The Saharan Challenge

Posted on: 22 Oct 2017

Hello Realbuzzers 😊

Well, we survived the Sahara so here’s the blog about how it went - as you’ve probably already guessed it’s going to be the longest one yet, so grab your cuppa (maybe even a flask and several bowls of snacks!) 😂😂 

The short version -

Objective - two marathons in two days in the desert of the Draa Valley of Morocco in fearsome heat -

Day 1 - 40.97km recorded (GPS malfunction?) in 7:41 plus 1:40 stopped time. 383m up and 429m down. It definitely felt more up than down

😂http://runmeter.com/779f9b43a3ee0a1c/Walk-20171013-0815

Day 2 - slightly short of marathon distance after a last minute unexplained change of course -  38.93km in 7:19 plus 1:43 stopped time. 140m up and 236m down - definitely flatter course 😊

http://runmeter.com/779f9b43a3ee0a1c/Walk-20171014-0707

Would I recommend it? Hell yes, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done 😀

The Full Monty!

The travel shots, four weeks before departure, seemed to send my immune system a bit haywire and the magic anti-TNF meds for the AS definitely haven’t been doing their job. It’s was like old times in the weeks before the challenge with the same old deep aching and pain giving me grief and making any decent amount of sleep impossible 😕 Richard even mentioned the forbidden words ‘it’s not too late to pull out’ a week beforehand - absolutely no chance! I so wanted to do this challenge and I wasn’t about to let my sponsors down either. I knew the hot dry desert weather was likely to ease the pain a fair bit so wasn’t too worried but if the worst happened I also know I’m stubborn and cussed enough to keep pushing until the job’s done, plus I’d have the Realbuzz baton to draw strength from!

So, Wednesday night, the plan was that our youngest (Ben) and his fiancée would come over straight from work - they were house and cat sitting for us while we were away. We’d have an early dinner together then Richard and I would head off and try and get a few hours sleep. We had to leave for Stansted by 1.30am to get parked up, transfer to the airport and meet up with the group and organisers at 3.45am ready for the 6am flight to Marrakesh. Richard stuck to the plan but I stayed up chatting to Ben until 11.30pm then was too excited to consider sleeping. We always make sure there’s a bit of time in hand just in case things go pear shaped but this time, everything went smoothly and we got to the departure terminal around 3.15am so plenty of time to get a cup of tea and start chatting to a few of the other participants, some of whom had been at the airport since 7pm Wednesday! 

With everyone finally assembled (probably about 50 participants flying from Stansted, the rest from Luton, and a few Action Challenge staff), goody bags were handed out (event technical t-shirt, hat, buff, lip balm, blister plasters -pretty useful stuff for a change 😊) we all headed off through security. Got to say, I wasn’t too impressed with their security - the phrase ‘almost cursory’ springs to mind. At least we were all through quickly, then we had plenty of time to have another cuppa, buy water for the flight (no way was I going to pay Mr O’Learys prices! Yes, the horror of flying Ryanair 😬). There was only one spare seat on the plane and I couldn’t believe it was the window seat next to mine 😀 We were away on time and I found it rather ironic that our flight path took us straight over the Isle of Wight just before sunrise - I wondered if it was good omen or not! 

I’m usually glued to the view out of the window on flights but it was cloudy as soon as we crossed the Channel. With nothing much to look at, the lack of sleep caught up with me and I at least managed to fit in many small dozes on the 3hr 20 min flight. I relented on purchasing anything from Mr O’Leary and bought a cup of tea halfway - daylight robbery at £2.80!! I managed to nod off again with the tea in my lap and yes, rapidly woke up again with worryingly warm and wet legs and backside. Seeing the tea cup horizontally on my lap was a great reassurance 😂😂 Thank heavens for quick dry trousers. By the time we landed the trousers had dried off. Walking off the aircraft was like hitting the hard wall of heat - the temperature on arrival was 38C in the shade! 

The performance to get through Marrakesh airport was lengthy and rather frustrating. No one had mentioned that we each had to fill in a landing card and once in the terminal building, every single box where landing cards should have been was empty. Airport staff seemed not to care but after about 20 minutes, more were finally brought. So much detail was required - you even had to have an address of where you were staying in the country and the reps eventually gave us each a slip of paper which didn’t relate at all to where we were going but thank goodness it seemed to do the trick. Moroccan security was certainly very strict and all documents were examined very closely before our passports were stamped and we could then go and pick up our luggage. 

Luggage in hand, we then had to join more long queues to hand in the landing card then all luggage had to be put through a scanner before we were allowed out of the airport -nothing like being thorough! Oddly enough, despite being some of the last through passport control, we were in the first few to emerge into the amazing Moroccan sunshine. The trouser legs were zipped off with some speed before I started melting! We were soon directed to a group of minibuses waiting in the car park and as first on, we got the choice seats in the first minibus right behind the driver 😀 Realising that we were now waiting for the other participants who were flying in from Luton, we left our packs on the seats and explored the many desert plants around the car park and enjoyed the heat soaking into our bones. 

