When he suggested casually to a couple of friends that they should once again take part in the South Downs 100k race and raise money for charity, Tom Boam did not know what he was letting himself in for.
His friends wanted more of a challenge so last month Tom, who will be 50 next month, left his Milland home and found himself in the toughest foot race on earth, the Marathon Des Sables 2014 Challenge – six days carrying all his own equipment and trekking across the burning Sahara desert.
At times, he said the only thing that kept him going was the thought he was raising £10,000 for Dementia UK, a cause close to his heart as his mother was diagnosed with the disease two years ago. Here he tells the story of perhaps the hardest six days of his life
On arrival with Rob Gray and Johannes Wassenberg, at Errachidia, a landing strip in the middle of nowhere in Morocco, the throng of people spilled off the plane, walking to the small terminal building.
We boarded buses for a two-hour drive to the first camp.
You could feel the nervous energy as people started to chat and compare notes of what training each had done.
Roadbooks setting out the routes of each stage were distributed and the organisers had set a tough course for the first stage – we were to be treated to a 34km leg, including 15km of the Merzouga dunes, the highest in the south-Moroccan Sahara.
At the first camp, we selected our tent which would be home for the next eight nights.
When I say ‘tent’, I mean Berber bivouac which comprised a piece of carpet with a black woollen covering held up with wooden poles, no front or back which kept the space nicely aerated.
Saturday was a day of admin, requiring lots of queueing and patience.
At least for now we were being fed and watered. There was even beer and wine on offer, but I couldn’t believe anyone would tuck in before such a long race.
The camp was 3km from the large dunes. They created a stunning backdrop although held a degree of menace as we knew we would be crossing them the next day.
Final decisions as to what kit and food to take on the event were made and suitcases handed in to be taken to the hotel in Ouarzazate at the end of the race.
Woke up at around 5.30am on Sunday, made a brew, and rehydrated some porridge for breakfast (after a few days we craved a savoury breakfast).
Packed and re-packed my backpack; it all fitted in just and with about three litres of water, it probably weighed around 12.5kg. It felt like a ton and was significantly heavier than what I had trained with.
A count-down from ten and then we were off !
Roughly 1,100 competitors piled over the start line and headed towards the dunes.
Spirits were high.I was praying my gaiters would work and keep the sand out of my shoes. This was my biggest fear, as a mix of heat, sweat, sand and feet would guarantee a painful week ahead. It was a huge relief when I realised they worked and my mind was set at rest. There was a bit of a breeze, but down in the dips of the dunes the heat was stifling. I was definitely sweating, but thanks to the heat, it evaporated before causing any problems for my eyes; just left with a plentiful residue of salt crust.
The physical exertion, in temperatures well into the 40s, made for shattered bodies.
The moment of taking off the backpack back at the tent and lying down was sheer bliss. The time back in the tent became very special and extremely relaxing. There were no time pressures and little to do apart from sort out sleeping kit and brewing up hot water to
rehydrate that day’s chosen supper. Another evening ritual included a visit to the email tent where competitors were allowed to send one email of 1,000 characters home per day.
Hygiene was important and avoiding any stomach bug was critical.
Washing habits seemed to differ between nationalities. The Brits, being a modest bunch, used the odd wet wipe for a quick wipe down, keeping shorts on, whereas others would head out of camp a decent distance, strip and wash down. As to clothes, only one set of running clothes, which did end up crusted in salt and I’m sure would be able to stand up on their own.
To counter this we developed a washing machine which comprised aplastic water bottle cut in half; to drop of water add item of clothing and top over bottom half; shake as if making a cocktail and voila, your item of clothing is washed
The terrain was stunning, with huge variety for such a barren place.
We crossed wonderful dunes, sandy riverbeds, vast plains, and awful rock fields which I found the hardest surface to cover as they really attacked the feet.
We also passed a few wadis, where the colour of the green vegetation was intensified by the mass of beige and white that surrounded it.
