Ultra running has, over the past few years, seen a dramatic growth in popularity. No longer is a marathon enough for the increasing demands of endurance athletes. They want to take on further distances, in more extreme conditions for longer periods of time. Although there are dozens if not hundreds of new endurance events cropping up to sate the appetite of this breed of runner, there are certain races that remain the real challenges. Like the London or Boston marathons, these contests exist as the ones athletes want to tick off of their to-do lists.
Of those races few match up to the notoriety of the Marathon de Sables, a 156 mile journey across the Moroccan Sahara taking five or six days. Runners are made to carry all their provisions and equipment as they run, given nothing but a tent as they finish each day’s distance.
Frankly it sounds a bit ridiculous.
There may have been times where we’ve thought to ourselves should we give it a go, maybe toyed with the idea that we could actually do it. More than likely after some sort of heavy drinking. In reality however it’s a race made for a certain type of person, and based on the fact we struggle with half marathons in Milton Keynes, we’ll leave it to them.
So because we’ll probably never find out first hand what it’s like we decided to speak to someone who’s just finished it. Our good mate Rebecca Bryant (aka The Style Dynamo).
Seriously, what in the world made you want to run a 250km, five day race in the desert?
Put simply, I love a challenge. As much as I love enjoy marathons, I felt ready for something more, something bigger, something that really pushed me.
I’d already read about and considered the Marathon des Sables before but the timing had never been right. But last year, the stars seemed to align. I had been saving for a while and although the temptation to buy a Chanel 2.55 handbag was strong, running across the Sahara was something I’d wanted to do for about five years. It was my chance to do something for myself so I bit the bullet and signed up for an experience of a lifetime.
Did you have any reservations about signing up to take part in the race? Maybe the heat, or the miles of desert terrain with limited access to water, or scorpions?
No, I’m pretty fearless (or foolish). The heat was a bit of a concern but I read as much as I could beforehand. I knew I could do the mileage. I was more worried about how I would convince my partner that it was a good idea to let me take part in this adventure. I had to show him that I was taking it seriously (unlike marathons which he thinks I just turn up for and run). Let’s just say, after several discussions I could now give NATO’s chief negotiators a run for their money.
How much training does someone have to do to be in with a chance of finishing?
As long as you’re fit and used to being on your feet for long periods of time, you will finish the Marathon des Sables. What I learnt early on in the race was that running isn’t always the most efficient way to complete the course. The fast walkers could really go at some pace.
I think you can get away with training three times a week (including one longish run) – it really depends on your goal. Take a marathon plan and modify it to include long slow runs at the weekend. Train on different terrain and try (if you can) to get used to back-to-back training e.g. running on a Saturday and a Sunday. As long as you can run/walk a marathon and feel fit the next day, you can finish the MdS.
Race management is also key to finishing the Marathon des Sables so think about all the elements such as footwear, kit, rucksack and incorporate them into your training plans.
What did your average training week look like?
Dark. Cold. Miserable. (Well part of it was.) Seriously, during the winter I was getting up three times a week at 4:30am and running 20 miles before work. I also went to Boom Cycle once a week, ballet barre once a week and normally raced at the weekend (either a marathon or half marathon). Let’s just say that when I wasn’t sitting on my bum at work, I was taking part in something active (and I loved it).
How did you feel waiting to start the race? What was going through your mind?
When is Patrick Bauer going to actually let us start this race as I’m feeling hot already? Have I put on enough sunscreen? Where is my she-wee? I had so many questions to answer at the start as it’s a different kind of race than what I’m used to. I really didn’t know how my body was going to react as you have all these different elements to factor in. At the start I was full of nervous excitement but as with all races I was itching to begin this epic journey across the sand.
How hard was it, really? Was there any point where you thought you weren’t going to finish?
I’m not going to lie, it was hard. For the first four days, my stomach felt like a washing machine and so I decided to take it easier. No matter what happened, I was going to finish. I decided to check in with the medical team at checkpoint one on the long stage (day four, 91.7km), mainly because my feet were in tatters and my tummy really wasn’t playing ball. There I was, having my tootsies bandaged up when I heard “the camels are coming…” (this signifies the end of the race). As soon as Dr Trotters had finished their work, I was out of there like a shot. It may not have gone to plan but I was determined to end it with a piece of bling around my neck.
What did you feel like crossing the finish line?
Knackered, happy, in pain, thankful, honestly, no single word can describe how I felt after 42.2km of painful running. It was the end of what had been an amazing trip. Not just in terms of what you see out in the desert but how easy it was to adapt to living with virtually nothing. I was more emotional on the long day as it hit home when I received my emails for the day just how much of a strain it was for those at home watching my GPS dot tracker moving across the desert. I’d also been up for 27 hours and was a little delirious. I was really happy to have achieved what I’d set out to do but also sad that I’d be saying goodbye to my tent mates soon and heading back home to reality.
Any advice for people thinking of doing it?
If you want an experience unlike any other, sign up for the Marathon des Sables. Then listen to the experts and take on board what they say but don’t miss out on making this your own adventure. The only way you learn is by making mistakes and deciding your approach really is half the fun of a challenge such as this.
And finally, what’s next? Swimming the Pacific? Cycling up Everest?
Crikey, you’ve set me you here. Getting married is my next big challenge (joking). I’ve signed up for Race To The Stones in July (100km race). I would love to go back to my roots and take on an adventure in the Dolomites (my grandmother is from a small village in this part of Italy) but I’ve not found anything yet to quite capture my imagination.
For more information on the race click here.
Pictures:Copyright Cibaly 2015 © Marathon de Sables