By Ian Corless
The Marathon des Sables dates back to 1984 when a 28-year old Patrick Bauer ventured into the Sahara to traverse solo a 350km journey. It was the ultimate self-sufficient expedition. Lasting 12-days, Patrick carried all he required in a 35kg pack. Inspired by the experience, the first edition was created in 1986; just 23-pioneers embarked on that journey… a journey into the unknown.
Who would have thought those formative years would have laid the foundations for what is, without question, the father of multi-day racing. In 2015 the race is 30-years old. It’s quite remarkable, The MDS as it is known has had memorable moments; in ‘91’ the Gulf drama had an impact on the race, in ‘94’ the arrival of Doc Trotters medical team, in ‘96’ Mohamed Ahansal participated for the first time, in ‘97’ Lahcen Ahansal won his first MDS, in ‘2000’ internet arrived in the Sahara, in ‘01’ the long day exceeded 70km, in ‘02’ a week of sandstorms and wind made the journey extra difficult, in ‘09’ the MDS had flooding and in ‘13’ solar energy arrived.
Much has been written about how to survive at the Marathon des Sables. With the 30th edition looming on the horizon I caught up with previous winner, Nikki Kimball, 2nd placed lady in 2013, Jo Meek and the UK’s highest ever male finisher, Danny Kendall to pass on some words of wisdom.
What is the terrain like and how do I run in the Sahara?
Sand is everywhere along the MDS course but you don’t just run in dunes. It’s important not to forget this detail in training. Read the terrain and on large dunes for example, it’s best to run along the ridges so that you don’t sink into the sand. On smaller dunes it’s easier to run in the tracks left by other competitors so as to use their footsteps like stairs. You really have to try to be as light on your feet as possible when you run. Keep your foot flat to the ground.
How much liquid should I drink?
Water is the one thing that is provided during the race. Dehydration is one of THE biggest risks in the desert. It’s a good idea to drink at regular intervals, take small and regular sips. Everyone will loose a lot of salt and the organization provide salt tablets daily to ensure you can replace electrolytes; make sure you take them!
How do you stop your shoes filling with sand?
Sand in your shoes is a definite no! It’s like running with sand paper. Everyone uses Gaiters and they are essential in preventing sand from filtering through your shoe. Different types of gaiter are available and you can have custom made gaiters, however, many use a ready-made gaiter and you can get these from many reputable companies. If you have sensitive feet you can also prepare prior to the event by hardening the skin. Choose a shoe that works for you and think about the size and fit. Blistered feet are one of the main reasons people do not complete the MDS.
I have been told MDS is navigation but is the course marked?
Marking of the route is excellent throughout the course and there is substantial monitoring of the runners by the race stewards and staff. Everyone is provided with a route book and it is very rare that at anytime you will be alone in the desert. However, in the dunes the use of the route book and compass can be extremely beneficial to ensure you take the shortest route. It’s wise to understand how a compass works before going to MDS but the chances are you will not be required to use it.
What recommendations can you give in regard to food choices for the MDS?
The most important thing is to have a distribution between protein, carbohydrate and fat. Protein is used to repair the muscles, carbohydrates enable you to quickly restore your energy and fats are essential for the body to work efficiently. Fat is especially important with this type of race as you will be calorie deprived due to the effort level and restricted calories. The minimum calorie requirement is 2000 calories per day, you can take more but remember you have to carry it! Freeze-dried meals are often used at breakfast and dinner and then you need to look at snack foods that work for you. If you want to save weight, don’t carry a stove, you can warm food in the sun.
The race lasts multiple days with a long stage, any tips on pacing?
You must not start off too quickly on the first day. Remember, you will be excited, you have waited for this day for a long time. When you are finally released into the Sahara it is very easy to run too quickly and too hard with adrenaline, Start slow and ease into the race. The long day for many is the ultimate day so always keep this in mind and try to keep something back. Each day make sure you hydrate and get calories in. After each day’s stage rest completely and then walk a little too loosen off. Don’t be worried about walking. With the exception of the top runners, everyone walks at MDS so practice this and get comfortable with it.
What is a bivouac like? Is sharing an open sided tent in the Sahara really fun?
Bivouac is the hub of the race. It is a place to recover, sleep, eat, rehydrate and it provides an opportunity to make new friends. Many runners confirm that friends made in a bivouac become life long friends, so embrace that opportunity! Tents are laid out in a circular format and each bivouac tent contains eight people (bring some ear plugs). Learn to be generous and patient. Your tent is your family for the week and do not underestimate the power of that group and the bonding that will take place.
Do you have any recommendation for which pack to use and how to pack it?
The pack along with your shoes and gaiters is an extremely important item. Don’t get a pack that is too big… you will just fill it and that is not good. Weight is your enemy in the Sahara. Many brands are available and you need to try a selection and find out which works for you, your size and your shape. Also consider if you will have a front pack in addition to the rear pack. A front pack helps to distribute the weight and allows on hand access to important items while running. When you pack your bag, don’t forget that you must add a litre and a half of extra water supplied by the race. If you are planning to race, keep the pack to the minimum weight with no treats or comforts. However, if completion is a priority over competition allow some treats but not too many; it all adds weight!
Carrying extra clothes is not an option, so do you have any recommendations?
I suppose it’s not rocket science but if possible wear light colours such as white that will reflect the heat. Many garments these days also protect from UV rays. Using a short sleeve top with arm coolers is a good idea so that you can have full body cover for the heat of the day. Always wear a hat and ideally one that has a flap that will cover your neck. Shorts are very personal so find out what works for you. Many runners also wear compression clothing that is used on quad and calf muscles. However, in the heat of the Sahara allowing air to move around your body is a good thing. Use a buff or similar product so that you can cover your face in sandstorms and when hot you can wet it and this well help reduce your core temperature. Good sunglasses and goggles are essential to protect from the sand. In camp you will need a warm layer that packs small and of course a sleeping bag that combines minimal size and weight but will keep you warm. Temperatures can really drop at night.
Finally, what are some of your pearls of wisdom?
Peanut oil is high in calories and lasts in the heat of the desert. It’s great for adding to food.
Use sun cream and apply a layer of cream each day before running.
Look after your feet.
Make sure you have the correct shoes.
Drink and eat regularly.
Practice and test everything in training.
Have a plan B.
Enjoy it! This is a journey of a lifetime.
You can also read about the experiences of other MDS runners below:
Review of MDS 2014 by Matt Buck including video
Interview with Devinder Bains (MDS runner in 2012)
Interview with Susie Chan (MDS runner in 2014)
Interview with Nick Keen (MDS runner in 2012)
Interview with Peter Clist (MDS runner three times)
Interview with Rory Coleman (MDS runner eleven times)
Interview with Jack Tavernor (MDS runner in 2012)
Interview with Mark Roe (MDS runner in 2012)