Mark Gillett

Come back frequently……

Archive for October 2006

Youth Desert Trip

leave a comment »

I am currently organising a youth trip to the desert. The expedition will give young people the chance to experience an area of the world that has given me so much pleasure and excitement. An environment that seems so harsh and brutal but when experienced first hand exudes beauty. Of all the people I have taken into the desert, all have left in awe and vowed to return.

The underlying purpose of this trip will be to provide the children an opportunity to discover new territory, learn life skills and test their limits in one of the most powerful enthralling environments in the world. They will:

· Learn to work as a team.
· Enjoy fellowship with others who have experienced bereavement.
· Manage day-to-day living in an often harsh environment.
· Develop management and planning skills.
· Learn navigation, camping and survival skills
· Experience the challenge of an endurance hike
· Experience the satisfaction of fundraising.

The expedition will raise money for Woking Hospice as well as be involved in other projects throughout the expedition. Some of the participants will be bereaved children that the hospice work with through their networking and hopefully this will be of great benefit to them.

If you would like to contact me with regard this project, sponsorship, or any other expeditions, please email me at

Written by markgillett

October 8, 2006 at 9:48 pm

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized

Marathon Des Sables 2006

leave a comment »

Photos at

Tent89 & the MDS 2006

I first considered this race about two years ago but thought it might be too much to consider with only two marathons under my belt. However the pull was overwhelming and after a few phone calls and a good read on the Internet I was on the wait list for 2005. Now in retrospect I am glad I did not get in as I had more time to train and get things right in my mind. I was offered a place in the 2006 event and by this time I had completed four marathons with a PB (personal best) of 3:20.

Our plane was a special charter by Best of Morocco on Monarch airlines. Competitors gathered at Gatwick on the 6th April huddling around a check-in at Zone K. Most runners were obviously nervous about losing kit, as they seemed to have most of it on or in their hand baggage. A great number were also wearing their gator-clad shoes at the airport, which added to the strange look of everyone at the check-in area. Other passengers must have thought that there was some kind of fancy dress party going on in Ouarzazate that night.

I stood in the queue eying up the other runners – as you do. And as with marathons there was a complete mix. I have learnt, though, not to judge by appearance alone. This can be dangerous, as I have previously found out in the last 6 miles of a marathon when you realise that “look” has little to with performance. I have been passed by what appear to be “non runners”, runners dressed as bananas as well as overtaking slick looking racing snakes myself. So with this in mind, everyone in that queue was a possible winner and we were all equal, well almost.

I sat in my seat a little apprehensive but also very excited. It had been 6 years since I was in the desert last and I was truly looking forward to this reunion. The running was the only reason for the apprehension. Could I do this task or was it beyond me? Well, I was about to find out so there was not much more I could do but wait and see, although I was confident. Kate Adie was now my focus for the rest of the flight.

We arrived at Ouarzazate 3 and half hours later and what a pleasure it was. Unlike those holiday destinations of Europe where the queues are endless and the customs officials all seem totally bored out of their skulls, Ouarzazate was different. It was as if the ground staff knew what we were coming to do and gave us a smiley welcome and very speedy transit through the airport; perhaps they felt sorry for us. We then got the bus for a 5 minute ride to the Berber Palace Hotel which is Ouarzazates’ only 5 star accommodation but having now seen the others I am not sure if this is true but it was certainly more than adequate.

We checked in and had to share with another runner so I ended up with a 23-year-old student – Pete – in his final year of an aeronautical engineering degree of some kind. When we got to the room we spread our gear out and started packing and repacking and checking and rechecking. I was quite confident of mine and did not spend too much time on it. But Pete, well, he was definitely a student. With his kit sprawled out on the floor he commented on my food packing and decided he would do the same so he started packing each days food individually. He then got to work on gluing his gators on in the hotel room and with Araldite everywhere and kit from wall to wall it was a sight to be admired! It looked more like a three-week expedition was in order not a 7-day self-sufficiency race with minimal kit in the desert. Pete was also to become a tent mate and the butt of some great laughs for the days ahead. Thanks, Pete.

