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marathon des sables

Marathon des Sables

some words of advice
I receive an email every couple of weeks asking for advice about running the Marathon des Sables (“the world’s toughest race”). I decided then to create a list of tips and thoughts about the race. I am well aware that there are forums online with way more up to date information about specifics of clothing and kit. There are countless people who know more than me about nutrition or elite training. So this is just a few lines of generic advice from a ‘normal’ person, albeit one who trained hard and pushed themselves very hard during the race (I was one of the Top 10 Brits to finish in the year I ran; my best marathon time is 2’58).
  • If you are fit enough to comfortably finish a normal marathon then I think you can do the MdS.
  • I believe that training for the MdS is not massively different to training for a normal marathon. In other words you need to learn to (1) run far, (2) to run fast, and (3) to run far fast. Your training should reflect this [e.g. (1) long runs, (2) speed sessions – I joined a local athletics club for a weekly torture session on the track, and (3) fartlekking / hill reps].
  • In addition to ‘normal’ marathon training I would suggest focussing on learning to run far day after day (back to back long runs), running with kit (spend a few weekends walking for long hours over the hills with a heavy pack), dealing with the heat (run with stupid amounts of clothes on and maybe a bin liner too), and water management (learn to drink enough, but no more than enough).
  • Running with a pack places a strain on your body. Improve your core strength (plank etc.) and also your leg strength (lunges, squats, deadlifts).
  • I used for my footwear. I swear by them (even before they kindly began sponsoring me). Really worth the money.
  • Key to the MdS is how well you recover in time for the next stage. Work on your flexibility and suppleness – stretching, pilates, yoga, deadlifts etc.
  • Race tips: Start slowly. Really slowly. Spend the first half day (even the first day) feeling a bit frustrated at yourself for how slow you are going. I promise you can make this time up later. Get acclimatised (especially if you are a large, pasty white person), pace yourself.
  • My policy throughout the race was this: run the flat and downhills. Walk ALL inclines or soft sand parts, even if they were only for 10 metres. It worked for me. Not much of the race is on soft sand. I decided that the time saved was not worth the energy lost in running those bits. When I walked I ‘speed marched’ (like those silly rich housewives you sometimes see power walking round the park and gossiping on their phone). When I ran I actually ‘speed shuffled’ – there is not a lot of flowing Farah-esque ‘running’ for normal people wearing a pack in a desert. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
  • Pace yourself. It is a marathon (several of them, actually), not a sprint.
  • If your feet hurt – STOP. NOW. Not later. RIGHT NOW. Stop, remove your shoes and socks. Tape up your feet. And do it NOW. Looking after your feet might well be the Number 1 tip for making it through this race. Do not wait until you have a blister. As soon as you feel rubbing, stop and tape it up. Watch James Cracknell’s South Pole show to appreciate how stupid a false economy it is to try to be tough and macho about sore feet.
  • Get good at water management. Sip regularly. I had one bottle of pure water and one with electrolyte solution. Be ruthless and strict with yourself. Don’t drink too much. Don’t drink too little. Don’t be shy of rooting through the rubbish bins each morning – a great source of illicit extra water for large, pasty white people who feel the heat a lot!
  • You will have one night out in the desert before you begin. It’s so hard to guess how many clothes to take / what gear to take. So if you can be bothered (and if you are lucky enough to have loads of gear) I’md really recommend taking two lots of things with you out to the desert. Two sleeping bags. Two warm tops etc. You’ll have that one night to decide what you really need.
  • Err on the side of a too-thin sleeping bag with a too-warm top to wear in the evenings in camp.
  • A Buff is a really useful piece of kit. Ideally every bit of kit should be multi-purpose.
  • People worry about Thermarests popping. I’md dispute this. Take a NeoAir if you can afford it.
  • Throw away your stove and build a stone from small stones instead.
  • Throw away some of your fuel and supplement it with little twigs.
  • Take less clothing than you think you need and more food.
  • I used an MP3 player that ran on an AAA battery. Worth its weight in gold. (But don’t forget to embrace the silence at times too).
  • Take a real variety of food. Variety is king. Haribo, dried apricots, salted nuts, biltong, flapjack are all good things’¦
  • Finish each day with a protein recovery shake.
  • Fuizion do the nicest dried food I’mve ever tried. Worth the money.
  • Take some tinfoil to make a pan lid and also a windshield to wrap round your pan.
  • Consider taking a packet of instant noodles for each day as a pre-dinner treat – don’t overestimate the satisfaction of getting some bulk into your belly. It helps you sleep better.
  • P20 suncream was good enough for this pasty white man – very impressive stuff.
  • Take earplugs and use your Buff as an eye visor.
  • It’s hard to know how much warm clothing you need. So I’md recommend taking an extra top on Day 1 that you are willing to chuck in the bin the next morning if you decide you don’t need it. You don’t want to be cold in the evening. But nor do you want to carry extra weight merely because you are too tight to chuck it away!
  • Enjoy it. It’s a crazy- expensive race, but the memories linger long after you have repaid the money. Savour the experience.

