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My journey to complete the toughest race in the world

Gemma

Anthony Nolan supporter Gemma recently completed her biggest challenge yet. Known as the 'Toughest Footrace on Earth' the Marathon Des Sables is six days running over 156 miles across the Sahara desert. In this blog, Gemma shares her day by day account of the 'best and worst' week of her life and the reason she did it.

Hundreds of miles of training, 33 hours of heat acclimatisation, food prepped, kit tested. It was all complete.

I can’t begin to explain the fear I was feeling. Considering I had actually been out to the race before it seemed ridiculous and irrational. But the fear wasn’t a case of the unknown this time, it was a case of repeat performance. I felt physically sick. Failure of the task ahead wasn’t an option but I knew this was something that could just be taken out of my hands at any given moment.

I double checked, triple checked, quadruple checked my bag and my paperwork. Everything was there, but after months of trying to get the weight of my pack down for the race I started throwing in items as a ‘just in case’ not even checking the weight. The last thing to go in at the top was the picture of my Dad which I was going to carry with me through the desert. He was my reason.

I had a soak in the bath and tried to have an early night with the intention of getting one last good nights sleep in an actual bed. But of course I maybe had an hour, two at the very most.

Tomorrow was the big day.

Getting there

I made sure I savoured that clean feeling of washing my hair before I left the house, the last wash for over a week. I had a knot in my stomach that wouldn’t go.

One of my tent mates stayed at mine that night and we felt the same. We were dropped at Gatwick and I said a teary goodbye to my husband, I went up the escalator waving to him then my safety blanket was gone.

a women smiling in an Anthony Nolan t-shirt at an airport
Gemma at the airport, ready for the biggest challenge of her life

Looking around I could see all the MDS runners cramming in all the fresh food they could, wearing their velcro trainers and carrying their packs with bottles attached. We weren’t exactly inconspicuous. Some questioned us, some just stared.

Our tent group all met in Pret and Sara gave me a bracelet saying this was my time, somehow knowing my anxiety about the task ahead. I cried again. This meant so much and I wore that bracelet all week, I used it as a symbol for succeeding, I looked at it when I was weak and took strength in the fact that people believed in me.

After a 3.5 hr flight we arrived in Errichida. On the coach to the Bivouac we were presented with our roadbook for the week. Looking at the route we could see this course was harder than they usually give the runners, it really pushed all limits. Even the long stage was longer than it usually is, hitting 90km. I gulped, doubting my abilities, I wasn’t ready for this, I wasn’t good enough to be here.

As we arrived at the Bivouac, all the anxiety I’d been feeling seemed to dissipate, I was here.

We dragged our cases over to tent 89 and walked straight into our first sandstorm. The wind whipped up as did the sand, little did we know this was a sign of things to come. The sand stung the skin and tried to lift the tent canopy. We gathered rocks to weigh down the sides but it didn’t really work. As bags were opened, the sand was landing, making a home within each of our belongings.

We had our first long brief by Patrick Bauer (he really likes to talk), our first desert sunset, our evening meal provided at the camp buffet then we all bedded down for our first night in the desert. 

two women wheel suitcases through the desert
Arriving in camp

Day 2 - Technical Day

It’s impossible to ‘sleep in’ in the desert. The camp begins to wake around 4-5am, we all woke. A usual morning routine: wake up, brush teeth and for some, the use of the dreaded MDS toilets for the first time… this consists of a giant poo bag, a plastic toilet shaped rim and a tarpaulin cubical. My body just said no. I find it amazing that considering you don’t know the people who you are sharing a tent with, the toilet chat is pretty open.

We ate at the breakfast buffet then returned to the tent to panic pack. In a matter of hours we were handing in our suitcases and that would be the last time we would see them for a week.

I packed, unpacked, dumped things, added things and finally it was ready - this was my kit and bag for the week. The tent looked like a tornado had hit.

