The 30th Marathon des Sables was “more hellish than hell”
Sir Ranulph Fiennes – the Guardian 17 April 2015
The Spirit of Adventure
Gandalf: “You’ll have a tale or two to tell of your own when you come back…”
Bilbo: “Can you promise that I will come back?”
Fortunately my promise to Tanya, my angel, was a little more positive than that, when she asked “can you promise that I will come back?” I replied with, definitely. I can promise that you will have an adventure that will be more difficult than anything you have ever done before…and during the 2015 Marathon des Sables I kept both those promises.
What follow is our story, the story of Tanya getting there and back, and the story of how difficult things got out there for her.
The Marathon des Sables is ranked by the Discovery Channel as the toughest footrace on earth.
Known simply as the MdS, the race is a gruelling multi-stage adventure through a formidable landscape in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates - the Sahara desert. The rules require you to be self-sufficient, to carry with you on your back everything except water that you need to survive. You are given a place in a tent to sleep at night, but any other equipment and food must be carried. Source: http://www.marathondessables.co.uk/
Our first photo of the two of us in the Sahara.
Source: Genis Pieterse
As we all know, a great adventure always starts with a journey, and for Tanya and I our journey to the Marathon des Sable (MdS) 2015 intensified way back in May 2014, when Tanya decided to enter the 2015 MdS. As I had promised at the end of my MdS 2013 run; “if my angel wishes to run the MdS someday, I will run it with her”, and so I had to, once again, rise to the occasion. But this time it is different, this time the MdS will have a great purpose, it won’t simply be a race of endurance in which I can test my personal ability to overcome physical and mental challenges, but a wonderful voyage for me and the women who owns my heart.
“It is not the goal, but the way there that matters, and the harder the way, the more worthy the journey” (Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands 1959)
Our journey started further back, by May 2014, Tanya had already completed both Addo Elephant trail runs, the 44km in 2013 which we ran together as my final long run for the 2013 MdS, and the longer 76km in 2014. At the time this was Tanya’s’ longest ever run, and would remain so until we encountered the 91.7km on day four of the 2015 Marathon des Sables. It had been great to see my angel’s progress from not being able to run around the block way back in mid-2012, to completing a really tough 76km at Addo Elephant Nation Park in February 2014. Eighteen months of hard work had paid-off and the happiness and enjoyment I saw in the eyes of my wife, having completed such a challenge, was amazing. I could see the growth in her, the excitement, the hunger for more and the satisfaction of being exhausted and victorious at the same time. But, our journey also exposed those critical elements that needed much hard work, such as Tanya’s fear of heights, and the one element that was a real cause of concern, especially for me, her diagnosed Neurological Pain Syndrome (also referred to as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome) which was only discovered after the 2013 Addo Elephant run. During the race Tanya fell, and tore the volar plates in her left hand. It was only after surgery that we found out Tanya had Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).
CRPS is a chronic pain condition that affects Tanya’s left side and is centred on her neck and shoulder extending all the way down to her hand. In essence CRPS is caused by damage to the peripheral and central nervous systems causing prolonged pain, swelling, and inflammation. In Tanya’s case it triggers, under certain conditions, migraine headaches. Unfortunately for us those conditions include high temperatures, direct sunlight, placing any load on her neck or shoulders etc. and as an experienced MdS and multi-day runner I had a clear understanding that the MdS had each and every one of those conditions mixed into a single unit that lasts from 08:00am until 18:00pm for seven days in a row.
