Run and remember. Marathon des Sables

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By the age of 38, I had everything that any normal male dreams about: a beloved wife, two children, a successful, growing business (100 employees), many friends, an apartment in the center of the city, a car, a beer tummy, and, as one of my acquaintances said, I was not the last person in the city. I had already realized my financial, creative, managerial, and social ambitions, but, instead of a feeling of victory and pride, there was some emptiness inside of me.

As far back as I can remember, I was fighting. First, for survival in a strange city, and then there was Simpals, where I spent many evenings and weekends at work to make it survive and become a prosperous company. Then there were cartoons and I devoted myself entirely to my work to win contests at 40 festivals all over the world. And, in the meantime, I was fighting for the happiness of my family because my woman could hardly stand my difficult personality and every few months she packed her suitcases with the firm intention of finally becoming happy…

Now that the storms had calmed, I didn’t know what to do next.

It was already uninteresting in chasing money, the animation studio was working on its own, hard drinking with friends was no longer pleasing, and my relationship with my beloved woman had hit a dead end. In addition, I was tormented by the hypertension inherited from my father.

I was sitting and thinking that my life, boring and uninteresting to anyone, had turned into a slow dying of my aching body and lazy spirit. This had been going on for six months already. There were no thoughts of how to save myself, or how to change my life so that my eyes lit up and I was full of spirits again.

My reflections were interrupted by a bouncing Skype icon.

Sighing, I opened the message:



you need to learn to swim, run and ride a bike

I indifferently clicked on the link, not knowing that this click would divide my life into two halves. It was an Ironman race report. After reading it, I was taken aback. I read it again. Still not realizing that I was infected with no chance for recovery, I began to passionately read the reports of “ironman”. Ordinary men, there were guys like me who could swim 4 kilometers without stopping, bike 180 km and run 42 km “for dessert”.

That night I didn’t come home, and in the morning, with red eyes, I couldn’t think of anything else except that I urgently needed sneakers. That’s how it all began. Five years have passed since that day and I’m no longer that sad fat man with hypertension and fireless eyes. My life has completely changed.

I ran dozens of marathons, crossed deserts and frozen lakes, climbed mountains, swam across rivers, straits, and canals, dived to depths, held my breath, participated in Swimrun, Triathlon races, and world championships. I became an ironman. It was difficult, but I managed to inspire a love of sports in dozens of my friends and acquaintances who, in turn, had hundreds of their close ones hooked too. My Sporter team and I organized the Chisinau International Marathon and dozens more sports events.

Hundreds of hours of training alone with myself, similar to meditation, have greatly changed me. I became calmer and more confident, I learned to hear my body and to be here and now. This immediately influenced my family relationship and now my wife and I are closer than ever, although she sometimes get annoyed by my constant sports activity.

My life, of course, hasn’t become ideal. It has turned into a fight. I get the greatest satisfaction when after another madness I come back home with my shield, or on it (it doesn’t really matter), embrace my loved ones, I lay on the couch with them and allow myself everything that comes to my mind. I eat and drink whatever I want, I forget about work, I hang out with my children, my beloved wife, and my friends. Only at these moments do I enjoy life.

But after some time, it sucks. I feel uncomfortable because of idleness and inaction, and here I am, planning the next adventure and starting to train. Again a tough regime, diet, restrictions in everything, and only one goal is ahead — to run across Baikal, climb Mont Blanc, become an Ironman, swim across Gibraltar, hold my breath for seven minutes, and so on, and so on, and so on…

I feel uncomfortable in my comfort zone. For me it’s like a short break between two fights. I don’t know why but God has created me in such a way that I feel happy only when I take great pains to pursue my goals. I don’t know how I called down the wrath of God in past lives, but in this one I have to roll my stone up the mountain to the very end…

However, the main thing that gives me the strength to move on is the belief that someone very tired of life will late at night accidentally bump into one of my reports and his life will change.

Marathon Des Sables

When you begin running, you never know where this “bad” habit will lead you. You cannot even imagine it.

Four years ago, after my first training where I heroically ran two kilometers, I felt like a typical white-collar worker: fat, breathless, and mad, with pain in my knees. My greatest sports achievement at that time was a descent from a water slide in Turkey. If anyone had told me back then that only four years later I would go to the Sahara Desert and run 250 kilometers on the sand with a full backpack, I wouldn’t have believed it!

