In the weeks before the race the Facebook group goes mental with people discussing the lightest possible kit on the market/homemade options to try to limit weight. On reflection I would have probably just ignored all of this as it just causes last minute panic, unnecessary stress in comparing your training/kit/preparations to others. I started Stage One with a heavy pack weighing in at 10.5kg (excluding water and Day 1 breakfast), I should also point out that I am 6ft1 and don’t struggle carrying weight. I had some “Luxuries” these included: a Haglofs L.IM. Essens down jacket, a Mountain Warehouse silk sleeping bag liner, Go pro, i-Phone, i-Pod Shuffle and speakers. I wanted to enjoy the experience and not just “get by” so I felt speakers would enhance the experience and at only 80grams they did. I ran the night stage with others, and being able to share music as opposed to putting headphones in helped a lot, they were also great to play in the tent each morning and on the rest day – playing Vengaboys loudly to annoy the French competitors opposite is priceless!
You can view my full kit list including my food on KitJam. I tried a mixture of race packs in training and none of them worked for me, they all felt like crop tops as the weight was so high up, not at all what I am used to. I decided to go back to my old faithful Lowe Alpine and found a lightweight ultrapack that weighed less than all the recommended ones (444grams)! – the Eclipse Superlight.
Great quality, support and cheap! The only thing it lacked was somewhere to attach my roll mat and bottle holders, so I sewed on some straps to the bottom, slid on 2 Raidlight bottle holders and hey presto my perfect pack! I also bought the Lightflite 5 front pack which was great too. For anyone else doing the race or similar, I would recommend going with what works for you and don’t feel you need to have the most popular packs out there- some of them fell apart!
I had a lot of problems trying out shorts, they all chafed after about 15miles! The only ones that didn’t were X-Bionic because their crotch seam isn’t in the crotch. At first I was apprehensive because of the price, but they were brilliant. I wore these with underwear from Kalenji which was a great combo. On top I wore an Under Armour Heat Gear short sleeved top and an Under Armour bra. These were great, except the top had a hole in the back and I forgot to apply suncream so had some nice blisters and scabs.
On my feet I wore Brooks Adrenaline GTS, I had been training in the 15 and 16 but used the 17 during the race, they had more space and I had heard the 16 that I intended to run in was a bad model, so had a last minute switch. I am a UK size 8 and have always run in a 9, I didn’t go up any extra sizes and these worked well. I got Velcro put on them a month before I left and then did my few remaining training runs with the gaiters on, so I wouldn’t get mud and dirt in the Velcro.
I started Day one with an Injinji Liner and Hilly Mono skin, my feet couldn’t breathe much and therefore I changed to my Injinji Trail socks, until day 6 when I couldn’t get them on, so went back to the Hilly Mono skin on their own. I liked having these options to play with, some may say 3 pairs of socks is excessive.
Lots of people wear compression kit in the evening, I had never worn compression kit before as after a long run I just want to wear loose fitting clothing. I decided that I would take two outfits that I could run in if required. Originally this was because I had heard stories of the X-Bionic shorts ripping but they lasted the week and have many more wears in them.
Hotel slippers were perhaps the only piece of kit I would change, I could feel every single rock through them and on Day 0 a thorn went straight through them and into my foot. It was hard to walk in them, especially if you have one of the furthest tents like I did, it would take me ages to walk anywhere! On reflection I would take actual slippers/ Crocs/ Teva type sandals- I had blisters between my toes so flip flops were not an option.
I am tall and a cold sleeper so I had the Haglofs Leo sleeping bag (it is great for tall people), I also used a silk liner but could probably have got away without this. I used the Thermarest Z lite folding mat, this was great and when my hips began to hurt on Day 5 onwards I doubled it over for extra padding. If you would like to wake up in the morning do not take the Thermarest inflatable mattress, your tent mates will kill you! It sounds like a rustling crisp packet all night.
I like food!!!! 5.5kg of my pack weight was food, I can honestly say, that I do not regret a single gram! So many people told me to ditch it and that I wouldn’t require it all, I ignored their negativity and ate it all! Many in my tent that took lighter packs with less food were starving. I took food that I would enjoy eating and averaged around 4000cals per day. I would take the same food if I were to do the race again (although maybe not the cheese crackers, as I felt like a duck that had been fed stale bread! I had to hold a mouthful of water with each bite to be able to swallow it)!.
