The Marathon de Sables 2010 is a desert stage race consisting of 6 stages and 7 days to complete all the stages. Every day has a time cutoff and the longest day allows 1 day and 10 hours to complete. The overall distance of the 2010 race was 250 kilometers, which to us in America is 155.342 miles. Each stage is different and the first stage starts with a 29km race. This is followed by a 35.5km, a 40km, a 82,2km, a 42.2km and a final 21.1km race through the largest sand dunes in all of Morocco. Conditions for the race are some of the most extreme on earth, the race is often billed as “The Toughest Footrace on Earth” and most who enter the race will agree. Before I start the race report, or my rendition of what happened out there I will note a short list of facts. Some are my personal race facts, other are interesting little tid bits.
Self supported with the exception of water: all food, clothing, compulsory kit and flare are carried by the runner.
Gu’s consumed: 57
Recoverite consumed: 1,710 calories
Total calories consumed: 15,903
Litres of water consumed: 60 aka 15.85 gallons
Scorpions spotted: 2 / Scorpions not spotted: 1 (More on that below)
Salt tablets: 38 (est)
Pack weight race start: 18lbs
My weight @ start: 192lbs
My weight today: 182lbs
High temperature: 47 Celsius, or 116.6 Fahrenheit (Day three) 40km stage
Toe nail fatality: 4
Men in Speedos: Waaaay too many
Gear: Drymax socks (5 pair), Polar Water bottles (2), Nathan HPL063 Pack (1) Mizuno Wave Ascend w/over 1,000 miles on them. Getting 2 Tri Sport Shirt (1), Big Peach Brooks Shirt (1) GetFit Atlanta Wind Breaker (1)
A special thanks to these sponsors who enabled Jennifer and I to do as well as we did in such harsh conditions. Thank you Drymax Socks,Polar Bottles, Getting 2 Tri Foundation, Big Peach Running Co, and Get-Fit Atlanta. Also a HUGE Thanks to Jon Ross who posted our updates daily; thanks Jon for your time!
Favorite dehydrated meal: Turkey Tetrazzini
The trip began on Weds, March 31st as we headed to Morocco from our beloved Atlanta Georgia. Our flight touched down Thursday afternoon in Quarzazate, Morocco, and after an interesting wait in the passport customs line we were in a taxi headed to our hotel to meet up with all the other Americans, Aussies, Kiwis and a few Brits. The race representative for MdS is Dreamchasers Events and the entire contingency is led by Jay Batchen. Our hotel was beautiful and the food was amazing, we enjoyed a huge buffet and delicious breakfast before we all loaded into the buses and headed south to the Sahara. This little bit of luxury was feeling a bit like our last real meal at this point. Our bus ride was rather long and we made multiple stops as everyone on the bus was guzzling the water provided as if it were their last drink. I was as well seeing that the humidity was hovering around 9 percent. Coming from sultry Georgia and being raised in Florida this is quite a difference. After cruising though many a quaint little town we made the last turn and headed down a long straight road into the mountains we had been staring at for some time now. As we approached the end we could see our bivouacs and all the tents surrounding the camp. The sight was amazing, just a huge barren flat surrounded by mountains and sand dunes on either side. Truly spectacular, and every day would look similar in some fashion. As we arrived and were shuffling from the buses onto the military transport trucks we were able to experience what would become known as European hospitality. Military trucks were used to get us the 1 mile to camp because the buses would never make it across the flats and dunes. The trucks were very tall and it was an effort to get into them if you were a shorter female, so my thought was to jump in first and help some of the ladies into the back of the trucks. Obviously chivalry is dead in Europe, or never existed in the first place because when I jumped in and began reaching for Jennifer’s hand and pulling her up; the French and Italian men were pulling her off the truck as I was trying to pull her on. It seems that they felt they needed more help loading than a lady. Either way that set the expectations for the rest of the race and the French more than earned their reputation!
Aside from some little hiccups in the beginning we were off to a great start and meeting some of our tent mates for the first time. Of course there was my lovely wife Jennifer Vogel( 1st place American woman, and 7th overall woman!!) , Jay Batchen 7 time MdS racer. Toby Luxford from England and a 5 time MdS racer. Katherine Hay-Heddle 2 Time racer, Tia Boddington the amazing editor from Ultra Running magazine, John Callos from California and experienced Ironman and Ultraman, and motivational speaker. Last but most certainly not least we had Michael Wardian who placed third this year in MdS and currently hold US record for the 100k and 50k! What a great tent, everyone hit it off and was able to enjoy one another’s company and make the best of tough times. As for the last meal at the hotel I was wrong, they catered the first two nights before the race and the food was simply wonderful. So amazing they managed to get that kind of production out into the middle of the desert, but then again they have been doing it for 25 years now.
