1st-12th April 2010

I’d firstly like to say a big thank you to all those who have kindly sponsored me to do the Marathon des Sables and have followed me through the race with their kind emails and wishes of support.

All your sponsorship helped me get through the race as I kept thinking about how much money I was raising with every single step and kilometre that passed. It really did motivate me during the long stage and days when it was very hot. If you would still like to help me raise money for F.R.O.D.O. then please visit my Just Giving site at justgiving.com/georgie-islip.

What an amazing event. We arrived in Quarzazate late on Thursday 1st April, and after eating supper settled down for the night in our beds. This was the last time for 8 days that I would be clean and sleeping in a comfortable bed. Breakfast was served from 3am on Friday morning as we were travelling early by coach to our camp. The coach took 6 hours and then we had to be transported to the bivouacs by army trucks. I think this was done for effect but it worked! The next two days we were catered for and had to complete various administration tasks, one of which was to finally decide what to carry in the race. You needed to have about 2000 calories a day, which did not include the energy drinks and gels. Once our bags were handed in this was it, the race was finally here and we were on our own. Everyone was filled with nervous excitement. Our bivouac tents held 8 people and I shared with 7 other guys, all whom were great fun and really good companions. We were all in the same boat, as none of us had run this before.

For a second night we slept badly on our sleeping mats. It was hot and uncomfortable and I kept dreaming about spider crabs and scorpions joining me in my sleeping bag. We all awoke at about 5.40am and started the morning ritual of getting ourselves sorted and ready for the day ahead. Breakfast was porridge and strawberries, which by the third morning nearly came back up again. I never want to see those meals again in my life!

Day 1

A mere 29km. We had been given our log books on the coach and I had a mild panic looking at the route, thinking: What have I done? Why am I doing this? But as I stood on the start line, I reminded myself that I had said 15 years ago to a good friend that this was the event I really wanted to do and I was here, in the middle of nowhere at the start line of the Marathon des Sables. It was rather emotional, even more so when Bruff came over to me and slapped my hand saying ‘For Grinner’ our friend who had sadly taken his own life a few years ago. This became a pre-race good luck message!

The run was good, with amazing scenery, and stunning views. However I ended up with three blisters, not great for the first day. I finished in 4 hours 45minutes coming 490th. Charlie from our tent finished 39th! I did have a headache but I suspect this was all heat related. We needed to take 20 salt tablets a day and this first day I was trying to work out when the best time was to do so. I ended up taking 5 in the morning with breakfast (revolting) and then chewing 2-3 tablets per check point (equally revolting).

Day 2

I slept really well after my lovely tea of veggie tikka. Day 2 was only 35.5km, and it was supposed to be tough with a massive mountain to climb. Actually I loved day 2 and found it relatively easy. The first hour was hard, just getting back into a rhythm and setting a pace. My sister had advised me to run steadily over the first few days. This was really wise because Wednesday – day 4 – was going to be tough.

They were right about the massive mountain as after check point 3 we had to climb a jebel, which reminded me of The Old Man of Coniston in the Lake District which I climbed with my eldest son a few years ago. It was brilliant. The views were fabulous. However after going up you need to come down and this is where people struggled. The valley was intensely hot, followed by 3-4 km of sand dunes. I saw several people collapsed with medical support by them. Back at camp we learned that many competitors found Day 2 too much and had to pull out. However, we were lucky, as our tent all came in and we were OK.

Day 3

Day 3 was really tough, mainly because it was flat and boring camel plains. The heat was intense and apparently reached 47 degrees. It was only 40km but hard. By 11.30am the sun is so hot that running becomes tough as your body temperature increases. Walking is the only option. Again I finished well, in 6 hours and 25 minutes.

Day 4

This was the day people dreaded, as the stage was 82.2km. This was the day that holds the MdS on such a pedestal. This day challenges everyone. We were given 35 hours to complete the stage, which allowed competitors to stop and sleep at check point 4, and then wake up in the early hours and finish by mid morning on Thursday.

The start of the race was filled with excitement and nerves, and the first few kilometres were all up hill! I ran with a tent companion – we ran for 10 minutes and then walked for 5. The enormity of the distance just was too hard to process all in one go. I did not want to struggle with 20km to go, so I broke the day down into sections, and just kept ticking off the check points and with it the kilometres. I had two dark moments when I wanted to stop, however, support and desire to finish for various reasons kept me going. After check point 4, about 57km into our race, we caught up with a young lad whom we’d met on the plane out to Morocco. He was on his own as his guardian was behind him, and he joined us for the last part of the race.

By this time it was dark and we were going across dunes. It was difficult in the dark because you could not see where you were really treading. However every competitor had a night light attached to their back packs and you could see for miles a trail of light weaving its way through the dark. We were going at a rate of 16minutes per mile, and tried to maintain this, although our new companion was struggling. Suddenly my own hardship disappeared and we helped support the 16 year old across the line. I don’t think he would have made it otherwise. We saw the finish about 3 kilometres away and it seemed never to be getting close. But the relief to finish was wonderful. I knew I could now do it. However, 16 hours and 56 minutes on my feet meant my they were throbbing and in pieces!

Day 5

Our rest day. Our tent all finished that night, so we ate, slept and clapped those who came in during that day. The last person came into the camp at 7pm Thursday night, just getting in before the cut off. However by now nearly a 100 people had pulled out of the race.

Day 6

I was slightly frustrated that I did not run more of the long stage on day 4. I felt disappointed but I finished, and this was my goal. So on day 6 we had to cover 42.2km, a mere marathon and I was determined I would run all this – I did it, completing it in 5 hours 33 minutes. My feet were rubbish and I visited Doc Trotters (the on-site foot Doctors) as soon as I had crossed the line. I had survived the race on paracetamol and ibuprofen but felt sick and unwell. My stomach could not cope with any more of the food. My recovery bar remained uneaten as did my supper. I had dioralyte for supper and that was all. Not the best recovery plan and preparation for the last half marathon stage.

Day 7

I slept OK and the camp was full of high spirits and excitement. This was the last stage but as always they had made it a tough stage. We were to cover over 8 km of dunes, and they looked big. I ran with Bruff for the first 13km and then went off on my own. He wanted to slow down slightly and didn’t like holding me back. The last 5 km were strange, the dunes were not bad and when I saw the finish I could not believe it. I was coming to the end of my journey and my amazing adventure. Crossing the line was just amazing. I remember overtaking a Moroccan, but held back to hold his hand and run across the line together. Patrick Bauer was there and handed out the medals, hugging and congratulating everyone. I recall I was in tears, and he said ’It’s very emotional isn’t it?’ ‘Yes’ I agreed, ‘yes it is’.

I stood there watching everyone, feeling a little on the outside. I had finished, I had completed the challenge that I had set out to do. I had come 4th British woman, 326th overall and 26th placed woman. Not bad for my first endurance race.

The best moment was arriving back at Gatwick and being reunited with my boys and husband, who I had missed immensely over the previous 12 days. I had completed my adventure and I was home. Did I enjoy the race? The answer is definitely yes. Would I do it again? No, because the conditions would be different and once is enough. I am not ready for my next challenge, I want to enjoy being with my family. However, I know I will run more ultra-races because I love them.

I was not euphoric completing this race, but content and calm. It has shown me that you should never limit your beliefs and always keep your mind open. Challenges are never impossible, just difficult. The running in the MdS was not bad, but the conditions made everything tough. The food was horrible by the end, and trying to keep hygienic was so hard. It was an amazing journey.

Thank you to all those you supported me.

Georgie Islip — Finisher of the MdS 2010!