Get into a conversation about feats of ultra endurance and it’s usually not long before someone mentions a friend who’s done “that thing where you run for days in the across the desert.” That thing is the Marathon des Sables, one of the most iconic running challenges in the ultra canon. Races don't get more 'bucket-list'.
A Discovery Channel documentary first labelled it as the “toughest footrace on Earth”. While the UTMB, Tor De Geants and other races would certainly have something to say about that, the 250km (156-mile) multi-stage Marathon of the Sands across the Moroccan Sahara has a mystique and appeal that few other races can match.
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More than 30 years since it was started by Patrick Bauer, back in 1986, it’s still one of the most popular running fights to pick with more than 1,200 people taking up that gauntlet each year.
Tempted to join them? Our resident ultra runner Kieran Alger – a Top 100 finisher in the race back in 2015 – knows just what it takes to survive in the Sahara. Here’s his guide to everything you need to know to tackle the Marathon des Sables.
Where does the Marathon des Sables take place?
The Marathon des Sables takes place in the hostile environment of the Sahara, around Merzouga in Eastern Morocco. Temperatures in this isolated part of the world can hit as high as 50 degrees, water is understandably scarce and the wind regularly whips up serious sand storms. So although the MDS is ruthless about safety, you are running in a potentially dangerous place.
When is the Marathon des Sables 2020?
The MdS typically runs during the first two-and-a-half weeks of April each year. For the 2020 event, the Marathon des Sables will run between 3-20 April.
How do you get there?
Most runners fly into the closest airport to the race start at Ouarzazate and take an eight-hour bus transfer to the first bivouac – the moving campsites made up of open-side tents that you call home during the race.
This long bus ride is the first real test of your endurance. In fact, it’s arguably the worst part of the whole MdS. The nerves and anticipation are palpable. There’s a lot of time to think about what lies ahead, to fret about the upcoming kit check and to chat about what you did – and discover what you didn’t – do in training (a bit like standing outside an exam hall).
Expert tip: Take a book you don’t mind throwing away to help pass the time, or take a pack of cards and get some other runners involved to start making friends. Unless you’re taking a solar charger, you won’t have a phone for entertainment as you’ll already be thinking about conserving battery.
The organisers provide a packed lunch on this bus trip but the journey is long and if you’ve got any special dietary needs you’d be wise to pack your own food for this part too.
And remember, you’ll be taking this same bus back to Ouarzazate too – that ride will be significantly less fresh than the one there.
What does it cost to run the Marathon des Sables?
If you’re considering running the MdS, the heat and the sand aren't the only things to brace for. This race isn’t cheap. The UK fee for 2019 was £4,195 per person while US runners paid €3,170.
For the UK runners, this includes direct return charter flights from London Gatwick, coach transfer to and from the desert, race entry and half-board hotel accommodation after the race in a very swish hotel.
For US runners, the fee includes travel from France or the UK to Morocco – but not the trans-Atlantic flights.
All your meals are provided, except for when you go into self-sufficient mode during the race.
However, the race fee is just the start. Next, you need to buy the kit. Once you’re done with bags, shoes, a sleeping bag, stove, gaiters, headtorch, anti-venom pumps, medical checks and more, you can easily end up adding $1000-$2000 to that total. Particularly if you buy something that doesn’t quite feel right when you test it.
That said, it’s worth remembering that you are paying for the experience of a lifetime and getting the right kit during the race is one of the most important investments you can make – especially when you're out there on the sand.
How do I sign up?
Marathon des Sables entry differs depending on which country you are from.
UK residents sign up via Marathondessables.co.uk.
US and international residents sign up via Marathondessables.com.
Each year there are approximately 1,200 places up for grabs and these fill up fast. As a result people often sign up for the race two years ahead – which also allows for a sensible amount of time to train.
There are some charity places available too.
How long is the Marathon des Sables?
When you’re researching how far you’ll run and how the race breaks down, it will get confusing as different sites, including the organiser’s site, interchange the words day for stage and miss out the rest day. But here’s how it really goes.
The main race part of the Marathon des Sables – the bit you earn the medal for – is a five-stage run over six days, covering approximately 250+ km (156+ miles).
The course changes each year and is only revealed in the final weeks leading up to the start. The distances fluctuate and it’s how long the long stage is that tends to get the most attention. That’s the day everyone fears.
Some runners will be out on course for up to 30 hours on this stage of the race. After the long day, there’s always a rest day and the quicker you finish, the more rest and recovery time you get.
This long bus ride is the first real test of your endurance. In fact, it’s arguably the worst part of the whole MdS
Stage 6 is a UNICEF charity stage that isn’t technically part of the main MdS. But unless you’re in very bad shape, it is the only way to get from the campsite to the bus. So be prepared to walk this – and wonder why you’re being made to do it.
Expert tip: The quicker you get this last UNICEF stage done and get onto the bus, the quicker you’ll be back at the hotel.
