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Focus

Apr 03, 2013

Marathon des Sables – one of the world’s toughest footraces

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WRITTEN BY

Gaël Couturier

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The Marathon of The Sands, a 6 stage self-sufficient footrace held in the middle of Morocco’s uninhabited Sahara Desert, is one of the world’s toughest endurance events.

Participants of this six-day ultra marathon are only provided with water and a tent at night. Everything else they need, to survive in the Sahara, must be carried on their back – including food and any gear they choose to take with them. The race stretches across 240 km and the longest stage is about 80 km.

Gael Couturier, The Outdoor Journal Editorial Director and an 8 – time Ironman athlete has been sending us heat-struck, disoriented yet entertaining updates that we’ve decided to share with you, raw and unedited. This is his 5th time at MDS! Stay tuned for daily race updates on this page.

Stage 2, from Oued Tijekht to Jebel El Otfal. 30,7 km.

I had a blast today: lots of rocks, climbs, sand and fortunately not too many sand dunes. I walked for the most part except from Km 19 to Km 24 on a big flat scalding stretch of earth, with absolutely no shade, and nothing but mineral desert landscape. Thanks to the dog skin strengtheners I would put on my feet every night for a month, I still have no blisters while many a pair of feet around me start to fall apart, bloody and riddled with infected blisters. I haven’t yet seen people break down but I have witnessed a tall, strong, Italian-looking triathlete get infused for more than an hour, while the doctor tells me to smile, get up, and go.
Casual MDS update: 18 people dropped out today, and two yesterday while a few needed to be evacuated by helicopter. Around 10 km from the finish line, a particular massive climb nailed more than one runner. I ran it; actually I raced it, in 17 minutes. I’m probably far from the best, of course, but I overtook a lot of people, a lot of people. Hey, it’s super hot here so I’m allowed to show off a little. Runners stopped several times during the big climb, breathing heavily, drinking too much, puking, swallowing sand and going again. Thanks to my heat training in New Delhi (where I live now) and my mountain trail running experience, 4 UTMB’s (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc), I enjoyed the heavy-duty climb. I raced it while listening to “In the Name of Love” by U2 at full speed. Today was definitely one of my best trail running days in a long time. MDS, I love you. Adrenaline and GU energy gels are still running through my veins. Yes, I am a show off today.
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Stage 3
Today’s stage was pretty insane as it was a mix of very boring landscape. Long straight infinite lines, beautiful little sand dunes and high mountainous Jebel providing one with the best perspectives of the desert. Flat terrain with few stones, hilly peaks and rocky peaks, passes and dry lakes, 45 degrees Celsius at 13:00 hours, stony valleys with dead goat skulls, runners on their knees, crying out in pain, 4×4 wheel drives in rescue mode. 
The Marathon Des Sables circus is something to be seen, something to be felt. Today, I felt both lucky to be here, running and living the dream, as well as quite bored, dazed and confused. My legs were heavy, my skin was sunburnt, my feet were hurting– and I was wondering what the hell I was doing here. I was far away from home in a remote place that most living beings, including plants, tend to avoid. After 10.4 km, I could see the first Check Point and I was relieved to regain feeling in my body.
Slowly, I was regaining energy, feeling stronger every time I overtook someone, living happily again. I could see more and more treacherous rocks and I found myself loving it. Bring it on desert; show me what you’ve got! Witnessing my fellow runners suffering made me feel stronger and stronger–my killer instinct was back, I had the eye of the tiger. Music, once again, helped me–mostly U2 and Bon Jovi (don’t judge me). The view up on the Jebel was fantastic–I loved the desert today. I decided not to listen to my mind much, I sort of left my brain at Check Point 2, and so I could alternate between fast walks and slow running, totally unplugged. Just like the previous three days, it took me around eight hours to finish the stage. Tomorrow is the long stage, 75 km! “Be fearless dude!” said the little devil in my head (Must be a local devil with a strange kind of humour, but he’s friendly, I like him)
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Stage 4, Taourirt Mouchanne to Jebel El Mraier, 75.7 km 
Thursday, Bloody Thursday
Today was the long stage. I had decided to stop halfway and spend the night at checkpoint 4, km 45.2. This was a wise plan, as I knew I hadn’t trained enough to be able to go all the way in just one go. To my surprise, my body felt tired the whole time, almost destroyed, from the very first hours of the morning. My legs were sore, my feet had a few blisters and that annoyed me, a lot. I had strengthened my skin with a special dog product long before the race but the desert is raw, cruel and can soften you no matter how tough you think you are.
The last 13 km of that first half were so exhausting; I walked the last bit and literally fell on the ground, fed myself with my dehydrated food and crawled inside my sleeping bag for the night. At 5 am, one hour earlier than before, I was up and ready to go again for the last 30 km. There was a long stretch of dunes to go and I absolutely wanted to do them during the day. Sandy dunes, small stony valleys, sand mounds and camel grass…the terrain was unforgiving, even after a night’s rest. 90% of the runners chose to finish during the night, without spending too much time at checkpoint 4 and touched home a long time before I did. At the last checkpoint, km 65, the docs were exhausted, irritated and barely nice. I was also very tired, bored to death, and irritated. I asked for some sunscreen and they sent me to hell. When I passed the finish line, after almost 40 hours, I almost cried, of joy, pain and relief. I also went straight to the doc, almost collapsed inside the tent and got 3 liters of infusion. Stomach pain, muscle soreness, a headache, and a few drops of blood out of my right arm were my medals today. I am happy, believe me. Sahara, you hurt me today but I still love you. I still love you. Tomorrow is the last stage, a pure marathon : 42 km. Can’t wait for the battle. Bing it on my Sahara.

