Mark has now completed the Marathon des Sables, to find out how he got on please start from the bottom of the page.
Fri 3rd April 2009
Last night was my worst so far in terms of sleep. I felt I had been awake most of the night. I really could not face the porridge or the muesli I had left and so I managed to swap a remaining Chicken Tikka for a Rice Pudding with Cinnamon with Marcus. I just thought it might be gentler on my stomach. I could only eat half of it though, as it was cloyingly sweet.
I was quite concerned about having enough energy for the day’s marathon stage as my last meal had been lunchtime the day before. Others in the tent were ridding their sacks of excess food and so I picked up some salted peanuts from Matt, an energy bar from Kevin and some honey coated banana chips from Paul and put them in my front pack for the race. Together with my last pack of wine gums I hoped it would be enough to see me through.
James was also in a bad way with his stomach and worryingly didn't seem to be making preparations for the day. He was still in his sleeping bag with 40 mins to go to the start.
There were the usual speeches etc with the addition of being asked to chant "Michel, Michel, Michel...",the name of the camel that brings up the tail of the race!
We started off on our last 26.2 miles of the race most of us had been preparing for 2 years. The course had 3 checkpoints before the finish and they were quite closely spaced compared with those on the long day- (11.5km, 7.5km, 8.5km, 14.5km) Some of the others in the tent had been using the movie function on their still cameras to record short video clips. This hadn't occurred to me before, but I took the opportunity to film the spine tingling passes of the helicopter overhead that had happened every day.
The pace of the opening stretch was quite high. I stuck to my heart rate zone and felt pretty good. I was determined to stick to my 15 min water schedule and 30 min wine gum intake that I had neglected on the long day.
We soon hit the first steep climb and here it was difficult to go at the pace I wanted because it was really only possible to climb in single file but I reached the top feeling good. There was one more similar climb and more flat running and before I knew it we were at the first checkpoint. Kevin and Matt were both there at the same time and we left immediately for the next checkpoint. As it was so closely spaced I was expecting there to be something difficult in store and sure enough we hit some dunes. They weren't the huge dunes we had seen on the opening and long days but they were rolling and numerous which made them hugely energy sapping. It also felt to be the hottest day yet and there was no breeze as there had been on previous stages. CP2 came soon enough and I left straight away again. More rolling dunes drained even more energy but again the next checkpoint arrived quickly.
I arrived at CP3 with Kevin and I was pleasantly surprised to hear that we had only 14.7 km left.
We had been warned that shortly after CP3 we would have to cross a stream. We seemed to running across a series of dry river beds and so I was beginning to hope that perhaps it had dried in the past few day, but then I spotted the stream ahead. I saw someone run straight through, lifting their feet high as he went and then someone stop and take their shoes and socks off before crossing. What should I do? As I got to the stream there was a group of children, one of whom wanted to sell me a two inch fish she had just caught. I ran straight through the stream but immediately doubted the wisdom of doing so, as my feet, shoes and gaiters were now completely sodden. Right after the stream was a sandy stretch which now made my feet wet and sandy- hardly a good recipe for a pain free last 10km. Sure enough after a few minutes my little toe on my left foot started hurting. I stripped off my shoe and sock to examine it but could see nothing remiss. The pain eased slightly as I continued but remained an irritant. There were then 2 winding shallow climbs that I felt were best power walked. I still wasn't sure whether there was going to be a sting in the tail of the race. At the top of the 2nd climb though, was a view of the finish and bivouac in the far distance. I asked the official sitting nearby how far it was and she replied "3 km" I quickly calculated that it would take another 20 mins or so to reach the finish and so it wasn't an idea to sprint quite yet!
Just before the steep sand embankment down to the plateau was a group of children demanding the usual "gateaux" this time I felt able to oblige and fished in my front pack for a "honey stinger" energy bar. I was still very vigorous in fending off they're quick hands as they were grabbing my pack. The last 3 km were fantastic. I increased my pace slightly but kept an eye on my heart rate. As I approached the finish there was a handwritten sign saying "All winners!"- an entirely appropriate sentiment, because for all but a small minority, finishing the race would have always been their goal. I crossed the finish line a little over 5 hrs from the start and was presented my medal. I had always heard that MDS finishers were always greeted by the race founder and director, Patrick Bauer and given a kiss. I have to admit to a slight sense of disappointment when the guy who greeted me was neither Patrick nor inclined to kiss me! Maybe Patrick had started suffering the same tummy bug as many of the Brits and was caught short?!
I was greeted by Matt and Jeremy who had finished 20 mins before and after handing in my flare and collecting my water, headed back to the tent.
It was over! 2 years of planning and training had led me to this moment. I had completed the Marathon Des Sables.
By the end of the day I learnt I had finished in 239th place out of 840 starters and was about 40th Brit out of over 200.
How did I feel?
Very much the same as after playing well in a concert with a prominent trumpet part. A huge sense of relief alongside a quiet satisfaction that all my preparation had paid off.
People often assume that a musician shares the same feelings of inspiration and elation that the members of the audience do after a wonderful concert. Personally, I am always so involved and concentrating on the processes that produce the results that active enjoyment of what is being produced is postponed to some days, maybe weeks afterwards.
However, I already feel extremely privileged to have been able to take part in such an incredible event. Apart from the physical and mental challenges of the running, the sense of teamship present in our tent was uplifting. Whenever anyone was suffering, the others always rallied round to support and help the sufferer. How often could you throw 8 complete strangers into such a close environment and there be such chemistry?
My race was relatively non eventful compared to some others. There was the guy who had to be given 7 litres of IV drip after a stage. There was the guy who completed the whole of the final marathon stage on crutches! Dozens of people kept going despite a virulent and hugely debilitating stomach bug. Before the start, my main worry about finishing the race was that I have been prone to blisters in the past.
Yet I suffered none!
Almost everyone else seemed to have feet stained with Iodine or Friar’s Balsam from treating blisters and some suffered so badly they were in wheelchairs at the airport for the flight home.
What's next? I don't know yet! During the low points of the long day I vowed to myself that I would not undertake any more events of this nature but go back to shorter triathlons. But the memories of the pain and suffering are already fading and I am asking myself whether I would return to the MDS one day. I can see why a few people go back year after year. Despite the attrition on my body ( I lost 3kg and my scales tell me I am down to 4.5% body fat), I really do feel rejuvenated!
Thur 2nd April 2009
The rest day stretched ahead. It seemed like a lot of time to kill but it passed quickly. All day there was a trickle of finishers and they were all congratulated as they passed our tent. I had a cashew nut rice meal for breakfast which was a welcome change from the over sweet porridge. I called home to reassure them that I was still alive and then just lay in the tent in the shade chatting with the others. I really have had a great bunch of tent mates with not a hint of tension between us. No mean achievement considering how close 8 strangers have been living and sleeping together this week.
Marcus is an engineer from Derbyshire. He has a great observational sense of humour and he makes a great double act with Paul, a policeman from Yorkshire who specialised in one liners. An example: James was talking about his future career thoughts and said that he thought he might like to help people in Africa. Paul- " well you can carry my f*****g bag this week then!" Penny is a PE advisor for schools from Kent and is the babe of the whole race and she was in our tent! It had been hoped her presence would moderate the language, overt flatulence and general laddish behaviour but the hope was short lived! Kevin is a designer from around Oxford and was fantastic value. I had met him in Wales on a training weekend and recognized a lot of my own obsessive traits in him. The difference was, he was not shy about openly admitting them. Anyway, I often say- " Obsessive is a word the lazy use for the dedicated"
James was the baby in the tent at 25. He works in a pub at the moment while he finishes a Masters degree in nuclear technology. He is a committed Christian and it was difficult for the most cynical of us not to be moved when he said he had been in tears on one stage thinking about how much Jesus loves us.
Matt works in media IT and is a supremely confident and able ultra marathon runner. He openly stated at the outset that he wanted to finish in the top 10 percent. Unfortunately he was struck down with sickness and diarrhoea and so was far from his goal but he soldiered on through the long day and had a storming finish in the last day running the marathon in 4:40!
And lastly, there is Jeremy, an auctioneer with Bonhams, specializing in pictures. Politely and softly spoken, he was a formidable athlete, being first back at the tent almost every day. He eventually finished an impressive 115th and 20th Brit.
Lunchtime came and I forced down a Chilli con Carne although I didn't feel hungry. It was downhill from then on as far as my stomach was concerned. Endless trips to the bushes with often no notice, was the pattern for the rest of the afternoon, evening and night. Toilet paper was now becoming scarce and eventually would become like currency. Some people even resorted to ripping up their clothes to use as toilet roll!