We checked out of the Berber Palace the following morning, again, apprehensive about what lay ahead. We huddled together waiting for the bus on the hotel forecourt eying one another up. Looking at packs and shoes to see if they looked better than our own. Thankfully most people’s kit looked similar probably because we all bought it from the same few shops or web sites. The journey took us 4 hours and finally after two pee stops we arrived at the AOI (Antlantique Organisation International) bivouac for our first nights camp. Our tents were very Berber style. Open sided black tents held up by two wooden poles wedged into the hard baked ground and a few pegs and guys.

I approached Tent89 with an Australian, Steve, whom I met at a previous meeting about the event and Pete, and asked the occupants if there was room for 3 more. There were three inside already and it was obvious they wanted to keep it that way. We moved in all the same, as they would ultimately have no choice. We then proceeded to make it clear that we wanted no one else when they came by the tent and asked us if there was room. How unsociable can humans be? The last person to arrive was Maher, a rather large looking chap of Yemeni origin and who smoked! (he also turned out to be the most stable amongst us) We now consisted of me Steve the Australian, Andy the racing snake, Paul & “Cully” from Wales, Maher and of course, Pete. We all spread out and made ourselves comfortable and proceeded to quiz each other in the “way that you do”. Those first few hours are always testing but really quite good fun. By the end of the evening it was obvious that we would all get on as we had quite a few “belly-laugh” situations already and mainly at the expense of poor Pete over dropping his supper – on returning from the food tent with his tray full of bolognaise, bread, coffee and desert he slipped, lunged forward and launched his meal tray as if a Frisbee, leaving only a napkin in his hand. Our laughs resonated through the food hall, which caused many strange looks from the serious competitors around us. Bursts of uncontrollable laughter continued for the next few hours.

We had one full day at the bivouac to arrange our packs and send back our main luggage to the hotel for safekeeping. This first day saw the first sandstorm that raged from about 11am to 6 pm. We were all covered in dust and really quite shattered without doing much. Our kit was checked, weighed and our medicals were verified on this day and we now had one more night before the race began. That meant one more good meal and the food provided was excellent. Probably the reason poor Pete was so distraught having launched his plate of food in rocket fashion across the eating hall on the first night.

We were now down to our packs, shoes and running kit for a week. I slept lightly but ok for a second night ion the desert and the snoring was minimal.

Race day was a nervous start. Kit was repacked and still clean and the packs were loaded. We collected our water ration and for stage one that was 1.5 litres which was to last until the first CP (Check point) where we would receive a further 1.5.

The start line was electric. Music played with songs like Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”, and “We Will Rock You” by Queen. It was a surreal moment in the middle of the Sahara and one I will never forget.

The sun was already blistering and we had to stand through 30 minutes of well wishing and birthday songs as well as a race brief by Patrick Bauer the race organiser and inspiration behind the event, which is now 21 years old.

After a countdown the race got started and my plan to run with my heart rate at between 130 and 140 was blown away from the start. I was having trouble keeping below 160, which I knew was too high. I kept going, though, as the pace was so slow. The heat was fierce and my pack felt heavier than in training. I collected my next water ration without trouble and kept going to CP 2. My HR was still high but I did not want to slow to a walk.

The checkpoints were very well managed with plenty of personnel and medical staff to help out. Water was given out and we all had water cards that had to be stamped. If you needed extra water you were penalised, as you were if you lost your card or pieces of mandatory kit. This is to stop the dumping of kit to make the packs lighter. The volunteers were all lovely with always a good word to say but above all you could see they were checking everyone as they came through for signs of suffering.

The helicopter also flew continuously up and down the line of runners mainly to film but also to keep an eye on proceedings and make sure runners were not off course.

Once we set off on the course, I realised that this was no breeze. The heat was blistering from around 9am and the relentless drain on the body took its toll through the day. I worked my way through the electrolyte drinks and water steadily but apparently not enough. By the time I finished this stage my head was pounding and my legs began to cramp. This was a little frightening as only a few years before I had experienced total body cramps on the tennis court. If this were to happen again, I would be making a swift exit from the event, which was not on the menu! I drank furiously and forced my recovery drink down. I then nodded off into a blissful sleep to try to recover, whilst the sand storm raged outside the tent. And inside for that matter. Others tents were blowing down around us but thankfully ours held out and allowed us to belly laugh at those who had no shelter. Not the right thing to do but of course we needed to relax. In the evening the headache subsided with the wind and I cooked up my food and felt a lot better. I need a good night sleep for day 2.

