been impossible last time due to Covid, was to get in 10 hours of heat acclimation in the lab. Although my body didn’t acclimate as much as I’d have liked with my core temperature still rising quite high during the hour long sessions, it did give me some data to work with and by the time we flew out I knew what my sweat rate and heart rate would be doing at 40 degrees.
The thing was – I don’t think I did anything wrong the first time so my plan this time wasn’t massively different. I had analysed and over analysed everything from my preparation to the blow-by-blow of the first two days of my MdS race in 2021. I didn’t go out too hard, I felt great at the end of Day 1. I hydrated and ate as well as possible, I took my salt tablets, I stayed out of the Sun and I elevated my feet and lay down as much as possible. It was very hot though and when I say hot I mean hotter than anything I (or most other people) have ever experienced. The kind of heat that completely fuddles your brain so that its not even about making the right choices or mental toughness – there are no choices. The Saharan dunes in a heatwave are unforgiving and do not care how fit you are if your body is not capable of adaptation. This is what I was letting myself in for again and I was truly terrified. I was relying on it not being as hot which was a pretty risky gamble, but the heat in 2021 had been unprecedented, so it couldn’t happen again – could it?
Travel and admin day:
I met most of my tent mates at Gatwick airport. This was another difference to 2021 where I had already had some friends in the same tent and had interacted with the rest beforehand. This time I’d just met up with Sadie once who was also going back to complete after a guy had fallen on her foot and broken it on the long day in 2022. We both had a mission and it was lovely to have her in my tent as an ally with a shared goal. The rest (Sian, Andrew, Jago, George and Richie – who lived in Australia) seemed lovely too so I knew we were in for a good week.
We arrived at the bivouac after the short bus transfer to find it was pretty warm but it seemed cooler than 2021 which I instantly took as reassurance. The new factor I hadn’t considered however was the wind which hadn’t really put in an appearance in 2021 (but I know had been a big factor in 2022). Almost as soon as we dumped our stuff in our tent, the wind picked up and the whole camp was billowing with sand blowing everywhere which covered everything while we tried to grab rocks and ropes to try and anchor the tent and rug down. The seasoned female MdSers among us were quick to notice the quality and number of bushes to wee behind at this particular bivouac was not great, but this soon paled into insignificance as with the wind it was less about being discreet and more about trying not to wee on your own feet as a gust hit. We were officially back in the desert.
The following morning after being fed breakfast it was all about admin checks and final kit choices. We had to prepare our packs for weigh in and it was the last opportunity to swap things in and out of our main bags before we lost them for the week. Its always a stressful time and almost worse when your check in time is later as you have more time for indecisiveness. My main choices this year were regarding medication and tissues as I’d been struggling with a sore throat and headache that were turning into a cold for the last few days and I was worried it would get worse. In the end I just decided to be safe rather than sorry and chucked in a couple of packs of tissues, the strepsils I’d bought at the airport, some antihistamines and all (rather than some) of my paracetamol. As a pharmacist and after the saga of 2021 I also wasn’t going to rely on getting anything from Doc Trotters (the medics at MdS) that I could take myself or that they might run out of (as they did during the norovirus outbreak). I was loaded up with omeprazole, domperidone, Rennie, dihydrocodeine, Imodium and even naproxen (I had no plans to take this unless absolutely necessary as anti-inflammatories in dehydration are BAD). My other addition this year was a small bottle of squeezy squash as it was the main thing I’d craved last time when the 40 degree water became completely unpalatable.
After final decisions were made that we would have to live with for the rest of the week, Sadie and I head off to admin check, where they weighed my bag in at 7.4kg – miraculously exactly the same as 2021 despite me being less pedantic about what I was taking. They checked my medical certificate and ECG, handed out numbers, spot trackers and salt tablets and took my big bag off me. It felt like a load was lifted and it was liberating to now know what I had was all I needed for the week. One more meal in the catered tents and tomorrow morning it was GO time.
Day 1 – 36km – 510m+
The number of people who have told me to take it slowly…. I’ve lost count. I was determined to do this anyway, but there was no way I was going to be happy walking. I made a concerted effort to be nowhere near the front as Patrick Bauer rallied the troops and ‘Highway to Hell’ rang out as is tradition. I didn’t want to be caught up with anything competitive at the start so as the 3-2-1-GO was called and we set off it took a while to trudge through the line and set off at a plod amongst the masses.
It felt quite warm already, but we’d started at 8:30 which was an improvement and there was a slight cooling breeze. The early terrain was quite runnable – hard underfoot with loose rocks strewn all over the place that just had to be hopped over. I covered the first section to CP1 with no problems and I was feeling good albeit with a bunged up nose and tight lungs. The super-slow jog pace I was keeping was not putting any pressure on my lungs or breathing so I felt comfortable and I just kept sipping to lubricate my scratchy throat. I bustled through CP1 a bit too quickly, just stopping to fill my bottles but not adding anything to them. I’d gone with a mountain fuel + squash strategy, but didn’t have enough mountain fuel for every checkpoint, so instead I took on some solid fuel and carried on. I regretted it – the water already tasted bad in the heat.
