What a week!

A week that I will remember for a long time, the pain, the jubilation, the agony, the elation. MDS asks for a lot, but gives back more in return, it is a journey of epic proportions and one I would highly recommend for those seeking a challenge. Ok, enough cliches.

Some members of TriDubai, all much faster and better runners than myself, have taken part in the MDS in the past. However, I have not seen a race report for MDS to date, so I thought I would share with anyone who may be interested in my experience. 

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I will try to be brief and will write a separate “tips for MDS” if anyone is interested, please let me know.

  • What: A 250km self-sufficient race (except water and tent, which is provided) over 6 days,  in the 40c+ Moroccan Sahara, through dunes, over jebels and known as the “toughest footrace on earth”. (Photos attached). This means around a 10kg backpack which will be mainly food
  • How: Now in its 33rd year, Patrick Bauer started the race after traversing 350km of the Sahara on his own. He is the spirit and soul of this race, directs and starts the race every morning (with the same song!) and is there to greet you at the goal line when you finish with a huge bear hug, kiss optional.
  • When: Normally early April when the temperature starts to rise. Our race dates were from 8th to 14th April 2018.
  • Why: The decision to take part was made last July together with my good friend, Tyrone Sinnamon. We trained together, but unfortunately, he was unable to take part this year. He should be aiming to Race next year so good luck to him. I also asked James Rudolf, a good friend from University and he was able to join, through training in a much colder Wales. We shared a tent together throughout the race period.
  • Who: About 1000 participants from nearly 50 countries. You will share a tent (photo attached) with 7 others. The “Tent” becomes your team and support throughout the race, and beyond. Some decide upon the tent beforehand, some are thrown together. The tent is strictly speaking of the country you reside in, though exceptions are granted :) 

Training for MDS

The distance, logistics and the circumstances of this race make it a huge commitment. I believe my full Ironman training over the last five years have helped, both from the level of fitness and putting together a training plan by myself. I would say it is not a race to be lightly taken on board. This race took several times the focus, commitment and the time of training for a full Ironman, that’s just my personal opinion.

My training method was simple - run, run and run, all of it with weight (8-12kg). If tired, walk, walk and walk some more. If too tired then swim, cycle or hot yoga. The four months leading up to the race was v intense and I lost 18kg of fat and gained 5kg of muscle. Staying injury free, hydrated and healthy are also key aspects of success.

Nutrition and race gear

Since this is a self-sustained race, it is crucial to choose and test all your nutrition (minimum 2000kcal must be carried for each day)and race gear(shoes, socks, gaiters, backpack, sleeping mat and bag, cooking utensils if planning to cook, run wear and downtime wear). I was fortunate to come away without a single blister, but expect multiple blisters and more. I will not post any photos but google “MDS blisters” if you want to see what it the worst may be like (but not before eating!).

Footwear and foot care requires special mention since it is absolutely crucial to get this right. Trial and error, the test fails, repeat until you are comfortable and confident.

The first time I heard about MDS was about 20 years ago, the last few years so many friends from Dubai took part. My mind was ready and decided to do this made up a while ago, but it took me a solid 9 months+ for the physical and mental preparation.

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Onwards to Morocco!

I and two other fellow Dubai runners, Mark Buley and Gary Turnbull traveled to Casablanca. From there an internal flight to Ouarzazate, where we are loaded onto buses for a six-hour journey into the Sahara.

We arrive at the first bivouac and are put into our tents. In our tent, we had 3 English (James, Dan, and Kuwait - but living in Wales, Hong Kong and Kuwait), 1 Welsh (Mark),  1 Scot (Gary),  Su the first ever Malaysian female entrant, Denise the only Chinese participant for the year and myself - Japanese based in Dubai :) a mixed crew!

What is unclear from the schedule and I was confused about was that we have two nights at the bivouac before we hand over our non-race excess stuff. So we arrived on Friday and the race itself would start Sunday morning. We took some extra clothes and provisions and savored our last ties to civilization with mobile connection and Facebook. I put my phone in my suitcase to hand in, completely detaching myself from the real/digital world. Quite pleasant I must say. 

Two days of camp life, acclimatizing to the weather and the tent, acquainting yourself with your tent mates who will become your lifelong friends and comrades. Everyone is itching to go. When Sunday comes and Patrick announces the start, it is a relief to stretch the legs whilst trying not to think about the 250km ahead.

The course changes every year, though I understand this year was the same as the last. Day 1, a gentle 30km intro some dunes and fantastic scenery. The cut off is generous for the whole race so some people even walk the whole race.

Day 1: 30km finished without incident, weather hot but bearable. Everyone’s spirits high. The good thing about coming back to your tent is that you exchange experiences, what worked what didn’t and as the week goes on share food, supplies and war stories which make for the whole experience. 7 in the tent chose to cook hot food buying the fuel cells from the organizers, James was on cold food for the week - with a diet of beef jerky, nuts, dried fruit, and granola. This is a personal choice and one you need to think deeply about and trial before the race. I was mainly relying on Expedition foods with a mix of Japanese freeze dried food thrown in. Again, this was all tested during the training period, often dining of Expedition Food spaghetti bolognese before going to bed. 

