Graham and Jane in the Sahara

7 day Marathon des Sables in Morocco, by Jane Watt (Porter)

Jane sent this brief report mid-event. Her longer report is below.

To all Crusaders, Hill Runners and Friends please forward.

Greetings.

Gruelling day 4 but morale holding up. 51.2 miles in 18 hours but best finishing position yet. Temperatures in this hellhole 50?+. Now Graham realises that it is not all in the mind, training helps! Even on recovery day, even lying in the tent is too hot, people still coming in from yesterday's stage now, 31 hours later. Tomorrow is marathon day! What an experience, but not to be repeated. The rest of the gang in the tent, 5 Irish lads and 1 Welsh are a great bunch; Dave Keenan from Cork doing best lying 65th overall.

Dying for Saturday, Cold beer, Cold ANYTHING!!!

Thanks everyone for all your support,

Best Wishes, Jane and Graham

***********************

Jane and Graham moved up 74 places to position with that effort on the long stage which they completed in 17 hours 57 mins. While they didn't drop places overall, problems on the last two days slowed them. Graham Porter finished in 274th place with Jane Watt one place better in 273th. Total Time 45 hours 26 minutes 48 seconds - 26 hours behind the winner Lahcen Ahansal of Morocco, while Italian Franca Fiaconni took the winner's laurels for women. Fiacconi has a murky athletics background - a New York marathon winner, she refused repeated requests to take blood tests prior to the Sydney Olympics and was excluded from the Italian team.

The scorching temperatures took both physical and mental tolls on the entry during the third and fourth stages on Wednesday and Thursday. Dozens of runners dropped from the race from exhaustion and dehydration, and one German competitor went berserk halfway through the 24-mile third stage. After throwing his backpack to the ground, he paced back and forth yelling unintelligibly until several members of the medical team were able to wrestle him to the ground to administer a sedative........

Congratulations to Jane, Graham, and the rest of the Irish on surviving it. Here's Jane's report.

Marathon des Sables 2001

Report by Jane Watt.

(The Ultraloonies strike again!)

It was only 10 days since our return from Morocco where we had competed in the 150 mile Marathon des Sables in the Sahara. As we shivered on Killiney Hill on the first of the Summer (Summer??) Wednesday night hill runs we yearned for the hot desert sun ? or maybe we didn?t!

This years race, the 16th Marathon des Sables, started on Sunday, April 1st, but we and the other 160 or so from these Islands flew out from Gatwick on the previous Thursday. Besides ourselves there were 5 other Irish from south of the border, all much younger than ourselves - Ray Murphy and Graeme Small and Gerry Quinn. Tom Curran (25) hails from Killarney and Dave Keenan from Cork celebrated his 33rd birthday the day after the race. So at 50 we were known as Uncle Graham and Auntie Jane! The Northern Ireland contingent included Terry Magowan (61) and son Dave as well as Shirley who had only taken up running last October! There was John and Steve who for some reason they couldn?t explain themselves were doing this for the second time. There were those of us who had only finalised our kit in the last week and there was Rodger who had every last detail worked out months ago. There were Tough Army guys and there were "The Tuf Mothers", a team of three English mothers of young children.

There was an air of nervous tension as this motley crew landed in Ouarzazat having flown over the snowcapped Atlas mountains. The midday temperature was a pleasant 25C but even as we queued outside the terminal for passport control we felt the temperature rise. As we sat into the bus which was to transport us to the hotel Graham looked apprehensive and commented that maybe he should have done a bit more training.

We had brought all our food with us in its original packaging so that the customs could be reassured that our Smash and Knorr dehydrated Quicklunches were unlikely to bring in FMD. That night in the hotel bedroom we were busy repackaging everything into plastic bags in individual portions ? we had to be self sufficient in the desert for 6 days. First aid equipment had also to be organised. Oh how heavy it all seemed! Graham spent the next 2 days obsessively lifting and assessing the weight of everyone elses packs. The heavier they were the happier he felt.

