The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts…….

The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts…….

Marathon des Sables 2011

A quick recap……

6 months ago I had an idea to enter a world famous race called “The Marathon Des Sable”, just an idea, I then emailed for info and was told that there were no places until 2013 ….. Bummer I thought and started to think of my next kayak adventure, an expedition to Chile maybe, a descent of Inferno canyon… why not!!   then an email from the MDS came in a few weeks later , apparently there were a significant number of cancellations in 2011 and they have to be filled ASAP , did I want one , would I be able to be ready in time … I thought about it for the whole of 5 minutes and in my usual form dived right in at the deep end , what then came about was 5 months of hard training to become an endurance runner of significant ability to complete what is renowned to be “The toughest footrace in the world” , and through a stiff cold winter of snow and Ice I slogged my guts out trying to gain experience , mileage and endurance , I have never been a runner , nor an Ironman , nor was I or ever had been experienced in any endurance sport  so this required patience and an almost obsessive dedication to the task at hand , no doubt I bored people shitless with my obsessive all encompassed dedication , people laughed at my constant running and the Forest Gump jokes started to really grate but I kept going when others would have stopped , beavered away silently until I thought that perhaps I had it in my grasp …..

“Those who finish the course can announce it with due pride and emotion. The Marathon des Sable is a race in a league of its own and must remain the way history has shaped it. We often hear about the myth. It’s founded as much on the sheer feats of the winners as the experiences of thousands of anonymous runners. There is a before and after the Marathon des Sables” – Patrick Bauer (Founder of the MdS)

My Marathon Des Sable…

Over the months leading up to the MDS I had met through various seminars and internet forums a few other UK MDS competitors , Big Gav a powerful Irish Ironman who was heading out with his Brother Neil , Marty a gentle giant from Glasgow , Dave Lamond a big hearted Geordie , Peter Gallanagh from Glasgow, an amazing runner , great laugh and very upbeat and positive guy  , Ray Wise a Londoner , an amazing Fundraiser and semi professional Photographer not to mention a very motivated runner ,  knowing that these people were strong guys to have around and also very easy to get along with made me a little more relaxed about what I was about to undertake.We all met up in Gatwick Airport on March 31, along with Carl Cleghorn, a cool calm and collected runner from up North and Nigel Hewitt a fireman from Newcastle Under Lyme, we had met these two in the Travelodge the night before, Nigel was later to impress me with his amazing level headedness and generous nature, not to mention his ability to blow a Berber tent off its posts with a single fart!!! , seriously this guy had power …..

We flew out to Morocco on a private charter plane with the rest of the runners from the Uk , Ouarzazate to be precise , a small Moroccan town with a private Airport , we were quickly shuttled to The Berber Palace Hotel where we spent a night getting to know each other , forming allegiances and generally discussing our individual plans to complete the desert run , up early the next day for some breakfast before being put in a bus for 4-5 hours , with toilet stops every 20 minutes I began to think I was on a Tenerife stag day !!  And then finally ferried out to a Desert Bivouac by troop transport Lorries …..

We settled into what was to become our home for the forthcoming week , a 10 foot by 10foot Berber tent , number 79 to be exact , we unpacked our necessary thermarests and sleeping bags and settled in to make ourselves as comfortable as possible. Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa, west of the Nile Valley; their traditional home is a thick wool blanket, held up by thick wooden poles to make a tent, comfy, not!!  This tent is moved every day to the start of the next days stage , over 100 tents form the MDS village and at 6am every morning the Berbers start dismantling the village , load it onto lorries and move it … leaving us sitting in the open cooking our breakfast and preparing for the start of our next stage .

Day 2 in the desert was medical and equipment check, before leaving Hawick my doctor gave me a full medical and an Electrocardiogram, I had to present this with my equipment and be passed fit to race, we were given time slots to appear at the relevant tent and all went well, my ECG stated I had an exceptionally slow heart rate but as I was running 100+ miles a week this was no great surprise to anyone..

Equipment check required us to show at least 2000 calories a day in food, mandatory equipment such as venom pumps for scorpion stings, map compass, flare, salt tablets, sleeping bag etc ….

Once I was checked and authorised I headed back to my tent, the boys arrived back one at a time, we were all sorted, one last sleep and we were racing …. There was an air of anticipation that night in the tent!!!  Or was it Nigel?


Stage 1   33km  42 degrees C

6 am arrived and it was finally upon us, race day… the Berbers were busying themselves and within 20 minutes the tents were gone , nearly 1000 runners of more than 20 nationalities unceremoniously dumped in a desert plain awaiting the 9am start of the first stage , we set about cooking breakfast , readying our equipment and mentally preparing .. 8:30 am and it was time to make our way to the starting line , I shouldered my sack , it was over 11kg at this point , heavy but still manageable , I made sure my water bottles were secure and full , we walked to the starting line ready to do battle with the desert.

