Top tips for tackling the desert from the fastest British competitor at the 2011 Marathon des Sables
Tobias Mews was the fastest British competitor at the 2011 Marathon des Sables. After serving in the Army for six years, he needed a new challenge and decided to become an ultra endurance athlete. He races most weekends and has completed numerous sub-3:00 marathons, long-distance triathlons and the Devizes-to-Westminster International Canoe Race. His goal was to make the top 50 at the MdS; he finished 21st. Here's how he did it, and how you can learn from his impressive debut:
Do some heat acclimatisation in the 10 days before you fly to the desert. I did seven sessions of Hot Bikram Yoga in the week leading up to D-Day. I'm positive it helped as the heat hardly affected me until it reached 50+ degrees on the marathon stage.
As a guide, try to get your pack to around 12 per cent of your bodyweight (less if possible). The key to a quick time is a light pack. My pack weighed 7.1kg before the flare was added [this compulsory item is issued by the organizers]. Some creature comforts like a sleeping mat and a spare pair of shorts are worth carrying, but consider sharing things like a camera with friends.
Find a hydration system that works for you. I used Raidlight holders/bottles but hadn't practiced with them. I wouldn't use them again. The majority of the top 20 runners used a Raidlight front pack, which has space for the 1.5 litre bottles handed out at checkpoints. I drank little but often and rarely used up all my water by the next checkpoint.
Your rucksack is possibly your most important purchase so choose wisely but trust in kit you've tried and tested. I used an OMM Classic 25L, which I've used for several years and it worked perfectly. A 25L pack is more than sufficient in size. Many of the top runners have a 20L sack or smaller.
Work out early on in training what race fuel works for you. If you're planning on running most of the race, it's difficult to eat bars, etc on the go. The Moroccans eat dates. You need to get glucose in your system to avoid hypoglycaemia, so I mixed glucose powder into my drinks mixed with electrolyte tablets.
Get a decent pair of sand gaiters. I swear by Sandbaggers but others love the shorter Raidlight gaiters. Whatever you choose, you need to get the Velcro and/or gaiters sown directly onto your trainers (glue alone simply won't stand up to the desert heat).
Trust in your training and what your body is capable of, and don't fall prey to others' fears. Many doubted my ability to get a top 50 place on my first attempt but I chose to ignore them.
Drink a recovery shake immediately after each stage and ensure you eat all your food within two hours of finishing. This is when your body needs food for recovery. I didn't feel hungry once nor did I get delayed onset muscle soreness.
Many runners wear trainers one to two sizes bigger than usual to allow feet to swell in the heat. But by wearing bigger trainers, you might need to wear two pairs of socks, which cause your feet to sweat more, which leads to blisters. I wore half a size bigger and found that to be perfect.
It is perfectly feasible to run 98 per cent of the race if you listen to your body, have a high level of fitness, acclimatise to the heat and carry a light pack. Many competitors are afraid to push themselves too early as they fear having nothing left for the rest of the week. I ran hard from day one, but ensured I stayed within my threshold limit.
Great advice Tobias*
Everything he said is true but many competitors aren't striving for a Top-50 finish. This event is totally achievable for most runners/walkers as long as you train for long days on your feet and prepare accordingly. This means running/walking within your ability for 5-10hrs at a time over multiple days and reading/researching and testing your nutrition, hydration and kit to ensure you are in control from day 1.
The so-called 'toughest footrace on earth' is VERY tough. But it's also an amazing experience that will test you mentally as much as physically. We are all capable of more than we think so be prepared to challenge your own limiting beliefs.
*Worth noting that Tobias Mews is a running machine and I'm not convinced he's even human.
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