Friday, May 17, 2013

Prepping up! ..... for MDS (Marathon Des Sables)

From the day I set my eyes on MDS 2013, I knew that everything I did from that moment on will be to bring get a little more closer to achieving that dream…

It was during one of the adventure marathons that I first heard of MDS. In 2007, when I was running the Great Tibetan marathon in Ladakh, a runner friend, Brigid mentioned that the Marathon De Sables was the toughest foot race on earth and she felt that I had it in me to participate in it. A very encouraging thought, it compelled me to read all about the race, which further fuelled my interest.

It was then, five years from now, that I set my eyes on MDS. And it was then, five years from now, that I started preparing for it. I started running with a backpack from that day on, during all my training runs and marathons. Till date, I run with 3kg backpack! I came to realise that not only will this train me to run with weight on my back, but it is also very convenient as I can carry my change of clothes, 1-1.5litres of water, some food and change of footware.

I was mentally prepared for this race and it’s something I really wanted to do. I have had this dream of running this race for nearly five years, and, I repeat, everything I did over this time was geared to prepare me for MDS. I moved to ultra marathons, so that I was prepared for the long stage of this race. I took up endurance cycling of 200 and 300km races, so that I could be ready for all day running. I even did one 19hr bike ride as prep for one of the endurance races!

I figured that if I have to train for ultra marathons, AND keep a day job, AND keep up with my hectic social life – on and offline, I would have to incorporate running into my schedule in a way that is least disruptive. So, I run to work twice a week so that I don't have to wake up too early on week days. And if early morning was a problem on some days, I would run back home post work and evening coffee. My weekend runs are more leisurely and allow me to catch up with my weekly dose of celluloid! Since getting anywhere in the city takes up most time, I run the distance, rather, get to my destination.

The difficult thing about endurance running is the time that one needs to set aside for it. My usual weekday runs are between 11-14kms and weekend runs are longer. The days I am running I need to set aside a minimum of seven hours of sleep, as the body needs to be fresh and well rested.

I try to run about 50-60km per week all year round. I don't believe in overtraining and am very careful about not going overboard with running. I have stayed relatively injury free for the last three-four years. Even before big multi stage marathons like the Kerala ultra, I ensured that I do a max of 150km in seven days or 300km in 15 days about 45 days before any big event. This is to ensure that my body is adequately prepared for it, and that I don’t carry any injury into the race (should something happen).

Though many people do more runs to train before a big race, my take is different. Having said that, each runner has his/her distinct style of training, and it is best to listen to what your body is telling you.

Most importantly, it is critical to remember that when one is participating in a race which involves difficult conditions, some sort of isolation, and several days, there is more than just the body that one needs to prepare!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

On your mark… A day-wise lowdown on what life at MDS was all about

We got to the campsite on day minus 1. It was a 6-hour drive from Ouarzazate, the nearest town and airport. We had to undergo two days of acclimatization in the desert, before we started with our race on day 1. We reached the desert at around 5pm in the evening. It took longer than expected and involved a lot of waiting as we had to take open military trucks from the single lane highway, where the luxury Volvo bus dropped us. These trucks were required for the last few miles through a stony trail and sand sections.

The first night was very cold – with temperatures dropping to single digits – making things quite difficult for everyone, especially me, as I was carrying a sleeping bag which is good enough only for 15d Celsius. Thankfully, I was carrying my poncho (rain wear) as backup in case it got too cold inside the sleeping bag; it would add another synthetic layer to keep the cold away. I was also carrying a sleeping mat this time, so as to insulate the cold. Under real conditions, the floor was not cold at all but it was very stony, so the mat helped protect my back from the uneven surface.

On day 0, we had to go through our technical and medical report checks, to ensure that our calories were in place. We had to carry a minimum of 12k calories of food for the six days. I had budgeted for more, as 12k would never be enough! We would be burning about 5k+ cals a day. Having said that, each extra kilo cal means that little extra weight on my back! I settled for about 14.3k cals in my backpack. Along with checks, we had to surrender all our belongings other than our backpack. All of this was sent back to Ouazazat. From then on, it was just us with our packs, before race day, stage 1.

