"Living easy, living free, season ticket on a one-way ride, asking nothing, leave me be, taking everything in my stride, don't need reason, don't need rhyme, ain't nothing I would rather do, going down, party time, my friends are gonna be there too, I'm on the highway to hell." Those are the opening lyrics of ACDC's infamous song and the final words every competitor hears before they start each stage of Marathon Des Sables (MDS). 

In December 2015 I listened to the song for the first time. I was watching a YouTube video about Marathon Des Sables and saw hundreds of crazy-minded people singing along. What followed were mind-blowing visuals of those maniacs running through the desert. So, this is Marathon Des Sables I was thinking. I went to the official website and registered for the 2017 Edition. At this time, I had no idea to what exactly I had committed, but based on the videos, as well as articles, blog and reports that I had read, I was in for a treat. Fast-forward a couple of months and I found myself in the Moroccan desert. I was about to run what is doomed to be the toughest footrace on Earth.

DAY 1 – 9th April 2017

Timgaline → West Aguenoun N’Oumerhiout
30.3 km
10 hours

It is 9:00 on Sunday, 9th of April and I am standing at the starting line of the 32nd Marathon Des Sables, somewhere in the Moroccan Sahara. Through the polarised lenses of my sunglasses I am starring at some of the 1200 faces around me. Some are old, some are young, female and male alike. Their eyes and body language transpire a mix from excitement to fear, and lust for adventure to anxiety. Then, they raise their hands and are singing along: "I'm on the highway to hell. Highway to hell. I'm on the highway to hell." I recalled this moment from when I was sitting in the front of my laptop in Madrid and I was watching a YouTube video.

I had slept horrifically bad the night before, as my stomach was causing trouble and my mind was all over the place. Whilst the majority of the people were chanting that they are on the highway to hell, I tried to remain calm, as I was going through the months that had lead me to this moment. I remembered this one December evening and saw myself training, preparing, and running up and down the beach. Then, the crowd starts moving. I looked up into the sky and asked for a final blessing from above. I began to run. A couple of minutes before, Patrick Bauer, the founder of this affair, revealed that this year’s episode was exactly 237 kilometres long.

Around 4:20 hours later I crossed the finish line of the first stage. I was exhausted. I was in pain. I was disappointed. The opening stage was 30.3 kilometres long. I started off well and I found my rhythm, but after 18 kilometres I was forced to walk, as the pain in my back, especially inside my left shoulder became unbearable. This was not how I had envisioned the first stage of Marathon Des Sables. I sent a forced smile into the web cam to greet family and friends back at home. I was handed a mint tea, picked up my water bottles and trotted back to the tent. I was not only unhappy with my performance, but I felt tired and weak, as I had barley slept the previous night.

As the sun started to set, all the runners had returned to the tent. Some were happy, and some not so much. At this time, I was probably amongst the latter. Not long after the sun was gone, it was dark and I found myself stepping into my sleeping bag. Before I doze off, I was glazing at the stars. I was looking back at the journey that I had come, which allowed me to lay here. Before I fell asleep, I came to realise and to accept that this was not a race. MDS is not only about the stopwatch. It is about something much, much more important. MDS is about you. MDS is about challenging, discovering and learning about yourself. MDS is about appreciating who you are and the place you occupy on this planet. MDS is about understanding how fortunate you are and reminds you to look at the problems you may face from different perspectives. With this thought, I eventually fell asleep.

DAY 2 – 10th April 2017

West Aguenoun N’Oumerhiout → Rich Mbirika
39 km
11:30 hours

When the sun rose, each runner slowly moved out of their little cocoon. Throughout the week everyone came to develop their own routine on how to set up their campsite, prepare their food and take care of personal hygiene. Before MDS I had spent days acquiring information about the event, sourcing the perfect equipment, developing a food plan, and of course collecting running kilometres. Aside from a muscular injury that held me back from running one month prior MDS, I felt perfectly prepared on all ends of the scale.

It was the second day and I found myself back at the starting line. I slept and felt much better. My mind and I were in a better place. Patrick Bauer counted down the seconds. 3, 2, 1 and the mass started to shuffle across the line. Hundreds of little beeps resounded, as people pressed the start-button on their Garmins, Suuntos and Polars. Whilst your bag is supposedly becoming lighter, as you consume your foods, it does not really feel like it, as your body is becoming equally more tired during the time in the desert. The second day was a great success. I was able to run well and completed the stage on a high.

Every night I received e-mails from all parts of the world. Reading the words from friends and family was most certainly highly appreciated. I even received messages from people I did not speak to for ages, former MDS participants, or total strangers. The messaging service was truly special. Those e-mails may not have erased the pain of blisters, or tired legs, but they definitely covered those up and put my mind into a good place before falling asleep each night. On the other side, as a runner we had the opportunity to send a 1000-character message to our loved ones from within the camp. The organisation had set-up a station, where incense were burning and zen music was playing, and we were able to type our thoughts into twenty-odd little computers.