Word came back that Cobus had to withdraw as he was too far behind schedule at CP2. When I spoke to him later he was clearly disappointed but contemplating a return. The organizers had also confiscated his breakfasts in return for him being fed in the mess tent. He was planning to have a look at designing a foldable toilet seat for his next visit! It was a very long night as I couldn't get to sleep because of the stomach cramps. I left the tent twice to visit the bushes and was speechless at the incredible night sky. The Milky-way was clearly visible as well as the more familiar constellations from home made more vivid. I had had nothing to eat since 12 pm and it was now midnight. I didn't know if I should eat something or just hope the feeling would pass. In the end I decided to open some M and Ms. I devoured the whole packet. As I was wearing earplugs to drown out my tent mates snoring, I was completely unaware of the rustling and crunching levels I was generating until they told me the next morning!
Wed 1st April 2009
As I had managed to get off to sleep quite early, I had missed the visit to the tent by the rep last night when he informed us that today’s long stage is to be 91 km (56.5 miles)- the longest stage in the 24 year history of the MDS!
As we started to boil our water for breakfast, the Berbers were already dismantling the tents around our heads at 6:30am. The stage was set to start at 9am but the top 50 men and top 5 women were to start at 12. The atmosphere around the camp was incredibly subdued as everyone contemplated the long day ahead.
The stage started at 9:20 after the obligatory music and happy birthdays.
My heart rate monitor was working again and I had decided to keep it in the low 140s as this should have been sustainable. The first stretch was quite flat and seemed like it was over arable land but it was into a direct headwind. This headwind would make its presence felt all day, regardless of the direction we were running. After a while I spotted a team of 6 runners dressed in bright orange shirts running together. I tagged along to the back of their group and immediately felt the drafting effect. I had thought they might be Spanish because the shirts were the same colour as the Spanish cycling team Euskatel, but it turned out they were French. They were very organized, with pairs taking turns at the front before peeling off and going to the back in the manner of a cycling peloton. I just ran at the back taking full advantage. In cycling terms I would have been disparagingly called a wheel- sucker. Foot- sucker conjures up a completely different picture! I followed them right to CP1 where I saw Kevin from the tent. We left the CP together and we had a headwind again. Kevin had decided to walk but he walks only slightly slower than my MDS run pace and so we kept catching each other. At Checkpoint 3, Kevin decided to get some anti-nausea tablets from Doc Trotters. He didn't feel sick- he just thought he might do later. He really has the most ridiculous attention to every possibility. I pushed on, choosing walking or running according to my heart rate and the terrain. It was at this stage that my shoulders started to hurt quite badly. The bouncing of the rucksack when I ran had made my shoulders tender on previous days but now it was much worse. Kevin soon caught me and I asked him to take my poles from the rear pockets of my rucksack. I had bought expensive, very light titanium walking poles but had yet to use them. Many people were using them both walking and running but I had brought them in case I injured myself and they might help me finish the race. I tried them for an hour or so but found it difficult to get any rhythm going. I also resorted to my iPod for the first time, first playing "Lose yourself" by Eminem and then the Corrs. This did perk me up a little, the opening line of "Lose yourself" is- "if you had one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment. Would you capture it, or just let it slip? This never fails to give me a kick up the backside. Kevin had pulled ahead now and although I kept hoping I might catch him it wasn’t to be. It was at this moment that completely without warning a thought just burst into my head. "You could just stop, and pull your flare". It took me completely by surprise- I wasn't feeling that bad, maybe 7/10 on the discomfort scale and I forced the thought from my head.
Thankfully it didn't return. CP 4 was at 50km and was the first cut- off point for disqualification. The cut off was 16 hrs and I was there in 7 or so hrs and so there was no easy exit here. There was the equivalent of a marathon left to do!
At CP4 I took 15 mins to make up and eat some muesli. I didn't feel I was managing my energy supplies as well as on previous days. My packs of wine gums were hidden inside my rucksack and it was so painful to remove it that I had not done so.
I left CP4 and ran along a valley floor. Then I spotted some ant like figures right at the top of a mountain to the right. We were going up there!? I reached the bottom of the climb and then spent 15 mins climbing to the top. The sun was already starting to go down and I couldn't believe that people were going to have to climb it in the dark. I reached the top and after taking a photo for a German guy and a couple of landscapes for myself I set of down the other side. The path down was a shallow gradient sandy path but with large rocks embedded just over the surface. It seemed like a broken leg waiting to happen in the dark. At the bottom there were groups of children requesting "gateaux" I pretended not to understand, as much as I would have liked to give them some M and Ms or wine gums, there was still over 30 km to go and I was worried about having enough food myself. We then entered some huge dunes. This was extremely draining and the light was fading fast. We had been given 12 hr glow sticks to wear on the rear of our packs so that we could be seen from behind but I couldn't find it in my front pack. Neither could I find my head-torch.
Eventually I did find it and put it on. I then caught up Lynne from USA and Paul from Belgium and asked if I could tag along with them. The prospect of crossing the desert in the dark with some company was much more appealing. Some of the craters amongst the dunes were about 20 m deep and as we traversed around them they seemed as if they were drawing you into them. We were walking at a very good pace but then Lynne started suffering and we slowed. She was running out of energy and so I gave her the remainder of the honey roasted cashews that I had. She didn't even say thank you! We passed groups of locals apparently living in tents like ours and although they seemed friendly enough, a group of runners had had kit stolen and so in the half light they seemed a little intimidating. We arrived at CP 5 and Lynne said she needed to rest. Paul had said he would wait for her and I thought I might as well do the same but then the plan changed and Paul and a Frenchman called Laurent decided to press on. I went with them but the group soon broke up and I was alone. I was to stay alone until the finish almost 5 hrs later. The next stretch to CP 6 was a real low point. My lightweight head-torch was not really up to the job of lighting the way sufficiently ahead and so I had to switch constantly between looking at my feet and looking up to see the luminous green markers. The ground underfoot was very rocky and I frequently stumbled or stubbed toes. The bottoms of my feet were also starting to hurt. On top of that my shoulders were now so sore I could only walk with my thumbs underneath the straps and without the propulsion provided from my arms my pace had dropped significantly. If that wasn't enough I had stomach cramps and I only just managed to get my shorts down in time once and failed the second time! I was now utterly miserable. I was still hours from the finish and my incontinence was a degradation and humiliation too far. The ground seemed to be moving and from time to time I seemed to be weaving uncontrollably. Twice, I thought I saw scorpions beneath my feet, tails raised, scuttling sideways but I had no idea whether they were real or imaginary. It was 14.5 km between CP5 and CP6 and it took me 2.5 hrs. Some distance from CP6 there was a laser lighting the way to the CP. The only trouble with lasers is that you can see them a long way away and time and time again I expected to see the checkpoint beyond a ridge and was disappointed. As it at last came into view I had a decision to make. Did I stop and rest for an hour and hope to recuperate a little or press on. I really wanted to stop but I thought that if I did, it would be difficult to move again. In addition, from the outset I had set myself the goal of doing the long day in one and, despite my condition I was very reluctant to give that up.
I didn't give myself time to think too much about it- I collected some water and walked straight out for the final 12 km. I really don't know too much about the next 2 hrs. I staggered and lurched around in the vague direction of the markers and the finish eventually came into view. Even 20 yards from the line I headed off sideways away from it until the marshals called at me. I crossed the line 16.5 hours after I started. I was handed some water and I was pointed in the vague direction of the tents. It took me 10 mins to find tent 72 and I collapsed into it. Jeremy and Kevin were already in their sleeping bags but congratulated me and then the pain started. My legs throbbed like never before and my shoulders were so sore I couldn't support myself on all fours. I knew I should eat but couldn't face boiling water and so I just crawled into my sleeping bag. After an hour or so I was woken by Kevin crying out in alarm. He had soiled his sleeping bag in his sleep and so in his exhausted state was tasked with cleaning it up with nothing but wet wipes. And to think, we were all doing this for fun! Over the next few hours James and Penny returned to the tent and then I must have fallen asleep as when I woke at 6am Matt had returned too. Paul and Marcus strolled in a couple of hours later having stopped to rest at one of the later CPs. We were one of the very few full tents. The sense of relief was incredible. We still had a marathon to complete but we all felt we had broken the back of the race.
Tue 31th March 2009
It was absolutely freezing in the tent and we had 2 hrs to get ready. It sounded like plenty of time but there was a lot to do! Boil water for the porridge, pack up bag, general ablutions. This all had to be done while shivering from the howling wind.
Lighting the stove was difficult enough but eventually I got it lit and the porridge went down a treat.
We were briefed in the tent by a rep that today’s stage was to be a circular route returning to the same bivouac of 36 km.
At 8:15 we walked to the start area but stood shivering until 9 am (when the stage eventually started) while dreadful music blared from huge speakers and the race director described the stage. We set off at 9am and I resolved to take it slower than the previous day.
