Race: Half Marathon Des Sables

Views at the Half MdS
© Lucja Leonard

Our regular reviewer Lucja Leonard (aka Running Dutchie) shares her experience of taking part in the epic Half Marathon Des Sables in Fuerteventura.

Introducing the Half MdS

I’m jolted awake, screaming. Was I screaming out loud or was that in my nightmare? Where am I? There’s a tent flapping around me, the wind is howling. I’m sticky with sweat and sand and haven’t showered for two days. I feel totally disorientated in the darkness.

And then I remember, I’ve just completed the second stage of the Half Marathon Des Sables. The Half MdS is set on the island of Fuerteventura, the second largest of the Canary Islands, which is more commonly known as a holiday destination due to its white sandy beaches and year-round sunshine.

288 runners are here however to run 120K over 4 days/3 stages in a fully self-sufficient foot race across the rugged, sandy and arid terrain of the island. It could be likened to running on the moon or Mars. The race isn’t in my nightmare and I drift back to sleep until the sun rises over our camp.

Half Marathon Des Sables Start

Getting ready

I completed this race last year, which was as gruelling and tough as the full MdS. But hardships are quickly forgotten and I was quick to say yes to the opportunity to go again as part of the WAA Team. I’d barely recovered from Leadville 100 five weeks ago, but was keen to improve on last year’s time and 7th place.

I also had two coaching clients, Michaela and Babar, going along who I’d been helping for the last few months prepare. Not only physically and mentally, but also kit preparation, which for a race like this is key. The impact of the weight of your bag and the food and kit you bring can make or break your race.

With this being my sixth fully self-sufficient race and 10th multi-day event, my preparation is pretty polished. I have a great spreadsheet that I’ve been tweaking for years now. It lists everything I will take from kit and equipment, to a daily tally of food including calories, protein, fat and carbohydrates, along with their weight. So as I’m planning my ‘menu’, I can quickly see how this stacks up. Variety is key at these events, as the weather and exhaustion can impact how your body reacts to the taste and nutrition.

Day 1

Playitas Resort is the grand accommodation before and after the race. Day 1 start line is a 45-minute bus ride away and consists of 13.2 miles with 1,900ft ascent. [It involves] running through sandy terrain and the outskirts of a few small towns, before the final stretch along the coastline which is absolutely stunning. It has some sheer drops to the beautiful blue water below, which is off limits to the competitors, but so tempting.

The finish line is in the usual style of feeling – just that bit further away than you think. I’m pushing hard on Day 1 and I can see fourth place lady just ahead of me ,with only a kilometre to go to the finish. I just can’t catch her and finish up in fifth place for the day with a big, sweaty smile plastered over my face.

Arriving at camp, runners are allocated individual tents based on nationality. With my home address listed in France as I’m living in Chamonix, providing Sports Massage through my business Pure Alps Massage, I end up in the French camp. Lovely as they are and they try to speak English to me, I miss the banter of being with my British counterparts.

The wind is strong making lighting the stove an epic achievement to boil water for my dinner. The camp is a bustle of activity with campfires going and lots of chatter about the day. It’s an early night all round and soon the camp descends into darkness and quiet ready for a good night’s sleep. I thankfully get thanks in part to remembering ear plugs this year.

Camping at Half MdS

Day 2

Day 2 is the long day of 37.6 miles with 5,200 feet of ascent. There’s nervous trepidation around the camp, with many runners who will be running this distance for the first time and others that are concerned about how the heat will effect them.

Making the most of the slightly cooler temperatures, I start off at a strong pace and look to secure my position in the field with the aim to hold it for the rest of the day. The temperatures quickly rise and I’m consciously reminding myself to eat, drink and consume salt tablets. The first big climb of the day takes us up through a ravine with a sharp hand-over-foot climb near the top. The temperature drains me and I’m grateful for the volunteer at the top who grabs my hand to pull me up onto the road. I’m nearly out of water but it’s still about 5K to the next checkpoint, so I start having to ration my sips.

I slow down to a walk during the hottest part of the day, but I find not many people pass me. As I reach the halfway point, there’s one of the top runners being bundled off in a stretcher and more stories of casualties from the day. The biggest climb of the day follows on from here.

It’s a gorgeous run along the beach in the last few hours of daylight. After stopping for 20 mins to help the female Peruvian runner who had been just ahead of me on Day 1 and was now in trouble with heatstroke, I realise that sixth place female has caught up to me. A battle commences with her up the last big climb of the day where I ended up ahead of her enough to make me push the last 15K home!

At the last CP the fight was on to the finish, and I managed to pull ahead of another female competitor to finish in fourth place for the day and overall. This also meant I had the full bag and kit check done by the race officials, which was very thorough, right down to the last safety pin!

I joined the British contingent that evening, as they’d had a few dropouts so a tent was free. As the following morning began, weary competitors found their way out of their tents and we all swapped stories of the day that was. Today was a rest day and this involved a lot of laying around, resting, eating and chatting. Made a bit more fun with the surprise treats of ‘Fatboys’ to lay on and a delicious icy cold bottle of Coca Cola later in the day. It’s a great day to get to know more about your fellow competitors, where they all come from and why they are here.

Van of Coca Cola

Day 3

The third and final day was 13.5 miles with 1,500 feet ascent. Knowing I was in fourth place with an hour to third meant I couldn’t make that. But there was only a five-minute gap to fifth, so I needed to make sure I kept her in my sights. The legs were certainly feeling it, but I had to push from the off. Today’s section included about 4K of my least-favourite terrain: super-sharp volcanic rock, which made running extremely difficult and slow going. [It didn’t affect some of the others] who just seemed to fly through this terrain, including fifth lady!

I had to work my socks off to catch back up to her again once we were through the difficult section. I could tell she was struggling too, so through broken Spanglish we agreed we’d just take it easy for the last few Ks. We stuck together and it wasn’t until we saw the finish line and had the final descent that she took off, leaving me for dust and got to the finish line a few minutes ahead of me.

I still managed to keep fourth overall and I was super pleased with my time, which was a good five hours faster than last year!

The finish

I hung around to watch Michaela finish. We headed off to make good use of the ice bath and complimentary massages. Babar made it to the finish as well, so I was a very proud coach. It’s always rewarding to be able to help others achieve their goals.

Our gala dinner that evening was a feast of amazing food and wine, before enjoying the comforts of a real bed. A full day of relaxation by pools the following day erased the struggles of the race. I’ve already starting thinking about coming back for the third edition in 2019, because it’s just that epic!

Lucja Leonard at the Half MdS

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