Day one, 29km started off with much nervous anticipation, how fast do you go out, do you start at the very back and see exactly what happens? How are these gaiters going to hold up in the desert? How hard do I push if it’s “just” 29km? All of these questions raced through my head as I can imagine they did in everyone else’s thoughts. My plan was to have a Gu every thirty minutes and a Scap every hour, all the while moderating my water as to not run out to far away from the first water stop. We were allotted 1.5 litres to start and on average one had to make it between 10-14 kilometers before the next water station. My race plan was a great plan with the exception of one Scap per hour was not nearly enough. My plan adapted after the first two hours and I continued on now with two Scaps an hour. Although we trained heavily in dunes by the beach and ran in heavy sand in the orange groves of central Florida quite a bit, nothing can prepare you for the Sahara desert quite like the Sahara desert. Somehow every running step in the arid, dry sand felt like you were standing still and making no forward progress. Every step in the dunes was a sinking sensation in more ways than one, for one I realized this was going to be way harder than any training run I had done to prepare for this race and two you really do sink in the sand. For every two steps run the equivalent is more like one step; relentless forward motion has a new definition. At the end of the first day we all gathered in the tent and recalled the days experience and congratulated one another on a fine finish and marveled over the fact that Katherine on the first day became ill and was made to take six IV bags from the medical staff. She still finished the stage and was in remarkably good spirits having endured such anguish over such a long period. However later that night and into the wee morning hours Katherine was bit, or stung by something in her sleeping bag. As a true trooper she ignored what at the time she thought was just an irritation from the day before and trudged through until the pain and swelling could not be ignored. Katherine was out of the race and treated for a bite or sting of some kind that would later be identified as a scorpion sting. She flew back to the hospitals in England where the doctors identified the venom, and that she also got blood poisoning from it as well. Katherine is fine today and has recovered, but it is a sobering fact as to what can actually happen out there. I should also note that Katherines race number was 666. Seems to have been a contributing factor in her bad luck.
Day two 35.5km was one of the hardest days we had to face, long desolate flats, baseball sized rocks strewn everywhere and one unbelievably large dune and mountain to climb. The climbs were plentiful and there were more than I can count. The effort to climb and continue up these steep mountains was incredible, and for that I blame the fact that I have no really nice pictures. After pushing to the point that my chest was going to explode I chose not to take the time to get my camera out of its protective bag, I only wanted to get down from the insane climb I just experienced. Once again nothing in my training could prepare me for the steep, loose rock and sand that was on the sides of these mountains as we trekked up them. In an effort All that and this was not the hardest climb we would face that day. Later on the real deal came into view, a huge monster dune that had made itself by blowing up the side of the mountain we now had to scale. Shin deep sand, basketball sized rocks blocking any reasonable path and then the monster sheer rock climb. If anyone remembers the climb up the waterfall in Mt. Mist, multiply that by 20 in length and add in the boulders, the shifting rocks under foot and the fact that you had to reach into holes and cracks in the rocks to get grip; and there may or may not be a snake, scorpion or spider unhappy with your placement of digits. To make the climb ever more interesting, to the left there was a drop that if you fell; it could kill you and if it didn’t, it would certainly leave you disabled.
Day three 40km was the hottest day from what I could tell, hard to get an accurate estimate but more than one volunteer and medical staff stated 47 Celsius, or 116.6 Fahrenheit. Day three was a pleasant relief from the day before in regards to the climbing, but the temps were getting very hot and by the end of the day most racers will or had run out of water. The smaller climbs and the dry river bed crossings had had more of an effect on the runners than most had imagined. By the time most of the racers piled back into camp beaten and dehydrated some had started to request and petition for more water. I myself was in agreement and would have loved to have more water that night to replenish my dehydrated body while I rested and regained strength. This was not to be….In my opinion what happened next was a purposeful slap in the face to those requesting more water. Rather than give the racers water in the evening when they could consume it and put it to use, the race organization chose to boast that they were fulfilling our requests and gave us and extra 1.5 litres of water in the morning. What this means is that now instead of the 1.5 we normally carry in bottles, we now have an extra 1.5 litres that cannot be carried, nor consumed safely in the 30 minutes before race start. This was a complete and total waste of 1,500 litres of water. Racers were forced to pour the water out and crush the bottles to fit into trash bags, otherwise if they were left behind full, with ones race number written on the bottle, a penalty would be issued. It was careless, irresponsible, but out of our control. Anyway, enough about that.
