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Charlotte’s MDS Story

I first heard about the MdS watching Transworld Sports about 25 years ago and remember thinking what a fantastic and crazy event.  Spring forward another 12 or so years and I had a chance encounter in the Lake District with an old family friend whose husband had just returned from running the MdS and he was hobbling around town with his feet all bandaged up and barely able to move!  We spent time chatting about what he’d been doing and what the event was all about, it sounded brutal but a seed was sown and the MdS cemented a place on my running bucket list!

Fast Forward to 2021, a year had gone since my dad had passed away and only a few months since my Gran had also left us.  I was chatting to a friend at a race and she was telling me she wanted to enter the Marathon des Sables and my interest in the race was ignited again. This was a race that Scott was never going to do with me, so knowing that there would be someone else out there I knew made it perfect timing, so in April 2021 I paid my deposit and entered the 36th edition of the Marathon des Sables!!  From then on, myself, my friends and my family then had 12 months of all consuming mental, emotional and physical focus on getting to the finish line of the MdS.

My general strength training program consists of 2 full body work outs per week plus daily flexibility and mobility sessions. However during the last 6 months of my MDS training we focused on just a few key exercises which I lifted heavy (2-5 reps) with low volume (2-4 sets). The objective was to get my legs as strong as possible to improve my running economy and more resistant to injury whilst creating minimal fatigue and soreness that could impact upon my running schedule

I think the best way to summarise those 12 months would be dedication, commitment and hard bloody work!  I felt confident I would have the mental determination to get me through the race but I was worried about my physical condition. As soon as I entered I was on to Rich letting him know what I’d done and a plan was put together to get my strong and ready. My general strength training program consists of 2 full body work outs per week plus daily flexibility and mobility sessions. However, during the last 6 months of my MDS training we focused on just a few key exercises which I lifted heavy (2-5 reps) with low volume (2-4 sets). The objective was to get my legs as strong as possible to improve my running economy and be more resistant to injury, whilst creating minimal fatigue and soreness that could impact upon my running schedule.

From Christmas to March, I was increasing my mileage building up to 50 mile weeks, I was working hard in the gym on my strength and conditioning, I installed a cheap static bike set up in the garden shed with heaters, I was running with increasing weights in my back pack and even using the neighbours indoor equine centre to run in circles for hours on end in my “Cheshire Desert”!!  In the final 2 weeks before departure I was travelling to Manchester every other day to spend 90 minutes sweating like you can’t imaging in a heat chamber, I cut out all alcohol and I even cut back on cake!!  

One of the key things to get right for the MdS is your pack weight.  The MdS is self-sufficient, which means I was responsible for carrying everything I would need from the morning of race day 1 to the finish of day 7.  This included food, sleeping kit, mandatory kit, clothes, water from check point to checkpoint, everything!  The MdS provide you with a “tent” and they give you 3 litres of water at every check point.  The minimum pack weight (without water) is 6.5kg but most runners will tend to come in around 9kg.  So, that meant hours and hours of weighing, measuring, re-packing and re-weighing every single item that went into my kit.  Then unpacking it all and starting again because you’re still weighing in at 12kg!! 

I managed to settle on my pack weighing 9kg without water, and this was what I trundled off to registration and kit check with on the first day out in the Sahara.  I passed all my medical, ECG and kit checks and said goodbye to my travel bag that I’d see again 7 days later at the finish.  There was a real buzz around camp that night and I don’t think anyone slept!  We’re woken around 5am each morning when the Berbere’s come and dismantle the tents, and all 8 of us are left in the cold desert morning watching the camp come to life.  Each race day tends to start about 8am so after some rehydrated breakfast and a lot of pack faffing everyone slowly makes it to the start area.  On Day/Stage 1 there were 900 of us all anxiously listening to Patrick welcome us all to the Sahara and run through the days briefing.  Finally Highway to Hell bellows out of the speakers and we’re off on our way across the desert.