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult” (Seneca, Roman Philosopher, 1st Century AD)
So besides our training, a major project was under way. We had to understand how to control this pain while out there; this had to be done for a condition that is still not fully understood. Left untreated, however, the CRPS could result in Tanya losing mobility of her left arm and hand. Much later on our journey, after more tests it became clear that Tanya’s critically low vitamin B12 levels that seems to have started in her youth, had caused some serious nerve damage. Our first priority was to find the ‘right’ race pack, but we had a challenge. The aim was shifted from finding a light pack to a pack that won’t place ‘much’ weight on Tanya’s shoulders as this would trigger her CRPS with dire consequences. We, however, remained focused testing Raidlight, WAA and a host of other brands but without success. We used a very standard test, load the pack to weigh 4kg’s, strap it to Tanya’s back when she has no CRPS specific symptoms and hit the Groenkloof Nature Reserve Trail to see how far she can get without pain. For most bags a CRPS headache would be triggered within the first 3 to 5km’s so things were not looking great at the time. I suggested that Tanya try my Source Patrol 35L military pack, designed, manufactured and tested in Israel, and for the first time she was able to run 10km’s with 4kg’s without pain, she had discomfort, but not pain, so it seemed as if we were at least making some progress. The reason why the pack worked was (a) its wide and well supported hip belt and (b) a spinal support metal rib, but this came with two really big drawbacks. The first being that this pack was clearly designed for male anatomy with shoulder straps that slanted ‘incorrectly’ and a hip belt that could grip my male hips without much movement but required far more adjustment to grip Tanya’s feminine hips tightly, the second, its delivery dry weight is 2,01kg’s compared to the WAA 590g. The reality of this is that no matter what Tanya and I pack, our bags would always weigh 1.42kg’s more than if we had an ultra-light race pack. It also meant that whatever we bought to take on the MdS would have to be ultra-light, which as many of you would know actually means, ultra-expensive. With the correct race pack identified it was time to really focus on our training with a gradual increase in weight. Over time Tanya increased her training weight on trails from 4kg’s to 10.6kg’s. I trained throughout most of our program with a 12.5kg to 13.5kg pack, over average daily distances of between 12.6km’s and 18km’s. This was done for six months, training five days a week with a non-weighted Park Run on Saturdays, the latter just for the fun of running. By the time we started tapering our total training mileage since first deciding to run the MdS together eighteen months earlier, stood at 5,000km’s (an average of 12km’s per day). We have replaced our running shoes four times, and spent countless hours out on the trails. As anyone who runs on trails knows, depending on the severity of the trail, running time on a trail takes a little longer. In reality we spent around 1,120 hours training, an average of 62 hours a month, or a little over 3 hours per day, and peaked at 100km’s for the week a month before the MdS.
To run ultra-endurance multi-stage races requires great commitment, hard work and perseverance, but Tanya and I made every day special. We were fortunate enough to be able to train in two very special places; the first is Groenkloof Nature Reserve and the second Bishop’s Bird Park. Countless photos of Zebra, Blou-Wilebees, Giraffe, Kudu, Rooibok, Rooi-Hartebees, Dassies, Sable, and the occasional snake were taken. Great discussions were had and I loved seeing how my angel improved week after week.
The day before we flew out to London from South Africa we concluded the second of two media interviews which were published after we had already left South Africa. The Pretoria News published a really great article written by Sakhile Ndlazi with photos taken by Oupa Mokoena on the 1st of April 2015. The second great article was by Koos Venter from the Record and gave our challenge even more exposure, published on April 9th. This article hit the streets while my angel faced some tough times during the 91.7km long stage, but more about this a little later. Unbeknown to us we would also be featured in the Natal Murcury on the 2nd of April, coincidentally Tanya came from Queensburgh in Natal, and it being featured there has great significance as some old friends and her parents still live there. Again we have to thank Sakhile for this.
We arrived at Heathrow airport on April 1st and went through British passport control and customs without any problems. We were obviously delighted with the fact that our entire luggage landed with us in the UK. This meant that we had one free day to spend in London, and for Tanya and I this was great news. We met with David Harris, a fellow MdS runner the same afternoon to have a pre-MdS chat, a great guy, with whom I have worked with previously in Barclays, and whom I gave some advice in his run-up to the MdS. I knew that his training wasn’t as perfect as he would have liked it to be and that work and home responsibilities meant that he trained less than what he would have liked to, but the meeting gave both Tanya and David, both multi-stage race novices, a chance to see that their fears and uncertainties weren’t isolated, and that each had similar race objectives, to do what it takes to finish, and that was to keep on moving forward.
