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8 Top tips to running a strong Marathon des Sables ~ Alex Scott



The 2024 MDS felt like a fast year with temperatures cooler than normal. Start times were earlier than previous starting 630 Am / 7 AM.  Most days I had finished the stage by 2 PM, before it got too hot, except for the long stage where I finished at 745PM.

Living in Australia I was able to train through summer, so heat acclimatization was not an issue. I was also able to test all equipment in the heat. Living near beach allowed me to train on the sand quite regularly. I was lucky.


The Race experience:


With a strong training plan, I had put in the time and mileage, completing quite a few back to back long runs and double days so I felt my fitness was where I needed it to be. My body recovered well after each stage. What was hard to prepare for was the shock of the arrival at the campsite on day 1 to the tent in the afternoon baking sun, wind and sand storms. Pack your big bag with easy access to comfortable camp clothes and try get into a camp head space asap. If you can, get out quicky and gather wood and stones for your fire and to pin down the sides of your tent before they are taken by others.

I took the little dehydrated towels and used them daily to wipe off sand and sunblock. Most days I waited until after 530PM to wash and freshen up when the wind calmed down as this was the stillest part of day.


There are many ways to tackle the MDS, you can certainly walk it and if a fast walker can do well. As I had put in the hard yards training my focus was to run as much as possible which I did. By running you can get through the stage before it gets too hot as well as allowing for more rest time and I was able to get back to camp and have a few hours with the tent empty to spread and relax on my own.

For the 85KM long day, I finished in 75 place after 13hrs 45 and was back at camp while still light. My focus was to start strong at the front to get up over the Main Jebel as it was a single file uphill so did not want to get caught behind slower runners. I pushed hard for first 45-50km and then when it got hot focused on my power walking. This strategy worked well for me.

For this MDS I found we had access to plenty of drinking water so there was not a problem with rationing. We were also fortunate that at the checkpoints the volunteers poured a little cold water on the back of your necks which was amazing!

I thoroughly enjoyed the MDS, it was an experience I will never forget. I would recommend taking the time to prepare as thoroughly as possible. Here are some of my thoughts:

·       train with your pack and gaiters.

·       know how much your pack will be before turning up.

·       Keep the pack as light as possible.

·       take a variety of food flavours and have tried all the meals.

·       If you are new to basic camping spend a night before heading to the Sahara on your mat at home

 

Equipment (Starting weight including food around 7.6KG)


Backpack – OMM Phantom 25. I found this pack comfortable and worked well for me. I found a small chest pack that I used as well where I popped in my daily snacks and electrolyte drinks. I also used 2 Tomes anti chaffe roll-on, I put this on my back where straps rub to stop chaffing, and this worked well. I had no issues.

Sleeping Bag – Sea to Summit SP1 Long. The bag was great found it more than warm enough if not a little too warm. The first night was cold and rest not so.

Down Jacket – Montbell- Lightweight jacket used once on first night and did not need after.

Additional clothes – for the camp I had lightweight shorts and top from compress sport, total weight for both was around 140grams. I also took an extra pair of socks.

Sea to Summit inflatable pillow (my luxury)

Inflatable matt- Thermarest neo lite small. I used the smallest I could find to cover just my head to hips and found it comfortable enough.

Cooking – I took a small titanium mug with lid and tripod and found that after couple of days of messing around in evening lighting a fire for hot water, I got rid of this and in the afternoon I would put a 250ml bottle of water in the sun for an hour and then add it to my dehydrated meal. I let it sit for 30 mins and this worked fine. I was not concerned about having a hot drink, though many did.

Gaiters – Raidlight I found these were ok however I did have to stitch the front on day 3 on both so I would recommend reinforcing the stitching before leaving. I had also glued reinforcing patches on the inside where my shoes would rub and a patch down the back just to be sure. I recommend training pre MDS with shoes and gaiters and then starting race with new pairs.