Stage 1 was 18 ½ miles and took in 1000ft of elevation and took me 4 ½ hours.  The first day was fairly uneventful and took in an amazing variety of dry river beds, soft sand dunes and compact sandy trails.  Looking back, I think it was a gentle introduction for the beast of a route that was to come!

Stage 2 was 24 miles, 2,500ft of elevation and took me 7 ½ hours.  There was a lot more soft sand on the route than the previous day, and the road book talked about the Jebel that we would climb before camp at the end of the route and we had to make it there before a certain time or we’d be pulled from the race. However, what stage 2 really threw at us was sandstorms.  Hours and hours and hours of soul-destroying sandstorms!!  It can only be described as trying to move through a wind tunnel whilst being sandblasted back to raw skin!!   Once we eventually made it to the bottom of the Jebel (Arabic of big bas***d mountain!) and into some shelter it was like climbing through A&E after a busy Saturday night, there were people sitting in any bit of shade they could find gathering themselves back together, or with their head between their knees throwing up!  We eventually made it back to camp only to find it being ravaged by the storm and our flimsy berbere tents on the floor covered in sand!!

Stage 3 was 19miles, 3,800 ft and took me 5 ¾ hours.  After sleepless night, we were up and out early again, but this stage was by far my favourite of the whole route.  We had lots of jebel climbs and 2 stunning ridge lines to “run” along and all finalised by a climb up a huge sand dune that was so big it needed fixed ropes to climb.  I loved every minute of stage 3!!

Stage 4, the Long stage.  54 miles, 3,600ft and took me 18 ½ hours.  This is the one that everyone talks about.  This is the stage that, if you’re sensible, you spend the first 3 days saving your resources for!  You’re given 35 hours to make it to the finish and how you chose to do that is up to you.  You can start and just keep going until you’re done or you can stop at a check point, eat and sleep, and then get up and go again the next day.  As long as you can make the cut off times then you can complete it how you like.  I chose to keep going until I was finished.  The route itself was fairly uneventful, sand dunes, salt flats, dry river beds and compact trails.  All was going well until CP5-6, we were in the dark by this stage but it turned out to be 10km of soft dunes and my energy just left me.  This was the “dark headspace” moment for me that everyone says you will experience out there.  I eventually crawled into CP6, threw myself on the floor and sobbed!!  I was tired, hungry and exhausted and felt I wasn’t going to be able to do it in one go like I’d hoped for.  I sat there for about 5 minutes before I went into my pack and got some food, I had a lovely chat with a couple of runners and before I knew I was feeling much better.  I got up, dusted myself off and just kept going.  Moving through the most amazing starlit skies, in total darkness on my own was invigorating and by 02:30 I could see the finish line up ahead and I was done.

Stage 5 (day 6) 26.2 miles, 1,300ft and took me 6 ½ hours.  Without doubt this was the most running or shuffling I did across the whole event.  The route took us back towards villages and some spectators, the terrain was mostly hard and compact and by now my backpack was probably half the weight it had been at the start.  When I eventually saw the finish line in the distance all the emotions of what I had achieved and why I was doing it came flooding out.  I threw my arms around Patrick and cried with elation, relief, and sheer joy that I could stop running!!

The MdS is a race like no other.  I loved every minute of it and would recommend it to anyone who really wants to be there.  Our tent team will be friends for life and without all their comradery and laughter, tears and support we wouldn’t have been one of the few tents to have all 8 finish.  There were runners there who had never run further than 26 miles, there are people who never run a step and walk every one of the 250km.  It’s a race that can make you or break you but it’s a race you will never forget.

Some fun MdS Stats and Facts…

  • I did 348,477 steps in 7 days
  • I consumed 96 litres of water
  • Survived on 12 1/2 hours sleep
  • Raised almost £7,000 for The Christie
  • There were 897 starters, 802 finishers (c. 20% are women).
  • Proportionally less women drop out than men – because we’re hard as nails!!
  • 85 yrs – age of the oldest finisher this year
  • 16yrs – the youngest finisher this year (& youngest ever finisher) – he was British
  • 33% British, 33% French, rest “other nations”
  • 450 staff, 515 Saharan Tents, 140 jeeps & dune buggies, 25 buses, 2 helicopters, 2 camels!
  • 60 medics, 6.5km plasters, 2,700 compeeds, 6,000 painkillers, 150 ltr disinfectant

What it took to run 100km

One of our regular clients tells us all about what it took to cross the finish of her longest ultra (yet!)………..

