Run 250 km in the desert: let’s go for the Marathon des Sables
It all started in 1984 when Patrick Bauer (who was 28 at the time) embarked on a 12-day self-sufficient journey through the Sahara Desert, covering 350 km on foot. Two years later, the first Marathon des Sables (MDS) was born, with 23 “pioneers” taking up a similar challenge. Since then, Bauer’s event (he remains race director) has grown steadily, with a record 1,300 competitors taking part in the 30th anniversary. race in 2015.
This year’s race, the 36and edition, will feature 1,100 competitors from 50 countries who, like the 25,000 athletes who have taken part in the event since 1986, will face the 250 km course carrying their food and equipment. Every day, the race organizers provide the athletes with water and set up a tent for them to sleep in, otherwise they are on their own. The race has five stages to which is added a “solidarity” or charity stage which does not count for the general classification of the race. The stages range from 30 to 90 km. Athletes only know the official route the day before the official race announcement, but they are assured (according to the event media guide):
- flat terrain, often hard and rocky and suitable for “real runners” as opposed to “trail runners”
- sand (sometimes hard or crusty, but most often soft) that they will have to master (for example by opting for shaded areas so that they sink less because when the sun heats the sand, it becomes softer)
- small, normal and giant sand dunes that will have all competitors drawing on their reserves
- climbs and descents, not very long but often steep, sometimes sandy, sometimes rocky
- technical passages on rocky escarpments and along ridges (the authentic “trail moments” of the MDS)
- gorges which will bring a beneficial and saving shade, during the passage of competitors, and dry wadis (so-called dry riverbeds… but some years, a trickle of water flows!) where competitors can find a little vegetation .
Daily temperatures are generally in the 30s, but can reach up to 45 degrees Celsius. At night, the temperature can drop to 5 C or less. Athletes should pack a week’s worth of food, sleeping bag, compass, knife, lighter, whistle, headlamp, venom extractor, signal mirror and sunscreen. They are also equipped with a GPS beacon so that the organizers can follow the athletes at all times. The race takes place in the middle of the desert so that it can take place in complete isolation and ensures that the athletes do not receive any assistance.
COVID-19 and MDS
35 years old last yearand edition took place last fall after being postponed three times. It was a difficult year for the event, with an athlete suffering cardiac arrest on the first stage, then a gastrointestinal bug tearing up the field, leading almost 50% of participants to withdraw, far more than the normal 5 to 10 percent of the attrition rate the event typically sees.
Triathlon Canada magazine editor Kevin Mackinnon will be on hand to cover this year’s race, one of 65 accredited journalists covering this year’s MDS. It will provide updates and photo galleries throughout the first days of racing in Morocco. There will be 15 Canadians competing at MDS 2022. Stay tuned for more from Morocco in the coming days.