Half Marathons des Sables Series: Stage 2 of 5; Race Report.
Updated: Dec 13, 2018
If you´re reading this, I am hoping that you may have read the intro to the series about the Half Marathon des Sables event that I ran in the first week of December. If not then no worries, you can check it out here. I´d also planned to do this so called ´race report´ as stage 5 of 5, following numerous other blogs on nutrition, kit and so on. However, in hindsight (I had a bit of time to think whilst spending 4 days in the desert!) I thought it would be better to issue it as stage 2. So, here you go.
If you did miss Stage 1 (the introduction), in quick summary; the Half MDS Peru is a 120km multi stage ultra run over 4 days, across the Ica Desert in Peru. Essentially, think sleeping in a bivouac, tough going sandy dunes, and all whilst carrying everything you need to survive for the duration of the race. Sounds fun right? Well you probably wouldn’t be reading this if you thought it sounded terrible…
The race journey started out from Lima, Peru´s capital city where the majority of race participants gathered to travel down on buses arranged by the organisation. We met at 22:00 and essentially spent the next 8 hours in transit arriving after a bus and then military truck exchange down to the beach camp. Tough going for sure, and certainly not your usual pre race routine of a bowl of pasta and a comfortable nights sleep! However, you have to realise this race really is in the middle of nowhere. This makes it pretty special because it basically means that you are running in unchartered territory, in a protected park, where you won´t see hardly anyone else non-race related for the next 5 days! This really adds to the experience that this is not just running event, but a travelling experience that allows you to see a completely new part of the world.
Once we arrived at base camp, the usual pre race checks could then take place. Waivers were signed, tents allocated and we waved goodbye to any non-race or mandatory kit. We then found ourselves with the afternoon to prepare for the following days first stage, with lunch and dinner provided by the organisation. Full self-sufficiency would start from breakfast on day 1, something pretty new to me.
The camp was on the beach, overlooking vast dunes on one side and the expansive Pacific Ocean on the other. Individual tents were allocated (different to the full MDS where you sleep fully outside under a canopy), and tents were allocated into pods of 6. The organisation did a good job in allocating tents with people you know, or at least like-minded people with some language similarities. The race was majority French runners, with a large representation from Spain and South America. The UK was a minority with 6 or 7 of us in total, so a great excuse to practise our language skills! In our tent pod was my girlfriend Julia, fellow ASICS athlete Marcus and 3 members from the Peruvian military! I made a short video on our arrival to base camp, which you can check out here.
Day one was soon on us with a 7:30 start time, so alarms went at 5:30. I made a point to really try and start and then keep a good routine everyday. That started with my feet; taping any prone hot spots, applying powder and ensuring there was no sand before putting on the gaiters. Then came the rest of the kit. Anti-chafe cream in all of those ´sensitive´ areas, factor 50 SPF, brush teeth, a bathroom with a view*, food prep for the day, breakfast, pack literally everything you´ve not eaten and then off to the start line. There will be more about the kit and nutrition in following blogs.
*I am sure a few of you are curious about the toilets. A row of toilet tents were set up nearby with stools inside. No long drop or portaloos here. Black bin liner bags were provided where you essentially did your business before depositing into toilet bins taken care of by the organisation. Given the remote and protected nature of the area, this was the only way forward to keep it that way, keep hygiene levels high and to be fair it really worked very well!
Anyway, back to day one. We set out along the beach with a steady climb on lose sand to the first check point (CP) about 9 km in which was located at the bottom of a pretty gnarly climb known as the ´great dune´. We were provided 2.5 litres of water at each CP, and these were around every 10-15 km throughout the whole race. We topped up quickly with water and then went onwards and upwards to tackle what actually turned out to be the toughest climb of the whole race. I think recent hill training back in Switzerland really helped, and we were soon rewarded with some spectacular views across the coastal dunes.