We lived in the Hampton at Gatwick Airport and I ran into a few MdS runners who also stayed there. We generally had a great time in London, eating our last “real food” from a restaurant before the start of the 30th Marathon des Sables. I could see that things were getting a bit much for my angel, the two weeks before we flew out was really busy, and our British Airways flight to London not that great plus our first day in London turned out to be very busy. Tanya needed something to remind her of our usually very calm home back in South Africa, and of the fact that in the midst of all this noise and activity that I haven’t lost sight of how important she is to me. The solution, some roses, which I sneaked out early on the morning of our second day in London, to buy from Gatwick South Terminal. Armed with the roses, a large water beaker I wangled from the bar in the hotel to place the roses in, and some of the smallest bananas I have ever seen, I returned to our room to have a relaxing ‘banana’ breakfast with my angel. We spent the day in London and returned early to our hotel for some needed rest. We knew that the next day would be very long and so we slept for the final time in a soft bed.
Gatwick: Getting ready to fly out to Morocco.
Source: Tanya Pieterse
Then the moment of truth arrived, my angel and I stood among 100’s of runners at Gatwick Airport’s South Terminal, our race packs loaded with our essential kit ready to start the last leg of travel. There was much excitement among the runners, and it felt great to see and meet old friends out there. Among the excitement, one could feel the apprehension of some, the fears of others and in general the tension that most of us carried around within us. For the novices, the event still had a romantic calling; its level of difficulty, its toughness, its terrain and its effect on the human body and mind merely the product of stories, blogs, news reports and ‘tall tales’, the ‘pain’ and ‘agony’ the subject of photos that bombard one when you search the internet. But this race cannot be described on paper, or captured on visual media. No, pain, determination, focus, commitment, victory and to use an old South African military term – Vasbyt – can’t be recorded, it can only be experienced. So for the novices the experience that awaited them had no form only expectation, but for those returning to the event, what awaited had a stark reality, ignorance is bliss, and for returning runners the full brunt of the Sahara was well known. However, for those, like myself, who participated in the 2013 MdS, this year’s MdS had an even starker reality. Earlier during the year part of the route had leaked out and with the exception of some small differences a large part of the first three days and part of day four were well known to us. Because of this, I carried within me experiential knowledge that was a cause of concern and anxiety. I had a great responsibility and could not fail Tanya, I could not be the cause of her not finishing this great race and I could simply not make any mistakes. I had to do this one perfectly; I knew well enough that the desert will throw a few curveballs and that a few things will go wrong. I had to be calculated, concentrate, never lose focus, and always stay one step ahead of what is happening. No ego, no adrenalin rush, no giving in to the fears of others, I had to keep to our game plan. Tanya had to be given the opportunity to walk away from this adventure with that medal around her neck. My angel had trained so hard and was fighting such huge battles, physically, emotionally and mentally, and I could simply not add to those stresses by becoming stressed myself or making mistakes. Tanya had to be given the best possible experience she could have out in the Sahara.
Don’t misunderstand me, Tanya was running this race fully on her own. From the outset Tanya insisted to remain legal at all times, so no muling, she would carry all her mandatory equipment food, sleeping bag, survival gear and mandatory first-aid equipment, as race rules demanded. I would, however, be in charge of getting us through each checkpoint well within its cut-off, so pacing, would be my responsibility, as well as taking charge of all her medication.
After months of research and numerous discussions with the various physicians a medical emergency plan of action was established, that included medication as per usual, medication to prevent Tanya’s CRPS from flaring up, and medication to manage the CRPS if it does. Each came with very specific trigger flags, an action plan with secondary requirements, such as extra water etc. and caution signs. I had to stay in charge of this as some of the medication may cause drowsiness and the dosage had to be clearly adhered to at all times. Our hope, however, was that we will only use the regular medication as this would mean that everything was going just right, additionally, I also knew that once we cross the finish line every day, Tanya needed to get off her feet and on her back as soon as possible. Taking pressure of her back and shoulders is essential in preventing her CRPS from flaring up.