I’d brought out some items to eat and drink from home for this day, I had my last cool bottle of For Goodness Shakes, I sprayed deodorant and doused myself in Jo Malone... why? I don’t know, maybe I thought the longer I smelt okay, the better. I moisturised with Pretty Athletic then it was time to pop it in the case and hand in.

We stood in a long hot queue for kit check. I had my medical checked, then bag weighed. The scales read 9.1kg! What?!? How?!? I’d spent so long trying to get this pack down, and here I was with a very heavy pack. I panicked thinking this was too much but it was too late, it is what it is.

I got fitted with my GPS and given my bib - two things which would be attached all week. I would now be known as 1160.

It was now time to chill. There was nothing more to do other than walk around meet the camels, chat, eat and get crammed into a big 37 in the centre of camp and have the iconic yearly MDS photo taken from the air.

Tomorrow was go time, nerves were apparent across camp.

Day 3 - Stage 1 - 36km

Our 1st day of the race, 1st day of self sufficiency. I ate breakfast and changed into my race gear, which is what I was to wear for the next seven days. The clothes I was wearing were gladly taken by the berbers.

At the start, the iconic Highway to Hell was played and we were off. My strategy this time: Only focus on the cut off times of checkpoints. 100 feet into the stage my sleeping bag dropped and I had to pull off. As I was trying to secure it to my bag, the camels were gaining fast. ‘Shit the camels are fast’, I thought. I swept my bag on my back and ran until I couldn’t see them.

It started to get warm quick and the terrain was a mixture of everything. I swept through Check Point 1, collected my water, filled my bottles, necked the remainder and plodded on.

At Check Point 2 I’d get some shade and take my pack off, which felt incredibly heavy. My shoulders were sore with the weight. The undulating course was sapping my energy fast, I really needed a breather.

I set back off and just like my previous attempt, I saw bodies crammed under any small tree trying to gain some shade from the direct sunlight beaming down on us. I spoke with a marine for a few miles who said he’d done it twice and it was a sight he’d never seen. Unfortunately for me it was all too familiar, reminding me of the doomed 2021 race when I'd had to drop out.

I started to get flashbacks, a panic rose in my stomach and realised the same could maybe be happening.

After 8hr14 on the course I crossed the finish line and relief swept over me. I was the 2nd to last arriving back in the tent, a place that I stayed consistent with all week. I mixed my liquid dinner, but as I was about to drink it, one hell of a sandstorm swept in. Instead of concentrating on getting nutrition inside me I was lying face down holding tight to the tent rope so it wouldn’t blow away. As soon as one storm left, another would whip up from another direction.

Everything was covered in sand, we emptied the tent to then set it all out again, then it was time to bed down ready to go again tomorrow.

Day 4 - Stage 2 - 31.7km

I was dreading today. This leg of the course went over three jebels (hills or mountains) - my weakness. Heights, big drops, ridges. Today was full of them.

I forced breakfast down, got ready. I was quiet, maybe came across rude. I had as much water as possible and we made our way to the start.

ACDC played. Go!

The climb of the 1st jebel installed fear. We went in single file and I was cautious, slow but mindful I was in a race, so it would’ve been frustrating those behind me. My eyes focused on the ground, praying this wouldn’t get any worse, Check Point 1 was a welcome sight.

a women hiking across rocks with poles
Gemma, making her way over one of the jebels

After a short section of flat, we approached the 2nd jebel. I took a rest before the climb then looked up, my breathing shallow. I needed to get going, so started the climb. Sandy with loose rocks that moved when you stood on them. I became tunnel visioned. I carried on climbing then froze. My thoughts: ‘I shouldn’t have come, I can’t do this, what must Dad think looking down on me’. Tears were pouring down my face. I was stuck.

After a push from others, I continued to climb, saying sorry to everyone around. I reached the top, collapsed in a heap, crying & hyperventilating. I still had the ridge and the big one to go.