The next section was also a bit tougher with more soft sand in the form of small dunes and camel grass. There was nothing major, but it made the pace slower and the sand reflected the heat more. Regardless, I came into CP2 unscathed and made the effort to go into the shade of the tent and sort my drinks out properly. I topped up my mountain fuel and squash and even put my extra water in the back of my pack to take with me for back up. The last section was really tough – mainly due to the heat (at least 40 degrees) and lack of wind and for Day 1 it had been a long stage. The terrain was mainly runnable but there was a very gradual ascent for a lot of the last 10k so I took it down mainly to a brisk hike and just kept sipping the fluids, monitoring my heart rate and counting down the KM. I knew the last 2km were downhill to the bivouac so I was aiming for 34Km. Finally after a slightly sharper ascent, it came and I trotted off over the brow of the hill and down across the plain to the bivouac, picking off a few people walking ahead of me in the process. I finished Day 1 in 4:51 and was fairly happy that would put me in the top half off the field which I was perfectly content with for Day 1 in a stage where I found I had to prove to everyone I wasn’t pushing too hard. I was gobsmacked to find out later I’d come 109th but was happy that I could do that with a perceived low level of effort. I was first back to the tent so I dutifully cleared the rocks from under the rug and quickly changed out of my race kit and shoes to try and cool down. One by one my tent mates appeared – they had all found it incredibly tough and harder than they had expected. I was especially worried about Sadie, whose foot had been really hurting where she broke it last year – I really didn’t want her to leave and while she seemed worried she wouldn’t be able to push through, I tried to convince her not to make any rash decisions tonight. The only person missing from the tent was Sian, who had been last seen by Richie shortly before CP2. We all started to worry as the clock ticked closer to cut off and finally we heard the awful news that she’d fainted with heatstroke before CP2 and hit her head. She was ok, but had medically tapped out of the race. We were all gutted for her, Sadie and I especially knew how it felt and it hurt. There was a solemn mood that evening as the wind once more picked up and I spent the best part of an hour sitting on the inside of the tent to try and block the sand whooshing through while my tent mates tried to do their admin. We were cheered up when our first messages were delivered though and although it took far longer than necessary to try and read them as I battled the tent and almost had them ripped out of my hand on several occasions, it was just lovely to know so many people were tracking me and rooting for me back home. We tried to settle down to sleep in the wind, with our kit weighed down as best as possible but it was a very broken and restless night and everything was completely covered in sand.
Day 2 – 31.7km – 760m+
We said an emotional early good bye to Sian first thing in the morning but were surprised that George also took himself off – he’d suffered with heatstroke too and despite us thinking he was ok he had obviously suffered more than we realised and decided he would tap himself out too. We were down to 5 in the tent and it was only the start of Day 2…
Objectively, Day 2 looked shorter, but we all knew there were 3 jebels involved including the infamous Jebel El Oftal which is a regular feature of the MdS course. I set off slightly nearer the front (but still nowhere near!) at a comfortable trot. As with the previous day the first section was quite hard packed and rocky so was fairly runnable and it was another early start at 8am. I had thought the first jebel was an ‘up and over’ job but it turned out to be a not insignificant hike up to the top at 8km which was followed by an undulating ridge for most of the way to CP1 at 12km with a lot of technical rocky trail that required concentration not to trip. Running on the ridge was stunning though as you could see for miles all around and there was more of a breeze up high which felt refreshing.
I caught up with my friend Ben who I’d met on the train to Gatwick on the way up the first climb so we ended up running a lot of the ridge together. Finally it dropped down to CP1 where I went into the tent to sort out my water. I decided to put the extra bottle in the back of my pack again as I didn’t know how slow I’d be going over the next jebel section – this turned out to be a massive mistake which I only realised later. There was about 5km of fairly flat and runnable wadi before the next climb so although it was getting hot again, I managed to trot good chunks of that section. My stomach was feeling a bit iffy in the heat though and I needed to find a bush for an emergency loo stop, but felt fine again afterwards and didn’t think too much of it, although perhaps in hindsight it had been a warning sign. I got to the second jebel at 17km feeling ok but not particularly strong in the heat. The climb was not easy - actually this is an understatement – I found it incredibly hard. It started out on fairly steep sand with loose rocks in it that gave way when you stepped on them and was completely energy sapping and progress was very slow and demoralising. The bottle of water on the back of my pack also really upset my balance making me almost topple backwards on several occasions and I was wishing I hadn’t brought it. I finally struggled to the top with a growing fear about how on Earth I was going to manage to get up the ‘proper’ jebel and found another beautiful (if technical) ridge that we had to run along (although scramble might be a better description of that particular section!) The ridge wasn’t that long though and before I knew it I had descended onto a large flat plain that was to lead all the way to CP2. It should have been easy running but it was really hot with no breeze and I felt like I was having a hard day with all the climbing and technical trails so I ended up walking a lot of it so as not to exhaust myself before THE jebel. CP2 was pretty much hidden until the last minute so I was very grateful to get there and grab my bottles and head to the tent to have a few stern words with myself. I opted not to carry extra water on this climb as it had made the last one so difficult and I didn’t think I’d need the water as it was only 8km to the end. I drank as much as I could at the CP then started the hike up the rocky base of the climb. This then gave way to a steep sandy bank that took a lot of effort to climb up (one of the few times I wish I’d carried poles!) and I then came to the rocky section which involved scrambling and climbing over big boulders. I actually preferred this to the previous jebel which had been harder with less solid ground to grab onto but it was still hard work. The final ascent again became sandy, which is where there is a fixed rope attached to help us get up the 25% incline to the summit.
The view was fantastic and I took a few moments to appreciate how incredible it was to be able to be somewhere so vast and beautifully stark. Once I had recomposed myself I set off on the trot down the other side which was much easier despite still needing a lot of concentration to navigate the rocks and boulders. I popped out at the bottom into the short dune section of a KM or so which was relatively fun as an end to the day and the bivouac was soon in sight. I managed again a final trot across the plain to the finish arch and after a wave to the webcam and a slug of warm, sweet mint tea I set off to the tent to recover.
