Marathon des Sables 2021 - Summary and Final Thoughts

Despite the death on Day 2, at the time it just felt like the race attitude was that the show had to go on and I did privately question how many more deaths would be required for a change in thinking.  Since the race my attitude on this subject has mellowed somewhat, but I'd be lying if this didn't reflect my feelings at the time.  As heat increases the effect is exponential; going from 30-33 degrees will have next to no impact on the race, 40-43 degrees and you will probably get a few dropouts, 50-53 degrees and you will get quite a lot, and hypothetically if it went from 60-63 would probably mean no-one, including the Moroccans will finish the race.  As it was, it was officially recorded as 52.8 degrees with another media crew privately recording 56 degrees that day (I am guessing this is actual temperature rather than in the shade, but the latter is irrelevant because there is no shade).

A hard fought medal.  Only c.350 awarded this year.  Also half a stone lighter.  I'm 5'11 and came home 9st 10.5lbs

It just didn't feel like there was a protocol that said beyond a certain point it is unsafe and you have to take decisions out of the competitors hands.  There does seem to be a prevalent attitude of 'its hot, what do you expect?' and 'if its too hot then drop out', but to me that misses the point.  Many competitors like myself are racers and we push ourselves as hard as we can, it takes years to truly understand the capabilities of our bodies.  I am blessed that I have several gears I can wind back to if needed and recognise the warning signs (I knew something wasn't right and took immediate corrective action), but for many competitors they have only trained for this race, don't have many gears to work with and may not be able recognise the warning signs before it is too late.  You should not rely on the medical support to get you out of a sticky situation in the middle of nowhere, but at the same time if you do need that support it should be there.  Many people complained that it wasn't.

Receiving my medal from Patrick Bauer.  I might seem quite critical in this post, but is not intended to be.  The event is logistically extremely challenging and the best was done in the conditions.  However, clearly lessons will need to be learnt from the 2021 event.

We'll gloss over the water bottle between my crotch...

I have also seen a number of athletes / media who trade as so called 'experts' and provide advice when it comes to the MdS and always want to make sure people know their views.  Anybody who dissents from this central view gets chastised and called out.

An example I saw that backed up their argument was by comparing the drop out rates of the 2021 MdS to other races.  Frankly they should know better.  For instance, this years Dragons Back race in Wales from memory had a circa. 70% drop out compared to the 50% at MdS.  Making comparisons like this is completely disingenuous, what proportion of that 70% were able to make their own way home the following day, how many needed a drip or other significant medical intervention?  What about the Barkley marathons that has a 99% fail to finish rate - isn't that a far tougher race?  Maybe, maybe not - or is the finishing rate a product of extremely tough cut offs?  My point is that such comparisons are not helpful to forward an argument.

I have every sympathy with those who have criticised the race as they are free to do.  Despite the above I do not agree with many of these arguments, but I respect them nonetheless.  I believe in a normal year the race is tough, but there are far tougher races out there and it certainly does not warrant 'the world's toughest footrace' label.  It is eminently achievable for the majority with decent training.  What happened this year was a perfect storm of events; individually they were bad enough but when stacked up on one another it caused the problems encountered.  The unusually hot year was bad enough, but when combined with severe sickness from some sort of bug, it made it almost impossible to keep food down and stay hydrated.

At the time of the race I was sceptical of the consensus around camp was that it was a bacterial bug going around.  I thought it was more likely that it was as a result of extreme heat distress but over time I came round to a different view.  I still don't ascribe to others thinking that it was a sickness bug being passed round; for me it seemed to hit too many people at exactly the same time.  Even if there were a few carriers of the same infection, the way the camp was spaced for me made it unlikely that this was the method of transmission.  In my first post I mentioned that the food was stone cold and I remember remarking to a campmate at the time that food should be piping hot to minimise the potential for illness.  That said, I don't think it was food poisoning in the classic sense (as the symptoms would have come through far sooner), but probably poor food handling.  I may or may not be right as its nothing than a guess, but one that can't be discounted.  I was quite picky in what I ate so perhaps explains why I was not really affected?