We didn’t have that long to wait and within half an hour, all buses were loaded and we were off, facing a 4+ hour journey to Ouarzarzate on the other side of the High Atlas. As we started the climb into the mountains, the roads seemed pretty good and with the heat and lack of sleep, I rapidly nodded off again. I woke up about an hour later when we stopped at a small restaurant in the mountains for lunch. Before the meal, one of the team of four doctors on the team came over and had a word about my AS and my stupidly restricted diet (severe allergies). Cynical that the organisers would really have made much effort to cater for me, I ate a sandwich I’d brought with me while everyone else tucked into a wonderfully fragrant tagine, only to be surprised by having my own egg salad put in front of me. There were still a handful of things there that I couldn’t eat, but I managed a decent feed before reacting to an unseen bit of onion being consumed 😕 3 Piriton tablets later and the reaction was calming down. It certainly ensured that I was very closely watched through the rest of the trip! 

Back into the bus and the food reaction combined with the Piriton made me really sleepy so I missed so much of the journey 😕 One unforeseen stop came in the High Atlas - the main road each side of the mountains has been widened and resurfaced in the last couple of years, but a long mid-section is still very narrow, twisty and so rough it’s like a theme park ride. We had to stop for half an hour at a bit where the road widening was in process. A digger perched up a steep embankment on loose rock was knocking down boulders into the road (technically they should have been landing in a lorry but the digger driver was a lousy shot 😂😂). We got out and took a much needed leg stretch and wouldn’t you just know it, huge heavy spots of rain began to fall. Everyone appreciated the rain though - refreshing to cool off a bit. Back on the road again I fell asleep again in short order (still beats me how I could have slept through that roller coaster ride). I woke up when we were through the high mountains and into the Anti Atlas, much lower hills fringing the Draa Valley. A quick comfort stop on the outskirts of Ouarzarzate as many were pretty desperate, then another ten minutes and we were at our hotel for the night 😊 After so many hours of not moving, it was a huge relief to loosen up. As we filed in, mint tea and Moroccan pastries were offered. At least as could have the tea and found that it seemed to be the only thing that stopped me having a permanently dry mouth in the heat, plus it was absolutely delicious 😊

We were sent through a baffling maze of corridors, dragging our 15kg kit bags (no lift) and eventually found our room on the 4th floor. Being high up though, it had a great views 😀 We literally only had time to freshen up before heading back down (getting lost several times on the way) for a briefing and from there, it was straight off for a poolside dinner accompanied by a band of drummers and ululating ladies! I sear they followed us to every dinner for the rest of the trip 😂😂 It was a buffet so at least I could choose the very few things that I could eat. I was brought my own plate of gluten free ‘bread’ was a real trial. It’s made from semolina, looks like a pancake and is only cooked on one side and is very floury on the other - so hard to swallow as it just dries your mouth out. The wonderful array of pastries on offer afterwards was a total torment too. Back in our room afterwards I had a couple of home made energy bars to top up. Absolutely shattered, we turned in by 9pm - we had to be up at 4.30 in the morning for breakfast at 5 then loading up again for a 5.30 departure and another two hours in the minibuses to the start near Jbel (Mount) Kissane. The 30 or so runners got an extra couple of hours in bed as they were starting at 10am. 

On our way to the startline - no idea why the image is sideways but I can't seem to change it


Everyone dozed, but the sky started to lighten as we neared our destination and what a beautiful sight it was. Date palms and old buildings silhouetted against a lemon, then pink and peach coloured sky with Venus shining like a beacon above the rising sun. Now I was starting to feel the excitement of what we were about to do 😊 We arrived at the start, a dusty roadside track leading to the village of Afra at 7.30am, bang on time. Mint tea, snacks and endless bottled water was on offer. Most of the 87 starters who were walking would have had plenty of time to queue for the three sani-privies (more of those in a moment!) but most of the chaps decided to save time and water the reed beds 😂😂 Also plenty of time for applying suncream, last minute faffing etc as we were told we’d start at 8.15am. It was very pleasantly cool (about 17C) in the early morning air and I absolutely savoured it as I knew I’d be dreaming of such a temperature in a couple of hours! Ready and with 15 minutes to spare, we had a wander and took a few photos of the beautiful mountain, Jbel Kissane, reflected in the stillness of the roadside lake. It had rained very heavily the night before our arrival (topping up the seasonal lake nicely) although you wouldn’t really have known it as the ground was as dry as a bone and any puddles that had formed were almost dry already. The challenge sani-privies throughout were amusing - usually two or three 10x10 foot tents together with a camping loo mounted on a 3x3 foot white podium in the middle - you really did feel like you were sitting on the throne up there 😂😂😂 No door ties so lots of whistling was in order and even then, there was the occasional surprise. 

