Marathon des Sables - Preamble

On the 30th September I am heading down to Gatwick for the flight the following day to Morocco to take part in the 35th edition of the Marathon des Sables.  It's one of the worlds iconic ultramarathons and is probably one of the few that non-runners might have heard of.  It is a tough race with daytime temperatures that can reach well into the 40's and total distance over the week will be approximately 250km, all in the desert, with the longest stage being around 85km.  Not only this but you have to be self sufficient i.e. carry everything you need with you such as food, clothing, sleeping bag etc. with the exception of water (even this is rationed) and a basic bivouac.  For this reason the Discovery Channel once labelled the Marathon des Sables as the 'toughest footrace on Earth'.  The rough outline of the race is as follows:

Thurs 30th September

Travel down to Gatwick to overnight.

Fri 1st October

Titan Airways charter flight to Errachidia and bus to bivouac.  Meals provided by organisers.

Sat 2nd October

Administrative and technical checks.  Meals provided, but from this point any non-race items are handed over.

Sun 3rd October

Stage 1 – Likely to be c.32k.

Mon 4th October

Stage 2 – Likely to be c. 38-41k

Tues 5th October

Stage 3 – Likely to be c. 35k.

Weds 6th October

Stage 4 – Likely to be c. 85k.

Thurs 7th October

Continuation throughout previous night to finish 4th stage.

Fri 8th October

Stage 5 – Marathon day.  42.2k.  For racing purposes this is the final stage.

Sat 9th October

Charity stage of around 7k.  Not timed.  Bus to hotel.

Sun 10th October


Mon 11th October

Return to UK.

The lead up to the race for me has been extremely poor and is the worst I've had to the point of having any notion of being competitive is firmly out of the window.  Since the aftermath of JOGLE the focus has been on recovery and treatment for Lyme's Disease.  Whilst I've superficially recovered, I just cant hit anything near the sort of sessions I was doing previously, mostly due to extreme lethargy.  For instance my easiest treadmill 'session' would be 60min at 11% gradient.  I could do this with relative ease, but 3 months ago I had to stop at just 6 minutes.  In recent weeks I've managed to get to about 40 minutes, but it just shows how far off I am.  I have also gained about half a stone in the process due to lack of quality training.  The plan therefore for the Marathon des Sables is to just go there and enjoy it this time; for the first time I'm going without any pressure to perform.  My focus has instead shifted to doing as well as I'm physically able, complete the thing and not be a liability to myself.

A few weeks ago I went to London to get my medical certificate signed off and ECG.  I was expecting a fail as I have a low heart rate (44 recorded during the test, but is normally about 35 at home) due to all of the previous training I've done.  Somewhat more worryingly my blood pressure was very high (148/79) and the ECG thinks I've had a recent heart attack.  The doctor seemed less concerned and just thought the ECG showed I was fit and the abnormalities are because they are designed to pick up on things for non-athletes.  I'm hoping the organisers doctors will be equally unconcerned!

My medical form.

ECG - Sinus bradycardia (i.e. low heart rate), Sinus arrhythmia (common in athletes), Septal infarct (suggests dead or dying septum tissue) and consider infarct of recent occurrence (i.e. recent heart attack).

Over the last few weeks I've been tinkering with kit.  There is a minimum kit list and a few other rules to adhere to, such as the end weight prior to the start of Stage 1 being a minimum of 6.5kg plus water.  Despite not planning to be ultra competitive I have no intention to take anything more than I need as 8kg including water is 12% of my body weight.  I also admit I enjoy the fun of trying to shave a few grams off here and there.

I've managed to get the compulsory equipment to under a kilo and if I really wanted to I guess I could have shaved a few more grams here and there, but not without more expense.  In terms of optional equipment I would probably segregate it into two areas - 1) kit that really isn't optional e.g. water bottles versus 2) a real luxury.  I think of the latter the battery charger for my Garmin is justifiable - I'm very much a stats man and I know that I will want to track my progress on the move.  That said I was very pleased with myself by splicing the charging wire and joining it back together and wrapping it in electrical tape - a saving of a whole 7 grams!  Ear plugs are for me a necessity due to being a light sleeper but is only a cost of a gram.  I'm taking a bit of lip balm and although I hate the stuff I know I get chapped lips easily on holiday in the heat.  Even then, I've sliced 90% of it off, removed the tube cover and just kept the lid.  The toothbrush had most of the handle snapped off and I managed to find a 3.5ml mini sample tube that will be just enough for the occasional brush.  I wasn't originally intending to heat my food but I've had a change of heart, mainly because I can afford to due to being low on my overall weight.  I'm taking just enough Esbit tablets and a aluminium foil pie (similar to the size of ones in a chip shop) container to hold the water.  I'll then convert the used plastic water bottles we are given into a food container to eat out of.  I'm only taking a couple of travel tissues to do my business but am offsetting my used face wipes as a extra source.  Sounds minging, but dual purpose!  Somewhat contentiously I'm not taking a sleeping mat - I may come to regret this decision but I'm not convinced its worth the weight and bulk.  Overall, excluding food I'm in at under 1.65kg which I think is decent.

Clockwise from bottom left - Asics leggings, Uniqlo Ultralight Down Jacket, Raidlight Revolutiv 24l, Merino Hilly Socks, Plastic Spoon, Lip Salve, Sun Cream, Lighter, Venom Pump, Ear Plugs, Bag for Esbit Heating Tabs (collect at camp), Cable Tie, Aluminium Container, 200 Euro, Passport, Tissues, Face Wipes, Toothbrush/Toothpaste, Ibuprofen, Battery Charger, Charging Cable, Sleeping Bag, Pillow, Compass, Plasters and Disinfecting Wipes, Knife, Signalling Mirror, Water Bottles, Spare Batteries, Whistle, Safety Pins, Foil Blanket, Buff.  Not in shot - 13 x Face Masks & 50ml Hand Gel.

