The standard definition is; “A call to prove or justify something” but what do we need to prove? To who? Why the need to justify?  Because we are human, we live to conquer challenges, to rise above, to evolve through rich experiences, whether comfortable or not…

With this in mind and at the now adult (it took long enough!) age of 42 years old, my brain kicked into caveman mode last August and decided it was time to conquer, to test myself and push the boundaries. As a casual runner (last race 8 years ago) I decided this might be a nice avenue to explore, maybe a marathon, or more? A run somewhere interesting? Within a matter of minutes, the game was on and my entry confirmed to the Marathon des Sables 2018, a 260km, self-sufficient race across the Sahara in searing desert heat, bring it on!

For those who know the Marathon des Sables (MDS) it is not a race that one approaches lightly, as much as the running itself, the challenge is for an amateur runner to completely change their mindset and apply professional thinking and insane levels of detail to all elements of the challenge (Running, Body Mechanics, Nutrition, Survival etc), and then to test all plans, refine them and in the process lay the foundations of MDS success
So, it’s October, the first such test is here, and boy is it a challenge (this may have crept up on me!), the VO two Atlantic Coast A testing 3 marathons in 3 days around the UK’s Cornish coastal path, a steep, rocky cliff top path surrounded by shipwrecks and ruined tin mines, a constant reminder of those who have been beaten by this terrain through the ages and left to ruin!

Arriving at the race HQ at 6pm the evening before, its quickly obvious how professionally organised this event is, the team at VO two apply their military precision to every element of the event, from the HQ setup, the quality and organisation of the checkpoints, the mandatory kit and safety factors, nothing is left to chance. I check into my shared caravan and meet Nick and Patrick, 2 great guys, Nick a keen triathlete and Patrick an experienced marathoner. We are all excited, ready and can’t wait for the challenge to begin.

Day 1 – Padstow to Perranporth, 42.5km: a restless night’s sleep and the alarm chirps at 6am signaling the start of the next phase and that its time to get on with it. The race HQ this morning is a mix of nerves and excitement, 200 runners excitedly preparing the day/s ahead, discussing strategies, experiences, and aspirations. It’s worth noting that there is a field of 200 runners and it appears that at least half of the field have either completed the MDS or are about to, great preparation and a chance to network ahead of the MDS (and to meet up with some of the Bad Boy running alumni).

The mandatory kit checks are first, essentially warm/wet weather gear and some basic emergency and first aid items suited to the course – we are also issued with an electronic dibber to be dibbed at every checkpoint along the way (every 15km or so). Following this is the daily briefing from Ben Mason at VO two, the event is self-navigation so some very clear navigation instructions are given (more on those later) whilst I ignore them, fiddle with my watch and eat my breakfast, consisting of just 2 organic flapjack bars, my planned MDS breakfast now being tested.

As day 1 starts and finishes away from camp it’s onto the minibuses (there are 8, completing 2 trips each!) for the hour transfer to the start, made easier by great humour from Dave, a VO two crew member from Redruth who’s jokes by far exceed those of Ben in his earlier briefing.

Upon reaching the start line it’s time for the last minute checks, a few words of encouragement between Patrick and I and then ready for the off, I dig through the start as about the 60th runner, starting in a downhill grassy trail and setting a strong pace in glorious British October sunshine (?!?!?).

The terrain soon undulates with grassy trail turning into rocky trails and short steep downhill and uphill sections as we cling to the cliff trail, passing by beautiful cliff tops (big drops!), hidden coves, and long surf beaches. We encounter a number of sections of long steep steps up and down cliffs, irregularly set and as high as knee height these steps serve to fatigue the muscles and especially the knee and ankle joints, irrespective of this pain confidence is high and I skip up them with the dexterity of an elderly overweight mountain goat. At this stage I find myself running strongly and keeping a brisk pace (despite the terrain) and chasing down James Yeardley (another MDS veteran, nice guy but he left his mate Mike behind, obviously a do-badder!) and in 4th place! Now, I have never been in 4th place before so the excitement is obviously uncontainable and I keep pushing hard, keeping James and the others just in front of me at all times. We reach CP1 at Mawganporth and as I am running today on my MDS diet I simply have water and electrolyte and push on, keeping behind the lead group so I can avoid any navigation errors, I maintain this strategy into CP2 at 21km…

After CP2 we run through Newquay and along Watergate beach, still in 4th position and pushing hard. I know I am probably not running my planned race but my competitive edge won’t allow me not to push, mediocre is nothing! I follow the gang out of Newquay and up onto Towan head, a long steady climb up from the town and out around the head is a 3-4km section on grassy trails, feeling proud we head back inland to find the footbridge over the Pentire estuary and onwards. As we approach the path to the footbridge it becomes clear that something is wrong as we join a large pack of runners heading the same way! We have just added a whole extra section to our race and are now in 50th-60th position, cheers James, great training but not what I had planned!