A quick team photograph of everyone, then for once a warm up of sensible stretches (rather than the usual ridiculous 5 minutes of prancing around with Mr Motivator that Action Challenge seem fond of) and it was time to start. The excited chatter almost drowned out the countdown. I made sure that we were near the front - I didn’t want us to get caught up behind a mass of people right at the start just in case narrow tracks lay ahead. I needn’t have worried, there was a decent sandy, dusty track through Afra for the first mile or so and we rapidly overtook half a dozen people in front of us, making the most of the early morning coolness. The track wound its way through more plots of date palms than I’d ever seen before. There was one particular bird in the trees that had the most wonderful deep liquid song. I never did identify it as we never actually saw the bird, they were always deep in the palms. In front of everyone was a local Moroccan guide. I thought I was fast walker until I saw him! There were maybe 5 of 6 other walkers with him but there was no point pushing too hard at the start to try and catch up, it was going to be a long hot day ☀️☀️

We soon turned onto a rough track which constitutes the main road between the small villages in the Draa valley. The first surprise was that here we were in stony desert - something we were going to become very familiar with! The scenery was so dramatic.....absolutely breathtaking, from the palmeries alongside the river bed to the high mountains each side of this wide valley. The rocks here are over 450,000,000 years old - an almost inconceivable age - but as we’re both geologists, it was fascinating to be able to walk through a landscape where the geology is laid bare. This and the vastness of the sky and desert makes you feel so small and insignificant. It was just a real shame that we weren’t going to have any time to look closely at any of it. 

A few facts at this point - the Draa River is 1100km long and is Morocco’s longest river, although it was mostly dry at the moment as the real rains don’t arrive until December. I’ll bet when that happens, the scenery is unbelievable. Only about 225,000 people live in the Draa Valley, mostly in the 23 small villages and two towns between Agdz and Zagora. The valley has been occupied since prehistoric times. What I wouldn’t have given to be able to wander off and look for the many rock carvings and paintings in the rocks. No one knows exactly how old they are for sure but they’re thought to date back to the Stone Age. The Draa Valley was well known to the Romans and bits of amphorae can still easily be found on the surface. Struggles occurred throughout history for control of the valley - the southernmost area of Morocco where crops can be grown -  although Berbers seemed to dominate throughout. Ancient Kasbahs (small fortresses) are many in the valley, testament to its somewhat turbulent past.  The settlements are built from mud bricks with a rendering of clay mixed with straw on the outside, making them difficult to see as they blend into the landscape perfectly. The Valley is known as the ‘Date Basket’ of Morocco, growing more than 18 varieties as well as fruit, vegetables and henna. The cultivated land alongside the river can be as little as 100m wide to as much as 6km wide. All agriculture is very labour intensive with a complex system of terraces and irrigation ditches feeding the small fields, each enclosed by a foot high mud wall to help retain water. We weren’t that close to the river for much of the time, but when we were, the villagers were out in the fields getting them ready to be planted when the rains come. It was so incredibly wonderful to drink this all in as we walked along. 

About 8km in it was starting to get pretty hot. There were many long low inclines that seemed to go on and on and nearing the top of one of them I started to feel quite peculiar. I broke into a drenching sweat but had goosebumps, felt quite light headed and also felt a little sick. Richard was quick to pick up on my slowing pace and increasingly heavy breathing.  Despite sipping water fairly frequently, I doubt I was drinking enough. What’s more, it only struck me then that I had totally messed up fuelling. Breakfast had just been a small tin of pears that we took with us and half of one of the semolina ‘pancakes’. We stopped briefly while he dug out a couple of home made energy bars for me and insisted I drank a large quantity of water. Within 5 minutes, I felt as right as rain again but it was salutary lesson - it would be so easy to get things wrong out here! 

The first rest stop hove into view near the top of the next rise. The little toe on my right foot has been a complete pain since the IoW Challenge in April, blistering easily. I’d taped it before even starting in the hope that it wouldn’t be a problem but the increasing heat makes your feet swell and by that first 10k stop, I already had a significant hot spot. The the bones in that foot that have played up all year as well and the extra heat sadly didn’t bring any respite there so maybe there’s a mechanical problem that I need to get looked at. Richard was also keen to point out that as I walk, that foot now turns outwards (it never used to). A planned 5 minute ‘refill our water’ stop turned into an almost 20 minute re-tape the foot stop 😕 Out came the ‘cool scarf’ I’d bought the week before coming out - best thing I’ve ever bought! On with the compression gloves, soaked both items and on we went.

(That lovely piece of invaluable kit - the 'cool scarf', proved to be one of the best pieces of kit I’ve ever bought. You soak it, hold it in the air for a second, then wrap it around your neck and it really does feel ice cold. Nothing too special about it, just a piece of light fabric with lots of holes in that works by evaporation. Highly recommended for any events you might do next year when it’s hot (cheap on eBay too 😊). I also wore compression (half-finger) gloves as my hands swell up ridiculously when we walk long distance until it’s like trying to operate a bunch of bananas. Here also I used something I’d read about where research had shown that if athletes hands are kept cold, their core temperature also stays lower, so the gloves were frequently soaked too. In retrospect, I can hand on heart say that without those two things, the heat would have been way too much!) 

