Marathon des Sables: the toughest footrace on earth

I remember clearly the first time I heard of the Marathon des Sables. My running friends and I were at a pasta dinner in Red Deer in 2004, the night before our first half marathon. We had trained all winter and were nervous about the morning’s race.

Sandy McCallum, a Medicine Hat, Alta., based ultra marathoner was the guest speaker. She had started the MDS nine times, but had only finished four or five times because blisters turned her feet into hamburger and diarrhoea had dehydrated her body. For us new half marathoners, McCallum may have been talking about her travel to the moon because we knew running the MDS was beyond us.

Since then I’ve run dozens of half marathons, 10 marathons including New York and Boston, but I still believed ultra marathons were beyond my ability.

Fast forward to Christmas 2010 when my new-to-running husband, Stuart, announced there had been a cancellation and he was running the MDS in four months. For the next four months Stuart trained five hours a day and was in the best shape of his life. There was no question he wouldn’t finish and finish in the top 200.

Wrong.

Blisters and diarrhoea forced Stuart to drop out half way through the race. He returned in 2012 to finish unfinished business. He had substantially less training, but he took it easy and finished the race. Both years one of his tent mates was Samantha Harper, a Newfoundland doctor who walked the race and had finished it every year she entered.

Some of the mountain climbs weren’t for the faint of heart. One fellow panicked and couldn’t go up the hill until a tough American runner grabbed him by the shirt front and told him, “This was no race for pussies.” The runner gathered himself together and went up the mountain.

Some of the mountain climbs weren’t for the faint of heart. One fellow panicked and couldn’t go up the hill until a tough American runner grabbed him by the shirt front and told him, “This was no race for pussies.” The runner gathered himself together and went up the mountain.

It wasn’t the ultra running McCallum, or my ultra running husband, that gave me the spark to enter the MDS, but a Newfoundland doctor who works too hard in the emergency room to train seriously, but has the doggedness to trudge steadily along until she crosses the finish line. (This year she finished her fourth MDS)

The MDS started in 1986 with 23 runners. This year, 1,050 runners from 50 countries started the 230 kilometre race in five stages, plus a final charity leg through the Sahara Desert of southern Morocco. For elite athletes winning the MDS is the holy grail of ultra marathons. It’s billed as the toughest foot race on earth. Each runner is completely self sufficient with their clothing, food, a medical kit, sleeping bag, flare and other odds and ends in their pack while racing through the desert.

But for others, like me, it’s a test of endurance, discipline and pain control.

See more photos of MacArthur’s race here.

Each year the run begins in the same general area of southeast Morocco. Runners are bussed about six or seven hours drive from Ouarzazate to the first bivouac, or camp site. The first day and a half are spent in camp with officials checking runners medical forms and ensuring runners have their mandatory equipment. A month before the run begins runners must have a stress test, physical and ekg to ensure they are fit and healthy to run the race.

Each race starts the same way. Race organizer Patrick Bauer and his English translator stood on the roof of a vehicle to announce the number of people who abandoned, or dropped out of the race the previous day, the expected temperature, birthday wishes and general comments.

Then the music starts. AC/DC’s Highway to Hell is blasted over the sound system as the race begins. No racer will ever be able to hear the song again without being transported to the MDS start line.

It’s not long before the serious runners are specks in a distance and the walkers lose sight of the elite runners. On day one I took off running with everyone else. I had trained hard and wanted to stay in the middle of the pack. It wasn’t long before my first blister began to rub my baby toe and running with my heavy pack was starting to become difficult. I spied a German woman who was speed walking and seemed to be covering the same distance as my run walk pace. I finished the first leg, 38 km, at a speed walk.

When I took off my shoes after day one, I had four blistered toes and one blistered heel. It’s not any one thing that creates blisters in this race, it’s a combination of the tiny grains of sand somehow getting past my gaiters, stinking hot weather and the rocky terrain.

At the MDS, the doctors and nurses have blister repairs down to an art. The blisters are cleaned with some kind of antiseptic wipe, then cut with a scalpel blade to let the liquid drain, iodine is poured into the wound to prevent infection and cloth and tape applied to each blister. After day one I abandoned the self help tent and hobbled straight over to Doc Trotters, the medical tent, to let the experienced doctors and nurses bandage my feet. By day three all 10 toes and both heels were blistered and covered in tape.

The doctors and nurses at Doc Trotters volunteer their vacation from work to keep runners moving forward. Each day they patrol the trail to ensure runners are safe. The three times I saw a runner set off a flare, it only took a couple minutes for the medics to arrive.

Near the end of the second leg, during a really nasty climb, I saw members of the medical team giving an intravenous drip to a runner at the bottom of the hill and at the top. It’s pretty scary to pass a runner getting an IV and it’s a good reminder to keep drinking. By the time I got to the bottom of the mountain, the runner at the top of the hill, who was getting the IV, raced past. The concoction of salt, sugar and water is like rocket fuel and can get runners moving again. Each IV intervention costs runners a time penalty and after two interventions, the runner is disqualified. The medical team wants runners to manage their own hydration, not rely on medical staff to revive them on the side of the road.

