Friday, April 26, 2013

MdS Kit List

It will take a long time to write about the MdS itself so I thought I'd do kit first

So here I am, fully laden on Day 1, and looking remarkably clean!

My pack weight was probably between 6.5 and 7kg before water (1.5kg). Given the minimal 'legal' weight was 6.5kg, I was really pleased with this. At 66kg wet through, I needed my pack to be as light as possible so I did have to make some sacrifices

In general, I was really happy with my kit selection. I didn't particularly miss the kit I left out, but food was a major issue for me.

Now here's all my kit after the race, somewhat dirtier!

Hat: Raidlight Sahara Sunhat

Pretty standard ware for the MdS. Functioned well, very light and unnoticeable to wear. Very popular, so made it difficult to spot people!

Shirt: X-Bionic Fennec
Had my doubts about this before I went as it felt very warm, almost like a light weight woolly shirt!
However, it performed absolute brilliantly. Great wicking and my upper body never got too hot.

Expensive, yes, but would wear it again

Compression shorts: 2XU
My trusty shorts, never go anywhere without them.

Purely for decency!

Calf Guards: 2XU

I've always found calf guards too tight or too long for my stumpy legs. After reading  about my gaiters leaking sand over the top, I got these as an extra layer of protection. They were great and have been using them since returning

Socks: Hilly Mono Trail X-Static for first 3 stages then X Socks Speed Metal for last 2. Logic here was that the latter are a bit thinner and my feet would be swelling by then.

Gaiters: Raidlight
Choice seemed to be between these, Sandbaggers and Racekit. They all seemed to rip/tear by the end. I was happy with these; no sand in when brand new but did get very ripped at the front and some sand did get in.

Shoes: Salomon Speedcross 
Love 'em! Good grip on softer stuff and uneven terrain. Normally a size 8, I went for a 9, but in hindsight, this was too big as I got a few small blisters on my ends of 4 toes on day 1; fortunately these didn't cause a major problem.

I definitely wouldn't recommend road shoes; I know some do but I wouldn't. The rocks are very sharp!

Check out the shredded tread but they did their job. In a retirement home now!

The whole caboodle.
I don't think I'll get it clean again.

Sleeping bag: Marmot Plasma 40
I was really pleased with this.  It's a fairly narrow fit which is good for a man of my diminuitive build and kept me nice and cosy. Lightweight at 530g
Not cheap but did its job.

Evening/night layers: Rab Aeon and Patagonia Merino 2
The Rab is an very lightweight base layer and was perfect for the evenings and early night. The Patagonia is a great bit of kit and perfect for later at night when it got cooler and pre-race in the mornings.
My alternative would have been just my Montane Fireball smock, which is a touch lighter than the 2 shirts, but this would have given me less flexibility.

Rucksack: Inov-8 Race Pac 25
I love the Race Pac range of ruck sacs and used the 32L version (with front pack) for the Spine. They are very comfortable and hold their shape well. Also lightish at 620g. It's the only rucksack that I can comfortably get my water bottles in and out of.

People commented on my large pack size but couldn't believe the weight. The Race Pac tends to pack long and thin. The 25L size (as opposed to 20L that many had) also meant I had no space issues.
I also noticed that most rucksacks have a tendency for a lot of lateral movement. The only two that don't are this one and the MdS bag.
Thoroughly recommend. If I did the MdS again, I might add some water bottle holders on the straps.

Obviously, I had all the usual obligatory kit plus a small first aid kit, a few toiletries, and a tooth brush and tooth paste! I wish I'd discovered Wemmi-wipes before the race - I had a much heavier pack of 8 normal wipes!

So what were my major weight-linked sacrifices. Essentially no mat and no cooking apparatus. After a dismal first night, I got used to my hard and lumpy bed. I also discovered that it was possible to double fold the carpet at one end of the tent which mad a big difference. Tepid porridge for breakfast was perfectly palatable, and if I left my dinner to brew in the sun, it was actually quite warm. Didn't really miss tea/coffee for a few days. Would probably omit both again.

