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REPORT ON OUR PARTICIPATION IN 2007 MARATHON DES SABLES IN MOROCCO
25/3/2007 TO 30/3/2007
by Ngae Koh Hieng

17/3/2007 was our departure date for Marathon Des Sables (MDS) 2007 or the Sahara Ultramarathon. We were told by the French organizer to meet them in Paris for transfer to the Sahara Desert in Morocco. (Our entry fees for the MDS covered the return flight between Paris and Morocco).


Send-off at KL Sentral

Dr. Tan (DT) and I were sent off by our friends and family at around 7.00 pm on that evening at KL Sentral. Many pacesetters members in their yellow tee shirts, staff from Hospis Malaysia and a group from my sponsor Foto-zzoom (M) Sdn Bhd were there. Our spirit was certainly lifted by the support and well wishes from all these people. After the handshakes, hugs and photograph taking DT and I went through the entrance at 8 pm to take the KLIA Ekspres. After all the noisy send off, it suddenly felt so quite and lonely as we step onto the KLIA ekspres.

"No escaping now" I told DT and he replied something like "two fools on way to ultimate suffering" or something like that. On the ride to KLIA, my memory flashed backů. I was thinking about the past 8 months after I decided to join DT to do the MDS 2007.

For me, 2006 started normally with KL International Marathon. Things just picked up after that. I then joined some climbing and trekking group climbing Bukit Tabur near Melawati every Saturday. I climbed Irau and Angsi and in May climbed Mount Kinabalu. I was taking time off from running when in May I was asked to join the 100Km charity run on 15/7/2006 organized by Subang Jaya Buddhist Association..

After completing the 100km charity run July last year, DT said he has make up his mind to do the MDS in March 2007. I thought he was kind of crazy. I was then in the triathlon circle and I met Simon Cross from UK who did MDS in 2006. After long talk with him over his experience and after I looked at the organisers' web site, I felt I would accompany DT in doing the MDS. Then my reqular supporter Mr. John Tan from Foto-Zzoom Sdn Bhd said he would financially back our venture.

The MDS organizers' website (www.darbaroud.com) said that considering the toughness of the MDS, all participants should do MDS to raise fund for charity. It would be a waste of opportunity if we just do it to challenge ourselves. I told DT that we have to identify the charities and I proposed Hospis Malaysia and National Cancel Council. DT agreed. Afterward after discussion with Hospis Malaysia, everyone agreed that we should just concentrate on one Charity and we decided it to be Hospis Malaysia. Hospis Malaysia was to handle the publicity. They put us in NST and NTV7. Our Pacesetter friend Mr. Tey Eng Tiong who is with the Chinese papers Sin Chew Jit Poh got the metro section Sin Chew Jit Poh to run our story. These media exposure allowed Hospis Malaysia to capitalize on our participation for their fund raising. However there is a flip side, there is always the nagging question, now with all the publicity, what if we could not complete the MDS?

After deciding to do the race in August 2006, we started to plan our training. The organizers' web site gave tips on how to train for the event. Simon Cross who did the MDS in 2006 also shared his experience with us. The unique feature about MDS as compared with all other races is that all participants must be self supporting/self sufficient during the 7 days race. We must carry with us at all times during the race all our food supplies, medicine, equipments, cooking utensils, sleeping mattress and sleeping bag from beginning to the end. We have to ensure we have enough food to last the 7 days. The organizers only supplied us with 9 litres of water daily and erect bivouac for us to spend the night. In essence we should train walk/run the daily distance (between 20km -42 km) with similar load we expect to carry on our back in the desert.

Equally important, we had to learn about the types of food which were light and high in calories and could be packed into our back pack. If we did not have at least 2000 calories a day for all the remaining days in the race, we would be disqualified. My emphasis wass on instant noodles, energy drink powder and dried fruits and nuts. One also had to consider the combination for each of the day. Ideally one should prepack the daily ration for the seven days. However, the different shapes and sizes of food and the limited space in the back pack did not permit this. Instead we literally had to jam pack the items into every nook and corner of the backpack. We had to pack and repack several times to familiarise ourselves where food and equipment are packed.

Our main focus during training for MDS was to build up endurance of jogging and walking up to 8 hours a day with our backpack filled with bottles of water. We build up the weight we carry over time. I started in August 2006 with 7 kg load and over the months increase the load to 15 kg. This is the weigh we expect to carry in the Sahara.

We were also advised by Simon Cross to bring trekking poles to Sahara. This is probably one of the most valuable advice from him. We did all our training sessions with the trekking poles. People who saw us training with the trekking poles all thought we were training for a skiing expedition. We were to discover later in the Sahara that walking in the soft sand is rather like skiing on soft snow. With the trekking poles, in my reckoning up to 20% of the load can be transferred from the legs to the arms. (This was particularly significant towards the later part of the day when our legs were tired and we had to scale those steep sand dune slopes.)