Unlike other races with high drop out rates, only a handful of runners at the MDS don’t finish the race. This year only about 85, or around eight percent of the runners, never finished the race. A combination of good medicine, encouragement and generous times to finish each leg all help runners finish the race.

After Leg 3 my husband came down with a bad bout of diarrhoea. The same thing happened the first year he ran the race. Now knowing it was something he needed to deal with quickly, at 10 p.m. he went to the medical tent and spent the night getting 13 bags of intravenous to try and flush his system. While Stuart didn’t get any sleep, neither did the doctor and nurse who spent the night changing his IV bag and monitoring him.

Luckily Stuart’s IVs only counted as one intervention and was only penalized an hour’s time. The downside was, this was the night before the long run so Stuart ended up with no sleep the day before the long run and walked through the night of the long run.

After 28 years of operating the race, the medical staff know when to push runners and when something is serious. At each check point organizers ask the runners how they are feeling. It was not uncommon to see runners getting their blisters retaped by the medical staff at the check points.

The medics also knew when to push the runners. During the miserably hot Leg 4, a runner from Quebec flagged over the medical truck and told them he quit. The medics asked if he was throwing up? No. Diarrhoea? No. Drinking? Yes. Eating? Yes. How were his feet? As well as could be expected, he told them. Well, they told him, then it’s all in your head, you have your flare if it gets really bad. And the medics drove off.

The runner told me he wished someone had a camera on his face when they drove off. He was stunned. He had just tried to quit the race and they wouldn’t let him. He later went on to finish the race.

A woman from Sweden also struggled during this 78 km stage. She ran out of water before checkpoint three and was struggling to finish the leg. She took out her space blanket and curled up under a tree to wait for help. A British runner came along a few minutes later, gave her some water and helped her to the checkpoint where she told officials she quit.

They asked her the same questions as they asked the Canadian runner. Instead of letting her quit they handed her some water and told her to follow the rest of the walkers. She also finished and is now talking about returning next year to run the race again. Race officials know that people can walk and hobble through pain.

There were plenty of times during each leg where I simply wanted to be done. Because I wasn’t running, but walking, each leg took such a long time to complete. Some of my tent mates were at the bivouac hours before me. On the long stage, four of my tent mates arrived before midnight and went to sleep. I hobbled around in at 7:30 a.m. after a night hobbling through the dunes under the stars to the bivouac.

We came across one fellow during the night who had turned off his head lamp, laid down in the sand and just looked at the stars for half an hour. The night section of the run was lovely. The temperatures had cooled down, the stars were out and we scrambled up and slid down massive sand dunes.

For me this was the toughest leg. During the first 40 kilometres I felt great, but my husband was still struggling with a bad stomach from diarrhoea and an upset stomach. With temperatures reaching 54 C that day, he struggled to make it to checkpoint three. He collapsed in the rest tent for 45 minutes while I kept insisting he eat or drink something. Eventually he walked to some nearby bushes and threw up and instantly felt better.

It was the last 35 kilometres where I struggled. My swollen feet throbbed with every step and my husband needed to encourage me to keep walking. At checkpoint four and five I insisted we stop and rest. I mentally couldn’t go on without a few minutes rest.

One of the unique parts of the run is the friendships made, either while walking along the trail, or back in your tent. In my tent was my husband, another Canadian from Newfoundland, an American living in London and three Australians. On the rest day after the long run, we laid around on our mattresses in as few clothes as possible and swapped food. After five days everyone was sick of their choice of food. I swapped beef jerky for macadamia nuts with the Australian.

Chatting with other runners on the course helped take your mind off your aches and pains and pretty soon we were at a checkpoint or back at camp. The camp, or bivouac, was a series of tents. Runners slept in black, woollen tents held up by poles and the sides held down with rocks. If the temperature was hot, the sides could be lifted to let in a breeze or the sides dropped during a sand storm to minimize the amount of sand coming into the tent.

Each morning at 6 a.m. a group of Berbers begin pulling down the 1270 woollen wall tents. Sometimes we’re still in our sleeping bags, but generally we have started to eat our breakfast and change into our running clothes when they start to disassemble the bivouac. The tents are pinned down with rocks along two sides. Depending on the weather and wind the two long sides can be lifted higher to allow a breeze to flow through or the side is dropped to limit the amount of sand blasting through the tent.

Food was probably the most often discussed topic back at the tents. We would go to bed talking about the food we would rather be eating than what we actually were eating. Runners tried to pack food that was the most calorie dense, but the lightest weight. That doesn’t usually mean the tastiest. The chicken tikka masala, or eggs, potato and tomato breakfast sounded tasty on the website, but we could barely gag it down on the trail. To be fair, we never heated our meals, just added cold water, stirred and tried to choke the partially rehydrated food down.

Several people have asked if I would do the race again. During the race, my answer would have been absolutely not. But now that my feet have healed and they no longer ache with every step, the answer is maybe.

I am glad I completed the MDS. It is a tough race, but it proves the body can do really hard things even when your mind is telling you to stop. That is a good lesson for the rest of my life.

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