The Marathon Des Sables is often billed as “The Toughest Footrace on Earth”. It’s a multi-day ultra in the Sahara desert, and it’s route and distances change slightly every year, but generally comprises 3 days of just under a marathon, a long day of around a double-marathon distance, a rest day (if you’ve finished the previous stage already), a marathon, and a “fun run” of approximately 10-15km for UNICEF. I can’t remember when I first read about this race, but it has been on my bucket list for a very long time. Work and finances had always gotten in the way, but in October when I was taking my personal training course, I realised I had the time and freedom to do it that when I returned to medicine full time, I might not have again. I looked on the site, and saw it was full, but put my name on the waiting list, reading I could have to wait 2/3 years! However the next day, I got a call saying there had been a dropout and I could have the place if I committed to it right away. I was in!!
In the grand scheme of things, I’d signed up quite late. The race was just 6 months away, and the circus was already in full motion. The Facebook group and website were an overwhelming source of information and debate. What to eat? What to wear? How to train? Which shoes? Which sleeping bag? Which pack? Weight – of your kit and yourself! There is so much information out there, and much of it is incredibly useful, but much of it is scaremongering and should be taken with a pinch of salt. What works for one person, may not work for you. It’s completely individual (unlike what certain coaches out there will have you believe), and if you’ve got much running experience, (which most people signing up for this event will), you will know what shoes suit you and which will tear your feet up. You need to adapt what you know to desert conditions, and you need to make decisions and stick with them, and you need to remember why you’re doing this. Enjoy!
Many people recommend back-to-backs. Long runs on Saturday and Sunday a few weekends in the last couple of months before the race. I have very little patience to run 20 miles by myself, especially not two days in a row, so I entered some races and made sure to run 8-10 miles the day after every marathon/ultra I did.
My long runs included:-
6/12/14 Brecon Beacons Might Contain Nuts 45miles
17/1/15 Country to Capital 45 miles
24/1/15 Viking Marathon, Kent
1/2/15 Watford Half Marathon
20&21/2/15 Long runs in sand dunes, S. Wales
1/3/15 Newport Half Marathon
7/3/15 Greenman Ultra 45 miles
14/3/15 London run with a few other MDS’ers
22/3/15 Citrus Trail Marathon, Florida
29/3/15 Tomoka Marathon, Florida
A couple of races I didn’t do pre-MDD because of how late I signed up, but would definitely recommend for prep are the Druids and Pilgrims Challenges by XNRG (one 3 and one 2 day multi-day ultras, Druids blog to come).
The sand dune training was really important. I went to stay at my parents in Porthcawl, South Wales a few times. One weekend, I went with a couple of tent mates and ran about 20 miles two days in a row. Friday we did Parkrun then did 20 miles, turning left and running along the beach towards Ogmore and Merthyr Mawr, some of the biggest sand dunes in Europe and filming location for Lawrence of Arabia. Saturday, we ran along the beaches, bumped into a group of runners wearing packs and tell-tale gaiters (fellow MDSers) and through the sand dunes of Kenfig Nature Reserve towards Port Talbot and back.
As well as training on sand, practicing on other tricky terrains is beneficial, be it thick mud, cross country or just lots of hills. I spent a week in Mallorca in November with my parents, where we did some hill walking (and I did a bit of running), and a fortnight in Florida with family where I ran a couple of races and called it “heat training”. I ran and raced cross country with CLC striders, a brilliant welcoming running club in Cheltenham, and later in my training started running to and from sessions to up the mileage. Thanks Striders! I benefited from runs up Cleeve Hill near Cheltenham, and also worked a few night shifts in Bournemoth A&E, so I could do some long runs on the beach in the day.
Also of utmost importance; training with a pack, and not just that, but a full pack with the weight your likely to be carrying at the start of the race. It’s a good idea to pack your actual gear in, rather than filling it with sand or dumbbells to see how the weight distribution feels and it will help guide you in the way you pack the bag, which is harder than it sounds! I once did reps up and down the biggest sand dune in Merthyr Mawr with a full pack in the pitch black after working a gynae on call shift at Merthyr Tydfil hospital, my dad standing at the top of the dune with a torch. Thanks dad!
Kit is a huge topic. The marathon des sables requires you to carry all of your food, clothes, sleeping bag, and other kit for the week. It is obvious that lighter kit will be of benefit, but this inevitably costs more money. A few times I skimped in buying cheaper versions of things (shorts & headtorch being two examples) and ended up ultimately buying the more expensive version too. I bought my main items at MyRaceKit near Southend in Essex. The shop is owned by Colin and Elisabet Barnes, both MDS alumni, and Elisabet went on to win in 2015. She took one look at me and put a bag on my back, which was perfect. I’ve found it really difficult to find hydration packs to fit well in the past, and this was the one (and just so happened to be the same one the champ herself uses). She showed me a few more and I tried them out on the treadmill in the shop, under the discerning eye of Stig, the Great Dane, and it just went to prove the first one was the one. I also bought my sleeping bag, cook set, mandatory emergency kit, cap with neck flap, and some toe socks. I’ll talk about my kit in more detail, what worked and what didn’t in my second post on MDS.
Ooooh, I LOVE food, but way to make it stressful! Feeding yourself for a week of intense running means maximum calories for minimum weight. There was a lot of online discussion about picking more savoury things, people saying you’d crave these things in the desert and that your tastebuds wouldn’t want the same things there as usual. This just left me asking “so what will they want?!” Some people were precision weighing and planning, things such as one macadamia nut every 30 minutes and one date ever hour. People were testing dehydrated food packs at home to choose the ones they liked, but these things are expensive so I just picked one for each day and hoped for the best! I’ll discuss what I actually took, what worked and what didn’t in more detail in my second MDS post.
The build up was intense, there was so much questioning of my choices, backtracking, panicking, debating, and excitement. If you’re preparing for the MDD, don’t forget what I’ve already said: remember why you signed up, try not to stress, ignore the scaremongerers and enjoy every second.