Badass Catie on running the Half Marathon De Sables

Be warned, this is quite long and it's quite personal, so either discard without further thought or grab a cuppa and hunker down.

A few facts:

Dates; (26th – 29th Sept 2017)

Total race distance: 110km

Extra distance walked due to relocation to starts: approx. 21km

Number of stages: 3

Stage 1: 25.5km. Total time allowed: 8hrs Time taken by me: 5hrs24mins (165th)

Stage 2: 66km. Total time allowed: 25hrs. Time taken by me: 15hrs36mins (169th)

Stage 3: 21km. Total time allowed: 6hrs. Time taken by me: 4hrs6mins (175th)

My total time on the course: 25hrs8mins

My average speed: 4.5km/hr

Highest temperature: 42degrees C

Competitors on startline, day one: 271 (unconfirmed)

Competitors finished: 229

My overall ranking: 165th

My ranking in my age group: 19th (out of 29 finishers)

For someone who likes to talk and share a lot, the thought of putting to paper the entirety of this race seems very daunting. Perhaps I am too close to it still, but actually I feel quite strongly that there are parts of it that I want to keep just to myself, or share with people over a glass of wine, rather than thrash them out here. So this will be based on some learnings, rather than a blow by blow account of the event.

A quick bit of background, however. I first heard about the Marathon des Sables when I was a hard working, hard drinking, non sporty girl in my late 20s. I was utterly fascinated by a talk given by Chris Moon but pushed it aside as something that only uber sporty people would do. I have remained peripherally aware of it ever since, occasionally meeting people who have done and grilling them endlessly about the adventure and the effort. But I still never thought it was something for me.

When it was announced that there would be a Half Marathon des Sables, the first person I suggested it to, surprise surprise, was Graham. He swiftly signed up and started organising himself. It was only when our friends, David and Lizzie, did the “real” MdS this April and she assured me that all sorts of people do this, that I checked out the very generous cut off times and thought to myself “with a bit of training, I could walk that”.  And the surge of excitement at the thought of the adventure just would not go away, so I signed up and started training. Graham set me a plan and insisted I do run training as well as walking. As added motivation I decided to raise money for The British Red Cross and do the race in memory of my best friend’s mum, Liz, who died of cancer last November.

Fast forward through five months of training (some more consistent than others) a couple of trail running races, a lot of money spent on kit and a thoroughly mentally exhausting lead up to the race (husband away a lot, solo parenting taking its toll etc etc) and suddenly here I was, on the island of Fuerteventura, facing the adventure and feeling less sure of myself that I ever have done. And by that I mean that I was pretty sure I could do it, but that I had no real idea of what to expect. For someone who had never run more than 12km when I signed up for this and who had still not done more than a 34km session in training, this was the mother of all challenges. To add to it I was mentally worn out, my left piriformis muscle (lower back/top of my bottom) was making it hard to sit, stand, lie down or get comfortable in any position. I had a trapped nerve in my shoulder from climbing and the thought of carrying a 7kg bag was making me feel a bit nauseous.

We arrived, had our kit checked and walked out to the bivouac and thus started the biggest and most difficult challenge of my life.

Here, in no particular order, are some things I learned over the course of following four days. Hopefully this will give you an insight into the race. For more specific info on the terrain, the map etc, you can go the Half Marathon des Sables Facebook page and look at pics and routes.

1.    My body is amazing.

This is not something we hear people say very much but we should. It is not a vanity statement, I have wobbly bits and stretch marks like everyone else, it is a statement of fact. This body was born with two dislocated hips. To remedy this both my femurs were broken and pinned (one of them twice) and I spent a year of my toddlerhood in plaster. As a result, I have badly tracking joints which lead to sore and swollen knees. I have one leg shorter than the other, hence the recurring left piriformis pain, as it takes a massive amount of strain at the top of the shorter leg.

As a child and teenager I did as little sport and exercise as I could get away with and as an adult I did almost none. I drank too much, I smoked sometimes, I worked long, long hours and ate crap food. I basically abused this poor body.

And miraculously at the age of 39, it allowed me to take up sport and continue to improve it through exercise and better eating. This week I ran/walked for over 25hours and despite, at times, pain from my toenails to the roots of my hair, it kept going. And today, apart from my totally shredded feet (every body has a weakness – mine has feet that are prone to blisters!), I know that if I had to, I could keep going and going and going.

This week I blasted along a 10km beach, I climbed mountains, I trotted over lava fields, I powered up the sand dune to end all sand dunes. I passed younger, stronger, fitter people lying on the ground, vomiting from the heat and (after stopping to give them water and alert the medics) I powered on again. I was not fast but I felt so full of power.

