Marathon des Sables 2010

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.
We meet Geoffrey later at the hotel - he and Pete went on a running training camp in Spain together where they learned how to minimise the weight of their packs with handy tips like using chewing gum instead of brushing your teeth. Rob, Frank and Ben are soon recruited at the Berbère Palace Hotel. They're a good bunch and quite diverse (given the 85% male, 99% white make-up of the Brits), which is nice.
The next day, I spend the 6-hour bus journey to our camp chatting to Pete. Turns out he's worked with most of the senior partners at Redburn when he was at JP Morgan. Weird that he knows lots of my colleagues. We get to the bivouac - which is huge - and Ben secures tent 93, located in the middle of the black horseshoe, which will mean the Berbers take it down towards the end of their 6am dismantling round. We spend the next day packing and re-packing gear. Mine doesn't all fit in my pack so I cut down on luxuries like a spare t-shirt. There's a lot of queuing - for food, for water, for the perfunctory bag and medical checks. Frank reveals that most of his kit comes from Tesco, including his sleeping bag (from the 'Finest' rather than the 'Value' range though). We get our roadbooks, which show that the extra distance this year has been tagged onto the first 3 days. It is cloudy but still quite hot.

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.
At the start line, we sing "happy birthday" to whoever needs it. AC/DC plays ("Highway to Hell", obviously - ha ha ha) and the helicopter circles. 155 miles to go. The 25th and longest ever Marathon des Sables begins.
To be honest, I don't remember too much about the run on day 1 now. So much was new. Running in the heat with all my kit. The checkpoints. Taking the salt tablets (2/bottle of water). There are a couple of hills and 2km of sand over the course, which really slows down the pace, plus I don't want to run too hard at this stage - everyone already has the 51-mile stage in the back of their minds and wants to save something for day 4.
Geoffrey and young Andy finish first. I bump into Pete half-way through and we finish the run together, chatting, after 4h44m, in time for our cup of sweet mint tea from this year's sponsor, Sultan (there are giant inflatable teapots everwhere). I feel pretty decent - it's a nice confidence boost ahead of the harder days ahead. I update the blog and get my first batches of emails - thank you to all who wrote to me throughout the event! My ThermaRest punctures and there's no way to locate the leak given our lack of spare water. I bin it, grateful to have left the inadequate half-length, 1mm-thick mat in the back of my rucksack, instead of leaving it behind to save weight. Kris appears to be ill and takes himself off to the medical tent, where he's given an i/v drip and where he spends the night.

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.
As we approach checkpoint 3 at the 17 mile mark, it becomes obvious that we have to ascend what is basically a massive pile of sand that's been piled up against a sheer cliff (in the background below) - this is what the roadbook means by a "difficult uphill climb". I bump into young Andy and Pete, who look more scared than I do.
The climb isn't too bad for me but that's because it marks the debut of my walking poles, which help hugely - I'm very glad to be carrying them. Others look in worse nick than me - a race marshal lets off a flare when she realises one competitor is in trouble half-way up the hill. On the descent, it's very still and the temperature rises further. Then we move into a mile of dunes.
Again I am glad of my poles and finish in 6h45m, the confidence of yesterday replaced with the growing recognition that this is going to be very tough. Apparently there were a few people in trouble today, but I only saw the one. My gaiters start to come away from my trainers so I find some superglue and fit them back on - hopefully for good. I suddenly realise that I haven't pissed since I got up - it's now 8pm - and go to argue with the medics in the hope that they might gift me a bottle of water without a time penalty. I fail and go to bed a little thirsty and worried.

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.
The already-dry lake-bed cracks audibly as the ground dessicates even further. A girl called Sophie runs past and we have a quick chat for a minute, which lifts my spirit for a little while, but my mood soon turns flat again in the oppressive heat. A Scottish guy called Cranston pulls up for a chat for maybe half an hour - he's a very nice bloke - and suggests I need to take more salt tablets, which seems to help a little. The camp comes into view over a couple of dunes and I get one of the official photographers to take my pic. "I took it at an angle because I am an artist" he explains. Whatever.
I finish in 6h27m and collapse. Someone clocked the temperature at a shade over 50C on the course. Tomorrow is the 51-mile day and I'd tried to hold something back but now just feel shattered. We're all filthy. It's very dry and I get occasional sporadic nosebleeds. I write a very depressed email for the blog but it ends up lost in cyberspace - maybe that's a good thing. Ben had to pull out - he just couldn't cope with the heat and drinking so much water. It's really sad for the whole tent. He offers me his sleeping mat, which I decline initially but, as he says, "If our roles were reversed, you'd do the same for me", which is true. He's a legend. Kris has had his first good day but is still shitting everywhere.
I take half an Ambien to help me sleep ahead of the trials tomorrow.

