The Ultimate Guide to The Marathon Des Sables

Marathon Des Sables the toughest race in the world

Over three decades ago a brave mortal soul set foot on the world’s largest desert with less food and supplies that could fill a shopping basket. His name was Patrick Bauer and on that day in 1984, he set out to cover over 350 km of the Sahara desert.

There were no rules to this. No ultimate guides, no checkpoints and certainly no other humans who had a half a brain over that stretch of land. But Bauer persevered in one of the most grueling climates that mankind has ever been exposed to. His inspiring trek sparked a revolution in the running culture that has formed a tradition unlike any other.

Six days of insufferable heat. 155 miles of sand that will erode your feet like the cliffs of the Grand Canyon. And one hell of a story if you finish. It is the race known as The Marathon Des Sables.

And you, you crazy son of a bitch, want to compete in it.

Let’s get crackin’ on what you need to do to prepare for the world’s hardest marathon.

TRAINING

Marathon Des Sables runner

Plain and simple. Training the correct way is the single most important thing you can do to equip yourself for this grand journey. Don’t think you can train for four or five weeks then be able to waltz down the dunes of this treacherous landscape with ease. I’m hoping you are smart enough to realize that already.

A smart way to kick off your Des Sables exercise routine is to find a specially heated gym. Maybe there is small gym in your apartment complex or you have a makeshift facility in your garage. Either way, getting your body accustomed to the heat is key. Layer up when you work out and not just with two shirts. Pretend you’re about to go out in a blizzard. Put on at least four layers and get after it.

Many athletes in the past say it is a good recommendation to taking very hot showers as well to bring up your body temperature. If your local gym has a sauna, make sure to utilize that as well. Another big factor is making sure the landscape you are running on is as close as possible to the magnified heat of the Marathon Des Sables route. Take advantage of those extremely hot summer days in your area and challenge yourself to a long run at peak temperatures.

This isn’t just a physical race either. Mental fortitude is quite possibly even more important than what kind of shape you are in when you reach the starting line. Learning your body and making sure when to listen to it is what is going to get you through six days of the most demanding physical test you will ever encounter.

EQUIPMENT

Marathon Des Sables camping at night

The Marathon Des Sables requires all participants to be self-sufficient with the only exception being that water and tents are provided. What you can fit on your back is what you are taking. Make sure it’s the only essentials. Equipment is really going to be based off what kind of runner you are and there are several types.

1. Professional racers who want to place
2. Those who want to place relatively high and challenge themselves
3. Runners who want to complete rather than compete
4. First time multi-day runners

Each type of runner is going to need different supplies. As you can imagine, the pros are going to be packing ultra light compared to first-timers who are in it for the experience rather than the medal. That being said, no matter what category you fall under, the number one concern for equipment is comfortability. The inevitable rashes will sprout across your body as some point or another but taking the extra time to select the right backpack and shoes that won’t rub or chafe will save you loads of unnecessary pain. Let’s take a look at an ideal essential items list that you can personalize for your big day.

Hat

– Keep that sun off your face. Consider hats with a neck flap as well.

Sunglasses

– Choices are endless with this item. Choose what is comfortable and can block the sand effectively on the course.

Shorts/T-shirt

– Preferential selection here as well. Some runners don’t like compression tees and shorts because they can get too hot. Make sure to bring something that is as comfortable and breathable as possible. And definitely choose shorts that won’t chafe in the worst areas!

Sleeping bag/Jacket

– Yes it gets hot as hell out there but there are times you are going to need a jacket. Best bet is to invest in a sleeping bag that converts into a jacket since these are two bulky items by themselves.

Socks

– Like most items on this list, it is all up to preference. Some athletes prefer toe socks and others don’t. Either way you are going to want to bring a couple pairs of your favorite and most comfortable socks. The room it takes to store in your bag will be well worth it.

