Marathon Des Sables: Race Recap with Randy Perkins

Randy Perkins Marathon Des Sables
PEP athlete Randy Perkins tells his tale after a harrowing finish at Marathon Des Sables. Clearly, the man is an absolute stud. He even had time to take a few epic selfies.
Congratulations on the strong finish, Randy. You are a huge inspiration to the running community and us here at PEP!

Thank you for all the kind notes and well wishes while out in the Sahara!  I’m sure it will take me a few weeks to write up a proper race report but wanted to get something out right away to try and convey the challenge of participating in this event.

Here is a brief outline of stage 1, but first a quick description of the nutritional and hydration challenges of running in such heat.  Each day we were supplied with approximately 13 liters of water and would expect to pee just once or twice a day.  On average I burned 6,000 to 7,500 calories each day while consuming less than 1,500 low nutritional value calories over the course of 7 days. Stage 1 had us crossing the massive Merzouga dune field, a 9 mile crossing to checkpoint 1 and was the only day where race officials had us start the morning with 3 liters of water due to the challenge of Merzouga.

The sand in the Sahara is the finest grain in the world since it’s had so much time to wear down.  The challenge for us was to get a good foot hold on the climbs and save enough energy for the remaining 12 miles and the second set of sand dunes.  Imagine doing hill repeats for 4 hours with a 30 pound pack on your back while in Central Washington in July to get an idea of what it was like.  The other challenge in the dunes was heat and lack of wind in between the rises as well as difficulty in keeping proper direction.  We headed out of camp on a course heading of 117 degrees but adjusted to 127 degrees half way through the dune field.  Many never made the correction so race officials sent someone into the fields to help with lost or misdirected runners.  Several in our group didn’t make the adjustment and ended up going over a half mile further to the dune field exit point which was brutal on the legs in that very soft sand.

From checkpoint 1 we headed south on a heading of 184 degrees across an old river bed and through small dunes and camel grass fields.  From mile 12 to checkpoint 2 was across a plateau covered with rocks just big enough to trip you up if not paying attention so we did our best to follow the path the earlier runners had cleared for us.  The faster runners didn’t need as much water as the slower runners so they would leave their half full bottles for us at the checkpoint just outside the dispose bags.  Saved my life on several occasions.

At mile 15 we came across the last checkpoint and loaded up on water for the last big push.  By this time I was caught by three in our group and they pulled me the last 6 miles since I was really beginning to drag.  The heat was tough but the sun was even more brutal so most, including myself, covered over 90% of our bodies and just baked out there.  Getting a nice gulp of 100 degree water from out bottles wasn’t cooling us down any but necessary to keep our hydration up.  Once we reached the start of the last set of dunes I noticed a sign that read 134 degrees!  Later on I found out that was just the heading and not the actual temperature.

We slowly began to see some native Touerag and Berber along the final mile through the dunes and knew we were close to camp 2.  Crossing the finish line I thought to myself that it was good to get the toughest stage out of the way early because there was no way there could be anything tougher than what we just experiences.  Truth be told each day after was tougher than the previous.  Once we got our water ration for the night there was just enough time to cook up a bowl of top ramen, take a pack of recoverite before falling asleep in the shorts and shirt I had just worn all day long.

Randy Perkins Marathon Des Sables

Stage 2: It’s difficult to recall the exact details from each race stage and I think it’s due to the desire to forget such suffering so will skip around a bit in this 2014 MdS race report.  First of all, it was devastating!  Absolutely brutal.  A foreign Special Forces guy said prior to the race he would be disappointed in anything less than top 50.  He barely finished and was somewhere in the bottom 50.  MdS veterans and elite runners threw in the towel before completing even half the course.

There was not a single day I didn’t think about quitting and joining the lucky SOB’s already back at the hotel drinking cold Coke’s by the pool and eating chicken tagine. I think fear of being lost was the greatest motivation in keeping my feet moving. Our group consisted of the young Lt. Commander, the Everest climber, the young stud out of Boulder, the pilot, the Hollywood screenwriter, the doctor, the pet outfitter, the marine, the watch guy, the big Canadian, and the winning woman!

After reading my fair share of MdS race reports I don’t think it’s possible to describe in words and with photos the exact experience of being out on the high Sahara plains.  This is an event that must be experienced to truly understand the beauty, suffering, euphoria, despair, jubilation, anger and camaraderie of living and running with 1,000 people from 42 different countries across the scorching Sahara Desert for seven days.

