The Half Marathon des Sables so named as it is half the distance of the full Marathon des Sables but with the same regulations and conditions. This edition took place in Fuerteventura (there is another edition in Peru) in conjunction with the Las Playitas Hotel with approximately 460 competitors. The concept is to run 3 stages over 4 days inc a rest day, in the “desert” and hills of Fuerteventura being totally self-sufficient which means running with all your kit in a rucksack weighing between 5.5kg and 12kg with rationed water over and above, which is the only thing supplied to you during the race. At the end of the first two stages you collect your water ration of 5litres which has to do you until the first checkpoint of the next day, and you sleep in a one man tent cooking your own meals and dealing with all your own kit and organisation for the next day, you are given a time chip and a GPS tracking device. At the end of the 3rd stage you finish at the hotel.
On the first day we were transported by coach to the start line for a 12pm kick off the sun was shining the packs were as heavy as they would be over the week and with the Rock music blaring we set off, we got about a mile along a rocky path then straight up a 1000ft hill, nice introduction. At the top the view over the beach was spectacular and we had a great run down the other side onto the sand and the seashore and the first checkpoint where we received our next allocation of water. We then had 6 miles along the beach which was really tough as the sand was soft and deep, the field was strung out right along the beach with individuals and groups of 5 – 10 runners, my plan of action was to leapfrog from one group to another using a walk/ run strategy which I found to be quite successful in gaining me places (made famous by Caroline Hever). We had a row of mountains on the right, splashing waves on the left and a deserted beach in between a really beautiful and scenic location.
After 11 miles we came off the beach and back up onto the rock face where we climbed hand over hand up a gulley and onto a 20 inch path which skirted the crashing waves, with no barrier whatsoever and a 100ft drop to the rocks below this was not for the faint hearted, the path was covered in sand and gravel and had to be taken very carefully. The next checkpoint and water came at 12 miles at the top of the cliff, then the cliff top path took us to the 15 mile mark where we turned back inland and onto a sandy rocky path which worked its way uphill for over 3 miles to the finish of the first stage and the bivouac, where we were issued with another 5 litres of water and given our tent number and position. (11.3miles – 5hrs 30 mins—225th from 462 starters)
I found my tent in a group of 6 where I met Rob, my other group mates Cat, Nick, Simon and Sara were not back yet. I dumped my pack in the 6ftx 3ft tent and got it immediately covered in sand , I then filled my kettle with water then knocked it over in the tent covering everything with water and making the sand all wet , I done my best to mop it up and refilled the kettle, I then spent 45 minutes unsuccessfully trying to get a small firelighter lit with a two bob lighter in the windiest place in the world (we were right next to a wind farm) by this time the rest of the group were back and(after introductions) some were more successful than me at the old camping lark and I managed to get some lukewarm water and hydrated some food which wasn’t great, I supplemented this with peanuts and a Clif bar and as it was 8pm and getting dark thought about bed, so got my gear off and went into my sleeping bag covered in sweat, sand, blood and anything else that was stuck to me , alarm set for tomorrow at 5am. During the night the wind howled the tent flapped about madly the metal marquee squeaked and various noises from my campmates all conspired to keep me awake for most of the night, when I did finally fall asleep I was woken with water dripping on my face from the condensation in the tent, you must leave a significant gap in the tent flap to prevent this, causing more noisy flapping about.
Day 2, Stage 2 the long one 34miles, we were awoken by officials walking through the camp at 5am with a klaxon shouting for us to get up, yesterday and last night and meagre rations, were not ideal preparations for a 34 mile trail run in the heat carrying a 9kg pack but I was glad to get up and get out of that tent. I now had 1hr 15m to get dressed, get something to eat, fill my water bottles, repack my rucksack, get rid of every last piece of rubbish from my tent( or you get penalised), visit the portaloos ( 20 portaloos, 500 competitors and officials and they don’t flush at all, think giant walnut whips…. nuff said ) which were 800 meters away and get to the start, now if you think it took me a whole hour to get ready in a spacious hotel room with the help of my lovely attentive wife on the first day you can imagine it was a mad scramble in the cold ,dark windy conditions wearing a head torch, but I made it and got to the start line raring to go again buoyed by the loud Rock music we were sent on our way at 6:30am.