This was made difficult to gauge as my heart rate monitor was refusing to register. Again, the Eurosport helicopter swooped over head flying sideways ahead of the line of runners. The first stretch to Checkpoint 1 was a dog-leg of 13 km with a slight uphill gradient, then some rolling small dunes. There was then a section that reminded me of the route I had done in training in the Brecon Beacons. It was in this section that a group of 7 or 8 runners turned 180 degrees and started rummaging in their pockets. I thought that maybe they were looking for their compasses but it turned out they were looking for their cameras to photograph a snake. I didn't stop! A little later I thought I heard a rattle-snake beside me and jumped, but it was only the gas escaping from the effervescent electrolyte bottle in my shoulder holster! Eventually, shortly before Checkpoint 1, I was hailed by Jason who was my room-mate back in the hotel, so we arrived at the checkpoint together. I also saw James my young tent mate at the checkpoint and he told me he was finding it much tougher than the previous day. I followed the previous day's strategy of leaving CP1 immediately and the next stretch to CP2 was long, mostly flat and quite tedious. I ran almost all of it apart from the more technical descents. I then encountered Rory Coleman, the veteran of 5 MDS's who I had trained with back in September and we arrived at CP2 together. I collected water and left almost immediately for the last 11 km stretch but Rory was even quicker out than me. I caught him up and asked if he minded some company and we ran together almost to the finish. It was a great help to have company for the last stretch and at one point we both slip streamed another runner into a headwind. Just as we were expecting to see the bivouac over an approaching ridge we encountered a range of dunes stretching into the distance and a snake of runners the size of ants in the distance. This was really draining at this stage of the day and they seemed interminable. We then caught Kevin another of my tent mates and as Rory went ahead Kevin and I ran/walked together stopping for the occasional photo. We arrived at the finish after 4 hrs 55 mins.
It was only 2pm so we had lots of time to kill but it went very quickly. I had already established a routine of stripping off my race kit and putting it on the tent roof to dry. Inspecting my feet- 2 lost nails and 2 hotspots (the beginning of a blister) which I will probably tape up tomorrow. It was some time before the next arrivals but we were all eventually back. Penny had had a much better day and was back on form but Matt and Paul were both suffering. Matt had been unable to keep any fluid or food down all day and so had run out of energy. Paul was absolutely shattered and we eventually became concerned as he got into his sleeping bag and was alternating between shivering and feeling hot. I felt he should probably see Doc Trotter but he was reluctant and so I made him some sweet coffee and he slept for an hour before waking up, being sick and then evacuating at the other end as well. He did feel better after though although it was a big concern that he hadn't eaten with the long day ahead tomorrow.
Cobus, the smoking, full English breakfast eating South African came in about 30 mins before the 10 hr cut- off point for the stage and so he lived to fight another day.
Mon 30th March 2009
A 6 o clock start began with me pouring water onto my dehydrated fruity muesli. Breakfast was on offer at the hotel but I felt the 800 calories from the muesli was probably better balanced nutritionally than croissants. Then I slapped on some sunscreen. The stuff I have got is supposed to last all day but should be applied in advance of exposure.
The bus left at 7am, drove half a mile and stopped outside another hotel for an hour. Again no explanation was given and soon there was the inevitable procession of people leaving for a pee!
Eventually we were on our way and after about 40 km spotted the start area. We piled off the bus and it immediately felt very cold. There was a substantial breeze and dressed in race gear it was very difficult to keep warm.
After another queue for our initial 3 litre water allocation, I made my way to the start area. I huddled behind an inflatable advertising bollard and then noticed an official photographer taking my photo. I said Bonjour and he answered me with Hello in an English accent. I asked him where he was from and he said Woking- only 10 miles from home!
We were then funneled into the area immediately behind the start line and after some announcements of birthdays of competitors the countdown began from a minute to go and we were off!
The atmosphere was incredible as the Eurosport helicopter circled and swooped overhead. I was determined not to start too fast and so I kept an eye on my heart rate monitor aiming to keep it below 150 bpm. This occasionally meant slowing as the gradient increased almost imperceptibly. The initial 2 km was quite flat but then we entered 12 km of sand dunes. I settled into a rhythm quite quickly of running the flats and down hills and power walking up the climbs. I really felt the benefit of all the gym work with Richard Pierre Reid on the climbs. We had done lots of step- ups, lunges and squats wearing leg weights and I could really feel the benefit. I think it was a little easier than it might have been as the sand was firm in places from the recent rain. The landscape was amazing and I was almost disappointed when the dunes came to an end after approx 2 hrs and I spotted the first checkpoint. At the first checkpoint I was issued with more water. I still had a full 1.5 liters from the start and so only took one of the two offered. I was slightly worried about it but I simply couldn't carry 4.5 liters of water at one time. I had been drinking regularly every 15 minutes, alternating water and electrolyte mix and really didn't feel I could drink more. I left the checkpoint straight away. I had been considering inspecting the state of my feet but as I had not felt any problems I decided to press on. The next stretch of 9 km was mostly flat over salt plains. It was still very beautiful as the dunes towered to one side. I had started snacking as I ran on honey roast cashews and a real discovery- peanut m and m's. Raj, the doctor who performed my ECG had recommended them and they were fantastic. This stretch seemed much longer than the hour it took before the next checkpoint. Here another 1.5 liters of water was issued. I had a bit of a morale boost here as I asked how far the next checkpoint was and was told that it was the finish in 10 km. I had been expecting another checkpoint before the finish! The next stretch was reminiscent of the shale in the lake district. Some of the descents were better walked as the footing was difficult. It was also quite undulating. By this time I was playing cat and mouse with a guy called Jeremy. He would pass me and we would have a chat and then 20 minutes later I would pass him. We then entered the last 4 km but it was over more dunes. This time it was more difficult to maintain my earlier rhythm as my legs were tiring but it passed quite quickly. Then I mounted a dune to see in the distance the bivouac. It looked very close but I steeled myself that it might be further. It was probably 20 mins later that I crossed the finish line after 4 hrs 22 mins for the 33 km stage. We then had to wait in a queue in the direct sun for 10 mins to collect another 4.5 liters of water.
The arrangement with my tent mates had been to try to go for tent no 71. The first man in would go to that tent and if it was already occupied by another team to try 72 etc. 71 was already occupied by someone not in our team and so I went to 72 and it was empty. I threw my rucksack on the floor, stripped off my wet kit and hung it on the tent roof and sat down to inspect my feet. Not a blemish!! The gaiters had done an amazing job as there wasn't a grain of sand in my shoes.
Shortly afterwards Matt and James arrived. Eventually all the members of the tent were back. Penny, a PE teacher and experienced ultra runner arrived in a pretty bad way. She lay down but didn't really improve and eventually after vomiting a few times she agreed to go and see the medics "Doc Trotters". It seemed that she had drunk all 7 litres of water on offer and had taken no salt tablets and so had diluted her body’s electrolytes. I had taken no salt either and had quite a headache so I started taking some. I had assumed that the electrolyte drink had enough sodium but it seemed not. The day before dark passed very quickly with eating (Chicken Tikka), calling home, checking my race position ( 225th) and numerous trips to pee. I climbed inside my sleeping bag and fell asleep around 6:30. I woke at 8 and had to relieve myself again and by this time the wind had built up. When I returned to the tent I lay awake for a long time as the wind got stronger. The tents are completely open at both ends and so it whistled through all night. By sunrise at 6am everyone was comparing horror stories of their dreadful night sleep. My own low point was dreaming of giant scorpions and then waking up screaming because I had felt one falling on my sleeping bag. Thankfully when I switched on my head-torch there was nothing there!
Sunday - Continued
Sun 29th March 2009
At long last the race director appeared to much fanfare from a Moroccan band.
He began by saying that there were 2 options:
- Option 1: to cancel the race
- Option 2: to try to improvise a solution day to day
It seemed pretty unanimous that no- one wanted to cancel the race but there were still so many questions unanswered. What would be the length of the race? Were the stages to remain the same? Was the route as per the road book? These were not really answered but we were asked to be understanding and patient!
After 30 mins or more of announcements that were all covered in the regulations anyway, we were free to go back to the buses. The only thing we had to do was to have our timing chip checked on the way out. 840 people all rushed for the exit to find 2 people with the machine to check chips. A huge mass of people stood stationary for about 20 mins before someone decided that it perhaps wasn't such a good idea and let us all through without the check.
Back to the hotel and yet another kit check and an almost impossible job of pinning the number to the front of my running shirt without it being obscured by the front pack. The obvious solution would be to attach it to the front pack but the organizers have strictly forbidden this on penalty of disqualification if spotted 3 times. No explanation has been given for this bizarre rule despite various enquiries.
