Everything you need to know about one of the toughest races in the world By Gary Howells Run Coaching
Commonly referred to as “THE MdS” it’s branded as ‘The toughest footrace on earth’, it is an epic and for many, life-changing experience. The run over seven days, the race is comprised of six stages and a rest day, with the distances ranging from 21km-82km per day for a total of over 250km. And all though the Sahara Desert. Want to know more? Of course you do.
With temperatures regularly reaching 50ºC, those brave (daft) enough to take part will run, stumble, burn, stink, blister, hallucinate, weep, and bleed the whole way as they carry all their gear and food they need for the race. Drop a gel and lose it in the sand? There isn’t a gel station or friendly supporter with jelly babies on the course.
Each night runners have to tend to their injuries, eat whatever they’ve rationed for that day and then ‘sleep’ in communal bivouacs. For this entire experience, runners tend to have to sign up two years in advance because of the high demand and pay around £4250 for the privilege.
Food and Water
The rules state a minimum of 2000 calories per day, for every day of the race so runners must carry at least 14,000 calories worth of food and drink mix. However, all but the smallest runners will need much more than that. For example, a 68kg racer requires 2,860 calories during a marathon-length stage, on top of the 2,000 to fuel his / her day, and the 500 to feed his / her elevated metabolic rate.
Over 120,000 litres of drinking water is consumed during the event. To maintain competitive equality, runners get 1.5 litres in the am. and 1.5 to 4.5 litres at checkpoints every five to nine miles during each stage. (You need two to four times the amount of water when running 26.2 in the desert compared with running a marathon, At night, racers get 4.5 litres. This ration covers drinking, meals, and washing up. There are strict rules about waste too, especially bottle tops. No rubbish that is left in the desert.
To keep sand out, runners often glue or Velcro gaiters to their shoes. Sand sticks to anti-chafing lubes, and the friction can turn thigh skin into sandpaper. Compression shorts eliminate this.
Sandstorms arise when winds up to 50 miles per hour pick up loose dust and sand. They can create zero visibility. Racers stop and await instructions. In 1994, a sandstorm disoriented Italian Mauro Prosperi, who was discovered nine days later more than 100 miles off-course. In 2017 the night of stage 3 saw a sandstorm so strong that the competitors didn’t sleep and saw over 25 unable to start day 4 due to loss of kit.
Temps can top 50ºC, so runners often wear legionnaire hats (the ones with the flap at the back) and sweat-wicking apparel, hydrating regularly to keep their body temp down. Salt tablets balance electrolytes (low levels weaken muscle contractions and cause cramps)
Backpacks must weigh between 6.4kg – 15 kg, including food (but excluding water). This ensures racers carry the caloric minimum and the mandatory desert survival gear (below), while reducing injury risk from too-heavy loads. The day before the race, officials weigh each pack and check for required supplies:
backpack or equivalent
head torch and a complete set of spare batteries
10 safety pins
compass, with 1° or 2° precision
knife with metal blade
a signalling mirror
one aluminium survival sheet
one tube of sun cream
passport / identity card
original medical certificate provided by AOI, filled in and signed by the doctor
original ECG and its tracing.
The Course There is always a big day and an ‘easy’ last day, but apart from that the course changes each year, as does the daily mileage.
Checkpoints dot the course every five to nine miles. Runners enter a chute to check-in, get fresh water, and dump trash before heading out again. The medical staff scrutinises each runner to see who is unfit to carry on.
It’s not just sand, the course takes in rocky areas that can cause falls and injury. Plus, studies have shown that running ultras like the MdS can weaken your bones, break down muscle, and increase oxidative stress, I blame calorie deficits, lack of recovery, and insufficient strength training.
To add some extra danger, Morocco is home to 12 species of snakes and 10 types of scorpions—all of which are venomous. Thankfully, most are nocturnal.