I surrendered my extra clothes and big backpack and managed to clear all the technical controls (They check if we are carrying all the compulsory gear like compass, anti venom kit, torch, headlamp, lighter… Additionally, they give us an emergency flair, road book – to show the path and route for each stage, and a big packet of salt tablets). I was also able to buy alcohol pellets from the gift shop, which was selling MDS merchandise like scarves, MDS tees, backpacks etc. This was a huge relief as I would no longer have to hunt for wood each day after running a tiring stage. But these alcohol pellets don’t generate lot of heat, so one needs to be patient and burn 4-5 pellets to heat a 500gm container of water in an aluminium can.

My first Man v/s Wild moment happened on day 0. One of the Austrian runners, who had lost his checked-in baggage walked into our tent to check if we had an extra pair of gaiters. Gaiters are very helpful in keeping sand out of your shoes, and are especially helpful if one is blister prone. He tried hard but could not source them. While pondering on alternate solutions, I got an idea to actually stitch one pair for him with cloth as I was carrying spare Velcro as back up for my used pair of gaiters. My tent-mate Felix suggested one better: he asked this Austrian runner to buy two buffs from the MDS gear shop, and I stitched Velcro on them and prepared gaiters for him. Starting off by helping a fellow runner, the resourcefulness, and the sense of camaraderie was a great feel-good factor and helped boost my confidence further.

The second night in the dessert was better, as in not so cold and based on weather reports, things were likely to stay that way. I was feeling quite confident after reading the road book and the distances mentioned in it. However, as you will read my posts, you will realise how shocked I was.

Day 1
Start of day 1, I was pretty gung ho, sure that I could manage the 40km average per day in about 6hrs or so on most days and the long stage (overnight) would be the only real hurdle I would encounter. My ego and confidence was crushed pretty quickly at stage 1 as I found it almost impossible to run during the day. I had to walk almost all of it and I took 7hrs+. It was far more difficult and 12kg backpack felt overwhelming. I remember telling my friend and only contact to the outside world – who was relaying my daily updates via twitter and FB – that it was far tougher than what I expected and it really shook me on at first stage.

This got me thinking about how to reduce the weight. That night, I realised that the only thing that was getting reduced was less than 400gm of food. Everything else would stay with me till the end of the race. Thankfully, the weather was quite comfortable in the night and I was able to pack in good amount of rest, 9hrs+ of sleep.

 Day 2
The second day was equally tough with three hills to conquer. Yet, the climbs were very rewarding and fulfilling, I really felt challenged and things started to fall in place in my head. Even though I was again walking almost all of the stage, these 30kms were very demanding and everybody was slow. This stage also saw a very high number of drop outs. It took me nearly 7hr 40mins to complete stage 2. This was the slowest and the most difficult 30km of my life. Also, one of the most fulfilling ones perhaps. This marked the turnaround. For the first time in two days, I was enjoying the race; it had stopped being a burden. The backpack also started feeling more comfortable. I was feeling a little feverish that evening, which is normal during these races; I took a Crocin and all was well with the world again. I slept well. I have specifically avoided pain killers – cream or oral medication – during all my runs, as I prefer dealing with pain instead of merely masking it!

Day 3
Things were much better now. I was getting used to the weight on my back. My confidence and enthusiasm had returned and I was finally well trained and ready to take MDS on! I realised that this should have been my condition before I started the race, but well, what is it that they say about better being late? ;)

I was finally able to run certain stretches with flat ground (read stony trails) and downhills. My pace was improving and I was exploiting the first 10-12km before the first check point when my legs were fresh and was carrying less water. After the first stage, they would usually give us three litres, which would again make the pack quite heavy.

I started talking to more runners. A li’l difficult to remember names though. Being the only runner from India, I was spotted and noticed. Other countries had significant representation, about 300 each from France and Britain, and most other countries had 10-40runners each. People found it very surprising that a country of one billion plus produced only one runner at MDS! The usual India references were Kerala, Goa, IT industry, Shantaram, tropical weather and rich Indian culture. There were no ‘elephant on road’, poverty, noise, pollution references, even though quite a few of them had visited some parts of India on a holiday or a work trip.

By now, I was enjoying and feeling very comfortable. The long stage no longer seemed intimidating and I was actually looking forward to it. My position on the leader board as well as average pace was improving with each stage, all of this added to my confidence for the long stage.

Day 4 – The overnight stage
The long stage was something I had mentally prepared for and by now, I had a definite strategy in place. Given my pace of run-walk and energy levels, I was actually getting each passing day, both mentally and physcially and the conditions (the hard sun and terrain). The heat stopped bothering me and I discovered a rhythm: I was poppping two salt tablets every hour along with my rationed water and drinking about 3-4 half a litre packs of Gatorade, to bring some variety and add some calories to my diet (as Gatorade are full of sugar, in addition to basic salts/electrolyte).