Having knowledge of part of the course made me a ‘little’ scared as I knew that my angel, with an intense fear of heights, had to climb three major Jebels (which are mountains) on day two, and then had to redo the last most massive of the three again on day four, but in the opposite direction. There was, however, a fourth cause of anxiety in me, neither of us had ever run further than 80km’s in a single day on trails, and only I have ever done that distance with a weighted race pack. Tanya’s furthest distance ever done with a fully weighted race pack was 34km’s and with a rumoured 100km long stage, the longest in the MdS history, this scared me a little…or if I am completely honest, this scared me a lot!
But I digress. We found ourselves on Monarch flight MON9074 departing Gatwick at 07:50am to Ouarzazate in Morocco, a charter flight, full of MdS runners all hyped and eager to get to the desert and sitting in the first row, my angel and I. Getting onto that flight, and sitting next to Tanya on that flight caused immense excitement in me. This is real, for the first time in months, this is real. We trained for this, we planned for this, we spoke about this so many times and now we were actually on the flight that will take us into the desert. I realised there was no turning back, we were in this, and we were doing this together. At 11:30am local Moroccan time we landed, Tanya and I were the first off the plane and inline to get through passport control. This was by no means a response to prove our eagerness to run the race, although we were pretty eager, but was born out of something more urgent. As a South African in 2013 it took ages for passport control to process me, having even come to the hotel I was staying in later that night to re-verify some things. This time I was going to make sure that we got through ‘fast’, and without any problems and very little delay, Tanya and I were processed without a problem and we found ourselves waiting for our luggage. Fifteen minutes later I retrieved it from the conveyer-belt it had to be x-rayed (something that wasn’t done in 2013) and then ‘random’ searches were done. So random that both our cases were inspected with the added challenge of getting everything back in, but, soon we were allowed to continue. And there he was, the man Tanya says has the kindest eyes, Mohammed Belemlih, from the Moroccan Ministry of Tourism. An old friend that assisted me in getting my visa through during 2013 when there were some difficulties, and again in 2015. His huge smile and open arms invited us into Morocco and the embrace we received made it known, we are truly welcome. It’s not words but action that speaks the loudest and Mohammed’s kindness and sincerity shouts. He is truly a great friend, wonderful human and a true representative for his country. During the 2015 MdS Tanya and I would receive so much encouragement and kindness from him that I truly hope I get a chance to repay, even a small amount of this, to him, but more about that later.
A quick visit to the airport café where I bought us some sacks and cold drinks for the journey, one that I knew, is extremely tiring. For most of us on the plane the day had started at around 04:30am and I suspect would draw out much longer. Once on the bus we settled in, one of the first busses to depart, only to stop outside the airport grounds to wait for the remained of the busses to queue up behind us. Such queuing is a hallmark of the MdS and is in many ways as challenging and trying as the race itself. I listened to the murmuring of the novices who had never been to the MdS when it was announced that we will depart about 45 to 60 minutes later. And so it was that the busses started moving a little over an hour later just so that they could stop 500m’s later to pick up the meal packs, as I said queuing is a hallmark of the MdS, and if you ever plan to do the MdS this should be practiced as often as possible.
Having lunch in the Sahara desert on the way from Ouarzazate to our first bivouac.
