Conquering the Marathon des Sables – Moore's Ali Moullin takes on the world's toughest foot race

Last month, manager Alison Moullin embarked upon what the Discovery Channel has classed “the toughest foot race in the world” – the Marathon des Sables. Despite having previously completed 25 marathons, four 100km ultramarathons and the Four Days Marches in Holland, Ali knew she was in for a real challenge with this one!

During the 257km, seven-day ultramarathon, which takes place in the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco, Ali was self-sufficient carrying all her own food and equipment for the week on her back. Communal Berber tents were pitched every night, water was rationed and if you exceeded the ration you received a time penalty. Here, Ali tells all about her once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Wow, Marathon des Sables – what an event! Would I do it again? Most certainly.

Being the only person from Guernsey taking part I feared it would be hard to integrate with the others, who had all met previously through doing various events in the UK, but I needn’t have worried. It was like being part of one big family, with everyone coming together and helping one another.

It was established quite early on during the long bus journey from Ouarzazate to our first bivouac (tent area, to you and I) that we needed to sort ourselves into groups of eight tentmates. An important decision, given that these people would be our only source of sanity over the next week! I was sitting next to a lady named Louise on the bus who I got on extremely well with, so immediately we paired up. Her only stipulation for joining a tent was that at no point were her tentmates allowed to declare they were giving up. To be honest that option never really crossed my mind, so that was fine with me!

We soon completed our gang and found that the humour and conversations were quick to flow… and the tone quick to lower! There really wasn’t much, if anything, that was off-limits for discussion and a good laugh. All in all, I feel we had a really good tent (number 119 – the British were allocated tents 101-158 on the outer ring), especially as there was still eight of us at the very end.

Day one of the marathon

The first day was meant to be an introduction to the rest of the week and it was certainly an eye opener – especially with the heat, terrain and realisations around food rationing, carrying our water supply, dealing with blisters, getting sleep etc.

Louise and I were together at the start line and it soon became evident that her strengths were sand dunes while mine were the long stony straights. We were equally matched on pace so agreed to continue together each day.

Day one had a mixture of dunes for 5km then a long stony straight (13km long!) followed by mini sand dunes which just seemed to go up and down forever. We eventually reached a small hill just before the finish. There were times when we hardly spoke for hours, but then there were also times where we did nothing but chat. You could see each day that people had grouped together based on strengths and who they got on with.

Day two

Day two brought our first encounter with a jebel. The sand leading up to it was extremely hard to ascend due to how soft it was. Once out of a series of dunes, there was a steep climb up the rocky gorge to reach the jebel’s summit. It was only then that we realised we’d need to use a rope to get back down because of how steep it was (a technical descent of over 20%!). However, the rope only went half way, so after that we were on our own to navigate the rest of the way down.

It was at this point that we realised we were quite far from the checkpoint and unless we really pushed it we would be disqualified. I am absolutely petrified of heights, but that fear disappeared as soon as I realised I could be picked up and put in a truck at any minute!

Once down the jebel we started jogging (as best we could considering the conditions) and as we arrived at the checkpoint we asked if we were in time. The lady shook her head and oh my god my heart sank, but then a guy who appeared to be in charge advised us that our times had been recorded so we should grab water and go, and we should be in a good place to finish within the time limit. So the next 5km were done near enough running the whole way and with absolutely no chatting!

We passed quite a few people and all of a sudden we became part of quite a large group. We made it to the day’s finish line with quite a bit of time to spare, and the boys from our tent gave us a guard of honour (to be honest they did this every day!) while other tents clapped us as we walked by.

Day three

Yippee, only four jebels to navigate, climb and descend…! The first was relatively straightforward while the second was quite technical and steep (18%). The third presented another steep climb (15%) and we had to watch our footing as we progressed along the crest of the jebel as it was very narrow in places. The steep, sandy descent which followed did nothing for my fear of heights as it was like going over a ridge, but the next 5km was through a nice valley leading to the second checkpoint.

This checkpoint was at the base of the fourth and final jebel of the day and the largest jebel of the whole event. It started off with sand then onto rocky terrain and included sections which required us to haul ourselves up by rope. “Don’t let go” was my main thought – perhaps with an expletive or two added in!

