The 32nd Marathon des Sables (MDS) was an incredible lifetime experience.  My friends and I trekked, marched, and sometimes ran 237 km over 6 days, across the Moroccan Sahara Desert.  MDS is a self-sufficient race where all entrants are required to carry their provisions in a backpack during the race (meals, clothes, trekking poles, required kit composing of compass, knife, anti-venom pump, lighter, sleeping bag etc).   The backpack has to weigh between 6.5 kg (minimum) to 15 kg (maximum).   The only provisions provided by the race organizers were water and a tent and facilities for extended bathroom breaks.

Picture 1: The start line for each stage at MDS

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My friend Danni Suskin (we met at Comrades 2014 and 2015) encouraged me to do this race with him.  During the journey of getting ready for MDS, I met Steve Holder, and also got acquainted with Penny Boettiger, and Graham Dance. I  also got introduced to the Bristol Convocations Running Club (BCRC); an incredible group that Danni and Steve are part of.  During the course of the training, Danni, Steve and I met up in Nashville to run the 2016 St Jude Rock’n’Roll Half/Full Marathon.  Danni and I also did one-week training together in Atlanta in preparation for the race, including four back-to-back runs with a heavy back pack.

Coach Lindsey Parry (Comrades official coach) guided me through the training process.  His help proved valuable during times of despair.  Training with a backpack was tough, and I hurt my back several times during the process.

Fast forward towards race preparation and the race itself 🙂

D-day minus 2 weeks

After months of a pipe dream of getting my back pack down to 6.5kg, I finally accept that I will be at 10 kg, of which 5.8 kg are my meals.  Later at the weigh session in MDS, after attaching other required items (GPS transponder, water bottles, etc), I am closer to 11 kg.  In training, I ran/walked with no more than 7 kg.

Picture 2: My gear

D-day minus 3 days

Danni, Penny and I meet in Marrakech and take the shuttle to Ouarzazate (pronounce Warzazat); 5 hour bus ride with other participants. There we meet our other tent mates -Nancy, Krista, and Mike- and father and son duo (Matt and Calvin).  We spend the night in Ouarzazate, where we meet up with Justin Brewer, our other tent mate.   We took buses the next day over to our race-site biouvac , which is 6 hours away from Ouarzazate.

Morocco is such a scenic country.  We see a lot of greenery and mountains along the way.

Picture 3: On our way to Ouarzazate

Picture 4: Penny, myself, Justin and Danni on the way to the biouvac.  This is the last known picture of us looking spic and span before the race.IMG_1216.jpg

D-day minus 2 days

We arrived at the Biouvac and get situated in our tents.  Below are pictures of our mobile home for the next 8 days.

Picture 5: Tent #165 ( aka the coolest tent in town)

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Picture 6: The biouvac with participant tents.  The black tents were for participants.  White tents were for volunteers, medical and email facilities

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Picture 7: Below is our mobile toilet for extended bathroom breaks.  Special thanks to Kia motors for providing a translucent cover.  The trash can outside is for……..(you get the point).  The rest of the grounds are for quick bathroom breaks, when needed.

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During the two days prior to the race, the MDS organization; from the Race Director Patrick Bauer and the wonderful volunteers; welcomed us, and fed us a magnificent lunch and dinner.  We were now getting comfortable and complete the check-in process. Our bags are weighed, our EKGs are thoroughly checked by the medical staff, and our pictures are taken.  It is at this point, we start being self sufficient on the race, depending on our meals and supplies.  Water will be provided every morning.

Picture 8: Graham and Steve paying Danni and myself a visit prior to the race start

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D-day- Stage 1: 30.3 km
(10 hr time limit to complete)

Tent 165 wakes up to a freezing morning.  The desert is a cold climate in the morning and gets hot by mid morning (120 – 140°F).  This cycle repeats itself every morning.  The general routine is for the Berber volunteers to dismantle our tents in the morning, and we get dressed for the morning adventure:

Picture 9: Tents getting dismantled in the morning

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Picture 10: Tent #165 getting ready to kick some butt….I mean some sand!

