Day four and the first of the long stage of 82km (TAOURIRT MOUCHANNE / OUED EL JDAID). My plan of attack for this stage was to relentlessly attach the course checkpoint by checkpoint; not stopping long at each. The route was simple. First was a straight run for 10km to checkpoint one. My shoulder hated me for this and let me know about it…badly. The fingers were on fire and the shoulder straps dug into me no matter how I shifted the pack. The leg behaved…well almost but not enough to put me off my stride
Arriving at checkpoint one in good time, I grabbed my ration of water and headed straight through. Catching a good rhythm and feeling brilliant, I began a run/walk routine that took me past a cemetery, an oasis and across a dried lake through another checkpoint. I made good time following a Russian, who had bionic legs. I arrived at checkpoint Three. Being ahead of time, I should have taken a moment longer than sitting on the footplate and filling the water bottle but as most who know me, I can be a bit blinkered. The leg decided to play up right after leaving the checkpoint. Really annoying but made me more determined to finish within my plan of fifteen hours.
On route to Checkpoint four, I met Yousef from Kuwait whose knee was just about locked. I was shattered by this point and decided that this was a good point to slow and walk for a bit. I have to say that my Parkinson’s was causing me no end of trouble…so it was a convenient excuse. Yousef and I made good friends and his chat helped take my mind of the shoulder and the dancing leg. We stopped at Checkpoint four and got some food. I was starting to feel heavy in the legs but thankfully the Parkies had stopped.
We had made good time but Yousef’s leg was really slowing him down. I had predicted a 15 hour finish time but knew that this was not going to be possible with Yousef. However, he didn’t want to give up (good on you mate!!!!!) and I decided that it would not be in the spirit of the MDS to leave the guy. So, after changing the lenses in my Polaroid Vector 99 P7007A glasses to clear lenses, we ploughed on and climbed some massive dunes. Thankfully this was done in the dark; as both Yousef and I would have had a hard time psychologically if we had seen the next dune which was far higher and tougher to climb than the last. At checkpoint five, we met Mark Gillett, who took photos and warm words of encouragement. It was good to see another friendly face. I checked the water and munched a mule bar (by this time I was living on these and power bars…not a good diet!). Pushing through to the laser light of checkpoint six, I missed a huge camel spider that apparently crossed my path.
I had been warned that snakes come out at night and should be wary of stepping to close to camel grass. However, it was now day five and I couldn’t have cared less. All my focus was on getting to the finish and climbing into my sleeping bag. I pushed through the camel grass followed by a now silent Yousef. I understood that he had his own struggle with his knee to deal with. Checkpoint six arrived and I persuaded Yousef to let the doctors look at his leg. The verdict was that he should rest…to which the words, “Fuck that!” were heard (only by me). Shortly after this we set off for the slow climb up and out towards the finish. Yousef was still pushing on, in pain but determined to get to the end of the stage but we were going slowly. Eventually, we were caught up and passed by many other competitors until one stopped and joined our slow march. Christian, a French competitor, knew Yousef. As a consequence, the good chat and Yousef using Christian’s walking poles got us within just over 1km of the finish.
It was at this point that we were passed by some competitors and I don’t know what came over me…I looked at Yousef and then to Christian and back to Yousef, who looked at me and said, “Alex run your crazy run”. I turned and ran….sprinted and shot past the last competitors to have passed me. They must have been pissed off and started to run after me. So I ran faster and faster. Both my legs felt like they were going to fall off and my shoulder was murdering me. I could have tripped or twisted my ankle in the darkness, but that was far from my mind. It was at this point that I ran straight through a thorn bush; really long thorns cut and pierced my arms and legs, which took my mind off any fatigue and my shoulder. Brilliant!!!
I sprinted up the embankment and through the finish line! I couldn’t speak as I had sprinted the kilometre and was fit to drop, so that was when the French cameraman pushed the film camera into my face and asked me to comment on the experience. I tried to explain in breathless French and failed impressively. I waited to Yousef who made it in and completed the long stage with a locked knee. Yousef, you are courageous my friend and the tea tasted fantastic after fifty miles of hell.