Next morning a 5 hour bustrip brought us east to Elfoud and beyond. We were then taken by truck to our first bivouac in the heart of the dessert with the massive sand dunes of the Chebbi Erg threathening in the distance. That evening and the next day we were well dined (and even wined) by the organisation as we acclimatised to our surroundings. Home for the next 8 nights was a primitive bivouac made of sacking, open front and back, which we shared with the 5 other Irish lads and our favourite Welshman, Andy. Saturday was spent refining our kit and preparing our feet. In the afternoon we checked in and had our medical records examined. We were each issued with a flare, a safety blanket and salt tablets. Then came the point of no return as we handed in the rest of our luggage to be transported back to Ouarzazat. At the weigh-in we were pleased to find that our packs were lighter than those of our tentmates ? total weight without water was 10.5 kilos of which 4.2 kilos was food.

The race begins

6am, Sunday April 1st: The Tuareg (local nomads) ? the "army in blue" advanced and took the roof (such as it was) from over our heads as we rubbed the sleep from our eyes. The 3 hours to the off passed quickly and now we stood nervously on the startline listening to speeches and advice from Patrick Bauer, the race director and creator of the event.

It was a relief to start as we waved to the helicopters hovering overhead. This was an "easy" 25K stage to break us in gently but the heavy packs were soon cutting into our shoulders. Sponges bought in Ouarzazat were soon attached on to the straps with some ducktape and this helped greatly. The first checkpoint and water station was at 10K. Early running was on firm gravel but progress through the softer sand was more tiring. We had filled our water bottles (2 x 750ml ) with the 1.5litre of bottled water we were issued in the morning and we made sure to have this fully consumed by the time we reached the checkpoint. This disciplined us to keep well hydrated. At each checkpoint we had our plastic card punched to show we had received our water ration and the number of each competitor was recorded. Doctors were on hand to keep a close eye on the condition of the runners. They had the power to pull people out of the race if they thought it necessary. After the second control (21K) we entered our first area of serious sand dunes. Forget Dollymount or Brittas ? the sand here is fine, dry and powdery and impossible to run through especially in the hot midday sun. This 2K section gave us a foretaste of what lay ahead tomorrow in the Chebbi Erg.

We finished in approx 3h 40min, collected the 3 remaining bottles of our day?s water ration and collapsed into the shade of our bivouac. Everyone in the tent was reasonably happy with their day. Welsh Andy was flying and Corkman Dave was also doing especially well. Having rested and had our recovery drink (no it wasn?t a pint of Guinness!) we surveyed the enormous dunes closeby which we had to tackle the next day. Having had a tasty meal of curry rice and smash we were snuggling into our sleeping bags by 8pm.

Day Two

Stage 2 was 34K, the dreaded "Dunes Day". We had a 2K easy jog to the base of the dunes where progress slowed to a walk. A further 6.5K brought us to the first checkpoint where helicopters had flown in water (only 0.5 litres per person ). After this the going got even tougher ? up and down, up and down all on impossibly soft sand ? real Lawrence of Arabia stuff but then he had a camel (wimp!).The trick was to try and run ?or do I mean walk ? on untrodden sand, a bit difficult at times with 200 ?300 others ahead of you! We saw a flare go up indicating a competitor in distress and soon a helicopter came to the rescue. At last, shortly before midday, we could see the end of the dunes and a flat stony plain below. Half an hour later we made it to checkpoint 2 (15K). A short rest in the shade of a landrover and by 1pm we were on our way again. We crossed the wadi and climbed up onto the stony plain . The runners by now were stretched out in an endless straight line as far as the eye could see, mountains in the distance to our left just discernable in the heat haze. After an hours running nothing much had changed. The next checkpoint was at 25K . We now had only 9K to go but the sting in the tail was the final 3.5K again on sand dunes in the the intense afternoon sun. Here we met Oliver, at least 6?6" and of rugby player build, who was nearly out of water. He argued that people his size should be given a bigger water ration so I gave him some of mine. Maybe I should have also given him some of the weight in my pack to compensate for my smaller size! At last we left the sand behind and jogged the final kilometre to the finish.

