Believe you can, and you're half way there - Theodore Roosevelt.


What again?! Surely not! Didn't you have enough the last time?? You're mad!

These are all questions which were asked over the last few months both by family and friends and by, strange as it may seem, myself. I have just returned from my second desert race having completed my first, the Marathon des Sables (MDS), in April 2000. The following account details the highs and lows of the most recent trip which took place in Mauritania in Western Africa. For those who are like me, and have no clue where this might be, I suppose that the easiest way of describing it is that Mauritania is somewhere north of Senegal but south of Morocco and Western Sahara with a short Atlantic coastline and with vast areas of desolate desert stretching inland from there. Apparently it is one of the seven Holy States of Islam and was a country of major importance many centuries ago, but more of that later.

I'm not sure what it is in the nature of some people, and in this strange group I include myself, but there seems to be a need or inner desire for something out of the ordinary from time to time. Perhaps it is a desire for adventure, perhaps it is a need to push yourself beyond the boundaries of normal life or perhaps, and probably most likely, it is pure madness. Whatever the reason, there is a kind of motivation that drives this type of person to be able to forget the pains, the stresses and physical exertion of an earlier experience and end up applying to enter yet another crazy event of a similar or tougher nature. This is sort of how it was for me when my good friend and 'guide dog' from the MDS, Roraigh Ainslie called me in early 2001 to tentatively suggest that it might be a 'good wheeze' to enter a relatively new desert race called the Trans 333. I have to admit that, after probing for more details about the event, my desire to rush into a second desert race did not reveal itself immediately. Maybe the thought of miles of sand dunes or the memories of trashed feet from the last time were ringing warning bells in my cranium. I understand that there were several phone calls to my wife, Shauna, following the initial call and over the next day or so, although I am not sure quite how, I found myself agreeing to accompany Roraigh once again.

The 2001 Trans 333 was, at that time, due to take place in Niger. As the name suggests, the race is a 333 km race staged in desert conditions. The idea is that each year the race moves to a different country to give some variety in terms of the cultures and scenery experienced. What makes this event significantly different from the MDS is that it is a non-stop race rather than a staged race. This means that competitors have to choose when they run, eat and sleep and all the time the clock keeps ticking. The maximum time allowed for this race is 116 hours so there is little time for recuperation. In December the temperatures are usually well into the 40's during the daytime and often below zero at night.

Anyway, enough of the detail just now. Below is my diary for the trip as viewed from my perspective.

Friday 7 December

Headed off to work on the normal commuter train loaded up with my kit bag, walking pole and laptop - I must have looked rather odd I suspect. "Then again, what's new?", I hear them cry. I had a normal day at work and then set off straight from there for the airport to go to Roraigh's in Kent. My how BA have tarted up their planes with leather seats all round and natty snack packs en route! Roraigh met me at Gatwick. We spent an action packed evening planning kit and food requirements and consuming a few wines on the way.

Saturday 8 December

A horrendous morning! At least that was the assessment made by Rowan (Roraigh's youngest daughter). She had been dragged to the local supermarket by Roraigh and me to do our last minute food and kit shopping. This sounds fine until we started loading up the trolley - 32 cans of Coke, 32 pepperamis, 64 cheese strings, etc, etc. Poor Rowan had never had her street cred destroyed in such a blatant manner before! Strangely she then opted to stay in the car and read when we got to the next shop.

The whole of the afternoon was spent laying out what seemed like tons of provisions and other necessary item. Roraigh took to bagging nuts, nibbles and raisins and I marshalled the other food items into 16 neat little piles. We both had to make decisions as at which checkpoints in the race we wanted to see our clean socks, underwear, shirts and spare batteries and pack all these items into the relevant crop bags. The room appeared to have been ransacked by an army of chipmunks and chimps and Hazel had to simply resort to sighing heavily every time she glanced into her normally organised dining area. Dinner put a stop to the frantic activity and the door was closed to save Hazel's worries.