During the training, we identified the main problem we face is the persistent ache at our shoulders after a few hours carrying the heavy backpack. The shoulder would be sore the next day. There was no solution. We just had to learnt to bear the pain. At the early stage of training, my skin on my back also suffered some abrasion from the long hours carrying the backpack. During the training period, Dr. Tan were testing out the plasters and compeed ( a special anti-blister plaster) during the training runs.

For me I was not concerned so much about blisters. However without having to wear shoes to run all these while, I had to choose a pair of shoes to go into Sahara. After looking at the shoes in the New Balance shop, I decided to use a pair of trekking shoes. Though they were much heavier than running shoes, they wer much more solid in construction. I did not want to risk the sole of my shoes breaking up in the harsh condition in the Sahara. I even took along my RM4.00 black rubber shoes into the Sahara as a back up (only to decide to leave it for the Berbers at the start of the race because I had too much weight in my pack.)

Coincidentally, I also decided to do triathlons in July 2006. I did the Olympic distance triathlon in PD, the Putrajaya Powerman and the Half Ironman in Desaru from July to September 2006 and had set my target on 2007 Langkawi Ironman. Therefore for much of the second half of 2006 I was training seriously for both events the Langkawi Ironman Triathlon and the MDS. They are fundamentally different events. The only common element is endurance. DT and I had to spend the whole Sunday to train for the MDS. I also need to put in a lot of time for long distance cycling and swimming. You can spend half a day at the pool and a whole day on the road. I was having problem to apportion time to train for the triathlon and the MDS.

I had done over 200km slow run from Batu Caves to Maran in April 2006 (over 3 days). So I knew the distance in MDS would be manageable. However I was very concerned about the high temperature and the unfamiliar enviroment in the Sahara. In the Sahara you have a mix of soft sand, stony plains and rocky hills and where you may face sand storms. In MDS 2006, temperature was over 50 degrees centigrade and the participants had to contend with regular sand storms. Condition during 2006 MDS was so severe that about a quarter of the participants gave up. And we are talking about people what have trained long and hard for the MDS. (One does not pay 2550 Euros entry fee and fly half way around the globe to participate in MDS without proper training.) The only thing we could do was to train under the hot sun as much as possible on the hilly and open roads in Hulu Langat with our backpack.

Some afternoons I would join DT to train with the backpack at Lake Gardens. One of the afternoon in October 2006 at Lake Garden, DT and I just finished our training and it was pouring. As DT was walking to his car, he slipped and fell and dislocate his left elbow. I had to send him to the hospital to have his elbow fixed. That took him out of training for about 1 month. Then one Sunday afternoon in December (the week after Singapore Marathon) as we were training with our backpack in Hulu Langat, I decided to run on the last 5 km coming downhill faster and DT tried to follow. He sustained a bad right knee injury in so doing. The knee injury was so bad that he could hardly walk properly for a few weeks. Friends were having doubt as to his fitness and ability to recover for the Langkawi Ironman in February, not to mention the MDS. I felt bad about the situation as it was my running down the hill that led to it. Dr. Tan was having difficulty cycling also. He went through long rehabilation sessions in the gym on his own. I admired his tenacity and his focus. He said he did thousands of reps of leg exercises in the gym for over a month. It was great to see him back to long walk and cycling by early February. Though not fully recovered he managed to complete the Langkawi Ironman in 17h 15m. I felt relieved as I knew he would be fit for the MDS a month later. Therefore DT suffered 2 major injuries while training for the MDS.

As the event draws nearer, beside the physical training, we had to make sure we have procured all the the equipments and food. It is harder than it sounds. You do not get everything at the same shop. You have to consider the calories and the weight. We had to go through them over and over, prepared the calorie computations, and packing the food and equipments into the backpack.. We pack and repack several times all the items. It is important to be familiar where and how things are packed. I also make sure I have back up of certain equipments like the compass, blade and scissors.

We were told by Simon Cross that he made the mistake of buying a backpack which was not so suitable for the MDS in 2006. He said most participants used a backpack with a front pouch designed specially for MDS. DT's wife happens to visit Paris in August and went to the specialty shop which sold MDS things. She bought 2 bags with front pouches. The backpack with the front pouch looked well designed with three bottle cages. The idea was to be able to carry 3 litres of water at any time in the desert. It has a fairly big front pouch which can carry about 30% of what can be carried behind, therefore give the runner a better balance compared to the normal backpack which carries everything on the back. She also bought gaiters. We thought the bags looked very flimsy, made of really thin and light material. DT opted to use the Lafuma backpack he bought locally but combined with the front pouch bought from Paris. I studied the backpack and asked the neighbourhood cobbler to reinforce it in several places, in particular the joint between the strap and the pack.