Re-taped and more comfortable, on we went, trying to maintain a good pace in the increasing heat. Another couple of k’s and I rapidly realised I’d lost the battle with the toe and a blister was forming. An unscheduled stop to apply a blister plaster brought immediate relief thank goodness. Through small villages where the children waved and shouted  ‘Bonjour’, the stunning young mothers looked shyly as us we passed by, the older women looked rather disapproving (covering shoulders and knees reduces the offence caused but many didn’t sadly) and the older men sat in the shade of walls talking and watching what must have seemed like an endless stream of walkers pass by. The first villages were all incredibly friendly, with almost everyone smiling and waving. After almost 4 hours and 22km, we reached our lunch stop. It was now 12.15pm, the sun was reaching its highest point and the heat was peaking. It was 33C in the shade and there was barely a breath of wind to bring any kind of relief. We dragged a big soft mat into the shade of a palm and sat for 5 minutes, drinking 4 glasses of water each before doing anything else. Richard headed into the small tent where food was laid out buffet style. Surprisingly, there weren’t even many flies around. Most people crowded around the tables in the tent but it was so hot in there I don’t know how they stood it! I’d already decided that I’d self cater for lunches and ate another tin of pears, a rather soggy piece of gluten free French baguette, crisps and an energy bar. Then it was time to look at that dratted toe and change socks. I was dismayed to find that the blister had grown, escaping from its blister plaster an now extended all alongside the underside of the toe plus a small blister was developing on the next toe as well 😕 I sun dried the feet then applied more blister plasters, plenty of Trail Toes to the rest and put on clean socks. Putting my foot back in my boot didn’t exactly feel wonderful but it was better than it had been. We topped up our water and hit the road again.

Another 10k to the next rest stop and now the heat was fearsome. Every time we went through a small village, the heat being thrown back from the walls was incredible. By now, quite a few were passing us in the the ‘rescue’ vehicles, being moved further up the course then dropped off to resume walking. It didn’t seem quite fair that these people would be getting into camp long before us and it would be interesting to see how the organisers would sort out the timings given! Every vehicle left massive choking dust clouds - so, buff up for a few minutes, get even hotter, then breathe again. In the few villages, the children were getting bolder, constantly shouting ‘stylo, stylo’. Boy that grew old quickly. Fortunately our walking pace was still fast enough to rapidly leave them behind. We heard later that stones were thrown and even a catapult fired by older children at some of the slower walkers! The track was getting quite variable - much stonier and rough and it was good to take a quick 13 minute break at 32k as we drank another four glasses of water each, ate crisps and topped up our supplies. I wasn’t going to look at the toe again, it was getting increasingly painful so I knew it wouldn’t be a pretty sight. The rest stop was littered with exhausted walkers and runners laying on mats, draped over chairs groaning gently. We felt quite bright and energetic by comparison! 

On to the last section of the day. It felt so good saying that to each other 😊 I put on a long sleeved top, soaking the sleeves to help stay cooler. From that stop the next 10k were really hard work. The track went up and down like a yo-yo, got quite stony, then had boulders as well great sandy dips where vehicles had got stuck - real ankle turning territory. Every time the track turned slightly towards the hills, I swear the temperature went up five degrees. More walkers were passing in vehicles, finding the heat just too much. Only a handful of runners had passed us and no walkers (on their feet) passed us at all but we did pass one or two who had been in front from the start. Much of the time time we couldn’t see anyone in front or behind at this stage. That last 10k seemed relentless with the only slight relief being that just occasionally, a tiny bit of breeze blew and even though it was a hot breeze, it felt good. At last, knowing there could only be another km or so to go, the track evened out as we entered the larger village of Akhellouf. Now we knew we were close as our overnight camp was just beyond it. 

As we’d walked through this larger village, I rapidly learned that if you high-fived the kids, they stopped shouting for pens! About halfway through the village there were six lads aged about 8 all in a line. ‘Bonjours’ and smiles were exchanged and the high fiving began. As I reached the last one, his hand shot out and he tried to snatch the poles that were slung across my chest. He was incredibly fast but thankfully they were well secured so he failed. A shout from behind told us that a male relative wasn’t at all happy about what he’d just tried. Neither was I, it came as quite a shock! I’m still wondering if he got a clipped ear for that. Eyes forward after that and thankfully there was still enough in the tank to up the pace a bit until we were through the village. Atop a hill, we could see the campsite. Broad smiles of relief that soon we could stop and cool down some 😊 In typical Action Challenge style, the sandy track up to the campsite was the steepest section of the day and try as I might, I couldn’t get up it without my hips cramping so had to pause a couple of times. There were loads of people already in camp, but I knew that most of them hadn’t passed us on foot! 

Straight to our tent and off with the boots and and packs. Oh dear! The toe was now blistered all around the whole way and the toenail was lost in this big fat blister 😕 Oh well, just as well I’d bought some Sketchers Trail shoes last week (thank you so much for that recommendation Gerry 😊). There was no way that foot would go back in the boots. Both feet were swollen too. Our bags had already been put in our tent for us and a ten minute lay down on the nice thick mats within was bliss 😊 Richard headed off for a shower while I rested a little more. He came back renewed, talking of hot powerful showers - now that was a real bonus in the middle of nowhere! Out with the flip flops (bliss!) and sure enough, after a short time queuing, there were indeed boiling hot powerful showers. Sounds crazy wanting a hot shower in the desert but the sun was well down and you cool down pretty quickly when you stop. It also helped with the highly upper back pain from carrying my oak. It certainly gave  me a new lease of life too. The desert camp was incredibly well done. A huge area was covered in rugs and dinner was cooking. The last walker came in at 7.30 by which time it was almost dark. She was a very petite American girl who’d won her place in a competition. She was neither a walker or runner but a swimmer, who’d had little time to train and was so proud that she’d walked every step and we gave her a huge round of applause. 

