If the next rung on life's ladder feels too high, get a new one with shorter steps and keep climbing - Jamie Cuthbertson.


Home in one piece - almost!! Yes, we made it all the way round the longest ever Marathon des Sables course, a mere 235.5 kms and with relatively little in the way of scars to show for it. Only one or two holes in our feet and tired limbs but otherwise intact. Some others were not so lucky! What an experience! I don't want to see another grain of sand for the rest of my life - well perhaps until the next holiday on the West Coast of Scotland!

680 competitors started the race and around 100 failed to finish. We came in 443 and 444 of those who did finish. The desert did not disappoint us either in terms of the heat (often well into the 40's) or the mixture of terrains, ranging from sand dunes to massive boulder field.

Below is the tale of how the Desert Bats conquered the Sahara.

Thursday 6 April

The British contingent arrives at Gatwick ready for the flight out to Morocco. The Desert Bats team consists of Roraigh Ainslie (a Major in the Royal Engineers), Dave Scott (a policeman), Nick Dillon (a Management Consultant and Trainer) and myself (an IT bod with the Society for the Blind) are looking very dapper in our kilts. Everyone is trying to look cool and relaxed but there is a palpable sense of tension in the air - we are finally about to depart on the adventure of a lifetime for which we had been training for months. We meet the 3 Royal Engineer female officers who will end up in our tent group in the desert - Tessa, Katie and Cathy. We collect some freebie cameras from a promotional stand - quite a useful little extra! After a short delay we are on our way to Ouarzazate in Morocco where we will spend our last night in a proper bed for over a week. Nick carries out a magnificent operation to liberate a whistle from Monarch Airlines safety equipment. We finally arrive having swept in past the snow capped Atlas mountains. We have a surprisingly easy passage through Customs and on to the hotel - even the check in is speedy. The evening meal is excellent and we meet some more of the British competitors - Rachael (a granny from Glenrothes), Ken (the lady who has walked John O'Groats to Lands End) and Tim (from the Isle of Mann who had the worst feet in one of his previous attempts at the event). Before bed, over a couple of beers, we manage to find out some inside information about the course from some of the organisers. It sounds horrendous. We wish we had not spoken to them!

Friday 7 April

Our last comfortable breakfast. We are bussed out to the desert in coaches and then in Moroccan Army trucks for the last half hour. The signs looked promising - overcast and raining (just like Scotland He thought) but this was not to stay. Packed lunch and a mild dose of the trots to keep ones mind active. Tony, our enterprising Algerian kebab shop owner is soliciting volunteers to 'present' themselves for his camera with a view to setting up a web site of MDS tadgers! At the bivouac site we set up camp in Tent 65 along with the 3 Royal Engineer ladies, Mike (an airline pilot with Monarch) and Jim (a sports therapist). What a happy crew! There's time to barter for a shemag from some Berbers who are selling their wares at the edge of the camp - I try my first taste of mint tea. . We are treated to some excellent catering in the field complete with wine or beer - this must be the quiet before the storm. Most of us get to sleep quite early to the sound of Moroccan drums and dancers in the background is very atmospheric and has been going on all night. Several of our tent group even manage to consume to much French wine and will suffer tomorrow!

Saturday 8 April

Roraigh's head is thumping - serves him right! Time to take our publicity photographs for our sponsors - a last look at the kilts before they get packed away for good. We have time for final preparations of kit. Registration takes place in mid afternoon. We hand in all excess kit to be returned to the hotel and not to be seen for 7 days. Roraigh provides an excellent audio description of the girls' running kit - the mind boggles! This was our last day of laid on food and relative luxury. We made the most of it as if we were taking part in the Last Supper. We are interviewed by David and Theresa Banks (our pet American film crew who are filming for QUOKKA.COM). I'm not sure how they took to my flippant comment about zero visibility but they suss us out pretty quickly.

Sunday 9 April (Race Day 1) - Amsailikh Wadi to El Khait Wadi - 28 kms

David and Theresa wire us with a radio microphone to tap into our stimulating conversation. Helicopter overhead, flying sideways, flags flying and with much cheering we were finally under way. Roraigh and I set off at a gentle jog with our trusty piece of rope ( known as McSporran) linking us together. Leg 1 is SSW along wide valley. Sparse vegetation and undulating ground. We run to the first checkpoint at 9.5 kms and decide that I was not going to be able to continue at that pace. We decide to walk, for a while at least. This ends up being the method for most of the way from there. Leg 2 is SSE through the pass in the jebel. Some small dunes and patches of rocks set the tone for the remainder of the race. 2 piles of camel bones seen on the way to CP2. Leg 3 is due East and mainly good flat going. Spotted very unlucky lizard which has been run over by a Land Rover! We catch up with Nick and Dave before the finish. A nasty little section of dunes completes the day. I am very tired and dispose of around 1 litre of water from my belly at the finish line. Not very elegant but at least I had finished. We hear later that some people have already begun to drop out. The girls have had a good day but one them is not feeling good and sleeps for some time. Jim, our masseur, gives her a rub down later on and she recovers well - purely medicinal I'm sure! My, how good a cup of tea tastes when cooked over a camel dung fire!!