Keep in mind that if you are buying individually packaged items they may weigh more than you expect (packaging aside), for those bulk buying and decanting, you weigh items yourself so they should be accurate, but my total weight was about 400g lighter on paper.
It is compulsory to have a minimum of 2000 calories per day, including the charity stage, which is usually pretty short, everyone takes Macadamia nuts as they are the highest calorie/ weight ratio, but a candy bra is the same weight and calories! So I took one and wore it on the last day.
Before the race, some people said not to worry about taking too much food and save on weight because you would easily find some in the bins that other people had thrown out when they realised they were carrying too much weight. Personally I would like to know where these mystery bins are, as we got a bin bag attached to each tent and there was definitely no food going spare in the surrounding area. Unless you want to look like a tramp on chips rummaging through a stranger's bin that probably has used toilet paper and other nasties in. I would recommend taking what you think you need and not the minimum requirement of 2,000 calories per day made up of powder, macadamia nuts and dates- unless that’s what you’re into!
I was on the fence about poles but I read another blog that said if you get injured poles can be the difference between finishing or not and for the sake of 365g and £110 I was sold on this theory. I also volunteered in the hotel in 2016 and the common recommendation all runners gave was to take poles, it was the best decision I made. I didn’t use them at all the first couple of days which may sound silly to some, carrying the extra weight of something you aren’t using but they were worth their weight in gold come Stage 4 and 6.
Sometimes Tent 144 probably looked like a drug den! We had such a variety between us. Personally I had a stash of paracetamol that I mostly took before going to bed to ease any aches and pains, I tried not to take these whilst running as I didn’t want to mask any injury. I also had Ibuprofen, Doc Trotters do not have any of these and do not recommend them, as if you are dehydrated they can cause liver damage. I took one of these in the evening for anti-inflammatory. I also took Imodium with me as I didn’t want the usual runners stomach, fortunately I brought quite a few, because on Day 2 I picked up some gastro- thing that was going around camp so these saved me! I also had sleeping tablets, and took one of these most nights, and shared them with my tent mates, we all seemed to wake up at 02:30, so think that was the time they wore off. I also had a supply of Tramadol that I bought from a pharmacy in Nicaragua whilst travelling, I read that they were the Doc Trotter drug of choice after Paracetamol so stocked up. I only took these on the last couple of days to sleep, as I knew they would make me drowsy but some tent mates took them during the race and swore by them.
Soon after I got my place in December 2015, I entered one day of the Pilgrims Challenge (33miles) and 2 days of the Jurassic Coast Challenge (54miles) to build up my endurance. In the year prior to MDS, I spent 2 months at RMAS on the reserve commissioning course where I pretty much did no long distance running which wasn’t great but helped with carrying weight. I then went travelling for 6 months from Canada to Costa Rica and then New Zealand, It was hard to find the discipline to train when all your friends want you to party but I managed to find the balance. I ran many trails in Canada and the National Parks in the states and then when I entered Central America I struggled with the humidity so the training mainly became shorter runs and long volcano hikes. When I went to New Zealand I ran/ hiked the Queen Charlotte track, Abel Tasman, Tongaririo Crossing and a few other smaller ones. These all benefited my training. When I got home I had a few half marathons, Pilgrim Challenge (66miles) and some long training runs with other MDS competitors and on my own (I would get the train somewhere 20ish miles away and then run home along the Thames Path).
I did something everyday for the 2 weeks leading up to departure. As a Business Consultant I was on client site living away from home during the week so I didn’t want to pay for two hot yoga memberships. I did 2 weeks on trial price Monday to Thursday and then the sauna on Friday to Sunday, neither of which particularly enjoyable! I found the yoga to be very hippy and not really me, so was counting down the classes and the sauna at 75 degrees was unbearable for 40 mins a time but they worked! I also wore thermals under my clothes the week before and always had the heating on in my car. I didn’t struggle in the heat at all (I am also naturally quite good in the heat).