Stage 2 was similar to stage 1 but just under twice the distance. We ran down 3 miles onto the beach the same soft sand for 4 miles before hitting the cliff face again taking us up a steep 600ft then down again onto deep powdery sand then onto the stunning sea front cliff path with crashing waves to the left and a sand wall to the right. By 11:30am we had a relatively cool morning with a bit of a cloudy sky and a breeze coming off the sea then all that changed, the clouds disappeared the sun got up and we started to move inland away from the sea and worked our way towards an 1100ft climb up a rocky mountain, in all the checkpoints before this 1.5l of water had lasted well till the next checkpoint , we had been warned to carry 2litres but we all knew better and everyone was caught out on this section, the checkpoint was at 18 miles the next checkpoint was at 26.5 miles but this section took nearly twice as long as any other , it was also the hottest few hours of the whole race over 30 degrees and up 1100ft so the water didn’t last long. The hill wasn’t too bad for the first 4 miles or so then we hit a gulley full of rocks and boulders which we had to scale hauling our packs and with running poles in hand an absolute nightmare especially when you are as inflexible as me, I spent some time just staring at rocks trying to work out how I was going to get up, when I finally did I was met with an identical problem this went on for several hundred metres till I final hit the top. By this time I had been on the course for 8hrs I had covered 24 miles including two very big hills it was baking hot over 30 degrees and I had no water till the next checkpoint 2.5 miles away, my feet were blistered with walking on the rocks and a few of my toes were bruised and blistered under the nail causing pain with every step, I didn’t see this in the promo video, anyway I marched on to the next checkpoint and got some much needed water and some poured over my head. The last 6 miles were a forced march to the finish up a deep sandy path feet in agony with every step I finally crossed the line at 6pm 11hrs 30mins after I started that morning. (34 miles—11hrs 30 mins—209th for the day)
My campmates found me an hour later crashed out in my tent with my legs sticking out and gaiters still on a few of the others still weren’t back yet , so I decided to have cold muesli which was not bad I had hydrated a muesli meal for during the day and enjoyed it so not taking any chances as I was really hungry I had that with some cashews and a clif bar got disrobed and into my sleeping bag covered in more grime than the day before plus two mashed up feet, the others were just arriving back at 9pm I wished them well for finishing and goodnight then crashed out completely not waking at all till 7am the next morning which was rest day.
Rest Day, the promo video showed everyone enjoying themselves and having fun, but it looked more like a scene from the walking dead as a lot of us made our way 800 metres the other way to the medical tent to get our blisters seen to, after treatment I was given a pair of blue plastic foot coverings to walk back with so had to fashion a homemade pair of flip flops which done the job. The rest of the day was yoga , a fun demonstration of sumo , photos , distribution of a much desired bottle of coke, chatting , preparing food , sorting and discarding unneeded gear and food and wondering how the feet would stand up to another 15 miles .8pm all into bed for 5am wake up.
Ding Ding 5am that was quick 3rd stage and last day. We now have 1 whole hour to get dressed, pack our stuff have something to eat, fill our bottles if not done the night before, bin our rubbish, and dismantle our tents, an 800 metre dash to the infamous portaloos, 800 metres back, stack the tent then a 1.5 mile walk to the coach that will transport us to near the start, off the coach 1.5 mile walk straight up a long winding 600ft hill to the start phew!. Feet actually feel not bad, I’ve taped them up tight, shoes on snug and a whole day off with rest combined with the daily dose of adrenaline renews my optimism that I could actually pull this off. Usual razz ma tazz , loud music, drones, speeches, photos, videos then we’re off back down the hill we had just walked up , feet feel not too bad but toes banging against my shoes on the steep downhill, I manage to run just over a mile before I get into a walk , I’m now feeling fantastic 2 x 5 mile checkpoints then 5 miles to finish lots of downhill and flat no beach yup very doable. First 2 checkpoints come and go 10 miles gone I’m in the top 230 for the day going well another mile downhill then its only 4 miles over twin peaks to the end, first one 450 ft the last 375ft no problem. I ascend the first hill not bad and manage to keep my position nobody overtakes me 3 miles to go, then I get hit with heat stroke, the top of the hill I’m very tired but there is not a breath of air at all no wind not even a slight breeze and I start to feel very funny , and can’t concentrate , I sit down to have a rest , other runners are asking if I’m ok and I confirm I’m fine, but I’m anything but, I press on another 100m sit down again absolutely no wind must be 40 degrees , more runners pass some stop and pour water over my head ( advice we were given for heatstroke) I recover again another 100m feel absolutely terrible , I let more runners pass more water on my head some are wanting to press my emergency button but I refuse, start the descent off the big hill slip on my backside a few times but get a breeze and recover to the bottom , meet some friends from camp walk a bit with them then have to sit down again at start of smaller hill, more runners pass more water on my head slight recovery another 100m sit down again ¾ of a mile to go just over 1km I’m thinking I can’t go on a young guy in particular stops gives me water pours water on my head wants to drag me over the last bit of the hill but I feel I’m in a sauna wearing a divers suit and boots feeling sick , I drag myself to the top the wind is back , I instantly recover and start to run down the hill I pass the medics on the way up not sure if they were going for me , I meet the young guy at the bottom and thank him and let him run on in front of me as that would be a bit cruel to pass him, over the beach and into the hotel Caroline there to meet me I feel fantastic again , the last 3 miles has taken me an hour and cost me about 40 places but I’m not bothered just glad to be ok and able to finish on my own two feet , Caroline cheers me on to the finish yessssss. (15 miles—5hrs 10 mins—284th for the day—— Final placing—67 miles—21hrs.50mins.30secs—243rd / 462—Nearly 100 drop out throughout the process)