Eventually I managed it by moving the front pack from chest height to waist height but it will not be as comfortable to run with as it will be banging against my abdomen. A quick coca cola in the bar with some tent(!) mates and dinner and I was in bed by 8pm. I just hoped I would get to sleep before Rab!
Sun 29th March 2009, 13:46pm
Not quite such a good night sleep last night. Went to bed at around 9 and read my book for half an hour before putting in some earplugs and switching off the light by my bed. One of my room mates Rab was not in by this time and I didn't hear him come into the room but I certainly knew when he was asleep as his snoring managed to cut through my earplugs no matter how far I rammed them into my ears.
I got up at shortly before 7am after glancing at the time on my iPhone. Curiously when I arrived at the breakfast room it was still closed and a handfull of people were waiting. I then glanced at my watch -6:10! I looked at my phone 7:10! My phone had changed automatically to allow for BST but unfortunately Morocco doesn't change the time and so I was an hour ahead. At least I could return to my room and wasn't under canvas yet.
It is the overnight aspect of the race that has been most affected by the weather. We had been expecting 8 nights under canvas in the desert and now will have only 5. I try to keep telling myself that I am not here to camp but to run but it doesn't really reduce the sense of disappointment.
After breakfast it was time to go back to the room to fine tune the kit once more. This morning, we handed in all of our kit that we weren't taking on the run and so I dressed in race kit ready for the bus at 8:30 that was to take us to the hotel where the French competitors were staying. Predictably it was a lot more luxurious than ours! I found myself near the front of the queue for the admin building and was soon asked to show my passport and the declaration of kit document before being issued with water ration card, medical card, rescue flare, and having my ECG and medical form checked. Curiously after months of worrying that I had all the compulsory kit no-one checked my bag. There was one more queue to join to collect a stove and fuel tablets and then we were directed to the courtyard where we had 2.5 hrs to wait before lunch.
Yet another unpack/repack routine followed where I buried the rescue flare right at the bottom of the rucksack. My thoughts were that if I were ever tempted to give up and fire the flare it might be more trouble to get at the flare than to carry on. We also had a go at lighting the fuel tablets and timed how long they burnt in order to gauge how many to take. I had erred on the side of caution when ordering and found myself with 7 boxes of 20 tablets when 3 was more than enough.
12 o clock arrived and the queueing began again for the packed lunch provided. One of the few advantages of the race being organized by the French is the standard of food provided. Everything has been superb from the packed lunch on the bus to the evening meals. Those competitors who were fed at the bivouac before it was evacuated reported being given rather good claret with their meal!!
We were now watching hundreds of runners from other nations arriving. France , Spain, Swizerland. There was a decidedly paranoid tendency to examine the size of their rucksacks and compare them with one's own. When it came to the Moroccan brothers who have won the race for the last ten years or more, their packs looked like schoolgirls gym bags compared to the 15kg monsters of some of my tent mates. They had obviously decided to get the Brits out of bed first and make them wait around in the sun the longest because the briefing by the race director was scheduled for 4 o clock.
Although the sun has shone all day, when it went behind a cloud it was still distinctly chilly. A rather alarming rumour has also started saying that it is forecast to rain again on Thursday and that if the race had to be halted again it would not restart. I'm trying not to think of that possibility.
Sat 28th March 2009, 19:06pm
I spent the morning writing a diary, packing and repacking my rucksack, listening to the thunder and generally hanging around the lobby hoping to hear some news. The rucksack is getting lighter without taking a step as I have lost a days worth of food and I have cut down on the food for the remaining days as well.
Lunch was served at 1 pm and although I thought the members of the Philharmonia were pretty good at demolishing a buffet, they have nothing on 200 ultra marathon runners eager to maintain their glycogen stores!
The sun came out after lunch and so I went in search of the local market in search of anything that might be useful in the changed race environment (swimming goggles?) I joined up with John, a paramedic from Chelmsford who had plenty of colourful stories of working in South Africa and we reached the market just as it was closing. That didn't deter a local from guiding us around and towards his target stalls. He seemed particularly keen for us to visit a Berber herb stall that sold herbs to ward of the diabolo (devil) that he said resided within English women!?
I bought some plastic sheeting to act as a ground sheet if and when we might have to camp on wet mats. We then spotted some other runners in a cafe and ambled over to join them. They were all from Ireland and I enjoyed a very sweet mint tea. Meanwhile there was a veritable procession of runners coming away from the market with plastic sheeting. To my disappointment their bright yellow sheeting looked thicker and more suited to the purpose than the clear thin sheet I had bought and so I returned to the market to find about a dozen fellow runners haggling over the price per metre of the sheeting. I jumped the queue by offering the equivalent of £1 for 2 metres instead of the 60 pence that the others seemed determined to pay. 20 pence a night seemed a fair price for staying dry and my modus operandi has always been to spend money to save time rather than vice versa.
I returned to the hotel to find most of the English contingent lounging around the pool in the sunshine and so grabbed a cold coke from the bar and went to join them. No sooner had I sat down than the rep called us all around for an announcement.
The race would start on Monday. We would do the admin checks at another hotel in town tomorrow and be taken to the start of day 2 by bus on Monday morning. The route or length of stage was unknown, neither was it known when water and fuel would be provided. It was also not clear whether we would be self sufficient from breakfast time or whether we would get breakfast at the hotel.
I came away from the gathering just as thunder started and so was still far from optimistic that the race would start as announced. I returned to my room to perform yet another unpack/repack routine. This time I really started to feel that if the race were to start on monday, I was prepared.
On the way back to the lobby I started speaking to a very big guy smoking a cigarette by the pool. He introduced himself as Cobus and his name rang a bell. Then it came to me. I had read about him on an Internet forum as he planned to have a full English breakfast every morning of the race. He had sought the help of a chef and between them they had formulated a recipe whereby he pre-cooked bacon, sausage, black pudding, beans and mushroom. He then vaccum packed them in pie trays using a machine he bought specially from ebay. When ready to eat one he puts a fresh uncracked egg or 2 in the tray and steams it over a pan. He then
cracks the cooked egg over the rest and voilà! He had tested it for food safety by leaving some in his airing cupboard for a week or 2 before eating them with no ill effects.
Whilst admiring his ingenuity I have to admit to being sceptical about the nutritional content being appropriate for our purposes but maybe after I smell bacon when I'm eating my rehydrated porridge I will feel differently!
Plans for the rest of the evening: dinner, more packing/unpacking,
Weather It Out
Sat 28th March 2009, 11:40am
It's amazing how touring with the Philharmonia can help prepare you for the toughest footrace on earth. One thing travelling around the world with 100 others teaches you is how to queue. The queues at airport check-in, security, immigration, bus, hotel check-in, are a regular part of Philharmonia life and it was strange to see so many people agitated and stressed at this.
Eventually we were settled in the very comfortable Berbere Palace hotel in Ouarzazate after a non-eventful flight. I had bumped into a few people from various training weekends and one of those was Kevin who I had met in the Brecons Beacons. He told me he was in a team running in aid of Yorkshire Cancer Support and they had space in their tent - did I want to join them? I immediately said yes as I got on well with Kevin and liked the sound of the rest of the team. Later in the hotel bar I met Marcus, Paul, James, James jnr, Matt and Kevin for a drink and immediately felt comfortable. We were still a person short of the 8 needed and Kevin was determined to find a female to add to the tent dynamic and so he spent the evening touring tables trying to persuade one of the small number of ladies to join us. I learnt at breakfast the next morning that he had had no luck!
I retired to bed pretty early and slept well until the phone rang at 6am to say that the busses to the desert were leaving an hour earlier. On the bus I sat next to Kevin who insisted we sit on the right hand side of the bus because it would have longer in the shade driving south. I had thought I had prepared well but I was a slacker compared with Kevin who had even been tanning his feet with products designed for horses for the past 6 months. He need not have worried because it started raining shortly after departure and didn't stop! The rain got heavier and heavier as we drove through the mountains and through remote villages decimated by flash floods.
After several pee stops and a packed lunch we came to a stop after 6 hours at the side of the road and waited... After 30 mins a fleet of army trucks arrived and everyone piled off the coach. Kevin even had a plan for this - he would run ahead to get a good tent position and I would collect his bag from the hold of the bus and wait for him or one of the others to come back to collect me. I waited for all the cases to be unloaded and apart from mine there were none left... By this time all of the army trucks were full and so the dozen or so people left behind clambered into the hold of the bus to keep dry. We were then told that the conditions for the army trucks were too bad for them to come and collect us and so we got back on the bus and it drove off. No-one told us what was happening, but eventually we managed to find out that they were taking us to an alternative pick up point for the army trucks.