The ridge wasn’t too bad and passed in a blur. The heat was unbearable - it must have been well into the 50s. Seeing people on IVs, lying on the ground and being seen to was common. I passed Check Point 2 and then it was onto the big jebel that involved a rope.

A sandy, steep climb, then the helicopter landed near on a flat. An unconscious person was ahead and needed lifting out. Moments like this were horrific to see. My ascent continued, then I got to the rope, held on for dear life and pulled myself up. 

I reached the top, then made a technical decent. I encouraged a man struggling, we continued together. The last 5km felt like an age, dunes between us and the finish. Unable to cool, I was doubting myself.

I crossed the finish. We were all in disbelief at how brutal the day was. Many of us were suffering. I couldn’t face food, so didn’t have anything. We looked defeated, but needed rest.

Day 5 - Stage 3 - 34.4km

I hadn’t slept. Instead, I'd sat upright for hours staring at the stars. A privilege of the MDS is seeing the clear starry nights with no light pollution.

Camp arose, same routine. I still didn't feel like eating but I had to have something as I hadn’t eaten since breakfast the previous day.

Start time was brought forward to 7am due to the heatwave, We were told there had been more than 100 dropouts in the last 24hrs, a number rising fast, remarkably similar to 2021.

We were off. A long flat to start, I felt strong. One foot in front of the other, I was going well. Little did I know this was a false sense of security for the day.

It was unbearably hot already. I’d ran out of water but knew the Check Point was imminent.

After a good first section I arrived at Check Point 1, planning to quickly fill my bottles and go. I put my carb in the bottle along with an electrolyte. I shook it and it curdled, shook it again and it curdled more. I looked at what I’d used - it read ‘recovery’. With the electrolyte it had made it undrinkable. I’d wasted a full bottle of my allocation and I was furious. I didn’t have any reserve.

My water was gone in 30 minutes and the temperature continued to rise, the terrain became trickier and I started to feel faint. We hit some dunes where the heat reflected and I knew I was in danger. I couldn’t get my core temperature down. At any given opportunity of a tree I sat with my head down trying to cool.

At Check Point 2 the choice whether to pour my water over me or drink. It was becoming difficult and neither option was refreshing, given the temperature of the water was like tea.

More dunes, I struggled. People passing tried to talk to me but I couldn't speak. I had to concentrate on moving my legs. Again out of water I saw a car ahead, I took a penalty and asked for a water. Scared, as you are only allowed two water penalties - if you need a 3rd, you are out.

Finishing that day was the hardest. I flopped on the floor and cried ‘I can’t do this!'.

Two of my tent mates were already there. They said they had withdrawn. I was absolutely devastated for them, I knew how this felt. This was a blow.

Day 6 - Stage 4 - 90km Part 1 

The long stage. Day 4 of running, tired legs, low energy. Starting stage 4 was huge, this was when I was out in 2021.

Fresh underwear for this day, what a treat! Others had fresh socks. I said bye to our tent mates who were leaving, tears hidden by my glasses. Another 100+ were out.

A 7am start due to heat, we set off. The first few Check Points were normal cut offs, the latter more generous. A big cut off was terrifying me before Jebel el Otfal, we had to climb it again in the other direction.

We began a long, sandy, sandfly covered climb. Horrific. Ground disturbed, the flies flew in abundance sticking to any area of exposed skin. A huge dune to descend. Poles in one hand, I ran down with a grin, pure fun.

The route passed a camel herd, salt plains, wadis (valleys), small jebels. The heat was unbearable. Check Point 1, water collected, I marched on. Before Check Point 2, I ran out of water. So many were starting to flake. I was overheating like never before and my stride turned into an unsteady stagger. I was pulled over by Steve, “Gem! Okay?” I flopped, mumbling “Can’t cool”. He poured water over me, made sure I was okay, then pushed me on.

I made my way through the dunes ready for the climb and saw one of the top runners struggling. I called to see if she was okay, thinking this race doesn’t discriminate. She later withdrew.