Sunday 9 December

Having been 'ordered' by Hazel not to get up before 9 am, I felt obliged to find some quiet occupation until then from 7:30 am when I woke. This ended up being the start of the 'great packing' escapade. Early work before breakfast was straightforward but as the day progressed it became more and more messy. I must remind myself to buy new drink powder every year rather than make do with the old stuff from the previous year - I think that drink blocks would be a more appropriate description! Bags were packed and unpacked and packed again until we were sure that everything had been properly accounted for. Chaos finally subsided in time for us to enjoy a most fabulous lamb roast and a few glasses of wine for lunch before our lift to the airport arrived.

At Gatwick the motley group of travellers began to assemble to form the British contingent for the 2001 Trans 333. 4 weeks earlier we had learned that the race was now to be in Mauritania again and not in Niger as planned. Some problem with the runway in Niger had meant that the charter company was not prepared to land there. Mauritania had become the favourite alternative because the race had been held there last year. We met up with Celia, an amazing lady who had run from John O'Groats to Land's End in 18 days - quite mind boggling! We also met James Henderson, the Brit organiser who took to his shepherding job immediately. Everyone made it on time and we were soon on our way to Marseilles to await our onward flight.

Marseilles turned out to be a very clean and modern airport but with a very poor choice of piped music. Throughout the evening and all through the night we tried to sleep to the wailings of a selection of 70's and 80's pop stars. Most of us camped out on the floor whilst others went off to find accommodation elsewhere. Just before we got to sleep we met Magali Delporte who was to be our photographer for the trip, arranged through St Dunstans.

Monday 10 December

A very early rise to catch the 6:30 am flight to Atar in Mauritania. Oh joy! - the music is finally turned off, it obviously would be too much for the normal travellers!! Magali treats us to a croissant and coffee before the departure. On the plane we start to notice many more 'mad' adventurers who are the main party from France with a few other nationalities. We end up, perhaps appropriately, at the back of the place next to the toilets. Magali gives Roraigh a quick lesson on how to use the mini disk recorder before the lack of knee room defeats her and she seeks solace elsewhere in the plane.

We arrive on time in Atar and are processed remarkably quickly through customs and passport control although we don't get our passports back immediately - the flapper in me begins to flap quietly. The temperature is very pleasant with a fair amount of cloud cover - will it last? After reclaiming our bags we load on to what appears to be a truck with a converted 40 ft container on the back to head into town. Atar is a pretty basic town with a few hotels and typical mixture of accommodation and shops. Breakfast consisting of bread, jam and coffee is served at one of the hotels. We experience our first use of the 'drop in a hole' loos which is quite a feat of sighted guiding for Roraigh which is definitely not in the text book!! Back on the trucks to then wait (for some time). Apparently although the vehicles had been booked, no-one at the transport company had thought it appropriate to fuel up the vehicles before we arrived! Eventually we are on our way and set off through vast areas of flat rocky desert. The route takes us up a very impressive escarpment which rises up from the desert floor onto a plateau which is equally flat and desolate. Minds begin to focus on the fact that we will have to come back along much of the route on foot over the next 5 days. It suddenly becomes a very daunting task as we drive for mile after mile after mile with no change of scenery. We have various stops on the way for toilet breaks and impromptu repairs to the fuel jerricans which start spilling their contents on the roof of the vehicle and dripping down on the passengers. It is acceptable getting wet by rain but flammable rain is a different issue! The repairs are successful and we eventually arrive at our night stop and the race start point at Ouadane.

On selecting our tent for the night, we hear that we have already had 2 evictions of scorpions and this sets my flap button off again - anything but snakes or scorpions!! Fortunately no more are seen for the rest of the week and this proves to be a bit of a salutary warning. Following a hot meal of goat and spaghetti, we receive various briefings from Alain Gestin, the French organiser and then most people get to sleep. At least we have received our passports back at last!

Tuesday 11 December

A fairly lazy and relaxed morning. The sun has decided to come out properly today and the heat is 'impressive'. All competitors have to check in their medical documentation and attention to compulsory equipment is refreshingly relaxed. More goat and spaghetti for lunch - perhaps this is becoming a pattern here! Roraigh and I get some sponsor photos taken and we carry out our final kit checks during the early afternoon. As the race start approaches, Alain Gestin insists on a lengthy briefing for all competitors in the heat of the day. James Henderson summarises in English in a couple of sentences.