Sadly there wasn’t much I could actually eat for dinner other than plain rice. One of the organisers came across and tried to find something more for me to eat but the only thing available was potato. I could live with that 😊 She explained I’d have to wait 20 minutes for it to be cooked. I could live with that too, but when it eventually came, it was sliced and covered in cayenne and pepper - two foods on the forbidden list 😕 Oh well, energy bars for dinner. After drinking a good few glasses of water and a couple of cups of tea we were ready to turn in at 21.30. It was very reassuring to know (given how close we were to that large village) that guards would be patrolling the perimeter all night while we slept. As the camp site was on the top of a hill, that was also reassuring - no one could approach without being seen. The only slight disappointment was that we’d been so looking forward to seeing a stunning desert sky but as luck would have it, the sky completely clouded over shortly after sunset 😕  

A three season sleeping bag had been deemed essential on the kit list, however, it was way too warm to get in them. I slept with knees to ankles on my kit bag with the sleeping bag zipped up to my knees and had the best sleep in months 😊 I even managed a small pee before bed - my second all day - it was incredibly difficult to stay properly hydrated even sipping water every few minutes then drinking a lot at the rest stops as well. My kidneys must have celebrated as I had to make a trip at 2am as well. I could see the guards patrolling close by and a thin sliver of cloudless sky near the horizon showed stars twinkling away. In the loo tent was the most stunning moth I’ve seen all year, so I made a trip back to the tent for my camera. The wildlife during the day had been a bit disappointing, only having seen two lizards, lots of large ants and a handful of species different bird.

Up again a 5am and to my huge surprise I felt wonderful - no stiffness or soreness apart from my toe. Richard felt fine too 😀 The foot swelling had gone down with having them elevated all night and I was a very happy bunny 😊 Got my Sketchers on and despite the rotten blister, the bigger toe box in the Sketchers made the toe feel almost comfortable. As we went off to breakfast, there were people lurching and groaning all over the place and having talked to a few people the night before we knew why. So many of them had only done a maximum of 15km once a week for the last few weeks, thinking that was enough training. They were in for a tough day! The Doctors tent had a huge queue of people waiting for blisters to be sorted. I had nothing to complain about compared to some. I avoided the docs though, I’d rather deal with them myself. They were draining the blisters and injecting them with iodine - ouch! Another tin of pears and my penultimate piece of now very soggy bread and a bowl of my own cornflakes for me (yes we had milk in the desert camp!) washed down with mint tea 😊 All lined up at the start at 6.45 for the briefing as instructed and ready for day 2. Briefing done, another sensible stretching session and on the dot of 7 we were off again. 

Again, we got away quickly with just the guide and maybe half a dozen people in front. Out of camp down a dusty track then a right sharp turn over a ridge and a bit of a surprise - a long steep slope down covered in loose rocks and small boulders 😮 What Rob would call a highly technical section 😂😂 My ankles are highly unstable and without the boots were quite hilarious. I rolled them so many times going down that slope but fortunately, years of abuse allow me to do that without consequence now. We made our way down quickly considering the rocks and the sight of the sun rising over the next ridge was so stunningly beautiful.

Sadly, many people weren’t so lucky and a few got badly sprained ankles and had to withdraw. Across a flat bouldery plain at the bottom that also had occasional sandy hollows then we faced a steep rocky slope at the other side. I looked and thought there was no way I’d get up it without stopping, but I dug in and I did 😊 At the top, one of our guides was waiting and for the next 5kms over this rough terrain, I learned so much about Morocco and it’s culture from him. I was gutted to learn that he’d been in front at the start and when he’d first gone over the ridge, he’d seen a desert fox standing right next to one of the marker flags - I so wish I could have seen that. There was no real path , just a line of pink flags to follow. It didn’t seem any time at all until we reached the first rest stop at 10k. It was uncomfortably hot again already so I dipped my cool scarf in a bucket, wet down my gloves, drank 4 glasses of water and even managed a visit to the sani-privy - definitely hydrating better today so far 😊  

Ten minutes and we were off again, next stop was for lunch. The toe hadn’t been too bad so far today but after 10km, the feet were swelling rapidly again and the toe was really starting to smart. The terrain now was sometimes fine gravel track (wonderful) and sometimes off piste stony desert (rather harder on the legs and feet) but we were making good progress. When the route took us closer to the river and a large area of palms, the occasional shade from a tree or a wall was pure bliss 😊 Several times we saw policemen patrolling the road and they were incredibly friendly, applauding us as if they couldn’t quite believe why a bunch of nutters would want to walk through a desert 😂😂 Our guide had told me earlier that in this part of the desert, even locals get lost fairly frequently and die and judging by the number of animal skeletons around, so did their stock! The villagers were all out in the small terraced fields here between the palms, working away in the devilishly hot sun. Occasionally we had to step aside for carts laden with palm leaves or reeds, either pulled by a donkey or wheeled by hand. Our guide explained they were collecting winter fodder for their cows, goats and sheep. Our lunch stop came into view - chatting to the guide certainly was making time pass very quickly! Lunch was in the middle of a palmerie so lots of shade. I’d saved my last tin of pears and soggy bread for this stop and topped that off with another energy bar and crisps and 6 glasses of water. It coincided with the sun being at its highest and by the time we’d eaten, topped up our water, been to the sani-privy (that was three times today already, the kidneys were working overtime 😂😂), looked at the the foot (bad 😕) and changed socks a hour had passed. The ground was very rutted at this stop and my abiding memory will always be of quite sickening foot pain as I stumbled over the uneven ground. 

