Marathon des Sables is an iconic race. For over 30-years it has been the leading example of multi-day racing all over the world. It has often been copied, but never bettered. In its incredible history, runners from all over the world have toed the line for the experience of a lifetime.
In 2018, for the first time ever, a Malaysian lady toed the line in the hope to be the first Malaysian lady ever to complete the race.
Sue Ding has been living in the UK for over 20-years. She came from Kuala Lumpur to study law at Liverpool University and then stayed successfully building her own legal practice in London. She is an entrepreneur, business woman and is extremely successful.
Running became an escape from the everyday stress of work. Like many, Sue built to the marathon distance and has successfully completed London, Berlin and Tokyo. But Marathon des Sables was something very different – a new challenge.
I first met Sue when she joined our Lanzarote Training Camp (HERE) in January 2018.
I was fortunate to follow her journey as she prepared for the 2018 MDS, both in training and then day-by-day throughout the race.
It turned out to be quite a story and shows that the mental aspect of ultra-running is often far more important than fitness.
You can listen to a full and in-depth interview with Sue on Talk Ultra podcast HERE
What initially made you decide to take part in MDS?
I had heard about the Marathon des Sables from friends and I had seen images on Instagram. It enticed me, I was looking for a new challenge and although I thought the race was beyond my ability I took the plunge and entered. I told nobody for two weeks as I couldn’t decide if I had done the right thing. When I did finally disclose my intentions, some friends and relatives were negative saying I was crazy and that I couldn’t do it… I needed no better motivation to prove them wrong!
You have run several marathons such as London and Tokyo. How does the MDS compare?
Other than running or walking, there is no comparison really. A road marathon is a challenge but it is safe, you have aid stations, there is always help at hand. MDS is just so much more than just running. It brings in elements of survival, it plays games with your mind and it pushes the individual to depths that they maybe never even realised they could reach. MDS is truly a transformational experience and although I will always remember my first road marathon, I now think, ‘it is only a marathon!’
What was your training and preparation like for the MDS? What are the differences in comparison to a road marathon?
In all honesty, marathon training is actually good preparation for MDS as the individual stages are marathon distance or below. Of course, the exception is the ‘long day’ which in 2018 was 86.4km (around 53 miles, so two marathons). Marathon training works well but of course one needs to build up strength and stamina for the challenge ahead. Therefore, most people allow 12-months to get ready for MDS. Time on feet is important and also including some specific ‘training’ races that provide a similar scenario to MDS. For example. Several races in the UK last 2 or 3 days therefore providing a mini MDS scenario.
I also signed up for a specific desert training camp in Lanzarote, 3-months ahead of the race. This proved to be essential as I met other competitions, we trained on terrain specific and comparable to Morocco and I was able to test equipment. We even spent one night sleeping inside a volcano to simulate camp conditions in the Sahara.
Finally, two points. 1. Many runners think they will run MDS – the reality is that they will not! Walking is an essential and integral part of completing MDS for most participants and I can’t stress enough to walk, walk and walk in training. 2. Prepare the mind for the challenge. If you get the mind in the right place it will take the body to the line.
What was the biggest challenges out in the Sahara?
The challenges change daily. For example, just starting on day 1 seemed like a huge challenge as I was so anxious and nervous.
Then on day 2 I was silly and neglected taking my salt tablets, this impacted on my hydration and caused me to be dizzy. It was touch and go but I rallied and achieved the finish line.
That night we were hit by a sand storm which wiped out our tent and reduced sleep to a minimum. So, as you see, the challenges change daily, by the hour or even by the minute at times. This is what makes MDS so special, it is how you adapt both physically and more importantly, mentally at times.
How did you cope with the challenges, did you feel prepared?
One can only prepare so much. I really dedicated myself to the task and prepared methodically for the challenge. But after Tokyo Marathon I picked up a stress fracture.
This resulted in no running for three weeks and then a slow return to training. Ironically, my final preparation to MDS was terrible and that worried me. Friends were always positive, they told me, ‘You can do this!’ I trusted them and despite my reservations, I achieved the start line.
Equipment is equipment but it is essential. I took advice from the training camp and honed my equipment for my needs. I made last minute changes to the pack I would use and I also changed my down jacket. It all worked well. During the race you must be flexible and adapt to conditions – tiredness, dehydration, sore legs, snoring tent mates, sharing a space with 7 others – you can’t really prepare for that, it is this that makes MDS such an experience, it is a journey into the unknown.
What did you enjoy most about the whole experience?
I was so anxious before the race but I feel like I blossomed as the race progressed. I embraced the challenge and got the race done – I did that and nobody can take that away. But my tent mates, Tent 95 were incredible and they will be friends for life. You were also at the race and shared my journey, that was so special and something that I will never forget. The race is a life changer, I was told this before I went to Morocco, it’s only now, afterwards, that I realised that this is true.
What were some of the most memorable or unforgettable moments for you, explain why?