Monday 10 April (Race Day 2) - El Khait Wadi to Iriqui Lake - 34 kms

The whole of this day is heading generally East. A fairly tedious day with a long rocky section on the first leg - we lose a good deal of time. I am still feeling tired so we carry on walking. We begin to make up some ground on the later sections where the ground is fairly flat. There is not much to see other than the odd desert grave and pile of camel bones. We spot a couple of old forts on the hills in the distance and the ruins of an old settlement. Roraigh starts to collect fossils and 'Diamonds of Morocco'. We meet Ian from South Africa towards the end of the day. Other people are now beginning to drop out of the race. I finish the day in a much better state than yesterday despite the appearance of a few blisters - perhaps I am beginning to acclimatise? Roraigh sets to and takes on the catering on a camel dung and stick fire. We queue up to send email messages to our folks back home before crawling into our sleeping bags for the night. Roraigh witnesses the madness of the kamikaze cricket which jumps straight into his fire! Some folks will do anything to avoid the 'Dunes Day' tomorrow!

Tuesday 11 April (Race Day 3) - Iriqui Lake to Dayet Chegaga - 37 kms

The dreaded 'Dunes Day'. We start heading NNE over Iriqui Lake. We have 15 kms of beautiful flat ground before hitting the dunes. We have time to chat to some amazing people, such as Rosie Swayles and Ken, as we gather our mental strength for the dunes ahead. We spot some dung beetles and lizards. There is some scattered vegetation. From CP2 we head due East into the big dunes - this year is a mere 19 kms of continuous dunes, some of which are as tall as houses. No water replenishment just carry double rations all the way! Roraigh has agreed to carry a video camera for the organisation and soon regrets this generosity. None-the-less he is feeling strong and knows what to expect. The heat and physical effort nearly does me in. A couple of dowsings at the top of a high dune and a rest in the breeze sees us through. We meet up with Dave and Nick who volunteers to take the camera for Roraigh. We press on with Mike, our airline pilot from the tent, who shares his water with Roraigh until we reach the next checkpoint. The false water stop causes much consternation and a degree of despair - hard to maintain a sense of humour at this time in the day! Nick has done without water for 1.5 hours and 'disposes' of the video camera to the first person he sees! Only 3 kms to go now and we press on relieved to be clear of the dunes (for now at least). We get in just around nightfall and collapse. Many more competitors do not make it through the dunes and are out. There are many shell-shocked people around the campsite with many queuing to have blistered feet seen to by Doc Trotter - the medical vultures from the organisation. I manage to phone home but Shauna is not in and the satellite link is very poor. At least I managed to leave a message with Shauna's mum to say I was still alive and kicking!

Wednesday 12 April (Race Day 4) - Dayet Chegaga to Jebel Megag - 76 kms

The 'Big One'. A strong wind is creating poor visibility and the start is delayed for some time. The faster runners will start 3 hours later. We are heading generally Eastwards but have a number of changes in direction to stay on the route. Another very hot day with plenty of more dunes and miles and miles of rocks. Roraigh saves us some distance with a bit of clever navigation on Leg 1. On Leg 2 the elite runners start to pass us - how do they do it? I find the heat very hard going but we have planned to eat every second checkpoint and this is a great morale boost. Leg 3 is a killer - a stony plateau for miles. We see a Berber woman and child in the middle of nowhere - it's quite staggering - what a back garden that boy has!. Finally make it to nightfall at CP3 but do not have time to wait to get water from the solar powered well. We are issued with our sylumes and bash on into the night and I begin to get my second wind - what joy to get out of the heat! At CP4 we link up with Christian and walk together for a while. Our repertoire of songs is put to the test. More dunes and more rocks. We pass through a mystical village, called Mahmid El Rozlane, lit up with candles and in the middle of nowhere. The crickets provide a new background sound as we pass through the palm trees and cultivated areas around the village. The sky is lit up by a half moon and distant drumming is heard for some time. The shadows are magnificent. If only we could stop and go to sleep! Many other competitors were doing exactly this at checkpoints 4, 5 and 6. The more delay, the longer the clock runs for you on this stage so we press on into the night. It seems endless - where did all these rocks and dunes come from?! CP6 is lit up with a huge yellow banana in the sky and can be seen for miles. We meet up with Nick and Dave just before the end and walk in with them. Dave has been seeing sheep dogs and fences and was caught by Nick walking in completely the wrong direction. We cross the finish line having been on the move for 19.5 hours and tumble into bed in a state of collapse.