I was now missing my family badly too. I wanted to hear from them and I wanted to speak to Jo.

I slept restlessly knowing that body cramps was a fear of mine. I drank throughout the night and peed a few times with crystal clarity so mentally I was feeling stronger again. The clarity obviously indicating I was re-hydrated again.

Day two started with the razzmatazz again at the start line and a few musical massifs from the 80’s. I thanked God that Patrick, the organizer, was more from my generation than most of the runners otherwise we would probably had to have listened to Eminem or Puff Daddy!

The race started with a long climb for about an hour and then down on to a flat. The rest I cannot really remember other than my goal of keeping my HR down between 130 and 140. It worked and I got back to camp feeling much better and more confident. Thoughts of home and the girls were constantly with me on this day and helped so much. When would I hear from them?

Although I found this section better many others were not coping. The organisers were having a testing time with participants dropping fast. In total around 60 had dropped out by the end of day two and this was more than the total of the previous year. Heat seemed to be about average but the humidity was very high compared to the usual 6%. It had reached 30% and runners were not managing their water rations. There were a record number of IV’s administered and Doc Trotters were on full time duty. Some runners started demanding more water and the organisers finally gave in a dished some out that evening.

One of our tent, Cully, returned late and we knew that he’d had trouble with his feet the night before. He was also quite dehydrated. He walked in and with the words “I’m out” and a silence befell the tent. We were not sure if it was one of his jokes but the green band around his wrist confirmed it was not. We all felt awful and did not really know what to say. His feet had been so bad that he did not make the checkpoint 4 by the stated time and therefore was withdrawn by the organisers. Cully was devastated and so were we. We had bonded in a way that was really quite special right from the start. It was like losing a friend and for a while the tent was not happy. However, this was not too long and in true form we began to laugh about it as others dropped like flies and those of us remaining drew strength from those who were falling in a rather perverse way.

Cully promised to get us some good food from the dropouts food hall but this came to nothing as security was too tight. He slept one more night with us and was shipped out the next morning. Its all rather ruthless once you are out.

I got my first email. It came from Trudi, which caused great laughs from everyone, but I had no idea who she was other than she was my race number from the year before and followed me through the race. Her words were needed and I then emailed home. I was soon flooded – well, not quite – with emails from Jo and the girls as well as some friends. This made such a difference to morale and I read them daily.

Day three was a long one of 38km. As usual there were jebels involved as well as copious amounts of sand dunes. A jebel is a small mountain or large hillock. Either way you look at it they meant a raise in heart rate usually to your maximum and a very steep climb. By this time it was obvious that the organisers enjoyed a little mind f…ing to say the least. Check points never seemed to be in the ideal place but at a tantalising point in the distance always visible at least 4 km away. With this in mind I never again climbed a jebel with the thought of a rest on the other side.

Day 3 saw even more drop out through exhaustion. One runner ended up being evacuated to Bordeaux to hospital as his core temperature rose to 41 degrees. This, along with three others in a critical condition meant the organisers began to worry and dished out more water to all runners. This was welcome to some but a bit over kill to others, me included. Whilst it was nice to know we were being looked after, the whole essence of the event is to manage your way through the course, which includes the water they give you. If that meant slowing down because of the conditions then that should have been done. Anyway, by now their minds were made up and runners were given extra and we all were able to have a bit of a wash too. I did my hands!

I was a bit scared the night before the long run. The distance was long, some 72km, we were all exhausted and the thought of 72 k’s was daunting. My emails were so important now. I was not having low points but the emails gave me more positive thoughts to draw on. Knowing that everyone at home was watching via the website and willing me was a boost and allowed me to get on with the job of focussing on finishing each stage. I ran each mini stage checkpoint to checkpoint with the words going over in my head and a great feeling of achievement as I knocked of the checkpoints.

