While triathlon holidays have become big business in recent years, those who really want to push themselves to the limit are opting for the Marathon des Sables. Held each year in April, the Marathon des Sables has been hailed as the ‘toughest footrace on Earth’. Competitors fly to southern Morocco and meet in the Sahara Desert to begin racing in some of the harshest conditions on the planet. It takes place over five days, during which entrants will cover a distance that’s the equivalent of running from London to Dover and back again.
Throw in searing temperatures of up to 50°C, rolling sand-dunes and a weighty backpack and you’ve got all the ingredients required to challenge even the toughest runner.
The History of the Race
The Marathon des Sables was started in 1986, by a French concert-promoter, Patrick Bauer. Two years earlier, Bauer decided to make an epic solo trek through the Sahara Desert, carrying everything he’d need to see him through on his back. During his time in the sands and under the sun, he had the brainwave of founding a marathon-style race and give others the chance to follow in his footsteps.
The first Marathon des Sables was attended by 186 participants. Now, 32 years later, the race is attended by more than 1000 entrants, is followed by over 200 reporters and broadcasters, and is watched over by a 400-strong management-support team.
An Ethical Competition
The Marathon des Sables attracts ultra-marathon runners from all over the world, who compete for the coveted first place. However, there’s much more to it than achieving the satisfaction (and blisters) that comes with winning; the entry-fees and funds raised are used to develop projects that help children and underprivileged families in Morocco. The projects focus on improving health, education and providing agricultural opportunities.
The Marathon des Sables takes its responsibility to the Sahara and its inhabitants very seriously. Competitors are tasked to carry everything they’ll need with them, from food and water to clothing and first-aid kits. Along their five-day hike, they’ll rest up at pre-erected campsites, in tents made from goat-hair. However, once a camp has been used, it’s completely dismantled, leaving absolutely no trace that it was ever there in the first place.
Runners are also responsible for their own litter and waste and any evidence that any rubbish has been discarded results in them being penalised and losing vital points.
Searing Heat, Boiling Sand, and Rain
Think of the Sahara Desert and you’ll think of the endless sands and scorching sun. However, the Marathon des Sables hasn’t always enjoyed (or endured) these traditional conditions. In 2010, during the race’s 24th year, southern Morocco was subject to some of the heaviest rainfalls it had ever seen. As a result, vast swathes of the course were literally submerged in water, adding an extra layer of difficulty to the already-daunting race.
Even without the rains, the Marathon des Sables course presents participants with some serious challenges, including the jebel; mountain ranges and hills that were previously only used by hunters and shepherds from the Bedouin tribes.
The Race Itself
Appropriately, the Marathon des Sables kicks off with a rousing chorus of AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ blazing through the speakers. From there, the runners have six days in which to complete the course. Of those six, one day is a rest day, to be taken after the longest stretch of the race, which weighs in at a foot-blistering 86km. The other days are broken down into between 30 and 45km each, with the final day coming in at the lightest, at around 7km. In recent years, mobile phones have been banned, to create more of a team spirit. Runners travel in groups, who will camp out together over the course of the race. Bauer believes that removing mobile phones and other forms of communication will promote a sense of unity and encourage campfire conversations.
Supporting the Competitors
However, the competitors of the Marathon des Sables aren’t left entirely alone. As part of the race’s support-management, they are trailed by camera-bearing drones and followed by quad-bikes, to ensure safety and maintain the environment of the course. In addition, there are more than 100 all-terrain vehicles on hand, mountain bikes, a Cessna light aircraft, more than 20 specially-adapted buses and a caravan of camels.
Bauer has also been instrumental in developing a unique energy bar, specifically for the Marathon des Sables. Using natural ingredients, including pistachios, cumin, salt and tomatoes, it’s designed to be bio-degradable and offers the best in short-term nutrition for those taking part.
The Marathon des Sables is an incredible feat of endurance and if you have an interest in pushing yourself to your very limits, one well worth taking part in.