Thursday 13 April (Race Day 5)

Rest Day - Spend most of the day sleeping and doing personal admin. Manage to have an all over wash down and clean my clothes. It was probably not worth the effort as a hellish dust storm means that everything is perpetually covered in filth - don't you love it? There certainly seems to be no peace for the wicked - what did I do in my former life to deserve all this? Roraigh comes up with a Gaelic coffee which is a real morale boost - even if it tastes a little of Body Shop products!

Friday 14 April (Race Day 6) - Jebel Megag to Jebel Bou Debgan - 42 kms

'Marathon Day' - The course for today has been chosen to be very flat and boring, apart from wadis here and there, so the marathon runners can get good times. We are still walking but making good speed. Roraigh's foot is in some considerable pain but he hides it well. We start heading ENE on Leg 1. Nothing to talk about on the scenery front apart from one large monolith of rock, called Masmouda Jebel, which looks as if it should have been in Arizona. Dave and Theresa pass by and try to catch us picking our noses - we are far too fly to be caught out with that old one! We swing North from CP2. As we get towards CP3 there is more vegetation. We head West from CP3 towards finish. The final nail in the coffin is the last 5 kms of almost completely rocks. Feet are now throbbing heavily. A large number of other competitors come to cheer in the stragglers like us - a very welcome boost. Rachael insists on carrying in my pack to the tent. There is a sense of enormous relief now as all the long days have been conquered. We just make the cut at 450 to leave in the morning with the fast group. Roraigh's whisky lasts well enough to make Gaelic mint tea and is like nectar.

Saturday 15 April (Race Day 7) - Jebel Bou Debgan to Ait Bou Mhamed - 18.5 kms

Before getting started we have to form a large heart shape with the other runners so that it can be filmed from the air. Today is the final push to the line. Most of this day is on good tracks through villages and cultivated fields heading generally SW. We end up as Tail End Charlies for most of the way as the slower group set off an hour earlier than us. Del the rabbit is on our tail for 5 kms but we finally shake him off. The local children are out in numbers and demanding pens, sweets or anything else you might have. Roraigh almost causes a riot at the water checkpoint by producing a power bar to hand out - just saved by the village elder. Dave and Theresa manage to catch this stormy moment on film for posterity. We crack on at an ever-increasing pace. We can 'smell' the finish and nothing will stop us now. We find a couple of donkey shoes. We press on and catch several stragglers. The finish is in sight and we run the last 600 metres. We manage to get within sight of the line and I take my first fall of the whole race - good for the cameras but hellishly frustrating! Many of our tent group has stayed behind to welcome us in - what a feeling. I don't know whether to laugh or cry but Roraigh has told me I am not allowed to cry so I have to do what I am told! It's all over and we get our medals from Patrick Bauer at the finish line.

We are given a packed lunch and taken back to Ouarzazate and chill out in a wonderful bath with cans of beer at the ready. Time to attend to sore feet and aching joints. All the tales have started and people compare their war wounds. We have our first fresh food since the start of the race and it tastes fabulous. Some of the more sturdy members drink and dance the night away - as for me, I am goosed and quite happy to get to a proper bed nice and early!

Sunday 16 April

We hand in safety equipment and wander the streets looking for real food and presents. After acquiring the compulsory purchases we head back to the hotel to get changed for the Gala Dinner. In the end this turns out to be a total disaster as the weather is very cold and the meal was supposed to be outside. Most people stayed long enough to drink the free wine and then abandoned ship to find alternative food. A bit of a party has begun back at the hotel and a few drinks are had by all. Perhaps I am losing my touch but again I couldn't stand the pace for long and sneak off to bed.

Monday 17 April

An early start to get breakfast and get ready for the coach to the airport. Mike lays on champagne and wine on our flight home. Everything already seems so long ago. On arrival at Gatwick everyone disappears into the crowd and the adventure is over. We are filled with a mixture of joy, sadness and emptiness. How can life back home ever match this thrill and the emotions we felt in the past 2 weeks? What will be our next challenge for the Desert Bats? Let's hope it is not quite so hot and that there is no sand!

Jamie Cuthbertson 14 May 2000