Running the Sahara Desert

The journey to run the Marathon des Sables started two years before even standing at the starting line in the blistering heat of the Moroccan desert with 1200 other enthusiastic runners. Last doubts are pushed aside and I bravely clicked the “submit” button on the application form of the Marathon des Sables. My sportswear closet contains many marathon finisher shirts, but 250 sandy kilometres through the heat of the Sahara is a different story. The challenges for such an endeavour are plentiful: gathering together the optimal equipment, testing race nutrition or keeping the balance between job, family and training, just to name a few.

These guys are much better adapted to the conditions than us humans. However, the Fennec running pants did a great job in keeping my legs cool, too.

Planning stage: The race distance is 250 km within 7 days. Roughly 20% of the race will be through energy-sapping sand dunes with fine sand, the other on gravel, dried salt lakes and mountain ridges. Temperatures are expected to be above 30°C during the daytime and drop to 5°C at night.
The organiser offers rationed water, a tent for shelter and medical support if necessary. The runners, on the other hand, carry their entire gear, including the sleeping bag, cooking utensils and nutrition for a week.

Blowing Sahara sand, which a friend imported, onto different gaiters to check their functionality. Testing your equipment is essential!

Training: My preparation in the lead up to the event consisted of five workouts a week with many back-to-back runs and up to 100 km a week. Almost every run was also used to test different equipment and clothing options. Early on, the choice fell on the X-Bionic Fennec pants. This much I can reveal: they served me very well during the race. Backpacks and sleeping bags were also tested during short overnight stays on different campgrounds. The tapering phase, the month before flying to Morocco, was used for heat training with 10 sessions of 40 minutes at 40°C. In order to achieve these conditions, I set up a treadmill and installed a heater inside the bathroom. This torturous training prepared me well and is now a standard part of my preparations for races in heat.

My training centre at home, converting the family’s bathroom into a heat chamber with radiant heaters.
Perfect temperatures at home to acclimatize to the heat in the Sahara.

 

“Whenever my mind is challenging my sanity for enrolling in this race, I close my eyes and see the breathtaking views from a tall sand dune. I am sure it will be worth the sacrifice. “

Travelling: After a long day of travelling by plane and bus we finally arrived at the first bivouac, a tent city in the Moroccan desert. Every sense is presented with a new sensation: the air is clear and dry, the hot sun is relentlessly challenging our skin and steps are demanding in the soft sand.
Here, I first meet my tent mates, a group of dedicated runners with a common goal in mind.
The challenges over the next days will let us grow together as a family. After the medical check, the backpack is re-packed once more. It is barely closing, with the zipper under tension. Just like a slightly too little shirt over a belly. The last night before the start is short due to a sandstorm and the wind almost blew our tent away.

Race day: At sunrise, the bivouac turns into an ant farm with all the competitors getting busy cooking breakfast and getting ready for the first “ACDC- Highway to hell”, which will mark the start of every morning in the following days.

Before the start, proudly presenting Switzerland. There is a certain tension amongst the athletes.

Day 1 – 34 km (570 hm): After 3 km we reach a huge patch of picturesque sand dunes. Breathtaking views but also breathtakingly hard to run on. Reading the sand is an art form, which, when done correctly, allows you to run on wind compressed sand. The shoulder strap of my backpack is already cutting into my shoulders. After a while, the wind picks up and stops any running activity. Wrapped in a balaclava to protect the airways, we lower our heads and lower the pace to a brisk walk. The hot sand stings on the skin. We all remain covered in sand for the next 3 hours until we reach the finish line where we collect the rationed water and move to our tent to asses the damages on our feet and equipment. I twisted my right ankle stepping on a rock today, but I am fortunate that I only needed a bandage.

Using wood that was collected in the vicinity of the camp we start a small fire. However, the wind made it difficult to maintain the fire burning.

In the middle of a dried out salt lake.

Day 2 – 41 km (320 hm): The road book points out, that day two should be a fairly easy day with 41 km without significant amounts of sand dunes. However, my perfect race comes to a forceful stop at 22 km, where I find myself dealing with stomach cramps. Two salt tablets without sufficient liquid have been a bad idea. I walk to the next checkpoint and rehydrate in the shade of a tent. After resting for a while, I decided to speed walk the rest of the distance in the glistening sun. I also had to make use of my secret weapon, a small iPod with an audiobook on it. Reaching the finish line after 7 hours we are told, that this day showed one of the highest dropout rates in the history of the race. Incredible heat, wind and only 7% humidity took its toll on all of us.

