Tanya and I during our kit and medical inspection day.
Source: Leigh Michelmore
Besides the story of our amazing adventure there is the post-race reflection on (a) what we did right, and (2) what Tanya and I will change.
(1) What did we do right?
Reflecting on what Tanya and I did that contributed to our success, in the face of such adversity, I looked at three specific areas, these include:
From a training perspective, I believe, that our consistency in training played a decisive role in being able to continue when most would have simply given up. Tanya and I trained, five days a week, for the past two years, with a casual park run (just for fun) on the sixth day. However, it wasn’t only the consistency with which we trained that played a role but also the training specifics. Every week we would do a 12-16km hill session with our fully loaded back packs. This made us much stronger in the sand and dunes and I could feel the difference from when I last participated in the MdS back in 2013. Our daily distances, I believe, also played a significant role in our success. We would run on average 18km’s per day, split into two training sessions, a morning run of 12.6km’s with a fully loaded race-pack and an afternoon run of 5.4km’s, also with our race packs. The idea of getting used to running on tired legs was borrowed from Michiel Hoefsmit and paid off.
Also, training with a realistic, and slightly heavier race-pack, made a huge difference. It is essential to condition your mind and body, and to attempt to recreate as much of the race conditions back home as possible. The latter is somewhat difficult as few places outside of the Sahara desert are as extreme, and even, brutal as what you will find out there. But there are elements that are under your control, such as training distance, time on your feet, a loaded (9kg or more) race pack, adding lots and lots of hill-work and some speed training.
Tanya’s training pack weighed around 10,6kg’s while her race weight came in at 9,5kg’s wet on day one. I trained with a 12,5kg to 13,5kg race pack and stood on the start line with a 12kg race pack (wet) on day one.
Even with the bulkiness of the Source Patrol bag, I do believe, that it was the correct bag for the race. Although a ‘flatter’ bag with easy access, such as the WAA design, would have been better, the well-padded and wide waist belt and padded shoulder straps meant that Tanya could avoid a CRPS triggered migraine headache, a real plus for us.
The rest of our kit worked fine and provided exactly what we needed. It represented the fine balance between comfort, functionality, purpose and weight. For us the cost-benefit factor was, for the most part, in perfect equilibrium. Was there any non-mandatory kit we could have lived without, and/or did not use? This is always the key question and represents the acid test. Tanya and I used most of our kit. We might have gone without our sleeping mats, but we would have given up some comfort which could have diminished the quality of our sleep during the night. At best this would have saved around 450g each.
Due to Tanya’s inability to swallow we didn’t eat our 2-minute noodles at night, the only meal we needed to heat water for. I am confident that one can race easily in the desert without the need for food that needs to be heated. In hindsight, we could have saved the weight of the pot, ‘stove’ and fuel tablets, all coming to around 300g.
Besides the problem with swallowing, which resulted in Tanya’s dehydration and blood glucose depletion, we did everything by the ‘book’. Tanya showed formidable mental and physical strength combined with a very strong determination and drive to get from CP to CP. We have spent lots of time over the years to become a strong team, and honed those skills during training. Our team-work was impeccable with not a single hard-word spoken, disagreement, or argument. We operated like a well-oiled machine, adapting to our circumstances without much effort. I believe it was our ability, and especially Tanya’s ability to adapt seamlessly, in the face of very difficult circumstances that saw us through day after day.
But our success was not only the result of our team work, but also, in-part, the result of the team spirit presented by our tent-mates and other participants who came out in support of Tanya and I when things were not going-well. Much of this is the result of your own ‘investment’ in your fellow runners. The support you give, the encouragement, the kind-words and the advice you give will, at some point during a race, come back to provide you with much needed positive energy when you need it most.
There were extremely simple little things Tanya and I did, while she was blind on the long stage, such as sing, telling stories, planning what to do after the MdS etc. All of this took our minds of the difficulty, and the problems, by refocusing our attention.
We also arrived with a certain confidence, and plan of action. We accepted that what we had done in training was enough, that the decisions we had made to that point had been the right decisions and that the actions we had taken were totally correct. This meant that there was no second guessing, and no blaming self or each other for anything. This meant that when things went wrong we didn’t look back at what we could have done differently but were looking at how to fix it, and manage it right there and then. This was done in a positive spirit of cooperation and was a truly constructive approach. We knew we would have time after the race to take a look back and learn from things, but during the race, decisive and immediate action is a critical ingredient for success.
