The equipment I used to complete the 2019 Marathon des Sables

 It is said that gear selection will make or break your race. I originally included this in a full MDS write-up however the detail in this makes it useful as a stand alone document.

 

Backpack

 

Most people opt with the official WAA backpack, which does them fine – however I found it to be too small for my needs as everything weighs more.

 

My first choice was to buy the Raidlight Desert pack ultra-combo (link) however, when it arrived – I presumed it had been made by a 5-year-old. The stitching was poor quality and it didn’t fit me in any way. On the plus side, it was light and did look quite cool in white – however I elected to send it back and get a refund. I’m quite glad I did as my tent-mate tore his Raidlight bag on the MDS. Hopefully just a short-term quality issue however I’d be reluctant to buy their bags again on that one experience.

 

I went with the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 35L (link) in a medium / large (I’m 6’2” and this fit perfectly) which was the best choice for me as a taller and heavier than most runners.

 

The packs fit me well from the start of training, and the extra capacity over the WAA one was super useful not only for training through winter but also having space to store extra water between the longer checkpoints.

My bag during one of the South Downs training runs (not with the front pack on)

My bag during one of the South Downs training runs (not with the front pack on)

I partnered it with the WAA 5L front pouch (which got retired to my main backpack compartment after the first day) and side pouches. One side pouch held my snacks for the day (making it easy to reach on the move) and other was a small admin pouch comprising of: salts tablets; suntan lotion; venom extractor; a small roll of zinc oxide tape and my GoPro. I found this set up invaluable as the front pockets don’t hold a huge amount on the backpack.

  

Clothing

 

Micro down jacket

 

I took the Montane rather excellent Starlight pull up on jacket (link) which weighs a ridiculous 239g and packs down to the size of an apple.

 

Shorts

 

I used Under Armour heat gear Mirage 8” running shorts (link) as they’re 4-way stretchy (super useful to prevent snagging) and allow heat to dissipate quickly.

 

Underwear I used Under Armour boxer jocks (link) which didn’t give me any chaffing at all.

 

T-shirt

 

I used Rab’s excellent Force Long Sleeve t-shirt (link) as it has a factor 50 sun protection (SPF), an anti-bacterial treatment and low-profile / soft seams. Long sleeves mean you can pull them down to protect you from the sun without overheating.


 

Looking very colourful on the startling of Day 1: note 5L front pack and side pouches on backpack.

Looking very colourful on the startling of Day 1: note 5L front pack and side pouches on backpack.

 Mandatory items

 

For the 2019 race, the following items were mandatory (this may obviously change for the future).

 

1.     head torch and a complete set of spare batteries: My Petzl Tikka headtorch (link) was perfect for this – which you only use for the night stage. My top-tip is to use some fabric tape (or whatever you can get hold of) and attach the 2 spare AAA batteries to the back of it, so you always know where they are. As an added bonus, they also act as a counter weight to the lamp.

 

2.     Sleeping bag. See my write up of the sleeping system below.

 

3.     10 safety pins. I bought thin and cheap and spent the race regretting it as they broke every few hours. I almost got a penalty on the second day when I had one pin holding my front race number on. Top tip: Don’t buy cheap!

 

4.     Compass, with 1° or 2° precision.  I didn’t use my compass during the race as I was never first at any point (!!). Even at night the course is lit up with glow sticks. I invested in a super-cheap one from mountain warehouse and it stayed in my backpack the entire time.

 

5.     Lighter: I took one because it was a named item however relied on windproof matches more as the lighter was ineffective in anything more than a gentle breeze (and you’re not supposed to cook under the tents – the staff do come around and remind you of this!).

 

6.    A whistle: Check your bag; there’s probably one attached to the chest strap. If not, mountain warehouse is mega-cheap for this.

 

7.    Knife with metal blade:I used the Petzl Spatha rope knife for this (link) however most people generally just use a razor blade or something.

 

8.    Topical disinfectant: I used a small 50ml tub of Dettol which was perfect for cleaning blisters and small wounds (once you’ve added to water).