Finally, just after 5 pm we set off, still with some daylight and very warm. Many local children run beside us for several hundred metres but fade out eventually and return to the village. Magali sets to with the camera. All the stages of the race are due to be around 20 kms and the first 4 stages are over sand both hard and soft with 2 stages out and the next 2 stages returning the same way. We make good headway over the first stage arriving at CP1 at 9 pm. The field is already dispersing and the darkness has fallen . There is next to no moonlight but Roraigh's new head torch is excellent. We are eating well and begin to realise that we have probably over estimated the required amount of nibbles. Stage 2 turns out to be a very hard section with a good deal of very soft sand in the middle. We pass Alicia ? from Poland who is the lead runner and who eventually wins the event. She is awe inspiring as she heads to CP3.

Wednesday 12 December

We carry on throughout the night getting to CP2 at around 1 am. Again we have a very quick turn round and head back towards CP3. It makes a pleasant interlude to meet others still heading out to CP2. We walk with Simon for some time after we have crossed the very soft sand patch for the second time. I am beginning to feel quite achy in the joints but at least the blisters are still insignificant. At CP3 we take a little longer to sort ourselves out but we are back on the move again by just after 5 am. Simon stays on longer and we meet up with Celia who is quietly getting on with the task in hand and prefers not to be too chatty. I begin to feel really rather sore despite the effects of Brufen. There has been very little to talk about during the night due to the darkness and the sparseness of other competitors.

As the dawn begins to break Roraigh is able to start describing things around us. Despite this there is still next to nothing to describe other than sand, sand and more sand. Magali has re-appeared and follows us for some time taking a variety of shots. I begin to dream of the next checkpoint where we are due to get some hot food back at Oudade. It really can't come soon enough. Roraigh spots a white water tower (or minarets) in the distance but it seems to never get any closer.

By this stage conversation is pretty sparse and uninspired despite Roraigh's best efforts to tell his repertoire of dreadful jokes. I am not sure quite why but I am really not feeling at all comfortable in this event and certainly not how I expected to feel after the first 3-4 stages. I suspect that this is mainly due to a lack of proper training for this kind of continuous event.

We finally reach Ouadane some time after 10 am and get in out of the sun which is beginning to beat down. Fortunately there are no scorpions in our tent this time!! A spot of breakfast is most welcome and raises the spirits a bit.

We get back on the road around 11 am and head out into a new section of the landscape. Now travelling on the road along which we had initially driven from Atar, the scenery is remarkably uninteresting. Very flat, very barren and nothing to see all around. The most interesting feature is a slight dog leg in the otherwise straight road. The sun is unrelenting and mainly from our left side - I surmise that we must be heading generally westwards. Despite trying to ignore my various aches and pains, my left knee is becoming very painful. Roraigh detects my lack of conversation and general chirpiness and we discuss the various options as we continue to CP5. Despite the better going, our pace has now dropped and it takes us to 4:30 pm to arrive there. We have made it well within the 30 hour limit and only just behind on our planned schedule. I decide to speak to the doctors for their advice. After much deliberation and a load of soul searching, I take the difficult decision to pull out from the race as we had still more than two thirds of the distance to complete with at least 80 kms on sand dunes. The sense of disappointment is palpable and despite many words of sympathy from everyone, I spend some time wondering how much difference it would have made if I had trained differently or if I had prepared better in some way.

As there are other British competitors who have had to pull out also and who are prepared to act as my guide, Roraigh decides to continue. In the meantime I travel forward with Malcolm and ? in James' 4 x 4. ? drops off at CP7 and Malcolm and I go on to CP8 which is situated at a similar auberge to the start point. We find a quiet corner in one of the tents and crash out for a while. Many of the lead runners have been in already and are on their way into the sand dunes with their camel mounted guides. It is truly awesome to realise the pace at which they must have been travelling! As the night wears on we see the first British competitors filtering through in the shape of Richard and Celia. They seem to be going well and are pushing each other on well.