I felt good and so buoyant that at this stage last time I’d already spent hours vomiting in the dunes. This was going better… I did all my admin, changed, checked my feet (fine), ate (fine) and hydrated - as much as was possible when you only get 6.5L to last from the end of the stage (for me ~1:30pm) to CP1 the following day. It wasn’t enough for someone who sweats almost 2L/hr at that temperature but I was just hoping I could get enough in to continue and was diligently taking salt tablets and avoiding wasting water on things like washing – I was already a grot bag and it was only Day 2.
Day 3 – 34.4km – 590m+
It had all been going so well, but following my jubilant email to my sister the afternoon before, my night had descended into a bit of a nightmare. I’d started getting diarrhoea just before we went to bed and could tell I was losing a lot of fluid – I had just spent hours painstakingly trying to re-hydrate with minimal fluids and it was all going literally down the pan (or poo bag in MdS land). I didn’t feel that sick but by morning my mouth was sticking together and I had no appetite. I forced a couple of mouthfuls of breakfast down and was sipping what I could of my remaining water but I was really worried. It was too hot to be going out to do 34km on empty and in fluid deficit. I currently felt ‘ok’ though so I got ready as normal, and filled one of my bottles with mountain fuel which I continued to sip to try and get some calories in before the start. I had already taken 6 Imodium during the night which seemed to do nothing so I now backed these up with paracetamol, omeprazole, domperidone and Rennie as well as another double dose of Imodium – I wasn’t taking any chances. They were setting us off an hour early today at 7am which while in itself this was a good thing to avoid some heat, it was also a bad sign as it meant a hotter day was forecast… We set off again across the plain but it was a bit softer than previous days so it felt like a lot more effort. I was conscious of the state I was in so quickly dropped to a hike. I started nibbling on individual skittles to try and get some sugar in and they seemed to go down well, but my insides felt very delicate still. At one point I found myself caught up in a single file train of people who were trotting along at easy pace along a narrow track of less rocky path so I joined the back. This was great for a short while as I just put my head down and tried to keep the rhythm, but before long I felt my insides turn and had to drop out of the train to find an emergency loo point. In my haste I scratched my arm to bits on the thorn bush but that was the least of my problems. By the time I set off again the train of people had gone and I was hiking to my own pace again, feeling more and more queasy and weak. The temperature was rising rapidly and I was starting to freak out – I know D3 CP1 all too well and I wasn’t prepared for this to be the end of my race again. I have literally relived that morning from 2021 hundreds of times in my head trying to work out what I could have done differently and now this was all replaying in my head like some kind of horror movie. I arrived at the CP and made my way to the recovery tents on the right. I went in and sat down – this was all feeling very déjà vu. Something clicked in my head at this point and I just said to myself ‘THIS IS NOT HAPPENING AGAIN’. I pulled myself straight up again and went directly over to the left hand tents where Doc Trotters were based and just said ‘I need help’. I explained I’d had diarrhoea all night and was feeling sick and struggling to take fluids in. They asked (as they always do) if I’d taken my salt tablets – I had – lots – and then tried to suggest the Dioralyte type sachet they always recommend. I couldn’t even imagine stomaching the salty solution. I just said ‘I’m not sure I can, I feel really sick’ and then promptly stuck my head out of the tent and vomited all the fluids I’d been trying to take on, meanwhile splashing it all over my own legs – I didn’t care. I turned to the doctor and just said ‘please can I have an IV? I can’t DNF here’ and started crying. She just said yes. She examined me, confirmed I was really dehydrated (no kidding) and then tried to get a cannula in – which she failed to do twice due to my veins completely disappearing in my dehydrated state. It was agony as she tried to push fluids in that couldn’t go anywhere and a large lump appeared in my arm. She then got another doctor to come and try my other arm and he got the line in first time. They proceeded to run the litre of saline which I thought was all I was getting but then they replaced it with a 500ml bag of glucose 5% and followed this with another litre of saline. I was getting more and more twitchy about how long I’d been there and was acutely aware of the panic my family would be in at that moment seeing my dot stop at exactly the same point as last time. I tried to turn my phone on to text my sister what was happening but there was no signal – I just needed to get my dot moving ASAP. I was worried about the cut off too and kept asking how much time I had as I needed them to know I wasn’t withdrawing, but none of that team were very good at English and my French is pretty much non-existent so I had to rely on their reassuring looks. Finally I started to sip my water again and was feeling much less sick so I tried nibbling on a veloforte bar. The doctor was giving me a lot of smiles and was clearly pleased with my improvement. She filled up the remaining half a bottle I had with me with the rehydration powder and after a few more minutes of observation they let me leave – with a slightly worrying ‘you must go NOW’ comment. Eek – I guess I’m chasing cut offs today then but I am NOT GIVING UP.
I didn’t think twice about the 2 hour time penalty for the drip – it was a small price to pay to not have to pay £4000+ to come back another year and to avoid another inevitable year of misery if I had to pull out.
I left CP1 nearly 2 hours after arriving. I was deflated that my race was pretty much over from any kind of a placing point of view, but I was at least still in the race and right then that was the only thing that mattered. I hiked off as quickly as I could and soon started picking off other walkers one by one. I had energy and more importantly I had hydration. This renewed vigour unfortunately did not last long as I reached the end of the hard terrain and started making my way up over the crest of a hill into a large sandy basin that extended all the way CP2 at 23.4km.