It was during the last 20k of the race that I experienced my second Man vs Wild moment. We were going mainly through stony trails, which made footing a huge issue as one is tired and sleepy, and visibility is quite low with our headlamps. Suddenly, I noticed my tent-mate Felix walking next to me. Otherwise a very strong young fellow (he has completed two full Ironmans), I saw him frail and extremely tired. The worrying bit was the fact that his eyes were not able to focus, which clearly displayed his disorientation. Thankfully, he was able to speak properly and was coherent. I knew that the only way he would complete the last 20k at one go would be if I accompanied him all through. I kept a close watch and pushed him to complete the stage with me. He would otherwise have had to take a break for a few hours at the last checkpoint about 10k before finish, to regain strength and energy.

This was a huge blessing for both of us, as I got an opportunity to actually focus on how to help him and push him to complete the stage, instead of worrying about my pains and sleep deprivation. This made me stronger, as now I was not just responsible for my own long stage completion, but also his. And it is situations like these which bring out the best in me, when my mind is working hyperactive. I started keeping small milestones for him to complete, I included short 10sec breaks in between, gave him my stock of GU gels and Snickers, which I had specifically kept for myself for the last few kilometres of the long stage, as I was sure my energy levels would dip towards the end of the long stage. I was hoping for a 15-16hr finish for this long stage (It had a 34hr cut off for completion) and had kept an 18hr target for myself. Anything beyond this would mean that water provided for the stage would not be enough and I would need to take extra water, incurring huge time penalties, and not living to my own expectations (I wanted to complete it with the rationed water).

We pushed and we pushed and finally, completed the stage a little after midnight, taking about 15hr 43minutes to complete the stage!

Day 5
After the long stage, when I woke up at 6.30am in the morning, I was feeling fit enough to run again on the rest day! The day was otherwise slow and sluggish, very sunny and nothing much to do. My otherwise alert mind was on a forced holiday, even though the body and mind were ready for more. Given this state of mind, I managed to forget my iPhone 4S in the makeshift toilet for runners (which is basically is a small cubicle made of flex with a grill frame). In my rush to get back to the tent given the afternoon heat, I forgot the phone in the toilet cubicle, I took a short nap in the tent and only after I woke up did I realise the loss. I rushed to the toilet about 45mins afterwards only to realise that the phone was no longer there. I complained and registered at the lost and found counter. I was quite hopeful of getting it back as it was a toilet only used by runners, but that did not happen.

I am quite good at accepting this kind of loss, as I am quite absent minded and have lost similar stuff in the past. So, I quickly decided to put this behind me and focus on my race.

We had a surprise that evening: all the runners were offered a can of nicely refrigerated Coke. This was the best and most delightful bottle of soda I have ever had! After all, we had earned it after our tough and mentally demanding long stage!

Day 6
I was feeling super fit and good and was ready to smoke the last stage of timed race. It’s the marathon stage. I managed to complete the long stage and marathon stage before everyone else in my tent, except Timon from Austria, who was a top 60 finisher (and in a different league altogether). Timon was disqualified in the 2012 edition, as he was too slow to complete one of the stages. And the organizers have a firm policy to disqualify anyone who does not complete any of the stages within the designated time.

After the marathon stage, the race was over for all practical reasons and we were all delighted to say the least. All we could think of was the gourmand meal awaiting us that evening. This was followed by a special screening of MDS 2013 and then an all-night rock concert performed by an Irish band. Most runners were tired and decided to skip the concert. This was the first time the organisers had a rock band. On previous occasions, the organisers stuck to western classical by flying down a Philharmoic orchestra.

Day 7
Day 7 was the charity race day, non timed run, to support UNICEF. We were taking on the famous dunes of Merzouga, which can be as high as 150 meters. They have one of the highest dunes in the world! This was the place we experienced our first small sandstorm, which blew away a few tents and had us scurrying for cover inside our tents to protect our belongings from flying away. We saw one sleeping mat blown away by the wind and sand flying in the air for quite some time! It’s a pity none of us could capture that moment!

Soon, we were all shipped back to our hotels through luxury buses. The 6hr + long drive was tiring but something we were all looking forward to, for that long awaited shower after nine long days in the desert. And yes some unlimited supply of buffet food – the food at the camp even during the rest days was not unlimited, though a decent potion.