HALF MARATHON DES SABLES FUERTEVENTURA: “YOU ARE STUPID” PERSONAL RACE REPORT BY WINNER ANNA-MARIE WATSON FROM WAA ULTRA.
Half Marathon des Sables Fuerteventura
This was the start of a conversation with my husband, Ben, after revealing I’d agreed to take part in the inaugural Half Marathon des Sables Fuerteventura only three weeks after completing the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc (UTMB) – one of the world’s hardest 100-mile mountain events. It was the definitely the response I’d expected and deserved, but I had optimistically hoped for maybe just a little bit more encouragement!
Check out my personal impressions righ after toeing the finish line in this short video interiew and then follow me on to recap this unique adventure as I saw it.
I concede it might not be the most sensible decision to add a multi-stage race to the end of your race season; especially when it is by the Marathon des Sables organisation who pride themselves on creating “the toughest footrace on earth”. The Half Marathon des Sables would inevitably present a tough physical and mental challenge despite being only half the actual distance of the Moroccan version.
Rewind seventeen years to April 2000, and it was while I was travelling through Gatwick airport that I initially discovered the Marathon des Sables. I noticed a group of individuals who were barely able to walk, wearing sandals with massive bloody blisters and sun burned skin. Upon questioning I discovered they had completed the equivalent of six marathons in six days in the Sahara Desert carrying all their food and equipment. The sheer scale of the challenge involved was utterly beyond my physical and mental comprehension as a runner who at this point had only completed the occasional 10km or half marathon. Still the idea was planted in my mind and it was a long-term dream to take part in this legendary race.
Fast forward fifteen years to April 2015 and I was privileged to stand on the second step of the Marathon des Sables podium as second lady and in the top fifty overall after an incredible six-day journey through the Sahara Desert. The camaraderie from my fellow runners, the inevitable highs and lows, the stark beauty of the Sahara Desert and the searing heat was an experience I’d remember for ever.
I’m often asked the question – “Will you return to the Marathon des Sables?” Although I’m reluctant to say “Never”, I rarely return to repeat races. However, I love to travel, meet people and visit new cultures and new countries so when I received an invitation from my sponsor WAA (What An Adventure), the French ultra-equipment company, to form part of a WAA Team for the first Half Marathon des Sables with Lucja Leonard, Loic Leonardi, Megan Yeung and Jinoghow Lua, that was an opportunity that I simply couldn’t refuse.
The Half MdS multi-day course consisted of three stages covering 120km. It was clearly designed to show case the unique scenery of Fuerteventura with stunning views across the island and Atlantic Ocean. The route covered a multitude of terrain from golden sandy beaches and paved coastal paths to arid rocky mountain trails and black volcanic rock that presented tricky technical parts underfoot. Everyday temperatures climbed into the high thirties and even the Spanish runners were heard to comment that it was too hot to run!
For those familiar with the traditional Marathon des Sables logistics concept, there are two key differences to the format. Firstly, runners are allocated individual tents pitched in collective circles of 6 as opposed to the open 8-person Bedouin tents, and secondly there is a daily 2.5km stroll to the nearby road where buses transport all the competitors to a different start point each morning.
Preparation: The final hours before a big race are always the same. This time the usual last minute preparation took place at La Pared Resort with race equipment checks, medical checks and of course weighing my bag, then reweighing my bag again, and reweighing again making sure for the last time that it’s as light as possible. Once the checks were over, we had a gentle 7km acclimatisation hike to the bivouac site, a final race briefing from Patrick Bauer, the legendary Marathon des Sables race organiser, and then a sumptuous BBQ under the stars; our last chance to savour the delights of real food before four days of self-sufficiency on rehydrated mush.
