Marathon des Sables 2012 Report| Fiona Oakes | Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary

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Marathon des Sables 2012: Fiona's Race Report - April 2012

So here we are. Percy and I are back from the Desert lighter in weight but heavier in knowledge!

The whole experience has been life changing and has truly taken me to some very dark places. I have learned not just a lot about myself but also about others and the environment too.

It has shown me how nothing should ever be taken for granted and that, if you truly want something badly enough, you can achieve it. I have written a report of the race which you may or may not have time to read but I wanted to record it all for those who are interested and for myself so, that in the dark days which surely lie ahead, I can read it and remember just how many resources I do have and what I can do if I am made to dig deep enough.

The whole journey started on 5th April when I left the Sanctuary in a taxi, very upset and depressed at leaving the animals behind and what lay ahead I arrived at Heathrow at around 2.30 p.m. for a 6 o'clock flight to Casablanca. Gradually the departure hall began to fill with people who were obviously other competitors (all carrying the tell tale MdS loaded rucksacks) and we began to form groups and chat. We arrived in Casablanca at 9.30 and then caught a forward flight to Ouazarate at 10.45.

I have to confess I was beginning to get very tired at this point and was made even more so by the fact there were no drinks available on the plane and we were made to wait 2 hours to get through customs at Ouazarate Airport, eventually arriving at the hotel at 2 a.m. where, again, there was no water and I was becoming dehydrated.

The organisation was not great and we were allocated our rooms which took ages. I shared with a guy called Jake and a lady called Rosie. We all went off to bed rather more than a little anxious about the events which lay ahead and the little time we had to sleep (just 3 hours).

The next morning we were called to the coaches by 8 a.m. to set off for the Desert. We boarded but did not leave until around 10 a.m. when all the bags were stowed and sorted out. It was a very long journey into the Desert where the race would start - made even longer and more arduous by the fact our coach broke down and we had to wait for another one to be sent to pick us up.

We drove for about 7 hours until we reached a point where conventional vehicles could no longer pass and we traveled the last 3 miles in Moroccan Army trucks, arriving at base camp at around 6 p.m. We settled into our cramped accommodation which I was sharing with 7 other (including Jake and Rosie) and then went for evening meal which was supplied by the race - nothing for me though but I had taken my own supplies

The next morning we were up early, all very nervous and apprehensive as the night had been much colder than we expected. My sleeping bag was the lightest Vegan one we could find but it wasn't the warmest as this would have just been too heavy to carry as it was already twice as heavy & bulky as the down filled ones of a higher warmth rating. We had breakfast and then sorted out the final things we were going to take with us on our journey and the stuff we were going to leave in our civilian bags which had to be handed in.

The rest of the day was spent going through official bag checks, medical checks and paperwork.

The Doctors commented that my pack was too heavy and that I must be carrying too much food and it would be impossible for me but I explained I was ethical vegan and that I could not buy the lighter weight foods and other products a non Vegan could.

The porridges, recovery shakes, higher calorie bag meals, lighter more concentrated fuel bars, down filled sleeping bags, down filled jackets, sun products, skin creams, antiseptic hand washes which are often animal tested were just not an option for me.

She understood as soon as I explained this and wished me luck and hoped I could keep my principles intact and finish the race! Then you were left on your own with just your MdS bag and in full running kit for the rest of the afternoon and evening. It was a shock to look at this comparatively small backpack and think this is all I have to last me and keep me alive for over a week of the harshest conditions you could imagine. I went to bed very nervous on another very cold night.

Sunday - 8th April and the race begins - 33km

We rose early, ate breakfast as best we could and went to the Start line all fresh and clean and kitted up for the day ahead. I must confess I didn't feel great but put it down to the heat and me not having had chance to acclimatise to it. I decided to start off very slowly with Rosie, who was an experienced Fell runner as I also had the added burden of two fractured toes to cope with and wanted to see how they were going to hold up. Unfortunately, as the day went on, Rosie began to falter quite badly and I decided she needed help to get through the day. I stayed with her through a very slow arrival at Check Point 1 but it just got slower and slower until we reached the first jebel (steep, rocky, sandy hill) which had to be climbed.

I made the ascent only to turn round and see Rosie at the bottom unable to get up. I climbed back down the hill to encourage her up and eventually managed to drag her up with one of my poles. We reached the top but things did not improve and Rosie looked really ill and said she didn't think she was able to continue on. I didn't know what to do but went on ahead and managed to get find one of the race cars which had a Doctor in it to attend to her.