It’s been 2 weeks since we crossed the finish line of the toughest event I’ve ever completed, the Lakeland Trails 100km trail race.  With lots of rest, stretching and a “healthy” amount of Gin & Chocolate I thought it was time to reflect on not just the race, but what went into just getting to the start line!  

There are lots of different theories as to how far you should run each week when training for an event like this, but I think most people would be surprised at how low the mileage can be, yet still give you a solid fitness for running a 100km race.  I didn’t run much more than 30 miles in a single week before the race!

I’ve been struggling for a year or so with load problems in my knees, which becomes an issue when running over 20+ miles.  At the start of this year, Studio 121 and I agreed that the best way to try and tackle this was to increase my strength training sessions to twice a week, and to seek out a specialist sports injury physio to get checked out.

Having been told there was nothing anatomically wrong with my knees, but the issue was muscle weakness, a plan was put together which focused my gym sessions on building the muscles in my glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves.  This was combined with a list of exercises I could do at home with no equipment and a running plan that focused on quality not quantity of miles.

It’s not a plan until it’s on the fridge!!

So I settled in to a routine that involved running no more than 3 (occasionally 4) times per week, with 2 interval sessions and 1 longer distance run.  My interval sessions were usually no more than 1 hr in duration and included things such as hill repeats,  timed efforts, distance efforts, or race pace efforts.  The key to gaining the most from them was to give everything during the effort and use the recovery times correctly.  For the longer distance runs, I entered a couple of marathons and used these to build my endurance fitness and the last one was 4 weeks before the race and was the furthest distance I ran before the 100.

Added to this were my 2 weekly strength/weight sessions at Studio 121 focusing on my legs and weak glutes, pilates & stretching and my 20 minute home routine which I tried to do at least 4 times each week.

However, not all good things go to plan!! Two weeks before race day, and at the end of our last reccie run I fell and twisted my ankle pretty badly! A long story short, after a LOT of painful physio, acupuncture, ice & arnica, tears and zinc tape and I decided to give it a go and start the race.

I like to think I’m determined, although my husband would probably have a case for arguing I’m stubborn, but I figured I’d put so much effort into my training, and I knew I had better mobility in my ankle than was expected so as long as I didn’t go over on it again, I “should” be ok to attempt the race. We’d already decided we would be much slower than we’d originally thought (we’d been aiming for a finish between 18-20 hours) but by that point I didn’t really care – I just wanted to start and dream of finishing!!

Our race started at midnight on the Friday night and we had until 11pm on Saturday night to get to the finish!! We had 100km (or 63 miles), 12,500ft of Lake District mountains to climb and descend and 23 hours to do it in – how hard could it be?! We knew about 45 miles of the route from previous walks/runs, we had 9 check points to pass through which would be stocked with food & hydration supplies and at the mid-way point we had a bag of clean shoes & clothes to change in to if we wanted. So, 9 x 7 mile runs to do in 23 hours – sounds easy enough!!!

The weather forecast was set to be great, if a little too sunny, and we knew we’d only be running under head torches for the first 4 & 1/2 hours. Due to my stupid ankle we had to walk a lot more of the first two mountains than we’d planned, as the underfoot paths were more technical and this would be the highest chance of my ankle causing me to pull out. I’ve never DNF’d a race before and wasn’t keen to start now so we kept it steady and safe and settled into the back of the race pack and all went well.

By the time we reached CP3 we were 33km in and knew we had bacon butties and porridge waiting for us! It was about 6am and despite having taken on board a few bits of flapjack at the previous check points I was getting hungry, and when there’s still nearly 70km to go that’s not a good thing! So a few bacon sandwiches and some water on board we left the CP at a gentle run through the beautiful Bampton valley.