The gaiters bought by DT's wife was more for normal trekking. They did not enclose the whole shoes as was required in the desert. DT had some instruction to make the gaiters for the Sahara ourselves. I had some green parachute materials which I salvaged previously and DT had a pair made. We tested what he made and felt they were suitable. These gaiters covered the entire shoes and were secured at the bottom to the sides of the sole of the shoes by using Velcro strips. I also made a pair following the same design. We tested them on training runs. Then in January, I received an email from the organizer saying that as a new year present, they were sending a pair of specially designed gaiters to all participants. I received mine in early February. These were made by New Balance and are made of elastic materials, fitting snuggly around the ankle and enclosing the whole shoe. Unfortunately DT never received his pair. So I used the New Balance gaiters and DT used the home made ones in the Sahara. I brought the home made pair as back up.

Through the months, I also felt that I should put on some weight. I had to allow for about 2 to 3 kg weight loss in the Sahara. I did not want to risk the organizer rejecting my participation due to my weight being too light. Since I do not take meat normally, DT told me to eat up to 10 eggs daily (minus the yolk) in order to gain weight. I followed his instruction and by the time I left for the Sahara, I have managed to increased my weight to 64 kg.
.
In December 2006 I did the Singapore Marathon with the trekking poles and the 15 kg backpack. Dr. Tan did the Singapore Marathon without the backpack. (He said shy lah!). I did it in 7h 14m. I was happy with the comfortable finish. I felt very confident about the MDS then.

Immediately after the Chinese New Year break, on the seventh day of the lunar calendar, I participated in the Langkawi ironman on 23/2/2007. This is exactly one month before MDS. Beside taking it as part of my warm up for MDS, the Langkawi Ironman was another focus of mine since I decide to start my triathlons in August 2006. I managed to complete the Langkawai Ironman in 14 hr 49 min. I took it easy, putting in about 80%, bearing in mind not to sustain any injury at all. My main focus was on MDS one month later.

After coming back from Langkawi Ironman, I immediately restarted training with the backpack daily as I want to be able to recover daily from the distance that I need to cover in the Sahara. I felt I was ready for the MDS.

We flew out of KLIA just before midnight. My thought went out to the runners who would be up to do the KL International Marathon early the next morning when we were in our flight to Paris.

We spend 5 days in Paris. We basically walked around a lot beside taking the subway and the train. This serves two purposes: to be able to walk in interesting places and also to keep our conditioning for the MDS. We walked long hours in the Louvre, the hugh palatial garden in Versailles, climbed the stairs up the Eiffel Tower. The weather was very cold and windy throughout. In fact, when we were in Paris it snowed one morning. On the second day in Paris I suddenly felt a sharp pain on the upper left back, like I have torn a muscle. It was painful when I take deep breath. I felt it must have been the soft bed which gave me the problem and I slept on the floor for the rest of the nights in Paris. DT also gave me pain killers. I was a bit concerned about the pain and whether it would go away in time for the Sahara.

On 23/32007 we checked out of the hotel in Paris at about 4.45am and went to Charles De Gaulle airport. We had earlier received email instruction from the organisers on the meeting point at the airport. We were the earliest at the airport. Later we were joined by a UK participant Julian and the 9 members of the Japanese team. A lot of the French participants showed up later. The organiser's staff in their khaki uniform showed up around 6.00 am. We were taken to the check in counter. We then boarded the chartered flight of Royal Moroccan Airline to fly to Quarzasate Airport. This airport is in the interior of southern part of Morocco, near to the Sahara. It was a pleasant 3 hours flight. As our plane made the landing approach, we could see the immense red desert shimmering in the sun juxtaposed against huge dark mountains, some of which have snow peaks.

We landed in Quarzazate around noon local time. It was a small airport. Ours was the only plane there. As we disembark, we felt the desert air for the first time. While it was sunny there was cool breeze. While at the airport, two other participants Philip and Gyjs from Holland came up to us and shook our hand and said they read about our participation in aid of Hospis Malaysia on the organiser's web site. Friendly English speaking fellas.

After we went through the immigration and customs we came out to see the row of buses waiting to take us the base camp in the Sahara. The base camp or bivouac site no. 1 is the race secretariat and the start line. There would be about 120 bivouacs at the site and each bivouac house 8 participants/officials. .We were told our bivouac number as we board the buses at the airport. Our bivouac no. is 103. After everyone had cleared the airport onto the buses, we moved off in a convoy. It would be a 6 hour bus ride to the bivouac site no. 1. An hour of bus ride across some really scenic uninhabited mountain roads, our bus stopped and were given our lunch packs. It was lunch time and toilet stop. Well toilet stop in the desert meant doing it in the wild, in the open space, men or women. (There were 100 Female participants).

We went further up the mountains and then across many wide plains. We crossed many small towns and farm land. At about 7.00pm our buses stopped, we took our luggage and climbed onto some army trucks in the dark. It was very cold and windy. The army trucks rocked their way off the road into the desert. We finally reached bivouac site about half an hour later, and looked for bivouac no 103. The bivouacs are those black ground hugging tents set up by the nomads in the desert. We crawled into the bivouac and found that we are sharing the bivouac with 5 Koreans and one Hong Kong participants. All male lah!!