I posted an earlier description of Stage 1 but remember very little about Stage 2 other than it was 25.5 miles covering a wide variety of terrain with 11 hours to complete.  I did remember hearing someone say it was hotter and more difficult than the previous day but believed that to be the case for each consecutive day we were out there.

Stage 2 was the day I saw my first mirage.  To this day I swear I saw a lake of Puget Sound mid-summer blue water out in the dunes.  When I took my goggles off to check again I noticed the rocks on the ground had a blue hue and was only seeing a large deposit of these rocks about a quarter mile away.  The sun and tint of my glasses only made it seem like I was looking at a body of cool/refreshing water.

We passed through several old (like maybe 1,000 years) abandoned villages and through some inhabited ones as well.  We were wearing the latest sunblock, moisture wicking, skin cooling, high tech gear while these kids wore cotton long pants and long sleeve shirts with no hats and often no shoes.  I don’t know who stared in more amazement, us or them.  Towards the end of that day I came across an oasis with palm trees and a water well with some other runners resting in the center.  I was surprised to see some Moroccan kids there and when I got closer I saw them holding a six pack of Coca-Cola which got me very excited.  I ran into the center of the group of 6 people and asked why no one had bought a coke from the kids? A German said they were quite warm, so I passed on buying any.  Later on the pilot came across the same scene and paid the kid 8 dollars for a warm coke.  I would have given him 50 euro if they were at least a little bit cold.  Probably should have bought one anyways just for the sugar and calories.

The doc made it to this point a bit after I did and decided to call it quits.  A support vehicle showed up with a medic on board and told him he didn’t look that tired and should continue.  They poured a liter of water on his crotch, his chest and his head which he said really refreshed him and after about 20 minutes he was on his way again and finished out the stage but had ended up severely sun burning his exposed legs.  You may notice in some of the race photos that many jerry rigged gear to help alleviate problems.  The doc cut the pant sleeves off a discarded camp suit to cover his legs while I cut the tips off my Injinji socks to make gloves to cover my sun burnt hands.

One of my favorite parts of the race happened each day after returning to camp.  Runners would immediately stop by the water distribution tent after crossing the finish line to collect our water then begin the trudge back to our tents.  The tents were laid out in a big circle with three rings and a walk way between them.  While walking back to our tent the finished runners would call out our names and whistle or applaud.  It was fantastic to hear many different languages all saying the same thing “congratulations!”  I remember being lucky enough to spot our last runner from the long day coming down the aisle and shouted out her name.  Everyone was so excited to see she had made it and the Brits and French were shouting as well before she reached our section!  We did this for everyone and the response was almost identical.  A wave, a nod, a Merci Beaucoup! from the Japanese, the Aussies, the Belgians and the Russians. All the other finished runners had stripped down to our shorts by then so it was easy to spot the newly arrived to camp in their full desert storm regalia and three 1.5 liter water bottles under the arm and the ever present post run shuffle.  Sometimes it was hard to tell who was more excited to see you…the French, the Brits or your own tent!

Randy Perkins Marathon Des Sables Selfie

Stage 3: If day one had us crossing the most challenging of dune fields and day two was difficult due to the heat then day three must be the easy day, at least that’s what I thought.  Stage 3 went on to become the most devastating of all days with what I think was the highest drop rate of any single day of the MdS 2014.  We lost veterans, fast runners, strong people and leaders that day.  My guess is the combination of two massive dune fields plus 125° heat with no wind pushed the hydration and nutrition limits for many.

I was only able to make it through by teaming up with a veteran racer who was a physician and keenly aware of sodium, calorie and hydration challenges for that day.  My only goal was to make it through this day unscathed if possible and in good enough condition for the following double marathon day.

The day started with some tough choices on pack weight reduction.  What’s being used? What’s really necessary? I thought of discarding the emergency flare and just paying the €70 replacement fee but no one at camp thought that was a good idea.  Gave my compressible down jacket, $300 PanOptix goggles and iPod to the Berber guys who came by each morning to take down our tent.  Went so far as to squeeze out half my tube of toothpaste and, regrettably, tossing two pages of home emails plus my journal and notes to minimize weight.  The home emails helped so much! I read them multiple times throughout the night and morning and appreciated the effort all took to send them!!!

