April 25, 2016

Running with the Moroccans

Marathon Des Sables race report

They say this was the hardest Marathon Des Sables (MDS) to date. The distances were longer, the percentage of sand far higher, and we were unlucky to have strong headwinds for the first two days. But this is not what I remember most from the MDS. For me, the most memorable moments were to run thru the dunes with Rachid El Morabity, Abdelkader El Mouazis, Aziz El Akad and Samir Akhdar. But first, here’s a few facts about this race.

Marathon Des Sables Facts

The  Marathon Des Sables is a foot race, open to runners and walkers, with several stages, free-style, and with food self-sufficiency over a distance of about 260 Km. Each participant must carry his/her own backpack containing food, sleeping gear and other material.

More than 13,000 competitors have participated in the MDS since the start in 1986:

30 % repeat competitors
70 % international
30 % French
14 % women
45 % veterans
30 % in teams of three or more
10 % walkers
90 % alternate walking and running
14 km/hr: average maximum speed
3 km/hr: average minimum speed
Age of youngest competitor: 16
Age of oldest competitor: 79

Team Morocco Plus One

My journey to the Marathon Des Sables started in February this year. I was fortunate enough to spend a week in the desert close to Zagora in the southern part of Morocco. I was with Luchine and Samir Akhdar in addition to a lot of other good French runners. During this week, I spent a lot of time running with Samir. He is such a nice guy and also a very experienced desert runner (he has nine MDS finishes). Samir taught me how to navigate thru the dunes and how to attack every little pile of sand. He also gave me some insight on how the Moroccans work as a team.

Then, fast forward to April 10th and the start of the 1st stage of the MDS. Two days before, we had been dropped off in the middle of the desert in Ouest Erg Chebbi. I was very nervous, but also extremely happy to finally start the race. Three kilometres into this first stage, we entered the Erg Chebbi dunes, one of the largest sand dunes in the Sahara Desert. I knew that the Moroccans would go as a team, so I followed Samir like a shadow. And sure enough, after a couple hundred metres of sand running, all the Moroccans waited a couple seconds so that the front runners could continue straight into the dunes. Then, Samir and Rachid and the Moroccan team took a sharp left turn and went their own way. I joined them and got a lesson of desert running that I’ll never forget. They ran so quickly and so smoothly that it looked like they were running on a trail. Sometimes they split into two flanks in order to decide the best route. Then, they communicate back and forth so they can all benefit from what turns out to be the fastest way out of the dunes.

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After eight or nine kilometres of running in the dunes, I had to let the Moroccans go. I couldn’t keep up with their pace. But that was fine. I decided to find my own pace and eventually settled into a good rhythm and finished in 9th position, 23 minutes behind the leaders.

The pattern from the first stage repeated itself for the rest of the race. I started each stage pretty fast, ran with the Moroccans for a while and then re-adjusted my pace for the rest of the stage. I didn’t wear a GPS-watch, not even a stop watch, so I didn’t have a clue regarding my pace or the distance. The only thing that I focused on, was how my body felt and how I adapted to the heat.

The Next Stage

The next day and the next stage is so crucial in a stage race. For me personally, I started preparing for the next stage as soon as I crossed the finish line. I went straight to the water post and got my ration of water. Then, I walked to my tent and started preparing my lunch (dinner on the long day).

MDS tents

I had my recovery drink while I waited for my couscous lunch to heat up. The time between lunch and dinner was mostly spent in my tent with Altra teammate Jason Schlarb. Jason and myself finished all the stages at pretty much the same time, so we spent tons of time together in our tent. We had dinner together at around eight o’clock and went to sleep just after 9 PM.

MDS tent

None of us slept very well, but we normally started the next day with breakfast at around 6 AM. After a light breakfast it was time to put the shoes on and prepare for a another day in the desert.

Calorie Intake

The MDS regulations require every runner to have at least 2,000 kcal every day. I had way more than the minimum requirements. I guess I ate nearly 3,000 kcal per day on average.

My daily menu:

  • Homemade muesli for breakfast with dried milk. Also a fruit and nut bar.
  • Sport drink from Tailwind Nutrition during the run, in addition to a couple gels and some bits of a Snickers bar.
  • Couscous with peanuts for lunch. I then snacked on nuts and dried fruits in addition to nuts/fruit bars.
  • Freeze-dried dinners from Mountain House. Even though I am normally eating a plant based diet, my dinners in the desert included some chicken and dairy. The reasoning for this is that I couldn’t find plant based dinners with a high enough calories to weight ratio.

The Gear

Honestly, all my gear worked perfectly. I would not change anything if I was to run the MDS again. My only mistake is that I packed a pair of pants that I didn’t use on the first two stages. I handed these in at the beginning of the third day.

I used the Fusion shirt and shorts from GORE RUNNING WEAR®. Super light, quick drying, very comfortable and perfect in the desert. I also used a base layer shirt and underwear from GORE RUNNING WEAR®.

Victory!

I eventually ended up in 9th position overall, after being in the top 10 on every stage. I never had a long down period where I felt horrible. I felt that I ran as fast as I could on every single stage, but I also saved a little bit of energy and effort for the next day.

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