Food. Well, I should have put a lot more thought in this, but quite frankly I was completely apathetic and lacking any motivation prior to going and just threw some calories together. My daily food was basically a 800Kcal breakfast, a 300Kcal gel and 200Kcal energy bar for the run, and a 800 Kcal dinner, with a small bag of haribo's before bed time. 2100Kcal/day which I thought I could survive on; I couldn't and I had to beg for some freebies. Thanks to all those who donated rations to a starving person! However, I had no problem with my Extreme Adventure & a couple of Mountain House meals; they were all reasonably edible. 
On hindsight, I would have broken the calories down a bit more and at most taken1 small gel/day. I would have taken some pepperoni's and beef jerky (or similar), and definitely recovery drinks. I should have looked into maximal calories for weight a bit more (a bit more than not at all!)

So there it is; my kit review. 

Kit excellent, food rubbish. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

MdS Vs Spine: which is tougher?

So MdS vs Spine. Which one is harder?

This was a question that I was asked regularly during last week’s MdS. I also realised that I am the only person in the world to have finished both (a small claim to fame!) so the only person in a position to compare! Is it really possible to compare?

150 miles in 5 stages over 6 days vs 260 miles within 7 days? Which one’s tougher?

Well, that’s actually far tougher to answer than you might think. I propose to look at some of the different factors.

The MdS is not designed to be tough to finish. The cut offs for the shorter stages was 10-11 hours; I completed them all in less than 5 hours. Completion rate is over 90%. The challenge is a personal one; how far is one prepared to push oneself?
On the other hand, completing the Pennine Way (260+ miles) in 7 days is a challenge unto itself.

Winner: The Spine

Comment: However, is toughness all about the ability to finish. Would the world’s toughest ultra be one in which no one finished – ever. Or, taking it to its extreme, an ultra with a high mortality rate? Running especially ultra-running is, to me, about personal challenge. It’s about adventure. About exploring the limits, pushing the envelope. A race can be as hard or easy as you choose to make it. A 100 miler in 24 hours is easy for some people but racing it, pushing oneself to the limit; that’s tough. Yes, the MdS is easy to finish for a well-prepared ultra runner but to race it, push oneself; well, that is the challenge.

Physical effort
The MdS is a running race. The 2nd day (jebels/mountains) and, in particular, the “long day” of the MdS are without doubt the hardest 2 days of running I have ever done. I finished the long day of 50 miles in tears, a wreck. Temperatures of over 50C for hour after hour; moments of utter pain & anguish. It was brutal. It was savage. I left a lot of myself out there that day.
The Spine is primarily a long walk with some running. A true challenge but I never felt my body would fail me. I didn’t feel the limiting factor was a physical one.

Winner: MdS

Mental effort
This is where I feel the major difference is.
The MdS requires focus and concentration especially regarding hydration and salt intake. However, I was only actually running for just under 30 hours in 6 days. There was plenty of ‘down time’. Plenty of time to relax both physically and mentally. Plenty of time to soak up and enjoy the experience and the camaraderie
The Spine is a massive mental effort. The clock is always ticking. Food, water, temperature, sleep and navigation all need constant focus, constant concentration. There is minimal time to relax. One small mistake could trigger the start of the downhill spiral to a DNF. My concentration broke on day 5, my mind started to doubt my ability to continue and I so nearly gave up. I can’t over-emphasise the mental strength required to complete the Spine.

Winner: The Spine

Very hard to compare but the MdS is probably more variable with soft sand, hard & sharp rocks, dried lakes. Probably more feet trashed in the MdS.

Winner: MdS (just)

How can you compare hot vs cold, sand vs snow, jebel vs fell? Both events ensure competitors meet the extremes.

Winner: A tie

Food & water
For the MdS, food has to be carried for 6 days, 12000 calories minimum. For me this weighed 3.3kg; not many were lighter. I didn’t put enough thought into type and variety of food and after 1 day was starving. I had to trawl/beg for extra food. Good planning is essential; there are no shops in the Sahara. Water is rationed. If you want more, it's a 30 minute time penalty.
During the Spine, food is essential not just for energy but also for warmth. Get it wrong and hypothermia is a real possibility. However, you can stop at shops, eat at pubs and there really is no limit to food at the CP’s. Just remember to eat when you see food, and eat when you think of food! Water is really a problem.

