Marathon des Sables training

I’d felt intimidated by the thought of the day to day distances in the Marathon des Sables that I’ll face in 3 months time; I was certain I could handle them individually but back to back, day after day of marathons? I wasn’t sure how I’d hold out. I did 14 marathons in 14 cold Canadian days a couple of years ago and whilst I’d finished the task it had certainly taken its toll. I’d felt emotionally beat up by the end of it, I’d had a stress fracture in my left leg and a weird lump on the front of my right ankle and my right leg’s varicose veins had enlarged to an alarming level. That’d all healed in time (except the veins) but I’d learnt the lesson; that I wasn’t without my weak points.

There are lots of other lessons that needed to be learnt, probably. But then again, it wouldn’t be a disaster if they remained unlearnt, because I reckon I just don’t have to experience to sift out the bullshit from the wisdom. Live in the moment, some say. Be accountable, others say. Care about the environment. About animals. About your families future. Run with tomorrow’s distance in mind, so you don’t tire yourself out too much. So yeah, think about the future, live in the present, work that impossibility out, then run your ass off but not too much, because tomorrow you’ll need to run further, although if you don’t run your ass off today then you might be so low down the rankings tomorrow you might as well just walk and enjoy the scenery…

Everybodies got an opinion, although very few have the experience that allows them the right to have an opinion and fewer still can eloquently put that opinion forward. Maybe it’s a sign of our age. There are very few wise people to be seen or heard now. With the really big questions, the big races, you’re on your own.

The Marathon des Sables will be run in the Sahara desert. It’ll be sandy, hot, I’ll carry all I need to exist for 7 days (apart from my water) on my back as I run and there’s no way on earth that I could replicate the experience in advance – to get used to it – apart from actually going to the desert and just running. Although even that wouldn’t do it, I’m such a different runner in a race than I am in training, I soak up so much energy from the general atmosphere, for sure.

But that was no reason to not do the best I could to prepare. It’s Christmas, I have a few days off work, I thought, I have nothing else to be doing with my time, perhaps I should just run the daily distances, I won’t learn much about myself running with a backpack in the sand or heat but at least I’ll see if my muscles and bones can take the pounding. It’s been snowing, I thought about running outside, I’d run all last winter here, and some say that running in snow is like running in sand. But after a little thought I said, no, snow harbours ice, and ice makes you slip, causes injuries that put you out of action for a month at a time. It’s also cold and I need to get used to warm. What’s the point?!

So I decided to run in the gym. It’d be warm. I wouldn’t slip. I’d wear a weighted backpack and get used to how that felt. It’d also be boring, which would be good mental training for ultra running in the potentially barren desert. And hopefully the lesser impact that treadmill running offers would help ease me into running these larger back to back distances without injury.

The first day was 34kms. Brooks Running has offered to support me in my MDS quest and they’d sent me a pair of Glycerin 14 road shoes and Mazama trail shoes. I tried the Glycerin first of all, they’re extra wide and they felt good. Straight out of the box and no hint of discomfort at all after 34kms. I was tempted to keep on wearing them as I’m sure that changing my shoes during my 14 marathons project was what caused the lump on my right ankle to appear. But curiosity got the better of me and on day 2 I changed to the Mazama. It was a good move, the Mazama felt even better to me.

Day 1 was easy. I’d done the usual 8 hour shift at work so I was a little mentally tired but I hadn’t run for a few days so I set the treadmill to 2% incline, 7.5mph and it was all over in under 3 hours. I ran with my rucksack full of veg, beets and sweet potato – I didn’t think this part of it through and just grabbed what was lying on my room floor (my room is a mess). It weighed about 5kg, during the race my pack will weigh around 8kg but I wanted to ease myself in. It was uncomfortable as the veg were odd shapes and stuck into my back at times, it alerted me to the fact that I’d need to pack my rucksack properly during the race to prevent a small niggle or chaff from growing to something more serious. It was fine getting a little chaffing here at home but during a race situation it could develop into something that would finish my race.

That first night I turned the heat off in my room to try to replicate the cold of the desert at night as best I could here. I already sleep on a thin mattress on the floor so switching to a blow up camping mattress hopefully wouldn’t be a big thing.

Day 2 of simulation training saw me run a marathon, that’s 42km. I dispensed with the veg and beets and put 6.5kg of round weights in my backpack instead. I got the positioning all wrong and wanted to quit after the 1st hour as my neck was aching from the lopsided pressure of the backpack (it was a pain that was to stay with me for the remainder of the 7 day simulation). I was also a bit tired from work and the previous day’s 34km but the main thing was that I’m not at all used to the level of core discomfort that comes with running every day, with a backpack. And also, I hadn’t taken any food at all with me, and my treadmill was the one in the gym facing the blank wall. Usually I’d run facing the window looking out onto the ever changing street, which provided some interest. But this day I didn’t think to do that, so on top of being hungry I was bored. I never usually take food on my training sessions, it’s not needed as they’re rarely more than 30km, and on day 1 I’d gotten away with it but on day 2 I’d suffered.

