The Marathon des Sables:
Ultra Endurance Running in the Heat of the Sahara
The Marathon des Sables was claimed to be the toughest footrace on Earth. It is a seven-day, multi-stage race in the Moroccan Sahara, during which competitors must carry all their food, clothing and equipment across the ~150-mile course.
The Marathon des Sables was my first excursion into the world of ultra-endurance adventure races. With a background far removed from endurance fitness, this book catalogues my training, preparation and successful completion of that first great race. Whilst the subsequent titles on the Jungle Marathon and Yukon Arctic Ultra clearly demonstrate a sort of evolution into a more accomplished ultra-runner, the Marathon des Sables was where it all began.
My training was fairly unrefined at first and the equipment I used during the race was far from the best. This latest edition has allowed me to put into context all the decisions I made, and within the appendix can be found my true 'desired kit list' for such an event.
As an exercise physiologist, I include references throughout on the adaptations involved in training for an ultra-endurance event. This culminates in an in-depth analysis of the 'athlete's heart', which is featured in its entirety in the appendix. This chapter alone should be considered a must-read for anyone preparing to begin training to become an endurance runner. The Marathon des Sables is an incredible race, described in this book through the eyes of a novice racer, but a novice with an academic background that I think balances well with my natural approach to training and competition.
Excerpt: Into the Furnace
(Training in the Egyptian Sahara before the Race)
The Sahara’s relentless, oppressive heat baked my skin as I gazed out at the expansive sand basin before me. I was stood upon a rocky precipice, a sheer drop falling away beneath my feet into the shallow desert valley below. I stared out at the shimmering blue horizon, as waves danced over the surface beneath the deep blue sky, and I was momentarily captivated by a dream that I had reached the lake at Al Fayoum. But the reality was that this was just another wildly enchanting mirage, offered up by a cruel desert temptress to lure me on with false hope.
A gentle breeze brought ever-hotter waves of the driest air against my skin, and as I shifted the heavy rucksack on my shoulders, the breeze pressed my sweat-drenched shirt against my back, and for a moment I felt cool. It was but a second more and the clothing had been dried entirely, and my moment of coolness subdued and overpowered by a commanding and relentless heat once again.
I peered over to my left, to the east, and could just make out some tall buildings on the edge of my vision – a satellite area of factory land encroaching upon the desert from the lush periphery of the Nile. Between the two lay the main road north, which headed through Cairo and continued onwards to Alexandria and the Mediterranean Sea. To my rear lay the past. Prior to seeing those buildings, the last sign of life I had encountered was a rabid dog, and that had given up on life long before and was, at the time I came across it, alive only with the thousands of maggots eating away at its corpse. It was midday now, and the canine’s carcass was perhaps four hours behind me. Before that there had been a solitary crow, which followed me for a while and no doubt would have loved to take first dibs on my juicy eyeballs. Fortunately for me, its quarry was still in fair shape, all things considered.
I looked across to my right and around the edge of the basin, where short, rocky hills and sand dunes marked the valley’s periphery. This was the standard of terrain I had been contending with all day. I moved off towards the hills, taking on a subtle gradient as I did so, and dreamed that things might have been different for me to make Al Fayoum today.