From left to right: Danni, myself (Hari), Patrick (19 time finisher), Krista, Penny, Mike, Nancy, and Justin.  We are just looking dapper and can’t wait to tackle the day

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As is the routine everyday, the race director, Patrick Bauer, gives a speech welcoming all the runners, giving an overview of the day ahead, and also announcing the birthdays.  He starts of each daily stage with AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”.  How appropriate!  At least the weather feels like Hell.  The experience however of trekking in the desert is awesome.

Picture 11: Patrick Bauer and his English translator on top of the Land Rover giving details of the day ahead.  We even get a demonstration on this day on how to use the loo, from Patrick himself (fully clothed of course).  The translator at some point is embarrassed to translate, but we got the point.  We all have a good laugh!

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Picture 12: Yours truly feeling awesome on the first day.  It really can’t be this bad, can it??? Hmmmmm!!!!  Let’s see how I feel at the end of the day.

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Day 1 goes smooth.  Moving with 11 kg on my back and using the walking poles was taking some getting used to.  I spend most of the time with Danni and Justin.  We took it easy.  We had been forewarned not to exert ourselves, as Day 2 was supposed to be much harder.  We finished strong, happy and content.  It got hot during the day.  It is so hot, that I can hardly felt any sweating.  The evaporation was so rapid in the dry hot environment.  We finished in a little over 6 hours.

The MDS volunteers have checkpoints along the way to stock on water, and to rest.  Medical Teams are at the different checkpoints to assist any runners in need.  Never during the race, did I feel helpless.  There are volunteers in their Land Rovers across the course and 2 helicopters overhead to address any medical emergencies.

Day 2 – Stage 2: 39 km
(11:30 hrs maximum time to complete)

This is the supposed to be a tough day, and it definitely lives up to its reputation.  It felt unusually warmer than Day 1.  I employed my poles very frequently on this stage.  We traversed so many areas of sand.  In the last third of the course, we climbed a rocky mountain peak, which took forever to peak.  With the incredible heat of the day (someone later says it hit 140°F that day, however I have no way of proving it), I took several breaks.  My nose started bleeding.  According to the Strava/Garmin maps, we ascend from a 2300 ft elevation going up to 3100 ft.

We got a consolation prize of descending on the other side of the peak, which is a mighty sand dune.  Nothing felt more awesome than descending down a 1000 ft of sand.

Picture 13: Descending a massive sand dune

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After talking a 15 minute break at the last checkpoint, I proceeded to walk 4km to the biouvac.  I was so happy to have made it through Day 2.  It took me close to 10hrs to finish this stage.

Day 3 – Stage 3: 31.6 km
(10.5 hrs maximum time to complete)

I felt little better today.  Justin, Danni and I went out together.  We was thinking that this stage is going to be easier than Day 2.  But Patrick Bauer had other plans for us.  We climbed and descended 4 major peaks.

We saw one of the major peaks in the distance, and I jokingly told Justin, that we will climbing up to the top of the peak.  Justin said, “no way.  I don’t think so”.  So of course were aghast when we discovered that we had to climb all the way to the top in the heat.  At this point, I was thinking to myself, “where did it say we had to include mountain climbing as part of our training?”  Thankfully all of us made it to the top.  I took a little over 7hrs to complete this stage.

All of us now were thinking about the long stage tomorrow.  We went to bed early , so that we can wake up early.  The long stage would start early.

Day 4 – Stage 4: Long stage of 86.2 km
(35 hrs maximum to complete)

Justin, Danni, and I started out together.  We thought that today’s course should be easier, given the distance.  After all we got through day 2 and day 3 with all the mountain peaks.  Tough luck with that thought process.  We had several sand dunes that we climbed, and the course was mostly sand dunes and not the rocky hard surfaces that we read from previous blogs.  Walking on these sand dunes zapped every ounce of energy from my body.  Although theoretically my backpack was lighter, it did not feel that way.  As I climbed every dune, I could feel my shoulders hurting.  I was getting irritated with the poles, but found them quite useful when trying to push myself up the dunes.

