Although claims that the Marathon des Sables is the ‘World’s Toughest Footrace’ have almost certainly been surpassed now that there are other more brutal challenges you can take on, the iconic six-day run in the Sahara remains a daunting prospect for anyone brave enough to take it on for the first time. Last year I was one of those people. And about now I was searching for all the Marathon des Sables tips I could get.
I’ll never forget the feeling on the long bus ride from Ouzzarzate to the the first bivouac. Fear is a strong word, but even though I’d trained hard for six months, I was intimidated. The sheer number of unknowns are what makes the Marathon des Sables so daunting. And rattling around on that bus, all you can think about is that you don’t know how you’re going to respond to all the variables.
The heat, the food, sleeping in open tents. Will your shoes rub? Will you have enough food? How many salt tablets are you supposed to take again? Is there too much stuff in your backpack? All of these questions swam around my around my head for the entire journey from the UK to that first encampment in Morocco. All I knew was that despite what could go wrong, finishing was non negotiable.
Six days later, I crossed the finish line in 91st place overall, having had the best week of my running life. My kit, my nutrition and my training worked as well as I could have hoped. I only got two tiny blisters, I was never hungry and as the days went by I felt stronger and stronger. In fact on the final marathon day I ran some of my fastest miles and flew over the finish line into the arms of Patrick Bauer.
For those of you reading this about to embark on this amazing adventure, here are the tricks and tactics I used to get me through. What worked for me might not work for you but here are my top Marathon des Sables tips for flourishing in the desert.
Self preservation’s what you need
Finishing the Marathon des Sables is all about smart running and self preservation. Every day you’ll make little decisions that have a big impact on your performance. I went into the race with one aim: to finish each day feeling strong enough to complete the next day. I ran hard every day but I didn’t push myself to breaking point. There’s no point sprinting through a field of fist sized rocks for the last 5km of day one to save 10 minutes, only to wake up on day two, with your legs and feet in tatters. The smart decision is to slow down, look where you’re placing your feet and protect them at all costs. They’re your most important asset.
Be meticulous about your routine
Have a routine and stick to it. When you’re preparing for the day’s running each morning, or out on the course at the aid stations and when you first get back to camp, every aspect of your routine should be something that’s essential to your self preservation, such as getting your post-run recovery drink in, raising your legs or drying your socks. Write it down if you have to. You’ll be tired when you get back from the day’s racing, you’ll be tired when you wake up to take on the next day’s miles and that’s when vital things can be forgotten.
Running isn’t always the smartest choice
An extension of my self preservation approach, my tactics were simple. For every section of the course I weighed up how much effort it would take to run against the progress I was likely to make. My logic: there’s no point killing yourself trying to run heavy sand when you’re actually not moving much faster than you would walking. The same could be said for hills and fields of stones. Rather topping out my heart rate and filling my legs with lactic acid that I wouldn’t be able to shift, I rocked my pace back to what soldiers call a tab and reserved energy. This meant that when the terrain was good for running I’d be fresh enough to capitalise.
I basically saved my legs for when the running was good. Over the six days, anyone who ran past me in the dunes, I flew past on the flats later in the race. The mix of fast walk and running also meant that I’d used different muscles and the damage overall was less intense, so the next day I was fresher.
There will be enough water (around camp)
One of the questions that troubled me most before I set foot in the desert was whether there’d be enough of the life sustaining mineral water. This will prey on your mind a lot. The reality when you get to the MDS is, that if you keep your head screwed on and don’t be unnecessarily wasteful, around camp there will be enough water to drink and cook with. In fact each morning there were bottles of the stuff going spare in our tent.
There will be too much water (out on the course)
Out on the course it gets a little more tricky. It’s not that there’s not enough water, it’s often that you need to be smart about how much of your water allocation you take from each aid station. A lot of the time you’ll be offered more than you need and wonder if you really want to carry it all. This is where thinking about what lies ahead for each of the stages in that day’s racing is important. Some sections might look shorter in distance on paper but they can be long in duration when the terrain turns tough. Check the road book the night before and make a plan.
Take your salt tablets religiously
This is one of the Marathon des Sables tips you’ll hear over and over again. Patrick Bauer will bang on about this during his morning monologues, the medics will repeat the advice and I can’t say strongly enough. Take your salt tablets. Without salt, all that water you’re trying to drink won’t do its job. In fact you’ll spend too much time pissing precious hydration into the sand.