In summary, the elements that truly contributed to our success in the MdS included the following:
A strong knowledge base anchored in personal research,
A positive attitude towards ourselves and everyone we came in contact with,
Being well prepared both physically and mentally,
Having a simple but effective strategy,
Being adaptable in all things, and
Approaching every obstacle with determination and focus.
(2) What will we change?
Again, our post-race reflection and the numerous chats we have had since the end of the MdS highlighted those elements that we will change in our training, our kit and in future races. Hindsight is always 20/20 vision, but without such reflection the hardship and effort is somewhat wasted.
Without a doubt we will add two elements to our training regime, the first is walking and the second is speed training. Although we included both in our training that lead up to the MdS we will have to train much more ‘speed’ type walking in the future as much of the terrain dictates what pace you can maintain, and walking, is often the only option for most. We will also add more than one speed training session per week, as this will greatly benefit us.
Besides these two elements our training was near perfect, there is simply only so much you can do in preparation for the MdS besides actually going and training in the Sahara desert.
Although our kit was optimal there are two, and possibly a third element that we will change, depending on the type of race.
Firstly, although the Source Patrol bag was a perfect choice as it allowed Tanya to get through the race without a headache, it is more suited to a male body. My extra weight was able to stabilize the pack well, even during climbs, but the ‘bulkiness’ of the pack created a pendulum effect which Tanya’s smaller frame and weight was unable to control during the technical climbs. Therefore a much slimmer pack, such as the WAA bag, would have to be modified to provide the same benefits as the Source bag (spinal support, a secure waist belt and padded shoulder pads) while retaining the slim design. Together with this is the fact that I will never do such an extreme event with a bladder, although the bladder worked fine for me, it prevented me from seeing how little my angel was actually drinking. The source quick-fill adapter worked fine but without some form of ‘flow-meter’ to see how much goes in and out, managing fluids becomes near impossible.
Also, access to the content of your bag is vital at all times, here the Source bag with its top access is a cause of some frustration and waste of time when on route and even in the camp, again the WAA bag has solved this problem with its full access design.
Tanya and I have been discussing the possibility of getting to the end quicker without increasing our effort (pace). The only way to do that is to reduce the number of stops between CP’s. Tanya and I only stop for photos and heeding the call of nature and on one occasion during stage two, for a five minute rest in the shade of a thorn tree. Therefore, the only way to achieve our objective would be to take less or even no photos along the way. A single photo, on average takes 2 to 4 minutes so the number of photos would dictate how significant the ‘time wastage’ actually is.
I reviewed our daily on-route photos and saw that we often take 2 to 5 photos at a particular site along the route. As the 2 to 5 photos are all taken within the 2 to 4 minute photo window I decided to analyse the ‘time wastage’ in-terms of sites. Our Canon G15 was seriously damaged during a sand-storm between stage 4 and 5, so no photos taken during stage 5 and 6. This would provide some indication of how accurate our photo time ‘wastage’ assumption is.
As can be seen by taking no photos at all we can save around 47.5 seconds per kilometre which could increase our pace with 0.15km/h based upon our average race pace. Therefore, we can, on average, reach the end 34 minutes 28 seconds earlier each day without increasing our effort. Unfortunately this means that we would have to forfeit the photos we love to take along the way.
There is another way to look at our pace, pre-race Tanya and I conducted a VO2 max test and factored in the effect of carrying our respective race weights. We then looked at our respective strengths and weaknesses and derived at an average pace. Our predictive average pace came to 3.3km/h. We also knew that it would be difficult to maintain that pace on day two, give that it would be a day full of climbs as well as the very long stage. So how did we fare, compared to our VO2 max predictor?
We used the following tools in predicting our pace:
For distances of 30 to 42km’s the pace is set at 82% of Pace max, while for the long stage it was set at 45%. This is in-line with the research done by Davies and Thompson. In essence, we reached or exceeded our VO2 max pace prediction during three of the five stages and came well within reach on the other two stages (82% to 98%).
But there were something else I learned during the MdS and that is that one can survive such a race, with slightly diminished performance ability with as little as 1,118kCal’s taken in per day, but that once you drop below the 1,000kCal’s per day intake, things will start to go horribly wrong. Tanya consumed only 772kCal’s per day on average, and this opens up an opportunity for some future research. At 772kCal’s, my angel consumed only 30.1% of the MdS recommended daily intake and a mere 25.7% of the daily nutritional requirement based effort.
Tanya and I hope you enjoyed reading about our amazing adventure as much as we did experiencing it, and trust that our post-race thoughts will assist you in our own adventures.
Genis & Tanya (Angel) Pieterse