The climb began. I could take this steady now the cut offs were more generous. A brutal ascent and out of water yet again. I made it to the top, sat for a while looking at the rope, panicking about how to get down.

Here I met Nigel, unbeknown to me he was thinking the same. Encouraging each other, I went first. I got hit by a sleeping bag, giggled, then I began to fall. Feeling idiotic skidding on my bum, I stopped only to see Nigel trying to get his sleeping bag and rolling down at speed. I laughed uncontrollably. 

We made it to the bottom unscathed.

The next Check Point was far but I needed water. I was going to have to take a 2nd penalty. I saw a van, shocked to find someone I knew. She was in a bad way on an IV. My heart sank. Penalty taken, I proceeded.

Day 7 -Stage 4 - 90km Part 2

At Check Point 3 I got my headtorch ready and collected my glowstick. I was looking forward to getting some miles in at night, cooler miles. I carried on.

As the sun set it was time to turn on my light. It didn’t work - disaster! This was essential. Opening it, I found that when I had been doused in water, the batteries got wet. I put a new set in and thankfully it worked.

I marched on, dusk turning into complete dark. My aim was to finish at sunrise, less time in the heat.

bright lines of lights in the darkness
Running in the dark

Into Check Point 4 and onto 10k of dunes in darkness. This is where I hit my all time low. Up down, up down, sand making each step harder than the last, draining every ounce of energy.

Tired, heatstroke, delirious, I was on my own. The person in front, far ahead. The person behind, far back. I raised my head and in my torch light I glimpsed a pair of legs, no shoes, a silhouette, dancing an Irish jig. I watched in amazement, then realised it can’t be a runner. Fear ran through me, I needed someone, but refused to take a step back. Only forward, always forward. So I waited for the runner behind to catch up. It wasn’t until I finished the next day that I realised it was a hallucination.

At Check Point 5 I sat down for 5 minutes. People slept, people ate. I took on water and carried on. Another 5k of dunes.

Nearing Check Point 6 my steps were covering 2cm at a time. Tiredness had taken hold, I was exhausted beyond comprehension. I decided I needed a nap at the next Check Point.

I entered, threw my mat on the floor and set my alarm for 40 minutes. I dropped off instantly. 18 minutes later I woke, picked up my mat and left. 18 minutes had been enough, I was back to normal speed.

13km to go. The sunrise was stunning but the heat came fast. Not what I’d planned, but nothing had gone to plan. Slowly I made my way to the finish and was elated to cross the line after 26.5 hrs.

I could now have 22hrs rest before stage 5. We received messages from home, most brought a tear to my eye. I didn’t realise the support I had.

At 5pm we were given our first cool drink of the week - a cola. Who knew something so simple could bring such happiness? I savoured every drop, remembering never to take such things for granted again.

Day 8 - Stage 5 - 42.2km

How had I got to this day? Disbelief consumed me. The final day of the race... well, kind of. There was still another stage after completing the race.

Many say ‘only a marathon to go’, but a marathon is still a long way, especially in a heatwave in the Sahara.

There was excitement around camp. Highway to Hell started us off. Slow and steady, I just needed to get through this. For the first time this whole week I was beginning to believe that I may just be able to do this. I allowed myself to think of the finish line.

There were a lot of sections of dunes, a huge salt plain and for the first time I saw desert village children on route. Children that live such a simple yet full life. They asked for sweets and I had one small packet of Haribo left. "Here you go", I said to a little boy. His eyes lit up. "Bonne Chance", he shouted. French for Good Luck.

Check Point 1, straight through. Check Point 2, I started to tire. Check Point 3, I had to sit down. I was overheating again, I felt sick. I checked my watch. I had plenty of time to make it to the finish, I just had to be mindful.

