Indescribable. It’s the only word that does justice to the challenge of running the Marathon des Sables (MdS), the 150-mile foot race across one small corner of the Sahara desert to which I was drawn in my quest to raise money for the rare kidney disease campaign Action for Alport’s.
After months of preparation, long drawn-out endurance runs across the South Downs and far too much money and time invested in kit, it hardly felt real to be standing on the start line in southern Morocco at the beginning of April. The sound of AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell” echoed in my ears as I lined up next to competitors from all over the world, united in our desire to conquer the Sahara for a good cause.
The jovial, almost euphoric atmosphere of the first day dissipated any feeling of anxiety about tackling the 150 miles that lay between us and the finish line. Over the course of the week in the desert, sleeping in rustic Berber tents and hauling all your food, water and kit along with you, the challenge did not simply lie in the distance.
The Sahara seemed intent on throwing just about everything it had at us, from a sandstorm at the beginning of the second day that had us covering ourselves to stop the savage sand whipping at our still-pale, unblemished skin, to temperatures that averaged around 40C (one journalist logged the temperature on day four as high as 57C). For their part, the organisers work with almost sadistic gusto to ensure we are sufficiently challenged. My very first taste of desert running coincided with the ominous-sounding Dune Day.
The embodiment of Sisyphean toil, I found myself struggling up ever-increasingly difficult mountains of rolling sand, into which I sank as soon as I set foot on them – not helped by the weight of a full backpack. Later, it was the turn of steep jebels (hills), endless, dusty dried lake beds and ankle-breaking rocky plains that threatened my wellbeing, not to mention my sanity.
Out there, amid the sand and heat, your focus becomes very narrow – drink some water, check your direction and concentrate intently on reaching the next checkpoint. Occasionally, however, you take the opportunity to lift your head and breathe in those moments that stay with you long after the grind has ended. Like when I found myself at the top of a jebel looking onto the vast expanse before me with a trail of tiny runners peeling off into the distance, or plunging into lush groves to be greeted (and laughed) at by local women lounging under the shade of the palms.
I even look back fondly on the rascally antics of the Berber children moving the glow sticks that marked the route through the dunes at night (thank goodness for my compass). My thoughts were less warm at the time.
Running the MdS, you find yourself in a paradox. There is a sense that you are traversing a landscape barren, rugged and unused to human survival – let alone to people running across it – yet so awesome and beautiful that the pain and discomfort becomes almost bearable. This is symbolised on the final evening by the competitors – parched, fatigued and sand-blasted from a week in the Sahara – being treated to a concert by the Paris Opera, shipped out and set up in all their pomp for one night at our camp.
Ultimately, I found that it is the competitors who make the event. The camaraderie among the runners, particularly the 250-odd British competitors, was superb, each doing it for our own reasons yet united in facing the challenge.
You see it most clearly in the makeshift camp, set up at the end of each day, awash with the colours of flags on display and the charitable causes that have motivated so many to put themselves through the ordeal. When a competitor drops out for any reason, it is a sad moment for all, knowing what it took to get as far as the start. Indeed, I met many runners who were making a second attempt to conquer the race after some unfortunate incident – usually bowel-related – rendered their first effort unsuccessful. Its lure is evident.
The final day of the race – the relatively short 10-mile sprint to the little town of Tazzarine – has become dedicated to charity. This year, for the first time, race director Patrick Bauer allowed the event’s sponsors the chance to run the final leg of the race , offering a small flavour of the MdS in exchange for their efforts to raise a significant amount of corporate donations. While the more purist runners may have grumbled a little at these corporate interlopers, it was an opportunity that yielded €100,000 towards helping various Moroccan charities.
Oddly enough, despite the long association between charity and sponsored running events, this wasn’t always the case with the MdS, an event in the running calendar previously reserved for the elite. Bauer reminded us during the last day’s briefing that it was the British competitors who began running the MdS for charitable causes, opening up the event to the fundraising opportunities it now affords.
For the charity I was running for, Action for Alport’s, this was just the beginning.
The completion of the MdS was the first stage of the journey to reach the target of £50,000 that will launch the research into the rare genetic kidney disease Alport’s Syndrome. For a campaign that only launched in February this year, there has already been support from a dedicated band of individuals competing in events to raise money and awareness. This varies from runners in the Brighton and Shakespeare marathons to walkers tackling the South Downs Way, and one person completing the Caledonian Challenge (54 miles in 24 hours).
While the £50,000 target stands, I will, naturally, be joining the throng of runners pinning further fundraising efforts to yet another challenge. So it is that I find myself asking, after being home only a few months, what’s next?
Jody Raynsford ran the Marathon des Sables for Action For Alport’s and is still gratefully receiving sponsorship at www.kidneyresearchukevents.org/jodyrunsthesahara. For more information about Action For Alport’s or to help raise money for the cause, please visit www.action foralportscampaign.org