Note: If you’re after knowing what gear I used for this, check out my other MDS article ‘Equipment I used for the 2019 Marathon des Sables’ where you can find a complete breakdown. Gear selection is a huge topic which I felt warranted a separate article.
The infamous Marathon des Sables – often described as ‘the world’s toughest footrace – is actually completely achievable by the anyone with a little amount of training. With generous cut-off times and a 93% success rate this year (2019), you should not allow the intimidating title and rumours to put you off. I’m no superman but I did feel that the event is billed to sound harder than it actually is.
This is how I got to the finish line.
The two ways to enter: pay for your place; or enter through a charity. The MDS website lists the main charities that have places: https://marathondessables.co.uk/charity-places/
You have two methods to enter privately; via the French entry or Rest of World.
Registering via the French approach will require a French address (surprisingly!). This will cost you €3300 (around £2850) and is by far the cheapest option for entering. You apply directly to ‘Atlantide Organisation Internationale’ (AOI) and transfer the cost by BACS using different payment options. I paid mine through 4 or 5 international bank transfers every 3-4 months which was completely manageable (I bank with Santander and they charged around £15 for each transfer).
Be aware, the system is not quite as slick as entering via the UK company (some emails are badly translated from French and you don’t get automatic entry to the UK expo). That said, I’d happily take that stress again to keep the entry costs manageable. You’re also accommodated in a lower quality hotel – however could easily pay to upgrade if you wanted.
Entering via the UK / RoW entry is done through a third-party company that adds extra costs. Anecdotally, some of my tent mates that went through this company paid £4250 (£1400 more than my French entry!). For that price, you do get entry to the UK expo and a better hotel (as well as dealing with a UK company for any queries or problems).
I’m all for running events for charity – however the MDS is a big ask.
A charity that I approached for a place a few years ago told me they expected me to raise at least £10,000. Whilst this may not seem much for some (so I’m told), the challenge of trying to raise that much seemed like too much to add on top of quite a challenging training schedule, family commitments and building my start-up social enterprise. So, I decided to self-fund my place and fundraise for a cause of my own choice.
It goes without saying that if you’re going to run the MDS, you may as well do it for charity. I did it for my fledgling social enterprise (The Hiatus Foundation) however a lot of the bigger charities will no doubt support you in this as it’s good for their publicity as so many people have done the London marathon now that it barely moves an eyebrow if you’re asking for donations.
Social media and communications strategy
It goes without saying that if you’re going to do the MDS, you’ll want to harness social media to share the experience.
I took my IPhone XR and GoPro Hero 5 to record the experience and felt this was enough to capture it.
Phone: I am with Vodafone which has a world traveller programme, whereby you pay £6 per day to use your UK minutes and data when in selected overseas countries. Morocco is one of these countries and I found that I had 3G or 4G for a large part of the run. This was useful as I could do Facebook live sessions during the event to show what I was experiencing and help friends and family to feel like they were part of it. I believe that this substantially increased donations to my cause as people would regularly check-in with me to find out how I was doing.
GoPro: For taking photos and first-hand video, the GoPro was great for this as it records high-quality pictures that can be edited on Snapseed to show the true colours of the desert.
You are issued a Spot tracker for the duration of the race for your safety, but also so that your supporters can follow your progress on the live updated map. The link to the map is generally released a day or two before the race starts so it’s worth telling people to check the MDS website before you lose phone signal so that they know where to follow you (you will get annoyed with everyone constantly asking where they can follow your progress!).
Paradoxically, the MDS is not a marathon in the traditional sense of the word. Don’t get me wrong, you do a full marathon (and ultramarathon), in the Sahara however not a huge amount of it is actually running (if you’re just aiming to complete it).
I’d estimate that I actually ran around 20% of it (I define running as anything faster than a shuffle) – and still placed around middle of the pack.
My approach was to ensure I was strong enough for the elevation but also conditioned enough for the long stage (and entire race). This meant my training looked something like this:
1. Multi-day running: To get my body conditioned to multiple days of running, I slowly built up the back-to-back training days. Even if you mix it up with running and walking, you’re still on your feet – which is the important thing.
