Father and son Paul and Hector Skipworth have just returned from Marathon des Sables 2019 in southern Morocco. Paul, 51, a businessman from Edinburgh, has now run 10 desert ultras (including the MdS 1999 and several Racing the Planet races). Hector celebrated his 17th birthday a few weeks before the event, making him one of the youngest people to enter the race. This was his first desert ultra.
The Marathon des Sables is the original desert ultra and competitors cover six stages over seven days, totalling roughly 250km. Runners must be self-sufficient in their food, bedding and other equipment – limited shelter, drinking water and medical care are provided at checkpoints. The course includes the full spectrum of desert terrain, from bedrock to gravel plain and mirage-inducing oases. And of course, ranges and ranges of energy-sapping sand dunes.
The Skipworths were running in aid of Overcoming MS and during the course of the event they managed to raise more than £3000 via their justgiving page. The Martha Thom Trust were particularly generous in their support. See more about the Marathon des Sables and see a photo essay about MdS 2019, and how it unfolded, including the appearance of Cactus the Dog.
What was MdS 2019 like?
MdS 2019 was as hot as ever, though in fact it wasn’t quite as hot as it could have been. Temperatures reached around 35 degrees in the day (40 deg in the dunes).
Doing the dunes on Day 2 was tough (as is sapped our strength early in the race), though it was good to know ‘Dune Day’ was done... until we discovered that there were more dunes to come. In all there were 13km of dunes on the Dune Day and quite a lot more on later stages. As brutal as they were in the heat of the day though, the dunes are also very scenic.
In fact there was more sand and less hard ground than in some of the other ultras and running over so much sand made it painful on the calves, especially in the dunes. Mentally it was also very tough, to crest a dune expecting to see a checkpoint coming up…. only to find miles and miles of dunes ahead, and not a checkpoint in sight.
How did it go for you?
Our objectives were to finish the race, give Hector the experience of a desert ultra and to enjoy ourselves. We didn’t plan to run together all the time, though we did on the long day and it helped us both.
Hector was very young and this was his first ultra run, so I had no idea how he would find it - good runners sometimes find the heat very hard and many good road runners can’t run with the weight of a backpack. Or they find the endurance hard – keeping going day after day as the effect of the difficult sleeping conditions and hygiene/food begins to tell.
So it was all new for him, but he thrived and he was pleased to finish in the middle of the field, placing around 440th in the 800 or so competitors, and beating his Dad! He will go back again armed with this experience and will go for a higher place next time.
My objective was to get round well, ensuring I didn’t do anything silly, like get heat stroke or an injury, and be there if he needed me – which he didn’t at all. In 1999 I placed 199th… Perhaps I have aged a bit - although some ultra-runners peak in their early 50s! The next ambition!
Were you as well prepared as you could be?
Based on previous race experience, we had the right kit and knew how to manage our body salts and look after our feet. We could, as ever, have done more training, especially running with backpacks. The temptation always is to get running fit first and only to run with your pack towards the end of your training, and even that is often neglected as time runs out... It is totally different running with a pack.
We had lightweight sleeping mats to save weight, but I would recommend a light blow-up mattress as our weight-saving compromised our sleep on the stony ground.
In the MdS you need to use local twigs to cook with and these can become scarce as you have to search further and further from camp. Some people avoided cooking and had dry food on some days, which saved time and weight, though of course you do need a cup of tea at the end of the day! I would probaby alternate dry and “wet” days next time.
What did you learn?
Hector learned patience in facing a challenge, and that there are no short cuts. You have to get from A to B and it takes time. He also learned what real determination means, that it is possible to keep going despite the many difficulties that you know are ahead – the many kilometres to run over several days, with feet in pain and injuries flaring.
He also saw the value in getting ready early (enough). The experienced runners got up at the right time before the start, not three hours too early, nor too late! Quite a few people were up hours early, waking others in the process, and other runners still had kit spread all over the place as the Berber tents were lifted around us and taken off to the next campsite. They ended up hurrying to the start line shoving their gear into their packs at the last minute.
What was the toughest moment?
Hector, like almost everyone, found the long day tough, especially during the night - we were on our feet for 17 ½ hours. Time passed very slowly and near the end his legs went a bit wobbly on him. Before the MdS he said he was expecting a tough physical challenge, but during the race he kept saying how it was more a mental challenge. He had audio books to pass time and engage his brain.
And your favourite moment?
My favourite moment was crossing the start line of the long day with Hector as I knew that if we just pushed through the 75km it meant that we would basically have conquered the course, with just the marathon day to go - and whatever happened we could do that! As the sky turned red at sunset that day we were alone together in the desert and moving well. I won’t forget that.
Hector’s favourite moment was on Stage 4, when he found himself completely alone in the desert, without a single other person in sight – a surreal experience for a teenager on his first race.