After weeks and weeks of punishing training and the frustration of picking up injuries so close to the race, I was on my way to Morocco and heading straight to the mountains…. It was too late to back out now! I absolutely love being high up in the mountains, the fresh air, the stunning views. I was hoping the excitement and adrenaline would pull me through this epic challenge.
Because of my foot injury I didn’t run for 11 days before the race. (Mainly because I was too scared to tempt fate so close to the race). In hindsight this was not such a bad thing as I needed some rest before the big day. Walking around the village a few days prior to the race, I was still aware of my foot being slightly stiff and achy but my hip which has plagued me most in my training, felt fine (Sometimes you must look at the positives). I didn’t feel nervous for the race but rather more excited. The training before the big day feels like it goes on and on, never ending. When you finally get there you just want to get started. That changed……. quickly.
The race briefing was in French and Arabic. I slowly started to panic. Othman the race coordinator came over and asked me whether I understood what was being said, “No” was my simple reply. “Oh, you looked like you were concentrating.” (I think you will find that is actually my look of fear). I therefore had to have my own personal race briefing after everyone else. I was the only English person to participate in the race, in fact to ever have done the race! I got briefed on the route and what to expect by Lahcen Ahansal 10 times marathon de Sables winner who also designed the route we would be taking. My nerves slowly but surely started to kick in.
Being a trail run, there was no big signage directing the route or highlighting the distance covered. I was advised to follow the small red dots that were spray painted along the course. If I didn’t see a dot for 100m I was advised to turn back. I was to follow any arrows that I might see, and if there was a red X to not go that way. Seemed easy enough. There were check points along the route that every runner must check in at to make sure that nobody got lost along the way. I was then handed a very basic map of where these would be. Other than that, I was on my own. Talking to the race director Nait at the briefing, I think he was a slightly worried I was running alone and he wanted to make sure I was prepared. He asked that I take my phone with me in case I got lost (re-assuring much?) and asked whether I had a bag to carry my water and a hat to protect me from the sun. Then he asked whether I had a torch? Erm………..no. ‘Don’t worry’ he says ‘just come back before it’s dark.’ Okay I’ll try my best (I had already noted that the sun set at 5.30pm – this gave me 10 and half hours to complete the distance)
The race was at 7am the next morning, after a good night’s sleep I woke up at 5.45am to be met by pitch darkness in the mountains. I got myself ready by strapping up my hip and foot with copious amounts of kinesiology tape (Better be safe than sorry) and trying to eat a decent breakfast. Dawn was only just breaking as we took our places on the start line. (I now understood the need for a torch) I felt an overwhelming about of nervous excitement as I stood waiting for the start of the race and I was ready to go. When the gun fired to start the race, it was the first time I had run in 11 days and I instantly felt my hip tightness. I had to focus my thoughts as I had no pain, just aware I was warming up. However, I soon forgot all about this though when 10 minutes later the sun started to come up and filled the valley with the sunrise.
The scenery was breathtakingly stunning, I have never seen anything like it. 10-15 minutes in I was already stopping, (although very briefly) not because of my injuries but to take pictures. I wanted to be able to soak it all in a have reminders of the beautiful scenery. As the sun came up it also got warmer……a lot warmer. At the 15k mark we started our first ascent. When I say ascent, I should really say climb. The trail led us to what looked like a rock face. Then we noticed small figures at the top of the mountain. I suddenly realised we were meant to climb this rock face. I didn’t realise I had signed up to a rock climbing expedition too?! But the trusty red dots lead the way to a reasonably safe route up the rock face and over the other side of the mountain. Again, the views made the climb all the worthwhile.