And when, on the long stage, I had been on the go for 15hrs and I could see the finish but it was not getting any closer and I wanted more than anything else in the world to stop and vomit, this body kept driving me up a 25% sand dune for a further kilometre.  At which point I did vomit – I had finally pushed it further than it was ever expecting.

I love my body for allowing me to do everything I do, but this week it was a flipping rock star!

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2.    Food, music and people – the power to lift and lower

Food. I think it’s fair to say that most people who know me well think that I think too much about food. That I perhaps am a bit faddy, that I try too many things. What I have been searching for years is a way of eating that doesn’t leave me tired, irritable and gives me the energy I so badly want and need. At the end of last year, with the help of an amazing nutritionist I changed how we eat and it has changed my life. I won’t go into it here but I was so determined to keep the principles of this way of eating even in the most extreme environments and while pushing my body to the limit.

I did it. I did this event without gels, without pasta/rice/potatoes and only eating “real food”. It worked and it kept me fuelled and going. I am very proud of that and that I managed my nutrition so well that I was not wobbly or dehydrated at any point.

However, what I had miscalculated was the power of food to lift and lower your spirits. After a poorly rehydrated meal in the middle of the night on the long stage, I left the check point feeling like I would be sick. This continued long into the night and I had to keep force feeding myself so I wouldn’t run out of energy, despite the fact that my electrolyte drink now tasted vile and my beef jerky was choking me.

When I stumbled into Graham’s arms at the finish of that stage at 3:30am, sobbing my heart out and he put me to bed in my damp, sandy tent, the beef jerky made a violent reappearance.

This is when I admit that the highlight of the rest day, when I spent most of it lying down, feeling sick and thoroughly exhausted was a bottle of ice cold Coke (from the organisation) and a handful of M&Ms from a fellow competitor. Even before the sugar and caffeine had a chance to kick in, the change in taste and texture had perked me up no end.

Lesson: always take something different from my “fuel” to keep my palate and my tummy happy!

Music. Inspired once again by our friend, Lizzie, I asked people to sponsor my playlist. They responded in droves and not only did I raise loads of cash for The British Red Cross, but I ended up with an epic playlist. I will publish it for anyone interested.

I wanted to do the first stage without music to really feel the sensations of the race without “back up”. I managed that and was happy to have done so.  By 20km into the second stage, however, I was ready for a lift. I plugged in and I flew into the second check point (CP), dancing and singing “Happy”! I quickly moved out of that CP and into the first of my sanity-questioning sections.

7km uphill in deep shale, without a breath of wind on a hot afternoon and the tears were triggered by Take That! I am a long time fan and having seen them in concert 4 or 5 times made me think of all the people I had been to see them with. A face scrumpling sniffle of self pity came over me as I trudged along,

Minutes later I was actually dancing as I walked. I had moments through the long stage where I couldn’t talk to anyone because the music made me so emotional. On the final day, I flew down the last hill like a woman possessed partly because of the tune blasting in my ears.

I started the final stage plugged in and the first line that came through my headphones was “Today this could be the greatest day of our lives” – Goosbumps much??

I thought of people every time their song came into my head. How long it was since I had seen them (too long in many cases), how we met, adventures we had been on together.

Personal favourites:

Maniac (from Flashdance – my hill flying tune!)

Go Hard or Go Home – Wiz Khalifa

Stronger – Kelly Clarkson

These Days – Take That

Proud – Heather Small

She Sells Sanctuary – The Cult

Insomnia – Faithless

Titanium – Sia/David Guetta

Greatest Day – Take That

Chandelier – Sia

The Climb – Miley Cyrus

The Only Way is Up – Martin Garrix

Sandstorm – Darude

Pray – Take That

Hold up a Light – Take That

Happy – Pharrell Williams

Strauss – Radetzky March

Funky Cold Medina – Tone Loc

People. People made this event so special. People we met, people I ran with, people who bolstered me when I was lower than I could ever imagine, people in our “pod” of tents.

Dave from Dorset who route marched the 10km beach with me. Dirk from Belgium who lost his dad at the beginning of the month and joined us as we battled over a technical ridge in the pitch black. Sylvie from France who was a grandmother and a MdS Morocco veteran. Big Brian, former professional rugby player from Canada. Michael, my saviour in the darkest hours of my life – who stopped me from crying, made me laugh, kept me talking, and metaphorically dragged my exhausted self up that last dark sand dune at 3:30 in the morning. The boys in our pod, one of whom was, purely coincidentally, an old friend from university, with whom we laughed more than I have laughed in a very long time.

And Graham, my husband.

