Considered one of the toughest ultra marathons on the planet, runners of the Marathon des Sables travel approximately 150 miles through the rugged and arid Sahara Desert. Participants run the equivalent of six regular marathons over the course of six days with each stage ranging anywhere from 21 to 91 kilometers in length.
Runners battle sand storms and incapacitating heat. They endure torturous chafing and blisters down to the bone. Not only does this race seriously challenge the body’s physical abilities and will, but the $4,000 entry fee challenges most people’s financial will as well. Surprisingly the race has a 2-year registration waitlist and once registration opens, all available spots are often filled within an hour.
Sunny Blende once said that “Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in,” and this is especially true of the Marathon of the Sands. Participants battle temperatures of up to 120°F so maintaining adequate hydration and electrolyte balance is not only crucial to finishing the race but to surviving it. Water is rationed out at each aid station and runners are responsible for carrying all their own food typically around 14,000 calories a person.
In addition to carrying their own food, each competitor must also carry their extra clothing, shoes, medical supplies and a sleeping bag on their backs. All racers are required to pack safety items like an anti-venom pump, distress flair and aluminum survival blanket. The Sahara is home to more than 20 types of venomous snakes and scorpions, but luckily most of them are nocturnal. Each racer typically carries a backpack that weighs between 15 and 30 pounds.
Checkpoints are found every five to ten miles where racers pick up their water rations and are heavily scrutinized by the medical staff. The race staff has no problem pulling people from the race if they look unfit to continue. In 2007 an Italian racer got disoriented during a sandstorm and was lost for nine days before rescuers found him alive yet 30 pounds lighter than his former self.
Racers sleep in communal Berber tents at night. The tents are open-sided and can be harsh unlike the plush bivouacs where the race directors and members of the press call it a night. A medical tent is available for urgent care and is utilized by most racers needing serious blister attention. Most people think you need to be a super athlete in order to compete the event, but each year every day athletes cross over the finish line. In 2010, the winner averaged a 7:38 pace with the slowest racer coming in at a 30:36 pace.
Written by Amiee Maxwell.
Photo by timothy.barker.