 

9.     Anti-venom pump: I borrowed the Aspivenin venom pump (link) from a mate. This stayed in my left hand ‘admin’ pouch however was able to be quickly used if needs be. I am planning to add this to my own remote area medical kit as I was very impressed with it.

 

10.   A signalling mirror: Most outdoor shops want to charge you £10-£15 for essentially, a make-up mirror. Go to Boots and you’ll pay £3.50 instead (link)

 

11.   One aluminium survival sheet: Available from any outdoor shop or online. Stayed in my bag the entire time.

 

12.   One tube of sun cream: One 100ml tube of factor 50 did me just fine (even though the back of my legs got burned on the admin day). Kept in my left hand admin pouch.

 

13.  200 euros. Try and get 50 Euro notes if possible and keep in a waterproof case (like this Aquapac one that I used (link).

 

14.  Passport (or identity card for Moroccan residents). Make sure you waterproof it as you will inevitably pour water over yourself when the weather gets hot.

 

 

Water bottles

 

I used 2 Raidlight 600ml ‘Eazyflask’ soft water bottles (link)  however would go with the hard versions next time. 

 

Soft water bottles are great in theory, however when you’re trying to fill up quickly become an utter chore. You have to remove them from the back pack and very steady to get the water in. I dropped them (when full) on at least 4 occasions, losing around 2L of water to the Sahara – not great if the weather is super-hot.

 

Shoes

 

Having used Inov-8 running shoes for around a decade, I decided that the ParkClaw (link) would be great option as it’s suited to hard and soft surfaces. Being a UK size 11, I opted to buy 2 pairs in a size 12. This meant that my feet would get used to the shoes however not completely wear one pair down during the training. I did notice a lot of people using Hoka Ones which I still can’t bring myself to wear purely on how they look.

 

Gaiters

 

I used the Raidlight desert gaiters (link) which stopped 99% of sand getting in (the other 1% found its way in there once you take your shoes off at night). I’d fully recommend getting the Velcro strips tailored on by Kevin owner of Alex shoe repairs (link). He’s super-friendly, really flexible, very friendly and also understanding of your needs – can’t rate him highly enough.

 

Poles

 

I deliberated over taking the extra weight of poles for a while until a mate who’d done it the previous year recommended taking them – utterly glad I did. Whilst some argue that the c.500g is a lot (about 5% of my overall bag weight on day 1). Some people elected against it and said they regretted the decision by day 3.

 

 Sleeping systems

 

Mat: I opted to take a Thermarest Z-Lite roll mat (link), which was fine however if I was to do the race again, I’d take an inflatable mat for extra comfort. The tent has a thick carpet floor which protects the mat from sharp rocks however it is good practice just to make sure there is nothing below to puncture it.

I decided against cutting it as I still use it for mountaineering and attached it using 2 bungee cord loops tied to the bottom of my backpack (using 2 stopper knots)


Sleeping bag: I borrowed my friend’s Aegismax sleeping bag (link) which was fine despite the somewhat low temperatures at night.   

 

Cooking

 

I was leant Alpkit’s Mytimug titanium mug (link) by a mate and this worked really well (despite choosing to leave the lid behind). It takes 650ml of water which is generally enough for a porridge breakfast and an instant coffee.

 

I took one box of fuel tablets (ESBIT) that I purchased at the race shop. You’re limited to one pack until everyone has had a chance to buy. I found this was about right to get a fire going which you bolster with dried plants as the main fuel source.

 

A cut down water bottle makes a great cup and means you don’t have to clean the food from your mug afterwards (saving water)

Snapseed.jpg

 

Other gear

 

As well as the above, I also took:

 

1.    Soft ear plugs: Goes without saying, you need good quality sleep and each tent will have someone that snores in it. Take 2 pairs as you generally lose at least one whilst there (I think the camel spiders sneak in and take them to line their nests!)

 

2.    Portable power bank: For charging my mobile and GoPro. This Anker Powercore 10,000AmH (link) is a moderately cheap (c.£25), compact and allowed 4 charges or so – which was fine for the race.

