Kit and tips for the Marathon des Sables

As is traditional on websites such as this, here are a few hints and tips for what to expect on the MdS. For my write-up of the 2010 event, see here.

I guess the first thing to say to anyone considering an event like this is: it's doable. I reckon anyone who can run a sub-4h marathon would be able to complete the MdS with an extra couple of months of training - get used to running on consecutive days and a bit of extra off-road training with a light pack (water and clothes did me), though. Having said that my longest week of training was 56 miles. To prevent injuries, I never ran much more than 25 miles in a stretch and did a fair amount of free weights too. That would be enough to get you through - you may not come in the top 10% of finishers but, hey, a lot of those guys are odd and frankly no-one asks you where you came in the MdS or what time you ran it in. So if you're thinking that you'd be keen to enter but are a bit scared, go for it - many aspects of the event are simply not as hard as they sound.

The second thing is something I was a little unprepared for was the reality of it all. The MdS lasts a week, plus the organisation days before and after (which can be a bit of a bore). The logistical aspects of it are immense - so many tents, so much going on, so many people. Find your tent-mates early - by the time I'd got through customs there was a group of 6 of us already sorted and I was fairly relaxed that they weren't going to end up killing each other over the course of what's quite a stressful week. Take all your kit to the desert with you for the pre-race day or two - you can always leave some behind or lend it to others. Don't get too obsessed with your pack weight unless you really want to - take a camera, don't cut your toothbrush in half, take some comforting items etc.

Once you start, you finish on day 1 and realise that you've still got 6 days to go, which is pretty sobering. I took it pretty easy on days 1-3 but the big day felt so intimidating as it approached, since the going was tough and I'd never attempted to run more than a marathon before. You get stronger as the week goes on, though, and more confident - I'd never have run the penultimate (marathon) day as hard as I did had I not got used to my surroundings by then. Don't go in with any preconceptions about anything, like getting the big day done in less than 24h - I was mentally prepared for any eventuality that day but ended up fine.

Take some! I used the Mountain King Trail Blaze poles. They’re 230g for the pair. I kept them in my rucksack webbing so they could be out/stowed within seconds - in the pack when running, out when on sand. They probably improved my speed by 30% on soft sand and it felt like they reduced my energy expenditure at the same time too. Plus, you wobble around less, which makes for fewer blisters. I’m so glad I had them with me – top kit of the week.

Pre-blister taping: I tried this a few times in the UK before heading out to Morocco. It’s very worthwhile. I used Mefix – a bit like Micropore but slightly stickier and less prone to breaking. I’m sure it staved off blisters on my toes and the balls of my feet. Don't bother buying "Fixing your Feet", just experiment a little with a bit of tape over the areas where you know you get hot-spots on long runs. If you start rubbing your feet with surgical spirit for a few weeks before the race, use one with castor oils to stop your feet cracking.

Use foot powder on your feet. If you’re me, use it downstairs too. My morning ball-talcing provided amusement to others if nothing else.

Friar’s Balsam. Triply useful. (1) Doubles as tropical antiseptic (mandatory kit), (2) use to clean your feet pre-taping and makes the tape take better, (3) if you take syringes and needles, you can self-treat blisters (prick once to make a hole, prick a second time and inject – stings a lot but works v well).

Use Doc Trots when you’ve got bigger blisters or a few at a time. They’ll give you gauze and awesome stuff to tape up afterwards too. You can run OK on blisters as long as they aren't horrific as long as you get them treated at the end of the day to give them a chance to heal a bit before morning.

My basic plan was as follows. BREAKFAST: dehydrated porridgy stuff for c500kcal. DAYTIME: 3x energy bars, one for every 1.5h of running (or substitute 70g of dried banana per bar), for c750kcal. POST-RUN: 2x Peperami (250kcal). DINNER: a Mountain House dehydrated meal (2-man size, c900kcal). This gives almost 2,500kcal at a weight of c500g per day.

Try out different brands of dehydrated food. I genuinely enjoyed the Mountain House dinners and they come in larger 2-person portion sizes. Chilli flakes were a good thing to take and will make you friends. Travel Lunch meals appear inedible. If you’re keen to save weight/volume, re-pack meals into zip-lock bags and rehydrate them using water-bottles cut into half. I didn't bother though.