The Race Continues

We were now well into the routine of the race ? up at 6am with the dawn, breakfast, pack bag, collect water ration, fill water bottles (one with isotonic energy drink) and then depart at 9am. The first few K were usually on fairly firm ground and then it often changed to softer sand as we progressed from one wide flat valley to the next, barren mountains in the distance with the odd interesting rock feature. Day 3 (38K) saw the temperature go up to 51C as we crossed a huge dried out lake, climbed over a small rocky ridge and dropped into the next valley. Here in a small oasis was a village and signs of agriculture. Some enterprising locals were selling bottles of coke and fanta. To buy it would be totally against the rules but we saw one competitor succomb to temptation! At about 3.30pm we collapsed wearily into our bivouac but soon a lively wind blew up sending sand all over us. Before we knew it the whole tent fell down on top of us. We struggled to work out the mechanics of re-erecting our primitive shelter, all of us in surprisingly good humour considering the gruelling day we had had.

At this stage Andy was lying thirty somethingth and Dave was about 65th. This meant that tomorrow Andy would start with the elite runners ? the top 50 men and top 5 women ?three hours after the rest of us on the 82K stage. By now Andy?s feet were badly blistered ( as were Ray?s )

The long stage was indeed very long. Starting at 9am the first section was reasonable underfoot, but then there were long straight stretches on very giving ground, mirages glistening in the distance. The heat was again intense. Once more Oliver was in trouble with water. He was told that he could get an extra bottle but it would cost him a one hour time penalty ? he did without! At about 2pm, just before checkpoint 3 we saw the lead runners of the elite group glide by as if they were out for a short afternoon jog. At last by 5pm the temperature began to be manageable. Now we could see the landrovers on a distant hillock marking checkpoint 4 (45K) but it took a further hour to reach it. We were now just over half way but we decided (Graham protesting!) to press on to checkpoint 5 at 56K before taking a major break. This stage was scenically more interesting than before and with the field now widely dispersed one had the sensation of being alone in ths desert. An hour later we were descending to another huge dried out lake. Darkness was falling but now the yellow markers had glowsticks attached to guide us. Soon the lights of control 5 were visible but again it seemed to take an age to get there arriving in the dark at 8.30pm. Here we took a welcome rest, cooked up another tasty smash and quicklunch meal and carried out some running repairs on the feet.

We departed an hour later anxiously searching for glowsticks. We had heard during our break that some of the glowsticks on the previous section had been stolen by children from some nearby settlement but fortunately for us they were still in place on this stage. However the lights of the patrolling landrovers were a serious distraction and did not help our night vision. The ground was still firm dry cracked earth so we managed to run for a few K. But the effort of a long day in the heat was taking its toll and when we met Ray, heroically persisting on his damaged feet, we reverted to walking. It was close to midnight when we reached control 6 at 68K. "Only" another 14K to go! Graham demanded tea and a strong wind blew up as I tried to boil water in the lee of a tree whilst being photographed repeatedly by a cameraman. As we prepared to leave Tom and Andy arrived. Poor Andy had started the day well with the elites but his sore feet had got the better of him and he had had to do a lot of walking (like the rest of us mere mortals!)

The next 3 hours were the longest and mentally most tortuous in my life. Imagine an almost featureless moonlit desert with no way of measuring progress except to know that you were heading for yet another glowstick. Each competitor also carried one of these ghastly green illuminations stuck in the back of his pack and these could be picked out occasionally weaving slowly across the plain. "We must be out half an hour" I thought. I looked at my watch ? only 10 minutes gone! Each 10 minutes passed equally slowly. We spoke little, heads down concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. Could this be hell, condemned to do this for eternity. Glowstick after glowstick with still no end in sight.

By now Graham was unable to even drink water ? every time he tried he got sick. Then at about 2.20am I saw a distant glow of lights. Could it be, it must be, the finish. 20 minutes later it seemed no nearer ? maybe it was just some landrovers. But no ? by 2.45am we could clearly see the welcome sight of "l?Arrivee". In 15 minutes we had crossed the line, collected our water ration and collapsed into bed. Ray, Andy and Tom had just got in a short time ahead of us. The only man still to arrive was Gerry. He was very dehydrated and had had to stop and have an IV at an earlier checkpoint. (Each competitor is allowed up to 2 intravenous drips during the week before being retired from the race). He eventually made it to the tent at5.30am. At this stage we were probably one of the few tents to have everybody back.