A nice half-bottle of red that came around the MDS with me as a two-fingers to the challenge.

A nice half-bottle of red that came around the MDS with me as a two-fingers to the challenge.

3.    Half a bottle of wine: Yes, genuinely – I believe that no race should ever feel bigger then you. So my way of stealing the MDS’ soul (taken from David Goggins book) was to have a small nip of red wine and offer the same to my tent mates every night. It’s the mountaineer’s mindset applied in the desert (except it’s usually a nice Scottish whiskey).


4.     Hotel slippers. I took some of these, but they only survived 2 days. Next time, I’d take some ultra-cheap flip-flops like these ones from Decathlon (can’t be too upset at losing a £2 set of flip flops!) (link)

 

5.    Windproof matches. Unless you can find some ultra-fine kindling or take tampons with you (great for starting fires by the way), it’s worth taking getting some windproof matches. ESBIT tablets can be hard to light in windy conditions or if they accidentally get wet.

 

6.     IPhone and headphones.  I’m with Vodafone and had reception for a lot of the trip. This meant I could post photos to social media and keep everyone updated off my progress personally. That said, I always ensured it was packed in the main compartment of my backpack, so I didn’t feel the need to incessantly check it. The die-hards and purists out there will no doubt scoff at this statement, however if you’re fundraising for a charity – the engagement may increase donations when people see what you’re actually experiencing (and they feel part of the challenge).


7. Factor 50 Lip salve.  The desert is a hot place (as you’ve probably gathered by now!); and your lips are something you want to save from the sun. Whilst this Uvistat one (link) has a slightly funny taste and leaves you with white lips – it does protect you from burned lips. I kept it in my admin pouch as I needed it every hour (because it washes off when using your bottle) One is fine (unless you lose it obviously)

One of my Top Herd jerky snacks/

One of my Top Herd jerky snacks/

 

Food

 

Perhaps one of the most important parts of the race - as this will undoubtedly be the thing that picks you up when you’re at a low ebb. Also, having spent many months of my life in the desert and hot environments, I know that my appetite massively drops in these places so I’d need something that I actually want to eat in my normal day-to-day life.

 

My strategy around nutrition comes from 15 years of training for and competing in ‘ultra-events’ (Ironman triathlon, Devizes to Westminster canoe race, triple-marathons).

 

My thoughts on:

 

Sugar:  For long day events, I try to avoid anything with sugar in to keep my blood sugar levels as stable as possible (my first Ironman led me to OD on Pepsi during the marathon and found it hard to keep it stable). For the MDS I used a combination of dried mango, cranberries, jelly beans and raisins – however I had to be incredibly disciplined in not eating them all in one go (easier said than done!).

 

Protein:  As a big guy, I need a little more protein than your usual person. My strategy was to eat most of it in the last meal, but also using a few Top Herd jerky snacks as morale during the day time. I’ve used this in the mountains and was pleased when they stayed moist in the desert (in temps up over 40 degrees Celsius).

 

Fat and carbohydrates: As I’d be spending most of my time in zone 2 (burning more fats than carbs), I’d need a fat-heavy diet. But then how do you get that in food that can resist the high temperatures of the desert AND still be palatable? See below for how I managed this.

 

Food weight: My total food weight (not including packaging weighed in at 4.94kg. The advice from various MDS consultants is that your food should weigh around 3.5kg – take this advice if you want, however if you’re a bigger runner; add the extra calories and ignore this advice.

 

Huel: One thing that did interest me was a few racers mixing Huel (link) with their morning Porridge. I’ve been using Huel for a year and can’t believe I didn’t think of this – something I intend to trial over the summer for my next big physical challenge.

 

Calories: The minimum is 2000 Kcal per day (or 14,000 total). I planned on a c.2600 Kcal per day (with a heavy emphasis on food I would actually want to eat). As you can see below, my total calories came to 19,377.5 Kcal.

 

Day 1 .jpg
Day 2.jpg
day 3-4.jpg
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day 5.jpg
day 6-7.jpg
day 7.jpg