It was April 2011 in the middle of the Sahara Desert. I remember one of the top Brits, Jenn, previously top female at the Marathon Des Sables, asking me as she lay in her open sided Berber Tent (more of a rug on a pole than a tent in the normal sense of the word), how I was. I replied:
"Absolutely brilliant, thanks Jenn."
She was a multi times finisher, and right at the sharp end, and this was my first, and to date, only MdS. It must have been the morning of day 3 or day 4, so I probably had 100+km in my legs, had experienced the heat, the sleep deprivation and virtual starvation for several days, and yet I was loving it.
"Really?" She looked suprised.
"Yes, of course! What's not to love. I eat, sleep, get up do a bit of sport, rinse and repeat every day. It's great!!"
And I wasn't lying. I did love it. Everything in life boiled down to my body and my backpack. No phones, computers, work, bills, taking the car for its MOT or anything to worry about at all. Other than whether my body would hold up to get the end of that day's stage beating sand, heat, wind, and everything else the Sahara could throw at me. I was in my essence.
But it was hard. I had been running Ultras for a couple of years, and I had been in near constant training for a year before the MdS, having finished the Cro Magnon Ultra Trail (114km and Everest-like Altitude changes) in 2010, followed by trail runs, marathons, triathlons and nearly 100km a week since Christmas of 2011. With Mad Dog Mike's help I was injury free and had boiled down the contents of my pack to whatever I needed - even cutting my toothbrush in half to save weight. My kit weighed less than 7kg at the start line, plus the water and distress flare the organisers gave me.
The race was hard, but it was easy compared to getting to the start line.
When I ran the MdS in 2011, my eldest daughter was 10 years old, younger then than my youngest now. Since then she has grown up into a young woman with her own desires, needs and outlook on life. I love that she loves the outdoors, fostered by several excursions to the Lake District in the UK with the associated camping expeditions, as well as her participation in the Race to Nowhere - the fabled No Finish Line in Monaco every year, and winning her age group 4 years on the trot. She decided she wanted to challenge herself and complete the Marathon des Sables as soon as she was able. Besides the challenge, the fun, spending "quality" time with her old man, and the rest, she figured it would look good on her CV. Who was I to argue...?
Hence our recent journey participating in every local trail race, and some others, that we could find. Despite her initial reservations, she found herself loving the races particularly as she ended up placing well in her age group most of the time.
A place in the Marathon des Sables itself is highly sought after with waiting lists going on for several years just to get an entry. On the application form one has to put down one's racing experience, health history, age, and so on. To get a place, both of us had to go through rigorous checks. Emily because of her age and lack of experience, save the No Finish Line, My own history was slightly more complicated - I had spent most of 2016 with a knee issue, and then of course my two trips to Cardio Intensive Care and an 8 hour ablation in August of 2016. My cardiologist knows my history, and fortunately was very supportive of my endeavours, calling Doc Trotter (the MdS resident medical team), whilst I was in theatre having my ablation.
Then it all became real. I drew up a training programme that Mad Dog would have been proud of. I started to peruse websites and blogs to find out the latest thinking in terms of technology of the equipment and food we could take. I drew up a slightly less onerous training programme for #1, and tried to encourage her to get involved as well. Honestly herding cats would be easier some of the time.
Were you ever taught to drive by a parent? Or vice versa? It's like that. If I say she should run 4 times per week and she fancies going to the cinema with current boyfriend instead, cue a massive row followed by running crying to Mrs R that I'm being mean to her (or sometimes vice versa!). With no Mad Dog Mike to get me on the straight and narrow, and the near constant pushback on the training regime, I am finding it very hard to keep to my own schedules.
Our discussions on food are the same. I went to boarding school for years and so could live by eating the sole of my Asic trainer as long as it was well seasoned enough. Food to #1 means something entirely different, and cannot be eaten unless it can be enjoyed. The importance of the weight/calorie ratio seems somewhat irrelevant, and the amount of time and effort we have put in to getting the food right is completely inversely correlated to the amount of time it will take to eat. Cue more rows, tears and running to Mrs R.
However, there is upside. The shared experiences, both good and bad are invaluable. I call it "extreme bonding". It's like bonding just the Ultra Running version of it. As MdS day approaches we have started to work much closer as a team, albeit falling out just as much. I have to remind myself that I am not in the same shape as I was at the beginning of 2011, and neither is Emily. But our shared goal is different this time around. Last time I wanted to finish at the sharp end (157th out of 900 or so). This time our goal is to finish.
And hopefully we will finish, smiling, with a shared experience that will stick with us forever.
We have decided to use this challenge to raise money for Diabetes UK, an organisation close to our hearts. For more information please visit our fundraising page www.justgiving.com/BenandEmilyRolfe