At this point I could see the camel hurders in the distance who follow the race. If they pass you it means your race is over so I then had to make the decision to leave Rosie in the safe hands of the Doctor and continue on alone. I have to confess it was a very lonely and hard way to start the first day as I was running along the top of a baron, rocky mountain in scorching temperatures totally alone being unable to even catch sight of another runner.

Eventually I did start catching up with people and overtook quite a number before I eventually got to the finish of the stage. I did feel awful though as my toes were now really hurting and I felt ill. Little did I know why until I began to attend to myself and saw how my lower legs and feet had swollen. Initially I thought it was the heat so I went to the medical tent where the Doctor told me it was an allergic reaction to the socks I was wearing as they had some sort of metal fibre which must have had an adverse reaction in the extreme conditions (I had obviously worn them at home but could not try them in the heat).

I was totally bereft. I had cellulitis (see pictures) and my lower legs where the socks had been were almost double their normal size. Not only this but it had caused my feet to swell and they were now blistered heavily (especially my right foot which was already a little swollen because of the fractured toes).

I honestly did not know how I would be able to carry on in such a state. It was only when walking back from the medical tent that one of the Moroccan race leaders saw me and offered assistance I was in such a state.

He gave me a very thin pair of inners to wear instead of the thicker Xbionic running socks which allowed me to get my swollen feet into my shoes for next day's stage but offered no cushioning or protection for my feet.

I went to bed in a great deal of pain and very miserable as I thought my event was over.

Monday - 9th April - 38 km

I woke hardly able to walk with legs very swollen still and feet very painful. I crammed them into my shoes and hobbled to the Start in the hopes things might improve when I got going. They didn't really improve at all but they didn't get worse so I managed to get through the day which was the second hottest the race has ever know with temperatures rising to over 50 degrees. There were 10km stretches of dried up lakes to traverse which just went on and on when the sun was hammering down on you. Complete wilderness with nothing but miles and miles of endless slog ahead. It was so hot the race had decided to hand out extra water as they were frightened for the safety of people. I have to say the heat didn't really bother me, I didn't actually notice it but that was probably due to the fact I was in so much pain from my legs I couldn't even feel it. The hours went by and I hobbled along but my feet were really becoming a problem. I returned to camp broken hearted as this was supposed to be the easier part of the race and I could hardly walk because of the problems in my lower legs and feet.

Tuesday - 10th April - 35 km

It was a bit cooler - around 38 degrees - and my feet were still bad. The inner liners had not worked as they didn't really fit my foot so my only decision was to go back to the Xbionic socks and roll them right down and take antihistamine to try and combat the allergic reaction. It was a question of 'do or die' so I crawled up to the Start line with the plan of taking it as easy as I could on my feet but getting to the finish as quickly as I could/dare without causing myself any more problems.

It was so bad that I had to just take a cavalier attitude towards protecting my bad knee as this terrain was totally unsuitable for someone with my injury and condition. I didn't even think about it. I just got on with the job in hand thinking that every step I took was one nearer to being able to rest my feet at the end. The terrain was quite tough on that day with a lot of sand dunes to cross but this did not really bother me as, although hard work cardiovascularly, it was softer on the feet and did not tear away at them as did the cobbled and stony ground. which caused the allergy.
I made it back to the finish quite fresh of body with the feet still intact but suffering from the re-wearing of the socks

It really was tough out there, which is substantiated by the fact that this is where last year's race winner broke his leg in the final km and had to be taken to Casablanca Hospital for emergency surgery. The night was pretty awful too and we were unable to get any sleep as the sand storms and wind were so bad they blew the tent down. Not an ideal place to be when you have to get up and start the longest stage of the race.

Wednesday - 11th April - 81.5 km and Thursday 12th April

The day of the long stage and I was worried, very worried. The night before a very nice guy who had seen the state of my legs had offered me his spare pair of socks which he thought would be small enough for me to wear so I had to give them a go as there was a chance it might work and I was getting really, really desperate. I put them on and set off with 3 of my tent mates - Paul, James and Brett.

We had decided to start slowly as we wanted to try and support each other through the night stage but after a while it became apparent that two of the members of the team were slower than myself and another. We had a chat and decided that it was not fair to leave them behind so we decided we would wait and stick as a group.