In 2017, which included the longest long day on record, the Marathon des Sables stages broke down like this:
- Day 1: Arrive in camp
- Day 2: Kit check day
- Day 3: (Stage 1) – 30.3km
- Day 4: (Stage 2) – 39km
- Day 5: (Stage 3) – 31km
- Day 6: (Stage 4) – 86.2km
- Day 7: REST
- Day 8: (Stage 5) – 42.2km
- Day 9: (Stage 6) – 7.7km
How long does it take to run it?
According to the official stats, the average pace for the fastest runners is close to 7-minute miles while the slowest is more like 20 minutes per mile.
In 2017, the first place female completed the race in 23 hours while the men’s winner got round in under 20 hours. By contrast, the last-placed finisher took more than 74 hours to run the 156 miles.
In 2019, the average finish time was a little under 39 hours.
What’s the Marathon des Sables terrain like?
It’s easy to fixate on the sand – after all the photos you tend to see are of runners tramping Lawrence-of-Arabia-style across rolling dunes. And yes, you will have to trudge for miles through soft sand dunes and climb jebels (sand dune mountains), but the terrain is actually a mixed bag.
You also encounter a combination of stoney, compacted trails, concrete-like sun-baked clay and lots of dried up stony river beds. Crossing these carpets of fist-sized rocks, sometimes downhill, presents your biggest blister threat. It’s easy to roll an ankle and stub already-tender toenails here too.
What shoes should I wear?
People have run the MdS in crocs and flip flops but what you’re after really is a light trail or crossover shoe.
Depending on where you live, it might not be easy to find similar terrain to test your footwear – but it’s worth trying out as many pairs of shoes as money will permit in your longer training races and taking some time to find the best option. Keeping your feet happy is half the battle.
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The most important things to consider:
Decent grip but not too aggressive: There are some steep-ish descents but you don’t need deep lugs for these.
Good toe protection: For all those rocks you’ll kick.
Cushioning: To help the feet cope with the impact.
Lightweight: You don’t want shoes that are too heavy. The sand will make your legs feel heavy enough.
Sizing: Your feet will swell up and many people opt for shoes a half – or even a full – size up. What you’re looking for here is plenty of room in the toe box. And shoes that won’t be constrictive if you need to tape or bandage toes. You also want to be able to get them on and off easily so think about things like how wide they open with the laces loosened.
Keeping out the dreaded sand: You will need gaiters and your best bet is to get the velcro part stitched and glued to your shoes. You’ll need to send these off to get that done but it’s worth the effort and the money.
Marathon des Sables packing tips
Working out what to pack for the Marathon des Sables – or more likely what not to pack – is part of the fun and the challenge.
Apart from a tent and your daily water rations, everything you need to survive for seven days of self-sufficiency in the desert has to fit into your pack. There’s a minimum (6.5kg) and maximum (15kg) pack weight. You will spend months whittling down what you carry.
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To help with this you need to make a call whether you’re a ‘competer’ or a completer. Are you running for the fastest possible time or just to survive? One of the great things about the MdS is that both are entirely acceptable. There’s no judgement, everyone faces their own unique challenges. But deciding what your goal is will – in part – dictate how you pack.
You also encounter a combination of stoney, compacted trails, concrete-like sun-baked clay and lots of dried up stony river beds
If you want to race, you need to be more ruthless with your luxuries and do all the crazy things like cutting your toothbrush in half and decanting your sun lotion into a smaller vessel. Racers tend to carry around 8kg or lower.
Even if you’re not fixated on time, you won’t want to carry unnecessary weight, but taking a few more comforts can help you enjoy the experience more. A pack of wet wipes, for example, so you feel fresh, or a battery pack to recharge your music player.
Here are a few things I found useful for saving space and weight:
- Invest in a vacuum sealer and decant foods from their heavy packs.
- Look for a bag with a built-in whistle.
- The safety mirror just needs to be a shiny and reflective object. I used my DogTag insurance, um, dogtag.
- Hit Boots or Amazon and buy smaller travel containers for stuff like sun lotion and anti-chafe.
- Don’t take a stove. In your tent, at least one other person will have one. And they’ll probably let you borrow it.
- Do order Esbit tabs to make fire though.
- Roll some electrical tape around your bottles or poles if you’re taking them. It takes up no space and might come in handy to fix broken kit.
- Pack a small length of cord and use it tie round your sleeping mat – it’s also there if you need it in emergencies.
- Take two wet wipes for each day. Use them on your face first and then your pits and bits.
Other things to consider
What kind of sleeping bag do I need? Temperatures in the desert can drop very low and you’re sleeping in an open-sided tent where the wind can whip through. You want a light sleeping bag but one that can cope with lower temperatures to avoid a rough, cold night’s sleep. Some runners take silk liners to help with this.
Lube: Vaseline and sand don’t play well together. Look for an alternative way to lube your delicate bits such as 2Toms Sport Shield or Body Glide.
Take spare socks: If there’s one luxury I found the most rewarding it was starting as many days as possible with clean socks. I took three pairs – one pair for the first three days, one pair for the long day and then one for the final marathon stage.
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Camp wear: You’ll want something to wear around camp. If you’re going for super light then look for a thin windbreaker from the likes of inov-8. They also do very lightweight trousers and a thin layer will do just fine. Some runners take spray painting suits but these can tear easily. Another trick is to take spa slippers for walking around camp so you don’t have your feet in your running shoes.
