David Downes – an Elivar Featured Athlete – recently completed the epic Marathon des Sable 2015 Edition – a six-day challenge of covering 251 km (156 miles) in temperatures reaching 50 °C in the Sahara Desert.
According to the race website, the Marathon des Sable – or MdS to its friends – is “a gruelling multi-stage adventure through a formidable landscape in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates – the Sahara desert. The rules require you to be self-sufficient, to carry with you on your back everything except water that you need to survive. You are given a place in a tent to sleep at night, but any other equipment and food must be carried.”
We asked David a few probing questions from the comfort of our air-conditioned office.
What made you enter the MdS in the first place?
I saw a documentary about it a few years ago and really wanted to do it. I applied a few times and didn’t get in so it has taken a few years of applying to get a place. I like to challenge myself physically and mentally, and although I have done marathons, triathlons and Ironman competitions, this seemed like something completely different. I knew that it would test me, both in terms of the training and preparation (which take months) and the race itself. When I got the place I decided to use it as a fundraising opportunity for my local hospice – The North West Hospice in Sligo (Ireland) – and that also spurred me on.
What was the hardest part of the event?
Without doubt, the long day – Stage 4.
It is traditionally the longest stage but this year’s long stage was the longest distance in the history of the MDS at 91.7kms in a maximum allowed time of 36hrs. I was in the first group out at 08:00hrs and wanted to get through this stage in 20hrs if I could. However when I woke up my feet were killing me. I downed some pain killlers and got through the first 50kms without too much trouble. The second half of the stage was a killer. It was mile after mile of running in 4 inches of soft sand whilst climbing 5000m in inescapable heat and only made worse by the fact that the headwind picked up in the night.
I was fuelling throughout by taking on a couple of energy gels every 5-6 miles which I was supplementing with a continuous intake of Elivar ENDURE (Watermelon). The desert seemed absolutely endless and I started to see the difficulty of the race getting to people. There were runners who were literally laying down by sand dunes, broken, mentally and physically. Many just slept there or at the check-points, but at that stage I just wanted to get it done.
As I headed to Checkpoint 6 I started hearing music and seeing lights and I genuinely believed I had completely lost it and was hallucinating. Unbelievably though, out there in the middle of the Sahara there was a band playing – they were jamming away with speakers blaring and lights blazing and groups of runners resting up in deck-chairs.
I rested for a few minutes but was keen to keep going. I eventually finished in 17.5hrs and afterwards someone told me that it was estimated that the equivalent effort in road-running would be 90-100 miles. I was physically exhausted and just about managed some water and some of my Elivar RECOVER drink. My feet were painful but they held up and apart from a couple of painful blisters I was in great form because I knew I’d get through the last stage no matter what.
What was your most memorable moment?
When I was on the long stage I was running with a Spanish lad and at about 8 miles from the finish we were running along and following the glow sticks that lit the course when I fell over. He was shouting to ask if I was ok and I was thinking “what just happened” and when we looked we realised that I had fallen over a fence. Out in the middle of the desert and I tripped on it. I still don’t know what it was and why it was there but I can lay claim to being the one runner in the race that fell over it.
Finally, crossing that finish line on Day 5 was also very special.
How did you cope with the heat and had you prepared for it?
The heat was a daunting prospect, especially as most of my training had been in the west of Ireland in the winter. I took the advice of Rory Coleman (a multiple MDS finisher) and acclimatised in the sauna of my local gym. The team at the Sligo Park Hotel & Leisure Centre were good enough to allow me to use their facilities and I spent an hour a day in the sauna in the weeks before I went to the desert. It was the absolute worst part of my training because the time dragged and I couldn’t distract myself. I actually found the heat bearable in the Sahara, although there were days when it was well over 50 degrees so it all paid off in the end.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering MdS 2016?
The pre-race preparation is key and getting your body weight and pack weight down makes a huge difference when you are out there. I was very disciplined with my diet and training before I went and I tested every product I had with me throughout my training so I knew what worked for me. I spent a lot of time before I went deciding what to bring, packing the absolute essentials that I needed. I had dropped 2 stone in weight before the event and lost another stone during the week, but because I was fuelling and recovering properly each day I generally felt OK and had no major problems with injuries, strength and stamina.
What’s next on the list?
I’ve spent a few weeks recovering and then got back training again. I did the Clare Burren Marathon Challenge at the end of May and I have my eye on a couple of other marathons during the remainder of 2015. I’m also going to do the Sionnach Relay Ultra in Sligo in July, the Lough Gill 10km Swim in August and the Kerry Way Ultra in September.
David Downes is an Elivar Featured Athlete – normal people (well, sort of) who push themselves in their favourite sports. More
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