Marathon des Sables is a race of intimidating numbers
156 miles. Or thereabouts. Six consecutive days of self-sufficient running through the inhospitable Sahara Desert. Temperatures soaring up to 50°C. Runners carrying packs weighing of 6.5kg-plus and containing everything they need to survive. Then there’s the £3,000 entry fee, which means that realistically most people only get one bite of the cherry. It is billed as the ‘toughest footrace on earth.‘ Failure, however, is not an option -and that means pressure.
What makes you run ultra? The desire to look elated and absolutely broken at the same time?
So why would anyone put themselves through all the stress? It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot over the past four months. Until a few years ago I’d never heard of the Marathon des Sables (MdS). I only started running marathons in 2009, making my debut in Paris. Around the time I was catching the running bug I recall a colleague mentioning in passing that he was training for some crazy desert race called the Marathon del something. I searched it out online and found the classic MDS photos of runners with their legs strapped in weird bags and wearing sun caps that had long flappy bits covering the back of their necks. Then I noticed their faces -a weird combination of looking elated and absolutely broken at the same time.
I was intrigued by how exotic the whole escapade sounded but the idea that I’d ever consider such a feat of endurance was out of the question. It just seemed physically impossible. My limit was 26.2 miles and, in truth, I was happy with that. Then someone bought me a book that changed everything. That book was Born to Run, written by Christopher McDougall. The stories within the book highlight unbelievable feats of endurance running. Reading about the Tarahumara tribe, who run hundreds of miles in a single stint, enigmatic desert running legends like Barefoot Ted and Caballo, as well as phenomenally tough races like Leadville 100 and Badwater 100, all inspired me. I was instantly hooked on ultra running.
Running 31 half marathons in 31 days
In 2012 I set myself the challenge of running 2,012 miles, including five marathons. A year later, I decided it was time to find out what it takes to become an ultra runner. To do that I figured I needed to run as many different types of ultra as possible. The list, in specific order, was this: A trail run (Classic Quarter), an altitude mountain run (Marathon du Mont Blanc), a 100km (Thames Path Challenge), a 24-hour (Adidas Thunder Run) and finally a multi-day stage race. By the time I got to the multi-day stage race it was December and I’d missed the boat on organised events. Undeterred and fuelled by a passion to complete my list, I set up my own version of a multi-day stage race, running 31 half marathons in 31 days during the final month of the year. My transition from marathon runner to ultra runner was complete… almost. I still had a date with Marathon des Sables -a date I knew I needed to make happen sooner rather than later. That date is now April 3rd, 2015.
Preparing for Marathon des Sables
In many ways getting ready for the Marathon des Sables is like any other ultra, except there is just a hell of a lot more things to think about! The MdS is like no other race I’ve ever prepared for. I’ve found myself doing things I’ve never done before, buying kit I’ve never bought before and training in ways I’ve never trained before. Preparation definitely splits into two parts – there’s readying your body and then there’s sorting your kit. The latter is a huge task, a decision minefield.
A unique training plan for Marathon des Sables: Go paleo, hit the gym and beast killer hill repetitions
My training has been very different to most. With help from the brilliant team at the PaleoGym.co.uk in London, I’ve taken a fresh approach. Over the past six months I’ve followed a strict paleo-inspired diet, cutting out all gluten, sugar, dairy, wheat, anything from grain, alcohol (mostly), soy, starchy veg and legumes. In its place I’ve been fuelling up with high-quality, lean protein from fish, grass-fed beef, chicken and turkey, along with vast quantities of nutrient-rich green veg, nuts, seeds and good, fatty foods like avocados and olives.
While everyone else has been out running back-to-back marathons, I’ve been in the gym five times a week, working on getting lean and building power in the right paces. I’ve combined this with a couple of long, steady runs (around 90 minutes each) and two horrendously killer hill-repetitions sessions (around 10-15 reps up a steep, 350m hill) each week. Admittedly, I come from a different starting point to a lot of MdS runners, for whom the desert will be there first ultra race. I have a good endurance base to work from and I’ve experienced (suffered) what it’s like to run for 14 hours in a single helping. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ve had my doubts about my training plan. It’s tough to watch everyone treading such a different path. However, if I’ve learnt one thing from endurance running it’s that you’ve got to have faith in the training.
Race Ultra 270, sand goggles and… anti-venom pumps. Assembling the best Marathon des Sables kit
While the training is tough, I hadn’t really anticipated how daunting it is to choose your kit for the desert. A great deal hangs on the choices you make, from the right shoes and backpack to whether you’re going to need clothes to wear at camp in the evenings. There’s food, foot care, sand goggles, socks, sun cream, stoves, hats, socks, sunglasses, lighters, water bottles, hydration solutions, sleeping bags, mats and even anti-venom pumps to find. You soon find yourself in spreadsheet territory, logging the weight of everything. You learn things like AAA lithium batteries weigh less than the other type. However, it pays to be meticulous because every gram really does count. In selecting my running shoes alone I tried out six different pairs, ordering them all and returning the ones I didn’t like from a first test conducted inside my house. Eventually I got down to two pairs that I kept and ran with. Finally I went for the inov-8 RACE ULTRA 270.
Hunting down the best jerky, sleeping on the floor and spending hours in the sauna
Everything needs to be tested in conditions as close to those we will face in the desert. I’ve tried eight varieties of Expedition Foods freeze dried meals, had Epic Bar meaty snacks sent in from the USA and searched high and low for the best jerky and billtong (Billy Franks by the way). All the time, of course, keeping in mind that all food must follow my Paleo diet approach. I’ve been wearing my MdS running outfit under my clothes at work to see if it chafes. On top of that, I’ve been rubbing dog-paw preparation products into my feet to ready them for the onslaught and camping in sub-zero temperatures to see how I fare after a day’s running with a pack on my back. I’ve also spent hours sitting in saunas, done sessions in a heat chamber at Kingston University and slept on top of a Thermarest on my bedroom floor, right next to my big comfy double bed.
The plan all along has been to leave nothing to chance. In truth however, I expect at least half-a-dozen of my decisions to turn out bad. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about ultra running it’s that at some stage there things will go wrong. It’s how you react that counts and ultimately defines you as an endurance runner.
As well as Marathon des Sables, in 2015 I will run 8 marathons over 3 Continents in just 20 days to raise money for the Pepo La Tumaini Project helping AIDS affected children in Kenya. More information HERE or on my website www.manvmiles.com