We went through the obligatory morning countdown to start and were off.  The next thing I recall was being four hours into the first massive dune field and having my flare in one hand and a 1.5 liter bottle in the other hand.  I knew if I stopped then I would immediately pop that flare due to fear of losing consciousness.  Our brains count for less than 5% of our total body weight but require over 20% of our total calorie consumption to function properly.  By day three I had burned 18,000 calories and replaced that with less than 4,000.

Somewhere in this dune field, Colorado (young stud out of Boulder) was toast.  The medics found him and immediately called in an airlift to get him out.  The Everest climber and veteran adventurer was done too which shocked me because he was the strongest of us by far.  The doc and I made it to checkpoint 2 and searched out the tiniest bit of shade to sit and eat/drink.  We both immediately scoured the waste bin for the smallest amount of unused water to pour over ourselves and found maybe a cup or two which was helpful.  The only spot with a minimum of shade I could find was next to the medical tent and overheard a Brit inside saying he’s completed three MdS but was now calling it quits.

An exhausted Italian refused to leave the medical tent and the French doctor said he must wait outside then the Italian said “fuck you”.  I couldn’t sit there any longer listing to this and told the doc I’d meet him down the trail.  Somewhere in the dunes an indigenous Berber woman crossed my path.  Covered head to toe in traditional attire she had a satchel over her shoulder and a 5 liter container filled with water.  This definitely wasn’t a casual stroll for her because no one travels in the heat of the day except lunatics.  I did not take a photo because many of the Berber don’t like it but that image of her staring at me through the slit in her head cover will forever be with me.

With three miles still to go to get out of the dunes I began to once again drag.  Too hot to eat and water too warm to satiate the thirst I’m sure was the issue.  Fortunately by this time doc had caught up and told me just to stay on his heels.  He was looking strong and told me to take some salt pills, eat my salty crackers and just power through the soft sand and think about that nice cup of mint tea waiting for us at the finish line.  Although I will say adamantly that I’m not designed for this type of race I’ve definitely been trained to endure this type of punishment.  Throughout the entire race I had zero blisters, took no pain killers and required no medical attention and cannot recall anyone else in the same position, even zero stomach issues and didn’t use a single “shit bag” (official name) until after the race was over.

I honestly think I was just too tired to do anything other than fall asleep at the end of each stage and the medical tent line was up to two hours long at some points.  Crossing the finish line on Stage three was good but I could tell my right glute was extremely tight and would check it out that evening.  Later on it was so tight that I groaned when laying on my back and moaned whenever turning on my side but was able to work it out.  The pilot rolled in about cutoff time and said he was done.  No mas.  I felt bad but immediately asked for his food, his headlamp and batteries and anything else the rest of remaining could use.  Eat, sleep and then the long stage tomorrow.

Randy Perkins Marathon Des Sables

Stage 4: The fifty miler – 34 hours to complete.  Took stock of just how I felt that morning and wasn’t too happy to see my resting heart rate up at 85 bpm.  Considering we’ve just run 70 tough miles over the previous three days with none of my traditional recovery measures such as ice bath, beet juice drinks, recovery massage or heaps of fresh vegetables and fruits, not to mention simply being hydrated, but instead it was salt tabs, top ramen, beef jerky, salt tabs, liters of warm water and five hours of sleep each night followed by more salt tabs.  Looking at it that way I guess I was in pretty good shape considering.

By that morning I was able to work out the tight glute and still had no foot or stomach issues and was grateful for this small miracle.  Prior to the start line gathering we each promised to not let the other quit today and to keep going no matter what the conditions or circumstances.  Each had their own approach on how to handle the next 34 hours and mine was to make it 28 miles to checkpoint 4, stop to eat a bowl of noodles and rest for no more than 60 minutes before pushing on again.  My goal was to finish this stage in 24 hours if possible to avoid exposure to the following mid-day heat and rest in camp 4 for the remainder of that day.

At the starting line Patrick Bauer read out the birthday announcements, the helicopter buzzed overhead about 25 feet up and we were off.  At the first checkpoint Hollywood (Hollywood screen writer) took a time penalty and asked for an extra bottle of water.  That was a genius move and one I wished I had made as well.  It took me over 5 hours to finally catch up on my hydration after the brutal climb up and over the 30° pitch we called the Hillary Step.