I was going very slowly and had put in my headphones for the first time to try and distract myself with a few podcasts. At the top of the hill I’d bumped into Alan who had been meant to be in my initial tent group in 2020 but who had opted for deferral to this year. It was good to see him and chatting with him helped for a short while but we were going at different paces so we parted ways quite soon. I also caught up with Richie and Laura (also from team Australia but who I randomly knew from having rowed at the same club in London 10 years earlier!). I later found out that they had both thought I wouldn’t make it (from my appearance) but they were both lovely and reassuring at the time and Laura actually said something that changed my whole race – that she had been like this the day before but had recovered. Up until that point I had not thought recovery from this was possible – after all, no one is going to suddenly give me an extra 10L of water are they?! But she gave me hope and I am so, so grateful. I continued on to CP2 and took my water to a tent – I struggled to find space to sit down as all the tents were full up of people crashed out in various states of heat exhaustion, it wasn’t a pretty sight. I found a small section of rug to plonk myself and then thought about the rest of the stage – I had enough time, I had time to rest. I sat there for quite a long time sipping my water and sorting my bottles, trying while I did to force some food down. There started to be various numbers being called out of people who had withdrawn and who the volunteers were looking for to put in the jeep – this was bad – this was 2021 bad. I had to get moving.
The next section was the hardest part of my entire race – it was about 6km of dunes in the mid-afternoon Sun which I think was hovering in the mid-40’s, but I know that in dunes this feels more like 50 degrees. I trudged – it was miserable. I got through the first couple of KM ok following the hour long rest in the tent and this brought me up to a couple of jeeps where I needed another rest. I’d noticed there seemed to be more strategically placed vehicles this time – something else they’d possibly learnt from ’21? There wasn’t a lot of shade and the Doc Trotters vehicle already had all of its taken by other bodies strewn across the sand. I went to the tiny bit of shade behind the other vehicle and asked if I could sit there. I promptly sat down and vomited. Oh dear. I lay in the shade a short while before being joined by another runner called Paul, who asked if he could squeeze in and then pulled himself right in under the vehicle. Paul wasn’t just any competitor – he had one arm having lost his left arm in a hippo attack on the Zambezi River 20 years earlier. He is a fascinating person and has many other amazing stories. He was incredible and was so encouraging to me to carry on, even as he was vomiting next to me and being hooked up to an IV off the back of the jeep while knowing his own race was over. I’m so grateful to have met Paul.
Alan arrived at the jeep with two other buddies who had been walking with him. They were in varying states of fitness but they sat down in the shade with me. After a while Alan suggested I come with them, so after most of an hour in the shade, I set off across the remaining dunes with them. Alan and I were walking at a decent pace but one of his friends was really suffering with pain so was going very slowly. I stuck with them for a while but Alan told me to go on as it was too hot to be going slower than you had to. I reluctantly left them and set off on my own again. There was not much further to go in the dunes and I could see them rising up ahead of me until they joined the rocky summit of a small jebel. Then all of a sudden, I could see shade – the entire crossing over the shoulder of the jebel was in SHADE. That was my goal… It took a monumental effort to climb that last sand dune to reach the shade and as soon as I could I sat down on a rock. There were people all over those rocks – cowering out of the Sun. I didn’t sit for long there, but after covering the next 100m or so up the rocky, shady path I sat down again to regroup.
There was still over 4km to go but I had time – I just needed to keep moving. I trekked down the other side of the jebel and back onto sand, which seemed to go on forever and the bivouac was nowhere to be seen yet. After trapesing across a few more gentle dunes at snail speed I finally descended to the sandy plain where I could see the bivouac in the distance. Even here there were people slumped in small patches of shade – they were so close to the finish but it seemed insurmountable to them in the afternoon heat. There would be no run in to the finish for me today – it was a lost cause and I just had to make the cut off. I finally crossed the line at 9:45 – 45 minutes before cut off. It didn’t matter – I was still in the race and I had made it through Day 3 which had been my downfall in 2021. I staggered back to my tent where all my tent mates were already back and just lay down and broke down in tears. How on Earth was I supposed to complete 90km the following day? It seemed completely impossible, but as I calmed down I slowly started to recover and with the help of my tent mates I began to sort myself out for the following morning. This was a new situation for me, I was used to having hours to do my admin before it got dark, but it was already close to Sunset and I was barely back home. I’d just have to do minimal and sort the rest out in the morning. I still didn’t really have any appetite yet either so although I knew I needed to eat I couldn’t stomach a proper meal, so just snacked on a few small things I could manage. I also decided it was time to crack out the dihydrocodeine I had left over from one of my many operations – not because I was in pain, but because the Imodium had been doing nothing and dhihydrocodeine is incredibly constipating (previously a reason I would avoid it if possible!). It was worth a try and I was going to try and ‘pharmacist’ my way out of this situation. It is also sedating and having not slept well the last 4 nights I thought this might also be a bonus – it was.
Day 4 – 90km – 1330m+ - the ‘long’ stage
Sunrise on the Long Day
I woke up around 5am as normal as it got light. After a lot of stomach churning and gurgling during the evening, I had only had to go to the toilet once overnight and miraculously I had appetite. I had plenty of water left too as I’d arrived back so late last night, so as soon as I woke up I started drinking water, took some salt tablets and ate my breakfast. There was no way I was going to be able to run really during the day as I was still severely depleted and my insides felt delicate enough that any jumping up and down may cause my entire intestine to fall out. So I planned to walk at a decent pace all morning while it heated up to get ahead of cut offs, then I could stay longer in the CPs in the afternoon if necessary until it started to cool down – then maybe try and run? The decision to walk was ‘helped’ by the fact the first couple of KM were in soft sand on a very gradual incline which was too energy sapping to try and run anyway.