So how do I feel overall about my race?  If I was offered 11th at the outset I would have jumped at it.  If someone was going to tell me that my best day would be on the long stage with an 8th that day, I wouldn't have believed them.  The long stage day, with the exception of a short wobble in the middle is up there with one of the best executed races days I've had.  Overall I'm content, even if going into the last day I couldn't manage to overhaul the 3 minute gap to 10th.  I tried to execute my plan on stage 5, it didn't work and ended up 23 minutes back so have no reason for complaint even if I must admit I would have liked a little trophy!  In a race like this there are a pile of what-ifs.  It was clear that for me the damage was done during the dunes on Stage 2 where I easily lost 40 minutes and more.  But I'm sanguine about this - everybody had the same conditions and I'm just glad I finished that day, I couldn't have done more.  To put things in context, I believe that out of 35 editions of the MdS, it was the =5th best British performance so not too shabby!

11th - A decent performance

I genuinely went into the race with no aspirations as to position.  I knew in all likelihood, top 50 was certain as long as I could finish and would have probably expected top 30.  Beyond that all bets were off as its been the worst lead up to any event I've ever had - first time I wore a rucksack in training was once in the week leading up to the event.  I did zero acclimatisation work, didn't bother trying any of my food in advance, in fact I didn't even bother wearing my race top until I was on the start line that first day.  Training was more than a little disrupted, contracting Lyme's Disease in June, only getting treatment for it in July and then a long path to recovery culminating in very low mileage - I only recall 2-3 20 milers since June and 95% of my training was on the treadmill.  In some ways I wish I'd had a good crack at the event at peak fitness as I do wonder what might have been.  If someone had accused me of disrespecting the race, to be honest I have little to argue against.

When I got back home, I've never been as glad to see my wife.  Events like this put things in perspective and sometimes its easy to take things for granted.  Will I have another go at the race with a proper build up?  The short answer is no, the MdS itch has well and truly been scratched!


  1. Hey Lloyd (from another Lloyd), I saw you ran in Asics. What model did you use? I'm generally a gt1/2000 user but also have from fujitrabuco, wondering how they held up in the desert and with the sand (normally the gt's allow sand to flow through!). Thanks!

    1. Hi Steven. I used GT2000's. They were fine and see no need why anyone would want to use anything other than trainers for the event. I did lose a bit of the black rubber on towards the back of the sole on both shoes towards the end of the long day. That was caused by increased shuffling creating extra lateral friction. Don't let that put you off though. I can't stress enough the need for decent sand falters and 100% get them professionally stitched and not glued. I saw several instances where the glue came away and it was game over. Sand never got in my shoes. If you are interested I used Alex Shoe Repairs in London. Pricey but didn't miss a beat - he does a lot of the Mds competitors.

    2. Thanks for the quick response! Lloyd

    3. Hi Stephen. That’s a great read. Following on from Lloyd’s great question. Did you run in the standard GT2000 s or did you go for knit/trail or GTX models of the 2000? I’m am an asics user through and through and am starting to think about what to experiment for next year’s race

    4. Following on from Lloyd’s question. Did you use the standard 2000s or did you go for the knot/trail or GTX models? I’m an asics user through and through and am starting to think about experimenting with models for next year’s race

    5. Hi Charlotte. Same here, my day to day trainer is Asics GT2000 and I've gone through many pairs over the years. I went for standard, correct me if I'm wrong, but GTX is the Gore Tex version which is designed to repel water in wet conditions, so I see no advantage; if anything I suspect it will struggle to let moisture from your feet escape. The trail version however would have its merits, but I think its simply personal preference. Both would work in my opinion.

      The terrain underfoot is not as bad as you might think; you can certainly roll an ankle as you can anywhere off road, but to be honest I'd say the underfoot conditions off road in the UK are worse, even more so if you ventured in the Dales / Lakes etc. The MdS is more sandy with fist size stones in patches and that's generally about as bad as it gets.

      Finally, be very cautious about going 2 sizes up etc. that some people suggest. If you know your feet, know your shoe, and assuming you have no evidence of swelling in the past I'd go for 0.5 size up tops. You need to bear in mind that you could wreck your feet early on in the race getting loads of blisters as your feet are moving around in shoes that are too big. Shoe width is far more important and for me the GT 2000 was perfect for that as it has a wide toe box.


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