Running the toughest foot-race in the world

This year Mark Bartram took on the gruelling Marathon des Sables in the Sahara desert to raise funds for Wooden Spoon Eastern Counties and Walking with the Wounded.

In April of this year I ran the Marathon Des Sables in aid of the Wooden Spoon and Walking with the Wounded. The MDS, as it is widely known, is a multi-stage ultra-marathon that involves running the equivalent of six marathons in six days across part of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. It has been described as the “toughest foot-race in the world”, although there are now other contenders offering ever more extreme challenges.

Marathon des Sables

Mark Bartram takes on Marathon des Sables for charity

Running the MDS was something that I had added to my bucket list a few years ago after my brother completed it in 2009, but the reason I finally signed up for the 2018 race was because of a talk given by Duncan Slater, who represents Walking with the Wounded, about his motivations for running the race, shortly before he became the first double leg amputee to complete the gruelling challenge. I felt that if someone as courageous as Duncan could complete the race on prosthetic legs then a moderately fit person in their mid-fifties ought to be able to do it too.

Therefore, in the Spring of this year, I flew out to Morocco along with approximately 350 other British and Irish competitors all eager to test themselves to the limit of physical endurance. Whilst I had run long distances in the past they had all been in one go and I was apprehensive about how my body would react to having to get up and run again every day for almost a week in rather inhospitable conditions. The relentless nature of the race is compounded by the fact that you have to carry all your food, bedding, spare clothing and any other equipment you may require for the entirety of the race. This takes some considerable planning and packing skills and an ability to ruthlessly decide if your kit items are essential or not. I started the race with my pack weighing just short of 10KG, without the water which was supplied on a daily basis.

On 8th April 2018, the 33rd MDS got under way with 997 competitors running (and walking!) across the hot and dry Sahara Desert. The first day was a relatively straightforward 20 miles but by the end of the four hours I took to complete it, the warning signs of the toll the race would take on my body were beginning to show themselves. The problem I had was not one of fatigue, although I did get very tired, but rather the effect that running in temperatures of over 35 degrees was having on my feet, which seemed to be assuming the reactions of a tomato immersed in boiling water – all the skin on my toes was peeling off. By the end of the week I had no skin left on any of my toes and six of my toenails would subsequently fall off in the days after the race. As your skin is a pretty sensitive part of your body the debilitating effect of running the race, and even walking about the camp, cannot be underestimated. However, I managed to keep going and survived climbing the many gebels (hills) and the “long day” (55 miles) in up to 39℃ and I completed the race, crossing the line with most of my tent mates in an overall position of 266th, which I was delighted with.

The MDS was undoubtedly the most difficult challenge I have undertaken but it was also the most rewarding in terms of the other people I met. The camaraderie amongst the competitors is fantastic, everybody supporting each other by lending kit, food and equipment, but more importantly the emotional support offered through constant encouragement. There are people who put themselves through incredible discomfort to complete the event, several of which had physical disabilities or were of quite a senior age, these people were truly inspiring and a pleasure to meet.

Taking part in the Marathon Des Sables exposes you to great physical hardship but also to the best aspects of human courage, determination and selfless humanity that I have ever experienced. Raising money for the Wooden Spoon seemed an entirely appropriate way of making my MDS adventure more worthwhile as it represents all the values the MDS personifies and has long been a charity I have supported and admired.