7:30 am and already sweating…
It felt like those first few KM went on forever until we finally crested the top of a dune and had our best downhill dune running of the week so far – I HAD to run that – it was a joy! This was followed by another long and flat plain, during which I fortuitously bumped into Ben. My tent mates had told me to try and team up with someone for the long day as it would make time pass more quickly, but I hadn’t arranged anything so up until now had been on my own. Finding Ben was brilliant – I knew we’d been similar paces overall on Day 1 and 2 so there was a chance we might pace well together – also his plan for the day had been very similar to mine – try and hike out it out at at least 5km/hr for the day and try and pick it up in the cooler, dark hours. He wanted to get it done in one go too rather than sleeping – all of this matched my plan. I walked with him for a good few KM before broaching the subject of staying together all day – he didn’t seem too unhappy with the plan so that is what happened! The time definitely passed much more quickly with someone to talk to. I was also being very diligent with my cooling tactics which meant I was wearing my arm sleeves (which I normally hate wearing in the heat) and carrying my extra water in my hand, which I would never have done if running. I would regularly trickle water over my arms, my wrist buff and my head which really helped when a breeze then hit which would cool me. The actual terrain for a lot of the long day was quite dull and annoyingly runnable (must – not – run) with just a few relatively short climbs and sometimes runnable dunes down the other side. There was a beautiful section around 3 hours in where we came across a herd of wild camels – or maybe they were farmed but they were roaming freely anyway!
This brought a lot of excitement to see actual ‘wildlife’ having only seen a few beetles and a single lizard until this point! Following this the first main feature of the day was the return trip back up over the Jebel El Oftal. Just before we reached the mini-dunes leading up to this ascent we had the entertainment of being overtaken by the lead runners – Rashid, Mohammed and a few others came through at an insane speed with the media helicopter following shortly after. I particularly enjoyed using Mathieu Blanchard’s sand steps as I followed him up into the mini dunes – that was the last we saw of them though!
We scaled the jebel through the rocky gully – it was ridiculously hot and there was no air on the climb as the heat rebounded off all the walls. Ben was having a lower point so I hiked off ahead planning to sit down at the top, watching in awe as Pierre Meslet nimbly jogged up past me as if it was no bother at all… The higher I got, the more exhausted I was and was praying for a breeze at the top – it didn’t seem to come. I was counting down the metres to what I knew was the summit but they were going very slowly. I felt like I needed a loo break but there didn’t seem to be any cover – this could be awkward! Luckily I avoided a toilet drama and I finally got to the summit where the medical helicopter was stationed. I sat down on a rock and breathed. It was again an opportunity to take in the breath taking views – the vastness of the desert around us was really stunning. I used the opportunity to botch together a dressing on my arm which had been rubbing on my bottle and had become really sore. It was a mess that any self-respecting healthcare professional should be ashamed of, but it would do the job. Once Ben arrived we quickly got moving for what was my favourite section of the entire race – the jebel descent on the dune side. We used the rope a little for the first slightly steeper rocky section and then it was free running down the biggest dune I’ve ever run down in my life – so – much – fun!
One of the MdS volunteers threw himself down it while we were there, rolling over and over giggling as he went – it was like we were all children again and it was a few moments of bliss in a really hard week! Sadly it was over too soon and we were back on the flat and trekking towards CP3. I bumped into Andrew from my tent at the checkpoint but he was taking a bit of a longer break so we didn’t wait. I was grateful for Ben at this point as had I stuck to my original plan I’d have been spending longer at these hot CPs but he was keen to get moving and since I didn’t feel too bad I didn’t object. We had a nice kind of synergy in that I was trying to push the hike pace to closer to 6km/hr and he didn’t want to take long breaks – it meant we were ploughing on and covering distance. The terrain from CP3 (36.4km) all the way to CP5 (63.3km) can only be described as dull. It was almost completely flat rocky plain or wadi the entire way.
The only thing to do was put our heads down and hike on, with me using my cooling technique regularly along the way. There was slight drama as CP4 was not where it was supposed to be, when all previous CPs had been pretty much spot on distance and we joined up with a few other people moaning about whether we’d missed it, our water running out and other pointless complaints that there was no one there to hear. It finally turned up at 50km so 2km overdue. We decided to have ‘proper’ food here so that we were fuelled going into the dark so I whipped out a bag of Huel powder that I intended to add to a water bottle. I made this much harder than it probably needed to be and even after my ‘genius’ idea of using one of my pages of messages to make a funnel I still managed to get half of the powder all over myself. I didn’t care, it was just another random substance attached to my skin along with the sweat, grime, and sand already covering me! The Huel turned out to be a great idea as it went down really easily in the heat and was quick to consume (once I finally got it in the bottle!). We sorted ourselves out quickly and trekked on – in a way the late CP was useful as it meant it was only 13km to the next one, rather than the 15km we’d thought it would be which would have been the longest interval of the day.