Thursday 13 December

At some stage during the night we are joined by Roraigh. He has decided to pack it in after reaching CP6. I had hoped he would press on but there appear to have been a number of reasons contributing to his decision and, in a strange kind of way, it is nice to have the Desert Bats back together again.

Most of the day was then spent trying to keep our minds off the disappointments of yesterday. We had time to enjoy a clean up and even a shower! Malcolm turned out to be a very interesting character having been a shepherd, retailer and owner of a running shop amongst other things. We spent most of the morning chatting in the shade of a tent. Both Roraigh and I managed to do some recording for St Dunstans and very much from our own perspectives. There had been a large gap after Richard and Celia before the next British competitors but they began to filter through throughout the day. From this checkpoint all runners headed out into the main sand dune section of the race. All competitors had to be accompanied by an Arab guide on camel.

Towards the end of the day all the people who had withdrawn from the race were moved forward to assist at checkpoints further up the course. We had a brief stop at CP9 which was set in an idyllic location in the middle of vast areas of dunes. It was the classic oasis situation with palm trees and dunes all around. Another very odd discovery was the existence of vast numbers of shells - half buried in what appeared to be dry silt or mud. These can only have been there for millions of years at some time in the past when the Sahara was under water! We only stopped here very briefly - Malcolm stayed to man the checkpoint and Roraigh and I went on to CP10.

Magali had also come forward with us and we spent some time playing the part of the film stars, posing on the top of the dunes as the sun went down!! Actually, it was apparently quite a fantastic sunset with the sun reflecting on the dunes which seem to be a mixture of pinkish sand on some and more golden sand on others. I spent a while sitting on the sand playing my penny whistle as the sun disappeared. At the risk of sounding a bit mushy, it was a really wonderful feeling to be so far from normal civilisation in such total silence - I'm told that you could see so many stars that even Patrick Moore would have had trouble finding the North Star! Magali then headed off to seek other photo opportunities elsewhere for the night.

The checkpoint was being manned by a beautiful French girl called Sandrine and Roraigh and I were falling over ourselves to be helpful where possible. As the night wore on, it became very clear that there was not going to be 'room at the inn' as more and more runners came in wanting to sleep. Roraigh switched into Army mode and had everyone marshalled into straight lines but still to no avail. Finally the tent could take it no more and when Jeremy turned up looking for a bed, he was laid to sleep on a piece of cardboard and then wrapped in space blankets and whatever else we could find. He might have been justified in thinking that we were trying to roast him like a chicken as he was placed beside the fire but he was so tired that I don't think he would have noticed. He then spent most of the night snoring for Britain in a vain attempt to waken the French competitors who had beaten him to the tented accommodation. Alas it was all in vain - they were as tired as he was and heard nothing.

Roraigh started to get into full swing with the cups of tea and reckons he was brewing around 10 cups per minute at one point (OK so this is just a small exaggeration). I managed to sneak off from fire stoking duties having done my impersonation of an Arbroath Smokie and grabbed a few hours sleep in a corner of the tent once it had begun to empty. Roraigh worked on manfully with the tea and began kicking people out at the times they had specified.

Friday 14 December

By the time the sun had come up, the tent was nearly totally empty. We got Jeremy up and moving and he headed off to the sound of a very poorly played British Grenadier - he did seem to have a spring in his step for at least 10 metres!! Some time later James Henderson arrived with the drop out British competitors and whisked us away from the tender cares of Chere Sandrine! In the full daylight, the dunes seemed to stretch out in all directions - some pink and some golden. I have to admit that at this stage I am rather glad to be travelling in the back of a 4 x 4 and not on foot!! The heat is oppressive and we try to replenish any competitors we meet. We stop ahead of Jeremy having overtaken him for Magali to get some photos. He staggers up to the vehicle and says "I've pulled!". Everyone is stunned and shocked - how can he give up when he is going so well? Then it dawns on us that he is referring to the presence of a beautiful French girl called Sophie! Unfortunately I reckon the sun had gotten to his head as she was being escorted by 3 French men one of which was her boyfriend! At least it appears to have kept him going for now anyway!