Shoes – Mizuno road - Wave Inspire 20 size 13. I went with road shoes although had trained as well with trail shoes but found my road shoes more comfortable and breathable. The road shoes held up well and I had plenty of space for my feet to move. Size 13 is probably a half size up if I was running on the road but for me I did not need to go any bigger. On reflection I would probably look at a comfortable trail shoe which would lesson impact of stones underfoot and maybe a little more traction on the soft sand but all in all my feet held up well and I only had couple small blisters that I could treat on my own. Everyday though I cleaned my feet and used 2Toms powder in the morning to keep feet dry and acted as a anti chaffe. I used features socks they were comfortable, with extra cushioning but nothing fancy.

Electrical - Watch – Garmin Fenix 6. I had to borrow a charger to top up the battery or it would have run out for the last 2 days. I did not take any music or battery packs and was fine. I left my phone behind but did take a Gopro Hero 12 with the Enduro battery which lasted the whole race.

Food

I had created daily packs, and most days were around 2500 calories except for long day which was 3000 calories.

Each pack consisted of Radix 800 calorie breakfast, Radix 800 calorie evening meal and a Radix post run recovery shake. I would then take snack packs of salted macadamia nuts, chips , crackers etc.

I took an electrolyte, carb powder which I had at each checkpoint.

If your weight allows take something to add flavour to the water.

Part of the mandatory equipment for this MDS was a min of 2 stock cubes per day. The idea being these would replace the salt tablets. I still took salt tablets and found I had 1 tablet every checkpoint. At first though I was skeptical of the stock cubes, but I came to enjoy them. I had the oxo chicken ones and found the dissolved well. I had a small 250ml plastic bottle, popped in a stock cube and left in the sun for 30 mins, little shake and it was a nice salty tasty drink. I drank 1 stock cube, and I used the other one in my dehydrated meal.

My main tip with regards to food would be on your pre race food where you have the 2 nights in the desert before running. This food / weight is not counted as part of race requirements so bring fresh fruit, canned goods or pasta, don’t start eating dehydrated race meals. Save those until you must eat them! You could also bring a larger pot and extra fire bricks so you can boil a pasta along with plates crockery etc. you can then give the pots, plates etc. to the Berbers, who are hugely grateful of them.

 

My notes and post-race advice:


Camp shoes – I started off with very thin hotel slippers but after 2 days they were useless so threw them away and had to use my running shoes which worked with very loose laces. I would suggest a better option, lightweight rubber sole slip on. Lack of hygiene around camp meant you had to wear decent camp shoes.

Poles – I did not take poles as was planning on running a lot which I did and was fine. However, I did notice runners with poles who with lots of training found them useful particularly in the soft sand rolling dunes. I would recommend considering taking them but only if you have done plenty of training pre-event.

 

Other TIPS:

For the bus ride between Ouazazate and the camp you are given a lunch pack. This was a couple of cans of Tuna so bring some extra food or snacks for this bus trip to the camp. You could bring sandwiches from the UK if coming on the charter flights. If you spend a night in Ouazazate before the bus to the camp, there is a Carrefour supermarket so recommend stocking up on fresh food or grab stuff for sandwiches etc.

On the return bus trip after the finish the bus stopped at a hotel with a shop around the corner so I would recommend brining some local money so you can either buy a cold beer or pop to shop and get a coke and chips. After a week in the desert this is amazing. (Pop the local money with your passport and mandatory 200Euro)


Personal reflections:

Position 101 out of 841 starters


Why the Marathon De Sables?

-        I wanted to challenge myself physically and mentally and why not the race that is branded one of the toughest on the planet!

What was the hardest part for you?

-        Hardest part for me was not just the physical running or mentally going to a place I had not been before but throwing in the day-to-day sandstorms that would blast the tent not allowing much sleep, that and the lack of calories, surviving on a deficit.

Are you pissed you just missed out of the top 100?

-        No, I had a lot of admiration for all the runners and was happy to finish as strong as I did however I guess that toilet stop on day 2 could have been shorter, ha ha!

What was the scariest part of the run?

-        I was not scared as I had done all the preparation, so I felt ready. However, there was the unknown that I could not anticipate, would I get blisters, how would my body hold up day after day etc. But that is the joy of ultra-running, you can prepare all you like but there will always be an element of the unknown. Things you must overcome.

What did you learn about yourself?

The old cliché that you can physically achieve more if you push through when your brain is telling you to stop. I enjoyed the long stage of 85KM and performed well.












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