After dropping Yousef into the arms of a good looking nurse, I headed back to Tent 99. Ali (Parker) had made it back a while before and was trying to get some sleep. So, I did the only thing a good mate would do; I woke him up. We had a long and rambling conversation about the long stage. Parts of the time were interspersed with moments of sleepy silence. The stage was as tough as you can imagine and physically draining. I pinned my stinky clothes to the fabric of the tent and watched my tent mates return to base over the following hours. I’m still smiling about the long stage. It was fun…believe me.
The rest of day five was a case of nursing the feet. Before going out to the Sahara, I had decided to look after my feet myself. The blister the size of two 50 pence pieces on my right heel put paid to that. I had ignored the fact that my toes were mashed and that I had lost the skin across several of my toes, but I couldn’t ignore the heel. So I went to Doc Trotter. Doc Trotters are much maligned doctors and medical practitioners and the criticisms aimed at them are often unfair. The medics and doctors are all volunteers and give their time for free and most come from the top hospitals in and around Paris. Their tireless work and dedication to patients saved my life in 2009; so I took the plunge and submitted to blister control. Bloody hell…it was a bit of a painful experience but I put this down to the size of the blisters. Putting on a brave face, I thanked the doctor who had chopped into the skin of my feet and, with a blue bag on each foot, I hobbled back to tent 99. A massive thank you has to go out to Rob, who also volunteers for the MDS. He is the main contact/fixer and general point of contact for the UK team and sourced me a pair of flip flops. Thanks Rob. You are a star!
Day six, the marathon day from OUED EL JDAID/ERG ZNAIGUI – 42,2 Km, went quickly. The legs didn’t give out. In fact, I felt stronger. To be honest, I can’t recall much of the marathon route and the day passed in a haze of knowing that I was so close to finishing the MDS. What I did recall was James Cracknell passing me and patting me on the shoulder; asking, “How are you Alex?” I replied that I was great and that he should keep going because if I have Parkinson’s he can bloody well make it too! He certainly did. James Cracknell put himself through hell and came 12th; the highest placed finish for a UK man. Excellent work and huge congratulations James. You did us proud!
On last night there was high expectation and an undercurrent of excitement which cut through the fatigue that all of us had to a greater or lesser extent. Backpacks were emptied and the dried food I hated was thrown away. A cathartic moment I can tell you and one which made me really happy. The thought of eating that stuff again still now is enough to make my guts turn.
The last day and a half marathon ERG ZNAIGUI /MERZOUGA– 21,1 Km. The contrast in colours of the sand come to mind, as the desert changed from yellow sand to chocolate brown and back again. The route was good and I ran most of it. While running I came across a 17 year old lad called James. James had set out into the hot sun and desert without eating correctly or taking on adequate salt or water and by the time I met him, he was feeling it. I stopped and gave him a chocolate flavour gel, salt tabs and water. James apparently likes chocolate and the effect of this and the water and salt soon had him feeling better. We ran together and made it to the penultimate dune of the Merzouga Dunes (the seconds largest in the Sahara and the first that I crossed in 2009). It was at this point that I told him to run. Run like his arse was on fire and cross the line. James certainly did run and crossing that line earned his stripes and the bragging rights that go with finishing the MDS. Great work James!!
For me, it was a sprint finish. Climbing the shallow incline after 250Km (156 miles) of desert was the best bit of the race and the beep of the chip timer as I crossed the line, made me feel invincible. David and his team pointed microphones and a camera into my face and this time, I made the effort to not be a completely breathless wonder. A hug and handshake from Patrick sealed the end of a dream race and the memories and smile that is still there when I think back to the hot desert sun is priceless. So what was it like…it was for me the longest, hardest and most painful race I have done to date and that was why it was worth it. If you are going to pay over £3K to enter a race, it has to be tough, nasty and challenging enough to take you outside your comfort zone. The MDS 2010 did this! Try it!