Don’t be fooled by the serenity of the landscape. The ever-expansive sandy scene, undulating and oozing like honey to the horizon and beyond. Sandy, yes; billions of granules of sand. Making their own race across the desert as they chased me, bit at my torso, whipped my face, gritted my eyes, sank duplicitously under my steps. This was their game. This was my challenge. This was the Marathon des Sables: the Marathon of the Sands. The toughest footrace on the planet. There was no Romanticism here.
This is perhaps a realization that crossed the minds of Oxford students Adam Park and Tom Lickiss as they raced across the Sahara this Easter in what was a grueling test of mental and physical endurance. The MdS is an ultramarathon, where competitors are expected to carry all of their supplies for the 7-day race on their backs (including sleeping bags, food, cooking supplies, and, most obscurely, 10 safety pins). For those of you impugning the true brutality of the race, I can assure you it is labeled an ultramarathon with complete veracity; in total it is 151 miles in length, usually broken up into 6 sections, and is designed to be run. Running 6 marathons in 6 days is pretty serious; particularly considering the middle of the race is met by a double-marathon stage. It’s pretty serious, considering it takes place in a desert where early morning temperatures soar above 40 degrees Celsius; where sandstorms constantly rap the landscape; where food and comfort is as limited as running water in the developing world. And still, despite all this, the competition enjoys the participation of around 700 individuals from across the world each year. What is it that drives them to do it? Masochistic tendencies? Utter lunacy? Or a desire to discover their true character in the most rigorous and testing way possible? This is what I seek to find out.
To begin with, Adam and Tom were never first-hand couch potatoes, the kind to justify such a lifestyle with the typical “I’m a student!” exclamation as if it was a prescribed manner of conduct. Between them, these two Univ students have cycled 12,000 miles across multifarious terrain on 3 different continents, completed an Ironman triathlon, two 100km Trailwalker races, an 80km footrace, and now, the Marathon des Sables, raising over £20,000 for various charities. They are challenge-seekers through and through, and seemingly, remarkable young men. Extremely multitalented; almost freakishly so, with the intelligence and social skills that would turn most green with envy. But despite natural physical ability for sport and endurance (Adam is a Black Belt in TaeKwon-Do and was a trialist for the Home Countries International England Rowing Squad), months of intensive training, and immeasurable dedication to their latest challenge, nothing could have prepared them for their latest tour de force.
How does one even approach such an event, and why? Adam disclosed to me, “I had no idea what kind of trouble I was going to run into, how much pain I was going to have to take, only that I was going to and that I would find out the kind of person I really am when I did”. And perhaps that was it. To push yourself to the physical limit, to see if your character can really be as tough as you want it to be. To climb your own psychological mountain. I imagine that a feeling of incredible vulnerability must overcome you, looking out across those obscure and extending monotonous dunes, until an almost animalistic necessity to survive takes charge and you’re forced to react. Your coping mechanisms, your mental strength, and fundamentally, whether as a person you are built to cope with the incomprehensible pain, exhaustion, stress and delusion, will emerge, at least attempting to overshadow the sensations of loneliness and confusion. Nature cannot be the only dictator in this microcosm however. Here, society must occasionally step in, regulating your physical capacity according to the stringent (and sensible) MdS rules: one drip is permitted, but two grants you disqualification, my friend, and, perhaps more shamefully, your name ruefully stamped across the “QUITTERS” list. The ultimate mark of failure through the eyes of a competitor.
The race was a challenge from the offset, but became a struggle on day three, which brought with it the ever-looming double marathon stage, a dark, rumbling cloud that had been hanging heavily over the entire course. This year, the stage was 10km longer than previous years and the longest stage in the history of the MdS. 91km of sand, rocks, wind, blistering sun in the day and bitter cold at night. The desert became a dark place, stripped down to the fundamentals, a vast, consuming vacuum, void of anything but heavy drudgery. Adam and Tom hit their “lowest and darkest moment of the whole race” during this stage. Following completion, Adam wrote of the “hard-hitting pain”, how each step felt like walking on “hot wax…and like someone’s poured rusty nails into my left knee.” Reflecting on how he was feeling twice as bad as after finishing the Ironman, he remarked poignantly, “I still have a marathon to run tomorrow”.
The demons in their heads, magnified through the starvation, physical distress (by this point they were both harbouring “pancake-sized blisters”), sleep deprivation and incredible fatigue, had taken a hold. Feeling the pressure to push on through the night in order to maximize their chances of making a quick long day stage, they marched on into the night as if possessed, shrouded by delusion, but quickly realized the absolute necessity to return to camp. Tom, overcome with fatigue and dehydration, entered the medical tent and two hours down the line was struck with the 3 magic symptoms that conveyed a drip: diarrhoea, vomiting and dehydration. As far as he was concerned, a drip was “a step on the road to submission”. His attempt at refusal was thwarted, however, and he spent the rest of the night attempting to balance the fluid bag on his shoulder as he crouched over a hole in the ground relieving himself. Not as bad as the poor guy who thought he had “soiled himself in his sleeping bag eight times” during the night, but pretty degrading to say the least.
By this point the race had become a battle of survival for many, but the knowledge of completion and having the end in sight provided most with great strength. Adam and Tom were forced to complete the race independently, but both managed to sprint-finish, fuelled by adrenalin and, in the final moments, elation. Adam came in 327th out of 774 competitors that day, while the end was met with mixed feelings by Tom, obviously very disappointed at being robbed of the physical capability to run the race like he had trained to. But both stressed that the priority had always been to simply finish the race, and that would be a feat in itself. They had done that. Medal to prove. What could possibly come next after the Marathon des Sables? The North Pole, of course: these boys never stop.
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue”
Wilfred Owen, 1918