I reasonably enjoyed the next 20k or so until we reached the half way point. This is when my watch gave out. Obviously being in the middle of nowhere had exhausted its battery searching for a GPS signal. It had taken me 4 hours 10 min to run 36k, exactly half way. Not bad going, although fatigue was starting to set in slightly, I thought if I can keep this up I might finish in under 8.5-9 hours. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Just after the half way mark was when the second bigger ascent started. It was killer, a very slow and steady never ending climb up the mountain. I tried to put into practice my training of running for 1 minute walking for 30 seconds to recover. This soon became run for 30 seconds walk for 30 seconds, then run for 30 seconds walk for 2 minutes. Until the climb became too hard and I had to walk. I thought to myself why is this so tough? Then I reminded myself that I had already run a marathon distance already. Crazy! I had to walk the rest of the way to the top of the mountain. It just felt like it was never going to appear. I just kept winding my way up the mountain, I would turn a corner and hope to see the top only to face more winding roads. By this point my lower back and glutes (bottom muscles) were in agony. I assume from leaning into the mountain due to the steepness. Finally, I turned a corner and saw a check point. I have never been so happy in all my life. By this point I hadn’t seen or spoken to anyone in about 2 and a half hours.
After a very broken exchange (he didn’t speak English and my French is shocking) he gestured that I turn off the road and up the mountain again. Nooooooooooooo! I thought I must be near the top soon. Thankfully it was only a small climb but the terrain was like nothing I had experienced before. It felt like I was running on the moon, small rocks and boulders scattered everywhere. I finally went over the crest of the mountain and witness the most breath-taking view. I really did feel like I was on top of the world. The best bit was I knew I had completed the hardest part of the race. I was about 52k in, only another 20k to go…..easy right? I was excited as I had finally reached the top of the mountain…. what goes up must come down. I could finally start running again as I started my decent. The excitement soon wore off though when my hip started to grumble. I just had to keep telling myself it to just keep taking one step at the time. To keep moving at all costs.
The last 10k was the hardest 10k of my life. The terrain turned to gravel/sand and was very difficult to run on. Although I had technically past the mountain stage it was still very undulating. I stuck to my plan of run walking, walking the hills then running the flat parts. Your mind really plays tricks on you at this stage. I have never felt fatigue like it. At one point I almost ran completely in the wrong direction. What I thought was an arrow was in fact a big X…. luckily, I corrected myself before I went too far astray. My mind kept trying to override my body, telling me walk because I was so exhausted. I assume my brain was taking over telling me to conserve energy. Yet, when I did start to run again, it felt like a similar amount of effort as walking. I had never run for this amount of time before so I was in unknown territory. It was such a strange feeling when your mind and body are fighting one another. By this point everything was hurting so much, I had forgotten about my injuries it was almost like I was numb to the pain.
I knew I was getting closer to the finish line as I saw Tafraout village in the distance. I told myself I was going to run the rest of the way, no matter how slow to make sure I finished on a high. It’s amazing how much energy you can muster up when you know you are going to finally finish. Running into the village and the locals giving you a clap and thumbs up, was a massive boost. Having run by myself for hours that day it felt good to see people again. Then finally I turned the last corner and it was there, the finish line….. Thank God! It wasn’t a sprint finish but it was a finish none the less. I crossed the line with physically nothing left to give but with a massive smile on my face. If I had enough energy left I probably would have cried. Instead I had just enough left to stand up right and collect my medal with pride. I was sore, slightly sunburnt, and suitably fatigued BUT I had just run 72k – I was an ultra-runner.
I learnt a lot from this experience. One that it really hurts when you run into a cactus. Two that if you are out in the sun all day with kinesiology tape on, you will return with ridiculous sun tan lines. Three to know your limitations and to have patience at times to get to your end goal. But, the main thing I learned was that you are not invincible no matter how much knowledge you have. I preach it to my patients all the time, but I learnt first-hand the importance of doing my rehab. Without working on my weaknesses and muscles imbalances I wouldn’t have made it to the start line. I would have still been plodding along with niggling pain and would have ended up in a worse state and probably subjected myself to further injury. Just because you are pain free does not mean that there are no underlying issues that could be manifesting.
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