People might think this is not a sensible decision when reading this as they might also think it was not sensible for me to wait on the first day of the race for Rosie but I would say in my defense the perspective you take in a 'normal' environment is not the perspective you see in these conditions. You do not leave a 'man down' if you care about humanity. You try and help get them through, you are a team and you don't just want this for yourself you want it for the others in your team who are hurting and need your help. I have never, and will never, turn my back on either an animal or human who I think I can help. It is not who I am or someone I want to become.

Eventually we went through the compulsory Check Points inside the time allowed and reach the 4th Check Point where I made the suggestion we stop and rest so the weaker members of our team could recuperate themselves in readiness for the grueling 31.5 km ahead. This has to be one of the lowest points of my entire life. We walked into a tent which resembled a 'field hospital'. Bodies strewn everywhere groaning and moaning in pain. People in a semi comatosed state just staring at the little stoves they were trying to heat water up in order to prepare food. It was like a witches den or hell on earth.

The wind was howling in, the tent was blowing down, it was cramped, it smelt, there was sand swirling from all directions and the feeling of despair and misery all around was overwhelming. One member of our team was too ill to eat anything and just fell into a deep sleep. I had to sleep on the outer of the tent which was very cold and windy and not covered by the carpet as I had a fold up sleeping mat to protect me - the ground was covered in the most piercing of thorns which made it unable to use inflatable mattresses. By now my feet were pounding through the roof. The new socks had not worked for me as they were a little too large and had caused rubbing and blisters. I removed them to check my feet and was horrified.

The left one was not too bad but the right one was horrendous. My little toe and the one next to it were totally mashed together and I could hardly part them. Eventually I managed to do so and put neat iodine on them to try and dry them out. The pain was so great from doing this I went into a kind of system shock which made me sweat and shake and then go very, very cold. I lay down counting the minutes of the 2 hours we had had agreed to rest for, wondering how ever I would be able to stand up, let alone move forward. I lay there and had to make a conscious decision 'was I prepared to lose my little toe in order to continue on?' it was that bad. I decided if I had to do so I was prepared as I was not going to let the animals down, I just couldn't come away having been proven wrong. I am a woman, a lifelong ethical Vegan woman - I am considered by many a weak and vulnerable member of society and this just is not true and I needed to prove it. Nothing could sway my commitment to proving this and, as I have said before, I would be willing to die trying to help others. Others who suffer far more than me but their cries are unheard.

I pulled myself together, wrapped gaffer tape round my feet took the loaned socks off and put the liner socks back on and woke the others. One member of our group woke with his feet resting on a poor Japanese man's head who never knew as he was so deep in sleep! I must confess I felt guilty waking the others from their pain free slumber and returning them to this hellish place but it had to be done. They all woke and, with no protestation, packed their belongings and moved slowly and quietly on. We progressed at the pace of the slowest member of our group until dawn broke (no beautiful sunrise as the cloud cover was too great) through a horrendous stage of sand dunes, sand storms and wind to the next Check Point. Now it was light the group had reformed and were moving at a pace which suited them all. It was only when another member of the group suggested that, if I had any ability to do so, I should now go on and run the last 21.5 km to the finish to save myself as I had spent the race of the night trying to rally them.

I decided I would as my feet were really hurting and I wanted to get off them knowing the other members of the group were hopefully through the worst of the stage. I ran to the last Check Point where I just grabbed my water and continued running to the finish.
I finished so fresh in my body that one of the race Officials actually said that he would have done a bag check to see if I had not thrown away most of my supplies as I finished stronger than some of the Elite runners but he could see it was so huge still and knew the tough circumstances I had been running in from day one. This is when Emmy kindly got the finishing picture of me and Percy. I was just so relieved to get through it and still in the race.

When I got back to the tent I took off the dressings on my feet and was a little horrified. I had to use my drinking water to clean them up as best I could as I dare not go to the medical tent with them in the state they were in as I was afraid they would pull me out of the race if they saw them. Eventually I did pluck up courage to go to the first medical tent who referred me to the main tent. Unfortunately, in this time a bizarre storm brewed up and as I left the first tent to go to the second one the conditions became so bad with sand storm and hail stones that everyone was ordered back to their tent (which I had to crawl into as ours had blown down).