The elites started a few hours after we did, and caught up with us in no time.  It was amazing to watch Rachid el Morabity (overall winner) and Elisabet Barnes (1st female) charge up the slopes in the heat.  This was one of the two times I saw them on the course.

The 3 of us get separated along the way and eventually grouped together in the evening.  We have been on our feet for 12 hours and were miserable and tired, but still found the energy to crack an occasional joke.  As night time approached, we were given glow sticks to attach to our bags, and we turned on our headlamps.

The three of us walked hours and miles through the energy zapping sand dunes, taking occasional 5 minutes breaks in the night.  I don’t think I would have made it without the company of Danni and Justin.  At the 4th checkpoint, we stopped to have dinner. Justin was gracious in getting hot water ready for our freeze dried meals.  At the 5th checkpoint, we stopped for tea, which is quite refreshing.  I am touched by how helpful the MDS volunteers are.  They ask us about how we are feeling, and take note of our physical condition.  I can’t help feeling how tired they must be, standing around the whole day.

We pushed off and trek another 9km towards the 6th checkpoint.  The Sahara at night is so beautiful with the full moon.  We see several large beetles in the sand.  Occasionally we see runners sleeping on the desert floor.  By this time, I asked Danni and Justin that we sleep for 20 minutes at the next checkpoint.  By now have been on our feet for about 19 hours and were are getting delirious.  We finally make it to Checkpoint 6 and collapsed in a tent for a 30 minute nap.  I started thinking about what possessed me to sign up for this event.  Prior to falling asleep, I wondered if I would ever sign up for a 100 mile race in the future (I am still wondering the same as I write this race report ……….)

We get up, I felt somewhat refreshed with a 30 minute nap, and we all decided to push off to the finish line which is about a half marathon (21.1 km) away.

We finally get through the Checkpoint 7 (last checkpoint), rest and spend the last 10km getting to the biouvac.  I could see the biouvac from 5km away.  It is the longest 5km in my life.  I mentally “thank” Patrick for making the statement of “so near and yet so far”, a glaring reality in MDS, especially when it comes to where the biouvacs and finish line are visible from miles away……..

We were so happy to complete the long stage in a little less than 26 hours.  What a long day and night!   It is quite hot when we finished, and we ended up taking an afternoon nap to recover.

Picture 14: Justin, myself and Danni walking past a village fresh in the morning

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Picture 15: Danni, Justin and myself during the night on the long stage

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Stage 5 – Marathon Stage: 42.2 km
(12 hrs maximum to complete): Medal awarded after this stage

At about this time, all of us in the tent couldn’t wait for the MDS event to be over.  After several days of wearing the same clothes, without a shower, we couldn’t stand the smell of ourselves.  This was a good thing, as you could not smell anyone else 🙂

I had gotten through the race with hardly any blisters on my feet (thank you to MyRacekit gaiters and gurney goo), however I was chafing so badly between my legs.  I  was waddling like a penguin by this time.  I should have gone to the medical tent, which I eventually did after this stage.

I started off the stage walking with Ed Mafoud, who was in the next tent.  We spent a couple of hours talking with each other.  I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Ed.  I mostly walked this staged quite slowly. I was tired and chafed badly.  Two and a half miles away from the finish, I got a second wind, and decided to run into the finish line.  This was probably the only time on the course that I ran and what a pleasure it was to run right to the finish line.

Picture 16: Last section of stage 5

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I was greeted by Patrick Bauer (and so was every finisher) with a hug, a kiss on the forehead and cheek, and a congratulatory message on accomplishing the Marathon des Sables race.  Patrick then proceeded to put the medal around my neck!

Picture 17: The coveted 32nd MDS medal!

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I went to the medical tent to get my chafed legs taken care off!  After 45 minutes of work, I was good to go, with a nice big bandage on each thigh.

All of us were very happy to complete the 32nd Marathon des Sables!  We only had the 7.7km charity stage left the next day.

