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Event review: The Ultimate Ultra
Devinder Bains travelled to Morocco in April to have a stab at the world’s toughest race.
The music blared from the speakers as everyone around me sang along…’I'm on the Highway to Hell’. The words couldn’t have been more apt, as I stood on the start line of the 27th Marathon des Sables, famously dubbed ‘The Toughest Race on Earth.’
I was joining 871 other competitors. Amongst the 257 British entrants I was one of the 27 women who were going to put themselves through the gruelling, 151-mile race across the Sahara Desert.
A completely self-sufficient race over seven days, I’d spent the last few months deciding on what food, kit and sleeping equipment to take.
I’d got a last minute place in January, which gave me just eight weeks to train for a race that most competitors take two years to prepare for.
At the time I hadn’t run for three weeks because of a knee injury, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse! A place on the world’s greatest Ultra Marathon? Yes please!
With such a short time to prepare I concentrated on hill walking as a lot of the terrain is mountainous or consists of giant sand dunes, this also gave my knee a rest from the hard pounding of running on the streets of London.
Before the injury I had been running 20-milers on the weekends to train for my first ultra marathon so I knew I was in good shape.
Over the following two months I spent every spare minute walking, running and checking calories on various snacks and energy bars.
The last two weeks before we flew to Morocco were spent tapering. I did no running at all but instead attended daily sessions of Hot Bikram Yoga in 40 degree heat to acclimatise.
The yoga was great to clear up the remnants of my knee injury too.
So here I was on the start line, about to take on one of the hardest challenges on the planet! The days were split into the following stages: 33.8km, 38.5km, 35km, 81.5km, then a rest day followed by a marathon stage and finally a 15.5km run to finish.
My plan was to take it easy for the first three days so I was fairly fresh for the long 81.5km stage. So I got into a walk/run routine, with each day taking between six and seven hours.
The temperature was peaking in the 50′s and the terrain was tough; a mixture of rocky flats that hurt the soles of the feet to scrambling up mountains and dunes that sapped the energy from the leg muscles.
But this was only the first few days so it was all done with a smile on my face. The evenings were spent in a tent with up to seven others, preparing rehydrated meals and visiting the onsite doctors if needed.
I’d managed to pick up a couple of small blisters on my toes on the first day but had plastered them up myself.
By day three, these blisters were worse and new ones had arrived on the heels of my feet, making it too painful to run and almost impossible to walk!
Having saved my energy for the long stage of day four I actually found myself shuffling across the start line unable to put any weight on my heels, this was going to be a long day. I had hoped for a 16-hour day but instead it took me a mind numbing 24 hours to cross that stage’s finish line!
My feet were burning with pain and my body was numb with tiredness but back at the tent I managed to have a giggle about my ordeal – the mental challenges are the biggest part of this race.
After a well-earned day off – where I spent two hours at the doctors having all my blisters cut off and bandaged – it was back to the race. Day six was the marathon stage – my feet barely fit in my trainers but somehow I managed to start running.
Once I got going there was no stopping me – my legs were finally off! All the walking meant they were still fairly fresh, so I managed to run round the whole stage – it was the most enjoyable day out there especially as my rucksack was finally at a bearable weight.
I had started with around 9kg and was now down to about 6kg – the weight I had done most my training runs with.
And just like that it was the last day of the race; a 15.5km run that included 9km of Morocco’s highest sand dunes. They were as tough as they were beautiful.
Three hours after starting that stage I crossed the finish line. As I accepted my medal from race organiser Patrick Bauer, rather than feeling relief that the race was over I just felt happy to have had such an amazing time.
The race is so well organised, there’s a great sense of camaraderie amongst the runners and the course itself has some of the most amazing scenery. As I stood at the start line on day one, I was full of nerves and couldn’t wait for the whole thing to be over but I’d had the time of my life.
Would I do it again? Never say never!
Devinder’s kit was sponsored by lights by TENA, statistics show 1 in 2 women experience light bladder weakness, and often when exercising.