I was now wet through and going hypothermic and my only dry clothes were now wet through. It went on for about an hour when just laying there, feet throbbing and freezing cold thinking how much worse can it get? When it stopped I had to make some make shift clothes from carrier bags and anything I could lay my hands on and go to the main medical tent. I had been given a slip of paper with a treatment number on but it had got so wet they couldn't read it so I had to go to the bottom of the queue. It was grim but at least they gave us 'space' blankets to keep us a bit warmer. I waited 2 hours to be seen when the Doctor just looked at my feet and toes in horror but the only saving grace was they were not infected. He bound them heavily and said I should keep them bound until Saturday lunchtime when I should remove them and see a Doctor. I was thrilled. He said Saturday lunchtime - it was possible to finish, I had hope.

Unfortunately the amount of binding on my feet made the possibility of getting them into my shoes impossible and I had to make some decisions. Do I force them in and surely create more blisters or do I risk taking out the inner soles of my shoes making more room but reducing the cushioning on my feet to nothing? There was a big risk in this as I only had my road running shoes on and they had a lot of stitching in the sole which could, in itself, create blistering on the soles of my feet. I had to take the risk so I decided to try this and put the Xbionic socks back on hoping that if I could travel quicker on the next stage the allergy would have less time to hit.

Friday - 13th April - 42.2 km

A lot of pain in the feet and a really bad night with tummy trouble. Please bear in mind that eating bagged food and bars, the hot temperatures, no sanitation, no washing water, lack of hygiene facilities etc. really does take it's toll after a while. I was really lucky in this department as some people really did suffer which is not an ideal place to be without toilet paper or toilets!

I collected my morning’s water and could hardly walk the 50m back to the tent. My decision was 100% made, get rid of the shoe liners and cushioning and just get to the finish as quick as possible.

I set off and it was really hard to start with, I really felt the jarring on my feet and the pain in my toes but after a while it settled. I just kept thinking I was going to feel blistering or rubbing on the soles of my feet through the stitching in my shoes rubbing but it didn't happen. I did think every step I could run was another step towards the finish and the last stage. It was a very eventful stage with me having to stop and assist a poor gentleman who had a cardiac arrest. The flare was sent up when we found him and a helicopter was at the scene within 5 minutes to take him to hospital and an induced coma to help his totally exhausted body recover. It was not pleasant to see and my thoughts are with him and his family.

The rest of the stage just went quietly to plan and I finished in a pretty good time not even feeling bodily tired. My only concern was that because of the previous days rain we had to run through a muddy river which had swollen and my feet had got wet. This meant that my dressings were covered in dirty water and I was so afraid of infection setting in. Although relieved to finish in a relatively quick time I had bruised my feet from the jarring on the ground quite badly and knew that, although it was the last stage the next day, it was not over yet and people do have to withdraw on the morning of the last stage.

The race provided entertainment that evening and had flown people in from the Paris Opera to sing and play for us but I did not feel like celebrating. There was still a lot of ground to cover and anything could go wrong even now. Feet could become infected, food poisoning anything. I went to sleep just wishing the morning to come and the last stage be upon us.

Saturday - 14th April - 15km

I did have my suspicions the distance might be leading us into a false sense of security and I was not wrong! Although short it was very intense with the last 6 miles (measured as the crow flies) were all Dunes. Some of the biggest dunes in the Sahara at that. I woke relieved my feet were no worse and that I had survived the night without any more stomach problems. We packed our bags disguarding all but the essentials.

The atmosphere on camp was good in that everyone knew they could taste victory and that so longed for medal and MdS Finisher accolade. It was the only stage I had a game plan for. The first 4 miles were flat and rocky and I would run them. There was a Check Point at 7 km but no water given, it was just for timings. After that the Dunes set in until the finish. Although really tough to traverse I was not worried about it as I found running on sand so much softer on the feet and the lack of inners in my shoes would be less of a disadvantage.

I found myself powering along in them and ran myself to a top 200 placing on this stage. I won't say I didn't feel tired but I did feel very strong. I enjoyed the heat and the endless up and down of the Dunes did not concern me, anything was OK if it would take away the stress on my feet. I knew my arms were very strong and, with the poles, I could pull myself up them quite easily. Eventually, I began to catch glimpses of the finish from the top of the higher Dunes. The feeling of euphoria was so great knowing that I could complete this ultimate challenge for the animals.

All of a sudden I came over the top Dune and there was my Mum cheering me on, it brought me to tears to see the finishing gantry where my medal awaited me. On crossing the Finish line I saw a very friendly photographer who was interested in writing an article on my participation in the event as a Vegan woman. I asked her if she would remove my 4 Camille banner from my bag so I could hold it when I received my medal. I was so proud to do so. It was a very emotional time to have come through all this roller coaster of elation and misery (...mostly misery !).