After about 40 mins the bus stopped in a town and we were told to stay on the bus and that we would be collected in 30 mins-1 hour. Before long many of the group were dying to relieve themselves. We had been given 3 litres of water for the journey and most of us had drunk it mindful of all the advice to remain hydrated. The pretty young French girl from the organizers was adamant that we could not leave the bus as her boss had given her strict instructions. However, after persistent pleas, she relented saying that we could leave one at a time to the nearby cafe to use the toilet. After a while though all restraint was abandoned as everyone piled off the bus. We were immediately targeted by local tradesmen asking where we were from and whether we wanted to buy carpets and garments. Several of the group decided that the local dress of djellaba would provide more warmth and comfort than their skimpy running gear and so appeared looking like Obi ben kenkbi and yoda from star wars. Luckily I had grabbed my waterproof jacket as I had left home as it had been raining when the cab had arrived to take me to the airport.
I decided that if we were going to be camping in open tents in the rain, the priority was to keep my down sleeping bag dry. Once wet it would be useless and so I sent a young Moroccan on an errand to find me 5 man-sized refuse sacks in exchange for 5 euros. He returned with the bags 20 mins later and we were both delighted with the trade!
There was no sign of the rain easing and soon information started coming back from those who had been taken to the bivouac. The first rumour was that they had been evacuated from the competitors' tents and sent to the admin and press tents.It was now getting dark and we had been stationary on the bus for 2 hours. Some excitement ensued when we spotted Patrick Bauer the race director and soon another rumour was heard that we were to be taken to a nearby hotel. We were also told that the people at the bivouac were being evacuated as well, but that the army trucks were having trouble in the quicksand. Eventually we were told to get back on the bus as we were about to leave. The only problem was that the driver had disappeared to have dinner! He appeared in a terrible temper and drove us a short distance to a hotel where I was one of the first to check in to a 3-bedded room sharing with Rab and Jason.
It was now 7:30 pm and after dumping our kit in the room we went to the hotel bar for a beer. After 30 mins the first arrivals from the bivouac arrived dragging their baggage covered in mud, looking like refugees from Glastonbury. Kevin arrived saying he had told Marcus to tell me that he had collected his bag himself. The problem was that Marcus had got on the trucks as well. In retrospect, I had had the less unpleasant experience as at least all my kit was still dry although I was strangely a little envious of their adventures in trying to dig trenches around the tent to prevent the rivers of rain-water entering. We were told that dinner would be served at 10 o clock and so I went to have a quick (cold) shower before returning to the dining room.Here I bumped into Rory Coleman who I had visited for a MDS training day. Rory has done the race 5 times and had never experienced conditions like these. In fact in the 24 years the race has been held never has it been disrupted by rain!
Rory's guess was that they might cancel the first day of the race and start from day 2. Everyone was dismayed at the prospect of the race being shortened or made easier, and discussions soon ensued on alternatives or how we could make up the distance on the rest day etc.I retired to bed at about 10:30, put in some earplugs and slept really well until I woke at 4am thinking someone had left a tap on or was having a shower. It soon became clear that it was the rain. I went back to sleep and woke to the alarm at 7am.
Towards the end of breakfast an announcement was made that the first day had indeed been cancelled. We were to stay in the hotel another night and more information would be given in the afternoon. The sense of disappointment was unanimous. We had all spent 2 years training and close to £5000 to run a six day race in 40 degree heat. Now we were faced with a 5 day race (at best) in temperatures colder than those at home.
Tue 24th March 2009, 11:13pm
The orchestra’s marathon period of work with Esa Pekka Salonen has just come to an end after concerts in Basingstoke, London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne, Vienna, Barcelona and Madrid. The concerts have all received outstanding ovations and the morale of the orchestra is high as we look forward to the other exciting projects in the pipeline with our new Principal Conductor.
It is now 2 days before I depart for Morocco and the nerves are starting to appear. The training has been reduced in volume although I have kept the intensity quite high. In other words, running for less time but faster in order to make sure my legs are fresh for the race.
There have been loads of last minute preparations to take care of. I have at last decided on my meals for the desert. These will be dehydrated expedition foods to which I will add hot water and wait for 6 minutes before tucking in. I have been trying out the various meals on out of town concerts and some have proved surprisingly tasty! My favourite main courses are the Shepherds’ Pie and Chicken Tikka and Rice. Deserts will be a choice between Custard and Berries and Custard and Apple. Breakfast will alternate between Fruity Muesili and Porridge and Sultanas.
There is a minimum requirement in the race regulations of 2000 calories per day but as I can expect to be burning nearer 5000 a day I am planning to consume 3000 a day. This is a difficult balance to strike- to have enough calories to keep going but not so many that the food weighs the pack down too much. Food on the run will mainly be honey roast cashew nuts because they have a high calorie to weight ratio and a good balance of Carbs, Proteins and Fats.
The other major worry which I have got out of the way was the obligatory ECG demanded by the organisers. This had to be done less than 28 days before the race and to show no abnormalities. I am extremely grateful to Dr Raj Joshi who you may have seen leading the celebrities up Kilimanjaro in aid of Comic relief for doing my medical examination and ECG. Raj came to Mexico with the orchestra a few years ago and was a fantastic help. Thankfully mine was fine but I neglected to have it stamped by the surgery so whilst I have been away my wife Helen has been charged with the duty of sorting it out (as she sorts everything out…)
The gaiters I am wearing over my running shoes to prevent the influx of sand were late in arriving and needed to be stitched to my shoes. Helen came to the rescue once more, seeking out a master cobbler who did a fantastic job.
Over the past few days I have been doing some sessions in the sauna under the supervision of Personal Trainer Richard Pierre Reid. We trialed this procedure last year and I was amazed at how it was possible to acclimatize after several sessions. Richard has also been fantastic at helping me with strength and conditioning work. This has completely eliminated the niggling injuries I used to suffer from.
I have had a first attempt at getting all of my equipment into my rucksack and it just about fitted although it weighs over 10kgs without water or the rather heavy rescue flare that is provided by the organisers. I really want to get it below 9kgs and so I might have to weed out a few of the luxuries like ipod and GPS system and maybe make do with a bag of cashews every other day.
The fundraising has gone well over the past week with many members of the orchestra and other colleagues responding to a last minute appeal. I’m extremely grateful to those who have pledged money and if anyone else has been thinking about it, it’s not too late! You can do so here.
This will be my last blog entry before the race but I am hoping to be able to send some text messages from the desert and hopefully they can be uploaded. So with more than a bit of luck see you at the finish!
A Marathon of a Different Sort
Sun 08th February 2009, 19:54pm
After the Thames Path Ultra Marathon, the Philharmonia Orchestra entered an ultra marathon period of work of its own. The next few weeks are really busy with plenty of work for the trumpet section including Petrouchka, Prokofiev 5, Mahler 5, Mahler 9 and Gurrelieder. That follows on from a performance of Prokofiev 5 with a conductor new to the Philharmonia, Nicola Luisotti which I really enjoyed. He is definitely a name to watch, with a clear idea of what he wants and a charming way of encouraging it from the players. For those fans of Strictly Come Dancing, he is also a dead ringer for the judge Bruno.
Then it was Pictures at an Exhibition with Alexander Lazerev. Lazerev has become one of my favourite conductors. He has a very efficient rehearsal technique based on an unparalled knowledge of the scores and combines it with a wonderful sense of humour and an all too rare respect for the musicians. Pictures at an Exhibition is a showcase for several instruments in the orchestra, not least the 1st trumpet who starts the piece alone and also has a technically demanding solo in the movement “Goldenberg and Schmuyle”. These days I am finding more and more parallels and analogies between the performance of sport and music. For instance, the part in ‘Pictures’ is a little like interval training in that both have periods of intense demanding activity interspersed with rest. Playing a Bruckner Symphony is more a-kin to a long distance event with more sustained but lower intensity demands. I have started to investigate some practice drills and exercises with my students at the Royal Academy of Music based on my experiences teaching skiing; personal training and mountain biking, and they are proving very beneficial. I suppose it shouldn’t be that surprising as they are all disciplines involving the acquisition of fine motor skills and then the refinement of those skills for maximum efficiency. When it comes to the mental side of performing as a musician I am positive there is much to be gained from a study of sports psychology. Musicians and sportsmen both spend hours practicing their craft for a single concert or event. I often try to imagine what it must feel like to spend 4 years working towards the Olympics only to fall short of your goal. It certainly puts the anxiety before a concert in perspective!
Training around the schedule over the past couple of weeks has meant lots of 5am starts in the gym. That even included the Monday morning when London was blanketed in snow! I also went for a run in Hyde Park wearing a pack laden with weights and was joined by fellow Philharmonia musicians Becky Brown (viola) and Becky Welsh (double-bass).