After leaving our luggage in the bivouac, we joined the long queue at the kitchen tent to get our dinner. It was really cold and windy standing in the queue in the desert at night. We were so happy with the warm soup and coffee and the warm food. Everything went down in a flash and we huddled into the bivouac and into our sleeping bags as fast as we could.

The inflatable mattress and the warm sleeping bag we brought let us have comfortable sleep on the stony desert ground in the windy cold nights.

The morning of 24/3/2007 was the first morning we woke up in the Sahara. We looked around the bivouac site which is on a wide plain. It was sunny and windy. The wind was surprisingly pleasant even though we get sand blown all over the place. We could look beyond to the dark mountains surrounding the plain. After breakfast, we rechecked all the contents in the backpacks one more time. We had to be very sure all things intended to be carried with us for the next 7days were all packed in the backpack and not left in the luggage. We had to hand over the luggage to the officials and we would only see it again at the hotel after we finish the race 7 days later. After we were sure that we had packed all items in the backpack did we hand over the luggage to the officials..

We then took our turn and went to the race secretariat to submit our medical certificate and finalise all administrative details. After the medical team cleared us, we were given salt tablets, the race number, the emergency flare and the road book. The road book contained details of the route including topography maps and compass bearings. We also had a chance to weigh our backpack at the check in . I was surprised that my backpack (including the emergency flare) weighed 16kg without water!! I intended it to be only 15 kg including 3 litres of water. It was a serious situation and I went back to the bivouac to figure out what to get rid off. Doctor Tan and Eric (a French participant who had a friend in KL I knew) were there laughing at my problem. Both of them told me to get rid of food and extra equipments. Doctor Tan's backpack weighed about 11 kg and Eric said his weighed only 8 kg.

My situation was due to my habit of always having back up. This habit came from my work habit as a lawyer. I am uncomfortable with important documents not having back up copies. Also being dependent on computers for all my work, I developed the habit of backing up all data. So in my backpack for Sahara, I had spare cooking pot, spare lighter, spare blade, spare compass, spare scissors (proper decent sized, not the swiss army knife kind), spare plaster, spare medication, strings and rubber band. I ended up with a load of 16 kg plus before adding the 3 litres of water I have to carry. I even had a spare watch (the digital one can develop problem in the cold so I had an analogue watch on my other wrist). To reduce weight I put out from the backpack 3 packets of instant noodles my black rubber shoes and 3 packets of energy powder. My pack was then down to about 15kg without water according to my original plan. DT in his eagerness to get rid of the excess weigh in his backpack would run out of food on the last night in the desert.

While Eric and DT laughed at my overweight backpack then, it turned out that my big scissors were always in demand in the bivouac during the race. Everyone wanted it to cut the plasters.

My back pain had eased and I only felt it when I took real deep breathe. I was happy with the recovery.


Malaysian flag flying of the first time at the MDS.

For the MDS, Dr. Tan bought the latest model digital camera which was water-proof and had high megapixel. It could store 5000 photographs. However both of us forgot about charging its battery in Paris. 5 days in Paris and we took a lot of pictures with his camera. On 24/3/2007, after we have submitted our medical certificate and done the other administrative work at the race secretariat in the desert, we decided to go the start line nearby and take some photographs. It would be difficult to take pictures the following morning, being day 1 of the race. We took one photograph and the battery went flat. We were lucky that the Japanese the Koreans and our Hong Kong friend had few cameras and took many pictures for us.

After lunch we did the final preparation for the race including pinning the numbers to our tee shirt and backpack in the bivouac. Around 5 pm loud music was being played by the organizer in the ground at the center of the bivouac site. All the participants gathered at the center. Some participants were dancing at the center of the ring and I took the Malaysian flag and joined them. After a while the race director Patrick Bauer gave his welcome speech. We learnt that there were a total of over 700 participants from over 30 nations. He spoke in French and there was an English translator. He also asked an official to demonstrate the deployment of the emergency flare.

We then proceed to queue for dinner at the camp kitchen. Again it was cold and windy. Everyone savoured the dinner as it would be the last decent meal for the next 7 days. We then speedily retired into our bivouac. We chit chat for a while, getting to know everyone in our bivouac before getting into our sleeping bags. .

25/3/2007, Day 1 (Distance 29.3km).

We were up in our bivouac by 5.30am to put on the running attire and plasters on our feet. .At 6 am the local workers who were the Berbers tribemen came punctually to remove the bivouac.. We collected our first water rations of the day. We were earlier given a plastic card on which was printed a grid of boxes, each box correspond to the water rations to be given over the next 7 days. We hung around our neck and the official used a puncher to mark the relevant box when we collect the water rations. We then cooked our first breakfast in the desert. I used up the extra noodles and shared with other participants. After breakfast, we cleaned up the cooking pots and packed everything into the backpack. We then collected the water ration and were ready to start. Everyone proceeded to the start line. A helicopter carrying the photo-journalist hovered over us to do the photo-shoot for media. Loud music was being played . All were raring to go. The race director and the translator gave a rather long briefing in French and English. We were flagged off shortly after 9am. The helicopter swept low over us to do the photo-shoot of the start.