In terms of food, the rules are fairly clear - 7 x 2,000 calories per day.  Other than the final day I'm taking quite a lot by MDS standards.  I'm taking 21,400 calories with me which works out at 3,220 per day except for the final day where I'm only taking the minimum of 2,000 (as we get fed at the finish).  Whilst you wont find many people taking only 2,000 per day as it will take its toll over the week, the consensus seems to be for most people to take about 2,600 - 3,100 per day so I am definitely at the high end.  Which ever way you look at it I will still be at a significant calorie deficit, but I've been told that due to the extreme conditions it is likely to affect the appetite so I am actually expecting to not eat everything I'm taking.  So why am I still taking this amount - well partly its there just in case, but its as much about having to take it to get to the minimum starting weight of 6.5kg.  I also figure that taking more food also means my bag will get lighter than others during the week as well so there is also an advantage there.

Every day will start off with Granola except for Day 1 which I'll come onto...  I think its debateable how much of the trail food I will consume on the move on anything other than the long day, but its there and can be eaten after the finish.  Main meals I've gone for Expedition Foods 1,000 calorie meals - maybe a bit too much but again its there if I want it.  The only difference is the c.85k long stage (Day 4) - it will be a very late finish, if not finishing some point the following morning and I just don't see myself having the energy to make something.  The focus is therefore on food on the move to keep up my energy levels.

The calories and weight for each day include some electrolyte tablets and energy drink powders.  I haven't listed these but is basically a mixture of NUUN tablets just for the electrolytes and Holland & Barratt own brand stuff.  Due to weight I'm not hugely reliant on these other than the long Stage 4 and the marathon day on Stage 5.  These days are different due to the longer distances, advanced state of the race and the need to keep the batteries topped up.  In between I intend to consume the salt tablets we are given.  At first I was sceptical that consuming them at a rate of a couple (if not more) per 1.5 litres is a bit OTT, but now I'm won over by the research I've undertaken.  It does seem like a case that most people who fail to finish or who are hooked up to a drip by the medical team are due to lack of sodium intake.  The NUUN tablets and sports powders etc. are just not sufficient enough for such an extreme climate and is why I've chosen not to rely on them too heavily.

Seven Days of Food (minus the rice pudding...)

All of the above comes in at 6.07kg which makes me under the minimum weight.  We get the road book prior to weigh in which I believe is usually just over 100g and this year we have had a late request to take 13 (?!) face masks and 50g of hand sanitiser for obvious reasons.  This adds a further 100g.  This still makes me marginally under weight - this is easily solved by having a heavy Day 1 breakfast.  The bags are weighed the previous day and we become self sufficient for food the following morning.  I'm therefore taking a large tub of rice pudding that comes in a 415 grams, bringing the total weight to 6.69kg.  In reality though as the rice pudding will be eaten before the start of the first stage, my real weight will be 6.27kg which I'm happy with.  There will then be the race number, GPS tracker and salt tablets to carry as well on top of this, but some of this will be offset by use of sun cream, footcare items etc. so will even itself out a bit.  Obviously there is then the water as well.  However, this is a starting weight and as 70% of it is food, I'm going to have a very light pack by the end of the week.

In terms of racing kit, its a case of cycle shorts to minimise chafing and a wicking top.  No spares of anything nor am I packing any soap so expect to smell fairly ripe at the end of the race.  The only exception is an extra pair of socks that I'm expecting to come in useful at some stage.  I am using my usual running trainers i.e. Asics GT-2000 rather than trail shoes as despite my fitness I still intend to run more than walk.  I haven't gone any more aggressive than this as I'm not sure lighter trainers e.g. racers will stand up to the desert environment or offer enough cushioning.  They have a seam of Velcro stitched by a professional cobbler in London to which my sand gaiters will be attached.  He has done a very professional job and was well worth the cost.  I've been told that glue alone will just not do the job and will eventually fall off.  Sand gaiters are an absolute must - they look a bit like baggy cycling overshoes and the idea is that it keeps 99.9% of the sand from getting into the shoe and causing friction blisters etc.  Having said that the Raidlight ones I've bought do not make it clear which is for the left and which is for the right shoe!

Raidlight Sand Gaiters I am taking.

I've gone for a really cheap pair of sunglasses from eBay.  There seems to be two camps on this, but I've just gone for cheap as I expect they will be wrecked by the end of the week.  Whilst I generally don't like headwear on a run, the conditions make this an exception, so much so I've bought the sort that has a neck cover to minimise the risk of sunburn.  I can remove the cover though if it annoys me too much.  Finally I have a buff, which again I generally don't tend to use in my home environment, but I expect it to become useful if there is a sandstorm which I believe is likely at some point.

Start of stage.


I can be contacted during the week - my race number is 642 and my tent number is 79.  I believe we get print out of messages at the end of each day.  I can send one outbound message each day which will go to my wife who will then send on to a distribution list.  You will also be able to live track my GPS via the website once it goes live.

Somewhat ironically I hate running in the heat; anything greater than about 16 degrees is a bit on the warm side and much above this I really start to struggle so will be interesting to see how I cope.  After reading all of the above why I am still doing this - well because its there of course!  Wish me luck!


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