Any adventurous runner wanting to conquer the toughest race in the world has to be prepared to take on the Marathon des Sables.
Cayman can now boast of two locals having run the tortuous 150-mile desert event near the town of Ouarzazate in Morocco.
Canadian businessman Kenneth Krys and fund accountant Rebecca Lillywhite from England, can hold their heads high having completed the ultimate of ultra-runs.
It was held in severe weather conditions at the end of March for five days and for all the expense, intensive training, sacrifice and sheer force of will needed to reach the finishing line, both feel it was 100 per cent worth it.
‘The first day was in a sense the best because everyone had all this pent up energy,’ says Lillywhite, looking relaxed and not at all traumatised in the Caymanian Compass offices last week beside Krys.
Marathon des Sables started a day later than planned because flash floods – in the desert! – caused too many logistical problems. Roads were impassable and the bivouac site was flooded. The ‘tents’ were not waterproof, basically just sheets on sticks. So the course was reduced from roughly 150 miles to 135 and ran over five days instead of six.
All the competitors had a big adrenaline rush because of the months of build up and preparation. The fact that there were TV crews and helicopters added to the sense of occasion.
‘I felt a great sense of achievement,’ says Lillywhite. ‘The whole thing was a big adventure, it was pretty exciting and there were definite ups and downs during the race.
‘The last day was probably my best. I had a sudden burst of energy from somewhere so when I finished it seemed that the whole event was over so quickly. It was sad in a sense how quickly it passed,’ she adds.
The third day was the longest stage. Fifty-seven miles of torture. It had been scheduled for around 50 miles but was extended because complaints from the hard-core competitors was that the whole race was being shortened too much after the delayed start.
Lillywhite says: ‘The night before the long day, the organisers came as we were getting ready to sleep and said that it was going to be extended by at least 10k (six miles), sweet dreams! What!
‘I called the rep back and said: ‘You realise it’s too early for April Fool’s.’ And he said: ‘Yeah, this is real.’ So that was a shock and caused a bit of a sleepless night.
‘The lowest point for me, was on the long day, somewhere around midnight or one in the morning. I’d made the error of not drinking and eating enough and ran out of energy. I got very tired and was sick. There was probably a million times when I wanted to quit, but somehow managed to keep going.’
Lillywhite, 30, had to stop for about three hours at 2.30am for a break to get some sleep before first light and continuing that long stage. It cost her about 200 places and took about 28 hours to do.
Krys did it in around 18 hours and the elite runners completed in less than nine. Everybody was given 36 hours to complete it so there was not much break for Lillywhite.
Thankfully, she wasn’t slow enough for the herdsmen on camels to force her to drop out completely for being too slow.
‘That stage alone inspires me to do it again, just to get a faster time. I was trying to be competitive until then but lost interest and just wanted to finish it. But on the last stage, a full marathon of 26.2 miles, I ran it all the way and got annoyed with myself for not running more on previous days.
‘Overall it was great. On the first two days I felt it wasn’t that hard but then the long stage changed my mind.
‘The heat wasn’t as bad as I expected but at least it was a little more humid because of the rain. Dehydration was not a problem, only on the long stage and I blame myself for that.’
Nutrition was basically just dehydrated food that water was added to. Lillywhite had to force herself to eat at the end of each day because she simply did not feel like it. One competitor had some beef jerky with him that he shared which turned out to be their equivalent to a Mac attack.
‘That was nice because it was savoury and not like all the energy bars we were used to which tend to be sweet.
‘My favourite time of the day was at sunset when everyone is back, you’re lying there with your shoes off, airing your feet, everyone is cooking their food and you’re comparing notes about your day and having a little banter and tent bonding.
‘Because you spent so much time with your tent members and saw each other at your best and worst you became a tight-knit group.’
Any fights? ‘Nope, we didn’t have the energy!
‘Six of them were from Scotland who knew each other and we’re going to keep in touch. Next time I’m in Edinburgh we’ll go out running together then go for a few beers.
‘It was a great experience. Overall I loved it. It’s amazing how quickly you forget the painful parts. I guess that’s our way of dealing with it.’
Lillywhite came 645th out of 840. Not bad for her first time but the competitive instincts in her now wish for a better place.
‘At least on the last day I came 457th, so I’m very pleased with that. I encourage anyone thinking about it to go for it. I think it’s really doable.’
She adds: ‘People imagine it’s harder than it really is. As long as you’ve got a good level of fitness and you’re prepared to be a bit uncomfortable for a week, it’s possible. A lot of it is just mental stamina. I know a lot of people in Cayman who are very capable of doing it.
‘Just before I went, I got a message from a friend in England, Julian Crabtree, who does ultra runs and he said to remember to enjoy it because it’s over before you know it and that is so true.
‘So I made sure I didn’t just look at the ground and stopped counting to 100 but looked around and took it all in. The counting was the only way I could keep going.’
What about the, eh, toilet facilities? ‘Yeah, well I’m not going to go into details!’
It was won by Mohamed Ahansal, who had won it twice previously. His brother Lachen, winner on 10 occasions and pre-race favourite, dropped out on the long stage. The first woman was Moroccan too.
Tomorrow, Krys gives his take on his Marathon des Sables experience.