2. Long days: The most infamous part of the MDS is the long stage (day 4) consisting of a 70-90km leg to the next overnight camp. To get myself (mentally and physically) conditioned for the stage, I deliberately aimed to do a few 12-14 hours training days and carry a little more weight than I’d have on the day. I live by the South Downs way which was very similar to the kind of elevation I encountered on the MDS.
Towards the end of my training, I decided to do long days after 3-4 days of moderate distance runs (c.15km) – this helped me on the race as I was a little less concerned about it when I came to the morning of the long stage.
3. Gym workouts for leg, core and back strength:I find too much running can pretty boring, so elected to build leg, core and back strength in the gym. This also helped me to recover from the runs as I could take it a little easer but use the sessions to manage body weight (mainly training in zone 2).
4. Mental resiliency training: One of the big challenges about the MDS isn’t how far you have to go or how hot it is, it’s the getting up every day after an average night’s sleep and putting your backpack on to do it all over again. I trained for this by forcing myself to get up early and train in the dark and rain. This may sound like overkill however I believe using intrinsic motivation is a skill in itself, which you should develop for these challenges.
5. Zone 2 fat-burning: This is where a lot of your training sessions are going to be held – to keep excess weight off you and build the basis of aerobic fitness – which is where you’ll want to spend most of your time for the race.
A word of advice: don’t listen to people whom have never run the MDS tell you that you should be running more than your zone 2 sessions – this is total BS. The MDS is a multi-day event in the desert up and down sand dunes the size of houses (not all of them) – unless you’re aiming for a top 100, it’s most definitely more walking than actual running.
6. Fun fitness: When you add up just how much training you could do, I decided that I would still continue with indoor rock climbing and Brazilian Jujitsu so that the race didn’t completely take over my life. My advice would be to continue to do any hobbies you have whilst you train for the MDS; I saw people of all shapes and sizes overtake me and finish the race – putting your life on hold for the MDS will only make you resent it.
If you’re based in the UK, it’s worth going with Rory Coleman’s London option – you can find him on the Facebook group. This costs £100 (paid in cash) and includes the ECG check (a mandatory check) however they do have options to do this in the pre-race admin day before the start.
Anecdotally I understand this costs €200 however I do also have a friend in his fifties who found a heart murmur during his ECG meaning he couldn’t race. I did also hear of someone else in a similar position that had problems claiming back the race cost from insurance providers.
Perhaps the next biggest part of your MdS prep after you bag. Being a bigger runner (c.97kg when I started), I opted for more than the minimum 2000 calories per day – aiming instead for around 2600 – 2800 Kcals per day (and more for the long stage).
As a moderately experienced ultrarunner, I firmly avoid sugar as much as I can for the race. That said, I did take a few sugary treats to pick me up when I was at a low ebb, however, be sure not to let yourself eat them all at once (otherwise your blood sugar levels will spike and then crash – making you feel terrible).
My complete food list can be found in this excel document and, in the photos, below. Fundamentally, you should ensure that you like the food that you’re going to be consuming for the week but also that it agrees with you.
One ‘consultant’ (whom I’ll not name), told me I’d struggle with the MdS due to my size and difficulty to take water onboard. Whilst this may be true in the hotter years (we had it fairly mild from what I understand); I didn’t struggle with dehydration. The water you’re given is ample for the race, and there is loads of spare by the bottle bins at the CPs where people have partially finished theirs.
Having spent a fair amount of time in deserts and enough ultras under my belt gave me the confidence to add that consultant’s opinion to the ‘will keep in mind’ category (the polite version here!). My personal opinion is that the scaremongering was partly to sell me his advice – which I suspect others have fallen for in the past.
The race itself
The race follows a similar format every year:
Days 1 – 3:around 32 – 37km each day.
Day 4:long day 75-80km (depending on which way you go)
Day 5:rest day (some competitors still finish the long stage on this day)
Day 6:Marathon day (42.2km) – this is the formal end of the race where you’ll be presented with your medal.