Lesson learnt, we head across the footbridge over the estuary across the beach and up a steep section to where we think we will find the path, however it isn’t there! Another wrong turn and we find ourselves scrambling through a bramble bush, crawling under barbed wire and sprinting across a field full of inquisitive bulls.

The events of day 1 begin to subside as I complete the gravel trails down to Perranporth beach, a delightful windy, soft sand 4km final straight. Finishing day 1 in 62nd position in 5hrs 17min.

Immediately after the finish the adrenaline subsides, I find myself shaking uncontrollably, a completely empty tank, my blood sugars low and I spend the next few hours in a state of minor Hypoglaecemia, recovering through small regular doses of natural foods (jerky, Nuts etc), Recovery shake and a further electrolyte dose. Needless to say, I stepped off the MDS diet for dinner and enjoyed a square foot of Lasagne (the food provided at camp by VO two was awesome, not to mention the Cornish sunset!)

Day 1 Lessons:
• Run your own race, never get caught up by the occasion or your position/time
• Run the race you have fuelled for, don’t fuel for a run walk and then run a trail sprint (huge lesson, this is dangerous and in the Sahara could be the tipping point!)
• Don’t follow a Bad Boy Runner who is navigating!

Day 2 – Perranporth to Hayle (race HQ), 43km: Despite the fatigue another restless night (rain lashing down all night) delivers me into the race HQ at 6am, completing the mandatory checks and this time enjoying a rather large protein rich calorific breakfast whilst listening to Ben’s jokes and now paying keen attention to navigational instructions and sitting as far away as I can from the other Bad Boy runners.

The weather this morning is monsoon-like with winds gusting up to 60kph, we head out into the minibuses and off to yesterdays finish at Perranporth, however they actually drop us 500m before yesterdays finish at the bottom of a very steep hill so we dib off and start with a hands-on knees walk up the hill and around the corner onto the 1st of the cliff ledges…

Now I like the seaside, I like a view from time to time, a breeze may even be nice. This was horrendous, brutal, defining the word challenge! The cliff ledge was strewn with rocks and ankle deep mud, the wind and rain threatening to wash us down onto the rocks at any moment. Today was going to be fun! We passed a walker, wearing a plastic rain cape and resembling a windmill in a hurricane, her only words to her friend being “I don’t like it Marjorie” – Only one way to solve this, let’s get on with it and get it done…!

The course today is again rocky paths, steps and grass trails, not too difficult in itself but the weather is the real challenge today. I spend the first 20km asking myself shall I put on a base layer? No I’ll get wet? Maybe I should? Maybe I shouldn’t? Here I begin to train for mindful running, learning how to control the twists and turns of the brain whilst running multiple hours (MDS will involve a 92km stage).

Despite the weather, my mindful running works and the km’s pass by easily, I break the distance into CP to CP stretches, this time enjoying 2 Jaffa cakes and a water at each station which makes a massive difference. Passing huge cliffs, an old airfield and a military base we reach Godrevy point, the last checkpoint of the day which spits me out onto a 5km section of sand dunes, my home terrain (thanks UAE!) on which I am comfortable. Picking up the pace before the final section through the town of Hayle and back into the race HQ finish line and an immediate hot cup of tea and a big warm towel. Finishing day 2 in 82nd position in 5hrs 42min.

Day 2 Lessons:
• Mindful running and Neuro-control is to be a key element of training to get me through MDS, with a long stage cut off of 34hrs this is overlooked to the peril of many.
• Don’t underestimate the conditions and the right equipment, test that equipment, for this I hadn’t tested my wet gear (in Dubai!) so it was less than ideal, but okay for just the 1 stage.