Our driver throughout most of the time is a friendly Arab called Cheer. He doesn't say much and he looks like a cross between Freddie Mercury and Marty Feldman but he is an excellent cross country driver and has a very placid nature. Some of the other drivers appear to be far more volatile and surly so I reckon we did very well on that front. We drive on through CP11 and onto CP12 at the next sign of civilisation at Chinguetti. This town used to be the capital of the area and has some major importance in the Islamic faith. It houses an ancient library in which all the books are written on goat skin parchments. Some of the other runners visited the library and were shown a 12th Century door with its original lock mechanism in working order - I'm told that the key is rather like a wooden toothbrush which is pushed into the lock turned and pulled back to unlock the door.

Chinguetti marked the end of the dunes section of the race and Roraigh and I were then driven forward to CP14 with a brief stop at CP13 to drop off Rory (another of the British competitors). Here we also catch up with Richard and Celia who are really feeling tired and somewhat sore though glad to be out of the dunes. We raid our food supplies on their behalf and send them on the way with some cheese strings and other delights! We move on to CP14 where we are going to spend most of the rest of the race. It is being manned by another French girl called Perrine. Having had our experience of CP10, Roraigh wastes no time on being polite and, realising that the tent is somewhat shambollic in its organisation, e sets to like a true Sergeant Major to set it up with lines of beds, a medical area, a cooking area and short stay area. He then sets to on organising Perinne herself so that we has a booking in and out sheet and a bed layout so runners can be allocated a bedspace and be reliably woken up at the time they request. Roraigh, your mother would have been proud of you! The wind has picked up and the surrounding desert is as barren as anything we have experienced so far. The runners are now very widely spread out and we only see a few at a time. Roraigh's cups of tea and general morale boosting appear to win over competitors from all the nations taking part. I try my best to help in the morale stakes with my attempts at playing various national anthems but lack of practice and knowledge of the tunes doesn't help much!

The "Hotel de Perinne" takes in many guests throughout the night but, to my embarrassment, I find myself snoozing in a corner and not waking till the next morning. Roraigh, on the other hand, gets very little sleep and continues to brew for Britain. Pate de Fois Gras and a bottle of Fitou are not quite on the menu but it probably seemed like that to the tired and bedraggled runners.

Saturday 15 December

We spend most of the day at CP14 with less and less to do. Various competitors trickle through but are now very spread out and finding the tedium of the flat road almost worse than the distance itself. There is quite a lot of cloud cover today which is a blessing for the runners as is the stiff following breeze. This, however, makes our attempts to do some recordings very difficult and they have probably come out unusable. We are visited by Alain Gestin with Alicia, the Polish woman who has already won the race in a hideously fast time around 63/64 hours!! It is really nice to see her travelling back to encourage the other runners.

Finally, after the darkness has fallen, we hear the familiar sound of the voice of Jack Denness. If there had been a prize for sheer dogged determination then this man would have been the winner without doubt. Despite extreme pain and only being able to move at a few kilometres per hour, he refuses to give up. He takes a well earned pit stop and takes the weight off his feet for a while. In the meantime the last 2 competitors, 2 French girls, come in and take a brief rest and set off before Jack. Roraigh and I accompany Jack down the road playing a few tunes on the way. He staggers off into the darkness on his solitary fight against his own aches and pains. I find myself feeling very humble having set Jack on his way and, despite not being religious, find myself saying a few prayers on his behalf.

We then quickly pack up all the equipment in the tent and wait for our transport. There appears to have been some problem with some clothing going missing and one of the Arabs vehemently denies all knowledge to a rather tired and uninterested Perinne. Roraigh prepares for battle! It doesn't happen in the end and our transport arrives. We head off to the finish point at CP17, briefly stopping to encourage various runners as we pass. As we approach the area of the escarpment which we passed through on the way out on the first day, we pass through a rather odd feature for the middle of the desert - a police checkpoint! Call me stupid, but I suspect that on the normal night in that part of the desert the chances of the constable being woken more than once or twice is truly remote so why put him there at all??