Between CP4 and 5 we hit Sunset. It was fairly underwhelming in the end as I’d been pinning a lot of hopes on a beautiful desert sunset, but it was cloudy along the horizon so the Sun just sunk down into the clouds. We bumped into Steve Diederich (GB team lead) around that time too and it was nice to see him as I hadn’t seen him out on the course much yet. We had a quick chat while he was taking photos and plodded on, stopping briefly to snap our glow sticks and turn on our head torches. We were in soft sand by this point and it was hard going but the change in light and slight drop in temperature spurred us on. We arrived at CP5 in darkness to discover it equipped with circles of DECKCHAIRS! I hadn’t sat on a chair since Friday so this was bliss. We found a few spaces and plonked ourselves down. We didn’t plan to stay long but Ben had planned to eat a meal that he’d been rehydrating since CP4 so I pulled out a peperami and some chilli crackers and started to munch on those. I was struggling to open my water bottles by this point as my hands were so swollen from all the salt (this was seen as a good thing in MdS land but it was blooming painful!). Somehow I managed not to spill all my fluids, despite the lack of dexterity and we seemed to be in and out of that CP a lot quicker than most people. I’m all too aware of ‘beware the chair’ during an ultra and I wasn’t having any of it. As we left the CP we came across a little tea booth like the one normally at the finish line and were presented with hot, steaming, sweet mint tea – this CP just kept getting better and better! We left carrying our tea and entered the most soul destroying section of the long stage – the 10km of dunes. Time had never gone so slowly as we trekked over dune after dune. They weren’t big, but seemed to somehow always be uphill. We were both having sense of humour failures by this point and there was very little chat. I was still trying to push the pace so would be walking a little ahead of Ben and would keep calling back to check he was there, but it was pretty grim. The distance was going down incredibly slowly – I couldn’t fathom how anyone walks an ultra and was filled with respect for those who do! As we finally approached CP6, my head torch decided to die. This was quite worrying as the batteries were relatively new and I’d only had it on for about 3 hours – we had at least that still to go in the dark, not to mention several more nights of camp life. I decided to walk in the dark and use Ben’s light just to get to the CP where I would change my batteries – giving me a little extra time before using my second (and only) set of spares. We stumbled into the CP and headed for a tent to sort ourselves out.
Ben at CP6 – 73km
There were loads of beetles on the rug so I was trying to avoid any of them climbing into my pack – that would be an unpleasant surprise later on if they hitched a ride! We were relatively efficient and set off again with little chat. Just 17km to go – we were into the ‘teens’ countdown. We were out of the sand by this point but the rest of the route basically felt like it was uphill – very gradually. Our feet were in agony – I could feel mine swollen in the heat and I definitely had a few blisters coming which was the first I’d had all week – blooming walking – this didn’t happen when I ran! There were a few people who were running by this point – it wasn’t actually feeling very cool but it was definitely cooler than the day and they were obviously making the most of it. We were both too sore and knackered to try – I tentatively brought up the idea but my heart wasn’t really in it. We trekked on. There were some painful undulations in the rocky path which broke up the monotony but in the dark it was pretty bleak. The only good thing was the stars, which were incredible and a sight you never get to see in in populated areas. We took the time to turn off our torches to get the true beauty of the scene around us but after a minute or so, we knew we had to keep moving. It felt like we were ‘racing’ to CP7 as there was ‘only’ 6km left afterwards, but those 6km were the longest 6km of my life. I was starting to go a little crazy and was treating my shadow from Ben’s head torch like a third person. If I was approaching a bush I’d side step to allow my shadow to pass freely too… and I was checking in to make sure it was still there and ok with genuine concern! I definitely needed sleep. The lit up course markers were also becoming people in hi-vis jackets, which I took to be a sign we were nearing the finish as they had obviously sent out volunteers to make sure people were finding their way in to the bivouac… This became funnier when right before the finish there was another ‘marker’ that I’d worked out by now was actually a signpost which then turned out to be a real person in a reflective jacket! The bivouac seemed like it would never appear and we were almost at 90km – they had always previously been visible from quite a distance as they tend to be placed down in a valley, but when this one appeared it was on our level, up on a plateau, so it came from nowhere. We could hear the music from a little way out and all we needed to do was to trudge in the last few metres. It was finally over and we had completed it together in 19:34. Nowhere near the time I’d hoped for or dreamed of for the long stage but after yesterday I was so relieved to get it done and in one go, 16 hours under the cut off. I finally believed I was going to finish but now it was time for sleep. I headed back to my tent which was still empty and sorted myself out as quickly as I could before passing out at around 3:30am.
Day 5 – rest day
I woke up around 5am to the sound of movement in the tent – it was Andrew, who had just got back. I was relieved to see him and although he looked pretty broken he was ok. I chatted for a bit with him and then while wondering whether I’d sleep any more now it was light I passed out again. The next thing I remember is waking up a few hours later to find Jago lying on my other side – he must have come in and gone to sleep without me even waking up. Physically I felt pretty awful as my feet hurt and my entire body was stiff from the 90km hike but I was feeling great that I could just relax and didn’t have to go anywhere that day. The morning passed pretty slowly – none of us were in a rush to do anything and it was already really hot in the tent so we were just enjoying lying down and catching up on each other’s adventures from the day before. Sadie arrived not long after and I was so happy to see her – her foot had been holding out with a combination of painkillers and strapping and she had completed the long stage which is where she had had to DNF last year. We were both now in unchartered territory. Richie arrived mid-morning but we were sad to find out she had not completed the long stage and had tapped out at 63km. It was really sad to lose another tent member and she’d been great value. We were now down to 4 with just the marathon stage to go.
One of the best things to happen during rest day was when Andrew’s airbed decided to become a kite. It was in the middle of yet another sand storm that had picked up quite quickly so he hadn’t thought to weigh it down. A huge gust of wind whipped it up and blew it out of the tent, across the entire bivouac and then up into the air about 100m high where it swirled round for several minutes! We were all in hysterics as poor Andrew ran off to try and chase it down (just what he needed after the long stage!) and he finally returned ages later triumphantly brandishing the mat – a kind Berber had picked it off a sand dune right across past the other end of the bivouac and returned it!
