MDS 2021: The desert bites back

‘Unique. In the 13 years I have been involved, I have never seen conditions or the effect of events and conditions on the runners like this. We are proud to have worked really hard at MDS to systematically reduce the DNF rate. Last edition was 5% which, given the challenges and conditions of the race, we think is a remarkable achievement. This year I felt really sad,’ was Steve Diederich’s, who organises the UK contingent of MDS, reaction to this year’s race.

So, what happened? 

Shockingly, the course claimed a life. A French runner collapsed on day two and was unable to be revived in spite of the best efforts of fellow runners, who were also doctors, and subsequently the medical team. For the field as a whole,  the drop-out rate was ten times its normal rate. The race, went from 5% DNF to around 50% this year. Of the 672 starters, only half made it to the end. The highest single drop-out rate (77 runners) was at the departure after Bivouac 3. 

Some runners felt anger, all felt disappointment: ‘My main feeling is that I was denied that opportunity (to finish) by “whatever”. The whatever is controversial. Was it a D+V bug? Was it that the race was too hot? I did feel there was a lack of flexibility (from the organisers)…. I lost all confidence in them looking after us.’

Due to Corona, the race had been postponed three times. Everyone was keen for it to go ahead but right until the last couple of weeks, there were questions over ability to travel, corona testing, and another postponement. 

One theory posited for the high failure rate was that the runners, due to all the postponements, were not in the condition they needed to be. This was posted by the organisation: “Frédéric COMPAGNON, Medical Director of MARATHON DES SABLES,  hypothesized that the participants had not been able to live their passion for running normally over the past two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Travel restrictions, cancelled races, low morale: difficult to arrive as ready and motivated as usual at the start.’ 

Many of those who withdrew contested this fiercely. ‘My training has gone great. I did a 100-miler in June in 21 hours and 2 x 50-mile PBs. It is the fittest I have ever been,’ said John Linington. ‘For me it was the heat and if there was a virus, I picked it up. There was nothing anyone could have done. I was just unlucky.’ John will be back in March to finish what he says is unfinished business.

October in the desert of southern Morocco is hot, but usually not much hotter than April when the race is generally run. This year, it was significantly hotter. Tying down temperatures is difficult with reports varying from 38° to 60° but what is clear is that the heat was a real factor. 

The sheer force of it meant that many people who had trained to run, just couldn’t, making their time out in the heat even longer. ‘I had planned for seven hours rather than 10,’ a veteran MDSer told me.  For Cathy Searle, the heat forced her out at CP1 on Day 3. ‘I pulled out because of heat exhaustion. I was sick but I don’t think I had a D+V bug. I did have embarrassing diarrhoea in front of the checkpoint, though. I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t think I’d finish. I entered because it is promoted to amateur runners. I feel gutted but I don’t regret the decision to pull out. I know that was the right decision at the time.’

‘I couldn’t make the cut offs,’ Mags McHardy said. ‘I was going from bush to bush which left me with not enough time. I needed to rest in the shade but I generally felt ok. I actually got sick on the bus on the way back.’

Diarrhoea and vomiting  and the subsequent dehydration was a major factor in many runners’ decision to DNF. Some believe they got food poisoning, some that it was heatstroke, some that there was a type of norovirus that swept the camp. There is no confirmation from the organisers as to what the cause was. The nights in the bivouac were described as a hideous cacophony of people retching and voiding their bowels. The traditional one brown bag a day given to competitors was upped to three and the toilet areas were full. With no water to wash in, keeping clean was hugely challenging, and a disaster for those who had not been able to get outside/to a toilet in time. Extra drips were brought in by the organisation to try and cope – one runner told me he had used three in a row before he was able to get up. 

‘Everyone feels very frustrated. I’ve done it before. In general if you are fit enough and mentally strong enough, you are going to  finish. When you look at what happened and the carnage, there has obviously been a D+V bug  and that’s what brought people down,’ said one runner who has previously run the race.

Another major reason quoted was fear of coming to serious harm. ‘It was like a war zone.’ ‘There were people on drips everywhere.’ ‘There is a REAL risk now which I didn’t think there once was’. 

One thing that was mentioned many times was the speech that MDS Organiser, Patrick Bauer, gave at the start of the long stage. He told the runners that with 20% of his team down due to sickness, they should not leave a checkpoint if they were not sure they could get to the next one. 

Emma Burton had not got sick and was managing reasonably well but had been dreading climbing the high hill (Jebel) in the long stage. ‘I found out that the Jebel was at night. I saw how stretched the medics were and how many people were ill. If I got lost or fell, the increased risk of not being found in time was much, much higher and I had promised my family I would go home.’

For the 50% who made it to the finish line, it was a truly epic effort. The line of racers checking in to the Berber Palace Hotel looked even gaunter than usual. Many of them had barely eaten for days. ‘I did the long stage on a cuppa soup.’

 Jonathan Everton-Wallach came 229th overall. ‘I am absolutely delighted. The team spirit was fantastic and six of us out of the eight in the tent made it. The long stage was absolutely brutal. Three of us from the tent did it together. After the first marathon I felt awesome. Then night fell. People started to go in the wrong direction. I followed my compass and got it right so I was very pleased that the compass was an integral part of the kit.’

Lynne Lamont (finisher): ‘In the morning, going up the Jebel on the last day, it was a lovely moment. I’m so pleased to finish. Doesn’t matter where I came. It was a case of survive and get to the end.’

Chris Hewett (finisher): ‘At 2 am on the long day I was a husk. I took a salt tablet and a swig of water and then I was on my knees throwing up in a puddle of sick, bathed in the light of 4 headtorches. I knew my MDS was over but there was no point in staying where I was so I picked myself up and we headed off again. At CP5 below the Jebel, I just wanted to watch the dawn and the headtorches of my friends heading up it. But I sat down on a chair(!) and had tea. 10 minutes later I was on my way.’

Now that the race is done, won once again by the 8-time champion, Moroccan, Rachid El Morabity and for the first time by the brilliant young Moroccan runner, Aziza Raji, and the runners are home, Steve Diederich is looking to see what can be learnt. ‘I want to talk to everyone and the first thing I am doing is putting together a questionnaire covering how people felt about the race, success points, failure points and suggestions.’

Some suggestions have already come in. One runner, who has experience in holding big events said, ‘I would’ve supplied toilet paper, extra Imodium, unlimited water, reduced the stages, started the long stage three hours earlier, assessed the situation and changed the goal posts accordingly.’

Ian J Corless, veteran runner and photographer has covered hundreds of ultras and has this to say: ‘MDS is a self-sufficient race that tests body and mind over multiple days covering 250km. The route is not fixed. The weather unpredictable. It’s an extreme event that requires the participant to manage the physical and mental side to achieve a finish. This is the challenge. This is why it’s tough. And 50% of the 2021 race managed all those elements to achieve a medal despite extreme heat and sickness. 

I personally witnessed MDS staff/ crew work tirelessly, as always, to make the race safe and help runners achieve their goals.

Without doubt additional stress was placed on all this year and I am sure lessons can be learnt. One would hope there is a debrief and the whole team can assess where, if required, improvements can be made.’

Alice Morrison ran the race in 2014 and loved Morocco so much she stayed. Her MDS story and more tales are in her book Adventures in Morocco

"It’s an extreme event that requires the participant to manage the physical and mental side to achieve a finish. This is the challenge. This is why it’s tough"

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