Starting out from the camp site, we crossed the stony plain and some small hills. DT and myself were the last two out of the start line. We wanted to do slow and easy for the first 3 days in order to gear ourselves up for the long leg on the 4th day. After a while I started to overtake people and went ahead of DT. At 12km mark we passed the first check point (CP) and then for the first time we came across sand dunes. The dunes stretched for 4 km. They were breathtaking. Even though the dunes were mostly bare, at certain stretches, we encountered carpet of yellow and lavender-coloured flowers at the base of the dunes. The sky was brilliant blue. Though the sun was glaring down on us, the dry air and cool breeze make the condition much more comfortable than running at home in the humid condition.

After CP 2 at the 20km mark, we went through a pass between some dark mountains, we crossed some bigger dunes and then we could see the finish line from very far away. I was pacing with the UK competitor Julian at that point. Even we could see the finish line, it would be almost an hour later before we actually crossed it around 4 pm.

Back at the bivouac, I was surprised that only the top Korean was back before me. I rested a while and then went out to collect firewood and set up fire to cook dinner. Shortly after that the rest of the participants in our bivouac came back one by one. I had a satisfying meal of soup and instant noodles.


26/3/2007 Day 2 (Distance 35 km)

We were up before 6 am to get ready for the race.Caught up in the cooking of breakfast and packing the backpack, I was 15 minutes late to collect the water at the camp site. I was told I might be given 1 hour penalty. (The organizer subsequently confirmed that I was only given a warning with no time penalty).


Masak masaků

After the morning briefing by the race director and his translator, we were flagged off. Again the helicopter hovered to photo-shoot the start. After crossing the stony ground and dried river bed at the 4km mark we started to climb and reached the summit at 5km. Then we descended on uneven ground and sand dunes. We passed CP 2 after another climb and then descend to cross a dried river bed.. At CP 3 and 29Km, we were suddenly looking a steep black slope 300 m high with sand piled up against it almost all the way to the top. I thought I was going to turn off and follow the foothill until I saw the competitors in front snaking up the rocky slope like ants. We have to climb over that big hill. As I struggle up the rocky slope I looked down and saw the trail of competitors stretched out below me. Half way up the slope, a competitor was lying at the side and given drip by the medical team. The helicopter was parked at a flat spot nearby. The race director was there, giving encouragement to all the competitors as we struggle up the steep slope. For part of the ascend, we had to walk a narrow ledge on the side of a rally steep sand slope. Due to weight of my backpack, I had difficulty getting up a big rocky step of about 3 feet high. Someone behind gave me a push to get over it. For the final stretch of the steep ascend, the organizer had fixed rope to the side of the rock face. Holding on the rope, we negotiated the narrow ledge and finally made the summit. Finally on top and looking back down at the competitors coming up behind I was so relieved to make it up the steep climb. I began to think about Dr. Tan having to do the same behind me. After that I descend the hill on the other side by a narrow rocky valley with almost vertical sides with huge rocks threatening to fall at any time. In the valley, there were many plants flowering. The blossoms were tall and big. I was very cautious and slow in the descend, At the bottom of the hill I looked back and was happy to DT coming down the slope. The last 2 km were up and down sand dunes and I reached the bivouac site at 5.30 pm. It was a hard day, considering the many steep slopes that we had to climb.


One of the many big hills we had to climb.

As the sun was setting we quickly prepared to cook dinner. There was some difficulty getting the fire going because of the strong wind but eventually we managed. I went to the email tent and sent an email to my wife and asked her to forward to friends to inform of our status.

That night, the wind was very strong and sand was flying in the bivouac. One of the bivouac in front of ours collapsed during the night.

27/3/2007 Day 3 (Distance 32.3 km)


All Asians (Japanese, Koreans, Hong Kong and Malaysians)

We were getting used to the routine. At 6am, the Berbers would come to dismantle the bivouac. We would have got ready our feet for the race before then, putting plaster wherever necessary. We then cook and eat our breakfast and get ready for the start. After the routine pre-race briefing by the race director, we were flagged off.

We started with climbing some small hills and then a long 10k trek across a stony plain. I saw some small spiraling column of sand which appeared and dispersed at random as we approach noon. The plain was surrounded by dark imposing hills all around. I was following some competitors from the RAF team. I saw a grave without any marking near the trek . After crossing the big plain, we passed through a rocky pass and came to a small pump in a small settlement. This was CP 1 for the day. This would be the only settlement we pass through throughout the entire duration of the race. There were some date palms and goats. The local people cheered us on . After that we crossed some very stony ground and a really wide dried river bed overgrown with tall camel grass. At this point I met up with a swiss competitior and we chat as we paced each other. Then we came to a series of climb and descend. I then caught up with Shogo from Japan. He would be the person who took most of my photographs in the desert. . We crossed CP2 together and then did a big climb average 18%. After that we descend to stony ground and I finish around 4pm.