So those were good lessons learned. My legs were heavy, I could only manage to maintain 6mph, but that was ok, I did it, the main things learnt were that I must pay more attention to my nutrition, and understand that the mental part of running is so important. I had to get to the level of self control that allowed me to face a black wall for 4 hours whilst running and still maintain my concentration and composure, and thus my running form.

Another plus point of day 2 was my shoes. The Brooks Running Mazama felt superb. Straight out the box and I don’t even get a hint of a blister. That’s pretty cool.

Day 3 involved a 37km distance. Again a full day at work had tired me but I didn’t make the mistake of taking no food to the gym this time. I was a little nervous about the following day’s 80km run but I recognised this and decided to work on the feeling. Nerves can effect performance and judgement, and I wanted to learn to control them. A way of controlling them is to step back in your mind and see the fear clearly for what it is. This sort of low level fear, the fear of failure, rather than the fear of a roaring beast who’s about to eat you, is fine, as long as you see it as that and not anything you really need to let into your decision making too much.

Physically, I felt good, relatively speaking. I had the beginning of chaffing on my back and under my arms, where the backpack was rubbing slightly, sore ass on the sides from the mileage and also tight tendons at the back of my knees, which I put down to the compression socks. To combat this I started to roll my socks down a little so they weren’t so tight around the knees, it seemed to work.

I also stubbed my toe at home that night and learnt a valuable lesson; you just can’t let your guard down. Imagine if I did that in Morocco, or perhaps walked out into the sand at base camp and got a thorn in my foot, I’d have to withdraw from the race. All because I didn’t concentrate. So, there’ll be no walking around base camp barefoot for me.

I fuelled myself on the 80km 4th day with a mix of sesame seeds, almonds, nigella seed, pepper, agave and raisins, with rum chocolate on the side. It was very tasty and effective despite not being the best running food on paper. Chocolate should get stuck in your throat, protein and fat should be hard to digest on a 10 hour long run, or something like that. The advice changes every week. I try to keep up but often I just reach for whatever’s in the fridge that’s portable. For training, this tactic seems to work just fine.

I did get bored occasionally but I treated myself to podcasts and music. The podcasts worked when I wasn’t tired, say, the first 3 hours, but thereafter the only thing that really took my mind off the monotony was loud music. This’ll have to change, there’ll be no music in the Sahara.

I learnt during this run that I sweated a lot more on my right leg than left. Odd that. Probably the varicose vein as it conveys the blood so near to the surface of the skin.

The day after this was Christmas Day, and in the Marathon des Sables this will be a day of rest. I treated myself to a bath but I didn’t wash my socks or underwear. This is another tricky part of the event, putting up with wearing stinky, salt crusty clothes each day (unless you spare a little drinking water to wash them, which I may. My idea is to put my underwear into a plastic bag each evening with a little water and swoosh it around, so they’re at least not so rigid in the morning).

The marathon the next day was easy enough. I had decent food, I had learnt to wrap my weights in a sweater before putting them in my backpack to ease the impact of them on my back as I ran and after the 10 hour running session 2 days before this 5 hour session seemed a breeze. Again, mostly mental I think. If you push hard then your version of what ‘normal’ is changes. It’s surprising how quickly this happens.

Today was the final day. A measly 10 miles and I felt great! I didn’t take any food for that and I did it in about 1 hour and 22 minutes.

Of course, the timings mean little. I did them on a treadmill, in the race the terrain will be sand, rocky desert and mountainside. Yet still, the simulation exercise was worthwhile. I learnt;

  • That for the first half hour of any back to back run I’m feeling rough. I just have to know that it’ll pass and push through it.
  • To pack my backpack very carefully so that the heavy or sharp items don’t bang against my back. And when I run with the pack, I have to keep myself relaxed. If I let my concentration fall and stay too rigid then injury will follow.
  • That I can handle the distances, back to back, without significant injury. Sure, my muscles and tendons ached, but there were no signs of long term injury at all. I did a basics runners yoga for 15 minutes on Christmas Day and that helped free me up a lot so this is something I’ll be doing in the desert whilst at base camp.
  • That I can trust my Brooks Mazama shoes to give me the arch support I need over long distances.
  • That I must work harder on my nutrition. I need to discover the best possible calorie to weight ratio of foodstuffs, and then weave them into something that I’ll look forward to eating at night. I had it easy this time, I could recover with a pineapple shake, but in the desert I’ll have to find a different tactic. There are no blenders at base camp.
  • I want to get to a level where I can run full on speed without worrying about the next day’s exertions, and then get up and do it again.
  • That I need to find a running shirt that is very light but cooling. Perhaps a cotton shirt, to retain moisture that will then cool me when it comes into contact with the wind, although that might also encourage chaffing so it’s something I have to test out more.

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