Thursday was a rest day for us but all morning and afternoon we could see weary competitors struggle the last kilometre to the finish. Most of the day was spent lying in the shade of the bivouac drifting in and out of sleep. By early afternoon I managed to rouse myself. With a bottle of water I wandered forth a few hundred metres into the desert, stripped off and had a shower and hairwash ?oh what luxury! It?s amazing what you can achieve with 1.5 litres of water. I returned to camp and managed to semi wash my shorts and top in a plastic bag using my last few drops of shower gel. The other main activity of the day was to queue for an hour to send an e-mail. The final excitement was the arrival of the last finishers (including Shirley who grabbed all the media attention) at 8.30pm just ahead of the camels who act as sweepers, some 35 and a half hours after the start. There was horn blowing and flashing of lights and TV cameras everywhere. The whole campsite came up to the finish to cheer them in ?an emotional moment.

 And Now The Marathon

Two more stages left, the first of these being the standard marathon distance of 42K. Temperatures were well over 40C by 9am but we set off in good fettle running most of the first 20K to the second checkpoint. We now seemed to have adapted well to the heat and to running with packs on our backs. We left control 2 shortly before midday but it was getting hotter and hotter. It was an interesting section through a relatively fertile valley (by Saharan standards anyway) with quite a lot of habitation on both sides, date palms everywhere and quite a few small irrigated and cultivated fields.. We eventually left this behind and crossed another barren stony plain. As the temperature rose still further so progress slowed. By the time we got to control 3 we headed straight for the shade of a bivouac and rested for 20 minutes. There we met Ray doing likewise. Surely this must be the hottest day yet. We learned later that the temperature had gone up to 60C

The last 9K took two hours to complete. Keeping hydrated was becoming more of a problem. The bottles which we collected at each station was sitting in the sun. So the water we were drinking was at a temperature of around 50C and not very tempting. Lemon Isostar at this temperature was even worse! A good deal of the water ended up over our heads and clothing. Oh Andy Pandy we missed you with your water bucket and sponges! (for those of you that don?t know this refers to Andrew O?Mullanes efforts at keeping us cool when we ran the Wicklow Way ? we thought it was hot that day at 27C) We struggled over the finishline to clock a personal worst marathon time of 7hours, 26 minutes! But come to think of it, having run 180K in the previous 5 days, running on sand with a back pack in temps of 50-60C gave us some excuse.

Having been clocked in we collected our water ration (now upped to 4 bottles on account of the extreme heat) and staggered to the bivouac. The heat had taken its toll. This was the first evening that I found it hard to eat dinner and skipped on the smash. It was a relief to know that tomorrow was the last day and to dream of all the COLD drink, real food, beds, chairs, cool buildings and even bathrooms we could enjoy in 24 hours time.

The Last Day

Saturday, 9am ? 22K to go. The blister on my heel has been successfully treated. We both have had only relatiely minor problems with our feet. Only one checkpoint today and then it?s straight through to the finish in the town of Tazzarine. We mixed jogging and walking. Graham who was not feeling well even before the start was moving less speedily than before. By the time we reached Tazzarine he was completely overcome with emotion. The last 2K were on tarmac road, his favourite surface, but I ended up pulling him along like a snivelling child! Other runners stopped and gave him the last of their water. Finally we reached the finish line and were kissed and hugged by the organiser, Patrick Bauer. We were presented with finishers medals and would you believe another bottle of warm mineral water. But young Graham came to the rescue and located a couple of cans of ,yes, COLD BEER!!!!!

The Results

Overall our tent had performed well: Andy 67th, Dave, best of the Irish, 73rd, young Graham, 175th, Ray, 218th, Tom 270th, myself and Graham 273th and Gerry 369th. Of th 630 starters 547 finished. The winners time was just over 18 hours and the longest time was74 hours. We finished in 45 hours and were in the top half of the field. We were happy enough considering Graham had had a number of interruptions to training due to injury which didn?t help me either.

We?re glad we did it. It was quite an experience. Will we do it again? Definitely not! There are other challenges out there ? just watch this space!

Many thanks to all of you out there who supported us, fundraised, sold tickets attended functions and e-mailed us in the desert. Special thanks must go to Alan Cox and to Ann Marie without whose efforts we would be seriously in debt and also to our long suffering coach, Lindie who having been witness to the ups and downs of our training , was relieved that we made it to the finish at all.

Jane Watt
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