Picture 18: Below is a picture of Danni, Steve and I celebrating with a beer that night.  It was so good to have a cold one.  We also went to cheer on the last finishers of the MDS. (It was a custom to cheer on the last finishers of each stage.  All of us felt emotional watching the last participants come through)

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Last stage – Charity stage: 7.7 km

What a relief!  We made it.  After 6 days of wearing the same shirt, the organizers gave everyone a yellow t-shirt to wear.  We all walked together across the beautiful sand dunes.  Below are some pictures of the dunes

Picture 19: Undisturbed sand dunes – not for long though

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Picture 20: Walking on top of the dunes

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Picture 21 and 22: Camels waiting on tourists to descend from the dunes

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Picture 23: My shoes have taken a beating from the rocks and sand!  The lugs are loose and some of rubber melted

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We made it to the finish line and then got on to buses on the 6hr ride back to Ouarzazate.

Picture 24: Danni and I on the bus back to Ouarzazate.  We both are sporting thick beards

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Picture 25: Clean shaven 7 hrs later!  So happy to be done. Wait, I already said this!

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Picture 26: Picture with Lahcen Ahansal; 10-time winner of Marathon des Sables

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In  conclusion, what an amazing experience MDS was!

I don’t think I have been more happy to complete a race.  I consider the Marathon des Sables to be more of an adventure requiring survival skills, rather than aiming for a specific finish time.  There are many variables to control when participating in a multi-stage event- nutrition, hydration, pain/blister management, heat acclimation, and then being able to do this day after day after day after day after day after day.

I had the opportunity to see several amazing people on the course, who had a much more challenging set of circumstances to overcome in the race.  I was fortunate to see Duncan Slater (British veteran and double amputee) from England during the race and also the award ceremony.  Duncan lost his legs in Afghanistan, and completed MDS on his second attempt.  I saw a blind runner and also a runner with no arms, participating in the race.  I also got to meet a 16 year old girl and her father (from England, and living in Monaco) on every stage of the race. They completed it successfully.  I talked with many amazing participants, some of whom succeeded on this round, after previously being unable to complete the race.  When I see such people participating in these events, it motivates me to put aside all of my excuses, and do what it takes to get the job done.  Due to participating in events like this, I feel I am stronger in my personal life and feel equipped to handle various situations accordingly.

Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge many friends and family on this journey to complete MDS

  1. Danni Suskin, my Comrades buddy!  Without you, I would not have dreamed of participating in this race!  Thank you for helping me realize that we need to live our lives to the fullest extent!
  2. My wife Nirisha and son Jay and my parents and other family – thank you for encouraging me down the path of doing this event and supporting me all the way
  3. Coach Lindsey Parry – thank you for sticking by me and revising my training plan to accommodate all the injuries I sustained along the way, and encouraging me as I started to succeed.  I would have given up in December 2016 due to all my back pain, but was able to pull through
  4. Richard Maas – my massage therapist.  Thank you for the countless hours spent on working on me.  Without your help on my back, I would not have made it to the start line.  I know that this was a journey
  5. Tent #165 (aka coolest tent in town) – Danni, Penny, Patrick, Nancy, Krista, Mike, Justin.  Although I was largely quiet in the tent, I truly enjoyed the conversation and jokes cracked, during the 1 week we spent together.
  6. The BCRC group: thank you for stalking us and sending messages of encouragement throughout the race
  7. My friends in Dallas: Heather, Angela, Liz, Bill.  Thank you for wishing me the best prior to my journey to Morocco!
  8. My other friends (and wife’s friends) and Jay Batchen, who sent messages of encouragement during the race. These messages gave me the necessary boost to carry on for another day
  9. Finally Patrick Bauer and the incredible team of doctors and volunteers of MDS.  What a highly organized and memorable event you put together.  I never felt scared at any point, knowing that there were volunteers close by to come to the rescue.  Also the volunteers were exemplary when it came to providing help for the runners.  I would highly recommend this experience to any adventurer out there.
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