Last updated: 24-Aug-18
It’s that time of year again when social media suddenly becomes flooded with shots of golden sand and blue skies, shortly followed by bloody feet and yellow blisters filled with pus. Yes, it is the Marathon des Sables (MDS).
Discovery Channel dubbed MDS the toughest footrace on earth and it is a title that has stuck, even though there are undoubtedly harder races out there. What makes this race so tough is the sheer difficulty of running in very high temperatures across a large expanse of sand.
MDS is a 6-day stage race of 250km which takes place annually in the south of the Morocco in the Sahara Desert and is self-supported. This is the 33rd edition of the event which was started in 1986 by Patrick Bauer, who still addresses the racers every morning before they set off from atop his truck.
This tradition is then followed by “Highway to Hell” booming out from the loudspeakers and the runners are off.
The early stages are around 36km in length and have a cut off time of ten hours. The last stage is the marathon stage which must take under 12 hours. The big one for all the runners, though, is the 80 km stage which has a maximum authorized time of 34 hours. Some runners elect to do this one straight through, others spend part of the night napping at one of the checkpoints set up for that purpose.
Check-points are located throughout the course of each stage of the race. There are two to six check points depending on the length of the stage and each competitor must go through them, if not, penalties will be applied. This allows the race officials to record times and distribute water.
The Marathon des Sables is open to individuals and teams of individuals, amateur and elite runners. With runners coming from all over the world, the MDS is a truly international event that has a positive impact on the local environment and in local communities. Through the MDS foundation Solidarité, runners have raised funds to help hundreds of families.
MDS is a race for runners of all abilities but in the elite category the men’s race has long been dominated by two great Moroccan running families: The Ahansals (15 wins) and the Morabitys (5 wins and 1 second).
Rachid El Morabity is the reigning champion and last year his younger brother, Mohamed, came in second, “I’m training my brother to pass the torch onto him in 4 or 5 years,” said Rachid during the race in 2017.
Last year’s even bigger surprise, though, was Thomas Evans of the UK who put in a truly extraordinary performance to come in third.
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
The women’s field in 2017 also delivered excellent results, with the very popular Elisabet Barnes coming in for a well-deserved second win. Nathalie Mauclair was snapping at her heels.
The race this year will have the reigning champion competing again alongside 1300 other lucky racers. Steve Diederich has been out marking up the course and says, “Overall the conditions on the course weren’t bad, have had a bit of everything – Cold, Heat, Wind (light sandstorms) and even a little rain. It would seem though that it is warming up and stabilising to deliver a range that that we would regard as normal for the MDS. “
And his final thoughts?
“It is a great course, taking in all the iconic areas of the region and a lot of it is tried and tested. It is tough … of course as it is the MDS, however overall the pace of the course is good. You will enter Day 1 feeling great, ready to go … don’t be seduced into “cracking on”. You will really need to hold back on this relatively easy day as Day 2 is challenging and sandy and Day 3 isn’t a walk in the park.
Day 4/5 (Long day) is a classic. If you are a racing snake you will have the opportunity to get ahead, if you are a “completer” then my advice is to keep your average speed up, set yourself some achievable pacing goals and do not spend any unnecessary time at check points … sandbag that time for moving through the cooler evening / night-time hours or grabbing some rest at a later checkpoint.
Talking of the long stage – The moon will be at about 50% at a guess by then and it will be rising late into the night, so night-time will give you some amazing starry views that I really suggest you take advantage off as you will be away from light pollution – so plan taking just 2-3 minutes (I know I told you not to stop earlier … but this really is an exception!).
To turn off your head torch, get your eyes to adapt to the dark and soak in the monumental achievement you are undertaking with your head back looking at the sky … a moment that I doubt you will ever be able to replicate.”
How true! Good luck everyone and happy running.
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