Marathon Des Sables; My Experience Running 6 Marathons in 6 Days in the Sahara
What is the Marathon Des Sables?
Check out my FAQ article for the Marathon Des Sables (aka the MDS) for quick answers to the big questions. This article is more about my feelings about the whole amazing experience, and how the actual thing plays out when you’re there, living it.
The Marathon Des Sables is a super long race operated each April, roughly 6 marathons (it differs each year but normally somewhere between 210 km to 260 km in total). It’s always run in Sahara desert, in Morocco quite near the Algerian border. Each year roughly 1000 people compete in it. The whole expedition takes 10 days. But the race itself takes 6.
A Self-sufficient Race
It’s a ‘self-sufficient’ race. That means you have to carry everything you need for the whole 6 days on your back as you run. All your clothing, sleeping bag and mat, medical equipment and food. Everything except for water, which is supplied every 10/15 km at checkpoints along the way, and your Bivouac which you sleep under each night on the ground. A bivouac is a kind of primitive tent, just a piece of material thrown over a few sticks.
So that’s it. A long race, in the Moroccan desert, 6 days, 6 marathons with a double marathon on day 4. Doesn’t seem that hard when I write it down like that. Rest assured, it was much harder.
My thoughts before the Marathon Des Sables
Seems like a lifetime ago, but I wrote a quick blog post about signing up for the Marathon Des Sable way back in August 2018, ready for the April 2019 race. In that article, I mention that I’m not a runner, not by a long shot. In fact, I’ve only ever run more than 10 km once before signing up for the 2019 Marathon Des Sables, and that was when I ran the North Pole Marathon (yup, at the North Pole, and yup it was freezing). So my thoughts before the MDS were ones of trepidation and fear.
Why so scared? Well, I hate to say this, and it’s quite depressing actually but I’m pretty convinced that, naturally, my body isn’t very strong. Not only that but I’m 35 now and recovery takes a little longer these days. I’ve had so many injuries it’s crazy. A broken foot in Korea, broken ankle in Norway, broken leg in Thailand, broken nose in Ireland, broken arm in UK, broken hands, more arms, more noses elsewhere. Slipped 2 discs in my back in Australia. Ripped my shoulder out in a waterpark last year back when I visiting my mum at home.
Oh and then I managed to get a stress fracture from overtraining less than a month before the actual Marathon Des Sables when I was training in Bangkok. All-in-all, I’m not cut out for this hardcore kinda stuff. Or at least my body isn’t, but they say it’s all in the mind right? So I figured I’d give it a shot.
Planning for the Marathon Des Sables
I knew it would be hard. But I know I’m a stubborn guy so as long as I could run, walk, or crawl I wouldn’t quit. Each year around 1000 people sign up, so my first goal was just to finish the thing. That was the main target.
After failing to summit South America’s highest mountain a few months ago in December 2018, risking the ‘hardest footrace in the world’ was so scary. Risking failing again. Eurgh, I don’t know how I could take Round 2. But hey, I was trying not to think like that. Gotta push ourselves. EDIT 2021 I went back to Aconcagua and summited last year!
Training & A Pre-Stress Foot Fracture
So I planned to train hard, 6 months or so. I would be climbing Aconcagua 4 months before, so I’d also be training for that, I figured 2 birds/1 stone. Before long I was doing up to 100 km of running per week. I was still operating my Mudita Adventures non-profit foundation during training though so training often constituted running between 5-25 km on treadmills in hotels in Nepal, Cambodia, Northern Thailand, London etc.
Not ideal. Also, considering the actual MDS requires you to compete with a bag on your back the whole time. Not once did I train with a bag. A big mistake.
And then disaster struck, 25 days before Race Day 1 I was in a hospital in Bangkok with my foot not being able to squeeze into my Nikes. Pre-stress fracture on the top of my foot. Devastated. I hit the physio almost every day. Smashing calcium tablets, multi-vitamins, super alkaline diet. But I didn’t run 1 more metre until day 1 of the race. Not perfect prep. That meant in the 4 weeks leading up to the race, I didn’t train once. I didn’t even run once.
