International trail and ultra runner Damian Hall (in photo above, credit Susie Chan) writes about how using shoes as a pillow, scavenging for food and pooping in a bag all seem perfectly normal when battling the Marathon des Sables (MdS) in the Sahara Desert.
Is Marathon des Sables the toughest footrace on Earth? A television programme once made this claim (that’s what television programmes do) and the race is happy to repeat it. But MdS isn’t nearly as tough as the Spine Race, Dragon’s Back, UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc), or most 100-milers. Yes, temperatures can soar into the high 50˚C, Sahara sand (approx 25 per cent of the course) isn’t always a barrel of laughs to run on, and carrying a pack upwards of 6.5kg can make some people (me anyway) grumpy. But the cut-offs are generous enough that there’s enough time to hike it. What makes the race seem tough is that for many runners it’s their first event of this nature (for the record, this year’s 32nd edition of the race covered 237km, spread across five timed stages and one compulsory charity stage. Daily distances varied from 30km to 86km). Plus MdS trashes feet like no other race. This year was my debut on the sands of the Sahara and on reflection I’ve written this blog post, 8 things every runner needs to know about Marathon de Sables:
1. It’s all about great feets
While my tent mate Jeff was at his happiest when his blisters were at their most bloody, bulbous and grotesque, not everyone has a foot fetish like him. While I tried to keep it quiet for fear of angering my more-blistered, antibiotic-taking tent mates, my footwear choice of inov-8 TERRACLAW 250 led to only two small blisters. I’d gone up half a size to account for my gaiters’ velcro rand, which can change shoe shape, and added two inner soles to compensate. After some discomfort on day one, I removed one pair, and had no more problems. Blisters aren’t mandatory at MdS. But if you do get good ones, they make very popular social media posts.
2. It’s mostly just lazing about
You come to Morocco to run in the desert. But for some runners most of the stages are over by lunchtime, so the week in the Sahara is spent mostly lazing about. Which is well brill. The social media age breeds insatiable dissatisfaction – there’s always something else to check, to reply to, to ‘like’. Being offline for a week was wonderful. We just lazed about and indulged in the distinctly old-fashioned past-time of talking face-to-face. It felt pretty weird at first. But we soon got used to it. That said, the daily delivery of emails was a huge boost to morale. Unless you’re next to Twitter queen Susie Chan, who got several hundred messages each time – in comparison to my five.
3. It’s a dog’s life
MdS runners live in open-sided tents on a barren wasteland with not enough to eat (we talked about pizza A LOT), and their only possessions are what they can carry. They’re smelly, dirty and desperate (to post desert selfies to social media). Being permanently covered in dust seems entirely normal, as does walking around half naked (the top half, for the record). My TERRACLAW 250s went into a plastic bag to became a perfectly workable pillow. At risk of trivialising the greatest political shame of our age, it’s tempting to call MdS runners first-world refugees. Though as we were also pooping into plastic bags (not the same bag as my running shoes were in), maybe we were simply living like dogs.
4. Everyone is hungry for success
Did I mention food? If you want to run fast at MdS, you can’t carry all the food you need. So you either run slow, or go hungry (and hope your tent mates have brought too much). The value of food changes too. The hierarchy is no longer topped by the most healthy or tastiest (though Parmesan cheese tasted better than ice cream, when Susie kindly shared hers), but rather by calorific value. Nuts (especially macadamias – though, damn, they’re dull) and pepperoni become the most prized possessions. Gels and baby food pouches were sneered at for being less than 100kcal. We wanted calories and we wanted them NOW!
5. Weight counting is a serious business
MdS is a gear geek’s Valhalla. It’s not just cutting the handle off your toothbrush and leaving your sleeping bag stuff-sack behind. We were slashing straps off our packs, shortening sleeping bag cords, trying to calculate exactly how much sunscreen, toothpaste and sheets of toilet paper we’d need. Food was repackaged to save weight and then vacuum packed to within an inch of its life.
6. You will learn to read sand
At MdS you really get to know sand. Or is it dust? Or salt (from all those salt tablets)? Either way, you’re quickly covered head to toe in something and it soon just feels normal. When eating, it all tastes of sand/dust/salt anyway. When running, some sand holds you perfectly, while some lets you sink and allows you to fully test the diversity of your vocabulary. As you might expect, the Moroccan runners are amazing at reading sand. Just follow them? They’re mostly very fast, so that’s tricky. Over the week, you do learn to read the sand. You also learn to eat it, breathe it, and live under a skin-coating layer of it. Or is it dust? And it tastes a bit salty. Either way, there’s nowhere to wash, so who cares?
7. You become inov-8ers
As well as shoes in a bag becoming a perfectly acceptable pillow, cutting off the bottom half of water bottles to make very workable cups and bowls is another excellent camp-craft DIY tactic. Word of warning: Occasional mini whirlwinds that spin through camp do not like said cups/bowls and they make off with them, along with sleeping mats and anything else not weighted down.
8. It’s all about tent-life
MdS is all about tent-life. That’s where the best memories are made and worst jokes shared (sorry!) Stress builds bonds, as does kindness, sharing, the ability to ignore bad smells and forgive being sneezed in your face while asleep (sorry Susie!) In a nutshell, MdS isn’t the toughest race around, but it is an absolutely blast. If you don’t mind sand, blisters, pooping in a bag and being VERY HUNGRY.
* Damian Hall is an outdoor journalist and GB trail-ultra runner. He placed 15th and was part of the second-placed team at the 2017 Marathon des Sables, after only five weeks’ training (and is grateful to Contours Trail Running Holidays for the place). His next stop is the inov-8 sponsored Innsbruck Alpine Trail Running Festival, which he hopes will have less sand and much more food. You’ll find more of this sort of writing on his Facebook, Twitter (@damo_hall), Instagram (ultra_damo) and Strava accounts.