Source: Tanya Pieterse
But, eventually we were off and after three bathroom stops out in the great outdoors, a lunch stop and around 5 hours on the bus we eventually arrived at the first bivouac just after dark. By now Tanya and I had been traveling for three days just to get to this, our first bivouac. This tent village would move every day, but no matter where it ended-up will be our home and the roughly 2,000 people consisting of runners and crew would be the MdS 2015 community. According to the bivouac plan published in the race book given to us on the bus, we as South Africans were allocated Berber tent spots in the outer ring between tent 168 and 172. It also meant we shared accommodation with the Australians and Singaporeans. I left Tanya at the bus while I made haste with our two race packs to claim our spot in a tent which would be our address for the duration of the race. And so it was that after a little search and some ‘negotiation’ Abdel welcomed me into tent 172. I dropped our two bags and setoff to fetch Tanya and the rest of our luggage.
Dinner in the desert, as only the French can do it.
Source: Tanya Pieterse
After placing it in the tent and getting our head torches out we were off to dinner provided by the organizers. I am always amazed by how well the French can cater out in the desert. Chicken, couscous, vegetables, fresh bread and wine, a 2012 Jean Degaves Bordeaux, and some dessert to round off a really great meal, and soon we made our way back to our Berber tent to spend the first night out in the desert.
“Family isn't always blood. It's the people in your life who want you in theirs. The ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile…”
By the time we returned to the tent we were at full complement and so we met the other members of our micro ‘family’ in tent 172, a truly international mix with six guys and two women. Besides Tanya and me our tent comprised off:
Michiel Hoefsmit: An old friend whom I met via Facebook before my 2013 MdS and with whom I had the pleasure of spending about three hours or so during the 2013 marathon stage. We had a great time out there back in 2013 and since then had corresponded from time to time. A truly great person with a very dry and dark sense of humour, a good hart and a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to ultra-running, and on top of that a good conversationalist with a very wide and progressive world view.
Leigh Michelmore: Our fellow South African, now residing in Switzerland, and the only other South African besides Tanya and I who participated in the 2015 MdS. We met via Facebook about 9-months or so before the event and had corresponded from time to time with Leigh asking some questions which I tried to answer as best I could. We never met in person although he came to South Africa on two occasions, the first to attend his brother’s funeral in late 2014. Our schedules, at the time, just didn’t seem to align, a pity as I came to know Leigh as always having a smile with an open and inviting nature. During the 10-days we spent with Leigh he only had good things to say about those around him, he spoke with much kindness, gave compliments often and spoke well about his wife and family daily. We didn’t have as much time to spend together as we would have liked but what we spend together was warm and comfortable.
Abdel Ben Battal: A native Moroccan who lives and works in Australia. A young man with great running ability, very quiet but with a kind hart, and strong character. He would eventually rank 169th overall, an achievement of note at the MdS. During the first stage he ranked within the top 100, reaching position 96 which caused much excitement in our tent. During a very tough stage 2 he ranked 73rd overall and eventually ranked 30th after the 3rd stage. As can be imagined, such performance creates both expectation and excitement among your tent family. Stage 4, the long stage was unfortunately not kind to him and he finished further down the field, but still completed the 91.7km in 17 hours and 30 odd minutes, but this would influence his overall ranking. An achievement of note and I count myself honoured to have spent time in the company of a true athlete.
Sean Callan: Our policeman from Ireland with many great stories has a heart of gold and a great sense of humour. I recall often lying in my sleeping bag after everything has quieted down just to hear a really funny story or remark from him. I have always found that going to sleep with a smile made the next day much easier to cope with. After the MdS Sean contacted Tanya and I and had such wonderful things to say about us and the rest of our tent mates, a true testament of his character.
Theresa Bidwell: And finally there was Terry the orthopaedic surgeon from New Zealand, a very quiet and withdrawn woman who was there for the running and not much else. She is no foreigner to adventures, having visited Everest Base Camp and a host of other races and climbs; unfortunately, she avoided the tent’s photo sessions and had very little interaction with the rest of us. A pity as everyone in our little group would have loved to get her known her a little better, and if given a chance would have risen to the occasion to discuss those more pressing issues of the world with her.
Our fellow tent mates, Leigh Michelmore , Michiel Hoefsmit , SeanCallan , Addel Ben Battal , and Jimmy (James) Roth .
