The toughest foot race on Earth kicks off on April 6th. It’s a grueling multi-stage adventure through formidable landscape in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates – the Sahara desert in southern Morocco. The annual Marathon des Sables, better known as MdS, is now in its 30th consecutive year. Ready to lace up?
The race attracts about 1,300 international participants who will spend six days crossing about 240 km of difficult desert terrain (nearly equal to six regular marathons). Modestly billed as a “foot race”, the ultra-marathon is open to runners and walkers, to individuals and teams, and to amateur and elite runners. MdS grows in popularity every year, and getting a place in the race isn’t easy: subscriptions to the 2016 race are already fully booked – racers pre-register years in advance.
The rules require you to be completely self-sufficient from breakfast time on April 6 until lunch on April 12. The organizers provide water refills and tents for nighttime sleeping, but racers must carry all other personal supplies and equipment in backpacks as they trek.
This includes food, an intimidating prospect since participants must pack enough chow to replace 3,000-4,000 calories per day and food choices must withstand daytime temperatures that hover at 100°F. It’s all about weight balancing so your groceries don’t hinder your movement across changeable terrain, and easy prep (want to cook? you’ll have to carry fuel, matches, stoves). This race is as much about project management as it is about physical endurance. Survivors must manage strength, food and water needs for a week.
It began in 1984 when a French concert promoter set out for an epic walk across the Sahara desert, with a goal of covering 300 km carrying everything he would need on his back. Patrick Bauer survived and, transformed by his experience, decided to organize an event that would replicate it for others. After two years of logistics and fundraising, he launched the first ‘Marathon of the Sands’ in 1986, attracting 186 competitors. The event has matured over 30 years; the King of Morocco His Highness Mohammed VI now opens the race for the thousands of racers, organizers and media that descend on his kingdom.
Conducting a race of this enormity in a spectacular (and spectacularly inhospitable) part of the world puts environment at the forefront for both racers and organizers. MdS also has a socially responsible aspect.
MdS founder Bauer and his wife Marie set up the Solidarite foundation in Ouazarzate (south Morocco) to support to encourage sports development and education. They teach women to read and write and how to adopt best practice with regards to hygiene and healthcare. Children take part in sports camps, including excursions to the seaside where they learn to swim and sail. All money raised goes directly to the cause, nothing is used for fundraising, admin or marketing. (The Solidarite website details their projects.)
Villages along the path of the race are also supported with donations of books and agricultural tools, and projects to develop water wells and water purification systems.
Over the course of the event, racers consume over 120,000 liters of drinking water, distributed in bottles each marked with the racers’ official competition number. It’s forbidden to dump empty bottles (or their caps) along the race route. Litterers are tracked and penalized on race points. To make sure that no rubbish is left at overnight camps or along the race course, a sweep-up crew follows race progress. Other than foot tracks, it is impossible to see where camps set up.
A slot in the race doesn’t come cheap. Entry costs for this year’s race was over $5,500 for each entrant and almost $5,800 for team entrants. A amount of spaces are earmarked for charity organizations, including Solidarite, which racers can apply for in return for specified minimums of fundraising.
Peak your interest? Don’t let the years-in-advance booking fool you. You’ll need to start training and preparing your body with the right diet six to twelve months before the race.