We descend the escarpment to the tented area at the finish point (CP17). We are allocated a tent space and crash out for the night. Rumours are beginning to spread about there being a problem with the return flight which prove to be true.

Sunday 16 December

Now that our duties are over with regards helping at the checkpoints, our trip becomes very lazy. We lounge around and have some breakfast - yet more bread, jam and coffee but very welcome. Periodically competitors trickle in and receive warmer and warmer welcomes. Many of the earlier competitors arrived in the middle of the night with no-one to welcome them in. The whole day drifts past in a haze of banter and idleness. We manage to get some recording done during a quiet moment or two. Yet more Scottish ballads and tunes are forced out of me as is a fine performance in the Great Sahara Arm Wrestling competition. Richard and I set to over some minor and quite irrelevant issue but I am then forced to take on a young local straight afterwards. I have to summon all my powers of physical and mental strength to beat him. It's one thing to wimp out of the race but quite another to loose an arm wrestling bout to one of the locals!! I can almost feel Roraigh's eyes burning n the back of my head saying: "You dare loose this one Jock and you're dead!!".

As the day draws to an end, a group of us drive out a way to meet Jack, the last runner, to spur him on over the last few miles. Roraigh, Alicia and Celia stay with him and walk back by his side. At around 4:30 pm Alastair, Magali and I walk out to try to record Jack's arrival. In the end his posse manage to guide him in on an off-road route which bypasses us altogether. We manage to completely miss his return and triumph. I suppose that this only serves to crown my rather disastrous first attempt at the Trans 333.

We immediately load onto vehicles and head back to Atar which is quite close now. There is a bit of a mad scrum for accommodation and we end up with a bunch of Brits on the roof of one of the hotels. Frankly it doesn't matter as there are showers and plenty of hot water and flushing loos!! What joy! A somewhat sparkling and well-shaven bunch of bods begins to appear on the hotel roof - who are all these people? We hurry to make it for the gala dinner and then, in true Alain Gestin fashion, we wait and wait and wait.

Two hours later the meal starts and, not surprisingly, is freezing having been on the floor of the kitchen for the previous two hours. Oh well, when in Rome and all that. The prize giving followed shortly afterwards and the biggest reception and a standing ovation was kept for Jack as the last finisher. Not much time was spent on polite talk that night and most people filtered out to their beds pretty quickly. We got to enjoy the delights of what sounded like "Duelling Banjos" music as we crashed out at the hotel. It was being broadcast from a tower in the centre of the town and you couldn't avoid it.

Monday 17 December

A very early start and breakfast saw us trying, and largely succeeding, to beat the other tour party to the airport. The rumours of the flight being overbooked proved to be true and 27 poor souls didn't make it on. Fortunately we were near the front of the queue. It was, however, only when the plane took off that we felt sure that there were going to be no further problems.

What a strange feeling it is to climb onto a plane in a place like Atar and be able to transport yourself to a completely different country, economy and culture within a few short hours! Paris was very cold when we arrived but the beer and pizza was magnificent. A short stop over saw us then on the onward flight to Gatwick.

The whole adventure came to a very sudden and slightly disappointing end. Everyone disappeared very quickly in a variety of directions. Roraigh had a lift organised for him and I headed to one of the local hotels for a peaceful but odd night in a thing called 'a bed'. Like a crazed man I scrambled for the TV channel changer and made some phone calls home - what a bizarre change from the previous week!

Since then the whole Christmas and New Year season has passed by with barely a day passing without a thought of Mauritania and what might have been. Will I try it again sometime? Oh probably, but perhaps a little wiser and a bit better prepared if I do. For now, my thanks to Roraigh for his dedication and determination in getting me as far as we got and for not shoving my penny whistle down my throat after copious bum notes and poor renditions of Silent Night!!

Jamie Cuthbertson - December 2001