Stage 1: 25.5km Playa Las Coloradas to La Pared Isthmus. Standing on the start line my usual pre-race nerves escalated, exacerbated by the knowledge I’d only run 10km in the three weeks since the UTMB. As Fat Boy Slim “Right Here, Right Now” echoed across the sand, all I could do was take a breath, exhale and wait for the start. I’m always careful to ease into my pace, take it relatively easy in the first few kilometres and resist the urge to sprint into the distance. This was particularly important on this first stage, as I was mindful of the long stage the following day.
The road map elevation diagram had revealed a healthy 500m “bump” to kick start the course and test the legs. After a bit of gentle mental encouragement my body remembered how to run as I dialled into my stride and passed the summit where views across the Atlantic Ocean stretched far into the distance. Back at sea level, 10km of smooth sand beckoned as I ran alongside Marc Schneider, a German who only recently discovered the ultra-running world.
Leaving the beach behind, the route climbed towards CP2 with an ascent up an epic sand dune. Memories from the Sahara came flooding back as for every two steps forwards you slipped at least one back through the fine grains of sand. Another 4km and the finish-line came into sight where I was pleased to gain a solid stage win (3:04:03), nearly 20 minutes ahead of Yolanda Fernandez Del Campo (3:23:46) who was followed by Kristina Schou (3:31:51) from Denmark.
Stage 2: 66.5km Aguas Verdes to La Pared Isthmus: The long stage is always the key test of endurance and ability and for this event it started slightly later in the day at 12pm, purposively designed to test each runner to the max in the searing heat. Once again I ran on feel and listened to my body; but there were times when I slowed to an alternating brisk walk/run combination relying on my Garmin and listening for the beep to signal the completion of a kilometre and my sign to briefly rest by power walking 100m.
The picture-perfect village of Pajara appeared at CP2 packed with holidaymakers eating ice creams and swimming in the sea. This really did prompt me to question my sanity as to why I choose ultra-running over more sedentary past-times; maybe my next holiday will be more relaxing!!
It was just after Pajara that Marc Schneider appeared again and we ran together for solid 25km, up, up and up as we gained over 1,800m; far more height than the Moroccan version ever covers and I inwardly thanked the hours spent hill training for the UTMB building leg strength. Time and kilometres passed as day turned into night and I raced the final minutes of daylight. My tiny Petzl head torch barely lights my feet so I’m always keen to cover as much distance as possible in daylight.
In typical Patrick Bauer fashion the bivouac appeared in the far distance on the horizon; it seemed to be within touching distance, so close, yet with each step it didn’t seem to get any closer. Finally, after 8hrs 28 mins 19 secs I crossed the finish line ready to collapse into my tent. However, the “strong winds” Fuerteventura is appropriately named after meant another sleepless night as the wind buffeted my tent.
Stage 3: 21.1km Tuineje to Las Playitas Resort: Stage 3 was a short and sweet finale; a 4km technical section of volcanic rock, through Gran Tarajal, over a little 150m hump and straight into La Playitas Resort. My strategy was simply to enjoy myself, soak up the scenery and ease off the pace slightly to support my recovery over the next few days. The promise of a proper bed for the night, real food and a glass or two of Cava put a bounce in my step as I headed towards the end of another running adventure.
Later that evening, after everyone had enjoyed the delights of showers and clean clothes we regaled stories from last few days with new found friends. Over tasty Canarian culinary specialities, we toasted our congratulations to the 229 runners from 40 different countries who took part in this first edition of the Half Marathon des Sables. It definitely replicated the challenge involved in the notorious Marathon des Sables. If you’ve ever been tempted by the Marathon des Sables, it’s the perfect introduction, have a go next year!
Final results: Male & Female.
- Remigio Huaman 10:38:57
- Jonathan Hernandez Curbelo 11:41:37
- Alejandro Fraguela Breijo 12:05:42
- Anna-Marie Watson 13:51:26
- Kristina Shou 14:35:05
- Yolanda Fernandez Del Campo 14:52:25
HALF MARATHON DES SABLES FUERTEVENTURA 2017 PHOTOGALLERY.
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