1. Tent 95 – Gary, Daniel, Mark, James, Brian, Taka and Denise were just the best. We laughed, we shared our stories in the morning and the evening and we rallied and encouraged each other. We all finished – what an experience!
2. On the long day it was dark, I was walking through large sand dunes and I was listening to Craig Armstrong music, I looked up to the sky and saw thousands of stars… I was lost in my mind and thoughts and it was truly magical.
3. I had low points throughout the race, times of despair and worries if I could push on through. They were my lowest moments but each time they became the most memorable – you would always arrive, just at the right time.
4. I got some really bad blisters which needed medical treatment and caused great pain – I had to continue on, ignore the negative and fight each day to achieve my goals.
How did you manage the conditions – heat, survival, rationed food etc?
In all honesty, I was expecting the worst and the reality was not as bad. We had cold nights, sand storms and hot days but I managed. I wore the same clothes for ten days with no showering or proper washing, it was unpleasant but I survived. I craved fresh food and had to eat dehydrated food.
I wanted so much a different drink other than water but water is the only thing available. I keep saying it but this is MDS. It is meant to test you mentally as much as physically and you need to embrace it. If you fight it, your week will be miserable. It’s best to laugh and soak up the experience.
A Coke after the long day was so magical – simple pleasure! Going to the toilet is also somewhat an experience… you will need to use your imagination for that one!
What went through your mind during the race?
Ha! What didn’t I think about…? I put the world to rights, thought about my past, thought about my future. I concentrated on one foot ahead of the other and I escaped with music.
You have a great deal of time to think and I think this is why, for many, MDS has such an impact. You suddenly realise what is important. I have realised it. Experiences and memories are far greater than things and possessions – the Sahara and the MDS made me feel truly alive, pushed me to the limit and beyond.
Did you doubt yourself at any time, elaborate?
I had huge doubts and anxiety before the race but did as much specific preparation as possible and I listened to you and Elisabet Barnes, you both told me I could do it. I was so nervous on day 1 and of course on day 2 I was extremely worried.
However, as the race progressed the stronger mentally I became. I was more tired, my body ached, my feet hurt but my mind was strong, there was no way I was giving up or not finishing – I had to prove all the doubters before the race wrong.
One lady had said, ‘If you finish the race, I will eat my hat!’ Guess what? I bought a hat in Morocco after the race…
What was crossing the finish line like?
On the marathon stage I had a moment early on when I cried but I got over it and pushed on despite the pain.
The miles ticked by and then as the finish line came, you were waiting as were all my tent 95 teammates.
I had no more tears left, just smiles and gratitude. I was flying the Malaysian flag, I kissed my cross which was around my neck and I gave thanks for the opportunity to complete a truly magical, life changing journey.
What are the biggest takeaways from the race?
We are too protected, too comfortable in the world and we shy away from tough times. A little tough, some challenge, some hardship and some pain makes you realise you are truly alive.
I went to so many low points during the race and overcame them, I made new friends and I triumphed over arguably the toughest challenge I have ever undertaken.
I now feel invincible, I feel alive!
If you did MDS again, what would you change in preparation and why?
Well, I would definitely try not to get a stress fracture just 8 weeks before the race. In general though, I feel everything clicked into place. I would make sure my shoes did not give me blisters, I made a mistake there going with a shoe size too large.
What advice would you give to future MDS runners?
Prepare the mind and the legs and lungs will follow. I also had a ‘special’ bag with me ‘Not Gonna Happen’ it contained daily inspiration to keep me going… It was invaluable.
MDS is described as the toughest race on earth, on a scale of 1-10 give it a rating and explain why?
Tough question as I have done nothing like it to compare, so, for me it would be a 8, or 9. But the daily cut off times are generous and it is possible to complete the race walking, so, like I said previously, get the mind right and anything is possible.
Certainly, no change of clothes, carrying everything one needs on ones back and having rationed food and water takes things to another level and therefore it’s a combination of all those elements that makes the race so tough.
MDS is not cheap, can you elaborate on how much the whole process cost?
I don’t really want to think about it… The race costs so much more than just the entry fee. For example, entry fee, flights and hotels around £4000. But I started to prepare 12 moths in advance. I did training races, I did the Lanzarote training camp, I purchased all my equipment and then changed my equipment. I added some extras such as staying in Morocco afterwards. I have not tallied up the total cost but it would easily be £10.000.
You are the first Malaysian woman to complete the race, how does that make you feel?
I am proud to be Malaysian and cross the line flying the flag – it is a real honour.
You ran for charities, Make A Wish Malaysia and Malaysian Dogs Deserve Better, how much did you raise?
The total goes up daily as donations come in, but currently it is over £25.000.
“We all have our stories, we got together, encouraged each other, were there for each other, we went on a 250km MDS journey together… We are friends forever Tent 95! I was also privileged to have the additional support of a truly dear friend who documented our journey. Friendship and love completed the journey.”
Check out Sue in MARIE CLAIRE – http://marieclaire.com.my/lifestyle/features/marie-claire-amazing-women-2018/5/