The MDS and the toughest FOOT race in the world

Last updated: 20-Aug-18

By Dave Heeley

Training for the Marathon des Sables, MDS, is now very intense. We are pretty well running every day; there is also an element of cycling and now more walking. Although we intend to run as much of the event as possible, listening to many who have undertaken the event before, especially Tony one of my guides, there will also be elements of the event that we will have to walk as at times the terrain will dictate this.

For the latter few months when out walking with Seamus, my guide dog, I always have a pack on with around 10k of weight, even more when the shopping is added! The idea is to get strength in the legs and getting used to using all muscle groups, so over the past couple of weeks we have introduced at least one day of walking the hills and valleys, carrying extra weights in our packs and I have to say it brings up the heart rate some!

Over the latter couple of weeks we have walked the hills around Shropshire, in and around the Wrekin and Much Wenlock, these seem to be instant hills, out of the car, a couple of steps and then your climbing. Hills! I’d call them mountains!

On the 18th January I was rudely introduced to the Wrekin, the top of it, although for a few weeks before we had run around them, now there’s a good old black country saying, round the Wrekin but must admit never thought I’d actually run round them. But on Sunday 18th, we drove 80 plus miles to Helsby, with a view to running a half marathon up there. However with the weather, bad as it was, on arriving and getting kitted up we were informed the race was off, so 80 plus miles back down the motorway, rather than waste a day’s training we decided to walk up the Wrekin.

In fact it seemed we were very greedy, we did it twice, up then down, up and then down again, with packs, weight, heavy coats we certainly added a layer of sweat and the legs also knew they had done some walking. It took us a couple of hours and for a Sunday afternoon was very surprised at how many people were also around, it’s also amazing who you bump into! Halfway down my name was shouted and low and behold another guide dog owner and her husband were walking, young Tina who I met many years ago, in Leamington, whilst training with my second dog Carla. Tony was also very explanative, describing various sights and landmarks as we walked.

At the top there was the obligatory table top north, south, east and west sign, detailing the direction and distances of various towns, I didn’t realise West Brom was quite the distance away! There is also a small structure that is aligned to giving a bearing when ordinance survey maps are calculated. Also, the views described to me were breath taking. Mind the difference in the weather over our two climbs, on the first as I said Tony could see for miles and all around, at the second climb it was so misty he couldn’t see past the ridge. The weather on our second descent also changed, from cool but dry, to snowing and freezing cold, but all in all with the surface under foot too changing, grass to gravel, rocky and then soft it was certainly an interesting climb.

Last week we ventured towards Church Stretton and Much Wenlock, attempting another couple of hills, the Lawley and the Caradoc. At 7 in the morning the weather was fresh and the ground somewhat frosty. Dressed warm, back packs loaded with 10k weights, a sandwich and a drink and as we were walking we took Seamus along with us, he doesn’t know it yet but he’s signed up for any walking! We headed for the top, a good steady climb, heart rate up and as Tony explained the sun was just starting to rise.

Towards the top I found a steep icy patch, feet slipping I slid backwards, with the weight of the pack, being tied wrist to wrist with Tony I pulled him along too. In a flash I had thoughts of the two of us going back down that hill, rolling over and over with feet, arms and legs flailing, but as luck had it we slid around 10 foot and unceremoniously hit the floor, amazing it all happened so quickly. Dave Lewis, Tony’s friend, who was also walking with us found it highly amusing, until Seamus running behind him it appeared, caught the back of his legs and low and behold he also hit the floor, so that’s all three of us down, at least it gave us something to smile about!

We reached the brow of the hill, without further incident and from the cover of the slope, suddenly exposed the wind howled, strong and chilly. We walked on and over the top, Tony giving me a description of the views, once again breath-taking, then standing listening I realised and said that some 45 years ago I actually did my field study course from school in this district, never thought I’d revisit and use these hills as a place to train for such an event. Reaching the top meant we had to go down the other side, it was steep, slippery at times but the descent was the part I didn’t like too much, gave my knees some pain, but you go up you have to come down.

At the bottom we passed through part of the village of Much Wenlock, at this time in the morning it was quite sleepy, with the smell of log fires and the sound of flowing water it was so peaceful and seemed so tranquil, so we trudged up the road a little way and then entered onto another climb, the Caradoc.

By this time the sun was up, the air was fresh and there now seemed a few more people walking and also some running, we climbed. On this hill, crossing fields we were confronted with a couple of stiles, a couple of which were easy to get Seamus over or through but the last one which took us to the very top Seamus would not for any persuasion go over, so Dave Lewis continued the 200 yards to the top and Tony and myself waited with Seamus, I will get there next time.

We started back down the Caradoc, back through the village and up and over the Lawley, no more incidents just a lot of heavy breathing, with the legs beginning to feel they had worked hard, we spent a good few hours over there with the hope it would all be worth it.

Once again it’s amazing who you meet on these occasions and at the top of the Lawley having a couple of photos taken with a monument of sorts, a chap stopped and began chatting about Seamus. It turns out he is a puppy walker for guide dogs and so conversation started. He then, as a local, went on to give some history about the surrounding hills, in particular the Caradoc. It appears back in the day when the Romans invaded there was a battle at that hill and although the Romans won, it appears they took the King or leader, who was called Caradoc, back to Rome and because of how he fought so courageously, they named the hill after him. If true I don’t know but one thing I must say I’m glad I didn’t come across any soldiers in those days, fighting and climbing these hills they must have been fit lads!

Like always it was a fruitful morning in a training sense. But one thing, whether we’re training in a running sense or walking, the best part is when you’ve finished and you’re sitting in the warmth of the car. Regardless, there is a lot more training in front of us until we depart for the desert on 3rd April.


"Over the past couple of weeks we have introduced at least one day of walking the hills and valleys, carrying extra weights in our packs"

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REVIEW The MDS and the toughest FOOT race in the world

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Date Range

Global - Virtual


A virtual race which can be run at any time shown on the dates shown, on any type of terrain in any country.

Suitable for

For runners from beginners to experienced as you choose your own course and challenge based on the guidelines and options set by the virtual race organiser.

Endurance - Multi-activity


An ultra distance race including at least two of the following activities such as running, swimming, cycling, kayaking, skiing and climbing. It may also include different climatic conditions (eg ice, snow, humidity, cold water, mud or heat).

Suitable for

Experienced multi-skilled athletes who have trained for the different activities included in this event. Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements and any specialist equipment required such as a wetsuit, skis or a mountain bike.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with very challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity, heat or at high altitude)

Suitable for

Very experienced long distance ultra runners (min 3 years’ experience) or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races is often subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Purchase of specialist kit is often recommended for these races.



Increase of up to 2000 metres with some challenging climatic conditions (e.g. ice, snow, humidity or heat)

Suitable for

Experienced runners who have completed at least 4 ultras in last 12 months, or are doing regular long distance running (>50 miles) with elevation and conditions shown (where possible). Admission to these races may be subject to receipt of a recent medical examination certificate. Check with the race organiser regarding entry requirements.



Increase of up to 1500 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed several ultra distances or similar events, or are doing long distance running regularly, with elevation shown.



Increase of up to 1000 metres

Suitable for

Runners who have completed at least one ultra in last 6 months or are doing long distance running (>26 miles) regularly, with elevation shown.



Very little change < 500 metres

Suitable for

First ultra event. Runners completing a marathon or doing regular long distance running (>26 miles) in the last 6 months.