Drink all your water between aid stations
Obviously you want to be careful that you’re not necking two litres in three minutes and making your stomach flip out but it’s smart to try and ensure you’re drinking whatever water you’ve taken with from the last aid station before you reach the next one. I always had half a Raidlight bottle in reserve that I’d drink once I knew we were closing in on the next aid station.
The phrase ‘a stitch in time’ has never been more relevant
If something’s not right, don’t ignore it and hope it will go away. Problems don’t tend to just resolve themselves during the MDS, they just get worse. Whether it’s your sock sitting uncomfortably in your shoe, your backpack rubbing a little or you feel your neck getting a little toasty. Stop and deal with it. You might fear your losing time but see it as an investment, a quick 3 minute fix now or four days of soul-sapping blisters. On the long day I ignored the fact I needed to eat around the the 80km mark for about an hour. By the time I actually stopped being an idiot and tucked into something it’d cost me an hour.
Let there be light on the long day
Put new batteries in your head torch on the morning of the long day and make sure they work. That way when the time comes to get the head torch fired up you’ll know it works and you’ll have a full set of double AAs to take you through the night. The last thing you want to do is be scrabbling in your backpack for batteries when darkness is falling in the desert.
The race is won and lost on the long day
Decisions you make during the first three days can make or break the long day but it’s this epic 80km+ stage that really decides your overall race. If you’ve made the right calls, you’ll be tired and stiff come the morning of The Big One but you’ll be ready to take it on. If you’re competing that’s ideal because an hour on the long day can equate to 50 places. If you’re just completing this can be the day that finally breaks people, the day where the camels claim more victims.
No heroics on the last 5km of any day, except the last day
There’s a huge temptation to treat each day as a race in itself. Because people find a natural pace, you tend to find yourself sparing with the same runners around you each day. You see Dimitry from the Ukraine’s number while you’re following him across the dunes. You swap places regularly with Emily from Denmark and it’s hard not to see these guys as your arch rivals. When it comes to the last 5km your racing instinct is to beat Dimitry. Don’t get suckered in. Running hard for the last miles might mean you gain five minutes but with legs full of lactic and muscles taking a battering you’ll lose those the next day for sure. Use this for recovery and the opposite might be true.
Take tent slippers
This is the one thing I regret not taking. It’s a real pain moving around camp in bare feet. There are all these nasty little thistle things that minefield the rugs you sleep on. They make standing on a piece Lego look like you’re getting a gentle foot rub. You’ve also got to walk a few 100 yards to go to the toilet and the last thing you want to be doing is squeezing tender toes in and out of your race shoes all the time.
Use 2Toms BlisterShield to protect your feet
I was meticulous about my foot care. Every morning I made sure they were clean and dry with no snagging nails. After that I’d give them a nice liberal dusting of this magic powder all over the soles and in between my toes. BlisterShield creates a seal that stops moisture getting in while still letting sweat out. Sounds like witchcraft but it worked. I’d shake a load into my socks before putting them on as well and over the entire MDS I only suffered two very small blisters. My feet stayed dry and in great shape.
Don’t wear Injinji toe socks
As much as I love Injinji toe socks, unless you’re 100% sure your feet are going to stay in perfect shape then for this race they’re are a bad idea. Squeezing swollen, blistered toes into those things will either become impossible or just immensely painful.
Do take spare socks
If your feet are wrecked your race will be too so protecting them is your No.1 priority. If you’re going to carry extra weight in your pack make sure it’s for items that can really make a difference. Fresh, dry socks fit that bill. Sweaty feet in soggy socks equals blistering so having the option to switch to a dry pair during the race can be crucial. I took three pairs of X-Bionic X-Socks but two would have done the trick but there was also something really comforting about putting on nice clean pair for the final day.
Use 2Toms Sport Shield to stop the chafe
I’ve suffered enough run-related chaffing in my time to know that this wasn’t something I was about to risk in the desert. But all the advice correctly tells you that vaseline is a no go where there’s sand involved (think sandpaper). So I opted for this 2Toms Sport Shield stick. Every morning I took a walk out of camp among the desert poo squatters and slathered it over my very precious nipples and coated my downstairs mix up, including the inner thighs. It worked brilliantly. Six days sweaty running. Zero chafe.