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Stage 5 : The final leg
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Hundreds of headlamps shone in the middle of the Sahara desert on Monday night, forming a guard of honour to welcome the last five finishers in the 28th edition of the Sultan MARATHON DES SABLES.

As many as 980 out of the initial 1,024 participants started the fifth leg of this year’s MDS.

The coveted trophy for the epic footrace held annually in Morocco where the runners cover 240 km in 7 days was brought back home by 40-year old Mohamad Ahansal (18h.59’35).

A winner on four previous occasions – 1998, 2008, 2009, 2010 – and second a total of 10 times, it seemed effortless for the runner, and quite a family affair. This was the humble Moroccan’s victory statement: “It’s my fifth title but I’m not striving to equal my brother Lahcen’s record (11 titles)”.

And as if they merely exchanged the baton, the first runner-up was last year’s winner Jordanian Salameh Al Aqra (19h.41’15).

But, the legendary race also brought out the winning spirit among European runners too, with close finishers like Spaniard Miguel Capo Soler (20h19’31), Italian Antonio Filipo Solaris (4th), Portuguese Carlos Alberto Gomes de Sa (7th) and some others.

First time women’s winner, American Meghan Hicks (24h42’01) ran everyday in the Utah desert to prepare for the MDS-2013, and also arrived in Morocco two weeks prior to the race, to acclimatize better to the heat.

The final day also featured a unique run for charity across the Merzouga dunes of the South Moroccan Sahara, sponsored by UNICEF .

And after all the running was done, the party started, with runners digging their blistered and bloodied feet one last time into the sand to dance with their companions.

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Gael’s epic finish:

The Outdoor Journal’s Editorial Director Gael Couturier ran his 5th MDS, and sent us daily, heat-struck, disoriented yet entertaining updates which we shared with you, raw and unedited through the race.

Apart from the super-human fitness required to participated in the race, Mr. Couturier banked on deep breathing and yoga during breaks, to help him cross the Sahara’s endless dunes and massive landscapes.

Signing off from the MDS, he says:

“It’s always the same game. I love this. Every time I’m done with this race, I want to do it again, almost right after I pass the finish line. No other race on earth feels the same for me, no marathon, no ultra-running event, no triathlon (and god knows I love Ironman races). I’m usually so tired or bored that I even wonder why I ran it in the first place. But MDS is special, very special.

A friend of mine told me a camel spider tried to get into his sleeping bag on the last day. He had to kill it with his Hoka running shoe. Splatch!

Patrick Bauer had a genius act this year: he replaced the wearisome Paris opera orchestra classical concert with a rock concert in the middle of the desert after the marathon stage. We all sat on the ground until one of us stepped on a scorpion and killed it. We then stood up and went dancing. The desert makes you do stupid, crazy things.

The race, finally over, I felt miserable on the last morning. My feet were so damaged and swollen that they did not fit in my Adidas Boston shoes anymore (My heart goes out to those killed and injured at the Boston marathon).

The run over, I could not wait to head to the comforts of a hotel. I yearned for a swimming pool, a beach towel, a Coke and a deck chair. I was so tired. I know I’m repeating myself here but that’s on purpose. No more shoes, I wore the light flip flops I was carrying with me all week and only took them off on the dunes because the sand was fantstic to massage my feet.

A couple of Japanese runners giggled at me when they passed me, the helicopter hovered above me so the photographer could take a picture of my naked feet. I was walking slowly and playing in the sand like a kid again with some of my friends. One last time, I soaked in the beauty of my surroundings. Blue sky, orange terrain, yellow baby scorpions. That’s all there was. And buildings. Buildings of sand. Those dunes were as tall as NYC skyscrapers. I’m not joking (or high on sand).

MDS FACTS

• 30% renewal of registrations,
• 70% international runners,
• 30% French runners,
• 14% women,
• 45% veterans,
• 30% in teams,
• 10% walkers,
• 90% alternate running and walking,
• 14 km/hr : maximum average speed,
• 3 km/hr : minimum average speed,
• 16 years of age for the youngest,
• 80 years of age for the eldest,
• 120 volunteers to supervise the race,
• 400 people for the general supervision,
• 52 members from the medical team,
• 120,000 litres of bottled water.
Here’s what Gael dealt with on Day Zero 

• 30.7 km, W/SW (course 140°)

• Cross a large track

• Continue W/SW on flat ground

• Cross dunes for 1.2 k

• Climb up Hered Asfer Jebel

• Follow a marked path on the crest

• Cross hilly terrain that descends into a valley before ruin-shaped rocks

Running and storytelling, Gael’s tales from the desert will include how the first bivouac will be erected near the Irhs djebel amidst the setting sun, while participants will take to the sands for scrub downs and to stretch their legs. Others will test their gear.

Common strategy amongst the runners include keeping pace with the Jordanians, Moroccans, Spaniards, Armenians, Finns, Italians, French and every other badass ultra-marathon runner.

Participants include MDS veterans such as Briton Danny Kendal, Rachid El Morabity, and 2012 winner Jordanian Salameh Al Aqra.

Photo © Cimbaly | Pauce – MDS2013

We will be back for MDS 2014!

Place: Morocco


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