But time goes by, your first training is followed by the second, the tenth one… Then you run five, ten kilometers, a half marathon, a marathon], “Half Ironman”, “Ironman”, “Comrades”, “Otillo”, “Rubicon”. This unfinished list is familiar to many racing lovers. And when you see an ellipsis at the end of the list, you understand that you were right four years ago. Because the list continues with the Great and Terrible…

Marathon des Sables (MDS, Marathon of Sands). It is a 250-kilometer, six-day ultramarathon through the Sahara Desert. The MDS is considered one of the world’s toughest endurance contests.

That is why it attracts the attention of hundreds of madmen every year.

Marathon des Sables was invented by the French concert promoter Patrick Bauer. In 1984, he traversed the Sahara Desert alone, covering 350 kilometers in twelve days.

The first official launch of the Marathon des Sables took place in 1986 in Morocco. Then, just twenty-three participants finished the race. In 2017, about 1,300 people toed the starting line, provided that there are quotas for different countries. Moldova is participating in this outrage for the first time, and it seems to me that our quota will not be exhausted soon. Here are just some of the joys awaiting the participants of this adventure:

— The air temperature reaches +50°C in the daytime and drops to +5°C at night;

— Strong winds blow and sand storms may arise in the desert;

— Participants must carry all personal items and food with them in a backpack that weighs about 12—13 kilograms;

— The race passes through sand dunes and stony terrain with long, rocky climbs and descents;

— During the day one participant is given only 12 liters of water;

— Almost all runners’ feet bleed because of the heat, sweat, and sand.

Isn’t it lovely?

How can you not want ALL THESE JOYS?

Many people believe that only superhumans or suicidals, as well as those who don’t have enough thrills in their lives run the Sahara marathon. I believe that it’s first of all a challenge to your idea of normality. If you think the goal is unattainable, you’re not likely to achieve it. If you believe in yourself, then crawl. Being a superhuman has nothing to do with it.

However, for me, until I experienced the MDS, all that was just theoretical. For me, it had to be proven.

The Italian Mauro Prosperi knows better than anyone how hard this race is. In 1994, he got lost because of a sandstorm and was found in Algeria nine days later. He lost 13 kilograms but survived thanks to an unusual diet that included dead bats!

Preparation for the MDS. Training

Well, it’s no joking matter, this challenge requires serious preparation. It took more than a half a year to prepare for the race. Though I already had some experience, I had to start a lot from scratch.

First of all, big distances. I had to learn to run a lot, about 70—80 kilometers per week. I ran about 1,500 kilometers during the entire preparatory period. Probably, this is a beginner’s level for many ultra-runners but it took me three months to teach my brain and legs to cope with such a workload.

Then there was a struggle with my backpack. It’s one thing to run light and it’s quite another with a seven-kilogram weight behind your back. In the beginning, I had back pain, but regular training, special running exercises, general physical preparation, and kinesitherapy gave the result, and now my scoliosis doesn’t bother me so much.

Speed. I had to learn to run slowly. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Slowly means for a long time, and for a long time means hard.

Slow running differs from fast in biomechanics, so I had to brush up on my technique. It seems I did it.

Thanks to my coach Lenya Shvetsov, I prepared for the competition. He has been messing with me for more than a year, trying to make me a “running man”. And of course, I thank Liviu Croitoru, who has run with me more than one thousand kilometers.

In 2017, we, Sporter (nonprofit sports organization committed to the promotion of a healthy lifestyle and the development of amateur sports in Moldova), organized the first Rubicon, an ultramarathon relay across Moldova. There I was able to test my sneakers, food, and running technique. And of course, my running performance in kilometers. Honestly, it was hard for the brain to “digest” 150 kilometers in two days. People who were aware of my plans joked: “Dimon, you’ve organized a really impressive training for yourself before the MDS — hundreds of people, hundreds of kilometers, hundreds of thousands of lei…” :)

Let them joke, but seriously — I have a dream to organize an iconic Moldavian race like Marathon des Sables or Comrades in South Africa. And I think we’ll do it.

Things to take to the desert with you

The organizers of the Marathon des Sables have outlined a set of necessities for a desert runner: a backpack, a sleeping bag, a torch with spare batteries, 10 pins, a compass, a lighter, a whistle, a knife, disinfectant, a venom extractor pump kit, a mirror, a space blanket, sun screen, 200 Euros, a passport, a medical certificate, ECG tracing and food for seven days (14,000 kcal).

These are not mere recommendations — these are absolutely indispensable things. Here is the list of penalties for failure to comply with the requirements:

— No medical certificate and/or ECG tracing while motionless — 200 Euros + one hour of penalty for each paper;

— No backpack — disqualification;

— No sleeping bag or compass — three penalty hours;

— No signal pistol, road book, salt tablet, food (in an amount of 2,000 kcal per day) or space blanket — two penalty hours for each;

— No 10 pins, knife with a metal blade, whistle, antiseptic medicine, mirror, syringe with anti-venom, torch with batteries, check-in card, lighter, sun screen, money (200 Euros) — one penalty hour for each;

— Non-compliant backpack weight (must be between 6.5 and 15 kg) — one penalty hour;

— Absence of any item of individual equipment — 30 penalty minutes.