New Sneakers for Race Day? Moronic
Oh and the week before I flew to Morocco? I decided I should get some proper sneakers to run. First time I used them was Day 1 of the Marathon Des Sables. Idiot. Check my blog on how best to train for the MDS vs how I trained for the MDS too. It should help you guys once you’ve signed up. Enough moaning though. So how did it actually go?
My experience with the Marathon Des Sables
I had signed up to for the Marathon Des Sables through the UK and Ireland operator, MarathonDesSables.co.uk (as opposed to the global operator at MarathonDesSables.com). That means that although it’s about 1kGBP or so pricier, you don’t have to think about anything in terms of logistics other than being in Gatwick airport on April 5th.
It gives you access to an amazing FaceBook group where people share tips, training schedules, thoughts on gear. It also gives you access to an MDS Expo in London 6 months before the event. All-in-all, if you can afford the extra money, it’s a better product and much easier to organise logistics this way around.
Flying to Ouarzazate, Morocco
From there, all you need to do is show up at Gatwick Airport for your charter flight to Ouarzazate, Morocco. On April 5th I did just that. The people you meet at registration, on the flight to Morocco, mingling at immigration. These are the strangers you’re going to end up sleeping under the stars with, in your Bivouac. Remember? The nomadic tent, that you sleep shoulder-to-shoulder with 7 strangers in each night.
Regarding the self-sufficient nature of the race, the only thing you don’t need to carry as you run is water, and the tent. Each evening when you hobble into camp, your tent will be waiting for you.
When you land in Morocco, you have a 5-hour bus journey to the desert firing. On arrival there, you go straight to the Bivouac. At this stage, you still have your suitcase, so you make yourself comfortable, chat with your new buddies, and try to get used to sleeping on the sand floor with very little space. The next day, your suitcase is taken, and all you have left is your running backpack. You’re now officially self-sufficient. Good luck.
Another night with your new friends, this time without any luxuries you may have had in your suitcase, like deodorant for example. Things quickly get real. It’s great sharing stories with your new campmates, and the calibre of people you meet here is so humbling. 7 summits, rowing the Atlantic, crossing Antarctica, there’s something about these type of events that bring a seriously inspirational group together. Prepare to be motivated like never before. These people are amazing.
Day 1 & Marathon 1 of the Marathon Des Sables
The next morning, it’s a 5am wake-up with the first marathon starting at 8am.
You open your freeze-dried expedition food, make a fire with your tent-mates, eat as many calories as you can and prep your bag. There’s a lot of nervous energy milling around camp. Personally speaking, I was terrified. You just have no idea what to expect. How hard is the actual track going to be? Did you train enough? It’s time to find out. 1000 people gather at the start-line. The organises are blasting their anthem as you set off. “We’re on the highway to hell…”. Indeed.
The first day is a marathon. You see the Moroccans, and the elite runners, instantly leave the majority of us behind. From there it’s a mix to runners, shufflers, walkers etc. For most people the heat is unbearable (can get up to 40+ degrees celsius).
For me, having been training in Thailand, the heat was just about manageable. My one strength perhaps! Running/shuffling/walking up and down sand dunes though, that was tough. I came in around 600th place, 6 hours or so later, trying to take it easy on day 1. Although there was nothing easy about it.
Sharing war stories on the evening of day 1 was fun. Suddenly you’re all in it together. There’s not really a competitive energy, it’s more of an air of camaraderie. You know it’s going to be super difficult, and it’s just about all of you getting through it together. Suddenly your 7 tent mates are everything to you, they’re all you have, and you’ll create a bond that can make or break your experience. The sunsets around 7pm and you’ll be asleep within an hour or so of that.
Day 2 & Your Second Marathon
Wake up at 5.30am after a listless night on my inflatable mattress. Chilly and stiff, I hobbled around breakfast, as many others did. Horse down as many calories as possible and get to the starting point for 8am. “Highway to hell….” blaring on the speakers. I start a little more gingerly this morning, blisters forming, sunburn accumulating. But after an hour or so, you find a grove and keep it moving.