Day 3 – Lelant to Lands’ End, 45km: Fatigue is now truly a factor, a good night’s sleep helps but doesn’t allow for the physical recovery that my body needs, we now all understand the “challenge” mentioned in the title. Despite good recovery practices and good nutrition, the start point at the chapel in Lelant (we start there to avoid a highway between the HQ and there) resembles a zombie scene from Tomb raider, unfortunately with no guest appearance from Lara Croft!

The weather is overcast but thankfully dry and the “get it done” mentality kicks in, we dib through and we’re off, across the sandy golf course and along the path through Carbis Bay into the beautiful fishing town of St Ives (the scene of my childhood vacations), running through cobbled streets with a mix of well-wishers, sea gulls and old sea captains to cheer us on.

Now, they had said in the briefing today would be fun, it’s just a run by the sea they said, there may be a few rocks they said. Rounding Clodgy point at 5km it became apparent that Ben’s warped sense of humour was once again in action. Our terrain was now large boulders varying from knee to waist height, thankfully there were some gaps, however, these were filled with knee-deep mud and puddles. I practise some hard terrain, be it Shawka, Kalba, Fossil rock, Qudraetc but this was a new level for me, this basically continued for 70% of today’s course, an absolutely brutal cruel twist for an already exhausted body. Terrain is such an important factor and should not be underestimated, always train and practise some sections that are beyond what you will complete in a race, give yourself a more diverse toolkit that you actually need when you get to race day (ie the MDS!).

CP1 finally appears at 15km, transitioning through onto the next section with Jaffa cakes as fuel. The next section features an array of steps, I use this word loosely, they are rather graduations at waist height, so steep you use arms as much as legs and with trickles of rainwater cascading down. We pushed through these and I was then ready for my audition as Gollum in the next Lord of the Rings movie!

At around 20km I caught up with another MDS veteran and Bad Boy Runner, Mike Jackson. Mike finished 399 in last year’s MDS out of 1200 so I am pleased to run at his pace, chatting as we go about the finer points of MDS preparation. We scramble over more boulders, climb more steps, pass through an amazing cliff top (very steep) CP and run through huge disused tin mines straight out of a Harry Potter scene. We keep a good strong pace as we go, pushing each other, fuelled by Jaffa cakes and by the fantastic sight of Mike entering the Cornish coastal face first mud diving championships during a lapse in concentration!

We pushed hard and I was able to stick with Mike until just before the end when I got an Achilles twinge that I needed to deal, stopped for a few moments and let him push on. Issue sorted and I kicked off again, setting a strong pace towards the finish at Sennen Cove. Entering the town, I picked up my pace, covered in mud with a permanent grimace I pushed through the town in a scene reminiscent of Forest Gump completing his run, only to realise that at the other end of Sennen cove there’s a steep 1km climb followed by a 2km run into the finish!

Pushing on to keep a reasonable gap between Mike and me, I pushed to the finish now running like a fresh runner on his first run of the week, elated, emotional, exhausted and empty I cruise down the last 250m downhill and across the finish line to receive my medal and a hot Cornish pasty. I finished day 3 in 64th position in 7hrs and 40min, overall in 3 days, I placed 57th out of 200 with a total running time of 18hrs and 41min.

Day 3 Lessons:
• Terrain, focus on your terrain toolkit, do the gym work that is required to strengthen the applicable joints (ankles and knees). Build diverse foundations and skills
• Run with and absorb the experience of others when preparing for MDS, whilst we are all different hearing peoples experiences and assessing them vs. your scenarios is a huge help and a real confidence boost (thanks Mike)

Overall, this was the toughest challenge I have completed to date, it was a challenge and I did conquer it! Bring on the next challenge and let’s step it up a gear, the human body is an awesome tool and everyone can rise to challenges they didn’t think possible, just get out there and smash it!

My biggest learning of all so far as I prepare for MDS? To conquer such a massive challenge is a huge feat and takes months and months of preparation, it demands sacrifice, commitment and dedication – even more by those around you, I couldn’t have completed this or be on this amazing journey to the finish line in the Moroccan Sahara without the support of my beautiful wife Jeanette and my bouncing baby Joshua! It’s a team event;” You guys make it all possible, I owe you, Salamat Po…” ■

Words + Photos by: Mark Buley