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27 December 2023

Back in January, we spoke to Di Farrell-Thomas, Diversity and Inclusion Project Manager at the BHA, before the ‘toughest footrace on earth’- the Marathon des Sables. Here she reflects on the brutal challenge of a lifetime.

Sitting back in my little garden office with all the comforts of home, it is very tricky to remember much about my experience over 2,000 miles away in the expansive Sahara Desert.

Billed as the ‘Toughest Footrace on Earth’ – the Marathon des Sables (MDS) certainly lived up to its name. This year’s edition saw the hottest temperatures recorded for the race leading to the highest ever dropout of 30% of the field, where the ‘average’ is normally 5%. Unfortunately, this figure included me.

Changed me for the better

Although my heart and my hands ache from wanting to hold that Finisher’s Medal in my grasp, I feel far from a failure, and I realise the adventure for me started three years ago when I pushed that race registration button. A dream can only become a reality when a plan is put in place, and although there are many metaphors that could relate to my experience, I have no doubt the desert changed me for the better.

Arriving at Errachidia Airport, Morocco with greying skies overhead, 1,200 athletes scrambled over luggage, praying that all their essential kit had come with them. Spotting my bright yellow suitcase, plus my tentmate’s bags felt like a massive relief. We were given some local snacks and our ‘Road Books’ containing all the details about the race. Our bus journey stopped at a rest site overlooking a huge gorge; it was so different to ‘flat as a pancake’ East Anglia, and out of nowhere some local children arrived and gave out reeds cleverly crafted into the shape of camels. This was a gift that made me consider more what life must be like for those local people, and it reminded me how running across a desert ‘for personal challenge’ was such a privilege, and to appreciate every moment.

A warm welcome from the natural elements

As we arrived at our first desert campsite the wind was picking up… I located my new home for the week: ‘Tent 99’ and then the rain started to fall! Within minutes this had subsided, but the biggest sandstorm ripped through our camp. All the tents were uprooted and ours collapsed with all occupants underneath. My poor friend Maria was hit in the face with a tent peg and became visitor number one to the medical tent. The Berbers came to our rescue trying as best they could to secure 166 tents. I was caught up in my own little drama as I struggled to get the lock to release on my suitcase. I had tied the reed crafted camel to my backpack – this blew into my face and again made me consider the real scale of my problem, particularly in that moment.

The first night was filled with on and off sandstorms and the same pattern for sleep, too. Living in the desert means a very early start. The sun rises about 4am and so does the heat. As you look up at the inside of your tent – the sand is so fine, it is like smoke swirling against the black canvas. Then you get used to the fact that you are constantly breathing this in, and it is all over you, in your food, drink and on everything you own.

Kit check day was next, where your suitcase is taken away and you are left with just your race items in a backpack. Your pack is weighed, and all your medical forms are checked. Being a petite person, I needed my pack to weigh as close to the 6.5kg lower limit as possible…it ended up as 7.5kg (approx. 9kg with water), which I was content with after I was given my salt tablets and the GPS tracker was attached. For me it was a liberating experience being stripped of all items except those essential for the race, and at that stage, I enjoyed no technological connection. The simplicity of focussing on running, eating, drinking and recovery for many of the athletes is why they go to the desert in the first place. We had a ‘luxury’ last cooked meal from the organisers, and the following day it was time to race and be completely self-sufficient.

Stage One – nothing like the brochure!

Waking up in race mode, I was thoughtful of the challenge ahead. ACDC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ is played as runners go over the start line each day; it’s a song that I think will always now tie my stomach in knots! We were off! The plan for many, including myself, was to conserve energy and adapt yourself to the race. Although it wasn’t easy, I felt comfortable throughout and I was able to chat to many other runners from all over the world and take a few videos of my surroundings. From expansive sand dunes to dried riverbeds (Wadis), the desert presented it all and I was struck by its beauty. Having been prepping for the race for over three years, I had imagined every day what it would be like – but no articles, photos or blogs can fully reflect what it is really like in those conditions. I finished in just over seven hours, retiring to my tent just in time to escape the onslaught of more sandstorms.

My thoughts turned to Harry, one of my tent mates who at the age of 81 was the oldest competitor in the race and was largely expecting to walk most of the course. As it neared the race cut off time, another tent mate and I made our way to the finish to see if we could catch sight of him. With just minutes to go, we saw Harry’s familiar figure coming through the dark sand haze. It was a pure delight to welcome him home, a highlight of my whole experience. He explained that during the sandstorms, two of the race marshals had gone to find him and had to hold him down to stop him blowing over!

By 6:30pm most days; the darkness closes in, so you have to be organised in managing your recovery, prepping for the next day and also seeking medical / foot treatment from the organisers, if necessary. This is all part of the strategy of the race and you have to fight the urge to just rest and sleep.