Somewhere between Howtown and Glenridding our running came to an end. My ankle was ok, , but I was feeling the imbalance of my gait in my legs and knew that if I was to stand any chance of making it to the finish we’d have to switch from a jog to a power hike to the finish. I’m naturally quite a competitive person and I thought I’d be disappointed if I reached this stage and couldn’t run, but that’s not the way it went! I changed my clothes at the half way point, had a little refresh, checked my feet and bandaged up a few blisters and scoffed about 10 cheese sandwiches and a couple of peanut butter & nutella sarnies (who knew that was such an amazing combo!!) and left the mid way point feeling tired but in great spirits.

Looking back now, the next stage of the race was probably where things started to get really tough!! We were still moving well, and overtaking a lot of runners in the 55km race who were on much fresher legs, but even so we reached the next CP with only 15 mins to spare before the cut off time. They’d almost run out of food, and had just enough water left, the weather was now in the high 20’s and we’d been going for about 15hrs.

We left the 73km point feeling very tired and hungry. We managed to make it to the next CP with only 10 minutes to spare and by that point I wasn’t in the best of places, although I was kicked into reality by meeting up with a friend who was in a much worse state. He’d been sick and had a 10 minute sleep but wasn’t feeling great at all. We gathered him together and got him to set off walking the rest of the route with us, by then we “only” had 20km to go and about 5 & 1/2 hours to do it in.

Somewhere between this CP and the next one I lost myself in my own head, which after 17 hours of moving is slightly inevitable but a bit stupid! I managed to convince myself that I’d drunk too much water and was going to drown (I know, it sound ridiculous now but I was tired and not really thinking straight and being ever so slightly melodramatic!!), I was really hungry and the only food I had left on me was turning my stomach. With the exception of 2 CPs which served sandwiches everything else had been flapjack, porridge, noodles or jelly babies – none of which I really eat or enjoy and the only food I had left on me was peanut kind bars which I normally love, but I just couldn’t face any more sugar!!

Because the weather was so warm, the organisers had added an extra water station at the edge of Blea Tarn, when we reached that point our friend was done and his race was over. He was bundled up by the wonderful marshalls and taken back to the race HQ to rest and recover. We still had about 7 miles to go and I wasn’t entirely convinced I was going to make it, but the amazing marshall pulled out a bag of Babybels and I could have kissed her!! I scoffed a few, had a some water and it was like someone had replaced my batteries!!

Scott and I trudged along together, with Scott doing a fantastic job of keeping and eye on our pace and time and making sure we got to the finish before being disqualified. As we hobbled (the blisters were pretty epic by this stage!) down off the final mountain into Rothay Park to the finish line we were greeted by huge cheers from the organisers and volunteers, who despite the late hour were still there greeting everyone as if they’d just won the race! Jumpy James was there to take our finisher photos and administer hugs, and for the first time in as long as I can remember I wasn’t crying at the finish, but smiling!

We finished in 22hr and 11 minutes in 93rd & 94th place (although 14th female sounds better!!). There were 140 runners started the 100km and 102 finished it, but I don’t think I’ve ever cared less about my finishing position of a race!

So looking back, there are a few lessons I learnt during those 22 hours.

  1. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball and your best laid plans go out of the window. The quicker you deal with it the quicker you can move on.
  2. I honestly believe that if my muscles & ligaments weren’t so strong from all my training I wouldn’t have been able to start let alone finish this race.
  3. Always research the food available at CPs and if it doesn’t work for you then take your own! Cheese, cheese, cheese!!
  4. Walk before you’re tired, eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty.
  5. Yes a solid running fitness is important for these events, but don’t underestimate how important muscle strength is to success.
  6. It was brutal, relentless, exhausting but I loved it!
  7. I finished saying “that’s my limit, I’m not doing that again or entering anything further”, 2 weeks later, we’ll see what 2020 brings………….