To be honest, it’s almost like a meditation retreat, albeit a painful one. You find yourself alone with your thoughts, up and down sand dunes, for hours on end. You have time. Nothing but time to contemplate life. It’s both beautiful and torturous. Today, the organisers had chosen one of the hardest sections in MDS history. 13km of pure sand dunes. No escape. Up and down. Soft sand. It was hell.
But we did it, and with my foot injury, the soft sand actually hurt it less. So I made a bit of progress on Day 2. That being said, I still found the most physically challenging day of my life. It was this day that I had genuine doubts about whether I could finish this thing or not. 6 hours or so later, about 400th place, I hobbled into camp, and found my Bivouac. A proper night’s sleep at last.
Day 3. Marathon 3.
Blisters formed. Each evening, camp creates a medical tent, where hundreds of people pop into straight after finishing each day. Twisted ankles, feet bleeding. Injuries are starting to accumulate. There are a series of nurses and doctors, all volunteers, who are absolute angels. Patiently dealing with us. Day 3 was the day of my first visit.
They use razors and pins to pop each blister, then add iodine (ouch!), then let it dry. They teach you how to dress it, so the following morning you wrap it up, and run on it. From there, your aim is just to get through each day as quickly as possible before another visit to the med tent that night.
Medical tents & Painkillers
Personally, I tried to hold off my med-tent visit and medication as long as possible, but I took my first painkillers of the MDS on the morning of Day 3. I don’t think I could have managed without them. I just had to get through today. Tomorrow, Day 4 was the infamous ‘long day’. It’s almost as if the whole event is psychologically broken down into Days 1-3, then the ‘long day’, followed by a rest day and a marathon to finish. Get through today and you’re halfway through.
The 3rd marathon wasn’t too bad. Other people seemed to be hurting a little more than me, so once I got going, and the painkillers kicked in, I built up some decent momentum. The course wasn’t as tough as yesterday. And anything that wasn’t 13km of sand dunes, was doable. 6 hours later, 400th place ‘ish’. And we’re done. Half. Way. There. Phew.
Day 4. DOUBLE Marathon
The big one. Just shy of 2 marathons. 80km or so. Over half of it through sand. The other half through rocks and river beds. You’re allotted 32 hours to get through it, so if you start at 8am, you have until 4pm the following day to finish, or you’re out.
Thankfully, as you eat brekky and dinner in the bivouac each morning and night, your bag becomes lighter. So what was 12kgs or so on Marathon 1, was now more like 8 or 9. And when you’re running for 80km, that’s a world of difference.
7 Check-points. 12km apart.
The long-day was broken down into 7 checkpoints, 10-13km apart. You just have to focus on one checkpoint at a time. That’s the only way to get through it. First check-point, I did solo. Just me and my thoughts. Next one, I found someone at my pace, and chatted the whole way. Check-point 3, the same. From check-point 4-7, I found my buddy Anthony and he was struggling so we completed the rest of the race together. Things were going well until about 12 hours in, the sun soon set and we were running in the pitch black.
Head torches help you avoid the scorpions and snakes, but not being able to see the landscape is so disconcerting. You’re not in control of much when you’re on the MDS, but at least in the day time, you can see what’s going on. When the night came, you have to dig deep into your resolve to keep going. We plodded on, more power-walking than running, and after 17 hours, we saw camp. We finished at about 2am, in the middle of the pack.
17 hours later
Never had I been happier to sleep on a mat on the floor before in my life. We had only taken a 30-minute break to make dinner, and a couple of 5 minute stops for water and snacks.
It was a long day, but finishing day 4 allows you to finally believe that you can finish the whole thing. After Day 2, and Day 3, you begin to doubt if you’re cut out for it, but once you have Day 4 under your belt, you know you can do it. So, sure, you’re in pain, your feet are bleeding, you’re limping, in pain, but you just have 2 more races to run. Let’s do it. And besides, when you wake up, you have a day of recovering.