“Basically, hardly any runner can get into the MDS with no penalties.” — Me

The particular choice of obligatory and personal items depends on the individual preferences of the runner, so that is left to your personal consideration. Some athletes try to save money and stay hungry, others take more food and comfortable clothing and end up hating their heavy backpacks.

I spent several months trying to define the list of things I’m taking with me. Finally I managed to put together the list of items with their weight in grams. Looks quite thought-through but in the long run only distance would reveal how well I’d managed.

Obligatory items (612 g)

— A compass (24 g) — so that I don’t get lost;

— A knife (4 g) — to defend from the Berbers;

— A torch + three batteries (113 g) — to keep running at night-time;

— A whistle (4 g) — to whistle tunes while running;

— A space blanket (47 g) — to warm up or cool down;

— 10 pins (4 g) — to pin up the number;

— Sunscreen (23 g) — so that I don’t turn into a charcoal;

— A mirror (10 g) — to signal to a helicopter pilot;

— Venom extractor pump kit (29 g) — to deal with snakes;

— A passport (15 g) — so that they knew whose body they found;

— 200 Euros (1 g) — to stay in a 5-star hotel on the way;

— A national flag of Moldova (50 g) — will help me not give up;

— A lighter (11 g) — to cook my food;

— Disinfectant (37 g) — to lick my wounds.

Also one should take into account that before the start you’re going to get a whole bunch of things that you’ll have to carry with you:

— A road map with the race route (42 g) — they give it to runners the day before the start. I don’t even imagine why would they keep it secret;

— SPOT Gen3 satellite tracker (113 g) — so that they could see the location of each runner;

— A chip (20 g) — to fix down the time of each stage;

— Salt tablets (25 g) — to maintain salt balance under conditions of dehydration;

— Toilet bags (30 g);

— BIB number tags (10 g) — one for the chest and one for the back.

Washing (90 grams)

Participants of the race usually take with them the following hygienic belongings: soap, wet wipes, toilet paper, antibacterial liquids, dry shampoo, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a towel. In general, I’m an ogre13 by nature, so I’m pleased with the prospect of not washing for a week. I decided to take only toilet paper (90 grams).

Sleeping (642 grams)

I noticed that training is successful if you have a good night’s sleep before it. Even if I don’t eat, even if I’m not in a good mood, and even if it’s raining.

Sleep is the main thing for refreshment. I want to sleep long and tight when I’m in the desert, so I take with me a sleeping bag, a mat, and earplugs. Some take a pillow as well. I decided to save 100 grams on this and I’ll put a backpack under my head.

It took me a long time to choose a sleeping bag. There are many ultra-light sleeping bags with cool down on the market now. There is also another interesting option — a pair: a waistcoat plus a pocket for your legs. I scratched my head and chose an optimal combination of weight, volume, and cold-resistant properties, taking into account the expected +5°C at night — Minimus Down Sleeping Bag, K Series (372 grams).

Sometimes I climb mountains and take inflatable mats. Honestly, they are uncomfortable, creaky, narrow, and even unreliable — a spark can make a hole. It takes a long time to inflate and blow them up. Therefore, I decided to take a sleeping mat (a foam mat) to the race. Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite (270 grams) is the coolest and lightest mat.

To save weight, I cut off one third of the mat. My feet can lie on the ground, as the main thing is that my bottom feels soft.

Clothing (2579 grams)

The most important thing here is a backpack.

A lot depends on it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to rack my brains for a long time and took a 20-liter WAA MDS ULTRABAG (1086 grams). More than half of the people run with it at the Marathon des Sables. It’s such a proven workhorse.

I only cut off unnecessary straps, ropes, hooks

and rubber bands — in total, more than 200 grams of excess weight. The final weight of the backpack was a little more than a kilogram.

The second most important item is sneakers. Well, this is my favorite pastime: to buy, run, become sad, and give away. I did so three times before I decided on the design and size. I chose Hoka Challenger ATR 3 (a pair is 660 grams).

I took one and a half centimeters bigger than my usual size. After all, it’s known that the main trouble for runners at the Sand Marathon is calluses. 90 percent of participants get them. The formula is very simple: heat + sweat + friction = calluses. Moreover, if some sand gets into your sneakers, you’ll have to throw away your feet.

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