One of our amazing Pretty Athletic ambassadors, Gemma, is running the Marathon Des Sables later this month. It was a delight to meet her in person at our ambassador photoshoot, and to hear about her journey to running the 'toughest footrace on earth'.
We asked if she'd be happy to share more with our amazing community - which as you'll see from the Q&A below, she has been kind enough to do. Thank you Gemma and wishing you all the best! x
When did you start running?
I started running in 2016, but very minimal, we got our puppy Connie and I started running with her to make her walks fun and interactive.
I then got a charity place with Anthony Nolan in the London Marathon for 2017 and that's when I truly fell in love with running.
My first marathon and race was the 2017 the London marathon. Since then I've done London 4 times, I've also done New York, Chicago and Berlin. My aim is to complete the World Marathon Majors one day as I only have a Tokyo and Boston now to do.
What made you decide to enter the MDS?
A few reasons why I chose the MDS, I wanted to continue fundraising for Anthony Nolan in memory of my late Dad and I had pretty much exhausted fundraising through running marathons so I needed something that was bigger, more extreme, more challenging.
Then I really wanted a huge challenge for myself personally. At 28 I found out I had gone through a really early menopause, this really hit me hard. It had snatched away my chance to have children and I felt like my body had failed me, so I wanted to do something to prove to myself my body was capable of other things, of hard things.
I then read about the 'toughest footrace on earth' and decided that's what I need to do.
Tell us a little bit about what happened last year
After signing up to the race for April 2020 I began training for it in the Summer of 2019.
As we all know the world turned upside down and after putting my heart and soul into the training and getting everything ready the race was postponed 3 weeks before we were due to leave. It was postponed to September so I continued to train for the event. 6 weeks before it was postponed again to April 2021. The relentless training continued and once again it was postponed to October 2021.
So the training again just continued, at this point I had been in training for this one race for two whole years.
Eventually the race went ahead, however it turned out to be the most horrific MDS known. A race which historically has had a drop out rate of 5% ended up having a 55% drop out rate on this particular one.
There were 2 main factors to this, due to the timing of it being in early October the Sahara experienced a heat wave on top of its extreme temperatures. There was a point out in the Merzuga Dunes when the temperature hit 60 degrees Celsius. It was insane. The expected cold temperatures at night turned out to be 30 degrees. There was no getting away from the heat. People were dropping with heat exhaustion left right and centre.
Additionally a bug entered camp and probably because we had all pretty much been living in isolation for the previous 18 months, it spread like wildfire, and at this point on day four for me, I was also out.
I cannot explain how much a race DNF affected me. I had lived and breathed this race since 2019 and at no point did I believe that I couldn't reach the finish line. I had devoted so much to this race, my life was consumed by it and I couldn't comprehend that it had all just gone. I was left with serious unfinished business.
Although it sounded horrific, there was something magical about being in the desert for the MDS.
Being cut off from the outside world.
The way we live now means we are contactable in so many forms, you are always expected to be answerable to someone, whether it be work, friends or family.
It's rare you ever get an opportunity to fully switch of from life around you and be in the here and now, and that's exactly what the desert does for you.
Your purpose is to be there and to run your race, and that's it.
How have you been training for it?
As well as a lot of running there has been a lot of fast walk/hike training.
I've had back to back long runs most weeks, running with the pack I'll be carrying with the weight I'll be carrying to get my body used to what it's about to endure.
My husband and I went out to Cape Town for a holiday to do some training which involved a lot of elevation in the heat and sand running.
I've done a lot of strength training too to get both my legs and shoulders ready.
I've also been doing heat acclimatisation which has included many many hours sitting in a sauna. Some of the heat training is lovely like long daily hot baths (with my Pretty Athletic Bath Bombs of course), but it trains the body to endure the temperatures for long periods of time.
On top of this, it's also been important to test all of the food I'm taking while training which is always tricky, as it's important for it to work well for fuelling as once you are there, there is no alternative.
How are you feeling about it?
I'm naturally nervous, the MDS is a huge ask of both your body and mind. Last time I was terrified of the unknown, however this time I'm petrified of the same thing happening again, I'm so scared I fail again.
But ultimately I've done a huge amount of preparation so I think I'm ready.
Can you share your plans for the trip?
When you book the MDS from the UK you book through a company who deal with all of the logistics. They charter an aircraft for the outbound and inbound flight, so everyone on that flight is doing the race.