Last weekend saw me down on the South Coast in search of some sand and dunes to run on. The MDS is now less than 8 weeks away and I am receiving almost daily e-mails with details and itineraries. My race number is 601. Let’s hope it’s a lucky one!
Reading to Shepperton
Sun 25th January 2009, 11:17am
The longest day in the Marathon des Sables is a stage of around 50 miles and so in my training plan I had scheduled an event of 50 miles to see how I coped with a distance far in excess of the ones I had run before.
So, on Saturday morning I was lying awake at 4am after a fitful night’s sleep, listening to howling winds and pouring rain waiting for the alarm clock to signal 4:30am.
In order to be in Reading at 6am for the registration of the Thames Path Ultra- a 50 mile race from Reading to Shepperton along the Thames tow path I had to leave the house at 5am, along with my trusted support team of Helen and her parents.
The rain and wind continued throughout the journey and we arrived to find a small tent in a meadow by the river where I had to register and have my kit checked. A larger canopy emblazoned with a Red Bull sign was being erected in the middle of the field although it was in severe danger of being blown away. Eventually 140 other nutters and I gathered under the canopy for the race briefing. The field had originally been 200, so 60 people had obviously had second thoughts.
The race got under way at 8am and determined to avoid the mistake I made in the Atlantic Challenge I hung towards the back in order to set my own steady pace. The rain had stopped and before long it seemed that it might actually be a sunny day.
There were 5 checkpoints en-route including the finish, spaced at 10 mile intervals and Helen and her Mum and Dad arranged to meet me at the 2nd in Marlow, (after they had enjoyed a substantial brunch) and the 4th in Runnymede.
The first 10 miles or so flew by as I got chatting to fellow runners and I even found a fellow MDS competitor with whom to compare training, kit and other preparation notes with. After a while the field had spread out and I found myself running alone through thick mud, stumbling and sliding all over the place. It was very energy sapping and at times I had several close shaves as I slid sideways towards the river. After 3 hrs I was already beginning to tire but the prospect of seeing Helen and her parents at the checkpoint in Marlow was a morale booster and eventually I spotted them in a field just before the checkpoint. A quick fill of my water bottles and I was off again and seemingly with a second wind. I ran alone for another hour or so before I spotted a runner 100 yards or so in front of me walking. Just as I was within touching distance he started to run and began to pull away from me. 5 minutes later and I was behind him again as he was walking. It soon became apparent that he was using a walk/run strategy and that it was just as quick as my steady running. I started to do the same- 5 minutes or so of powerful walking interspersed with running and eventually I reached checkpoint 3 at 30 miles.
A few people were changing their socks and so I did the same in a bid to avoid blisters but I soon regretted doing so, as my feet started to hurt for the first time when I began running in the new socks!
About 15 minutes after leaving the checkpoint I was joined by the walk/run guy who introduced himself as Richard and he revealed that he was doing the MDS too. We were to stay together until the finish. We continued the walk/run strategy but this time I suggested we set each other targets as we went along. This worked a treat in making the time pass quicker and by forcing us to run a little more than we otherwise would have done. We arrived at the last checkpoint in Runnymede together, where Helen and her mum and dad were waiting. This time I partook of the Red Bull on offer. I can’t stand the taste of Red Bull but I was in desperate need of a lift. Several of the members of the orchestra swear by the stuff when driving back late after a concert in Leicester so I thought it was worth a try!
Although I realised that I had broken the back of the run, leaving the checkpoint with 11 miles to go was a real low point. I made the decision that if I finished I would open the bottle of vintage Bollinger that I had been keeping at home.
The scenery was less picturesque by now and it was also beginning to get dark. I wondered aloud to Richard whether we would finish before needing our head torches but I soon had the answer as I plunged head first to the ground after tripping over a tree root in the gloom. We both hastily donned our torches. I was really grateful to have Richard with me as the route began to take us away from the river as two heads were certainly better than one when it came to navigating through a pitch black forest.
After what seemed an eternity we arrived in Shepperton and almost within sight of the finish at the Holiday Inn but could not find the route to the hotel. We spent almost 15 minutes studying the map and consulting with 3 others who arrived before realizing we had missed a turning and had to retrace our steps- heartbreaking!!
And so, after 9 hours 40 minutes I arrived at the finish line in the grounds of the Holiday Inn to find Helen waiting along with the race organizer. Typically, Helen ever the administrator had been helping her to record the finishers!!
After the short drive home I had to be helped from the car and up the single step into the house but after a long soak in the bath and a crab like descent down the stairs the “Bolly” didn’t half taste good!
Braving the Weather
Thu 15th January 2009, 14:32pm
The past month has been one of extreme temperatures in my training.
The orchestra had a 2 week break over Christmas and New year and so I packed the trumpet in the case and went off to Meribel in the French alps skiing with Helen. I had to unpack the trumpet for a brief time on Christmas Eve as it has become a tradition for a group of us to play carols in the village square. This tradition started over 10 years ago with 4 or 5 brass players from London who just happened to be skiing over Christmas, playing to a dozen or two Brits. Over the years it has grown and grown and this year we played to a packed square with hundreds of people and the players were offered free accommodation and lift passes!
Members of the group included Nick Thompson (Chamber Orchestra of Europe), Mike Harrison (regular extra with the Philharmonia and busy early music specialist), Sue Addison ( OAE) and host of equally distinguished others.
The temperature dropped to minus 20 degrees on some days at 3000m so it was hardly preparation for the 50 degrees in the Sahara, but I tried to convince myself that the exercise at altitude would pay dividends when I returned home. I did have to be careful not to eat too many savoie specialities such as tartiflette as I didn’t want to be carrying too many extra kg when I got back. It’s a common mistake to think that one burns masses of calories when skiing but the fact of the matter is that once you become proficient the lifts do all the work on the way up and gravity does it on the way down!
On returning to work the Orchestra was off to Abu Dhabi with temperatures in the mid to high 20's. It was a great trip with 2 well received concerts in the incredible Emirates Palace Hotel. This hotel cost an unprecedented 3 billion dollars to build and it is easy to see why with huge areas of gold leaf and marble. It was rumoured that even the sand on the hotels private beach was air conditioned to prevent guests burning their feet!
I managed 4 runs on the beach and immediately began to realize the big difference between running in deep, soft sand and hard ground. Often it felt like I was running on the spot. Curiously, my heart rate was higher when I walked than when I ran. The answer it seemed was to take smaller, faster and lighter steps but I think I certainly need more practice and so the search is on to find some dunes to practice on- a colleague has suggested the South coast near Chichester.
This weekend is my final pre-Sahara event- the "Thames Path Ultra". This is a 50 mile run from Reading to Shepperton along the Thames path. I have never run this far in one day before and I am anxiously checking the weather forecast every few hours hoping it is going to stay dry.
Race report to follow.......
On Tour in Japan
Thu 18th December 2008, 08:37am
The Orchestra’s busy period of foreign touring has continued this month with a tour of Japan conducted by Ashkenazy. I have toured Japan with the Philharmonia over a dozen times but I am always thrilled to go back. The concerts were all sell-outs and the concert halls are the best in the world (Suntory Hall in Tokyo is my personal favourite). It is amazing, but not a little depressing to note that at my last count Tokyo has 13 concert halls, all with better acoustics than the RFH and Barbican! A few years ago there were dreams of trying to create an exact replica of Suntory Hall in London but sadly it remained just a dream.
In Tokyo at the same time as the Philharmonia were our colleagues in the London Symphony Orchestra doing a series of Prokofiev concerts with Gergiev. Reportedly, they were playing only to 40% houses!
It is strange that one can work barely a couple of miles away in London from the brass players of another London Orchestra and not see each other for years and yet bump into them running around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo!
Whilst loving the concert halls, audience receptions, food and sake in Japan, the long flight and the resulting jet lag can be very tough. Unless of course, that getting up at 4.30am to train is a common occurrence. I managed 2 or 3 early middle of the night/early morning long runs by the light of my head-torch before watching the sun come up. Magical!
I repeated the plan that I had in Germany of returning to the hotel to pick up companions for the final hour. Jill Crowther (Oboe), Cathy Colwell (Double Bass) and Gordon Laing (Contra-bassoon) were my training partners on this trip. On one run with Gordon we decided to take a new route through a section of the palace grounds in order to take some photos. We then spotted a uniformed guard chasing across the quadrangle in seeming pursuit of somebody. It turned out he was chasing us! After a stern admonishment of “ No Lunning!” he let us walk back to our normal route.
On return to London we went straight into rehearsals for the RFH concert with Ashkenazy (another sell-out!) so there was really no time to recover from the jet lag and I was able to continue with the early morning starts to training with two 4 hour runs on consecutive days alongside some leg strength sessions at the gym. The only trouble was that I needed to be in bed by 7.30pm!
Tonight is the last concert of the year at the Royal Albert Hall with Kings College Choir. Tomorrow Helen and I fly to the Alps for Christmas and New Year where I hope to get some high altitude training in between the hot chocolates and Vin Chaud!
Wed 20th November 2008, 08:59am
I am writing this on a train journey between Friedrichshafen to Darmstadt in Germany as the orchestra is on a tour of Europe with Charles Dutoit. The concerts have been extremely well received and the trumpet section has been kept busy in Mahler’s 1st symphony and Tchaikovsky’s 5th.
One unfortunate side effect of running in the cold weather is the tendency for lips to become dry. So, often it is a constant battle to keep them moisturized and responsive and to stay hydrated. Air conditioned hotel rooms, flights and buses also take their toll on the lips which for a trumpet player are the equivalent of an oboist’s reed. Unfortunately, nobody has yet invented a box with controlled humidity in which to keep one’s lips!
Elizabeth Arden’s 8 hour cream is the best (and most expensive!) lip balm I have found.
Training on tour can sometimes be easier than at home due to the fact that one is not obliged to do the usual chores and additional day to day things that accumulate at home. But on this trip the schedule has meant early morning runs often when it is still dark. I came equipped with a head-torch and so on several mornings I have ventured out at 7am for an hour before returning to the hotel to pick up other members of the orchestra who have joined me for a further hour or so. So I’m grateful to Jill Crowther (2nd Oboe), Becky Brown (Viola), Gordon Laing (Contra-bassoon) and Peter Fry (Percussion) for providing me with company and motivation.
I mentioned last time about rethinking my approach to running to music. People often ask me what I listen to when I’m running and the answer has been- nothing!
This is for a number of reasons: Firstly, as a musician I am surrounded by music for most of the day and so I welcome the peace and relief from the daily noise. Secondly, I enjoy taking in the surroundings that I am running in. But mostly, because unless the music is at the precise tempo that I wish to run, I find it very un-natural to run at a different tempo.
So despite the growing scientific evidence that exercising to music can improve performance, I have resisted the temptation to join the headphone encased brigade. However, the length and difficulty of the Marathon de Sables has led me to think that there may be times when I may welcome the very distractions that I have previously tried to avoid. Also if the research is to be believed running to music can increase work output by 15% and decrease perception of effort by 10%.
Run faster and it feels easier?
Perhaps the best example of the performance enhancing effect of running to music is that of Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie. He asks to have “Scatman” by Scatman John, a grating dance song from the 1990s played over the PA during his races. It helped him break the world indoor 2000m record. He synchronized his stride rate to the tempo of the music and in addition it drove the Ethiopian crowd into a frenzy!
So if anyone has any suggestions of inspirational and motivational music that has a tempo of 180 beats a minute (or any division or multiple thereof), please let me know!
Wed 29th October 2008, 11:18pm
The Philharmonia’s Messiaen series came to an end curiously enough with a piece by Scriabin.
The Poem of Ecstasy is one of the big pieces in the orchestral trumpeter’s repertoire. Throughout the piece the 1st trumpet has solos of the same sweeping tune in different keys and registers and it is a real test of stamina.
I have played this piece many times (the orchestra gave several performances with Riccardo Muti in February that are still vividly in my memory) and it is common for the conductor to offer the trumpet player a solo bow. In fact, on several occasions the conductor has invited me to the podium to take one!
Whilst it is obviously very gratifying to have your performance acknowledged and appreciated, I have always felt slightly guilty in taking all the glory for what is a real team effort in the trumpet section. The 1st trumpet has the solos but the 2nd and 3rd trumpets have equally if not more demanding parts. It’s a little like the cycling teams in the Tour de France in that the leader is led to the foot of the climbs thereby conserving his energy and then is able to pull away close to the summit finish to claim the yellow jersey. And there are no better players to have supporting you than the Philharmonia’s Mark Calder and Alistair Mackie who are both capable of podium finishes themselves!
Of course, this is one of the huge thrills of being an orchestral musician- to be part of something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The MDS though, is all about self sufficiency. Although there will be approximately 800 competitors in the Sahara, the sheer distances involved will mean huge periods alone and of course everybody will be moving at their own pace. There are penalties imposed for having someone else’s water bottles (they are all labeled when distributed) and of course one has to carry everything required for the duration except for a tent.
This element of self sufficiency is a large part of what attracts me to these challenges and so I was disappointed to hear and read some of the commentary in the media surrounding the weekends cancelled mountain marathon in the Lake District. The event was cancelled half way through due to unbelievably high winds and rainfall. Because of the nature of the event (self sufficient with an overnight camp between days) and the fact that mobile phone reception is patchy, hundreds of competitors were unaccounted for overnight. Although everyone involved knew exactly what they were letting themselves in for and they were all equipped for an overnight in a mountain environment there was criticism of the organizers for allowing the event to take place. This event has been running for 40 years and fell runners are probably the least likely people to want to dilute their pastime with the strictures of the Health and Safety brigade and so everyone I saw interviewed who took part in the race was fiercely defensive on behalf of the organizers. I just hope that these events can continue in the spirit that they have been run in the past. I also wonder whether the touring schedules of the London orchestras might look a little different if “Health and Safety” was a concern in the days of Orville and Wilbur Wright!
I have been trying to do 2 long runs on consecutive days lately and so I ran to Henry Wood Hall from home on a beautiful frosty morning (2.5 hrs) and on the next day planned a similar length run in Hyde Park. Unfortunately it was pouring with rain and although I am happy to run in the rain, wet feet for over 2 hours usually means blisters- something I was anxious to avoid. So I went to the gym and set myself a target of 3 hrs on the treadmill. This was the longest I have ever run on a treadmill and was certainly an exercise in mental toughness. It has also led me re-evaluate the use of music whilst I’m running. I’ll go into this in detail next time!
Meeting the British Bulldog
Sun 19th October 2008, 17:51pm
The past week with the orchestra has made it quite difficult to keep on top of my training as it has been so busy. Amazing concerts with Sir Charles Mackerras of Dvorak symphonies led directly into the Messiaen festival at the Royal Festival Hall. Where does Sir Charles get his energy? If only I could bottle it and take some with me to the Sahara! Kent Nagano was impressive in a completely different way. His complete mastery of the complex score of Transfiguration was incredible to watch.
So training during the week has meant 5.30am starts at the gym with some runs in Hyde Park during breaks in the schedule. The weekend saw me on the way to Derbyshire where I met up with the inspirational character of Rory Coleman aka The British Bulldog. I had made contact with Rory via an internet forum and arranged to spend the day with him. Space only allows me to give a truncated version of his achievements but it will be clear why I felt it too good an opportunity to miss!
As a young person he had loved sport but by the time he reached 31, fitness didn't feature in his life. He was successful in other areas of his life; he had his own business, three great children and a nice house.
But his life was out of control, he was an overweight, 40-a-day cigarette smoking alcoholic. On 5 January 1994, he realised that he had to change the way he approached life and decided that it was time to stop looking for happiness in drink and cigarettes.
His dream to get fit started with a short jog. At 15 stones he was totally out of breath after just 100 metres and was appalled at the state of his body.
For the next three months, he was motivated by his dream. He stuck to his goals, he stopped smoking, gradually increased his exercise regime and controlled his diet. In just three months he was able to run a Half-Marathon in under 2 hours.
He went on to run the London Marathon in 1995 in under 4 hours and enjoyed the 'marathon experience' so much that by 1998 he had run his first 100 marathons. He raised his personal best to 3 hours 24 minutes and set multiple Guinness World Records for running on treadmills. He has gone on to
- Run over 500 marathons
- Run John O'Groats to Lands End
- Run the Flora 1000 mile challenge
- Run 600 mile route connecting the grounds of the Premier League Football Clubs
- Run 1275 miles from London to Lisbon for Euro 2004, at 30 miles per day for 43 days
- Run the Marathon de Sables 5 times
So I had the whole day to pick Rory’s brains on kit, preparation, what to expect in the desert and the critical aspect of pacing. What better way than to run a marathon at the pace one hopes to run in the MDS?
Rory was interested to learn that I was a musician and tried to persuade me to take my trumpet to the desert to sound reveille at sunrise and the last post at sunset. I couldn’t help thinking this would get me lynched but another possibility was mooted that I appear as a soloist with the orchestra that entertains the runners near the end of the race. This will need some careful consideration- will I be able to get a note out after 6 days in the desert?
The day just flew by. And at the end of the 26 .2 miles I had the novel and previously unexperienced feeling that I could run it again straight away. On top of that I had redefined ideas about what is possible!
