Marathon Des Sables – Beyond Due Limits?

Author: Mark Buley

It was with some trepidation, back in July 2017 that I, along with Gary Turnbull made the decision to enter the Marathon Des Sables, the often credited “World’s Toughest Footrace”.

People question the motivation, logic and reasoning.  For me its about challenges, I had tasted challenges and moved away from the inner circle of my abilities (the comfort zone) and wanted more, to explore the boundaries and limits beyond those boundaries (do limits exist?).

For those who are not (yet) familiar, the MDS is a 6 stage ultra-marathon, traversing the Moroccan Sahara, seeing a stage breakdown of 31km / 39km / 31km / 87km / 42km / 7km.  Throw into this mix carrying all your own equipment, food, clothes etc (circa 7-10kg backpack) along with Saharan weather featuring arid dry desert conditions from 35-40 Deg C, Night time conditions c 5 Deg C and of course frequent sandstorms and biting winds of more than 60 Kph.  Rest comes in the form of sleeping on a windy desert plain on a dusty rug, on a bed of razor sharp rocks, sheltered by a tarpaulin and sticks…

And so it began, 8 months of preparation and training kicked off with some research, what could I expect from the so-called “Toughest” (definition: Extreme, not easy to crack, difficult to accomplish) a multi stage “Ultra” (definition: going beyond and beyond due limits)?

Photo: Ian Corless

The Physical Preparation

For this element, we are very lucky here in the UAE, the conditions across the length of the UAE easily replicate much of the Saharan terrain, thereby reducing the sting of the Saharan sands.

Furthermore, the trail running scene in the UAE is now outstanding, special thanks to the team at Urban Ultra whose races (Sep to Mar, monthly) will lay an awesome MDS foundation for any athlete and of course thanks to Lee Harris and the Desert trail running group, a weekly trail running (& mid week run specific training group) which features many MDS’ers and is a must for anyone aspiring to toe the line in Morocco.

To summarise my physical training, 8 months comprised of 2998km running (60% trail/desert), 50+ gym conditioning sessions, 5 Ultra races, 6 Marathons, 5 other races and 14 heat acclimatization sessions (Sauna squats) in the last 2 weeks before departure…

I would not change too much here, maybe just some weekly run specific yoga and also adjusting some run sessions to include speed work & more strategic goals/physiology.

The “Other” Preparation

This is where the challenge really begins at the MDS and a key factor that will make or break the race for many.  Yes, there is of course a significant physical challenge, however this is only one element, the varied factors that can be the difference between a medal and an IV drip are broad and deep, which equipment? What clothing & shoes? What will you eat? How will you manage potentially disastrous calorie deficits? How will you Hydrate? How will you travel there? Insurance/administration? Will you pre-arrange tent mates (we got this one spot on – See below)?

All of these need to be researched (reach out to the MDS community via social media!) and more importantly need to be tried and tested, again & again & again (and then one more time) before you board that flight to Morocco.  If you take this approach and start this task early (I recommend no later than August the year before!) then you will find your race much easier, remove much of the stress (& increase your mental capacity, which is the cornerstone of MDS) – in doing so enriching and enjoying this life changing experience to it’s fullest.

However I would like to offer a word of caution and boil this section down to one simple tip!  By all means research, leave no stone unturned and devote as many non running hours to this as you can afford, but beware – the MDS is a personal challenge and all of us are different (that is life’s beauty!) and have different needs, what works for them might not work for you – if it feels right it probably is, use your own personal experiences and research and go with that, this will see you through the smoothest path…

The Race Itself

This year the course was a beautiful one (it can and does change year to year) and played out like this:

  • Stage 1 = 31km, 50% dunes 50% stony desert flats – 3hr 55min, rank 256/977 – A relatively easy day, easing us into the experience and finished feeling strong and ready for the next stage
  • Stage 2 = 39km, 80% exposed flat desert plains, 10% dunes, 10% Rocky mountain – 5hr 49min, rank 221/977 – A tough day of soulless desert plains, strong headwinds and topped off with a soft dunes stretch and the infamous Jebel Otfal
  • Stage 3 = 31km, 33% mountains, 33% dunes, 33% desert flats – 4hr 50min, rank 270/977 – A beautiful day, great climbs (Jebel Otfal again!), vertical descents and awesome ridge runs, quite possibly the single greatest running route of my life to date!
  • Stage 4 = 87km, 50% Dunes, 40% Desert flats, 10% mountains – 15hr 19min, rank 209/977 – The dreaded “long day” with its 35hr cut off. For me a great experience leaving me wanting more, a taste of something sweet but just a taste, now the goal must be time on feet, to 24hrs, 36hrs, 48hrs and beyond (aka Ultra!)
  • Stage 5 = 42.2km (just a marathon!), 70% Desert flats, 30% Dunes – 5hr 37min, rank 210/977 – Whilst this featured a relentless 60kph headwind ALL the way, this day had a carnival atmosphere, grinding out but enjoying the KM with each step bringing us closer to the finish and that medal (and of course a warm hug from Patrick Bauer!)
  • Stage 6 = 7.7km, 100% dunes – A non timed charity walk day, completing this as a tent team (more on tent 95 below!) was hugely enjoyable and a chance for all of us to nourish and nurture the bonds that we had formed across the week

All of this rolled up into a final finish time of just over 34hrs and a ranking of 212/977.  I had aimed for “top half” finish so was delighted (but I will get top 200 one day!).  Gary Turnbull had also had a stormer and been repaid for all his training by coming in the top half when his initial goal had been simply to finish, Mabrook!!!

 The Experience

This is the heart of MDS, this is why we all do this and this should be your prime focus once you have laid all the groundwork & preparation mentioned above!

The bonds formed here are unique and formed for life, they start early on, an awesome (if sometimes relaxed!) training partner in Gary. Some great guest training visitors to Dubai in Dan, Sue, Harry & Evan

Of course what really made MDS was the full ensemble of tent 95.  An international mix of moderate runners who are now friends for life having shared a unique special experience together (Taka & Gary UAE, Dan & Denise Hong Kong, Sue & James UK, Brian Kuwait).

When you live in such compromised close conditions for a week of potential pain and mental tests, you need good people around you and we cracked this 100%, also supported also by the neighboring team UAE tent (Jeanette, David W, David G, Simon, Jose, Ole & Anthony) and of course the sage wisdom and real jewels of advice from MDS veteran & photographer Ian Corless.

Last but not least the countless daily messages of support emailed into camp, you all know who you are and you rock! In all an awesome team…

A final thank you to Patrick Bauer, AOI, local berbers, the Moroccan Army and the full organization team, this 1,000 strong volunteer army makes the MDS what it is, the ultimate multi stage race experience, great value for a life changing event…

In Summary

The “toughest footrace on the planet”? What’s the verdict?  Well, it wasn’t easy, it had its moments, however (and purely in my opinion) the MDS is an entirely achievable challenge for most/many moderate runners (including beginners given time to prepare).

To quantify my comments, you cant just rock up at MDS and expect to burn a trail and smash all targets, the months of preparation, limitless sacrifices and the support of your nearest & dearest, family (couldn’t have done this without the support of Jeanette & JJ) and friends.

If you respect this race and prepare accordingly, YOU WILL succeed, the motto “Fail to prepare, Prepare to fail” never rang more true!

Do limits exist? Have I gone beyond “due boundaries”?  No way! Limits are set by oneself and are there to be broken and extended at every opportunity.  Bring on the next Urban Ultra, the next 100km and the further goals of 100 miles and beyond, I CAN do this and so can you.

Should you do MDS? Ask yourself, Why not rather than Why? Commit to prepare with the unnerving never faltering “I can do this” attitude and you are already half way there!

See you on the start line in Morocco one day soon…

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