As we left the lunch stop, there was no arrow directing us where to go, so back we went and asked. Turn right they said, so off we went. Across a small bridge over a large drainage ditch and a steep dusty road lay ahead leading into the town of Beni Zoli. All navigational markings  so far had been either blue spray painted dots or small pink flags. In front was a green arrow - had we missed something? We stopped and looked at the GPX file and we seemed to have missed a turning so back we went. Nope, no signs directing us along the only other available path so back to camp we went again to ask again. Ah they said, we used green paint through the next town - shame they forgot to mention it really! Back onto the steep dusty hill into town and three small children were struggling to push a cart up the hill so Richard gave them a hand and there were many smiling faces 😊 We’d gone quite a way along the road and seen no further markings. Consulting the GPX again it still looked as though we were way off course. We turned around again to see if we’d missed a sign. A runner was coming towards us and said no, this was the right route and it would take us right through the middle of town - something else they’d neglected to tell us was that the route had been changed at the last minute (no reason given). We should have been walking a by the dry river bed but instead we were redirected through town. It even had a tarmac road (with a roundabout at one end!) - something that wasn’t terribly welcome in that heat! 

As we entered the town, a huge school was just turning out for the day and the roads and pavements were full of teenagers, looking sideways at us, sniggering and commenting to each other (or maybe I’m just paranoid!). The atmosphere didn’t feel terribly welcoming and if I’d been on my own I’m not sure I’d have felt safe at all. Sniggering, sideways glancing teenagers in large crowds in any country would be disconcerting. We upped the pace through town and a couple of runners joined us, walking for a short while. There was probably no danger at all, but it just felt safer in larger numbers. As we got to the other end of town, the houses thinned out and hordes of small children came running out. Off we go again with the shouts of ‘Stylo, Stylo’. The guide had told us earlier to just ignore them and that they have more pens than hey could possibly need in their schools. We walked on and the horde dropped further and further behind until they lost interest. Then along came two teenage lads on pushbikes. They were a different story! They positively harassed us, asking for anything they could see that we were carrying. They were riding very close to us (particularly me -they seem to concentrate on females) and I really thought that at any moment, they’d make a grab for something. Richard was right behind me so I still felt relatively safe, just slightly unnerved. From behind on the road came a shout as an elder approached on a moped. He’d seen what was going on and I don’t know what he said to those two lads but they cycled off at top speed. He followed them until they were out of sight then turned around and drove back past us, exchanging knowing nods. We didn’t see those lads again thank goodness. 

The last buildings passed, we finally came to the end of the long tarmac section and were back into the palmeries again, rejoining the route that was originally set out in the GPX files. My sense of calm returned. Richard hadn’t been worried by it but understood why I’d felt threatened after the incident with the poles the day before. Now there was just the occasional small house with smiling small children again and farm workers shouting out a friendly ‘Bonjour’. The route became well marked again as we followed irrigation ditches and small undulating sand ridges and as we approached the final rest stop at 29km, we met the first real deep sand. My hips immediately protested but not as much as that darned foot 😩 Again I decided not to look at the foot -nothing I could do about it anyway now. All through today I’d struggled with pain in my upper back and neck as well. I’d done all of our training carrying two litres of water (recommended for the 10km between refill stops) but on the challenge I was carrying 3 litres so that I could use one of them to wet the the cool scarf and gloves. Today I was really paying the price and between that and the foot, today wasn’t going quite as well as I thought it would when I’d woken up feeling so good. Still, at the last rest stop, we were told that because of the route being changed, today wasn’t quite a marathon and there was only 9km to go. I must admit I was both annoyed at the shorter distance but also relieved the pain would soon lessen. 

Another 4 glasses of water, top up the water supplies, grab a few crisps, eat two energy bars, soak the scarf and gloves - it was all routine now. Off we went on the last section, finally knowing that this challenge was going down. That felt so good 😊 Now we were in real desert sand, hard on the hips, reflecting the heat back at us even more. The routine kicked in again - dip the scarf and gloves, wet the hat, control the breathing, keep putting one foot in front of the other, put my hand on the Realbuzz Baton carefully stowed in a back pocket where I could reach round and touch it whenever I felt the need and in those last few km, that was frequently! There was less cloud than yesterday and it felt so flipping hot. More irrigation ditches to navigate but the markers disappeared! We started walking several metres apart, backtracked a bit, tried again and eventually saw a single marker in the distance. Then we were onto another seemingly vast gravel and rock plain. In the distance we could see mountains with sand dunes in front - that had to be the finish but we couldn’t see it. Then we realised we couldn’t see any pink flags here either. There were three walkers in the distance who’d overtaken us at the last rest stop and they’d split up, casting around for route markers, apparently lost. 