Rest day exhaustion
It was a strange day where people kept arriving back at the bivouac continuously – in varying states of broken. It was getting hotter and hotter and I just couldn’t fathom how they had managed to pick themselves up and keep walking as the heat climbed again – now that is resilience.
The other feature of rest day is the famous ‘can of coke’ that all competitors get and eagerly anticipate. This year sadly it wasn’t actual Coca Cola but a Moroccan brand of cola, but it turned out we didn’t care – it was relatively cold, sweet and fizzy and tasted like heaven.
We also had the visit from a string quartet and a soprano opera singer from France which was our entertainment for the evening. I dragged Andrew along with me as no one else from the tent could muster the enthusiasm but this was another MdS treat I’d heard about and previously not been able to experience so I was determined to make the most of it – and it was surreal.
I was feeling much better by evening and was eating normally and drinking plenty of water – I was optimistic for the marathon tomorrow, I just needed a good night’s sleep which shouldn’t be difficult after the minimal sleep last night!
Day 6 – 42.2km – 650m+
This was it. The final day of the Marathon des Sables – I’d made it this far after over 4 years of dreaming about it and I felt GREAT. I hadn’t really run in 3 days which was bizarre in itself given where I was and what I was doing.
Day 6 – knackered but ready to go!
I was also going to capitalise on my terrible Day 3 as that result had meant I dropped out of the top 200 who had to start 1.5 hours later this morning. I was going to make the most out of every single one of those 90 minutes. As we mustered for the start, I realised I really should be out the front of this group as on a ‘good’ day I was finishing in the top 150 and today felt like a good day. I nervously took myself slightly closer to the start as Highway to Hell rang out one more time and the start was called - we were off.
There were still some people fast out of the blocks, but obviously a lot less so than on the previous days and I was relatively near the front – tentatively jogging with my pack which finally felt light as a feather. This was a dream and not the slog I’d prepared for, I was running as well as I had at any point during the event (which wasn’t fast but was at least running!). I was on cloud 9 – nothing could stop me now, this was the victory lap! – just don’t fall over and screw it all up! I found myself using the charms on my wrist to create a mantra ‘I am fearless, I am brave’ (adding – ‘but also a bit sensible!’ as I tried not to overcook it). It wasn’t too hot as we’d again started at 7am and the terrain was mainly runnable switching between rocky plains and dirt wadis. The distance started to tick down and a glance at my watch told me the top 200 still hadn’t started as the temperature started to climb – this was my time.
I was soon out on my own with the occasional person to overtake but generally no one around. Normally I might have been bored and thought about music at this point but I didn’t need distraction from this moment – it was everything I had been working towards and I was literally loving it. The only think to dampen my spirits had been that my period had unexpectedly made an appearance the evening before – something I had tried to avoid medically a few weeks before with the pill but clearly ineffectually on this occasion. And just to add perspective to how annoying this situation was, you have to appreciate that toilet roll is on strict ration during MdS – you only have what you bring and my supply had not coped with the initial cold and then several days of diarrhoea – and now this. I was very relieved I’d packed the extra tissues, but they’d long gone and I’d already resorted to bartering toilet roll for a peperami the day before - I just did not need this thrown into the mix! It was a bit of a nightmare too as the staff had not been that forthcoming with help ‘you are supposed to be self-sufficient’ so I had one pad from them which really wasn’t adequate as it was very quickly sodden with sweat. Given the complete lack of any kind of dignity by this point I whipped it out running into CP1 and stuffed it in the first black bag I saw, running immediately to Doc Trotters and saying in a way only the British can ‘I’m so sorry but do you have a tampon?’ Expecting the same unhelpful response as from the reception desk I was pleasantly surprised for the lady to say ‘why of course come with me’ where she proceeded to grab a tampon and some hand sanitiser for me so I could pop behind a jeep an sort myself out. This was great and it was a quick turnaround before I set off again at a jog towards CP2 with currently (and for pretty much the first time all week) no health concerns.
It wasn’t long before Mohammed, Aziz and a few of the other elites started to come through, but it took a long time before Maryline overtook me and I was pleased that none of the other elite women did. CP2 came along and as I filled up my bottles in the tent I had a word of caution from a kind, older Italian man who had raced three times before who warned me ‘the next section is all dunes – take your time’. Gulp – I hadn’t quite realised we had another proper dune section. I decided to carry the extra bottle in my hand even though I didn’t think I needed it and set off towards the dunes. As luck would have it they started off as what I decided to call ‘beginner’ dunes which were individual small mounds of sand with hard rocky ground in between that could go on for several hundred metres. This meant it was possible to still keep some pace up – so I did. They gradually transitioned into proper ‘grown up’ dunes so the pace came down, but it wasn’t a long section so I put my head down and trudged through them.
I had decided to treat myself to my two ‘emergency Percys’ with 10km to go so after climbing a particularly big dune I stopped and ripped open the plastic to eat them in all their piggy glory. They’d served their purpose, sitting in my front pouch all week, but I had not had a need for them and now their duty was done!
