MDS 2017 – Living the Dream. By Nathan Montague, 18th Male in Marathon Des Sables 2017.
I am not going to apologise for the cliché. But the MDS was and still is my dream race. Compared to Marmite (note tent no.109 mid-week discussion of this tasty treat!) it seems the consensus is there are lovers and haters. But for me I am the former and more so after experiencing a week in hell’s kitchen where I learnt so much about myself as an athlete and more importantly personally.
I am not going to lie and say MDS was a childhood dream. It wasn’t. Travelling to the Saharan Desert as an athlete to compete against some of the world’s best runners was beyond comprehension from a lad from a Swindon estate. However, my big dreams consisted of scoring at Highbury as a wannabe Ian Wright or Anders Limpar as I competed with my twin brother for the sporting bragging rights played out on a daily basis.
It was during this period, around 1995-96, where I first stumbled upon the Marathon of the Sands watching Gillette World Sports Special on a Saturday before going to play football for our club St. Josephs JFC. This stayed buried subconsciously in my mind’s eye though I could never have imagined being one of those athletes donning packs to take on the dunes, Jebels and heat of the Sahara. I didn’t even know what Ultra running was.
Which leads me to today. One week on from the long stage of the MDS sitting down contemplating my experiences of the previous week and my future in ultra running. One finger typing. Other arm cuddled round my five year old as we sit watching children’s TV on this Thursday morning. Since I got into multi-day running, I had found it a relative strength. The powers of toiling then recovering and doing it all over again, this race buried in the subconscious lifted into the present courtesy of the great races held by XNRG around the UK. However, barriers stood in the way. Financially, this race requires deep pockets. Far beyond my modest means and part of the reason I’m sure so many people are put off. Impossible. Just a dream. But after a few years and reasonable results within the UK I knew I had to test myself on a grander level and where else than the world’s most high profile stage race. I’m not getting any younger and it was important to take it on at the peak of my powers. I owed it to the people around me who had supported me for so much of my running life and I needed to test myself rather and not live with regrets. I had to make it happen. My one chance. My dream.
Personally and professionally the build-up was not bullet proof. My dream race was becoming a nightmare. Mesocycles of training inhibited with illness and injury. My plans for support leading into the race not quite coming to fruition. And some major upheaval personally. For each of those obstacles I am personally and solely responsible for but with the final 5-6 weeks prior to the race I set about preparing myself as best as possible in the time frame I had but with my eyes on my long term future and not with the risk of overcooking myself or worsening the existing injury I had suffered and more importantly balancing my personal life.
A conversation with a local newspaper journalist a couple of the weeks before the race had a huge impact on my mindset. We have been in contact for years and discussing the build up to this race he made a comment in summary which hit me like a hammer; “ Nathan, you are always so positive despite the setbacks”. It was a comment that resonated deep inside and I felt I needed to live my words intrinsically. This was not my dream build up. Not the perfect preparation I had hoped for my dream race. But it was still my dream race. And I was going to give it everything regardless.
And off I went Thursday morning from Gatwick airport to Morocco with 3 planes full of other British runners all with their own stories and dreams. Yes my goals were now more tempered. But my determination and motivation was still steadfast.
For all those who have not experienced this amazing race, Marmite comes to mind once again, this is where it all begins and though the last few days were haphazard with limited sleep, with tying loose ends, work and packing my bag till 1am the night before, MDS needed to accept me as I was. This was it. Regardless, it was going to get 100% of me.
I was strict with my compulsory gear. You must be. I wasn’t going to risk a time penalty. Given my personal ambitions and additionally team ambitions with Team UK, a team formed between myself, Mountain man Damian Hall and previous 11th place finisher and former elite triathlete Andrew Fargus.
The check in was epic and something I was worried about despite knowing I had everything needed. Apart from staff trying to weigh my racing shoes with racing pack and a random drugs test it was seamless and actually quicker than I thought it would be (MDS = lots of queueing!). 16 men and 4 elite women were selected for testing based on ITRA ranking points. The race is now part of the International Trail Running World Tour (ITWT) and I actually found it a reassuring step despite being singled out. Though you cant help feeling a little anxious when blood and hair samples are taken before a competition! It was great to know that our sport is also trying to protect its integrity and athletes. I understand it still has a long way to go procedurally and politically but at least this was a step.
Tent mates. Tent 109. This was one of the highlights of the week. I had started to formulate a mini group between Damian, Susie Chan and myself before the race but somehow sporadically an amazing band of brothers were formed. Our own stories, challenges and goals but shared purpose and inspiration from each other both by our own stories and overcoming the challenges daily. We were a team. From picking our faces up from the carpet after collapsing at the end of a day racing, sharing resources, nursing feet, mindsets, and fatigue and most of all, the whoops and cheers as we greeted each other after the day’s toils. Tent banter is a must for the distraction from the aches, fatigue and hunger pangs accumulated over the week. The combination of pre-planned mates and spontaneous grouping was fantastic and we truly bonded as friends over the week.