I have supported Graham through some pretty challenging events. I have been with him as he suffered from sickness and diarrhea from dehydration and too many gels. I have seen him cry in pain and exhaustion and carry on anyway. I have redressed and held him as he has shaken with near hypothermia. Watched him be hooked up to a drip and put in an ambulance. I have seen his legs cramp so badly that they looked like an anatomical model of every sinew.

I have wondered, perhaps unfairly, and only in moments of fear, worry and anger at him allowing himself to get into these states, whether he would do the same for me in similar circumstances.

After 15.5hrs, physically and mentally exhausted, arriving to find him on the finish line at 3:30am – standing there all by himself just because he had an inkling I might be in soon – was one of the best sights ever. My mental strength finally gave way and I sobbed like a baby. He took my poles, carried my allotted water, led me to the tent, took off my stinking shoes and socks, made me get undressed and get into my sleeping bag. I was crying the whole time and shaking with exhaustion and bewilderment. He even checked my sick when I was freaking out it was full of blood (it was jerky). I need never have asked myself whether he would be there for me. He looked after me like I was a helpless child, that night and all of the next day. And he never stopped telling me how proud he was of me. He still hasn’t stopped.

They all lifted me. I hope I managed to do the same for some of those people and others. We were like a little band of mentallists who needed each other at a particular time in our lives.

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3.   Mental strength and inspiration

I didn’t ever think I would be this person. I never thought I was as strong as I have proved to myself. I felt a confidence this week I have never felt. I fought very hard to allow myself to feel it – to not let the little voice that says “shut up, you’re just being cocky, you’ll fall soon” take over. At risk of overstating it, apart from the very very hard times in stage 2 and the horrific blisters I have suffered as a result of it all, I loved this event. Graham keeps asking me when I will realise what I have done. It has taken a while for it to sink in. It will probably take more time for it all to make sense, but I am so unbelievably proud of this unsporty girl.

I am an athlete. I am an ultra runner. It turns out that I love climbing mountains more than I like running on a flat boring beach.  My heart sings on a technical mountain ridge in the dark and when dancing through an uneven lava field. I found strength from music, people, food and a great husband but mostly I found a strength in myself I wish I had had all my life and I hope everyone finds in themselves at least once in their lives.

Many people have said I have inspired them. This feels like a heavy mantle, weirdly, but if it’s true then I reply – go out and find what makes you feel strong and proud. Do it once, then do it again and again until it stops the inner voice from dragging you down. Do it to make your kids and your friends proud but do it mainly for yourself. It feels liberating.

I did this for myself and for Liz. She knew inner strength like no one should ever have to. I hope I have done her proud. She was with me the whole way. In the massive fun, dancing, singing-out-loud highs and the horrible, painful, blistered, weak, vomity, sandy, hot and humid lows. You all were.  It turns out I could have done this alone, but I am bloody glad I didn’t have to.

Over and out.

PS. I dedicate this post to the middle toe on my left foot which is the only one to survive training and racing without a single blister or loss of toe nail.

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Catie Friend is a Scottish 47 year old mother of two, who has been living in the Swiss Alps for 11 years. She is a presenter, sports commentator, presentations coach and podcaster. Until the age of 38, the only sports she did without a fight were riding horses and skiing. One day, she realised she would soon be the one sitting othe couch hearing all the sporty stories from her kids rather than living them with them. So, inspired by all the sporty people in her life, she took to cycling, learning that sweating and heavy breathing would, in fact, not lead to death after all. For those early days of celebrating cycling a mere 20km, she took on the cycling part of a relay half Ironman (came last, leaving her runner out on her own for hours...), took up ski mountaineering and then quite by accident, running. At age 44, she completed the Half Marathon des Sables (120km multi stage, self sufficient ultra marathon in the desert), having never run more than 12km when she signed up 5 months previously. 6 months after that, at 45, she took on the Patrouille des Glaciers ski mountaineering race - 60km and 4000m of vertical - overnight from Zermatt to Verbier in Switzerland, on skis. Both have earned their place amongst her proudest achievements. Since then, she has decided that while big races are very motivational from a “holy crap, I had better get fit or I’ll die” perspective, she is more interested in the adventure side of things and would prefer to walk, Skimo, hike, cycle for the fun and the discovery of new places. Races are not out the question in the future, and as a definite completer as opposed to competer, she is happy two thirds of the way back where all the best banter happens. However, she still sometimes struggles to get out for exercise, despite all the incredible advantages she knows it has for mind and body. Anxiety is never far away so 2021 goals are to be consistent for the health benefits rather than taking on anything too challenging. Although there is a niggling feeling that doing the full MdS for her 50th may be a worthy entry to the next decade... Watch this space!

You can listen to Catie’s Podcast Here or follow her personal Instagram or her podcast Instagram

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