hy Run the Marathon Des Sables
The Marathon des Sables is labelled as ‘the toughest footrace on earth’ which is probably not far off the truth. Covering approximately 150 miles in 6 days in some of the harshest and most desolate conditions on Earth in temperatures of over 50 degrees centigrade tests your mind nd body at their absolute limits.As a first timer to this event and having had no experience running on such terrain or in such temperatures preparing for this event was extremelly difficult. I struggled to imagine, far less experience, knowing how the conditions would affect my performance and I was at a loss as to how to training for what was to come.
I signed up for the event two years before the start and my preparation mapped itself out in the following way.
Firstly, I wanted to get a feel of what I could expect during the race, so, I read some books and blogs of previous competitors, attended seminars and met with a few of the more 'local to me' finishers.
Once I'd started to take in this information it became apparent to me that high fitness levels would be required, first hand experience of multi day events would help with understanding pacing and what would be necessary for recovery.
By competing in events that would push my body to its limits, improving my endurance levels and the giving me insight into the importance of good nutrition, hydration and electrolyte replacement and finally I would learn how essential it is to keep your feet in good condition, blister free.
Training for the MdS
Over the course of the two years I signed up for various events always making sure I had a new target every time I completed the last. For the first six months I worked on general fitness, increasing my running distances.
I'd never run a marathon before so this was my first target and then, over the next twelve months, I had entered and completed a two day ultra of 66miles, various other marathons, a host of self made ultra runs between 30 and 40 miles, the South Downs Way 100 mile Ultra, an Ironman and a 3 day ultra of 90 miles.
I had also tried to factor in some sand dune running but time never allowed for this and so I had to make do with boggy mud, snow and shingly beaches.
6 months before the MdS and most of my training runs, including a 50mile ultra, then included carrying a rucksack with between 5-8kg of weight inside.
I was delighted with what I had achieved in training and doubt that I could have prepared myself much better balancing the time available between work, family and training.
Wether it would be enough to make the Marathon des Sable more comfortable was yet to be seen but in myself I knew that whatever the Sahara threw at me, I would be crossing the MdS finish line.
Beyond the physical training I also had to consider a few other things. First, and hugely importantly, was my feet and more spicifically what to wear on them. I went to my local running shop, explained what I was doing and they gave me some Brooks Cascadia to try; It was a case of first time lucky for me as I found them very comfortable.
I was also told by a previous competitor that I should consider getting my event trainers a size bigger and to also run in a pair of Injinji toed liner socks with another pair of X socks over them. I used this set up for all my races and. other than blistering on my little toes, it worked well until I was introduced to silicon toe caps which prevented the blistering.
The final area of preparation for me was nutrition and hydration. On nutrition, the minimum requirement for the event is 2000kcal per day, which considering would burn 2000+ each day anyway was well under what was required to maintain body weight.
The problem with taking more calories, however, is that they weigh more; which when carrying on your back each day is problematic. This means you are left with a trade off between kcal and weight. In the end I settled at approximately 2500kcal per day and 3500kcal on the long day of 50 miles.
For my hydration I had settled for two 750ml bottles fixed to my front rucksack straps and intended to take the salt tablets they issued to us each day with one bottle and use electrolyte tablets with the other to give the luke warm water some taste.
Running the Marathon des Sables
Fast forward into the desert and it was time to see how my training and strategy would cope. Well I was pleased with my training, it had given me a large endurance base which really was tested in the conditions the Sahara presented.
My body had to contend with the sapping and draining terrains from soft sand, to shale, to rocks all of which were absolutely exposed to the blazing sun and it's not too shabby temperatures 52 degree centigrade, sometimes completely without any breeze.
I found running early, in the slightly cooler temperatures, and slowing to a shuffle/walk when faced with an uphill or when the temperature raised was the best way for me to control my body and to operate in the harsh conditions.
I would eat snacks little and often during the run while regularly sipping on water with salt and electrolytes to suit the volume consumed. I would also make sure I took on all the water that was left in my bottles as I approached an aid station to refill my bottles. On average we were issued nine litres of water per day.
After each days run it was generally back to the tent to put your feet up while downing a recovery shake. Once rested it was time to sort any foot issues that had occured through the day before eating dinner.
By the time it got dark, not long after 7.30pm, it was usually time for bed, I would be found in my sleeping bag drifting off within about an hour of my head touching the pillow and rising the next morning at 5.30am to get ready to go again.
There was no shortage of resting opportunities, but then again in the middle of the Sahara there really isn't much to do.
As the days went by I felt myself acclimatise. The heat became slightly easier to operate in, although that was countered by the lower energy levels courtesy of a pretty hefty calorie defecit.
A healthy dose of suncream application and lip balm before the start usually lasted through the day and I fortunately avoided any burning.
After each day there was usually the odd blister or two on my toes that needed some tending to, but on the long day a particularly nasty one developed on the ball of my right foot making the last day extremelly uncomfortable running. Fortunately, by that stage I really didn’t care, I just knew that the finish line was near and I just had to carry on and finish.
Using the magnificent power of hindsight I can hoenstly say that I don’t think I would do anything differently. I would maybe throw in some more longer training runs but balancing work, running and home-life is important to me so it is unlikely I would want to change that.
I would consider a more varied menu and not using a larger trainer size but apart from that I can sit and look at my finishers medal and remember a truly amazing experience.