We went back a bit again to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. We hadn’t. We saw the distant walkers look back and wave at us - they’d picked up the trail! That was a huge relief I can tell you. Then we saw an isolated dwelling with a mother and small children outside waving a bunch of pink flags. Richard was so cross he went across to ‘have a chat’. The mother was adamant that no flags had been moved. Really??? No point arguing though. Ahead on a track were two of ‘our’ white minibuses with local guides standing outside them. Richard told them about the missing flags and in typical relaxed style, they shrugged their shoulders and said that children had been pinching the flags all the way along the course (explained quite a lot!) and they were parked here so that they could be seen from where the flags had been taken. Just one problem with that - we certainly couldn’t see the minibuses from where the flags first went awol. That was bad and we told them so. We heard later that having seen more walkers wandering around the plain, they eventually went out and replaced the missing markers. Can’t blaming the organisers really for a couple of lazier guides. 

Finally, we could see two marker flags.....the finish line was in sight. I was really hobbling by now. I shouted at myself so many times in those last 5k to walk properly but nothing changed, the pain was pretty grim 😕 I was overheating as I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to wet my scarf and gloves. Without a word, Richard stopped me and used his own water to cool me down - he’s such an amazing guy 😊 as we got closer I took the baton from the back pocket, got Richard to take a photo and summoned a huge grin. Bugger you bones and blisters, this challenge is mine and it’s nearly done.

I mustered everything I had left as we covered those last few yards but for the life of me couldn’t pick up any speed. The finish was up the face of a dune - not the huge one we’d heard stories of, but a little puny one. That was a relief too 😂😂  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but there certainly wasn’t going to a Kenyan finish here! We lurched up the dune, between the flags, I looked skyward hoping my Dad was watching as we raised our arms in the air and ROARED. No photographer though and that’s a moment that can never be recaptured sadly. So we have a couple of photos from a minute or two later, medals on, smiling again.

Again there were people at the finish who we hadn’t seen all day -odd. I flopped down on a carpet in the shade and the Sketchers came off. I was astonished at how much sand came out of them - no wonder my foot had hurt so much towards the end 😂😂 Richard put a cold Sprite in my hand (something I can no longer have in the UK as they fill it with acesulfame and aspartame - both very bad for me personally. Here it was in its old format with real sugar and it tasted like pure nectar. I turned away from everyone as a few quiet tears began to fall. That happened after the IoW too. Presumably the relief but my emotions were certainly running high right then, thinking about my Dad and how proud he would have been, thinking of you guys back home and knowing we’d achieved something pretty special. Richard didn’t get a single blister and took it all in his stride, he was brilliant throughout 😊

Someone said if we wanted to walk a bit further there were bigger dunes a little distant. At that point I wouldn’t have walked another step for a gold pig, the pain was still hammering away. Half an hour of laying in the shade with cold drinks, my back on the ground and legs on a chair to take the pressure off my back and the world seemed a much better place again. I texted HD, then the elation came. We’d done it, every single challenge this year met and what a year it’s been. By rights the challenges should have been dashed by the stress fractured ankle back in April. By my reckoning, it just made the challenges that followed more challenging and I’d beaten the lot. Take that bones!! 😊 

The trainers had to go back on for the shuffle to a minibus and the short drive to our hotel in Zagora. When we arrived, many were lounging by the pool - where had they all come from? They hadn’t overtaken us. No matter, all I wanted now was to wash the dust off and lay down. Slight problem, the hotel temporarily had no water but it should be back on in an hour or so 😩. A quick wipe down with baby wipes had to do -at least then we could go in the pool. Cossies on, down we went. Legs into the pool and ...... hellfire it was icewater in there and I’m a real coward when it comes to cold water. I was happy to sit on the side and let my legs be soothingly frozen until I couldn’t feel my foot any more. Richard dived straight in, did a couple of lengths of the pool then got out again, suitably chilled . The water did eventually come back on but let’s just say I had to run round under the shower to get wet 😂😂 I managed to get a small salad to eat at dinner (with another energy bar afterwards) while everyone else had more tasty things.

After that, a quick briefing and another early night as there’d be another early start in the morning for the long drive back to Marrakech. I slept on top of the bed with my legs on my kit bag again on my sleeping bag - it worked the night before and it worked again 😊 Up again at 5am, did the final repack then went for breakfast at 6. I ate the gluten free cornflakes I’d taken with hot milk (no cold milk available strangely) and had the bonus of scrambled eggs and freshly squeezed orange juice - lush 😊 Outside with the bags, onto the minibuses and away by 7.15. I was determined to stay awake for the journey back as the first leg to Ouarzarzate was new to us and I’d dozed through way too much of the second section to Marrakesh. Comfort stop after two hours, and we reached the hotel where lunch had been organised at 11.30. Food wasn’t ready until 12.15 so it was nice to relax and have a look around. The hotel was spectacular - incredible hand carved plaster decoration, mosaic fountains, stained glass windows in a tower, a beautiful pool area and lovely gardens to wander round in. We saw more wildlife in the gardens than in the last two days (day two we saw one lizard and and one desert rat) and that wasn’t much (bit of a disappointment that). Lunch was served in a Bedouin tent in the gardens which was incredibly cool inside. A plain omelette was produced just for me and it was gorgeous 😊 Everyone else had the most glorious smelling meatballs and spicy veg. I so miss really tasty food 😕

