Marathon des Sables

I first started running in 2009 when I signed up for a 5K Race For Life with friends. Three months after that I ran my first 10k race, and less than a year later I completed the London Marathon. I’d found a real passion.

No one obsesses over time in ultras – it’s solely all about the distance

The more races I did though, the more bored I got of people asking about my marathon times, so decided to get into ultra marathons instead. No-one obsesses over time in "ultras" – it’s solely all about the distance.

The Ultimate Ultra

Devinder Bains marathon des sables

It was while training for my first ultra in 2012 (The Tribes Sport 50k in London) that I first heard about the Marathon Des Sables. Also known as The Toughest Race on Earth, it’s a gruelling 151-mile trek across the Sahara Desert.

So, obviously, I signed up for the waiting list. I didn’t think I’d get a place (there’s usually a two-year wait – which is about the amount of time needed to train for it) but just eight weeks before race day I was offered a last-minute spot.

I would be joining 871 other competitors. Among the 257 British entrants I was one of just 27 women who would put themselves through the completely self-sufficient race.

Over seven days, I would need to carry all my clothes, food and sleeping gear. The excitement of getting a place was almost greater than the creeping feeling of fear. Almost.

Training

[related_articles]I spent the next two months deciding what food, kit, cooking utensils and sleeping equipment to take. It’s important to intake around 4,000 calories a day while racing – so lightweight but high-fat, high-carb food is the best bet.

I packed high-fat pasta meals for dinner; gels, energy bars, sweets and shortbread for throughout the day; and protein shakes for post-run.

I attended daily sessions of Hot Bikram Yoga to prepare for the desert heat

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 knees a rest from pounding the streets of London.

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 to prepare for the desert heat.

The Race

Marathon des Sables

Once I got to the desert I was petrified. Everyone looked like a professional runner and I was surrounded by hulking men, many of them from the Army and Marines.

The night before the race I cried with fear

The night before the race I cried with fear – what on Earth had I got myself into? But my mind is stronger than my body, and I told myself that failure wasn’t an option. I had one very important thing on my side: I loved to run, and that’s exactly what I did

Day 1: 33.8km

We got our first taste of sand dunes… then more sand dunes, and then more sand dunes

We kicked off at 9am, and the main aim of the day was to finish feeling fresh for the rest of the week. After a flat start, we got our first taste of sand dunes… then more sand dunes, and then more sand dunes.

The weather was gradually heating up, and once it hit 44°C I decided to slow down and walk/run the rest of the day – not that I had much choice. Ahead of me lay a steep sandy hill, which involved lots of scrambling.

All in all it was a slow day, but the fear had started to subside into enjoyment.

Day 2: 38.5km

Day two was a long, hot and very gruelling slog. The temperature went over 50°C, and there were a few sandstorms thrown in for good measure. I stuck on my iPod, gritted my teeth and sang along to Dolly Parton to keep me going.

Back at the tent that night, I slowly peeled off my socks... It was not a pretty picture

Back at the tent that night, I slowly peeled off my socks... It was not a pretty picture. The little toe on my right foot was just a giant blister, the little toe on my left foot had no skin on it, nor had the middle toe. I also had blisters on my heels and both big toes!

I fell asleep worried about how I would run close-to-a-marathon the next day.

Marathon de Sables

Day 3: 35km

My rucksack felt heavier than ever – probably down to a mixture of tiredness and my increasingly sore back and neck. I bumped into two runners, Clare and Ben, who I’d chatted with on email before coming out to Morocco. It was good to have some company over the steep hills.

28 competitors had dropped out by the end of day three

We walked for most of the day, but with 5k to go we decided to run. My legs felt fresh and I was enjoying myself so I went faster still, sprinting over the day’s finish line.

It was a good day but there was bad news too: one of my tent-mates had dropped out, suffering from heatstroke. He wasn’t the only one: 28 competitors had dropped out by the end of day three.

Marathon des Sables

Day 4: 81.5km/Day 5: Rest Day

As I broke into a run I wanted to scream from the pain of the blisters. I slowed to a walk but even that was painful

Day four was one of the longest and hardest days of my life. As I broke into a run I wanted to scream from the pain of the blisters. I slowed to a walk but even that was painful. Was I really going to have to walk the full 50 miles?

The answer was no, I was going to have to shuffle, as after a few miles even walking was too painful. It was a day that fully tested my mental strength.

In the end I crossed the finish line at just after 8am the next morning. The stage had taken nearly 24 hours! But I had a smile on my face as the hardest part was over, and we now had a day off.

After that there was just a marathon to go, followed by a nine-miler on the last day! During the day off, I went to the mini-hospital on site. It took an hour to cut away all the blisters and get my feet bandaged up. The doctor started the treatment with the line: "I think you'd better take a painkiller..."

Marathon des Sables

Day 6: Marathon Stage

Despite the bandaged feet and lack of sleep, I wanted to get a good run in. As I stood on the start line, my rucksack feeling a little bit lighter than the days before, my iPod at the ready, I made myself a promise... Pain or not, I would run as far as I could.

It was a beautiful route and it didn’t even feel like a marathon because it was so much fun

So I did, and I enjoyed every minute. It was a beautiful route and it didn’t even feel like a marathon because it was so much fun. I had pushed my mind over the last few days and now, I wanted to push my body.

Day 7: 15.5km

It was the last day, just 15.5km, but there was the small matter of crossing the largest sand dunes in Morocco. Every time I got to the top of a high one all I could see were miles and yet more miles ahead. Then, just like that, from behind one vast dune appeared the finish line.

This was it. I was about to complete the 27th Marathon des Sables. I'd taken on the Sahara Desert and I’d won!

As I crossed the finish line I expected to feel relieved, but instead I felt content

As I crossed the finish line I expected to feel relieved, but instead I felt content. I'd had the time of my life. Yes, there were lows but they were outweighed by the highs. So as I accepted my medal from Patrick, the race organiser, I said a big thank you, not just for the medal but for the whole experience.

Would I do it again? Never say never!