In April 2018, Dr Chloe Baker ran the Marathon des Sables in Morocco. Although she is a regular runner, this was her first multi-day, multi-stage desert race. She was part of a group of 14 runners who were raising money for the London Air Ambulance - Chloe Baker had a life-threatening bicycle accident in 2007 and her life was saved by the service. Below she recounts her race and the strong feelings that the MdS can leave.
Did the race live up to expectations?
It was really fun overall – such a privilege to eat, lived, sleep and run with none of life’s other complicating factors. Everyone I’ve seen since we got back comments on how refreshed and healthy we look (often with surprise in their voice) – and besides the weight loss, I think it’s because it was such a lovely experience to have such simplicity. That said, it certainly wasn’t easy. It was a massive relief when it was over – that we made it, and that all those months of preparation paid off.
The mots humbling for me was to see the amazing variety of other competitors – from the elite runners to the slow walkers, some of whom even wore fancy dress. It was really cool to look around each morning and wonder who you would find yourself running with later that day.
How did it go?
I'm told we were lucky that it wasn't as hot as it often is. We paid for that though, with lots of wind and a couple of crazy sand storms. The race wasn’t as hard as I'd expected, maybe because I didn't have to deal with heat exhaustion. The landscape was stunning and the course gave us a really nice variety of terrains - the jebel and ridge sections were even better than I expected to be honest.
Unfortunately the feet problems did live up to expectations. Naïve to blisters, I couldn't have imagined before what a skinless, sore mess they could become! Not quite as bad as some of the photos - but quite a horror none the less!
But it wasn’t just blisters. There were loads of other cool things that I didn't expect at all. One of the real highlights for all of our team was receiving the messages from home that the organisers printed and delivered to our tent each evening. I couldn't believe the amount of interest in our efforts and we'd often find ourselves welling up hearing peoples inspirational and supportive messages, particularly when other patients treated by London's Air Ambulance got in touch to say thanks and offer support.
Were you as well prepared as you could be?
Overall I think my training was good, within the constraints of a full time medical on-call rota. I was able to manage the long distances and back to back days without too much trouble. After the first day, I was also fairly happy carrying the weight of my bag. My heart rate stayed in range, and I was well prepared with snacks and hydration. My kit seemed to fit and suit me, the gaiters were great, and I was really glad I'd decided to take the ultra running poles. Really glad. There was a lot more walking than I'd expected, just because I'm not so strong at running on sand I guess - so if I had my time again this is what I'd work on. My feet never hurt when I was running, only when I was walking, so if I'd been more prepared for that then I might have got away with more skin intact!
What was the most painful moment?
During the night after the second stage, about midnight I think, a sandstorm swept through the camp. Belongings flew everywhere and the two wooden tent poles rapidly fell as well, allowing the heavy canvas to beat down on us as it was lifted and sagged in the wind. It was difficult to see or breathe with the sand filled air, so we had little option other than to curl up and try and hold the edges down. Next morning it might just have seemed like a surreal nightmare, but our hair, mouths, eyes, sleeping bags and clothes were filled with sand! The only way to deal with it was to laugh - our team and tent did a lot of laughing.
Everyone out there had their own challenges to deal with, I guess. The biggest problem I had was my food. I wasn't expecting this at all, as I'd been well prepared, taking my favourite muesli for breakfast and things I knew I liked to eat on the move. I weighed it all out at home, dividing it up into zip lock bags for each stage. By day two though, anything that was not in its original wrapper had started to taste strangely chemical, and I found I was severely nauseated for much of the day, only really feeling myself when I was hungry or ate cereal bars or other pre-packaged snacks. The morning of Stage 3 eating my breakfast was a real chore, and I threw most of my snacks away. By Stage 4, the double marathon, I was only able to eat about half of the provisions I'd brought. Half of me kept thinking it was all in my head, until I woke up swollen after the rest day. It couldn't have been the heat, or running, or even water/salt overload since I'd had more than 24 hours rest, had been judicious with the water and salt, and was peeing well. Besides my hands and feet, my face was really puffy.
When I opened my bag one evening I got a waft of the same chemical smell, and realised that my food was contaminated by the fuel tablets I'd brought to cook with. In order to save weight, I had foolishly taken them out of the cardboard box (which presumably usually absorbs the hydrocarbon fumes given off by the little bricks) and stored them in a plastic bag next to my food supplies. As soon as I realised I stopped eating my breakfasts and snacks, and survived on cereal bars. I felt so much better without the nausea that the hunger was tolerable, and it was a relief to know it wasn't all in my head!
I've been in some tricky situations elsewhere in the past (crossing the Congo), and I knew I could run a couple more days with minimal food without real problems. It was really frustrating though, and I would like to know if I could have run faster with a full belly! It took until we were back in the UK for my face to stop swelling every night, but now at last I think I'm back to normal. I am lucky there haven't been any more lasting effects.
And your favourite moment?
It's hard to take part in something like this and not be filled with awe every time you look around you - at the landscape, the remoteness, and the people by your side. I felt so lucky every day to have a body that could carry me across all of that distance, and let me see all of those places. I loved meeting people and hearing about their motivations for being out there, and bumping into friends I'd made during other stages and hearing how their race was progressing, how they were enjoying camp life, or what they were planning for the remaining stages.
My overall favourite moment though has to be when the last member of our team crossed the finish line. I found tears in my eyes. It was such a relief to have us all in, and I was truly amazed by his achievement. In total I think he spent 20 hours more than me out on the course - I think it's just incredible that he had the willpower to keep pushing on for all of that time.
What did you learn?
Well, I got a lot of practice speaking French, learning loads of sand and kit-related vocabulary…
More seriously, I did find speaking French really useful as connecting with my fellow runners was a real part of what kept me going. I'm ok at running, but when I was walking I really needed to be with other people to keep the pace up.
Back in camp at the end of each day it was really great to wait for the rest of the team to come in, to hear everyone's news, and to troubleshoot any problems from the day. Being part of this team, and representing the London's Air Ambulance, was a lot more important to me than I thought it would be.