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Day 2: 40km and this was when it really hit us. The excitement of the race start wore off and the course was brutal. The more beautiful the scenery became the harder the terrain was and hurt your body and mind.  After 30km on never-ending plains and dunes under the scorching sun, we turn into the mountain range we had run along next to and climb one of the tallest jebels. Having taken part in the Ultra Urban Hajar 50km, the climb was not as daunting - I would highly recommend the Ultra Urban races as warm up for MDS. From the top of the Jebel the view was stunning and the sharp 20-degree descent over the sand covering the other side of the mountain. So steep you need a rope to guide you down (photo attached). A final stretch of flat saw us back at camp, somewhat tired and frightened about what lay ahead, especially on Day 4.

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The evenings had been calm so far, a strong occasional gust at sunset which was usual in the desert. You wore a buff all the time and covered your face every time you saw dust coming your way. The air is extremely dry so don’t forget your lip balm! This evening had been particularly quiet and both in the tiredness from the day and the familiarity now with camp life we went to sleep early, leaving our belongings scattered... 

When the storm hit us at 1130pm,  we were fast asleep, a strong gust of wind knocking down several of the poles and visibility was down to near zero. Those close to the pole held on for dear life and we could hear shouts and screams from the other tents. The wind was too strong and after ten or so minutes we came to the collective decision that we should drop all the wooden poles. Counter-intuitively but due to the design lying under the thick black tent gave us cover from the sandstorm and we all soon fell asleep.

The storm passed in a few hours and we woke up to collect our scattered belongings, our loss not being major. Lesson there, always tie things down. 

Day 3: 30km ... the morning after the storm, tired legs and with the long day on Day4/5 ahead Gary and I decided to hold back and fast walk. In terms of the course, this was my favorite, especially running on top off the ridge on the Jebel. The wind blew nicely and it was hard not to break into a trot, which felt like flying. But hold back, think of Day 4/5, we took some good photos that day (attached)

Day4/5: 86km. Some say this is what MDS is all about. To be fair that is an overstatement, but it is true this is the BIG challenge and extra planning is required for this stage.  The cut off time is a generous 35 hours and this stage itself is worthy of one serious race.  8 am, James and I started slow and as the heat rose our pace didn’t improve. I felt strong so James and I parted before checkpoint 4 and I ran on. 

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Sunset just after CP4 as we hit the big dunes, I refueled with some rice I had prepared while running (just stuck it in my water bottle), shoveled it down with a piece of salami and faced the two hard stages over huge dunes. Nightfall brought strong gusts of wind with sand being blasted from all directions and hitting any exposed skin. Ouch. I labored on along with others under the night sky with our torchlight dotting the trail like a line of stars. Sometimes if I found someone with the same pace I would tuck in behind and tag along, partly to take the mind off the monotony and to ease your concentration from spotting the trail which was lined with luminescent markers.

This is surely the hardest part of the race 50km, 60km, 70km... 10 pm, midnight, 2 am... slow and grinding. Some stop, cook or rest at the checkpoints, but I was determined to push on. And when I finally saw the camp light, it was a relief and reminded me of the words of Lindbergh... “legs those are the lights of the end of this stage”. I reached my tent at 4 am, the guys who had arrived earlier were fast asleep. The two remaining members came in with a smile the next morning, the sunrise giving them extra strength to walk in. 

Day 5 is a rest day, we lie in our tent to avoid the heat, chat, cook food to recover and wait for emails from our family and friends, which are received centrally by the organizers via the website, who print out and deliver to our tents. Some of the messages are so touching and the encouragement it gives you during moments of self-doubt are unbelievable. I can’t thank the people who sent messages enough.

Day 6: 42km. The customary words said before this day is “it’s only a marathon”, in reference to the distance we have run so far. Yet it is no easy marathon, with blistering winds against us and some challenging dunes dotted along the way. I had decided to walk the first part with Sue who had major blisters to show she did MDS and to chat to all those I had run and walked with the last five days. Once Sue was warmed up and keeping a good pace, I picked up the pace and ran the rest of the 30km to the final goal.  

The goal appeared after we crossed the final hill and village, picking up speed with legs feeling strong I raced back for the completion of the day. Patrick was waiting with his infectious smile and a big hug, the sunglasses hiding my tears of joy and achievement, and the effort I had put in over the months. This also signified my last race being based in Dubai as I am due to leave at the end of May.

The evening is the awards ceremony as the final day is a charity run/walk which does not count towards the final times. Perversely it was very cold and I must say a little anti-climax due to the cold, but our tiredness brought another early and final night in our tents.

Day 7 and back to civilization. The last day is a 7.7km charity run, most walk with their tent mates before boarding the bus back to Ouarzazate for a shower and soft warm bed.

Final words

MDS is a journey of self-discovery, of support from friends and family, of preparation akin to military operation for those of us who haven’t seen trial and preparation to such extreme. It is also a test of the limits, physical and mental.

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For this race, I supported the Maria Christina Foundation and raised funds for the charity. As the founder Maria Conceicao said in her message to me during the race:

“Your mind will keep telling the body to run, while the body will start to give up. They will keep fighting until neither have the energy to fight any longer. This is when your heart must step in and convince both your mind and your body to keep going”.  

Takamasa Makita
16 April 2018

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