Day 7:Charity (aka Solidarite) stage – c.6km walk through the desert to the waiting buses.
My race strategy
My strategy was to start slow – to acclimatise to the heat and weight, then finish fast when my pack was lighter.
A lot of the racers went fast on day one (I stopped to answer the call of nature immediately after the start of stage 1 and found myself to be the very last competitor!) only to regret this. At the end of the stage, many people were complaining of blisters and sore backs (the queues at the medical tents attest to this).
From my experience with endurance events and my limited understanding of human physiology, I believe that it’s best to spend most of your race in zones 2 and 3 – so as to limit the amount of lactic acid your body produces in the anaerobic zones (high Z3 and above). This can be best measured by how well you can hold a conversation during the event. I also used the heart rate on my Garmin Fenix 5 to back up how I was feeling to ensure I stayed below the lactic threshold (the point where you start burning more carbohydrates and muscle than fat) for the early stages.
As with most people, I have a hard time regulating my pace in races due to over-competitiveness and excitement, which means I have to force myself to run slower than normal. It’s been proven to me countless times so now I do take it seriously – even if it means you have to run on your own instead of with faster friends.
Taking care of yourself
Blisters / chaffing: I chose not to tape my feet up and instead deal with the blisters on a day-to-day basis. My personal experience is that this is a better strategy for me however it won’t work for everyone. Zinc oxide tape is useful for single- or two-day events to ward off the dreaded hot spots, however you still get deeper blisters forming. I also find my feet get too hot with all the tape on – which I suspect won’t help.
Instead, I used Vaseline as a form of barrier cream and to keep things like groin, thighs and feet moving with as little friction as possible.
Heat: It goes without saying that heat is the biggest challenge of the race (the sand dunes are pretty high up there also!). My strategy for managing it was to ensure I always drunk at least 1.5 litres between each CP – then generally up to another litre at the CP. Along with those, regular consumption of salt tablets generally every 500ml (which was every time I finished one of the bottles attached to my backpack).
Sunscreen: I took the minimum 100ml of factor 50 sunscreen and then a separate factor 50 lip balm. This was about enough as I chose to take long sleeve t-shirts and running tights, however for my next desert ultra (currently sizing up the Iran desert ultra!) I’d take an extra 50ml as a small backup.
Based on my experience and advice from previous competitors, I made it my goal to spend as little time in the CPs as possible, so that I could carry my momentum throughout each stage. From a mental perspective, it’s easy to get lulled into having a rest and chat with the other competitors in the shade. It does though – however – make it harder to start again. Accepting that it’s going to be a long enough day on your feet in the heat is something that will take a while, but when you pass loads of people whom have gone too fast in the heat and now recovering in the CPs, it’s slightly satisfying (obviously hoping that nothing is badly wrong with them).
Racing with other competitors
Part of the attraction of the MDS for me was to get some time to myself out in the beautiful wilderness of the Sahara Desert. Having rowed the Atlantic Ocean with four other guys in 2017, I believe extended periods in the outdoors for solemn contemplation is crucial to being able to make sense of the world and genuinely relax.
The other huge benefit of the MDS is that you get a week with some of the most interesting people you’ve ever met in an incredible location. I found that a good balance would be running one or two legs whilst chatting to others was really nice and then enjoying some lone time for the remainder was also good. This meant that when you finished the day, the tent would be buzzing with the stories of everyone’s different experience.
The MDS is a challenging endeavour; for the preparation, travel, uncertainty and natural apprehension that comes with the long list of pre-race tasks. But do try and savour the experience as it’s easy to let it overtake your life.
Ultimately, some people will worry themselves sick stressing about weight-saving measures or if they’ve done enough training, or previous competitor’s horror stories. Listen to some of it but try to distance yourself from those that spread panic unnecessarily – the race has been going for some 35 years now, and they’ve experienced any issue it may throw up.
And remember, no one ever asks where you came – only if you finished it.
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