Day 5. Rest day!
Day 5 is officially a rest day. But many of the runners don’t return from the long day until midday or so. And even for those of us who arrived last night, or during the night, your body is so beaten up, you spend half the day at the medical tent getting our blisters drained and eating painkillers. People hobbling from tent to tent. No one has escaped the drain on the body that the MDS evokes.
The camaraderie though, it’s hard to explain just how beautiful that is. And the appreciation of where you are. The Sahara. A battle between you and it. No internet, no electricity. Can you make it? Will you quit? It’s honestly a beautiful struggle.
I was a little worried about how bored I’d be on the rest-day, nothing to do, nowhere to chill, but it burns past in a heartbeat. You’re so welcoming of not having to run for a day. You may manage a few stretches, other than that, you just lounge around. Chatting. Complaining. Laughing.
Day 6. The FINAL Marathon!
Time to use up all those painkillers. One marathon to finish. Finally, I believed I would get through it so I gave this one everything I had, finishing in about 200th place. I was a little drowsy. My socks were soaked in blood, but crossing that finish line is a unique experience. A relief. Pride. Appreciation. Humility. Gratitude.
All my travels, to all 197 countries, only hitchhiking on that cargo ship and visiting Yemen, my 2nd last country, could match those emotions. This is why we travel, why we push ourselves. To experience the highs and lows life can offer, and the MDS offers both, in abundance. That night, you’re still in the Bivouac. One last night. But you’re free. No more marathons the next day. No more painkillers. Just that dull pain in your body reminding you of what you got through. Tomorrow you’ll have your first shower in 9 days. Sleep well.
Day 7. Transfer to Civilization
Your last morning in a bivouac. Your last expedition meal. We had to negotiate a 7km walk back to the transport, and then back to the Moroccan town of Ouarzazate to celebrate. Errmmm yeah. All the talk of beers and champagne suddenly fall by the wayside. Shower, shave, clean clothes. At the end of the day, it’s always the little things.
You meet your tent mates for dinner, and by 9 pm everyone was shot, heading back to bed. Appreciating a pillow, a duvet, a mattress like never before. It’s making me nostalgic just writing this. Round 2 next year?!
Day 8 and Day 9. Admin & Return to Life
Registration. Paperwork. Shopping. Before long you’re back in Gatwick airport. It feels like a dream. The pain you felt, the thoughts of weakness, the self-doubt all feel a distant memory. All I can seem to relive was the stories with my tent mates, the hugs at the end of the day, the pride at crossing the finish line. I wish all travel could be like this, but I know one thing, Morocco will always be on my large ‘favourite country’ list now.
My thoughts after finishing the Marathon Des Sables
It’s been a month or so since I finished the MDS. We’re still in contact with all our tent mates, some have already met up in random countries around the world. I don’t doubt that I’ll chat to these guys for years to come. How do I feel? Well, my feet took about 3 weeks to recover. Blisters continued to open up. Also, I had lost 4 or 5kgs, so prepare to be pretty skinny in the aftermath.
I feel pride at how hard I trained, and of course that I managed to finish it. I don’t feel any need to rush back and do it again though, once (for now) was enough. The organisers say that there’s a pre-MDS version of you as a person and a post-MDS version of yourself. I truly believe that now.
I thought a lot about life as I made my way through the desert, about what you want, what you value. I’ve spent a lot less time on social media since then, I’m trying to be more present, to maintain my health more, to appreciate what is actually important and to tone down the narcissism of Facebook and Instagram.
Would I recommend the MDS?
I honestly, honestly, would recommend everything have a crack at the MDS. I know you feel it’s too much for you, that you can’t do it. But you can. You just have to commit to it, respect the training, and this time next year you’ll have it done. Complete with all the positive emotions that I now carry because of the MDS. I’m happy to help with any questions, so drop me a line and good luck.
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