On the 21st April we flying out from Gatwick to Errichida in Morrocco. After landing we are coached our to the Sahara desert and you go to your designated Bivouac. For the duration you keep the same tent number throughout and you share with the same 7 people, these are generally strangers unless you are doing the race with someone.
The Saturday is called admin day and this is where you hand over your suitcase and become self sufficient. All you have is what you are carrying on your back for the next week. You have to submit your medical forms, ECG which you have done prior to departing and have your kit checked and weighed. They also attach a very accurate GPS tracker to you so you can be tracked an SOS if you come into difficulty and finally you are given your race number.
On the Sunday the race begins, you never actually know the exact routing or daily distance until you arrive as it's changeable each year. But there are always certainties. There is always a long stage which is day 4 and there is always a marathon stage on day 6 but the race will always cover approximately 250km.
You live off of all of the food you have brought with you and are carrying with you for the full week, so this is generally freeze dried expedition meals, although on this occasion I am using meal replacement drinks. You sleep in the sleeping bag under you bivouac each night and you run/walk each day. It's multi stage so each day is like a race in its self.
The race organisers do provide water at checkpoints but this is rationed, you can have extra if really required, but it does come with a time penalty. Each checkpoint does have a cut off time too.
All going to plan on day 6 the official finish line will be crossed marking the end of the Marathon Des Sables, however it doesn't fully end there, despite finishing with your medal on this day, you then have to complete the Charity stage on day 7 (albeit it's only 6-10km)
From there you board coaches and your are bussed out of the desert and you are taken to a lovely hotel in Ouazazate where you stay for 2 nights to relax and decompress. This is also where you will have your first proper wash in over a week!
On the 1st May we all fly back to the UK hopefully all brandishing our medals.
What are your kit essentials and why?
Firstly there is a mandatory kit list which includes.
Backpack - to carry your whole kit
Sleeping bag - for sleeping at night, the desert becomes very cold so finding that sleeping back which is light but also warm was quite challenging.
Food for the week - a minimum of 14,000 calories has to be taken but it's chosen to take 19,000
Sake venom pump - you know just in case (yikes!!)
Signalling mirror - incase you get lost and you need to signal to the helicopter
Whistle - for attracting attention (wow the flight attendant just came out in me 😂)
Knife - for so many different reasons
Suncream - so I don't get burnt
Anticeptic - mainly for footcare but just in case you get an injury out on board with no medics around.
Lighter - for making fires
Compass - for following the roadbook and not getting lost
Survival blanket - just in case
Headtorch - some days you many run in to the night and there is no light source there.
200 euros (although there isn't anywhere to actually spend this..)
Toilet roll - I won't go into that...
As well as the mandatory kit I'm also taking
Expandable wipes - add water to them and they become a mini flannel - these are gold out there, it's the only way you can remotely wash.
Sunglasses - not just for the sun, but sandstorms happen regularly and it avoids the sand getting in your eyes
Pretty Athletic Rescue Balm - It has so many purposes, it's my anti chafe, my lip balm for the evenings and I can also apply to any sores and burns I may get.
Gaiters - these stop the sand getting in your trainers.
An abundance of painkillers as I'm expecting to hurt all of the time.
Soap leafs to wash parts of my kit on day 5 after the long stage.
A mini Robinsons squash concentrate - this is my luxury item.
Ultimately there is so much I want to take that will make life out there more comfortable, more luxurious, but you have to think about weight. The heavier the bag, the harder the race is, so you really have to strip your essentials to the absolute basics.
All in all I think my bag will weigh around 8kg, probably 10.5 when the water weight is added.
What is your favourite Pretty Athletic product and why?
I have so many favourites, but I would have to say the Rescue Balm is up there because it is so multifunctional for all runners and for general day to day life too. It also smells incredible with real relaxing properties.
I also absolutely love Sweatproof. I used to find I would have a lot of breakouts due to the amount of working out I was doing. However Sweatproof has eliminated that if used both before and after working out.
Can we follow your progress during the race?
You can follow my progress on the official Marathon Des Sables website during the dates of 23rd-28th April
I'm runner number 1160
You can also send messages on the website. These are then printed by the organisers and delivered to your tent each night.
Thanks so much to Gemma for sharing. We wish you the very best of luck! x
You can follow Gemma on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/gems_miles/