On the third day we passed a berber with a hose and veered off course to say hello and he generously sprayed us from head to foot with sweet water – a wonderful moment.
As the days passed, the morning briefings included announcements of the number of withdrawals from the previous day. A sombre mood descended as I guess people were
reflecting on ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
We would pass the odd oasis, but the general habitat was desperately barren.
The joy and relief at crossing the finish line increased as the days passed.
My shoulders were seriously aching, but the lovely thought each evening was that I would be eating through another 750g, making the pack lighter for the following day.
I first ventured to the official race doctors, Doc Trotters, at the end of the second day to get my feet checked out.
The docs’ tent always looked like a war zone with competitors lying on the floor with feet up being attended to by the scalpel-wielding doctors.
By the end of the third day, my feet were beginning to look fat and white with all the taping. All but two toes taped up plus both heels.
On the morning of the fourth day, you could sense there was a different atmosphere, with apprehension growing as people prepared for the long stage of 81.5km.
This stage proved the toughest by a mile.
All bar the top 50 men and top five women set off at 9am, with the elite runners starting
three hours later. About 11km into this stage we were faced with the spectacular ascent of the El Otfal djebel which near the top was more like mountaineering than trail running.
The top was so steep that a rope was in place to help haul our bodies up to the
All was going well until the 65km mark of this stage when I literally ran out of fuel. I
had begun to shake a little and my legs felt as if they were going to give way, a definite
case of rubber legs. The body felt empty and I was in desperate need of a quick hit of
I remembered I had a few pieces of some nut brittle which my wife, Sasha, had made
for me. I asked Rob to fish it out of my backpack. I thought I had given clear
directions as to where he could find it, but either I hadn’t or he was suffering as well and struggling to take in my directions. Either way, it resulted in a tetchy moment until at last he found it.
This was exactly what was needed and provided an immediate hit of energy.
Disaster struck at around the 72km mark when Rob started to vomit violently. He was in a bad way.
We kept going until he threw up again, and again. I thought about flagging down one of
the 4x4 cars that passed us every now and then as I was sure they would have a medic on board, but I was told not to in no uncertain terms.
All of a sudden, Rob snapped out of the despair, made a joke of it all and off we went all the way to the end.
What a huge sense of relief when we made it to the finish.
The next day was a much-needed rest day and we were all given a can of cold Coke in the afternoon.
Wow, it tasted fantastic, probably because it was cold, as well as full of sugar.
Walking around camp had a surreal feel to it as this stage, as most people resembled zombies, walking very slowly, clearly trying to pick the least painful way to move; it was difficult to see how we were going to change into marathon runners for the final stage. That is one of the great mysteries of the MDS, but it
For the marathon on the final day, I found running, or at least a running motion, far less painful than walking.
It was a relatively-flat stage and I managed to shuffle my way to the end where each finisher was given the all-important medal.
I had done it – and amazingly finished in 288th place, in the top 25 per cent, with a cumulative time of 40hrs 19mins.
What a sense of achievement and relief. The best moment of the week was seeing both friends cross the finish line as well.
Arriving back at Gatwick was an emotional affair. As I neared the arrivals hall, I could hear the cheers from families. I caught a glimpse of a banner, but didn’t have a clear sighting of who was below it.
I didn’t need to, as I knew it would be Sasha. Who else would come to Gatwick holding a banner asking ‘Mid-life Crisis Over?’
Throughout the months of training and the event itself, raising money for Dementia UK proved a strong motivation for me. A huge thank you to all those who have sponsored me to date and I am delighted to have raised almost £10,000. That said, I am desperately keen to
raise more. I funded the expenses myself, so all donations go to Dementia UK.
Visit my Just Giving page http://www.justgiving.com/Tom-Boam1
Or send a cheque made payable to Dementia UK to me at: Standings Cottage,
Borden Wood, Liphook, Hants, GU30 7JZ.
For further info and photos of my experience, please visit my Facebook page: www.facebook.