The Marathon Des Sables is hands down one of the hardest races on the planet. The Marathon Des Sables is a 6-day, 159.5 mile (257 km) race across the Sahara Desert. The event, which was conceived by French concert promoter Patrick Bauer, was first held in 1986 with only 23 participants. Since then, over 13,000 competitors have started the 6-day journey. The staged format of the race is similar in style to bicycle races, such as the Tour de France, with the competitor with the lowest overall time named the winner. Competitors will race individually or on teams benefitting charities, and prizes are distributed to top male, top female, top master’s participants, top teams, and stage leaders. During this year’s event, which began on April 10th and will commence on April 16th, 1,109 racers are competing for the top prize of 5,000 Euros for both men and women. Competitors face harsh conditions during each stage of the race, and the exact course is kept secret until two days before the racers embark on their adventure. Each stage ranges from approximately 37 – 80 km long with time limits ranging 9 – 16 hours. Not just a simple race on a marked course, each participant must also navigate his or her way through the desert while facing extreme conditions, painful blisters, hallucinations, and fatigue – all while paying strict attention to the myriad of race rules. Anyone who does not finish each stage within the designated amount of time is disqualified.
After all the recent publicity of “fastest known time” record attempts, where athletes complete courses such as the John Muir Trail over multiple days, you may be wondering what makes Marathon Des Sables different from these other endeavors. The answer lies within the conditions and terrain that runners encounter throughout the race. During the average March or April day in the Sahara Desert, temperatures typically reach 86o F (30o C) and dip to 57o F (14o C) at night. However, more recently, temperatures have reached into the 120o F range, followed by freezing conditions at night – all in the same day! Unlike a regular marathon or ultramarathon, water is not readily available at conveniently located aid stations. Instead, runners are provided water at the beginning of each stage, and are penalized 30 minutes for using more than is allotted, even during emergencies. Even though 10.4 L (approximately 44 cups) of water is provided at the beginning of most legs, this amount may not be enough for those who find the harsh climate of the desert suffocating. Therefore, the necessity of practical rationing gives this race an additional layer of mental difficulty. As if the heat and limited water supply were not difficult enough, the entire race is held on technical terrain, including sand, rocks, and steep dunes that bake in the sun. This year, the race began with the Erg Chebbi, which is Morocco’s largest and most difficult dune field. Encountering a sand storm is also a real possibility, which can leave runners with zero-visibility conditions. Think running a road marathon is hard? Try running six back to back marathons with a pack of gear and water in 120o F temperatures, all while climbing rolling sand dunes!
If you are still not convinced the Marathon Des Sables is the toughest race on Earth, consider that on top of having to complete the 159.5 mile race in extreme conditions with limited water and while traversing calf-searing sand, runners are required to carry a surprising amount of gear for the duration of the race. Gear requirements are strict and include all the food the runner will need for the 6 day journey (a minimum of 14,000 calories is required at the start of the race), a sleeping bag, a head lamp, ten safety pins, a compass with at least 2o precision, a lighter, a whistle, a knife, disinfectant, an anti-venom pump, a signaling mirror, an aluminum survival sheet, a tube of sunscreen, a minimum of 200 Euros, a passport, a signed medical certificate, an electrocardiogram tracing, the road book (which includes the routes for each stage), a distress beacon, a timing chip, salt tablets, toiletries, and the proper identifying marks. Failure to have the required gear leads to time penalties and disqualifications. The only items the race provides is tents for sleeping in, as well as 10.5 – 22.5 liters of water at the start of each leg.
The 2016 race is currently being contested, and runs from April 10 – 16th. As of April 12th, Rachid El Morabity of Morocco has led each of the three stages that have so far been completed. Following relatively close behind is Abdelkader El Mouaziz, also from Morocco, whose closest finish was during the third stage where he trailed by only 21 seconds. The leading female is Natalia Sedykh of Russia, who has finished each stage in 10th – 13th place overall and has maintained a considerable lead over the rotating cast of 2nd place women. With still three days to go, it will be interesting to see whether Rachid and Natalia maintain their leads.
Curious what type of gear each runner carries during the race? The WAA Ultrabag 20L is the official Marathon Des Sables bag, and is used by over 50% of the field. This bag is lightweight (only 590 grams), and was designed specifically with adventure races such as MDS in mind. The 20L compartment compresses down to 4L and is made with the most durable materials with extreme conditions in mind. The WAA Ultra Sleeping Jacket is another go-to accessory of Marathon Des Sables participants, as it is the most efficient sleep system for those participating in multi day races or fastest known time attempts. At only 690 grams, it is guaranteed not to weigh down your pack while still providing optimal warmth in freezing conditions thanks to the 700 fill power goose down.
Want to find out more about the Marathon Des Sables? Go to there main site to see updated results and to enter for 2017! http://www.marathondessables.com/en/