Alarm bells in the heat

I am not sure if it was due to the disconnection I felt with being in such an alien environment, but until lining up at the race start for the second stage, I had not noticed the extreme 50+ degrees heat. I suddenly felt very nauseous and faint, leaving me crouched on the floor. From that point on, sadly, this feeling did not really leave me. I struggled to move beyond a walk, to retain fluids and calories that I had ingested. The second stage of the race presented much greater challenges – not only did we face our biggest jebels (mountainous, rocky sand dune) ‘Hered Asfer’ and ‘Jebel El Otfal’, I now had a battle of knowing I would not have enough rationed water to hydrate me for the 10+ hours that I would be out in the hottest part of the day. From acclimation training inclusive of hydration and salt tests, I knew that I lose 1.2L of fluid an hour…alarm bells were starting to ring.

The latter part of day two, I reached ‘El Otfal’. It was so steep, and the sand was so soft that I felt like I was on a stair master and needed to rest after a dozen or so steps at a time. It was a constant occurrence, people collapsing from heat exhaustion throughout the race needing to be airlifted away – something I had prepared myself to see but hadn’t expected to see on that scale. On reaching a section of ‘El Oftal’ that required use of a rope to pull yourself up, I noticed medical officials supporting an athlete on a flattened rocky section. To my horror, it was one of my tent mates. A swirl of emotions filled my head. I had to regain composure and was so pleased they were with medical professionals. Somehow, I dragged myself with my heavy backpack up the rope and reached ‘a step’. I was very grateful to a Japanese athlete who gave me a boost to haul myself over it. By this point, I was covered head to toe in sand from physically crawling up this sandy jebel. I will always reflect deeply about that hour or so on ‘El Oftal’ – I learnt a lot about myself and my capabilities.

Messages from home

I was aware at this point that I had a handful of kilometres left to cover and not much time to do it. Trying my best to shuffle over the remaining dunes, I could see the finish and campsite in the distance. My limited French language skills could pick out that ‘hurry up, time is running out’ was being shouted over the speaker. The clock was counting down – I had about two minutes, I HAD to go quicker! I am hoping none of my work colleagues or connections watched me cross the line that day on the live feed…let’s just say you could clearly see I was not in a good state. I spent a couple of hours in the medical tent and on returning to tent 99 I had had a wonderful delivery of ‘Camp Post’ in the form of e-mails from home. This was the perfect tonic, and I knew whatever state I was in, that support would push me on the next day.

That it did! Despite still feeling awful from heat stroke and having not been able to eat much at all or keep what I had ingested down, I staggered onwards and was grateful for the salt flat sections. Although this often felt like the hottest area to be, and people were seeking out the smallest, twig- like trees to hide from the rays, I seemed to be able to lock into moving forward. On reaching Check Point One that day my feet needed treatment with my blisters and toenails being drained and injected with iodine. The pain was immense, but it was worth it for the benefit.

The tricks on the mind

It was on the third day that hallucinations started for me. First, I was convinced I was surrounded by tropical birds… there was definitely no visible sign of life in the desert outside of other athletes in these sections. I later realised my water bottles either side of me were bubbling from the fizz of hydration tablets, and it was probably that sound that convinced my mind I was surrounded by birds. This was also the day I was joined by Whitney Houston(!) wearing a purple suit and singing ‘YOU Have Nothing’ instead of ‘I Have Nothing.’ I then started chuckling when concluding it was not possible and thought of Tom Hanks in Castaway with ‘Wilson the Ball’ – realising it wasn’t real but missing him anyway.

On reaching a rocky climb about 6km before the end of this stage, I was first to reach another athlete who was unconscious. On managing to revive him, I was asking him any question I could think of to keep him awake until the medical crew arrived about 20 minutes later. Again, due to my walking pace, I was at the back of the field, and I had to try and up my speed to get to the end. On crossing the line with half an hour to spare, time after this was a blur but I know I was taken to the medical tent. By this point my feet were very painful and blistered and I convinced the team from ‘Doc Trotters’ to patch me up to get me racing another day.

Stage Fours is known as the ‘long day’ owing to the distance being 90km and you are given a time of 35 hours to complete it in. You must choose whether to sleep during night hours or continue to avoid more sunlight the next day. For the first time, me and a couple of my tent mates set off together at a walking pace. The course immediately progressed into a sandy descent. My strides were about a third of my friends’ and I told them to continue at their own pace so I could also zone in on my stride. Whitney was right on this day too…I really did have nothing…no energy or speed. I could see the backmarker camels in the near distance behind me. My experience had moved on from sporting challenge to survival test. On reaching another sandy descent, my arms suddenly lost all feeling and dropped to my sides and my nose started to bleed. I managed to sit myself down on a rock and for the first time I had to consider whether I should carry on. I was right at the back and who would have pushed my SOS button if I couldn’t? The thoughts of supporting the unconscious athlete the day before had been playing on my mind and I had to weigh everything up. With over 80km left to go that day alone, I knew despite mentally wanting to continue, my body was displaying strong warning signs that worse could be to come from a health perspective if I did.