Source: Dion Leonarda
And so, after meeting everyone, our adventure began. We rolled out our sleeping mats, and got into our sleeping bags for the first time in the Sahara. I laid there next to Tanya, holding her hand until she fell asleep. Sunrise came quickly and after breakfast, time was readjusted to ‘Patrick’ time which has nothing to do with any of the geographical time zones on the planet. After breakfast I took the time to sort through our luggage to ensure that our race packs were ready for inspection.
Dion Leonard, a friend I had met during my 2013 KAEM, and whose wife Lucja was tracking us, came around and I handed him the biltong and drywors I had brought for him from South Africa, and in return he handed me a bottle of 12 year old Balvenie signature whisky, not a bad exchange, but unnecessary. We also had a visit from Nisha Harish who brought around some energy treats her friend had made. We had a chat about her race food, and in her own words she will fondly be remembered as the ‘rubbish Hindu’, going forward.
Tanya and I visited the Berber ‘shop’ where money exchanged hands for a beautiful blue scarf and some hand crafted jewellery, among the pieces a talisman to keep Tanya safe on her journey through the Sahara desert. We returned to our tent, the whisky was packed into our luggage for storage and at 11:00am (Patrick time) we made our way to the kit inspection area and fell into one of the many lines that are as iconically MdS as the dunes. There is the line for handing in our extra luggage, the line for getting our race packs weighed, for our tracking device, medical check and as many would attest many more lines. We slowly progressed through the process and at around 16:00pm we finally had those coveted race numbers in our hands, some photos, dropping our race packs off and then we made our way to the mess tent for dinner in the midst of a proper Sahara sand storm. We ate our food, the last meal the organisers would provide for us until the race is over, and did so with the occasional mouth full of sand.
Tanya experiencing her first sand-storm, one of many to come.
Source: Genis Pieterse
But things were not going totally according to plan as Tanya started complaining that she experienced some difficulty in swallowing. After dinner the wind gradually died down and by around 18:00pm it was clear with open skies. Runners were instructed to meet in the centre of the bivouac area for a reggae-rock-type concert by Aziz Sahamoui, a local Moroccan band.
Aziz Sahamoui, a local Moroccan band, playing the afternoon before the start of our first stage.
Source: Tanya Pieterse
To be honest, this was some source of irritation for me as it simply meant more time on our feet at a time when I would have preferred to be on my back in the tent, and it somehow invaded the purpose of being in the desert. I fully understand that the organisers were trying to make the 30th MdS celebration a memorable one but having a concert at the beginning of the race seemed to go directly against the idea of breaking away from the distractions of society to run this isolated race (the very same reason why mobile phone use is not permitted in the bivouac and at the check points). Having a concert at the end makes perfect sense as it eases us back into the reality of the real world, but at the outset I found it to be a really big distraction. It is worthwhile noting that for most of the day the majority of runners had spent the day in the sun, standing in lines, the day before the start of the race. At any other time, runners would try and be off their feet for most of the week before a marathon, and yet here we were standing around with some dancing at a rock concert, fun even if it caused some irritation.
Then it was off to bed for our second night in the Sahara. I kissed Tanya goodnight, held her hand and whispered to her that I was very proud of her. And then the 5th of April 2015 eventually arrived, the start is here. All the expectation, preparation, and dreams came together at this moment. As the sun rose the last phase of our amazing journey arrived, the adventure was about to begin. Little did I know, when I gave Tanya her medicine and something to eat that morning that all the skills and experience I have acquired over the years while serving in the military, training high risk close protection personnel, motivating teams within the business world, managing people, and planning strategy, I would have to call upon before this adventure was over. All my multi-stage racing experience would be needed as would the countless hours spend in research. For me this race tapped into 46-years’ worth of preparation and I can safely say that my life culminated to this event.
Me running towards our Berber tent at bivouac one, the day before we started stage one.
Source: Tanya Pieterse