Desert Storm: Taking on the Marathon des Sables

One hundred and fifty-six miles across the Sahara Desert with limited water supplies in the blistering heat (and with blistering feet)...fancy it? Only masochists need apply.



by Alison Hamlett

marathon des sables
Credit: AFP/ Getty Images

It's 3am on the night before the final stage and I'm sobbing into my sleeping bag. Like every other night, I'm struggling to sleep because the blisters on my feet are so painful. With only one 17K stage to go, I should be feeling confident that I can finish but I'm in so much pain that I genuinely wonder if I'll be able to make it. My pathetic tears are enough to keep one of my tent mates awake too: he pats me on the shoulder, hands me one of his last paracetamol and tells me it'll all seem better in the morning. And of course, it does.

I found out that I had a place at the 26th Marathon des Sables just three months earlier. The six-stage, seven-day race, which takes place in southern Morocco every year, might attract runners from all over the world but it's the Brits who have made the race their own and are now the most represented nationality. The MdS - as it's known  - has become a rite of passage for British runners who want to explore the scary territory of a self-supported stage race.

Thanks to this popularity, many of us know a few facts about the race: that water is rationed; that it claims to be the toughest footrace in the world; that blisters turn many runners' feet into little more than raw flesh; that James Cracknell became the highest placed Brit ever when he finished 12th at last year's race; and that there's a two-year waiting list for prospective UK applicants.

I wanted to find out more, so I read several books, talked to previous participants and trained hard (for me), running and walking to work and back as often as I could with a loaded backpack, and doing back-to-back long runs at the weekend. But none of it really prepared me for the first stage of the 250.7K challenge, and its 13K section of sand dunes. They were the kind of cartoonishly perfect sand dunes you see in a Disney film: pale orange silken waves of sand stretching as far as the eye can see. They look pristine and perfect until you try to scale one and find yourself slipping back with every step.

I started that first 33K stage wondering if I could do well at the MdS. On paper I'm an okay runner. I was first lady at the 2006 North Pole Marathon, second lady at the Himalayan 100-mile stage race in 2005 and I have a respectable marathon PB of 3:14. But after developing bad blisters on the first day, I revised my expectations: I simply wanted to finish. And that meant focusing on reaching the finish line of each stage, eating, sleeping and doing it all again the next day. The race became a way of life.

Daily emails from friends and family - printed out by the organizers and delivered to our tent every night - were our only link to the outside world. Words of encouragement tended to make light of the ordeal we were going through: "You're only 13 hours behind the legendary Mohamad Ahansal [four-time race winner] after three stages," said one friend.

The emails were just one example of the Marathon des Sables' faultless organization. If you're new to ultra running, I can't think of a safer, more accessible introduction to stage racing anywhere in the world. I felt complete confidence in race founder and director Patrick Bauer and his army of doctors and marshals. Part of the race's accessibility extends to helping friends and family understand what each runner is going through via the website dabaround.com, which features a live webcam of each finish line, as well as results, videos, photos and GPS tracking to show the route. Several friends said that as they tried to spot me finish, they felt like they were sharing the experience in some small way.

I doubt any of them would have wanted to experience the second day of the race though. It was even worse than the first. It was so windy I couldn't put my contact lenses in and was forced to run in glasses all day. Despite the sun never really making an appearance, the absence of sunglasses gave me a headache, and instead of scenic sweeping sand dunes, the entire 38K stage featured a depressingly uniform backdrop of grey, scrubby, stony terrain. And I challenge anyone to enjoy being sand blasted for a solid eight hours.

If the wind had continued into the third day's 38K stage, I might have been tempted to drop out of the race and spend the rest of the week lounging by the pool back in Ouarzazate, but the weather refused to provide an excuse and I kept going. I even managed to run the last part of the stage to finish a respectable 38th lady - results were posted on a board daily for the competitors interested in their times. This was the only day I happened to look at the results.

On the next page: blisters, the long stage - and that finish line feeling


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