And I have just discovered this list of tips which I scrawled immediately after the race:

  • Buff
  • Soup powder / hot choc / tea bags, esp for the rest day when there is nothing to do except eat.
  • take a wide variety of food – not the same flavour every day!
  • Jelly babies / Haribo / Skittles
  • You don’t need a mug or bowl – cut the bottom of the bottles they give you.
  • I would only take one box of fuel and just supplement it with twigs.
  • Don’t need a stove: scrape a hole in the sand and use stones to prop up the stove.
  • Beef jerky, almonds, salted peanuts, peperami (but not the Black Firesticks!)
  • Doc Trotter is great – they give out really good tape, disinfectant etc.
  • Train for months with no socks. When that no longer hurts sprinkle a bit of sand into your shoes too. Worked a treat for guys in our tent.
  • Best training you could do for MdS- hill reps, and consecutive days training. Also weekends hiking fast in the hills. Walk fast all day. Do it again the next day.
  • The parachute, English gaiters were great. The red gaiters also worked well.
  • Take a variety of clothing and gear, 2 sleeping bags, 2 roll mats etc to the desert: you have a day off before you begin to test stuff out.
  • Take fancy dress, booze and games for that pre-race desert time too.
  • Check your ECG has your name on the top of it!
  • P20 suncream worked perfect for this very pale Brit.
  • Lightweight free flip flops from holiday hotels were popular.
  • Nuun was nice to have.
  • MP3 player great. Use a MuVo as it takes AAA batteries.
  • Get friends to follow your progress on the website. Good for morale!
  • Food- be anal about calories and weight. I was not. You need a lot of variety of calories and you need the minimum of weight.
  • Supernoodles as a ‘filler’ just to stop you feeling hungry all the time.
  • I had a really long straw that just shoved into the 1.5l bottle. Worked well. Also had a 500ml bike bottle with my Nuun in.

Have you run the Marathon des Sables? Please leave your own tips in the comments section below.

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  1. Thank you Al, loads of good tips, especially about taking fancy dress!! It is a beach holiday after all?!
    Random question, did you crave sweet or savoury?

  2. I generally craved salty food, though the Haribo were bloody good too…

  3. Peter Reilly Posted

    ” my best marathon time is 2’58 ” – Great effort! That puts my 4.13 to shame.

    Did you do any high altitude training? I’ve seen some programmes where people run in a glass box. Out of interest what was your MDS time?

  4. Jim Hardy Posted

    Top Tip: Replenish all the lost calories by going mental at the buffet back at the hotel!

  5. Be prepared for your tastes to change… I have a sweet tooth so took loads of sweets, but by the end of the week I was craving savoury foods such as crisps and roast dinners!

    Crisps were my luxury- crunch the crisps up inside the bag, poke a hole in the bag, squeeze out all the air and then put a bit of tape over the hole. Chuck them in your pack- they weigh virtually nothing and were still fresh by the end of the week. When I became unwell they were the only food I could tolerate!

  6. Akbar naghdi Posted

    Thank you for sending me an email.About the Marathon. I hope one day I can do it.



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