DAY 3 – 11th April 2017

Rich Mbirika → North El Maharch
31.6 km
10:30 hours

From looking at the road book the night before, I knew that the third stage was expected to bring the most altitude gain amongst all six stages. Whilst the sun was burning from above, we had to climb a total of three djebels, which is the Arab word for mountains, and reached altitude levels of up to 1500 meters above sea level. Ascending each of those djebels was particularly tough, as I kept sinking into the fine sand, whilst trying to move closer to the peak. After I had overcome all three mountains, I felt very tired towards the end of the stage. I started to feel dizzy, which must have been caused by a mix of not having drunk and eaten enough, plus leaping into the stage a little too fast. In any case, at the end of the day, I was happy to have reached the camp and focused upon resting and recovering before the big fourth stage.

Speaking about the camp, I must mention Tent 22, which I called home for my time in the desert. All the runners are split up by nations and put into tents of up to eight people. A tent, which is about 3 meters long and 6 meters wide, is basically a massive black blanket made of thick fabric that is supported and fixed by a number of tree branches, and the rocky ground is covered with a big carpet. Tent 22 housed seven men from Germany and Austria. Many have said before that your MDS experience is heavily influenced by the people that are in your tent. I guess such is very true, but luckily, from the moment we entered our bivouac the atmosphere was great. No matter how old or young you are, and from which background you originate, in the desert you are all the same. We supported one another and celebrated the arrival of each and everyone. We had conversation about God and the world, and shared good laughs. It is hard to imagine for an outsider, but apart from running during the day, you are pretty much spending the rest of day lying or sitting in your little tent, so you can figure how important it is to have a good crew around you.

DAY 4 – 12th April 2017

North El Maharch → Jebel El Mraier
86.2 km
35 hours

I was very much looking forward to Day 4 and its 86.2 kilometres. Same time, same music, and off we went. The cut-off time was 35 hours. It meant that if a competitor wanted to, he had the chance to divide the stage into two halves and enjoy a nap, or a meal at one of the checkpoints between start and finish. Though I was aware that this was different, but with the experience from the Cappadocia Ultra-Trail, I felt confident leaping into the day. I found a good balance between running and fast walking, which allowed me to progress effectively and accumulate kilometers. I had reached Checkpoint 5 (CP5) at around 18:15, at which point I attached the light stick to my backpack and got out the head torch.

The sun was setting behind my back, the wind slowed down and the crickets stopped to sing. Soon it was pitch black and completely silent. It was magical. In solitude, I found my way through the sand guided by the cone of light from my torch and course markings, which were roughly placed every 500 meters. The section between CP5 and CP6 lead us through the dunes. At this point, the field had stretched out. Every now and then I saw a dancing light in the horizon, which belonged to a fellow runner, and I was able to catch up to them and overtake a number of runners on the final stretch. Some people like to run in pairs, or in groups, and some like to talk. Personally, I prefer to be by myself and not to speak during a race, instead listen to my body and take in the surrounding I am in. After 83 kilometres the route took me up a final ascend. When I reached its sandy summit, in the far distance I recognised a bright light, which marked the finish line of Day 4. I took the final bites of the fifth Clif Bar of the day and moved on. With a few hundred meters to go, my body entered some sort of auto-mode, it started to accelerate and carried me across the line, where the clock stopped at exactly 15:41:34 hours.

DAY 5 – 13th April 2017

Jebel El Mraier

Day 5 was a rest day. I was glad to have arrived not too late, so that I was able to catch a few hours of decent sleep. The day was very mellow. I slept, I rested and I ate, in order to recharge my batteries for the final marathon. Talking about eating. I was very happy and satisfied with my food choices and the amount I brought with me. When I was running, I simply ate Clif Bars, as they provide the best calories-to-gram ratio and fuelled me with the necessary energy during the course everyday. Clif Bars does not only produce the best tasting energy bars out there, but they are an incredible company in itself. In Germany, Clif Bars is distributed by Lifebrands, who provided me with an array of their fantastic products to take into the desert with me. Whilst I am big fan of the Shot Energy Gel and Bloks Energy Chews, I only took the original Clif Bars with me as my go-to-choice when in action. I had actually taken too many bars with me, so after Day 1 I handed them on to fellow runners. Aside from living off my tasty Clif Bars, Lyo Food provided me with the remaining calories during the day. They are a young company from Cologne in Germany and specialise in freeze-dried foods. After each race, I drank a Smoothie and a Soup, and for dinner I prepared either a Barley Lentil Risotto or Farfalle with Spinach. In the mornings, I ate Coconut or Millet Porridge with a handful of Bananas. Whilst some people were complaining about the tastes and textures of their meals, Lyo Food tasted fantastic, even though I did not use boiled water to prepare the meals. Apart from Clif Bars and Lyo Food, my daily highlight must have been the dehydrated, hand-coated and -salted nuts by my girlfriend. They not only tasted amazing and provided my with much needed energy, but above all they were of immeasurable emotional benefit, as I snacked them each afternoon.