By now we have picked up some French. We learnt to answer "oui ca va" (I am fine) at every check point in response to the "ca va?" (How are you?) question by the race marshals at the check points.

Some blisters had formed around the sides of both my feet. Fortunately they were quite small compared to the big nasty ones on the other competitors' feet I witnessed in the medical tent. Participants were hobbling around in the bivouac site.

In the late afternoon, we were called to the the center. The organizers were distributing a can of cold Pepsi for each competitor. What an unexpected treat!

At night, while getting ready to sleep I felt throbbing pain at both my big toe nails. DT gave me painkiller.


28/3/2007 and 29/3/2007 Day 4 & 5 (Distance 70.5km)

This was the day we all prepared for. This was the day for us to do the long leg of 70.5 km. The night before we had packed our things such that the food we need would be easily accessible over the next 15-20 hours.

We were up early preparing our feet for the long day and night. I also cooked more food breakfast than normal in anticipation of the big day.

There was an extra long briefing in the morning. In particular the race director stressed on the importance of the safety during the night while the participants crossed the desert to the next bivouac site 70.5 km away. The qualifying time was 34 hours. Based on my timing of 7 to 8 hours for the 30km legs, I estimated to finish about 14 to 15 hours.

DT and myself had already decided to continue through the night so that we would the whole of next day to rest. DT said we should do the night stretch together. I agreed with him.

My main concern was the windy and cold night of below 10 every night. I had carried a thick windbreaker, one extra long sleeve tee shirt and shortsleeve tee in my backpack. Dr. Tan had only his thin windbreaker.

My aim was to reach CP 4 at KM42 before dark and before the temperature plummeted below 10 degree C. I want to be able to be at that check point to put on three extra layers of clothing.. The t-shirt with no. was to be worn as the outer most layer.

For this particular leg, while we started just after 9 am, the elite competitors started only at noon. This would be the only time when we get to see the elite in action when they overtake us. At 22 km around 2pm the lead runners started to lap us. It was amazing to see them running fast in the soft sand. At that point I had so much soft sand in my shoes but there were no rocks on the vast river bed for me to sit down to remove the gaiter and shoes to poor out the sand jam packed in my shoes. This aggravated my toe nail conditions.

I reached CP 4 at 42km just before 7pm. I took my time to put on my extra layer of clothings, had my dinner of dried fruits and nuts and energy drink while waiting for DT to come in. I was given a light stick to be tied to the backpack for safety reason. In case we got lost, it would be easier for the marshals to locate us in the desert in the dark. By the time I was ready, it was already dark and about 7.30 pm. DT did not show up. So I decided to move on to CP5 located at 52km to wait for him.

Moving out of CP 4 in the dark, it was a new experience of walking in the dark in the desert. I had a LED headlamp which illuminated the path to take. I could also see the laser beam in the sky originating from CP 5. The competitors were really spread out. I saw the light sticks far and few. I looked for the light stick markers at 500m apart and they are no so visible in the dune areas as one went up and down the dunes. I followed the footprints and the laser. The 10 km felt like never ending. There were many dunes and sand was blasted at my face. I covered my face with the buff to shield from the cold and the sand.

CP 5 at KM 52 is a like a camp site where three bivouacs were set up for those who want to rest or spend the night and also for the medical team to deal with problems of the competitors. I reached about 9.30 pm. It was very cold and windy. My feet were sore after battling the desert ground for the last 12 hours. Looking at the competitors resting and sleeping at CP5, it was tempting for me to do the same. But I decided to stick to plan to continue. I had some dried fruits and nuts and rested a while to wait for DT. I spend some time chit chatting with a really friendly French lady manning the check point.. After half and hour, a lone competitor came in. It was DT. I called out to him. He was so happy to see me. He took out his emergency blanket because he had only 2 layers of clothings which were not sufficient to keep him warm. I had 4 layers. DT said he saw a French competitor lying on the trek between CP 4 and CP5, obviously too weak to continue. DT and another competitor helped to set off his flare to request evacuation for him. We were hoping we do not have to set off our flare that night. It was after 10 pm as we left CP5 and we still had a long night ahead!

We trudged on through the night to CP6 which is 12 km away. The terrain is generally flat and stony. We could see the trail left by earlier competitors. We were on our own most of the way. We met some competitors who wrapped their sleeping bags around their upper body while carrying on walking in the cold and windy night. Sometime about mid night, some race marshals in a 4WD passed us and shouted "what is your race number?" We shouted in reply our race numbers. DT said this is to test whether we were disorientated or not. If we could reply to such question, the race marshals could stop us from continuing through the night.

