Every year, around March or April, around 1000 ultra runners and endurance athletes gather in the Sahara desert hoping to complete the Marathon des Sables, otherwise known as the ‘Toughest Footrace on Earth’. I first heard about the Marathon des Sables (or MdS as it’s more commonly known) around 8 years ago, when flicking between channels I caught a documentary about it. My initial reaction was ‘no way could run that!’ but then I noticed something… many of the competitors were actually walking through the desert rather than running. I remember thinking that if I didn’t have to run it all then it could quite possibly be achievable- and a little obsession was suddenly born…

So What Is the Marathon des Sables?
The MdS is a multi-stage race of around 150 miles (241 kilometres) held annually in the Saharan desert in southern Morocco.

There are 6 stages run over 7 days; the first three stages are usually between 19- 23 miles (30.5- 37 kilometres) and the fourth stage, known as the long day, is around 45- 50 miles (72- 80 kilometres). Competitors have two days to complete the long day, which is then followed by a marathon. Finally the last day is generally between 9- 13 miles (14.5- 21 kilometres) and seen as a bit of a ‘fun run‘ to end the race. The route changes from year to year and competitors are given a road book just before the race to help them navigate through the course.

Typical Bivouac on the MdS

Basic tent shelters, known as bivouacs, are provided, each housing 8 people, but self sufficiency is part of the challenge and so competitors must carry everything else they need for the week on their backs, including food and fuel. Water is rationed and distributed at checkpoints on route and at the end of each stage.

Temperatures can reach as high as 50 degrees during the day, but the desert nights can be decidedly chilly. Much of the route takes in the huge golden sand dunes for which the Sahara is known- awesome to look at but tough to negotiate. A combination of heat and sand trash the feet and cause pretty eye wateringly awesome blisters which can be bad enough to end the race for even the fittest athlete. Due to the conditions in camp, stomach bugs can be particularly rife, with dehydration a real risk, and many competitors end up needing emergency rehydration in the form of IV drips. Oh yes, did I mention that one of the essential kit list items is a venom pump just in case you are bitten and stung by something poisonous during your race…

Despite this, the race is sold out over two years in advance, with a waiting list of hundreds of nutters desperate to put themselves through a piece of desert hell. And in 2009 I was to be one of them…

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Filed under: AfricaMarathon des SablesMoroccoUltra Racing

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