I was hanging out in our tent, which was fully exposed to the incredible heat of the sun, and watched the dust floating through the air. Suddenly, a white delivery truck caught my attention, as it parked right in the centre of the camp. A murmur went through the bivouac. This was the arrival of the highly sought after and much talked about cold can of Coca Cola. Click. The sound of opening a can of Coke had never gotten me that excited. With great care and appreciation, very slowly and sip-by-sip I enjoyed this carbonated soft drink. Normally taking for granted, but this time around, it brought big smiles to peoples’ faces.

As we were nearing the 35-hour cut-off, the staff called everyone to the finish line, in order to welcome and celebrate the last incoming runner. It was special moment, which brought goose bumps to the skins of many of us, as a lady from New Zealand was walking towards the big white arch. Cheered on by every competitor, she eventually crossed the line and complemented the field of finishers.

DAY 6 – 14th April 2017

Jebel El Mraier → Merdani
42.2 km
12 hours

With precisely 42,195 kilometres left to run, the marathon of Day 6 marked the end of the competitive side of Marathon Des Sables. It was a fairly flat and enjoyable final run through the dunes, riverbeds, sand flats and through an old historic site. For the first time, we were passing by a number of sheds and people that lived in the area. Young kids were running by our side and begging for food. This was one of the moments, when I realised once more how fortunate we are. It reminded me of a conversation I followed at the beginning of the event, where a lady was referring to the irony of us spending thousands of Euros, in order to challenge ourselves and to push our boundaries, whilst billions of people face challenges similar to MDS, and much, much worse, everyday in their life. Not to forget that they do not have access to clean water to drink, or food to eat, a warm place to sleep, or a medical team to take care of them.

Marathon Des Sables is not about the time, or the ranking that one achieves, instead I believe Marathon Des Sables is about realising and appreciating the fortunes we possess, and passing on this message to the people, friends and family back at home. With this realisation and the finishing line in sight, I started to sprint. In the distance, I began to hear people chanting, clapping and cheering. Then, the moment had come, as I put my second leg over the line, I walked towards Patrick Bauer. He looked into my eyes and said well done with his best possible French accent. He gave me hug and put the long-awaited finishers medal around my neck. This was it. I completed Marathon Des Sables.

DAY 7 – 15th April 2017

Merdani → Merzouga
7.7 km

After all the excitement from the day before, I felt very tired in the morning of Day 7. It was a mix of feelings that ranged from happiness of having mastered this challenge to sadness of knowing that this particular journey had come to an end. I packed up my stuff, refilled my water bottles and closed the chest straps of my backpack for a final time. Whilst the official rankings had been confirmed the night before and the top runners had been celebrated, the last stage was about showing solidarity and raising awareness to the less fortunate ones. It goes hand-in-hand with what I described before and was a great way to end this incredible adventure.

For one last time, “Highway to Hell” was blasting out of the speakers, the helicopter zoomed across above our heads and as a closed unit we embarked upon our final walk through the dunes. I let my eyes wander from left to right and right to left, I turned around ever so often, and looked at my feet as they carried me through the sand. I tried to take it all in, as I moved closer to the end of this unique experience. Whilst I attempted to capture those final moments with my eyes and my mind, I filled my pockets with sand of Sahara. Almost two hours later, we had reached Merzouga, which marked the final checkpoint.

I sent my wishes through the webcam, before I embraced the last coup of mint tea. I picked up a bottle of water, with which I received the final stamp on my check card. Then, I made my way to the bus. I sat down and we drove off. Only eight days ago we were settling down in the Sahara. Now, we were already distancing ourselves from the desert and slowly started to reconnect with the civilisation by returning to Ouarzazate.

When I went into the race, I was aiming to reach a place in the Top 50. I knew such was a very ambitious goal, but after I had looked at the rankings and times of previous years, I felt if everything goes according to plan I could make it. I had trained very well and I was in excellent mental state. Well, as you know by now, things turned out slightly different and after the experiences from Day 1, I came to realise that numbers and reality are very distinct. In the end, I ranked 243 out of almost 1200 runners. However, I understood that at Marathon Des Sables, and possibly in life in general, numbers posses very little value, when you compare those to the reality, in other words the experiences you make, the moments you live and the memories you collect. 

"No stop signs, speed limit, nobody's gonna slow me down, like a wheel, gonna spin it, nobody's gonna mess me around, hey Satan, paid my dues, playing in a rocking band, hey mama, look at me, I'm on my way to the promised land, whoo!." As much as I like ACDC's song, but Marathon Des Sables is most certainly not the "Highway To Hell", but a way of life.