Dr Tan had no food left, except some really spicy snack which he could not stomach. I had some pizza biscuits and a fruit bar which I passed to him. At around 1.00 am DT was unusually quiet and unresponsive to my chit chat. So I started singing "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art". Some other competitors passing us joined in singing. That in a way wake up DT. He started singing "500 miles away from home". I laughed at it. There were really really few competitors now. Those faster ones would have gone ahead and those slower ones would have stayed at the CP 4 or CP5 to rest for the night.

We finally reached CP6 after 2 am and it would be just another 6km to the bivouac site. We were both tired, cold and hungry. The 6 km home stretch covered mostly sand dunes. It was tough to walk and difficult to find the markers in the dark. We used our compass to check our direction now and then. We then saw a bright star over the horizon which seem to coincide with the direction we were supposed to head. That star helped to guide us. The last 6km would take us another 2 and half hours. After 4am, we suddenly saw light of the bivouac site just beyond the dunes. But then we must had crossed another 20 dunes before reaching the bivouac site another ½ hour later. How deceiving!!!

What an elation I felt as I was greeted by the two lonely marshals at the finish line. DT and I crossed the finish line almost together after 19 ½ hours. By the time we collected our water ration and crawl into our bivouac, the horizon already began to brighten.

I could have gone ahead and finished a little earlier but if I have done that without waiting for DT, it would have been really really miserable and lonely night for both of us. Not to mention that if we were each on our own, either of us might have lost our way in the dark and be disqualified.

As we completed the 70.5 km through the night, 29/3/2007 became a rest day for DT and I. It was a hot sunny day in the bivouac. We did not get up until lunch time to cook some food. I went to medical tent to take care of my feet. In the late afternoon we were called for special announcement at the centre of the bivouac site. The race director Patrick Bauer announced that in the early morning a French competitor died at 5.35 am is his bivouac. informs you of the death of Bernard Julé from France, N°53, today 29.03.07 at 06H35. Bernard Julé had run a good course from the beginning. He had sought no medical aid and his medical file showed no risk factor. A minute's silence was held on the bivouac. Competitors who opted to rest or sleep at CP 4 or 5 came in one by one throughout the day.


30/3/2007 Day 6 (Distance 42.2km)


With the friendly Dutch team

After a full day's rest, everyone in our bivouac were feeling strong. And day 6 was for a full marathon. I looked forward to this day. After walking most of the race so far, I could not wait to do some running. Most of the food have been eaten and my backpack was probably down to less than 10 kg. I knew I would be able to have a nice steady run. The organizer had planned the day's course in gentle terrain which permitted those who want to run to be able to do so. And this was the second last day. So I need not worry about injuries which can put me out of the race. The next day was just to run 11.7 km! I could afford to be a bit reckless, I thought to myself.

The race director clearly reflected this sentiment in his speech. He knew that all who have come so far would be able to complete the marathon and the short leg the next day.

The course was mostly on undulating and gentle terrain, sandy in some part and stony in other part. I enjoyed the run, inspite the pain in my big toe nails. With the backpack lighter and the gentle terrain, I could run all the way at a slow steady pace. There were 3 check points on the way where we collected our water rations.

At the last 2 km, we crossed a plain strewed with black stones, which from far makes the plain looks black and looming beyond were pink coloured sand dunes (almost like strawberry ice-cream)!! At the last 500 meters I pulled out the Malaysian flag, tied to the trekking pole and held it up high to cross the finish line. Everyone was cheering at the finish line.I had a good marathon finishing in 6 hours 58 minutes. (That was 15 minutes faster than my marathon in Singapore which I did with the backpack). I was really happy.

I was back earlier than I expected before 4 pm and so took my time at medical tent to take care of the blisters and toe nails. I also queued to sent an email to Simon Cross in reply to his email and to thank him for the tips and pointers which made the race so much more manageable.

DT came back some time later. The young 23 year old Japanese competitor Sakayasu came in very late after Dr. Tan. He was covering his face with his hands and weeping loudly as he limped towards his bivouac. DT said he passed the boy who was obviously in great pain, whimpering and struggling every step of his way.

I collected some firewood and cooked dinner and I finish my last pack of noodle. Dr. Tan ran out of food and as he put it he was down to salt and pepper soup. Koreans and Japanese gave some food. I went and checked out the Dutch at their bivouac. They all did excellent time in the race. I managed to obtain 2 packets of chocolate mousse from the Dutch and went back to my bivouac. I made the mousse and everyone in the bivouac shared it.

That night, the organizer flew in an opera group from Paris to entertain the competitors at the bivouac site.

Before retiring for the night, we exchanged email addresses with those we got to know during the race.

31/3/2007 Day 7 (Distance 11.7 km)

For the first time since the last seven mornings, no Berbers came to bring down the bivouac at 6 am!! Everyone took their time to get up and to get ready for the last short run. It was obvious that everyone at the bivouac was in extremely high spirit. The stewards and marshals went around the camp site blaring the horns in the 4WDs. Everyone cheered at them. The Korean TV crew came to interview me and DT and asked how we felt about the event. For my part I told them I found it an enriching experience in that we got to meet like minded competitors from so many nations and form the camaraderie. I told them also that I was so enthralled by the pristine environment in the Sahara, untouched by human activity.

