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Running 250 km through the desert: it’s time for the Marathon des Sables

Follow one of the world's most gruelling ultra-races, where athletes must carry their food and equipment for six days in Morocco

Photo by: Marathon des Sables

It all started in 1984 when Patrick Bauer (who was 28 at the time) took on a completely self-sufficient 12-day journey across the Sahara Desert, covering 350 km on foot. Two years later the first Marathon des Sables (MDS) was born, with 23 “pioneers” taking on a similar challenge. Since then, Bauer’s event (he remains the race director) has continued to grow, with a record 1,300 competitors taking part in the 30th-anniversary race in 2015.

Photo: Marathon des Sables

This year’s race, the 36th edition, will feature 1,100 competitors from 50 countries who will, like the 25,000 athletes who have participated in the event since 1986, take on the 250 km course carrying their food and equipment. Each day race organizers provide the athletes with water and put up a tent for them to sleep under – otherwise they are on their own. There are five stages in the race, along with a “solidarity” or charity stage that does not count for the overall ranking of the race. The stages range from 30 to 90 km. The athletes don’t know the official course until the day before the race when it is officially announced, but they are guaranteed (according to the event media guide):

  • flat terrain, often hard and stony and suitable for “real runners” as opposed to “trail runners” 
  • sand (sometimes hard or crusted, but most often soft) that they will have to master (for example by opting for shaded areas so they sink less because when the sun heats the sand, it becomes softer) 
  • small, normal and giant sand dunes that will make all competitors draw on their reserves 
  • ascents and descents, not very long but often steep, sometimes sandy, sometimes stony 
  • technical sections over rocky escarpments and along crests (the authentic “trail running moments” of the MDS) 
  • gorges that will provide a beneficial and life-saving shade, when competitors pass through them, and dried wadis (supposedly dried river beds… but some years, a trickle of water is flowing!) where competitors can find some vegetation. 
Photo: Marathon des Sables

The daily temperatures are typically in the 30s, but can rise to as much as 45 degrees Celsius. At night the temperature can drop to 5 C or less. Athletes must carry a week’s worth of food, a sleeping bag, a compass, knife, lighter, whistle, headlamp, venom extractor, signalling mirror and sunscreen. They are also provided with a GPS beacon so organizers can keep track of the athletes at all times. The race takes place in the middle of the desert so that it can be held in total isolation and guarantees that athletes cannot receive any assistance.

COVID-19 and the MDS

Last year’s 35th edition took place last fall after being postponed three times. It was a tough year for the event, with an athlete suffering a cardiac arrest during the first stage, then a gastrointestinal bug ripping through the field, leading almost 50 per cent of the participants to pull out, far higher than the normal 5 to 10 per cent attrition rate the event typically sees. 

2022 Coverage

Triathlon Magazine Canada editor Kevin Mackinnon will be on hand to cover this year’s race, one of the 65 accredited journalists covering this year’s MDS. He’ll be providing updates and photo galleries through the first few days of racing in Morocco. There will be 15 Canadians competing at the 2022 MDS. Stay tuned for more from Morocco in the coming days.