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.
It's getting hot again. Others are walking; I'm not sure if it's the drugs or because I fire up my iPod for the first time but I feel good and decide to start running again on the flat between checkpoints 2 and 3. Just before I reach the latter, the first of the top 50 runners, who have started 3h after us mortals, overtakes me, gliding over the terrain effortlessly. Checkpoint 3 is at mile 23, which I reach after 6h24m. Almost half-way. Very surprised to discover that I still feel fine.
I bump into Kris but we keep our iPods on and make our way without talking to checkpoint 4 - the start of the dunes - at 30 miles. Cracknell overtakes me. He's had a good race so far but looks fucked. It's starting to get dark as I head into the dunes, on my own now. The poles come out and I make decent progress to checkpoint 5 at 37 miles. It's pitch black apart from the glowsticks marking the route and on each runner, and our headtorches. The next section is also sandy and all uphill, following a laser beam to checkpoint 6. It's dull and my music isn't really helping any more. I listen joylessly to AC/DC.
By the last checkpoint, I can feel my feet start to fall apart. A blister under my right foot squelches with every pace; likewise on my left heel. I don't care - I just want to finish - and I start on the last 6 miles. I have anhedonia. I hate this event. In the nick of time, Aussie Paul, who I met in the email queue a couple of days back, walks past. I fail to recognise him but he knows me and starts giving me a bit of chat. Presumably it's pretty obvious that I'm in trouble - he gives me a gel. It's my first ever and makes me gag a bit but I feel better pretty soon afterwards, driven by the extreme sugar/caffeine hit and, maybe more importantly, by having some company.
I was always going to finish by that point, but he basically mentally dragged me over the line. It's just after midnight, 15h08m after the start. I bump into Sophie again at the tea-van but she's even less able to speak than I am. I get to the tent, second after Kris, unpeel my feet, eat 2 Peperamis and faff around for ages before passing out. Pete and Geoffrey finish an hour or two later. I think young Andy made it in by the time I woke up. It was a pretty horrible day but I didn't start feeling properly bad until the last segments of the race. I can't imagine how awful it would have been I'd had to keep going longer into the night or if I'd started to lose it earlier in the day, with much further to go...

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.
The deep blister under my right foot hurts the most and I scream a bit. By the time I shuffle my way back to the tent, Rob and Frank are in and seem in good spirits, having got a bit of kip on the course overnight.
We sit around and I enjoy two dehydrated meals instead of one today, having essentially subsisted on oat-based foods the previous day. It feels like we've finished the whole event, until it occurs to us that the remaining distance of nearly 40 miles over 2 days is hardly a trivial affair. Nevertheless, we've broken the back of the distance.

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.
We set off over sand, my blisters aching, and I'm happy to walk and chat to Sophie, who I realise is the mate of Leo, a colleague at Redburn. After a few miles, I'm feeling a bit more human and the terrain firms up, so I decide to leave her and run. In fact, I start feeling pretty good and I wonder what would happen if I push up my pace and go for a decent time, terrain permitting.
Much of the course is flat and runnable. Looking at my watch, I seem to be on for a pretty respectable finish - maybe 5h45m, which is really pleasing. The last few miles are a bit tough, especially the couple of miles of dunes, but I'm really pleased with the time. It's only when I get back to the tent - I'm first in for the first time - that Ben tells me that we started running half an hour later than I remembered! This makes my time 5h15m. I am surprised and pleased in equal measure. Only a half-marathon to go. No-one cares about the show by the magician from Luxembourg or the performers from the Paris Opera, who play some stuff that only serves to delay our sleep. It's all a bit too French.

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.

The aftermath
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.
Rob, the British 'rep' at the event, has been amazing and hilarious (in an exceptionally dry way), so I thank him profusely.
I catch sight of my legs in the mirror - they are amusingy large. I call home. We collect t-shirts and have a crap tagine. We try to drink beer. We limp everywhere. I realise that we've been averaging towards 20 pints of water a day, an astounding stat. Young Andy gets huge amounts of stick for being young, including a high chair at our dinner table. Rob tells unrepeatable stories. Kris is a cocky Australian.
I finish the Road on the plane home (what a book) and try to think of what to do next. It's been over 2 years since I entered the MdS, since when I've run hundreds of miles, spent thousands of pounds and thought for dozens of man-hours about the event. I've got an entry into the London Marathon in 2 weeks but after that? Comrades in 2011?
The whole thing has been an amazing experience - the training, preparation and the run itself. I've 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.
Have I learned anything from completing "the world's toughest footrace"? Well, I could do it and do it quite well. I'm genuinely proud of my performance on day 4 and my time for the marathon stage. Was climbing Kilimanjaro harder? Maybe. How does this compare with my exam results at Cambridge, getting a half-blue at Oxford or making partner at Redburn? Or becoming the UK's second best competitive eater? Dunno.
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: Dude.
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?"