There’s a section of Fable III that sees you quite literally leading a blind man through a desert. The section itself isn’t very long (it probably only lasts twenty minutes or so), but we can confidently say that even in digital form, running through the desert is not a good time.
And yet, some people are excited by the idea of reenacting Moses’ 40 days in the desert. Understand that these people are not human but something else – something closer to the edge.
The Marathon des Sables (MdS) is a truly insane event made for people who want to push the boundaries and test themselves. It’s earned its title as the toughest footrace in the world, and if you plan on taking it on, you’ll have to come prepared…
What Is The Marathon Des Sables?
In 1984, ultramarathons were already an established athletic event. Though not nearly as popular as they are today (which goes to show how increasingly “ambitious” runners have become), the Spartathlon had already proven that there was a great deal of interest in the idea of running ceaselessly for hundreds of miles.
We can’t quite account for this phenomenon. Perhaps it goes back to Roman bloodsports when gladiators were made to fight to the death in a contest of both strength and spirit. Only the most determined of fighters would survive, and in watching their triumphs, we also shared it with them.
Either way, in 1984, Patrick Bauer (no relation to professional road cyclist Jack Bauer) traversed the Sahara Desert alone and on foot. Over 12 days, he covered over 215 kilometers (roughly 134 miles) without encountering a single oasis or desert community.
Exactly why he decided to undertake this task is unknown to us. Bauer was a concert promoter, so perhaps he was scouting for an exotic location.
Bauer organized the first Marathon des Sables or Marathon of the Sands. The rules of the event were simple: 23 runners would traverse 250 kilometers (around 150 miles) across the Sahara Desert, sustaining themselves on what they could carry on their backs alone. Bernard Gaudin and Christiane Plumere emerged victorious as the first male and female champions of what would soon become one of the most anticipated annual events in the athletic community.
Since then, the Marathon des Sables has become one of the most elite competitions in the world. It has received coverage in several high-profile running documentaries, including the awe-inspiring Running For Good.
By 2020, after 35 years of the event, only 25,000 runners from 50 nations had participated in the event. The Solidarité Marathon des Sables association was established to assist children and disadvantaged populations in and around the Morocco area.
Of course, the barrier for entry has since been lowered somewhat, annoying some elite runners to no end. In 2017, the first half Marathon des Sables was organized, allowing a slightly-less-dedicated (but still highly trained) pool of runners to participate.
Now that the world has somewhat recovered from the onslaught of the pandemic, the Marathon des Sables is back in full force.
If you find yourself slightly excited at the idea of walking across the desert for six days in a row without the comforts of the modern world (see: hygiene, infrastructure, bed), then read on to find out just why this is the toughest footrace in the world.
Why Is The Marathon Des Sables The Toughest Footrace In The World?
In case we haven’t made it abundantly clear, the Marathon des Sables is one of the toughest ultramarathons in the world and easily one of the most challenging races you could possibly run.
Despite the lack of human contact, unrelenting heat, uncomfortable sleeping conditions, and the ouchies your poor feet will have to endure, there is still a worrying amount of people who are more than happy to replicate the odysseys of both Jesus and Moses.
Reason des First: The Sand
The Marathon des Sables is sure to make you hate sand.
Unsurprisingly, the Sahara Desert is chock-full of the stuff that makes for a great wasteland-themed postcard but a pretty horrible experience for a runner in general. Unless you’re traveling on the back of a camel, there’s simply no good reason that you’ll ever need to cross the Sahara.
Unless you’re running the Marathon des Sables.
Anyone who’s had sand caught in their shoes will know how annoying it can be to deal with. Running on solid ground is one thing – running on a shifting cascade of tiny rocks and moving sand is quite another.
The amount of effort and leg strength required to successfully complete the six-day journey across the desert is one of the main reasons why some (sane) people choose to avoid it.
If you’re curious about how well you’d do, run along the shoreline for an hour the next time you visit the beach. If you find yourself panting and gasping and wishing your legs would fall off, then congratulations: you’ve learnt a little bit about the famed MdS race!
If, however, you get some sick, twisted satisfaction from the aching pain in your legs, then maybe the Marathon des Sables (and a therapy session or two) is for you.
Reason des Second: The Heat
It. Is. HOT.
You’ll feel it immediately the first time your bare foot touches the sand. “This isn’t unbearable,” you’ll foolishly tell yourself. “If I get hot, I’ll just take off my shirt or something.” Oh, you sweet summer children.
The heat creeps up on you. It gets in your skin and stays there until you essentially transform into a walking flesh bomb of radiation. A fever of 45 degrees is enough to kill a healthy person – and you’ll be walking in temperatures of 50 degrees and above.
Granted, you probably won’t die. Probably. But by the end of the first stretch of the race (a hearty 33 kilometers), you might be wondering what you’ve got yourself in for…
Reason des Third: The Distance
150-mile ultramarathons are pretty common today.
