Mds - The full story!

Placed: 339 overall, 42 hours 12 minutes, 5.05 kph 

I'm back and pretty much all in one piece!

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone for your interest and the many e-mails I received when I was in the desert. They were a real motivator, particular the 'FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION' message; as if I was even thinking of not finishing!

You will be able to follow my exploits by the day using the navigation below, I've even managed to upload some exciting video clips so turn on your speakers.

As with any marathon, the first one is for experience, the second is for racing so I'm reasonably happy with my result.  But due to foot problems I was not able to move as fast as I would have liked, plus the weather forced me to choose a conservative pace in order to reserve my water whereas in hindsight I could have gone a bit faster. It was however an amazing experience and I am already planning the next adventure and my next Marathon des Sables in 2009 or 2010. 

I have so far raised just over £1,500 for Facing Africa so thank you to everyone who has donated. 

My Mds race story

In April 2005 I decided that after 10 years of dreaming, I would enter the 2006 Marathon des Sables.  But with only a year of solid running under my belt would I be ready in time?  I would however add, that I had been mountain biking on and off for about 10 years and had cycled across South America for 9 months self-supported so as far as the technical knowledge was concerned, I was pretty confident.  Quiet a few Polaris events and forthcoming LAMM and KIMM events would help me hone my kit but without the legs this could turn out to be pretty useless!

So, first things first, get my blood group.  Simple call to the doctor and that would be the form completed and on its way.  Oh no Mr Gold, we don’t keep that information so you will need to come in and let us take a blood sample and send this off for analysis.  £50 please as it will be checked by a private consultant rather than NHS as there is nothing wrong with you!  Mentally maybe, but physically not.

We’ll give you a call as soon as the results arrive.  Anyway, I waited and waited until I could wait no more.  I rang to find out it had come back the following day and they were waiting for me to call.  By the time I had the form into Best of Morocco (BoM), the event was full and I was 15th on the waiting list.  How happy was I – not!  BoM told me not to worry as they generally get around 50 drop outs each year anyway.

At the end of a 7 day mountain bike ride from North to South Wales in August last year, I got the call I had been waiting for – I WAS IN!!

Better get training
I was already training for the Cardiff marathon in October so would start my specific training for Mds after that.  Cardiff was a disappointment only clocking 3’ 48” which was not close enough to my target of sub 3’ 30” but did make me focus on the Mds a lot harder.

First of all, I got myself a coach from the Joe Beer ‘camp’.  Will Newton ( really helped me get my training sorted.  After five months of long slow distance with a couple of speed/endurance tests thrown in each month the final test was to be the infamous Ivanhoe20 (Ashby20) road race.  After some deliberation I decided to tackle this ‘undulating’ course with 12lb of weight on my back.  It is our local club race (Ivanhoe Runners), I know the course well as I run it quite often and, as it was the public race (Ashby20) the next day I would not get another chance before Morocco for a 20 mile run.

Ran better than ever, finishing easily in 2’ 47” having left behind faster marathon runners, finishing the last 4 miles in 32”.  I was now ready both mentally and physically for Morocco.

Training plan
My plan consisted of 5 days per week with 2 rest days.  Monday was typically my first rest day, Tuesday was a test or 45” run, Wednesday 1’ 15”, Thursday 1’ cycle, Friday 1’ 30”, Saturday rest day and Sunday was the long day 3‘ to 4’.  All training other than loop or ramp test was maximum 75% HR, long slow distance.

I have to admit that I was sceptical as to how well all this slow running would work but it really did.  My ramp tests improved considerably over the 5 months and as detailed above, I ran the Ivanhoe20 23 minutes quicker than last time even with a ruc sac.

I started using my ruc sac in the New Year and increased the weight steadily over a few weeks until I was running 3 times per week including Sunday with 6-7kgs, just over half my target maximum weight of 11kg including water.

What would I do differently?
·    I would use my larger shoes for about 2 months of final training to find hotspots etc.
·    I would test and re-test my shoe/gaiter combination on real sand dunes and re-test until they let very little sand into them.
·    I would do an 8 hour fast walk with full weight at least 3 times over that last 8 weeks.
·    I would train with and use trekking poles.
·    I would do a lot more taping of the entire foot and run with this in the larger shoes to test for hotspot prevention.

All in all however, I was fit, strong, had no injuries whatsoever during the training period and was running better than at any time.

What a joke this turned out to be!  As I had a resting heart rate of 42, and I’m 41, the analysis decided there was something pathologically wrong with me.  The Dr told me it was nothing to worry about and had it checked and signed off by a cardiologist.  I was quite worried about this though as the French are renowned for being slightly anal about the ECG’s.

As it happened, they hardly looked at it.

Last few days
Luckily my wife and kids flew off to Spain four days before I was to leave for Morocco.  I had not at this point even packed my ruc sac so had no idea if it would all fit!

I must have spent three days and nights packing and re-packing so many times until I was happy.  I had a spreadsheet with every item of food weighed and checked for calorific value and every other item weighed.  A mate even pointed out that the mug on one of my photo’s weighed 80g.  No way I thought, no way, it almost floats.  But I had to check it now!  100g, there was no way I was taking that so I rummaged through the kids box and found a small plastic cup that weighed only 25g.  The mug however did not get any further than the first night bivi – more about this later.