I looked around, everyone was geared to go , lean fit athletes , Ironmen , endurance runners , I started to doubt I should be there .. but I had earned my wings , my training had been stout and I had been a high calibre adventurer now for more years than I care to remember and at 41 theres been a few ..  Easy Mark, easy I told myself… I looked at my friends standing next to me , Pete lean and race ready , Gav and Neil strong and imposing in their presence , yet friendly in  nature , Marty and Nigel poised , we all shook hands and wished each other luck ..

We gathered at the starting line , the air was electric , music blared , EuroSport helicopters flew overhead and Patrick Bauer gave a final speech , tears welled up in my eyes , I felt emotional , all the hard work , all the sacrifice , pain and piss take , it was all to bring me here … I drew my locket out of my shirt , looked at my daughters smiling face and sobbed …. Let’s do it!!!!

Writers note: As I write this I am now welled up again just thinking of that moment, it really did move me so much.

We piled out over the starting line , the top boys were off leading the way , 8 miles of mixed desert plain followed , hard and stony ground mixed with energy sapping soft sand led us to checkpoint 1 , with the sand and the fully loaded packs it had taken nearly one and a half hours to run just 8 miles .. and my legs were feeling it already, the next section was 8 miles of dunes and with the sun already getting high in the sky and the temperature soaring into the high 30s at only 10:30am we entered one of the most soul destroying and energy sucking stages in the whole race, Dunes, dunes and more dunes, the going was slow but steady, the heat was outrageous and the weight of my pack was growing, I felt pressure in my right shoe, a hot spot maybe? 30 minutes later I was removing my shoes and emptying out sand , my sock had filled up and was rubbing my toes .. I inspected the hotspots on my heals , not to bad , only to be expected really … a short time later I was doing this again , the sand dunes were causing me havoc , there was a burst in the stitching of my gaiters , it was letting in sand and it was just running through the mesh of my trainers … bad juju !!!!  Ray Wise appeared over the dunes at some point, we had blether and he was off… I pounded forth, this was now getting monotonous, the dunes were soft, very soft and the going so slow, there was to be no running had in here, just strength sapping sinking sand… nightmare and the heat was outrageous… onwards, onwards, eventually the dunes started to subside and I could see desert plain … thank god, 30 minutes later and I was out, running through the check point and grabbing my ration of water, I ran / walked the 5 miles to the finish line ….. falling through it with a pack that weighed two times what it did at the start … I found Tent 79 and fell in , Peter was there , he had flown in and was in 55th place overall , outstanding .. Amazing in fact, he came from Glasgow, trained in the cold and had a pack of 10kg… respect!!  Gav and Neil the two brothers from Northern Ireland had arrived just before me and had also done well, these two guys really were “brothers” in both senses of the word, strong and sure, they had a real connection, a real support for each other and were inseparable, they had previously competed in an Ironman and finished with only a second between them, but they didn’t just look after themselves, they were strong and supportive of all of the members of tent 79.. Awesome dudes!!

We set out our tent and waited for Dave, Nigel and Marty to arrive …Dave fell in tired and ready to lay down , he had battled through the heat of the day in the dunes and eventually found strength in his iron Geordie mentality , although he was not an Ironman , he certainly was a “Man of Iron” . Nigel was next in, he had felt the day but as surely as he can fart for England he steadily moved through the stage… Marty arrived later still, he had felt the dune section and beyond, but he had mustered up what was required and did himself and the Kilt he was wearing proud.

We all joked and blew time , ate our dehydrated meals , topped up our electrolytes and went to bed tired and wondering what the next day would bring ……….

Stage 2    38km  38 degrees C

It brought Berbers, at 6am!!  Bastards!!  So as was to become the norm we were tossed out our sleeping bags and forced into the open to cook and prepare as the Berbers removed the village and left …. Nice job if you can get it!

The start of stage 2 was to be a sandstorm, it had blown up as we were cooking, nightmare, although I appreciated the fact that the sun wasn’t able to penetrate it… we all huddled at the start waiting to go… the Patrick Bauer speech, sadly announcing that our numbers were down and that people had already withdrawn from the race …

We piled out over the starting line again but this time our legs weren’t so fresh , the weight of my pack strained on my legs from the first mile , my back ached after 3 miles and my little blisters although not at this point causing me much trouble were there , waiting .. the day progressed with mixed sections of sand , hard plain , short sections of dunes and so on , 24 miles of torture I call it … the going was still good and despite the fact that I had taped and glued my gaiters they still let the sand in profusely , as the day passed my blisters grew more painful ,  I stopped at checkpoint 3 , pulled out my medial kit and attempted to ease my pain , they had grown and were requiring a bit of surgery , I slit them top and bottom , let the water out , squirted iodine in them and taped them , my little toe however had suffered quite a nasty deep blister during the Kielderer , a fell race I had competed in several weeks ago , this had peeled the skin right off and what I was looking at was bare flesh , on day 2 this was not what I wanted to see , and definitely not on a toe required to keep your balance….. I squirted the Iodine on and taped it, onwards.

