Gatwick is hilarious. I've never seen anyone with Raidlight kit before but today the airport is full of it. Lots of people with OMM or Aarn rucksacks too, all with bottle holders taped to the straps, all sizing each other up. I spot Cracknell at the gate and take the mick out of him (quietly) with a guy who comes to be known as young Andy (I am old Andy, obviously). I sit next to some Aussie called Kris on the plane but am also next to a running bore so concentrate on reading the Road. In the passport queue, Andy, Kris and I start chatting to a slightly older lad called Pete who seems like a good guy. The tent is taking shape.
Day 1 - 18 miles
I start on what is soon to become my routine. Breakfast = oat-based. We collect our morning water. I clean my feet and tape to prevent blisters. To general hilarity and bemusement, I apply talc to my nether parts to prevent chafing. I lay out my cereal bars for the run.
Day 2 - 22 miles
Slightly less cloud and consequently hotter. We climb a shallow hill and walk along its ridge before descending to flatter, more runnable terrain.
Day 3 - 25 miles
We get extra water this morning - I clearly wasn't the only one in trouble yesterday. Today I hope for easier terrain than the sand and hills of day 2. My wish is - broadly - granted. The ground is pretty flat and I run to within 400 yards of checkpoint 1 feeling OK, before it becomes obvious that I need my first (and thankfully only) mid-race Radcliffe. Suitably lightened, I carry on, across featureless terrain. It starts to get hot and I can't run any more.
Day 4 - 51 miles
I wake up feeling... OK. Good, even. Weird. My legs feel strong. Only one tiny blister so far, which I injected with Friars Balsam last night so it's fine now but extra care goes into the foot-taping this morning. We're all nervous. I run the first 8 miles - a "deceptively flat uphill section" - to checkpoint 1 with Kris, chatting away. We part ways once we've climbed a jebel, since he like to run the downhills. It's sandy and I trot along, saying hi to multi-ultramarathon runner Rory Coleman. I feel a pain in my left shoe and stop - a thorn has gone through my sole and insole and into my foot. Unbelievable. I turn my ankle on a steep sandy downhill section just before checkpoint 2 and take some ibuprofen and codeine.
Day 5 - rest day
Because I finished the long stage in one day, day 5 is free. I'd previously self-treated my blisters but now I use the down-time to make my first visit to Doc Trotters. This is where a bunch of medics attack runners with scalpels - draining blisters and pouring in the pink eosin dye that they seem to prefer to iodine.
Day 6 - 26.2 miles
Marathon day. I've only done two before - London in 2006 (3h36m) and the Médoc in 2009 (6h15m including multiple breaks for wine, oysters, steak and ice-cream). I suspect this one will be closer in time to the latter than the former.
Day 7 - 13.1 miles
We've basically finished. Everyone hares through the first couple of miles of dunes and then the next, flat section. We just want to get on the bus to our showers, Blackberrys, buffet dinners and beds. The last 3 miles are over Erg Chebbi to Merzouga. I'd been to Erg Chebbi with my friend Gus in the mid-1990s and remember the dunes being huge and hot. We ran out of money (and thus water) and spent our final few hours there watching our piss turn a deep brown. Luckily, my visit this time was in April rather than July, with consequently lower temperatures.
Tom Aikens hares up behind me with a mile to go. He's really shifting. I decide to take him on but he's pushing hard and crosses the line a second ahead of me. He's properly knackered me out though! I finish in 2h30m, not a great half-marathon but who cares? Patrick Bauer gives me a medal and the obligatory hug. The entire event has taken my 40h51m and I've finished in a miraculous 271st position out of over 1,000 who started, courtesy of my good times for days 4 and 6. Just a 7h bus ride back. Future competitors take note - you may want to go for a cab, which takes about 4h.
Not much to do now apart from eat at our hotel's buffet, which takes a beating at dinner, breakfast and then the final dinner. I thank those who have helped me through it - tent 93 in particular but also Sophie and Aussie Paul. I try to locate Cranston from day 3 but can't remember what he looks like.
Comrades in 2011?
raised over £10,000 to date for some causes that mean a lot to me, which is awesome. People keep congratulating me and quite sincerely too. I guess I deserve it, though I never felt the depths of despair that some do on the MdS. The long stage was OK, much better than it would have been if I'd felt down after, say, 15 miles - my lowest ebb in retrospect was day 3.
LEBOWSKI: I can look back on a life of achievement, on challenges met, competitors bested, obstacles overcome. I've accomplished more than most men, and without the use of my legs. What... What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?
DUDE: I don't know, sir.
LEBOWSKI: Is it... is it, being prepared to do the right thing? Whatever the price? Isn't that what makes a man?
DUDE: Sure. That and a pair of testicles.
With my blisters subsiding and the rubbing on my back starting to heal, what now? Do I need another challenge of a similar magnitude? If so, why?
To borrow a line from Eurodance outfit Scooter, "the question is what is the question?"