What’s on the Marathon des Sables compulsory kit list?
In addition to spare socks and how much loo roll you decide to take, there’s a selection of mandatory kit with items you must keep with you at all times to avoid time penalties.
Note: Random spot checks are done throughout the race, often when you cross the finish line of a stage.
The compulsory MdS kit includes:
- A backpack
- Sleeping bag
- Head torch and a complete set of spare batteries
- 10 safety pins
- Compass, with 1° or 2° precision
- A whistle
- A knife with metal blade
- Topical disinfectant (anti-bacterial gel)
- Anti-venom pump
- A signalling mirror
- Aluminium survival sheet
- 200 Euros
- Passport or for Moroccan residents, identity card
- Original medical certificate provided by AOI, filled in and signed by the doctor
- Original ECG and its tracing
You will also be given a marathon pack on the Kit Check day, containing:
- A road-book
- Identification marks
- 2 race numbers (one for the chest, one for the backpack)
- a check-in card that’s used to log aid stations and water collections
- WAA ChronoTag
- A GPS tracking and emergency distress beacon SPOT
- Salt tablets
- Sachets for the toilets
The Marathon des Sables medical checks
Two items on the mandatory kit list that are very important are an ECG and medical certificate signed by a doctor. Both need to be presented during the kit check.
These can be potentially expensive and quite stressful to acquire. It’s also worth noting that not all GPs like to sign letters. ECGs in ultra runners can also throw up irregularities that set alarm bells ringing. It’s very advisable to explain in detail to the person doing the ECG about your training and the specific purpose. Or better still, seek out a practitioner who’s done this for previous MdS runners.
Expert tip: Regular travel insurance probably won’t cover your adventure into the desert so you’ll need to invest in specific travel insurance that covers ultra races in extreme environments, for example, DogTag.
How much food do I need to take for the Marathon des Sables?
Another puzzler that keeps runners guessing right up until they get on the plane is how to fuel the Marathon des Sables. There’s no right answer to this, only that you need to find out what works for you.
Having said that there are some basic considerations:
You need to pack a minimum of 2,000 calories per day for each of the seven self-sufficient days (this includes the UNICEF stage). You will need to be able to demonstrate you have enough food on your person at any point during the race – so you can’t pass kit check and then ditch 3kg of Peperamis.
How much food you need varies hugely from person to person. It’s worth experimenting with a few days in training where you’re running longer distances but eating the diet you expect to eat in the Sahara.
The rules stipulate that any food not in its original packaging must be clearly labelled with nutritional details – by which they mean calories. Though in reality, these checks are done by eye rather than meticulously going through each detail.
You need to find foods with a good energy-to-weight ratio but you also want things you know you can stomach on the move, are satisfying and good for the spirit and aren’t too much faff. Whacking 60 gels in your pack or living off nothing but Brazil nuts probably won’t cut it.
Oh and when you’re choosing your food, remember things that melt easily are no good to you. Also, some things you think won't melt that easily behave very differently when the temperature hits 45 degrees.
And finally – the main ‘meals’ you need to think about
Breakfast: I opted for a liquid breakfast, with a Huel-style meal replacement powder mixed with 33Shake shakes. I could make it quickly, I didn’t have to mess around heating water in the morning and it meant I got some additional hydration in from something that was packed with the right energy and nutrients but easy on the stomach too. Other people took freeze-dried porridge.
Race fuel: I went mainly for carbohydrate powders such as Generation UCAN and Tailwind. Maurten would also be a good call. They’re easy to pack, lightweight and encourage the uptake of water which is a good thing. Other runners took gels, energy bars, jelly babies, fruit and nuts, ShotBloks and such like.
On the shorter days, you might get away more standard running energy stuff but the long day might require a different approach. Think carefully about building variety in, with sweet and savoury, to avoid taste fatigue. Having something salty to alternate in can also help encourage drinking.
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Recovery: Getting yourself ready to go again is a huge part of a successful MdS. Taking a recovery shake with a mix of carb and protein powders is a good way to kick off the repairs at the end of each stage. Add some super greens to keep your immune system primed. This also helps keep the hunger at bay.
Evening meal: You’ll want something more substantial and the majority of people take freeze-dried adventure foods from the likes of Expedition Foods or Extreme Adventure Foods. You boil up a 500ml pot of water, whack it in the pouch and you’re good to go. Experiment with the flavours and take a variety.
Snacks and treats: Rather than just taking one type of snack food, it’s a good idea to package up lots of little treats. For example, instead of just packing cashews, I took a daily selection of 6-10 nuts, handpicking different nuts for variety. I vacuum sealed a small portion of crisps for a bit of crunch. I took a small portion of cocoa for a pre-bed hot drink. Having lots of things to open killed the time a bit like an aeroplane meal does. It made things interesting and gave me lots of moments to look forward to in camp.
For more tips on the Marathon des Sables watch this video from Kieran at ManVMiles:
Main image credit: iancorless.com