Falling into the tent that night I immediately set about attending to the growing array of blisters on my feet… these were starting to look terrible and were giving me substantial discomfort at this stage but nothing I couldn’t handle, yet I had to think of the long game, I had to take it easier a little, no running on the sand?? .. This had to be it, I’ve ran thousands of miles in training with hardly a blister, in these shoes, so why now?  it had to be the sand , it was the only variable I hadn’t been able to cover in training , my shoes were obviously rubbing on my feet , the sand could be the only reason that they were doing this damage ….

Peter had held onto his position with another amazing time and the Irish lads had powered home nicely again, Dave had found another lease of life and all was good in tent 79. Later on Nigel and Marty arrived together, they had formed an allegiance and were pretty much travelling together, taking strength from that … superb, and everything was falling into place.

That night we laughed and joked, blew time and wind before our essential early night, but Nigel and Marty had other ideas and what followed was a snoring contest of the highest order, bloody nightmare … I was shouting, Pete was shouting, Gav was shouting but the two of them snored away despite being pelted with stones, poked with sticks and eventfully rolled over onto their sides, mental note.. Duck tape a stone to Nigel’s pyjamas tomorrow night!!!

Stage 3   38km  53 degrees C

Stage 3 although the same distance as stage 2 felt substantially harder and had long flat plains, river beds, and small dunes on it, I think that it was actually me, my blisters were giving me some serious problems on anything except for walking on sand, Nigel had given me some painkillers the previous night and I decided to use them, this eased them up but his prescription strength codeine knocked the shit out of me, I think there are 4 hours missing from that day where I was wasted.. however I made it to the finish, my feet were bad at this point and I knew it was time to visit Doc Trotters , they took one look at them and sent me to the Clinic with a note , I arrived at a large tent with over 20 medics , I was given to Leticia , she was hot !! superb , well except for the fact that I had cut the inner liner from my shorts and I had removed my skins , she asked me to pop my foot on the table and my nuts fell out , she took one look and pointed at me with a scalpel …. Then laughed, ok this is going well!! , she inspected my feet and shook her head , infection she said , she then set about cutting off all the skin and covered my feet in Iodine , she cut a sheet of second skin and stuck it to my little toe, ooooouuchh!!!!  She taped my feet up and gave me 1000mg of Amoxicillin for the infection, Jesus…!! there goes my stomach lining !!

I told myself I felt better, I had to, it was the 50 mile day tomorrow ….

Stage 4, the long stage!!   84 km  55 degrees C

We all lined up the next morning, everyone one of us quiet, we knew there was a lot of distance to cover, 50 miles was a long way in this terrain and heat … I had covered 38 miles over mountains during an ultra in 9 hours once but it had taken me nearly 9 hour to cover 25 out here… into the unknown I thought …. The starting line erupted and we were off, the medic had given me paracetomol and tramadol the night before, I ran a few miles and decided that I needed to try tramadol … bloody hell that’s some mean shit!!   I was falling about up a Jebel 30 minutes later thinking it wasn’t such a good idea … better let this wear off …. At this point Dave Lamond caught me up and we formed an allegiance , 50 miles was to far to go on your own , better to keep a mad Geordies company and whittle the miles in with his crazy humour so we battled on together , we hit check point 4 and battered on , but we started to tire and at one point were like 2 drunk men totting along in the dark , Dave I said , lets get the head down , just for an hour , get our faculties back , sound mun he said , so I set my alarm for an hour and we crashed at the side of the trail , next thing 2 medics are shaking us and asking us if were ok , they had been driving along and saw our feet sticking out the side of the road , waye aye man said Dave , we are just getting a bit o shut eye , so they left … then another set of runners saw us , this time I was up for running to the next checkpoint , so we fell into Checkpoint 5 , decided on another sleep just for an hour but this time we slept for 4 hours , probably costing us 200 places but what the hell … who cares anyway !!  , I heard Nigel’s voice from across the checkpoint , hey Nigel I shouted , he popped his head out looking fresh as a daisy , he had came in with Marty a few hours after Dave and I , nice one , the four of us headed out into the morning sun and finished off the 50 mile stage happy and in good spirits , arriving into a cheer from our other tent mates , Peter , Gav and Neil , they had came in during the night and had followed a green laser all the way into camp and had made it in one sleepless push … I later spoke to people about this laser and I think it drove people insane , I kind of wish I had seen it  .

