The Marathon Des Sables, a Day-by-Day Account of the Worlds Toughest Footrace

Retired front row forward Murdo Anderson has completed his toughest challenge yet – the Marathon Des Sables; a gruelling multi-stage footrace across the Sahara desert.

Murdo has returned home to Scottish soil and very proud parents having completed the MDS. In part-4 of our multi-part series, Murdo shares a day-by-day account of the conditions he faced, the daily challenges and his mental battle to complete the world’s toughest footrace.


On reflection, my life-changing week in the Sahara lived up to, and exceeded, every expectation in every way. I’ve been challenged both physically and mentally in ways I never have before, but I managed to come out on top.

The heat was tough, but between drinking 10 litres of water a day, plenty of strong sun cream and light, long sleeved tops, I avoided sunburn and overheating. The sand was a relentless battle, trying to find the right surface to get over most quickly without immersing half your leg in the super fine, yellowy grains.

I got a rare glimpse into just how far you can physically push your body when you’re brain is telling you its tired; its not! There is a huge reservoir of energy and endurance available to you by winning the mental battle against fatigue.

There is a huge reservoir of energy and endurance available to you by winning the mental battle against fatigue

 Pushing on through this barrier, I over-achieved on my initial goals. My primary aim was to complete the race and my secondary aim was to try and come in the top 50%. I finished in 317 place, well above what I thought possible and even managed to gain a position of 105th on the final marathon stage.

I was able to forge what I suspect will be lifelong friendships with strangers, something I believe is the result of being under the same pressure and having the same goals as one another.

After arrival in Morocco and a long bus trip into the desert, we made camp and started to acclimatise ahead of the first day of racing.

MDS 2018 Facts & Figures

Entrants: 1,078 // Stages: 6 // Total distance: 237km // Longest stage: day-4, 86.2km

Stage One – Sunday 8th April

Day one distance: 30.3km // Finishing position: 422

Sunday (race day 1) was all nervous preparation ahead of the start, but once we got racing, the stage went well. My legs felt good and I managed a good time through the first section of the race. Some people struggled with the heat and dehydration even this soon into the race but fortunately I wasn’t one of them.

Stage Two – Monday 9th April

Day two distance: 39km // Finishing position: 357

The second day of racing brought with it some very long and exposed salt basins where you could feel the heat pouring down on you and reflected back up from the shiny surface.

The descent towards camp provided a whole 60 seconds of running full speed!

 This section finished with a steep, treacherous climb over our first ‘jebel’; basically a mountain made of very jagged rock and sand. The descent towards camp however provided a whole 60 seconds of running full speed down soft, loose sand which was just incredible.

Stage Three – Tuesday 10th April

Day three distance: 31.6km // Finishing position: 412

Day 3 was the hill stage; four jebel climbs broken by sections of loose sand dunes and more salt flats – you could feel the soles of your feet boiling. This stage was made harder from a lack of sleep. A sandstorm that lasted two hours the night before required a lot of careful tent modifications and eventually required us to collapse the tent on top of the 8 of us to get some sleep. Again, with careful pacing and constant taking on of water and electrolytes I managed to keep my top 400 positioning throughout this stage.

Stage Four – Wednesday 11th April

Day four distance: 86.2km // Finishing position: 381

Day 4 loomed along with its 54 miles of gruelling sand and heat. The first 25ish miles passed quickly, the conditions underfoot were unbearable at times with such soft sand you could barely get any forward pace but it just required patience and consistency. The middle section of this was almost the toughest. This was the only time of the week the temperature reached 50 degrees, completely still with no wind to cool us; all you could do was just focus on one foot in front of the other and keep drinking.

The early part of the evening was beautiful, seeing the sunset over the vast Sahara whilst we crossed its seemingly never-ending dunes. The array of insect life we saw was amazing; camel spiders, scorpions, several different types of large beetles as well as birds, camels, donkeys and dogs made this quite special.