From the aforementioned Spartathlon to the nightmare-inducing Tahoe 200 and the immensely scalding Badwater 135, runners today have plenty of opportunities to put their mettle to the test and lightly tug on the remaining frayed ends of their sanity.
However, while every ultramarathon is testing in its own right, none quite compare to the frankly Biblical proportions of the Marathon des Sables. It’s by no means the longest ultramarathon in the world, but the painful, grueling odyssey across a barren wasteland is its own special brand of cruelty.
Over 150 miles, participants will learn to read the sands or else go insane. It’s not unheard of for some runners to start seeing things on their journey across the desert. Mirages are common, and the false hope they can set within you is dangerous. The only thing you can do is keep walking until the competition is done.
How To Prepare Yourself for MdS
As the legendary Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu once said, “The battle is won before it is fought.” But he obviously never competed in a desert-spanning ultramarathon before.
Still, knowing what to expect from the Marathon Des Sables can give you an edge. At the very least, knowing what hurdles, obstacles, and challenges you’ll face can help you structure your training routine accordingly. Needless to say, however, even with some knowledge of the gauntlet ahead of you, the Marathon of the Sands may leave you at death’s door without the strength to knock.
Sounds like a good time, right?
Let’s look at what the Marathon Des Sables has in store for you and what you should focus on in your training.
Determine Your Baseline
If you’ve never run an ultramarathon before, chances are that a 150-mile jaunt across the desert won’t be great for your health, not to mention your self-esteem. Before participating in any ultramarathon event, you must build a good running baseline. That means that you’ll need to be able to run at a consistent speed over a specific distance for a specific amount of time.
Of course, no one’s asking you to actually cross the Sahara before you enter the Marathon des Sables.
However, breaking the race down into smaller chunks and running those distances will greatly benefit you. It helps that the Marathon des Sables is already split up into six different sections.
Run On Sand
As we’ve mentioned already, running on sand or any similar terrain is a lot more challenging than it looks. While no one will claim that a 150-mile run across concrete is easy, the experience is much more pleasant on your legs.
To this end, even the most experienced and seasoned runners may have a tough time with the Marathon des Sables if they’ve never had to run across sand for an extended period. The strength your legs need to maintain a consistent pace is far greater, not to mention the difficulty of trying to keep your balance on an ever-shifting surface.
Before entering the Marathon des Sables, practicing running on sand is in your best interests. If nothing else, this will give you a perfectly reasonable excuse to visit the beach every day – you’re just training, after all. We don’t know how that pina colada ended up in your hands.
Cultivate Your Diet
A key component of the Marathon des Sables is the lack of sustainable food sources. It turns out that there aren’t that many fast-food chains active in the Sahara, which is a crying shame.
That means you’ll only be able to eat what you can carry and nothing more. While some people might be comfortable living the lifestyle of a nomad, others may have trouble acclimating themselves to the demands of the marathon. This can lead to discomfort, nausea, sickness, and a whole smorgasbord of nasty afflictions that will quickly take you out of the running.
To avoid this, you’ll have to get used to the diet of a wandering nomad. Diets are tough to get into as it is, but learning how to sustain yourself on the real-world equivalent of lembas bread alone is a whole other bag of trouble.
Fortunately, due to the exclusive nature of the event, most people end up booking their spots a full two years in advance, which is the perfect amount of time for you to switch up your diet and get used to the pain of watching your friends and family enjoying KFC without you.
Although the Marathon des Sables has never been more popular, attracting hundreds of people from all over the world, the competition is surprisingly flexible regarding what qualifications an individual needs to participate.
For example, while many ultramarathons are strictly reserved for adults, the Marathon des Sables is open to people as young as 16 (so long as they have written consent from their legal guardian). Additionally, participants must provide a valid medical certificate stating their ability to participate in the race.
However, despite the actual entry requirements being fairly loose, the entry fee teeters the line between expensive and egregious. Prospective marathoners will need to fork out a total of €3,190. But it’s okay – do the kids really need Christmas presents this year?
Additionally, you’ll have to take out insurance covering your cancellation in the event of sickness or injury. Besides the pricey entry fee, all of this is standard procedure, and the rest of the process is quite easy to follow. You can sign up online and fill out all the necessary forms digitally.
Be warned, however, that the Marathon des Sables is still a very exclusive marathon event.
Still Want to Run the Marathon des Sables?
The Marathon des Sables is a crazy event made for people who want to push their boundaries and test themselves. It’s earned its title as the toughest footrace in the world, and if you plan on taking it on, you’ll have to come prepared. It may sound easy, but trekking 150 miles across a blistering desert is actually pretty taxing.
Who’d have guessed it?!
Still, no challenge is insurmountable, and with the right training regimen and mindset, you, too, can conquer the Marathon of the Sands.