I have removed the nudity at the request of my sponsors , should you require the original copy of “my dreams” please email me direct …  haha 🙂

I literally spent the whole day after we arrived sleeping , it was great , every time I fancied a sleep I closed my eyes and I dreamt of naked ladies … I wish I could do this everyday .. eventually I ate something and set about sorting my feet , the 50 miles hadn’t been kind and they were looking very bad but I was nearly there , nearly finished , I thought of my daughter ,her smile and how happy she would be to see me home with my medal , no worries I thought , I don’t even need feet really …… I cleaned them and took a walk to Doc Trotters, this time I remembered to keep my skins on, no “fallout” tonight I thought …….

Stage 5   43km   52 degrees C

The last of my long stages , 26.2 miles across fast terrain , not a lot of sand on this one , but there were mountains to cross , today despite the pain I was energised , Dave and I were on form , laughing , hobbling and joking our way across the desert , this is what its about , or maybe it was the pain killers ??

The journey went well, I spent a bit of time with Ray Wise, said hello to Sonny Winston and crew, met Richard from Edinburgh and eventfully ran into Duncan from Dalkieth, it was a very sociable day indeed, finally walking in the last few miles with Nigel who looked and behaved exactly the same as he did on day 1, respect to that Guy, he was a rock!!  between us we kept an eye on Dave who was feeling the effects of the heat with swollen fingers and a strange desert ultra shuffle run / rave … I actually believe at this point he had regressed to his early 90s Newcastle raver days …. But he pulled through and the 3 of us cruised home and crossed the line together… excellent day… sore feet but a joyous feeling to finally reach what was effectively the end of the extreme pain, tomorrow if I moved quickly we wouldn’t even have to be out in the midday sun and we would be heading home on a bus for my much craved for can of coke!!!  There’s something about a cold can of coke that no matter what type of trip/expedition I’m on I always crave it after day 3 in the wilds….. Lovely to knock one back after 7 days in the desert …. That night Gav and I sat and discussed cokes and pot noodles … the diet of extreme athletes the world over…oh yes… just 13 miles to go and I was out of this dry sun baked hell hole… bring it !!!!!

Stage 6   18km    52 degrees C

This was it … amazing finally after all this torture we were here on the last day , fantastic , I was buzzing , I was crying , thoughts of my daughter filled my head , thoughts of the people who had supported me , helped me .. Indeed some unlikely people had come to the fore during my training, amazing, I was elated to be here …. Now Lets get it done cos I want to go home!!!!    I looked beside me at Pete , Gav , Neil , Dave , Marty and Nigel ,  they were gods !!  Men of grit, character, laughter, they were guys who helped me through, we all helped each other… the MDS is not a solo event… you need to draw on other sources when things get tough and I was lucky to be in a tent full of the energy that tent 79 had  … oh yes !!

For the final time Patrick gave his speech and we pour out over the start line… get in!!

Nigel and Dave are at my side, the Irish lads up ahead, Pete is probably finished!! it feels great cos I know this is the last chance I have to enjoy it , as much as it hurts I love it , to be out in the desert , to be adventuring , I am not here for the running , I am a shit runner !! But I had what it took to go on a crazy journey, the MDS journey… it started 5 months ago , not here in the desert , no way , it began with an idea and it will only end when I forget …

Nigel, Dave and I put in the miles and appreciated each others company in the final hour, Ray appears and we all approach the finish, we up the pace in a final effort and fall over the line. Patrick Bauer kisses us, no tongue though… that’s just not British … he hands us our medals, I shake Nigels hand and hug him …. Respect … we made it… 157 miles across the Sahara in 6 days, blisters, heat, infection, exhaustion and dehydration …. 1000 heroes made this week……. it was a beautiful thing !!

In essence every individual part of the MDS is manageable but add it all together and you have a wild time on your hands ..The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts…….

If you  enjoyed reading this note then please have a look at ……….. all donation no matter how small makes a difference ….

Below is Peter Gallanagh , a desert beast .. Scottish Ultra runner and number 1 member of tent 79 …………… respect to the animal …. go on Shagger !!!!

below are several of my blisters , these were a lot worse than these photos out in the field but you get the idea

Mark Lyons Marathon Des Sable May 2011


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8 Responses to The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts…….

  1. Ray Wise says:

    Wicked mate – great bit of emotional writing.. well done again 🙂

  2. Alan Crawford says:

    Fantastic effort Mark. You’re spot on about the whole experience being so much more than just the running. What’s next?

  3. A genuine real life hero!

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  7. Brandon says:

    i want to see the naked ladies that you had to block!

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