That evening a message went round, first as a rumour and then as a formal message, that the long day was being cut by 15km for safety reasons. This was hard to take especially as the whole race builds to this day and having it cut did not feel right. I accepted it though as the organisers had been doing this for 21 years and I am sure they knew best. Besides who in their right mind would prefer to run 72km when you have a choice of 57?

Tent89 was now pretty confident we would all make it. However one of the runners, Pete, was having nightmares with his feet. They looked more like fresh meat from a butchers that a pair of feet. The problem started with his DIY remedy for blisters and they seemed to deteriorate from there on in. Pete was by this time making regular visits to Doc Trotters, the race medical team. This was also the cause of much laughter as he struggled from the tent across the gravel ground of the camps site to the medical tent. His movement was limited and very slow with deliberate dodging of any stones or uneven ground. A journey that took most of us 3 minutes took Pete in the region of 15. On the night before the long run he left the tent at 8.30 and got back at 11. Poor sod!

The razzmatazz of the next morning was the same as usual and we got off by 10 am. This was probably to make sure that we did at least some of the day under darkness.

I sailed through the first two checkpoints without too much trouble and the sand storm as if on cue started around 1pm and blasted our legs for 4-5 hours. I made check point six by about 7.30pm and new I only had about 5 clicks to go. I was there but as usual, the mind games began. Those 4km were over dunes and although I could see the bivouac, it kept disappearing as I descended a dune and reappeared as I topped the next. It was an endless 4km but I eventually got into camp 10hrs 17mins after setting out. I had a total rest time of about 20 minutes.

Getting to camp was always a great feeling as we could fall down in the tent and just relax. Go through the drills of drink and food, then feet. Arriving after the long run, though, our tents were not erected. The Berbers had had a tough day in the dunes and were delayed. I collapsed on the floor where our tent was meant to be, opened my rucsac and on the smell of sweet foods like jellies and Go bars retched but threw up nothing. I was not feeling good at all and the Berbers were not in favour.

I repelled anything sweet for the next 24 hours but relished anything savoury. I downed a meal of beef stew minutes after collapsing on the ground. It took no time to boil the water and once I had finished, I felt like I could go on and do a further few km’s. I am just glad we did not have to.

The others arrived slowly over the next few hours. Andy had of course arrived before me, as he was Tent89’s racing snake. By 4am everyone was back. Pete came in last, downed his recovery drink and threw it all back up again. It was a tough day for everyone and the following day was spent recovering. Much of it laughing at each other and being pretty mindless but this helped tremendously with morale.

Stage 6 was the Marathon and word went round fast the people were going to “go for it”. Where did they get the energy? Going for it was not on my agenda at all although I did not feel bad. I just knew it was another slog that would eventually take me nearly 6 hours. I came in 213th.

I was a little worried, as by this time I had secured a placing of around 180 overall. Although I was not sure how competitive I would be at the outset the placing board that went up every evening made sure that I was. I did not want to drop below what I had achieved and luckily did not. I had run well enough on the long stage to make a real gap between myself and those below me on the ranking. At the end of the Marathon I was still 180 overall. Yes!

The last day was upon us and I was sort of disappointed, I did not really want this adventure to end. It was a 12km stage that finished taking us through Erg Mezouga, which consisted of the second highest dunes in the world. Or so they say. I know I have seen just as big in the Empty Quarter but I was not going to argue the point.

This day was like the Whacky Races. Everyone was going for it no matter what and I was no different. I set out at lightning pace – for the MDS that about 8min/mile – and my heart rate raced to 156 where it remained for the entire 12km. We finished over the dunes coming down to the finish line on a gravel run in. It was an emotional 5 minutes and I was glad it was over but not for long. I came in 160 something on that day and the rest of Tent89 came in soon after. Pete had his fastest day and was delighted but something tells me he will have to go back and do it all again.

I had the week of my life and realise now that this is not a one-week event but a six-month event covering some 1400 miles culminating in a week in the desert. I trained hard and had tremendous support from everyone around me especially my family.

Tent89 was the best tent in the race. No one else seemed to matter to us but we supported each other throughout. I will never forget this race and in particular my tent mates whom without I would not have had nearly as good a time, I am sure.

Written by markgillett

October 7, 2006 at 11:13 pm

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized