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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Marathon des Sables: The beginning

For those of you who don’t know what the “Marathon des Sables” is, here is a quick run-down:

  • A 250-km ultramarathon
  • Run over 7 days
  • In the Sahara desert
  • Fully self-sufficient
What does that mean? Well, the race takes place in south-eastern Morocco, near the Algerian border, and covers a distance of approximately 250km over a week. There are six day-stages and one day of rest after the 80-km (or longer) fourth day. At the end of each day there is a Berber-style tent camp set up whereby eight runners share an open tent. Daytime temperatures can reach 50°C and drop to about 5°C at night. Everything the participants require for the week has to be carried on their backs, except for water, which is provided at camp and at check-points--this means clothing, sleeping bag and mattress, food, as well as cooking and eating utensils, medicine, sanitary items, sun screen(!) and of course safety gear, some of which is required by the race organizers including a venom pump if you happen to get bitten by a poisonous snake and a hand-held rocket-launcher for signaling in case you get lost. 

This race is already in its 30th year in the running and has now over a 1,000 participants annually; registration begins more than a year in advance and sells out very quickly, bringing in more than 40 different nationalities.

I heard about this race several years ago and it immediately captured my attention and imagination. It sounded so exotic, so Lawrence-of-Arabia-ish (albeit wrong continent). When I told my husband about it, I think he sensed, even then, that this was now something that I would not let go of until I’d experienced it for myself. Over the following years it kept popping up sporadically on my radar-screen and when I checked the website in December 2014 and saw that registration was open for 2016, I knew the time had come. I would then have over a year to prepare. Would it be enough? It will have to be.

My training and race calendar for this year have now been set (though not in stone) and I am currently busy scouring over literature in print and on the Internet for tips on gear. I've ordered a pair of the Inov-8 X-Talon 212 trail shoes as a possible contender for “the” race shoe.
When talking about this race, most people instinctively say “Crazy!”, but those who run it don’t do so without extremely careful planning and training. They are far from crazy, rather quite the opposite, because without a clear head and meticulous preparation the race can be very dangerous. Every year there is at least one case of severe heat stroke requiring hospitalization. One year, a massive sand storm caused one runner to lose his way and he was lost for 9 days before being found, alive but severely dehydrated, in Algeria by a group of farmers. There have also been two deaths.

Why do it then?
Because it’s been touted as “The Toughest Footrace on Earth”. 
That's why.

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