I finally jogged down the last dune and out onto the hard, rocky plain and into CP3. There was only 8.5km to go. The atmosphere in the CP was jubilant – the few people there all knew we’d done it. There was a 12 hour cut off for this marathon and we’d only been going for just over 4. I set off again, with no pressure. I ran what I wanted to, I walked where it was soft ground or uphill. I chatted to a British man for a while who was walking it in but I was too impatient so I set off running again with him giving me a cheer as I did. And then I could see it – the finish arch. It was a way off, but it was all a gradual rocky downhill. I was struggling not to cry as I finally approached the line to find Patrick standing there with the medal outstretched to put over my head. I had done it. I smiled as he put the medal over my head, but quickly descended into tears as he started saying what I assume were congratulatory and reassuring things to me in French. He doesn’t know me – he probably had hundreds of people cry on him as they crossed the line that day alone, but I wanted him to understand the journey – the BRCA mutation discovery that led to the decision to take on this race more than four years ago, the training, the absolute crushing heartbreak at my DNF in 2021, the six operations I have undergone since, the build back up, the financial risk I’d taken by coming back out here when I can’t afford it, my intolerance to heat and my massively high sweat rate that made every hour a challenge, the IV on Day 3 that was my lifeline to the finish… But I couldn’t say any of it and he couldn’t understand, I just sobbed on his shoulder as he hugged me.
Following crossing the line I remembered to whip out my flag which I’d carried throughout the race for my charity Down’s South London who have supported my amazing niece Lucy over the last few years with additional therapy support. I stood in front of the photographers with my flag proudly held up and then looked for the webcam. I’d spent a lot of the last 10km trying to remember what the sign for ‘love’ was in Makaton, but I hadn’t been able to so I botched together an ‘I love you Lucy’ with the signs I could do to the camera before walking away to finally let it all sink in.
I think I was in the minority by enjoying that last stage, but I was just so happy to have returned to my form from the first two days and to prove I could do it. I was back in the top 20 women for the day, which had been one of my overall goals which funnily enough I didn’t make given my 800th place on Day 3! But when it comes down to it, no one cares where you come unless you win the thing so that was ok. It was a strong year for elite women and I have nothing to be ashamed of with my placing. There had also been a dropout rate that almost rivalled 2021 and I hadn’t been one of them.
All of the other three members of my tent returned one by one – none had enjoyed it like I had but there was a shared sense of relief that we had done it. It was an odd evening and while I opted to go to the prize ceremony, the others decided to rest instead. The most inspiring part of the evening was the award for the teams of the two joëlettes – kind of one wheeled wheelchair chariots carrying Joseph and Enzo, two young French boys. For everything I had just endured, these teams had done it pushing and pulling a heavy weight at the same time over some of the most relentless terrain in brutal Saharan heat and they and their young passengers were absolute heroes.
Day 7 – 9km – Charity Stage
There isn’t a lot to say about this stage really, we all had matching clean T-shirts, it didn’t count and no one runs it! The one significant thing I’d say about this day was that it took me back to where it all went wrong. The magnificent but unforgiving Merzouga dunes from Day 2 in 2021. Its where I had first got sick in the 58 degree radiating heat, it is where we had tragically lost Pierre and it is where my dreams had all fallen apart - this place was not my favourite. It meant a lot to me to walk through the rolling dunes slowly and calmly to appreciate the scale and beauty that I had not been able to appreciate 18 months ago in this place that had caused me so much trauma. It felt like I had finally laid the ghost of 2021 to rest and I was content.
People talk a lot about your ‘why’ for entering events like this and for me it has never been an easy answer. On a basic level I suppose I want to challenge myself and push my limits and I didn’t want my silly BRCA mutation and its implications to limit me in any way from doing exciting things and experiencing amazing parts of the world. But MdS #2 was more than that as it became about my whole being and whilst my first attempt had intentionally been before my surgery, this was about proving what was possible afterwards. I’d always known I should have been able to complete this event when I first ran it, but I’d had that snatched away from me and I felt cheated. I’d yearned for all the things I’d heard about the event over many years and all that I’d been left with was a bitter taste that needed to be removed. I’ve learnt to respect the brutality of the desert heat and how humbling it can be to even the strongest competitor. I’ve seen elite runners wiped out with heatstroke despite being at the top of their game – its not just normal people like me that succumb. Most of all, this event draws the most incredible array of diversity on every level which makes you question your own challenges and struggles in a way not much else can. The resilience and camaraderie I have witnessed through my week in the desert will stay with me forever and I can truly say it was an honour to toe the line with all of those incredible people – each there for their own reason, with their own ‘why’.
I just wanted to use this opportunity to thank everyone who has stood by me throughout this whole experience and over the last four years – firstly my family who despite their concerns and overprotective nature have never questioned my desire to go back out to give this another go. I’m sorry for my dot stopping for so long at D3CP1!
Secondly to my Camino Ultra family who have been there from the start to help me prepare as best as I could for this undertaking and crewed me, paced me, transported me, offered words of wisdom and generally been a sounding board for my craziness throughout all of this.
To Izzy and the team at Walk Once More who have given me unwavering support even though I was fundraising for a different charity and for connecting me with the team at LSBU to arrange heat acclimation sessions that were invaluable.
To Freya and Maria at LSBU who put up with my whining and panic attacks as my body stubbornly refused to acclimate in the heat chamber – thanks for sticking with me – I’m positive this changed the outcome of my race!
To all my friends, colleagues and supporters who have encouraged me, tracked me, sponsored me and written me messages before, during and since the race – I’m so grateful to all of you.
Finally a last shout out to my wonderful charity Down’s South London. They are a very small charity that are parent-led and are doing fantastic work to support children with Down’s Syndrome in the South London area. They have given my niece Lucy incredible therapy over the last few years and I’ve seen her go from strength to strength. It would be fantastic to see them able to continue to offer this service to children for many years to come so if anyone has yet to sponsor me please visit my Justgiving page.