During the daily speech by the race director during which he announced that about 30 had retired from the race thus far, the competitors from NZ entertained everyone at the start line with the Maori.dance. After that we were flagged off and everyone started off with great enthusiam. It was a straight course, half of which were stony ground and the other half sand dunes. It was really pleasant slow and steady run for me. I was kind of missing the desert already so I took my time.

At about 11 am, I was nearing the finish line running on the orangy pink coloured sand dunes. There were tourists on camels led by Berbers. The finish line is at a small tourist town Merzouga. The locals and families of competitors lined up the last few hundred meters to cheer us to the finish.

About 100 meters from the finish line, I took out an empty water bottle from my backpack and squat down to scoop the orangy pink desert sand into it. Many other competitors were doing the same. All want to bring back the desert sand as a momento. I then crossed the finish line together with a short but stout 67 year old French competitor with upturned moustaches. He gave me a bear hug and 4 pecks on my two cheeks!! That is the French way. At the finish line the medal was hung on us and the lunch pack and finishing t-shirt handed out to us. We were than directed to the row of buses waiting for the competitors. The buses leave separately as each were filled up. It would be another 6 hour ride to the hotels at Quazazite.

We ate our lunch pack on the bus. We had a few toilet stops. Everyone was all tired and therefore did not bother to walk very far from the bus to answer nature's call. Guys just did it standing while the ladies squat. The air conditioning on our bus broke down on the way. The vent cover on top of bus refused to open even though many people tried to force it open. I flattened an empty mineral water bottle and managed to jam it in between the vent cover to let in some cool air from outside to the cheer of all on the bus. Our bus reached the hotel. I was the first to check into the room which was to be shared by 4 competitors. I had a long soak in the long bath, the first bath after 9 days!!

In the evening, we had dinner at the hotel provided by the organizer. First real meal after 7 days!!. Everyone must had 2 to 3 rounds.

For the statistics, there were 727 competitors who finished. 29 others started but did not finish and one participant died. For me my two big toe nails turned back and are now gone. The overall result for DT and I are as follows:

Total time taken Position overall Position in male veteran 50-59 years
Ngae Koh Hieng 50 h 40 m 571/727 77/104
Dr. Tan 55 h 01 m 627/727 89/104

On 1/4/2007 we were back in civilization. Breakfast was provided by the hotel. After that we went to one of the hotels where the control centrer was set up to return the flare. We also bought some event souvenirs. We met up with the many competitors we got to know during the race. After that DT, myself, John from Hong Kong and Seiji from Japan went around the small town of Quazazate. Seiji participated in the MDS in 2006 and was familiar with the place. We had a sumptuous "targine" lunch. "Targines" are meat and vegetable cooked in shallow clay pot with a clay top hat cover. DT bought some local oranges. These were like the Sunkist navel oranges but were more like the size of small pomelo. Real sweet and juicy.

Dinner was provided by the hotel and as arranged by the organizer, we depart the hotel by 5.30am early next morning by bus to the airport to take the chartered flight back to Paris.. We overnighted at Paris and then flew to London to spend a few days with DT's friends and daughter. We flew back to Malaysia on 6/4/2007 and reached KL Sentral on the evening of 7/4/2007 to be welcomed home by friends and family.


Welcome back at KL Sentral

To bring a close to this long report, I must include the following observations about the event.

· The organization was flawless. Interestingly, the race director was in the thick of action all the time.

· The participants were well disciplined. No littering at all at the camp site and on the trail. I was in the 500 plus position and I did not see any wrappers on the trail throughout the seven days in the desert.

· In the desert and back to nature and down to the basics, all competitors learnt that many things deemed essential living in the city were really quite unnecessary. After days of being so physically and mentally challenged, everyone treated each other with equal respect. The most interesting observation I made was about answering calls of nature. During the first one or two days, the competitors (especially the women) would walk quite some distance out from the bivoac site or off the trek to answer such calls. After a while everyone were not bothered so much about walking a long distance away. Afterall what is the difference of baring our butts to others ten feet away or one hundred feet away?

I must also record my thanks to the following people:

· my wife and children for supporting me in this venture;
· Mr and Mrs. John Tan of Foto-zzoom (M) Sdn Bhd who funded my participation in the MDS and made my participation possible. They had consistently supported me in my charity events over these years.
· the friends in Pacesetters and Hospis Malaysia who saw us off, accompany us all the way in spirit and welcome us home. Reading the encouraging emails while we were in Paris and also while we were in the desert really made a big difference.
· DT for his idea of doing the MDS in the first place which influenced me into doing it
· Simon Cross for his encouragement and his invaluable tips

Last but not least, I thank God for the wonderful injury free experience DT and I had in the MDS 2007 and for us to be able to do something for Hospis Malaysia.

Ngae Koh Hieng

 

 

 

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