The rest of the day went fairly smoothly, 27km ticked by in around 5 hours and we were soon back in camp for a quick wash in the sea, dinner and an early night. One thing that became apparent on day one was that the going would be slow. Average speed was around 5km-hour, which is walking pace on flat hard ground. On undulating soft sand dunes, in pretty intense heat and with a 7kg pack this wasn’t too bad. We felt that a combination of walking the hills and running the flats and downs would be a good target for the 3 stages of the race, and this became my internal benchmark for each day. The STRAVA file for day 1 can be found here.
Day 2 was the long day, often known as the ´long march´ in other longer multi day races. The day was shortened from 67km to 58km due to weather conditions, and heavy fog coming in across the dunes mid-late afternoon. It is a bit of a shame in hindsight that this wasn´t made up on stage 3 (at the time it was very welcome news), but ultimately the safety of the participants has to come first so I do understand why this decision was made.
Julia, Marcus and myself stuck together as a team for the duration of the day, all going though the usual highs and lows experienced during most ultra distance events. The first half of the race went pretty smoothly and I really felt that the key was to try and manage what you can control – calories, salt, hydration and mind-set. Trying not to focus on what you couldn’t control was important, and this became absolute after 6 hours when we turned to run into a savage headwind. This thing threw everything at us; heat, sand, dust devils and a relentless wind that battered us for maybe 3 hours. You could see the path and other racers literally as far as the eye could see. Every CP or dune summit just provided the same result – more of the same. This was tough mentally and physically, as there was no break, no let-up. We kept our heads down and battled on.
We eventually reached the final CP and hit lose sand once more. 10km took us a little over 2 hours, and base camp was a welcome sight, even from a long long way away! We hit our average speed goal of 5km-hr for the day, and again the evening routine began. Get as clean as you can, eat, hydrate and rest. Getting the feet elevated and some light stretching was good to try and prevent too much stiffness the next day. STRAVA file here.
Day 3 was a rest day. To be honest this was the toughest day of the race for me. It may sound stupid but I think that when you are in the mind-set of racing, its best to keep moving. The rest day gave me time to reflect on the aches, pains and discomfort of living in the same clothes for 4 days. There was little shelter from the relentless heat of the desert sun, and so it was a restless day. I was so happy to see the sun go down, and the temperature inside my tent drop below what felt like 100 degrees. Bring on the last day and the final 22km of the race.
It was important on the last day not to let the routine go out the window. Yes its only 22km, I’ve run that distance so many times before. You cannot under-estimate this element of any race, and it´s so easy to start doing stupid things. I made sure I kept the same morning routine with my feet, kit and food prep. I kept eating, drinking, and taking in salts. I was rewarded with fresher legs, a lighter pack and felt really good throughout the whole stage. We ran more than at any other point during the race due to the slightly harder flatter ground, and finished the day in around 3 hours. Our total run time was around 19 hours, day 3 STRAVA file here.
A wave of emotion I think hit us all when we finished. We were happy of course to finish, but also sad in a way to be leaving such a precious environment. I definitely took the course cautiously and know that I could have run faster. The race was a confidence builder for me, to practice nutrition and fuelling, to dial in my kit and to experience something new and special with friends. The key was to finish as a team, and to finish strong. I can 100% say that we did that. I´m so proud of both Julia and Marcus for taking on this challenge, and for completing something so far outside of all our comfort zones.
As I mentioned in stage 1 of this blog series, this could just well be the introduction to multi-stage races I was looking for. So a big thank you is due to WAA Ultra (especially Ferdinand and Heidi) for putting on such a great race, and to Hammer Nutrition, Veloforte, Tentmeals and myRaceKit for helping me with my nutrition and prep for this race.
If you are interested in running this race, there are two editions in 2019 – Fuerteventura and Peru. Entries are now open for 2019, and you can see more on the Half MDS website here. Look out for the next three blogs in this series relating to training, kit and nutrition.
To close this blog, I ask for your support. I have been nominated for the Run Ultra Instagram account of the year, which is amazing and super cool to be up against such great athletes (such as Kilian!). You would be doing me an honour if you could vote for me! Please click on THIS LINK, select my name from the list and then put your email address at the bottom. You will be automatically entered into a competition to win a Suunto 9 as well! THANK YOU!