A shortcut is the long way home
Mon 13th October 2008, 17:08pm
The day after the Atlantic challenge I was back at Henry Wood Hall with the Philharmonia rehearsing Sibelius 2nd symphony for a concert at the RFH and a mini tour of regional venues conducted by Leif Segerstam.
Despite the large amount of travelling, (the itinerary ran London, Cheltenham, Plymouth, Southend) I enjoyed the concerts immensely. Leif Segerstam is a fascinating musician. In physical appearance he resembles a cross between Santa Claus and Brahms. He is a composer of hundreds of symphonies and as a conductor exhibits a wonderfully expansive and expressive beat with a clear and vivid vision of the music. He also uses the English language in a way that conjured up memories of former Music Director, the late Giuseppe Sinopoli in that he has a marvelous ability to invent words and construct sentences of gobbledegook that express what he is trying to say perfectly.
- "The kaleidoscopic flexator on the podium" = conductor
- "We get a plankton plasmatic flimmer"
My sister came to the concert in Cheltenham and my mum and one of my nieces to the one in Plymouth and so I had no need to book digs for the West Country leg.
Having forced myself to rest for a few days after the race I was chomping at the bit to go running and so on my free morning my sister gave me directions to Robins Wood Hill- the local country park area in Gloucester. I set off and found the hill which was very steep but I had reached the top in 15 mins and so descended and decided to go up again but by a different route. On the way up for the second time I was faced with a choice of routes, straight on or left up a very steep path. I chose the steep path and was to regret it….
It started with some steps which seemed to have been cut into a steep bank of mud that had been baked by the sun. I made my way up them but bit by bit the steps became smaller and the bank smoother. I was now scrambling on all fours but the way ahead looked simple enough. Unfortunately the further I got the steeper and smoother it became.
I stopped and looked down and I was now a long way from the ground. To retreat would be even more difficult than going on and so after some deep breaths and a warning to myself to take my time I pressed on. I was now no longer scrambling but climbing and there was no rope! I stopped again to calm myself and immediately was afflicted by what climbers call “sewing machine leg”. This is a condition whereby your leg begins to shake in a up and down motion similar to operating an old fashioned sewing machine. More deep breaths and more talking to myself did little to dispel the rising fear. I was now using 8 points of contact with the bank- hands, elbows, knees and feet and my nose was pressed into the bank and the animal droppings that clung to it. At last the gradient eased and I was able to scramble to the top. Here it became evident that it had been a path but one designed for creatures with 4 wheel drive as I was confronted by a herd of 6 goats.
Whilst hugely relieved, I was also angry with myself, that having survived the previous weekend without incidents or injury I had got myself into a very sticky position. I used to train with an Australian Personal Trainer who had a variety of motivational phrases, one of which was “ A shortcut is the long way home” I never really knew what he meant but it certainly rang true in the case of this run!
The Atlantic Challenge
Tues 7th October 2008, 10:58pm
The Poster advertising the Atlantic Challenge warned “The cowardly won’t start and the weak won’t finish” and I’m pleased to say I avoided both categories but it was certainly my toughest challenge to date.
I arrived in St Ives, the headquarters for the event on Thursday evening and met up with my wife Helen and her parents who had generously travelled down to act as a support team. After the formalities of registering for the race we were shown to the caravan Helen and I were to stay in for the next 3 nights. It was cold and slightly damp and certainly not up to Philharmonia touring standards but we nodded enthusiastically when asked if it was ok. Helen’s parents had wisely opted to stay in a hotel.
After a meal we retired early but slept very fitfully because of the cold. I consoled myself (and Helen!) that it would be good preparation for the desert as apparently temperatures can drop as low as 4-5 degrees C at night in the Sahara.
The weather in the morning was perfect with blue skies and sunshine and at 11am we started from just west of Padstow with the finish line in Perranporth. The pace at the start was quite brisk and although I was running quite comfortably near the front I had a nagging feeling that I was going too fast too early. How right I was!!
After 2 hours I was already struggling having burnt off the energy from my porridge in an adrenaline fuelled start. Each of the checkpoints offered food and drink and they were supposed to be 10km apart but the distance between them seemed interminable. At one stage we passed through Newquay which seemed to holding a stag and hen day fair as every bar was filled with gaggles of inebriated people all keen to show us the way (the wrong way!)
At long last I was on the long beach at Perranporth with the finish at the far end of the beach but the soft sand drained every last drop of energy from my legs. Eventually I arrived, to the relief of my support team, in 4hrs 50 mins.
With vague memories of reading of Paula Radcliffe’s habit of taking ice baths after her runs I decided to wade into the sea to reduce any swelling in my knees. Unfortunately, Paula is obviously made of sterner stuff than I because I could only stand it for 20 seconds.
I couldn’t believe that I would be able to run the next day as I was so stiff and sore but after a liberal application of Ibuprofen gel on my knees and another cold night I was back at the previous days finish point for the start of day 2 feeling not too bad. I was lying in 14th place after the first day but I was under no illusions that I would be able to maintain this position.
Day 2 passed through Portreath which is a seaside town where my mum now lives. I arranged that she should meet up with Helen and Co at the checkpoint close to her house so for the first part of the day I had the promise of my favourite Cornish speciality- Saffron cake to sustain me. Indeed despite various torturous descents and climbs I arrived in Portreath in good spirits and took some refreshment in front of the bandstand where I had performed as a child. The stretch to the next checkpoint was quite flat and this is where I started to flag mentally with the thought of 1.5 marathons still to go. Luckily I was catching some other runners and took the opportunity to chat to them to try to distract myself from the discomfort. At long last I passed the final checkpoint which was only 3 miles from the finish. Then came a major error! A mile from the finish I reached a junction and rather than consult my map I asked for directions from a local! He sent me in the opposite direction to the right way. It was 10 mins before I was convinced I was going the wrong way and another 5 before I had established the correct way so I arrived at the finish line in 5 hrs 20 min, probably at least 20 mins later then if I’d not asked the way!
We had been warned that Day 3 was the toughest and we were not disappointed. Descents that turned your thighs and knees to jelly were followed by climbs that turned your calves to stone. And repeat……….. The scenery was spectacular but I was flagging seriously until I left a checkpoint at the same time as Jo, an experienced ultra marathon runner and a past MDS veteran. We ran together until shortly before the finish where I stopped to have my last energy bar and promptly dropped it on the floor where I had to wrestle it off a passing Labrador. My need was far greater than his! I passed the finish line 7 hrs after the start and was greeted by my support crew and rewarded with a Cornish Pasty. It was the best tasting pasty I’ve ever had!!
A great learning experience and a confidence builder for next year!
6 Months To Go
Fri 3rd October 2008, 9:14am
So here I am 6 months away from the biggest challenge of my life so far. (Even tougher than a German tour playing Mahler 5!).
At the end of March I will compete in the Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands) “The toughest foot-race on earth” in the Sahara desert.
It comprises 151 miles (in sections of 16, 22, 24, 52, 26, 14 miles) run over 6 days equivalent to 5.5 regular marathons. In addition I will have to carry everything I need for the duration (apart from a tent) on my back in a rucksack (food, clothes, medical kit, sleeping bag etc) Water is rationed and handed out at checkpoints. I can expect mid-day temperatures of up to 120 degrees F, uneven rocky and stony ground as well as huge sand dunes. On the 4th day I will set off to complete a 50 mile stage. Few people complete this before dark and some people will not come in until dark the next night. This is followed by the official 26.2 mile marathon stage.
So that has set the scene!
I have always enjoyed undertaking physical challenges (playing the trumpet is by no means excluded!) and in March 2007 I was fascinated to read an account of the event, and so a week later found myself at my computer at 10am with my finger poised on the register button for the 2009 race. I did hesitate - not least because I had to put down a non refundable deposit of £500, but I pressed the button and the deed was done. I did not tell my wife Helen for another month (in fact she found out first from a colleague at work - Oops!).
In addition I was motivated by the opportunity to raise money through sponsorship for the charity Facing Africa. This charity raises money for the treatment and care of people with NOMA. This is a horrendously disfiguring condition caused by malnutrition prevalent in the Sahara region. To find out more visit www.facingafrica.org. You may find some of the pictures disturbing.
So for the past 18 months I have been building up the distance I run. On several occasions during the Summer I ran to the Royal Festival Hall from home in Epsom and I have been making regular visits to the Brecon Beacons and the Peak District for some hills a bit steeper and longer than those on Epsom Downs. In addition, the Philharmonia’s residencies in Leicester, Bedford, Southend and Basingstoke have all given me variety in my training venues.
The weekend sees the first big test of how my training has been paying off - “The Atlantic Challenge”.
This is a 3 day event in my home county of Cornwall. 3 marathons in 3 days along the North Cornwall path from Padstow to Lands End.
I’ll let you know how I got on!!!