I am not usually someone that obsesses over germs…. at all! But in the weeks leading up to departure, I started to become obsessed! To the point where every time I opened a door, I would use hand sanitiser immediately after. Someone new started at work and he kept sneezing and blowing his nose, so I made up excuses about going out for lunch so I didn’t have to sit with the team as I would have every other day, because I didn’t want to catch whatever he had. I would avoid shaking hands at all costs and avoid situations where I would stand a high chance of catching germs (London Underground for example). It became obsessive and people that aren’t doing the race probably didn’t understand, but I had been training for ~18months for this, paid £4000 entry fee and if I caught a measly cold/flu before departure that could have been game over!
Before MDS I heard so many stories about how your feet with swell and to get a size bigger shoe etc. Day 1- 3 my feet were the same they have always been but with a few blisters. Day 4, my feet had some sort of Nutty Professor transition. I assumed if they were to swell, they would be something like sausage fingers that you can get from long distance running/ walking, Oh no, these were a whole different ballgame they swelled so badly that I couldn’t even get my gaiters over my cankles and I had to sleep in them, if fact, they were swollen 6 days after the race, to the point I couldn’t even get my normal shoes on. As far as I’m aware there is nothing that can prevent this, so I wouldn’t really change anything, I would just know what to expect in future. On Stage 5 and 6 I couldn't get Injinjis back on so I had a pair of Hillys that I wore instead which were a life saver.
I taped my own feet prior to running and this worked well. I did have a couple of small blisters on Day 1 and from reviews and advise I had seen before, I went straight to Doc Trotters. I learned from this experience and didn’t return to Doc Trotters until Day 5. They were great but it takes ages to be seen (I am a very impatient person) and the tape came off on the walk back to my tent, so I taped my own feet from then on. I went to them on Day 5 as I had blisters on the ball of my foot which I had never had before so had no idea how to tape them, they did a brilliant job and this saw me through until the end of the event. The Facebook group prior advised people to rely on Doc Trotters for supplies, for starters their tape wasn’t as good as my own (Hypafix (main part of foot) and Hapla-band (Toes), using tincture of benzoin to keep them stuck in place) and it saves you a lot of time- you have been on your feet for many hours, do you really want to get into camp and join a queue?!…I didn’t!
Before MDS I used a mixture of products to harden/ soften my feet. I used Tuf-foot (designed for horses and greyhounds), Nok and also Udderly Smooth (designed for cattle), between them my feet were in a good condition at the start line. It’s hard to say how much they helped, but I am very prone to blisters and I didn’t get as many as I expected early on if that is anything to go by.
This is something I took really seriously as it is one of the main reasons people are put on a drip and get taken out of the race. With the heat acclimatization sessions I was doing I started taking electrolytes about 4 days before departure, then when we got there and I got my salt tablets, I started taking them instantly, 2 salt tablets per 1.5litres of water. During the stages themselves, I took 1 tablet every 30 mins and then took 2 per bottle of water again in the evenings and mornings. It is also important not to forget to take them on the rest day. On top of this I also took 6 electrolytes a day, because the salt tablets only replenish sodium, not magnesium or potassium.
I took ALL water given throughout and I still needed more, so I had to be clever. When a checkpoint gives out 1 bottle you are unlikely to find any remains of others water because they will have needed it all, so I planned ahead to keep one from the night before if the first check point was only 1 bottle. If the check point gave out 2 bottles, you were laughing. I would use one bottle to fill my 2 x 800ml bottles and the other to keep in my side pouch, then I would rummage through the bins for water left by others, to down then and there and to pour over my head. I sipped my water whenever I wanted it but would always keep 300ml remaining in the bottle until I could physically see the next check point, this worked well and I only felt there was a lack of water a couple of times (end of Day 3/ start of Day 4).
Periods were a point for discussion between female competitors prior to the event. I personally double-backed the contraceptive pill to prevent mine arriving, however, this didn’t completely work and I had an unexpected arrival after the finish. Just to reassure any women worried about this, Doc Trotters have a supply of sanitary products so it really isn’t anything to worry about, worst case scenario, they will sort you out, so that should be one less thing on your mind!
Overall I had a very successful event, I did what I set out to achieve- to complete the Marathon Des Sables and if I were to do it again there is very little I would change, if at all!
(Photo credit – taken by MDS and cost a bloody fortune)