My old friend George Griffin has kindly agreed to write about his incredible experience of running the Marathon des Sables. This is part of a series of guest blogs, The Narrative Series, where I have asked individuals to tell their stories that feature pain in different contexts and environments. Pain perception is influenced by the meaning that we ascribe to the feeling and there is of course an enormous difference between a pain that we know will end and a pain that appears to have no end in sight. The understanding of pain is moving on rapidly via the research being undertaken worldwide, followed by newer treatments and approaches that tackle the different dimensions–physical, cognitive & emotional. We know that pain can change and that we can positively influence the experience by creating the right conditions.
In April 2008, I took part in the 23rd Marathon des Sables (MdS), a 150-mile footrace across the Moroccan Sahara, reputedly the toughest on earth. The MdS is undoubtedly a grueling undertaking. The distance is split into six stages ranging from 12 to 50 miles and covers a mix of terrain including energy-sapping dunes, roasting salt-flats and steep, rocky jebels. Temperatures often peak at over 50°C and can drop to near freezing at night. Competitors must carry all their own food and equipment, which can tip the scales at about 15kg including your water ration.
Although there is a first class medical set up, competitors need to be pretty self-sufficient when it comes to looking after their health and wellbeing. I was pretty sure I could get to the finish line but wasn’t sure what state I’d be in. My biggest concern was being withdrawn by the medical team due to blisters, dehydration and/or sickness.
Ultimately, I finished 281st out of the 747 who completed the race (801 started) having covered the distance in a cumulative time of 40 hours and 20 minutes. I was the 30th of 250 British competitors, which sounds a bit better! Fortunately, I had avoided illness but my feet had suffered badly and certainly slowed me down. Both heels and insteps were badly blistered (and infected) and I had lost four toenails. Psychologically, it had been a complete rollercoaster – the joys of new friendships and the beauty of the Sahara contrasted with the mental exhaustion and periods of loneliness and isolation.
And yet I would consider the MdS to be one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. This often surprises people, particularly when they see the pictures of my post-race feet! I think that I got through the MdS using a combination of imagination and curiosity. Imagining crossing the finish line. Imagining the deep, warm bath and cool beer back at the hotel. Imagining how much money I was raising with every mile covered. And imagining how proud my family and friends would be.
I think, with a vivid imagination and a deep sense of curiosity, I was able to short-circuit the ‘you need to stop, NOW!’ messages that my feet and muscles were sending to my brain with every step. Each morning, when shuffling to the start line, I was curious about the day ahead. Who would I meet? What new sights would I see? What would I learn? How much would it hurt?
Did I think of quitting? Yes, many, many times (along with the elaborate excuses I would use), but ultimately I knew that the blisters, sore muscles and fatigue weren’t going to kill me. They would hurt but they weren’t terminal. Eventually, it would be over and I would be sipping a beer back at the hotel.
And, of course, it’s all relative. There are people who suffer constant pain and don’t volunteer for it like I did. In that respect, the MdS is a warm, sandy run in the desert rather than the toughest footrace on earth.
George started his career as an Army Officer where he spent eight years in various roles before making the transition to the commercial world in 2004. After a short period as Operations Manager for a corporate events firm, George joined an HR consultancy in a business development role before taking over the Learning and Development practice in 2010. George joined Merryck in April 2013 and is responsible for ensuring that our clients receive the best possible service.