Day 3 – 37 km (370 hm): It is truly amazing how fast your muscles recover if you treat them well: yesterday, shortly after passing the finish line I took a protein meal and elevated the legs for 2 hours. Today, my legs feel fine again, despite the marathon yesterday. The plan for stage 3 is to start slow and conserve energy for the large stretch over some impressive dunes and the first Jebel (desert mountain). Carrying three litres of water makes the backpack heavy and the extra bottle fixed on my front pack rocks back and forth kicking my stomach and making me nauseous.
After 100 km in the desert, I finally learned to read the sand and efficiently place my steps. Rule of thumb: sand with fine ripples as well as sand with any vegetation is harder. Running the dunes downhill is a lot of fun, but if you run too fast your back leg will get stuck in the sand and cause a fall. I had a great race today and was able to keep up the pace until the finish line. Finishing strong – a true confidence booster for the next day.

It’s running smoothly today.

Word of mouth is spread quickly and so I became the “official” blister doctor for all neighbouring tents: I open the blister with a needle and replace the fluid with a red eosin solution. After 30 seconds of a burning feeling, some tears and unpronounceable swear words, I squeeze out the red fluid and compress the wound tightly with a bandage. Runners in the next tent are not feeling well today and we hear vomiting sounds. Unfortunately, many will drop out of the race this evening. While the water was cooking for my Spaghetti Bolognaise, I decide to use some precious water to rinse my X-Bionic gear. It was easy to remove the salt collected over the past days and my pants and shirt were just as new.

Climbing up one of the Jebels.

Day 4 – 84 km (1000 hm): At 8.30am ACDC is played and we set off to the longest stage of the race. Shortly after the start, we climb up the steep Jebel Otfal holding onto ropes. After taking in the breathtaking view at the summit we run downhill on the opposite side. The rocks on this mountain remind me of huge blocks of dark glass with shattered parts sharp as knives. My garters get ripped open twice, which forces me to take out my sewing needle and close the holes. I can’t risk that sand will enter my shoes and cause blisters. The next stretch through the Sahara is brutal. Around noon we stand in the centre of an immense salt flat fully exposed to the sun. The view of the mountain chain in the distance seems out of focus in the glimmering air. My shadow is barely covering my feet that take me forward step by step. After many more hours, the temperatures drop with the setting sun. The final 35km have to be run in the dark, which adds a new challenge. Reading the sand in the beam of the headlights is impossible and we need so much energy sinking in with every tiny step. We have to make additional rest breaks which offer the possibility to enjoy the night sky. I have never seen so many stars before and it seems that there are no black areas at all. The last 10 km are torturous because the finish line is clearly visible and seems so close, but does not come any closer. After a while, tired and happy, we reached our tent. After 1h the thighs stop burning and I fall into a shallow sleep.

Looking back at the big amount of runners who still have to climb the sand dune.

Day 5 – Rest Day: Sleeping in is just not possible after sunrise. The heat in the black tents is unbearable. Sitting in the shade in underwear, we try to catch some of the desert winds to cool our bodies. After 2000 calories I can feel my body recover and I can move around the bivouac. A headache is bothering me and I take care to replenish sufficient fluid and salt throughout the day. Everybody makes use of the spare time to send short emails from the media tent. Many of the runners are still out there in the blistering sun making their way to the finish line. At 5 pm we spot the two camels which accompany the last runners. Everybody makes their way to the finish line to welcome the final athlete with a great round of applause.

The nutrition during such long races is one of the key elements.

Day 6 – 42 km (270 hm): I have already eaten 4 kg of food from my backpack so carrying it became so much easier. Today, I want to challenge my body and start the day with the goal to run a respectable time over the marathon distance. After the gun goes off, I put in the effort and try to stay with the lead runners. While some clouds are protecting us from the sun, the temperatures are still too high for me to maintain my effort. I decide to start a shuffle allowing my body to cool down after every 15 minutes. From the roadbook, I recall that the navigation calls for two left turns and therefore stay as far left as I can. This saves me an energy-sapping detour through small dunes. The finish line comes in sight. I push harder and go over my aerobic threshold, but I have nothing to lose – the ultimate goal of the 2-year journey is in sight. After passing the finish I drop to my knees and sit in the sand for a long while.

During this adventure, I was taught many valuable lessons. The most striking lessons were the following:

  1. You can teach your body to recover fast – back-to-back runs are a great workout for that
  2. Test all your equipment beforehand, you will be happy you did
  3. Prepare for the heat in any possible way (clothing, heat training, sun protection…)
  4. During endurance events like the MdS, it’s a small ridge between “all is running smoothly” and “catastrophic loss of energy” lay really close together. Accept this and make plans on how to cope and adapt to realistic goals. With the right mindset, you will get back on your feet and to the finish line.

Your Daniel

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