The final 8km was long and I stopped regularly. Marshals shouted, "Just 5km to go!" as I plodded on. I came across John, head down, visibly pained. I checked he was okay, but he was suffering with heatstroke. I told him to pour water over his head but he didn’t have enough, so I stopped, told him to remove his hat and I poured my water over him. I reassured him that we were doing 20 minute miles, so just 60 minutes until the finish line. He smiled and started again, focused on his steps.

2km away and the finish was in sight. Tears started flooding down my face in disbelief. I thought about my Dad as I focused on the finish line getting closer and closer. I spoke out loud to myself ‘you’ve done it, you’ve actually done it!’ then I ran, arms outstretched sobbing straight into the arms of Patrick Bauer who placed the legendary Marathon Des Sables medal around my neck.

No words can explain my elation in this moment. I'd had no belief in myself whatsoever, but I had actually done it. I had just completed my dream, my ultimate goal.

a woman holding up her medal

Day 9 - Stage 7 - 9km

It’s laughable that considering we had officially completed the MDS, we hadn’t quite completed it. There was still a small mandatory stage to go. The charity stage, still self sufficient.

What is historically an easy short flat stage was still being pushed to the absolute limits with distance and route. 9km longer than usual and straight over the Merzouga Dunes. Hardly flat and extremely challenging.

I decided not to eat my breakfast, I was running on pure adrenaline. Given a fresh charity t-shirt for the section, we were all dressed the same, yet all absolutely stank.

At the start line we were told a total of 764 people had completed the MDS, 30% dropped out. It was officially the 2nd toughest MDS known, the toughest being 2021.

We heard Highway to Hell one final time and we were off.

This section was the biggest kick in the teeth. Hot, hard, challenging with nothing to really to gain at the end. The dunes just kept on giving. People were still being carted off by medical buggies, not ideal for a charity stage. 2.5 hours later we could see civilisation, a sight we hadn’t seen for nine days. As I crossed the final finish line my all time favourite, most meaningful song played aloud: Jerusalema. It felt like it was meant to be.

From here we got in a 6 hour taxi to Ouazazate where we would spend two nights and be reunited with all of tent 89.

Day 10 - Decompression & Arrival Home

After spending eight nights in the desert a bit of decompression time at the hotel was welcome before returning home. Sharing experiences with those who have been part of the journey is important. Although those at home supporting you are utterly incredible, for those that don’t experience it, it’s very hard for them to understand the enormity of the whole thing.

After a day by the pool, a few drinks, some fresh food and collecting our finisher shirts it was time to return home to our loved ones. We were all bringing home two very precious things: the MDS medal and lifelong memories.

Arriving into Gatwick, walking out of the baggage hall, we were greeted with banners, cheers, hugs and pure love. Just another amazing memory to add to the abundance that had already been created.

Reflections

I will never feel as proud as I do about completing the Marathon Des Sables. This was my dream and I never let go of it. It took me two attempts, but for me that was part of my own journey. I accept that now.

As a race, it can be traumatic. As a goal, it can be inconceivable. As an experience, it can be life changing. 

The desert chews you up and spits you out, the environment doesn’t need to answer to anyone and throws an abundance of challenges day on day. But there is something magical and wholesome about it, something impossible to describe.

a woman wearing sunglasses smiling in front of sand dunes

My journey has lasted a while, but over this time I have raised £31,000 for Anthony Nolan. I hope this money can make a difference. I hope it can and has helped save lives. I hope that my journey has allowed some to continue their own life journeys for many years to come.

As well as fundraising, my other reason was to prove to myself that my body can still do hard things. It let me down going through a very premature menopause and I’ve hated it, loathed it and cursed it day on day since. But I was able to prove this to myself, finally, that it’s capable of so much more.

I feel so privileged to have been able to do this but I have had to make huge sacrifices to enable it. For me, crossing that finish line was once in a lifetime.

So peace out Marathon Des Sables, you have consumed my life for many years, but it’s a chapter that is now closed.

To anyone who has kept up and read on to the end my message to you is: never, ever give up on your dreams.

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