Shoes

– What you use to cover your feet is the most personalized decision you can make. If you are signing up for this marathon we hope you have completed a race once or twice before. However, there are a few keys to keep in mind when selecting some kicks for the Des Sables. You probably are going to want to stay away from road shoes in this situation. Trail shoes are not a bad option in this case. Grip shouldn’t be your top concern but having a good amount is always a solid plan.

– You’re definitely going to want to select something with a lot of toe protection because you are going to face more rocks then you have ever seen in your life. Another recommendation is to be aware of the width in the toe box. Your feet are going to swell after countless hours of movement so having that extra space can really prove advantageous in the long haul.

Gaiters

– This is the definition of an essential item. Keep that sand out of your shoes.

Buff

– Many runners have two buffs to protect their neck and facial region during sand storms and windy conditions. It can double as a body temp reducer if you wet the cloth and wrap around your neck.  

Rucksack/Backpack

– The obvious theme here is keeping it simple and that doesn’t change with your fastpack. The biggest thing is to make sure of is that it has minimal bounce as you run. External pockets for water bottles or other necessary items is a huge plus.

– A good feature to look out for is the roll-top closure. This means as you have less contents in the bag it can roll into a smaller size so the remaining items won’t move around. When purchasing this item, try it out with all your equipment inside, then with very little inside to determine if it has the right feel.

Head Lamp

– Battery powered is recommended as well as those with a red-light options so as not to disturb others at night.

Flip-flops

– When you are taking a rest and want to air out your feet, throw a cheap pair of these bad boys on.

FOOD

Well, say goodbye for the next week to any glorious meals you crave. That cheat day after you cross the finish line will be the most epic of your life. In the meantime, it’s necessary to break down what kind of food you are going to need to fuel your body during the MDS. It is important to understand that everyone has a different body type and metabolism so we are hoping that you have a pretty solid grip on how your body works.

The number one rule to keep in mind is knowing that your body needs at least 2,000 calories a day. Plan accordingly and calculate carefully. A general breakdown to follow is as follows. Protein should take up 15% of your caloric intake, fats should be around 30%, and carbs will fill in the remaining 55% value.

Freeze-dried food is always a go-to option because it is light and extremely easy to make. Literally just add water and you have a meal. Other runners might want to enjoy the luxury of hot food so a mini stove and fuel might be worth the extra weight. Some competitors have even admitted to using the sun to cook their food which isn’t a bad idea either. In all cases, restoring your burned calories at the end of each day is an integral in your path to the finish line.

Post-run recovery drinks are highly recommended as well as high-energy snacks throughout each day. Salt tablets and electrolytes are a must. Make sure to drink 6-7 liters of water each day at the minimum.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Marathon Des Sables feet repair

Photo by Matthleu Tordeur

Remember these small tips to make your experience a bit more enjoyable. Your body is going to get banged up. There is no way around that. However, foot care is an absolute necessity for this multi-day race. Do not underplay this factor before heading to the desert. Finding running buddies is not a must but can be comforting at times where you feel like your tank is below empty. Lastly, bring at least one luxury item to keep everything down to earth. Or at least to keep yourself sane. Maybe a book or an MP3 player to use when you are laying on the sand looking up at the thousands of stars that line the northern hemisphere.

Most importantly, take it all in! You are competing in the world’s toughest race in a climate that not many people would ever want to be in. Take a few moments here and there to truly appreciate the vastness of this earth and the beautiful details within. Train hard, pack smart and kick some ass!

See you in April 2018!

Feature image credit: Patrick Locquet

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Harry R Bennett III

Harry R. Bennett III is a Los Angeles native who grew up addicted to playing sports. His love for the game of baseball eventually landed him several scholarships to play college ball across the United States. After receiving his B.A. in journalism, he pushed himself out of his comfort zone and moved to New York City in an effort to pursue his passion in the sports industry.

Bennett has worked with major companies such as Fox Sports and Major League Baseball and has written for several online publications covering a variety of sports content. Although his playing days are over, he enjoys the endless pursuit of competition from athletics and action sports.

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