The race itself - epic. I had realised my pack was too heavy. Two kilos too heavy. Not because I brought things I didn’t need. I had dropped a mat and luxuries. But hadn’t stripped back some of the nutrition choice losing space and adding weight. I knew at the sharp end of the field this might make a difference but I had to go with my plan and accepted my lot. A lesson learnt.
The pace from the start was relentless and fast. These guys were fast marathon runners, and had technical strength. The lack of sharpness in my legs from the missed training showed but I hoped my endurance and strength would come through later on in the week. Day one I worked through the field and finished strongly though the weight of my pack and the heat affected more than I anticipated.
Day two was bad. I was impatient. I started to judge myself extrinsically. I ran other’s races and struggled in the latter stages only getting myself together for the final 3km where I grafted so hard. It took 50 minutes curled in the fetus position to recover while the unflappable Damian Hall, first one home rules, cleared the stones. Was my dream race falling apart?
Day three was a run of pure acceptance. I had let the extrinsic factors of the race get to me. Something I try to avoid in all my competitions home and abroad. Overnight and at the start of day 3 I begun to accept the realities of where I was at. After a patient start I worked through the field and ended with a strong and controlled finish, a much better result. The first couple of the days in the desert I had let the competition get the better of me and today I consolidated where I was at. Anyway, the long stage was my strength, wasn’t it? My endurance would see me through, wouldn’t it? These were question rather than statements and this uncertainty was ringing through me. Other people would be expecting me to pull through on this and this was the level of expectation I put on myself.
From the off I wasn’t in the race. Despite starting slowly I could not find any fluency or form. I then struggled with what I thought at time I thought was an issue with my back from the pack as I descended – it actually turned out to be a kidney infection. I did finally gain some form after 20km or so only for the heat to hit me and swipe my legs away. I had to readapt. I had to take stock or the race was as good as over. It hurt and I dug deep using every mental strategy in my armory to keep going, playing games with my mind while doing all my physical checks: nutrition, hydration, form. At 48km of the 86km stage I met my ashen faced teammate Andrew Fargus who was suffering too. On a grand scale after an amazing start to the week. We exchanged wishes, grunted and both ploughed on. Trackers at home lost me at this point. I think I lost myself.
For that second half I turned into a beast. I sounded like a beast. Grunting and wailing as the darkness drew in, I toiled and dragged my body using all my physical reserves and mental strength to finish as strongly as possible. I knew I couldn’t have given anymore as I hit the finish line in darkness. I left it all out on the dunes of the 86km stage. I was relieved to finish and though the first half was disaster I content. My tent mates all had their own battles. Damian battling at the sharp end. The effervescent Susie Chan who had suffered so much the previous day showing such courage and composure to come through the long day, Paul and Jeff consolidating and our two Marks and Johann endured two days of heat and toil to come through positively.
With this race it is easy to think the race is done after the long stage. It is not. A more relaxed and jovial atmosphere was felt around camp. But a marathon in the dunes still awaited us before the treasured medal. I had my worst night sleep from the week despite being at my most tired. The race wasn’t over till that medal was hung round my neck.
The marathon stage. This was consolidation time for me. I was one minute behind former medalist Moroccan Aziz and had a number of runners chasing my coat tails and we were in the mix for the team competition. I needed to be strong. I started tentatively and came through strongly, consolidating my position on arguably my most fluent run. Unfortunately, Aziz had a stormer, finishing 3rd of this stage clearly wiping any progression for me up the overall standings. My tent mates smashed it and I was overwhelmed at the finish for getting through a tough week. The sand, heat,and jebels hurt. But while I wasn’t in the best physical shape I would have wanted owing to the disrupted preparation, my desire, motivation and resilience was there in abundance.
The MDS was my dream race. I am sure you all have dream races. Whether it be for the year ahead or one your planning in the long-term. But dreams are not always perfect. We all want to be in the possible physical shape. The best mind set. The best equipment. Nutritionally sound and organised for our epic goals. But as any Olympian I am sure would agree as they attempt to go through the four year cycle, obstacles get in the way. It is how we respond to them that counts. The MDS is still my dream race. One day I would love to go back to and iron out the creases of 2017. This experience and what I have learnt professionally and personally before and during the race will make me a better athlete in the future. Physically I wasn’t in my greatest shape but Nathan Montague did turn up mentally and gave everything physically he could to the race given the cards dealt.
Out of the fire some great news. Adopted Brit Elizabeth Barnes stormed to an inspiring second win and Tom Evans’ 3rd place podium run was truly amazing. Personally, myself (18th male), Damian Hall (13th male) and Andrew as Team UK squeezed onto the podium securing a lucrative second place behind the Moroccans to top off a tough but satisfying week.
I must offer a huge thanks to Damian Hall for his dry wit, supply of kit and support in the build up to this race as he covered so many variables for me, saving my pockets and mind during a difficult period. Also thanks to my supporters XNRG, Beta Running, Wigwam and Skechers UK. And to all of tent 109 who made the week one of the highlights of my running career to date. Stories and lives so inspiring.
I hate to think this is the end of the MDS dream, but rather the beginning. In the meantime another dream comes alive as I get to don another international vest. A call up for the England 100km team in 5 weeks is my next step in an exciting year ahead. A weeks warm weather training in the desert cant be bad…
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