Even though you probably know this, you still pack too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right things!  Just take too much with you and do your final packing in the desert as you get a whole day to do this, and it’s actually great fun and a real icebreaker in the tent.

First aid kit
Make sure you have some really strong anti-inflammatory tablets (we had 600mg Brufen) a hypodermic needle to drain your blisters (normal needles are not sharp enough and the hole is not big enough) and plenty of zinc oxide tape.  At least one dehydration sachet per day is also a good idea although you are given plenty of salt tablets.  I also took some TCP in a small Boots travel spray bottle and mixed it 50/50 with water, a real winner.  

You will be able to get tape from Doc Trotters but they are French and do not always make it easy for you.  Be prepared to haggle with them and maybe even go back an hour later to get some more.  I would now always carry enough for a complete taping as back-up having been ripped off by Doc’s one evening which left me with very little for the next day and I then paid the ultimate price – massive blisters!

Allow yourself one or two baby wipes per day and some toilet roll.  I also took a small bottle of hand gel to clean my hands after visiting the desert each morning.  I’m pleased to say I never did need my Imodium tablets although the Army lads took one Imodium every day in advance of any problems.


They did dig some slit trenches for the first few days but then didn’t both as any inhibitions had gone by this point and with flat open camp sites there is nowhere to squat and hide so you just tend to walk 50 metres and get on with it, generally within talking distance of the next person!

Learn how to tape your feet and I mean really learn.  You will get blisters where you have never had them before so my advice is learn how to tape the entire foot in advance of getting to the desert.

My biggest mistake.  I wore Asics trail shoes which had a soft sole and on 40C+ heat this did not shape up well on the constant rocky/stony ground.

Do you need a size too big?  Absolutely, maybe more!  They start off too big and you get blisters from your feet moving so I would suggest you need to do at least 100 miles in your ‘too big’ shoes to find out where the hot spots are.  You may want to start with two pairs of socks or maybe better with an extra inner sole.  As your feet swell you can then start creating space by removing a pair of socks or the inner sole.  After the big day, my feet begin to swell quickly and considerably.  On the last day I even removed the original inner sole to create much needed space.  Although the damage had already been done by this stage, the extra few millimetres were much needed and were the difference between a 7-mile run and a 7-mile walk on the last day.  Being able to run the entire last day was an amazing feeling.


I used the Raidlight gaiters that were actually very good other than two key points.  First, they attach to the laces at the toe end so pull against this and create a sand hole.  Second, they are hard to get off as they fit like a sock around the ankle.  When you have blisters, getting them off is damned hard and painful.

So, I would have gaiters that are attached to the side of the shoe.  Some people had these stitched on by a local saddler or glued them on themselves.  A lot of gaiters did however come lose so the saddler option does seem quite good.

Some people had high gaiters, some low.  To be honest I would say the low gaiter is the answer.  Chris in our tent had a mini gaiter that had a Velcro strap around his ankle and a front zip which worked very well.

My strongest advice would be to go find the sandiest sand dunes you can, and run up and down them to see how much sand gets in.  If after 20 minutes you have more than a few grains, try and find something that works better.  I did not prepare for the sand well enough and really did pay the price.  So many others paid the ultimate price by failing to complete the event due to bad feet.

You have been warned.  This was the single biggest mistake I made and cannot emphasise it enough.  Believe you me; the pain lingers in the mind!

The airport
Gatwick is a shit hole.  Enough said!  You do see many other Mds competitors with their Raidlight sacs.  It is also a good place to meet up with people in advance and to start to get your tent group sorted out.

If you get there early you can even ask for exit seats as being a charter flight, they do not charge any extra for these.


The airport is about 5 minutes from the hotel and only costs about 50 Dirham (£3) by taxi.  Some people get to the hotel by taxi to save the 1-hour queue to check-in; well worth it.  You can change money at the airport; we were getting just over 15 Dirham for £1.  There were a few problems changing UK £’s as they prefer Euro’s or US Dollars but I personally didn’t have any problems whatsoever.

The hotel
Great hotel, the oranges in the various vases are free to take and taste fantastic.  Even better if you are in the queue to check-in.  If for any reason you get a bad room e.g. 1 x double, 1 x camp bed make sure you complain.  We did and got a suite.  BoM will support you on this issue as well.

Food is fantastic, all you can eat buffet although not too great for veggies.  There is a bar and swimming pool.  A beer costs 50 Dirham – it is a 5 star hotel remember!  They will take Euro’s as well as Dirham.  There is a nightclub in town that stays open until the early hours.

Gifts in Ouarzazate are not particularly cheap and they will let you walk if they can’t get a decent price.  Otherwise, there really is not a lot to spend your money on other than beer and a few gifts so changing £100 really is a enough.  The only time you may need money in the desert is if you don’t finish.


If you don’t manage to finish, you will have two options.  Stay on site and get fed by the organisers, driving to each new camp each day with the odd stop off to buy a few bits.  Or, get dropped off in the nearest town and make your own way back to Ouarzazate where you will also have to decide if you pay for another flight home.  You have 2 nights paid for so can still use these at the hotel but if you choose to wait for your original flight, you will need to pay for extra nights.  They do make you pay for failure!!