On our way down the back side and into the El Maharch Plain I saw the big Canadian wave his arms to an observer and say he was done.  I hustled over to him and said he has 4 hours to get to checkpoint 3 and he can make it in one hour to rest in the jeep for two hours before moving on.  I told the observer not to take his number until the last possible moment and she agreed then I told him again to rest before making any final decision and he agreed as well.

The long stretch across the El Maharch Plain was hot and had very little wind.  It was basically a dry lake bed trapped by surrounding mountains and our exit was through a small opening that had given away and was how the lake had drained several million years ago.  Once through the gap I had made it to checkpoint 3 and had just three more checkpoints to go before the finish.

We were somewhere in the Talmaidert Plains when the sun began to set and for the first time in the race began to really enjoy the scenery.  It may have been due to utter and complete exhaustion but either way, the sunset was incredible.  Around 10 pm I was only a few miles from checkpoint 4 where I would eat and rest and was ready for both.  Coming off the final high plateau before CP4 I ran down an extremely steep, soft sandy embankment for what seemed to be 1000’ of descent with unforgiving sharp granite formations to either side and in the dark which was a bit spooky.

Now with only 2.5 miles to go to CP4 I knew I’d be there soon but then noticed it was the worst type of sand to negotiate.  Super loose and giving away inches to the side and back on every step, very physically demanding to move through.  That 2.5 miles took over an hour to get through and by midnight I was shattered.  Once you arrive at checkpoint you are funneled through a gate and into a narrow corral where a race official checks your number, punches your water card and checks your name off the master list as well as two others to help write your number on the water bottles.  This check point gate had a medic ready as well asking how you felt and checking to see if you needed medical attention.  If wobbling or unable to speak coherently they would immediately pull you for observation and I was so fatigued that I couldn’t remember my race number.

The young Lieutenant Commander taught me on the bus ride in how to say my number in French and that was all I could remember at this point.  “Cat Sinc Trois! Cat Sinc Trois!”  At CP4 I setup my sleeping pad and bag in the sand and boiled water for a quick cup of ramen noodles.  After I was done eating I connected the garmin to my charged solar panel on my pack and set the alarm to wake up in one hour and immediately went cross-eyed and passed out.

By 2 am I was out of CP4 and on my way across more sand.  To keep the mind off of my current condition of tired, dirty, hungry, in the dark and in challenging sand, I listened to one song on my iPhone on repeat which was Fleetwood Mac, Hold Me.  Hopefully you kids from the 80’s with MTV will understand the significance of this song and being in the desert.

The last 15 miles seemed to take an eternity.  Next was a rolling and deeply cut dried mud plain with cross gully drops of 3-4 feet every 20 feet or so in the dark but knew I was finally on my way to checkpoint 5.  The biggest emotional boost of the stage came close to checkpoint 5 when the big Canadian tapped me on my back and said thanks for not letting him give up 25 miles back!  He recovered and was looking strong and wanted me to keep pace with him.  I was way too tired and slow to keep up with him but promised I wouldn’t stop and will finish this stage but he should get going without me.  He stopped a few times to let me catch up but finally agreed to get to the finish line and rest up and see me when I rolled in after him.

Checkpoint 5 had a military truck with a massive green laser beam shooting out along our path from CP4 and worked well as our guide in the dark.  The desert is so flat that it seemed like the laser beam arched from horizon to horizon and was an impressive site to see.  CP5 was filled with people sleeping so I decided to roll through without stopping.  A little outside of CP5 I decided to sit down and look up at the stars and rest for a minute.  It took about two seconds to pass out but fortunately it was only for a few minutes.  But then I did it again and knew that I should keep going.

Once I hit CP6 I knew the finish line was next.  I took a chance and didn’t take on any new water and planned to run the final 7 miles.  After running maybe one mile I started to realize this was a bad idea.  The sun had slowly begun to rise and it was still nice and cool but knew if the heat set in I would be in trouble due to not enough drinking water or enough to pour on myself to keep cool.  By this time my Garmin was out and didn’t know my exact position to the finish line and referred to the road book to figure out where I was.  Fortunately I miscalculated my position by three miles and was closer to the finish line than I expected.