As delirium set in on the 40th mile I started to find it hard to keep my motivation up. The best technique was just simple goal setting, make myself focus on what I could see on the horizon and don’t think about anything else until I reach it, then repeat again and again and somehow you find you’ve gone a few miles. It was during the night that I took a minute to lie back in a sand dune and look at the stars.

This moment of clarity is something I’ll always remember and was just enough to get me over the line

 With absolutely no light pollution for hundreds of miles it was the clearest, most starry sky I have ever seen. This moment of clarity is something I’ll always remember and was just enough to get me over the line, collapse into my tent and get some recovery food.

The next day, Thursday 12th April, was a recovery day for me as there were competitors who hadn’t made the double marathon in one day and so were trailing over the line all day. One competitor, a 71 year old Brit was the final person to complete the stage in a whopping 34 and a half hours. The entire camp went out to cheer the broken old man over the line and his tears of pain mixed with his tears of joy as he completed the long stage with just a few minutes before the cut off time.

Stage Five – Friday 13th April

Day five distance: 42.2km // Finishing position: 105

The final marathon stage meant I was able to give it everything I had, with no requirement to conserve energy for another day. Having never run a marathon before coming to the desert, I wasn’t sure how it would be. On this final day they started the top 200 runners an hour and a half behind the rest of the field. As I made it to the first checkpoint I realised i was in the top 20 which felt incredible.

The next part of the stage was rolling dunes interrupted by flat stoney terrain, which I found I could get over very fast. At the 16 mile mark I was in 6th place and we entered the big dunes. The next bit of action was one of the highlights of the week for me.

The next bit of action was one of the highlights of the week…

 Two of my competitors headed off in a slightly wrong direction through the dunes and with very little signage i was able to rely on my compass and map skills to take the correct reference where my other three challengers debated about the correct line. For a few brief minutes I was leading the race, the feeling was incredible, running on fresh, untouched dunes meant I could pick the best lines without sinking into sandy footprints and it gave me such a morale boost.

The last few miles saw me increasing speed as much as I could despite my legs starting to ache with the cumulative effect on running over 150 miles in just 6 days. I physically made it across the final finishing line in 9th place, one behind the overall race winner Rachid El Morabiti. After the organisers calculated the times of the elite 200 runners my time showed I came in 105th place, literally miles better than I could have ever imagined.

Overall

Overall distance run: 237km // Overall finishing position: 317

My overall position of 317 surpassed my goal of making it into the top 50% of the table. An achievement I am very proud of, having never ran a marathon before coming here, when most of my competitors are seasoned marathon and ultra-marathon runners.

Final Thoughts…

On completing the MDS I was satisfied by exceeding my expectations. First of all I completed it, which was my primary goal. Secondly I had aimed to try and finish in the top half of the table, so finishing in the top third was much better than I thought possible!

Despite sounding cheesy, the whole experience has been such a journey; from starting my training and running every night with a head torch, often through snow, to getting all my kit together, making it to the desert and finally crossing the finish line. There were tough moments and moments where I felt great – it has taught me a lot about myself, physically and mentally. One thing I have taken from it, which I have tried to tell as many people as possible, is the feeling of achievement when you set yourself an outrageous goal, take steps to get there, eventually get to the point where you believe you can do it and then finally achieving it.

Many thanks to rugbystore.co.uk for all my training kit without which I would have been cold, wet and uncomfortable!

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About the author

Exposed to a multitude of adventures from a young age – kayaking, hill walking, rock climbing, even trekking in the Himalayas – Murdo Anderson has always loved sport. A very keen club rugby player, injury forced Murdo into early retirement and his focus shifted to ultra distance running. The appeal of testing both physical endurance and mental strength is what really gets him going. Who knows what he will attempt after the MDS!

Visit Murdo’s Just Giving page here: www.giving.com/murdoandersonmds.

Find out more about MY NAME’5 DODDIE, the charity set up by former Scotland lock Doddie Weir to raise funds for Motor Neurone Disease.

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