Support was immediate

A media truck pulled up beside me with two French photographers aboard. They were quick to ignore my concerns that I was distracting them from getting some good shots and said that health of people always comes before their jobs. This was the point the tears started to flow for the first time. I explained how I felt physically unable to continue and that my dream of finishing the race was not going to turn into a reality. After pushing my tracker button so the organisers knew to locate me for assistance, the backmarker camels reached me, and their handler too was making sure I was happy with my decision and on confirming that my tracker was cut off and my race number surrendered…my MDS had finished.

What did I feel? Sadness – I had trained so hard, and this had been my life focus for three years. There were a lot of sacrifices made in dedicating my life to this challenge. I thought of everyone following me at home and how I wanted to have succeeded for them to feel even a moment of happiness from it, too. I felt guilt and shame that I had been given so much opportunity to channel my story through various media sources and that I couldn’t provide that happy ending on my return. I felt grateful to everyone who had sponsored me to raise funds for Arthur Rank Hospice but knew it may put people off continuing to sponsor me as I did not finish what I set out to do and I was unlikely to now hit the £10,000 target.

Time to contemplate

I had six uncomfortable, queasy hours sat in the back of a dune buggy to contemplate the whole situation. The driver loved James Arthur songs and had this on full blast the entire journey, which seemed totally out of place in our surroundings! Interestingly, I was joined by a man from Scotland who also has a job connected to diversity and inclusion, which made me think about returning to reality. What would life be like without this adventure on the horizon?

Under race rules back at camp, all those who had ceased to continue were required to wait in the admin tent. One by one we were asked to go and sit at a table with two officials, hand over all our remaining food (so this could not be passed to athletes still in the race). This food would then go to the people of Morocco, so not to waste it. We were asked to confirm our reasons for dropping out and had to sign the waiver release forms and given our water rations. Feeling very aware that no-one at home would know anything about my situation other than the online tracker saying ‘withdrawn’, I tried frantically to get a call through to my wife. Through very little signal we made out each other’s voices and I wanted to reassure her that she and anyone else did not need to worry about me.

Throughout the night those still left in the race continued their battle to get to the end of the 90km stage, and to see those returning to camp looking as though they had been through a war, I had absolute admiration of how they managed that situation. The medical tent was completely full, and that stage produced the highest number of athlete dropouts (119).

Those 119 people who were fit to travel met at 7am the next day to be transported back to Ouarzazate where the race hotels were located. Survival mode reactivated as it took nearly 11 hours to get back to civilisation with very little water or food, in vehicles with no type of air-conditioning with 15 other people. At points we were ushered to leave our vehicles – watching them drive away. We had no communications as to why we had been left on the side of a road in full sun. As it turns out there was no set plan as to how to get so many of us ‘home’ and it took a French athlete running in front of an official vehicle on the road to make sure that we were not forgotten. On finally reaching civilisation, I remember staggering out of the bus to be greeted by a lot of people who had lots of instructions. I checked into my hotel and took a shower – my first wash for over 5 days. And then a heavenly pizza dinner!

At peace have given my all

When those who had completed the race made it back to civilisation, it was an incredible moment welcoming them and hearing about their journeys to success. By this point I was very much at peace with my decision to withdraw from the race. I had been very dedicated and committed in my preparations for the MDS and knowing there was virtually nothing else I could have done to ensure I got to the finish line, I was satisfied that I had pushed myself to the limit and given the race my best efforts. Yes, if it had not been a freak heatwave there is a good chance I would have completed it, but you can prepare for the things you can control and you can control how you react to the things you cannot prepare for. I have no regrets, and as brutal as the MDS was, I will look back on my adventure as a positive experience. The beauty of the sand dunes and the blanket of stars at night were mesmerising and sharing that experience with a community of people who have that zest for challenge as I do, helped me to understand that I am no way a failure for getting my first ever DNF.

Would I attempt the MDS race again? Never say never but at this stage I do not feel I need or want to. I still wish to adventure far and wide through running challenges, hopefully getting the chance to experience new cultures and landscapes with less extreme conditions.

I want to thank all who sent me support messages before, throughout and after the race and also everyone who donated to my Just Giving page in raising funds for Arthur Rank Hospice who cared for my dad in his final days. Diana Farrell-Thomas is fundraising for Arthur Rank Hospice Charity (justgiving.com) Together we have raised awareness and over £9,000 for such a wonderful charity. I would urge anyone who is contemplating doing a challenge close to their hearts to take that step. It will not only provide a charitable boost, it will bring many unexpected positives to your life, too.

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