Winner: MdS

Pack weight
I started the MdS with a touch over 6.5kg plus water. This got lighter every day as I ate my food.
For the Spine, I started at around 5.4kg plus water. This tended to get heavier as I required more clothes further up the course, and added items such as Kahtoola microspikes.

Winner: A tie

The X factor
Both events give total escapism – a week totally removed from “normal” existence. Both make you appreciate the simple things in life, the bare necessities – food, water, shelter and companionship. Both have a family spirit, a real sense of camaraderie, of all being in the same boat – albeit a smaller Spine boat!
I enjoyed both events; both ticked all the boxes for me.
The MdS is a massive logistic exercise but the camaraderie amongst both competitors and helpers is amazing. The spirit engendered in the bivouac and even more within one’s tent is hard to describe – a truly shared experience. As a run, it’s head down and the experience is more about the camaraderie. Watching others finish at the end of stage 5 was wonderful. Inspirational.
I love the Spine and am part of the small Spine family. The Spine is total immersion. As a slower paced race, there is far more chance to take in the moment, appreciate the view, live the dream. You live the Spine.

Winner: The Spine (just)

So overall, which event is tougher? Is it really possible to compare? Both are classic events but totally different in so many ways. The Spine is harder to finish but both push the body and spirit to the limit.
Would I do either again? Yes to both. Will I do either again? I’ve entered the Spine again next year. The MdS is cost prohibitive and means a week totally away and mainly out of contact for that week.

And the winner is?
The Spine.
No, MdS.
Oh I don’t know; ask me again next week!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A happy day made sad......

I returned home from Morocco yesterday having successfully completed the Marathon des Sables (MdS); the event that first drew me into the world of ultra-running.

I returned with stories of great bravery, great humility, of humans helping other humans, putting others before themselves.

I saw the happiness of disabled children as they crossed the desert in their special chairs under the constant power of never-tiring French firemen. 

I saw an amputee with a specially constructed prosthesis, visually impaired runners. True courage.

I rediscovered the importance of good company, the importance of community spirit. 

Pain, anguish, determination, joy, tears in abundance. 

I was inspired by, and drew energy from the joy of others as they crossed the finish line

I returned with a heart full of love for my Jenny, for my children, and for my family, ready to return all the love and support they have given me in recent months and over the years. To give more than to take. 

I returned happy, with joy in my heart, my faith in the human spirit restored.

This morning I am greeted by the atrocities at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and I am horrified. Sickened. 

A happy day made truly sad.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Marathon des Sables

So I’m off to Morocco and the MdS tomorrow. This is the event that initially drew me to ultra-running, and I've had a place in this year's event since May 2011, so I should be really excited. 

I’m not!

Don’t get me wrong, I am looking forward to it but not the raw excitement that I should be feeling.

Preparation hasn’t been ideal. I’ve definitely got the miles in my legs from the Spine and all my mini-adventures, but I had been hoping to do a few faster runs. A minor hamstring strain hasn’t helped, and neither has the weather!

I am a great believer that to perform well, the body and the mind have to be in the right place, hopefully at their respective peaks. Unfortunately, my head most certainly hasn’t been in the right place. My depression has been rolling in like dark storm clouds. It’s certainly not as bad as last year, but bad enough to sap my energy, enthusiasm and motivation. I’ve had the few days before and after Easter off work, and, following discussions, will be changing my meds on my return from the desert.

This time last week was the low point. My motivation was so low that I actually made enquiries into deferring my entry. A relaxing (and understanding!) weekend with Jenny seemed to do the trick, and enabled me to enjoy sorting out all my gear.
The rock that is my Jenny. Wadi Rum, Jordan 2007
I’m getting the train to Gatwick tomorrow and meeting up with Graeme Harvey and others at the Travelodge, before flying on Thursday. Hopefully once I’m with all the other UK competitors their excitement will prove infectious.

So, I am looking forward to it now. Top 50 – I doubt it. Top 100 – hmm!? My main goal is now to enjoy what is probably a once in a lifetime experience.

My Dad rang me this morning to wish me luck. He said it was incredible what I was doing......and all also that I must be mad. Well, that's well documented!

At least it should be warmer than it has been here!