Back into the minibuses for the crossing of the High Atlas back to Marakesh. After a couple of hours, another comfort stop at a grockle shop. No prices on anything, everything had to be battered for but haggled prices were still steep. They had some of the most incredible fossils and minerals for sale but we resisted temptation, instead visiting the little supermarket next door where we found the Moroccan equivalent of Almond Magnums. No challenge is complete without a Magnum in my book 😊 Despite the fact they’d already melted and been refrozen so that much of the chocolate fell into our laps and the ice cream had recrystallised, they were so very much appreciated 😀 

For the journey back we were sitting on the back row of a minibus directly above the rear axle and once we reached the rough section of the mountain roads, we got a rougher ride than most. I’m sure people would pay extra for a ride like that. I managed to stay awake all the way back and the dramatic scenery was so very impressive. As we finally pulled into our hotel in Marrakesh, we realised they’d saved the best until last - this was a positive palace! A balcony, a double bed each, a deep bath and endless hot water. Should we have a quick shower then go and look at the famous souks? Nope! The thought of a hot deep soak was far more appealing 😊 Dressed and clean we had 45 minutes before dinner, so took a walk through a small park down towards the souks but never did see them. Maybe one day 😊 The ‘celebratory dinner’ was a bit of a let down - it was just dinner really. Another egg salad was brought my way (sigh) but it filled a small hole. Couldn’t have any of the desserts so that was that. A few went into the hotel bar and drank until 4am but us oldies were so knackered we retired to our room, sat on the balcony and had a slug from the Scotch we bought at Stansted with some ice cold coke that I’d snaffled from the finish line and put in the fridge in the room when we arrived. 

Turned into the lovely bed with loads of big fluffy pillows - bliss 😊 Could I sleep? Not for longer than 30 minutes at a time 😩 Walking towards that big lovely bed I’d kicked my kit bag and you can probably guess with which toe. In addition to the now impressively massive blister, I had a bleeding toenail as well that throbbed all night - it never rains eh? 😂😂 Up at 6 for a quick breakfast and off to the airport by 7. The security was even more fearsome flying home and yes, another form had to be filled out to leave the country and yes it took 20 minutes to find any 😂😂 The stern chap at passport control looked up as he stamped my passport and said “Clickety Clack, Clickety Clack, all my life is Clickety Clack” and smiled at me. Don’t know why but that really made me smile 😊 Just enough time to buy water and a couple of small presents before boarding the plane. An uneventful flight back and an irritating 30 minute wait on the plane after landing waiting for steps to be rolled up to the plane (staff shortages!), but apart from that the rest of the journey home was smooth. 

From Marrakesh right back to Stansted we flew over thick cloud. It was only when we got back we found out why - we’d brought the Saharan sand back with us via Storm Ophelia 😂😂 As we left Stansted the sky was a peculiar ominous yellow due to the Saharan dust up there. As we approached home, the sun appeared as a red orb through the cloud - years since I’ve seen that! 

So, there we have it, last challenge of the year complete, £1200 raised for NASS through the generosity of friends and another book written in my Realbuzz blog! If you stuck with it to the end, you must be pretty hungry and thirsty by now 😂😂 You’ll be relieved to hear I’m taking a break for a while now to rest and heal that foot, so no more long blogs for a while.....promise 😊 If you want to see the entire collection of 200-odd photos, feel free to find me on Facebook or Instagram, theyre all up online there.

Afterthoughts -

It turns out that the event wasn’t even timed nor officially photographed. Every single person who took part got their medal and rightly so, it was tough out there and some got blisters that I’ve never seen the likes of before. Damn my competitive nature though, I’d love to know how we did compared to everyone else who walked the lot (even Richard wanted to know and he isn’t competitive at all!). I understand perfectly why it’s done this way - the risks and dangers of walking or running in the desert are very real. Heatstroke strikes quickly and can be a killer. If that had been explained before we started It would have been good. I’ve suggested to the organisers that next year, maybe they could have two categories of entrant - those who want to compete and those for whom doing the challenge is the only reward they need. One thing for sure, the organisers did an amazing job - everything ran like clockwork, we were all very well looked after and they tried so hard to cater for my weird diet. Would I recommend it as a challenge? Absolutely! The experience alone really is something unique. 

One marvellous 68 year old lady doing the challenge took part in the MDS this year and completed 3 days. She’s trying again next year and it’s certainly got us thinking 😊 We haven’t decided which challenges we’ll do next year, but there’ll definitely be a big one in there for sure. Meanwhile, a couple of weeks off now to try and let that toe heal a bit -Parkrun excepted of course. I was Tail Walker yesterday dressed as a Gorilla - first anniversary of Homewood Parkrun so it was fancy dress. It was slippery, muddy and hot in that suit - just like being back in the desert apart from the mud 😂😂

And Finally!

Now the Snowdon Marathon weekend is almost upon us. I can’t wait to reunite with old friends and meet up with those Buzzers I haven’t yet met, to shout for our amazing Buzzer runners as they tackle that fearsome course and to see HD finish his final marathon this year hand in hand with his wonderful Mrs H. Glory is there for the taking Buzzers ..... look to your fellow Buzzers and supporters as you run, impossible IS a lie, so many have proved that this year  💪💪💪

 

Have a great week and happy training everyone 😊

 

 

 

 

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