The final stretch was crazy because it was on an open plain where we could see the finish line but it was over three miles out.  That thing never seemed to get closer.  There was a rumor that we would get a cold coke when crossing the finish line today and that’s what I was looking for.  No coke but still happy to be done.  Walking through the tent aisle the French were the first to whistle and congratulate me.  Next were the Japanese then the Koreans then the South Africans.  Once I got to the loud Brits I knew my tent was close by.  It was great to see our group and I immediately walked over to see the Canadians.  The big Canadian was there and smiling ear to ear and both of us were happy to see the other had made it through the fifty miler.

Randy Perkins Marathon Des Sables Epic Selfie

Stage 5: Composing these long winded stage race report has been very therapeutic so thank you for allowing me to post!  The early morning panic attacks have all but ended and the appetite is finally back as well.  Lining up for that last day we all realized this last stage wouldn’t be a breeze and no sure shot to a finisher’s medal.  Even after finishing 125 of the 150 miles so far, some could not bring themselves to the starting line this morning.

I was very grateful to be standing here this day with the very real chance of completing the 2014 MdS.  This stage was the closest I came to not finishing in the allowed time and came very close at least twice to a medical stop.  At the start line it was interesting to see the different levels of pain each was dealing with.  One Brit had 12 codeine tabs in his bottle holder and said he would likely use all to get through the day.  I had cut off the tips of my Injinji socks and turned them into gloves to protect the back of my sunburnt and swollen hands.  Doc had cut part of his sleeping pad off and placed them under has backpack straps to ease the pain.  We really looked like the walking dead.

This stage was a true 26.2 mile marathon distance stage and most of us were on fumes just standing there.  The 3 checkpoints were spaced out fairly equal distance and only a little dune crossing would be required on this stage.  It looked very straight forward so I loaded up my front pouch with 800 calories and water in both 750 ml water bottles plus a half 1.5 liter up front.

Once on our way we crossed a couple farming communities and the kids came out to wave us on.  Felt very strong through the first check point and well into the halfway point but started to drag once again.  Doc came up alongside and paced with him through the next checkpoint.  By this time we reached a high plateau which looked like the surface of Mars.  It consisted of red clay dirt and broken granite rocks as far as the eye could see.

Eventually I looked up to notice there were no others in front of us and yelled to Doc that we missed a course adjustment somewhere but luckily was only off by a half mile or so and caught up with a group of Belgian runners before too long.

Heading down off the plateau we estimated our position and knew the last checkpoint wasn’t too far ahead.  Once we hit checkpoint 3 Doc said “let’s put a nail in the lid of this coffin and finish the damn race off!” I agreed and we were off through some tough dry riverbed layer which had me zigzagging looking for some more solid footing.  Doc was gone in a flash and I pushed through until my right calf started cramping and began to feel nauseous.  I just wasn’t taking enough salt throughout the day and had no more beef jerky to help with the eating and salt intake.

For a good ten minutes I sat on the river bank until a medical truck pulled up and asked how I was doing.  Usually they move on after you give them a thumbs up but I think they know it’s more serious at this stage of the race when someone is sitting.  The doctor said he would not leave until I was up and moving so I moved on in a couple minutes.  Coming out of the dry river bed we walked up a fairly steep embankment which had me stopping every 10 or so steps to catch my breath.  I planned to stop at the summit where another medical team was waiting and was only a mile or so away.

Once I got there I must have looked bad because the doctor asked me to sit in their truck.  I asked for some water and he graciously switched out my empty bottle with a new bottle while switching the caps so my race number was still on it.  I never lost consciousness in their truck but I’m sure I looked like I was about to.  After 20 minutes (four Michael Jackson songs, the French still love him) I knew I had to get going the last few miles or I would never get up again.  Wasn’t sure of where the time was but knew I was getting close.

Once I saw the finish line I noticed the music was no longer playing.  Began to think of the worst but then realized I never saw the sweep team of camel riders so I couldn’t be over on time.  About a half mile out they turned on the finish line music again much to my relief.  The closer I got to the finish line the less ill I felt, not better but just less nauseous.

Several finishers were there cheering the remaining runners on and I tapped my garmin and gave a thumbs up to ask if I was good on time.  Just about everyone at the finish line gave me a two thumbs up and felt good enough to smile a bit.  Once at the finish line the course director, Patrick Bauer came up and kissed me on both cheeks and placed the finisher’s medal around my neck.  I couldn’t believe I had finished this grueling and beautiful race.  I’m sitting at CDG finishing off this final report and can’t tell you how happy I am to finally be coming home.  Merci Beaucoup!

Randy Perkins Marathon Des Sables Finish

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