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My training for MdS: #5 'The good old days'

by Editor
Tuesday 3rd March 2015

Simon Ward shares his training for the 30th Sultan Marathon des Sables (MDS) - Southern Maroccan Sahara, April 3-13, 2015

If you talk to older people (I mean people older than myself) like my MdS running partner John Blyth (who is very old) they often talk about how much simpler life was, you know, ‘way back when’. Recently I’ve found myself having similar thoughts. I have done the Marathon des Sables once before - back in 2001 - when even Rory Coleman was a novice desert runner, and in the intervening 14 years things seem to have become, well, just a bit more complicated on many fronts.

Lets start with the training: just ate the millennium I’d split up with my wife so I was living at my parents house with my brother, drinking a bottle of wine each night (It was between us! …. He had half a glass, I had the rest) and not doing very much training. I used to swim regularly and did some biking but I can’t remember that much running, although I must have done some.

This year I’ve been averaging 6-8 hours per week on my feet since Christmas and I’ve logged so many miles with my pack it feels strange to run without it. Back in 2001 I had done one early morning run with a fully laden pack and one ultra event called the Doncaster Doddle. I decided to run the Doddle in my full MdS kit as it was only a few weeks before the race and I turned up to find several other similarly clad “northern” runners (mostly the ones that couldn't be bothered to head down to “that London” to do some 50 miler along by a big river called the Thames Trot). With all of us properly over-loaded with desert kit, compared to the “real” runners, and it wasn't long before we fell behind the cut offs for each check point. At 20 miles we had been going for 5 hours and were offered the option of a lift back to race HQ. Glad that it was all over, we jumped in the van.

I saw a post the other day suggesting that we should all be running many miles over the dunes. One of the “rules” for a good training programme is specificity; running on sand and especially dunes is a good idea. First time around, however the nearest I got to sand was a local building site, a decent idea, but as they were actually working that day I just got chased off. So, not much running, no sand and a failed attempt to complete a 50k ultra run with my race weight pack. Things weren't looking good.

Of course today in order to offset my disappointment, I would have access to “The Facebook page”, and a myriad of accomplished ultra distance desert running coaches to choose from, ready to dispense valuable advice to help me get around. And having failed in my first ultra I can now use social media to find comfort from other runners who have suffered the same fate. Not then - 2001 was just after the “Millennium Bug" when all computers melted and we had to go back to talking to each other (also Facebook wasn’t invented). So, moral support, advice, information; much harder to come by back then.

Then there’s equipment. Now there are specialist kit suppliers selling purpose designed MdS equipment and clothing and god help you if you don't have this kit. Your chances of even getting to the end of day 1 are severely reduced if you don't have specialist “stuff”. In 2001 I just went to my local climbing shop in Leeds and gave them my kit list. I ended up with some quite heavy North Face trail shoes with attachable gaiters. The shoes were fine but the gaiters proved to be as much use as a chocolate pitchfork. I binned them after Day 1.

I bought an adventure racing back pack, a lightweight sleeping bag + silk liner, a lightweight Thermarest (feels very heavy and bulky now) and a couple of clima-dry T shirts for £15 (By the way, Rory is right on this. I don't think there’s any need for the £150 Cross Your Heart X Bionic Six Pack Ice Cool T shirts that seem to be the fashion. After 5 days without washing mine it could stand up on its own and smelled so much it scared off the wildlife. I chucked it away and wore the other one for the final stage. Imagine doing that to your lifetime investment T shirt!)

I had no clue about what socks to wear so my logical thinking back then went something like this: ‘if SealSkinz can keep water out then maybe they can keep sand out as well’. So, I bought a pair after the bloke in the climbing shop vaguely agreed. Added to that: a white legionnaire’s hat with the flappy bit to cover my neck, a buff and some cheapo sunglasses. And I took my swimming goggles - thinking that they would be fine in a sandstorm and I had loads so why waste money on fancy Mad Max goggles from Oakley (Yorkshire rationale for you!).

All this meant that when we departed on day 1 my pack weighed 12.6kg (ouch), but the kit worked fine… aside from the gaiters and socks. Disaster. Each day my feet looked like I had trench foot and it wasn't long before I started developing blisters. After the long stage (84k, 62C) I had infected toes and the medics prescribed antibiotics inserted anally… Actually, I found out that was a French joke, but they were quite large and difficult to swallow.

14 years ago, it was army style ration packs or… No that was it. So I improvised. For my breakfasts I chose a mix of Complan and hot chocolate. I figured if it was good enough for sick people it would be good enough for me in a desert. For my evening meals I went for….Pot noodle. Yep I know its junk food: full of calories and lots of salt but thats good for hot sweaty conditions. So I bought 14 pots, divided them into 7 zip lock bags and crushed them up to make them smaller. To warm my water I had a small MSR stove which connected to a small gas bottle (so sadly I can’t use it this time).

14 years later, I’ll be taking specially formulated meals made by Sport Kitchen and custom packed so that I have the right amount of calories for each meal… I’m still planning on the Complan and hot chocolate though, that was alright! During the stages I existed on gels and sports drink. It worked then and it’s my plan this time too.

So that’s it. Back in 2001 I barely got the necessary kit, did a bit of training, didn’t have anyone to share my experience with in the run up to it, ate junk food and finished in the mid 300’s averaging just over 5kmph.

This time I’ve done more training and I’m fitter than ever. I’ve taken more care with my kit choices, (especially the socks!) and practiced with a heavy pack at least 50% of the time.

Here’s what hasn’t changed: We are in the Sahara and have to cover 250k in 6 days. The sleeping arrangements and the temperatures will be similar. The blisters will still bloom, and they will hurt and even in my heightened level of fitness, I know that after Day 2 or 3 it’s still going to be more about mental fortitude than how many miles I’ve run in preparation.

More information on the 30th Sultan MDS for UK competitors can be found at:www.marathondessables.co.uk

For general information about the event visit: www.darbaroud.com/en/the-mds/


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