The Marathon Des Sables is a gruelling multi-stage, 250km race through the inhospitable Sahara Desert in Morocco. It lasts for over six days - with the fourth being the longest, when competitors must run 80km, or twice the distance of an average marathon. The race course is revealed only a few days before the start, since the route is different every year. Your race is unique.
The unrelenting Sahara presents varied terrain. Vast sand dunes and rocky jebels must be traversed under the midday sun, with temperatures regularly soaring above 50 degrees centigrade. Many walk, run or undergo a mixture of both. As long as the four camels at the back do not overtake you, you are still in the race.
Preparing for what they call the toughest footrace on earth is no easy task. Most competitors start off by running marathons, then move onto ultra-marathons, before attempting the jewel in the crown; the Marathon Des Sables. Some participants start from scratch, with no experience of running at all, and, for some, exercise is a foreign concept. It is a truly personal challenge, many taking the opportunity to run for a charity. There are of course seasoned professionals, looking for the top spots. They are light on their feet and very nimble, perfect for running across dunes and salt flats, or climbing rocky outcrops.
Self-sufficiency is key: you must carry your own food and clothes. Water is rationed and if the ration is exceeded you receive a time penalty. Berber bivouac tents are provided each night but do not provide much shelter from the harsh climate found in the Sahara. Sand storms are a regular occurrence. The tents are communal; some find themselves sharing with those who do not even speak the same language. Everyone comes together to create a fantastic camaraderie only found on the Marathon Des Sables.
Whilst being an immense physical challenge, this mighty marathon is also a mental challenge. Each day competitors must wake knowing they face huge distances with battered and blistered feet. Tired and sore, determination and perseverance are the key attributes for success.
This race tests the very limits of human endurance, and many of those who start do not complete it. Yet crossing the finish line and receiving your medal is a sweet, sweet victory which is worth every ounce of pain.
Original Image by Andrew Lansdell.