The slope was 25% average until the summit. In essence this was the ‘up’ part of what we went down the day before. It became clear as soon as we started climbing that the ascent could be broken down into sections: sand, stones and physical climbing using rope and your body to progress upwards. It also helped having an American guy shout at us (well me) when I wanted to just whimper at the thought of letting go of the rope and what might happen to me if I did! Words were exchanged on the way up between quite a few of us, but at the top words turned into hugs as we had gotten through it and we knew the descent was again the reverse of day two, followed by a few more sand dunes and a long straight home.

Days four and five

The 85km slog. If I ever did think about giving up, just for a second, this was the day. The start was relatively simple; we didn’t reach the first jebel until 12.5km. But after two tricky jebels, between checkpoints two and three, there was nothing but sand dunes and sand which was extremely hard to walk through and sapped every ounce of energy you had. Louise was brilliant at this stage and despite a lot of swearing (on my part) we made it through.

Our goal and focus on this day was to get to checkpoint four, as this was the first checkpoint where people could sleep so the departure time was more generous. It was at this checkpoint that we first met Duncan Slater, who was in the process of making history as the first double amputee to complete the Marathon des Sables! We would continue to see him and his friend Christopher over the next couple of checkpoints, during which nightfall descended upon us. While people tended to find themselves in groups of two or three during the day, we travelled in larger groups of 10-15 people at night. The night-time part is a bit of a blur to be honest, as the main priority was concentrating on where we were walking within the realms of our head torches.

It was around checkpoint six that the sun started to come up, and the terrain was a mixture of small sand dunes and a stony valley. The baking sun and lack of wind meant that day became a really, really hot one. The last checkpoint before the end was predominately sand mounds and a stony plateau. I found out afterwards that it reached a high of 58 degrees Celsius!

Day six

Unfortunately, during the night we’d been hit by sandstorms so not a lot of sleep had been had as we had to rescue our tents quite a few times, and there’s nothing quite like trying to sleep with sand blowing across your face. But as normal we were woken at around 5am with people getting up to sort out breakfast. Time was very limited; we had to get ourselves sorted, obtain our mandatory water and get to the start line by 7am.

The mood around camp was very different on this day as the finish line was finally in sight, and if you managed it you’d receive a medal presented to you by Patrick Bauer, the founder of the Marathon des Sables.

The course started with a large crevasse and rugged terrain then onto a stony plateau up to checkpoint two. The terrain then changed to sparse small dunes leading up to the dunes of Erg Znaigui, which were extremely large and difficult to go up because of how the sand had been displaced by the people who’d gone up before you.

Once we left the dunes of Erg Znaigui we followed a track up the gorge and it was just as we were getting close to checkpoint three that we saw a British lady, who was walking on her own, veer off course and sit down alongside a rock. We went up to her to ensure she was ok; it turned out she was suffering from the heat and had run out of water. Louise and I gave her some of our water, knowing that the next checkpoint was just 1km away. We managed to get the lady up and walked with her to the next checkpoint. She was in tears but also had a renewed sense of determination as this was the last checkpoint before the finish.

I’ll admit that between the final checkpoint and the finish the camera came out a lot more and we were more relaxed as we knew we had quite a bit of time to spare. Crossing the line was an absolutely fantastic feeling; there were hundreds of people watching and clapping and our guard of honour had gone up from six to over 20.

The last day, aka the charity day

If you didn’t complete the charity day, which was only 7.7km, you did not receive an official time. We agreed that we would all do this together as tentmates, like so many other tents did. This stretch offered a much more relaxed atmosphere than the rest of the week, however 90% of the course was sand dunes (those horrid dunes!). Time passed quickly and, before we knew it, we were all linking arms crossing that line for the final time.

For me, it didn’t finish there. Sunday saw me and a bunch of others visit the school that was one of the many projects funded by the Marathon des Sables. Not only were the children being taught how to read and write, but mums were being schooled so that they too could have better prospects going forward. It was extremely humbling to be part of this and to see exactly where the funds raised were going.

Ali personally completed the infamous challenge in support of two local charities very close to her heart – the Priaulx Premature Baby Foundation and Friends of the Frossard Ward. Her fundraising page is still active, so please feel free to donate!

Unsurprisingly, Ali has received considerable local media attention for her amazing achievement. She made the front cover of the Guernsey Press and later today will be chatting about her Marathon des Sables experience on BBC Radio Guernsey. Tune in at 12pm to have a listen!

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