You may lose your sweet tooth. I enjoyed Torq bars in the UK but they lost some appeal in the Sahara. Conversely, I found Clif bars easier to handle out there since they're not as sweet. I tried to avoid too much weird processed stuff - no powders or gels for me (apart from the gel I got from Aussie Paul an hour before the end of the long day when I was really struggling). I took banana chips as an occasional alternative to energy bars, they contain potassium (not in the salt tablets) and they provide good calories for their weight.

Peperami! Everyone loved them, good calories/weight and are a handy high-protein post-race alternative to disgusting recovery drinks.

Electrolytes will get boring after a few days. I survived on a couple of Nuun/day, plus definitely take the salt tabs provided when you’re on plain water. If you every feel like you can't stomach any more water or start feeling a bit odd, take an extra one or two. They really help.

Don’t forget coffee or tea if you like them. Powdered soup/OXO cubes etc might have been nice but I survived without.

Take a windshield for the stove - this weighs nothing and you can make 3-4 out of it, so you can make friends with your tent-mates.

Other kit
Socks – use what you think works. There’s nothing magic – try stuff out. I used Wigwam Ironman Surge Pro socks under a pair of Bridgedale X-Hales for what it’s worth, and had no blisters until the long day.

Gaiters – I used the Sand-baggers long ones, superglued on to my Mizuno Wave Ascends (trail trainers are fine for this thing). I’d put some duct tape over the fronts/inside heel area to prevent friction tears. Worked fine but take some spare glue. On no account consider buying the MdS-branded slippers - they are worse than useless.

Pack – OMM Classic Marathon 32L. Lightweight and close to indestructible. Because of space constraint, I carried my sleeping mat outside for the first day or two until I’d eaten some food, which wasn’t really an issue. Raidlight packs were the choice of many; others had Aarn packs which I admit looked pretty snazzy.

Raidlight bottle holders - the bottles are rubbish but the holders are OK when modified. I duct-taped some sponge to the front of the rear plate, as my bottles weren’t quite snug and bounced around, and then taped again around the pack straps. Don't take a bladder for drinks because it would be a hassle to refill at checkpoints plus you can't see how much fluid you have left. I had two Camelback bottles, one of which I kept for electrolytes and one of which was for plain water only.

Sleeping bag – I already owned a Mountain HardWear Phantom 32 (640g), which was fine and I didn’t need a silk liner. My Thermarest NeoAir was extremely comfy but punctured on day 2 (others had more luck but there are a lot of spiky things around in the desert) so maybe consider a foam mat? The repair kit was no use as there’s no way to find the puncture in the desert when you have limited water supplies.

Clothing-wise I travelled light. My Raidlight ¾-length running tights were awesome - they have two decent sized pockets, which is really useful. I wore Falke sports briefs underneath. My Helly Hanson Cool long-sleeved top for running was OK and I took a thin Howies merino top for evenings. I wore a Raidlight Sahara sunhat that was OK but really didn't cover my ears too well and I wore a buff too. It might be sensible not to wear just black and white - everyone looks the same out in the desert and it was kinda cool when you recognised people, like one of the English girls who wore a pink buff every day.

Because I was pretty well-covered I didn't have to worry about the sun too much and didn't feel over-hot. Riemann P20 is magic sun screen though, and don’t forget hardcore lip stuff. I wore Adidas Elevation Climacool sunnies because you can put in prescription optical inserts and use interchangable lenses (dark for day, clear for night). They're pretty dear though.

The MdS website
Although I think it's a bit hard to navigate sometimes, make sure everyone knows that they can send you messages via it. I obviously asked everyone for charity sponsorship beforehand and bunged in a link; it was really nice to hear from people back home through the event. Plus, there's a tracker during the race that updates every time you go through a checkpoint so people can follow your progress/check you're still alive and moving. I also worked out how to update my blog via email during the event rather than emailing someone to distribute to everyone, which was useful.

Finally - enjoy it!