By Alice Morrison
The 32nd edition of the Marathon des Sables (MDS) produced a score of heroic tales. Every person who takes on this race is a champion, everyone who finishes it knows the satisfaction of achieving the often impossible. It is a challenge which will find your weak points and show you to yourself. Six stages of self-sufficient running across the great and forbidding Sahara desert. Feet were shredded, self-belief was tested to its limit. Every year is a great year and this year was no exception.
Patrick Bauer, the Founder of MDS, likes to start everyone off gently. So, the first day was just 30.3 kilometres on a relatively easy course with what were described as “miniscule dunes” by one runner, Eric Fortin. It was a victory for the young Mohamed El Morabity with 2:10:36. The MDS has been won four times by his big brother Rachid. Mohamed is clearly being groomed as a successor.
“I'm training my brother to pass the torch onto him in 4 or 5 years,” said Rachid during the race.
For the women, it was Elisabet Barnes of Sweden who won the stage in 2:38:13. She has one MDS title under her belt and has been on great form this year, so was a hot favourite.
“After yesterday's warm-up, today's stage is much harder”, announced Patrick Bauer gleefully before the departure. Those who had struggled through the dunes for stage one must have been muttering under their breath. But he was right. As well as the obligatory sand, there was a fantastic descent from Jebel el Otfal where you lose 250 metres in just under a quarter of a mile. A quad stinger. Rachid El Morabity took the stage as did Elisabet Barnes.
I bet there were many people looking back fondly on the previous day’s race when stage three gave them its converse – the ascent of Jebel el Otfal. Ouch! The day was characterized by a succession of peaks and sandy passes. There was a lot of sand on this stage and many felt it in their legs. By the third stage, most runners were having some kind of issue with their feet. The heat and terrain combined to make blisters the norm rather than the exception. With the long day ahead, it was crucial that any hot spots were seen to and any pus-filled cavities excavated and bound up.
Rachid and Elisabet dominated again. Elisabet had this to say, “I could feel Nathalie's presence behind me, so I had to keep running fast. Tomorrow's stage will be decisive.”
One of the surprises of this year’s race has been the stunning performance put in by Brit, Thomas Evans. He came from nowhere to podium in third place. Absolutely brilliant performance by him and the highest finishing European in the men's race. During stage three he dropped his check card, which you have to have to complete the checkpoints, so he risked disqualification. The race leader, Rachid, found it and lost time making sure he got it to Thomas so he could complete. An illustration of the camaraderie that is the heart of this great race.
Stage four is the long stage, and the one that most people dread and look forward to in equal measure. 86.2km stretched out ahead of the runners as they lined up at the start line, traditionally sent on their way to “Highway to Hell” banging out from the sound system. Lauren O’Malley summed it up, “My head is 100% OK, I just need to make my body cooperate.” The cut off was 7.30 pm at bivouac 4 but most runners aimed to do it in much less so they could rest up before the final stage.
It was a hard-fought battle for everyone, a mental and physical struggle to keep strong and to keep the faith as the hours wore on. Rachid took the stage in his inimical style and Thomas Evans ran his legs off to come in second – a bravura performance. Elisabet was beaten by Nathalie Mauclair but didn’t lose her lead overall.
Then, suddenly, unbelievably, it is the last day of racing and a 42.2 marathon distance stage. This is the one where many can let loose with their final hurrah and make good time. For others, it is a long, hard slog on feet that have been destroyed by the previous stages. Doc Trotter recorded 550 foot care interventions the day before.
For some, it was a relief. “It’s been a brilliant week, but I’m exhausted. Yesterday was mentally so tough that today, I feel relieved,” said Claire Tinker from the UK. But as fellow Brit, Alec Mills, put it, “My body seems totally broken now. MDS has won…MDS always wins!”
For the leaders it was a fast finish and some new names to the podium. Wonderful to see Aziza Raji high in the rankings, there for Team X-Bionic promoting Moroccan women in the sport.
Rachid El Morabity 19:15:23, Morocco
Mohamed El Morabity 19:38:21, Morocco
Thomas Evans 19:49:33, Great Britain
Elisabet Barnes 23:16:12, Sweden
Nathalie Mauclair 23:36:40, France
Fernanda Maciel 24:44:59, Brazil
Stage six is the charity stage and a chance for the competitors to relax and run or walk with their tent mates. For everyone, it marks the end of an extraordinary experience. A week running across the desert, a week of immense courage in the face of enormous difficulty. And for that, we have to mention, Duncan Slater. He became the first-ever double amputee to finish the race and did it in style with a time of 69:01:42. Duncan, we salute you!
Congratulations to the class of 2017 – MDS finishers! Conquerors of the desert.