I cleaned myself up and we went back to the hotel on the coach my Mum had been brought to the Finish line in. It was about a 6 hour drive but passed remarkably quickly. I listened to some of the other competitor’s family complaining about the distance of the drive, the uncomfortable nature of the seats, the toilets on route, the quality of the packed lunch but stayed silent. It is not until you have experienced some of the pain, depravation, exhaustion, fear and despair of the ordeal that is MdS that you can understand what if feels like to be in the situation so you cannot blame people.

I had a little bit to eat that evening but surprisingly enough did not feel at all hungry. I woke at around 3 a.m. very restless and my Mum and I decided to make some tea and watch the sun come up and chat about the experience in order to relieve some of the emotions.

We spent the next morning dressing my feet and I had to go and do my interview for Eurosport. After this I did not feel too well and by the late afternoon had become quite poorly and had a temperature. I think it was just my body going into shock at the pounding I was giving having stopped.

I became violently ill that evening and we were very concerned I would be too ill to make the early start (4 a.m.) the journey home required. However, I did manage to sort myself out but it is a good job I did not know what was to come.

We were stuck in snow over the Atlas Mountains and nearly came off the mountainous road, we reached the airport in Marrakesh to be told the plane would be delayed for some 14 hours as it had broken down and they needed to send another from the UK and then had the long drive home from Heathrow to face. Funnily enough though, nothing seemed to bother me.

I was just in a state of quiet calm and disbelief. I know how lucky I am to be able to get through this ordeal. I started it at a disadvantage with the fractured toes and bad knee which was always going to be a problem but with problems compounding on problems it was only my commitment to the animals which kept me going. I don't think I would have carried on if I were just doing it for myself.

It was only that I was doing it for others that made it so imperative to me to finish. No-one was going to prove me wrong in that as an ethical vegan, a lifelong vegan, there is nothing you cannot do if you want it badly enough. There is no excuse for exploiting animals to benefit yourself, it can be achieved without and I have proved it.

I would like to say a bit 'thank you' to everyone who messaged me whilst I was out there, it meant so much to receive your e-mails. Not just to me but to other members of the tent who didn't receive as many, if any, and really did have their eyes opened to the commitment, support and passion of some of my mails and the strength and depth of emotion we feel for our animal friends. I am sorry I could not update more via Facebook but the places they took us to had no connection and my charger did not work. This is why I am typing this all out now.

Love Fiona and Percy - the star of the race! xxx

 

Fiona competed in the MdS as part of the Facing Africa team and is committed to raise a minimum of £5000 for this Charity.

In addition Fiona was also seeking to raise funds for the Vegan Society as well as her own Sanctuary (Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary) where she cares for around 400 rescued animals who have no where else to go.

So far she has raised around £3500 for Facing Africa, £230 for the Vegan Society and £1800 for Tower Hill Stables for which we are all very grateful.

Any shortfall from the £5000 required by Facing Africa will need to be funded personally by Fiona which clearly on top of having to find £5300 per month to feed the Sanctuary animals is a big ask !

So, if you are able to spare anything - and clearly a Big Thank You to all those who have already done so - please refer to the links & instructions below.

Many thanks!

Fiona competed in the MdS as part of the Facing Africa team and is committed to raise a minimum of 5000 for this Charity.

In addition Fiona was also seeking to raise funds for the Vegan Society as well as her own Sanctuary (Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary) where she cares for around 400 rescued animals who have no where else to go.

So far she has raised around 3500 for Facing Africa, 230 for the Vegan Society and 1800 for Tower Hill Stables for which we are all very grateful.

Any shortfall from the 5000 required by Facing Africa will need to be funded personally by Fiona which clearly on top of having to find 5300 per month to feed the Sanctuary animals is a big ask!

So, if you are able to spare anything - and clearly a Big Thank You to all those who have already done so - please refer to the links & instructions below.

To donate for Facing Africa - use this button - read about their work HERE
To donate to the Vegan Society use this button - go to their site HERE
To donate for Fiona's rescued animals - use this button  - see more HERE

Alternatively if you prefer to send a cheque to the Sanctuary & mark it for one of the other 2 Charities, we will collate the funds on their behalf & remit the totals to them in due course.

All cheques payable to Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary and to be sent to:

Fiona Oakes - Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary, Asheldham, Essex, CM0 7DZ

Thank you

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