Day four 82.2km was the longest 50 mile I have ever run. Period. Time total was 14hr25min, and it felt every bit as long. When race description states “deceptively flat uphill section” it really means it. My race plan was to be moderate and to base my pace on a comfortable 12hr cruise. There was to be no major climb and the big dunes were at the end, or nearish to the end. The race started for us at the normal time (9a.m.) and the race started for the 50 top men and 5 top women at noon. This means our great hope Mike Wardian starts in the heat of the day. My race was getting off to a slow, comfy pace and as the heat increased, so did the level of pain. Three days of hard pushing, then a 50 mile stage in the deep Sahara was taking a toll. My feet were hurting with the rocks pushing into the soles, the salt was crusted on my face and 200 calories an hour was just not enough. Mike Wardian passed Jay and me at a 51k looking strong and fast, which is how Mike always looks. Making our way to CP4 took more of a toll on me than I thought and I decided to slow it down and watched Jay trot off into the dunes with no effort. As I was plodding through the dunes, taking two steps forward and sliding one step back I began talking to myself. I wasn’t really having a conversation, but an argument. Why was I not running? Why wasn’t I pushing? Why was I so slow? Damn dude, get a hold of yourself, maybe you need to eat something other than Gu? So I crested a dune and sat my butt down in the sand and rummaged through my bag looking for something that tasted good. As I sat and watched the top fifty guys moving past I finished my bag of dried fruits and nuts and slowly got up and pushed forward. Finally I arrived at CP5 and was faced with the thought that I had 20k to go, through deep sand and hills the entire way until about 7k from the finish. Once again I found myself feeling down, mad at myself, tired and wondering just what happened out there today. I tried to reason that it's 45 Celsius; the dunes were way harder than I thought, everyone is just that much stronger, and maybe I just suck. Right about that time a few Brits and a few French caught up and I had somehow found the motivation to power walk with them. I started to feel good, my walk got stronger and I was soon on their heels and then I couldn’t stay behind them. I was walking faster, and faster, and then I was running. The pain in the feet went away, the legs felt sore but good and I was going…I was really moving. I saw the light from the finish line from what seemed like a close distance, so I ran hard, I was really moving at what seemed like a crazy pace. My heart was pounding, my pack was making a bunch of noise, my breathing was labored and I was gaining ground on all those who passed me in the dumps. I ran what was, from what I could guess the last 5k in roughly twenty minutes. I was pouring sweat, it was getting close to midnight and I wanted to be in and go to sleep. Finally I made it in at 11:40p.m.; legs throbbing, stomach aching, busted feet and a smile.
Day five, 0km Rest.
Day six, 42.2km or what is known as a marathon. Marathon De Sables is a race of firsts and the marathon stage was no exception. The heat was suppressing, the dunes were demoralizing, and the rocks were unforgiving. This was the hardest and slowest marathon I have ever run; now I am not a fan of marathons in the first place and the start of this one was not heading in my favor. After a restless night sleep coughing, feeling sick and fighting what felt like a cold I got up just like every other day and kept going. My face was swollen, my throat sore, my breathing very labored, but my mind said to continue no matter what. I was proud of Jen who in the fifty mile day crossed the line as the first American woman and the first woman that left from the 9a.m. start. Jen had moved into 7th position that day and would keep that rank for the rest of the race clicking minutes off the competitors leads every day thereafter. My thoughts this day were with her and all those who suffered in the 50 mile day only getting limited sleep and rest before starting this grueling marathon. My race plan that day was to just finish and get it over with, no amazing feats would come from this day, only a solemn push for an end to the “Marathon of Sands” After a modest hustle through the last dunes while Tom Petty cranked out of my IPod, I got a little ill. I could see the finish, it was so close, but still I doubled over and coughed and vomited a bit. Again I was wondering if this was the hardest thing I have ever done. My throat was so sore and hoarse I could barely speak, but I could smile and revel in the fact that there was only one more day. The Marathon was over; I grabbed my cup of Sultan mint tea, my 4.5litres of water and went to lie down in my bivouac.
Day Seven, 21.1km or a half marathon through the largest sand dunes in Morocco. Imagine music blaring in French, people unshaven, smelly, dirty, and dancing in celebration that this was the last day of what took years of their lives to accomplish. The feeling in the crowd was incredible, the rush from all 800 or so excited runners would push people that couldn’t walk the day before to run at a pace they didn’t hit the entire week before. The first 18km were moderately flat with rolling hills, smaller rocks and shorter dry lake beds. Just before the final check point we crossed through an old mining town and were marveling in the fact that the dirt there was purple; deep dark eggplant like I had never seen before. Along this same route were old abandoned mining camps that looked to be many centuries old, and from there the CP was in sight, now only 4km to go and time to turn on the jets. It seemed like everyone had reserves of energy and were getting ready to use it in this last 4km stretch. Up and down the dunes we went, power hiking up and running down, every dunes crest let us see the finish and every dune descent had us wondering if it would ever end. The crowds of people were becoming thick at this point, spectators, families, vacationers, and local children running next to us, all the volunteers cheering for the racers. Hundreds of people lined the dunes and stretched for 100 yards into the finish where each race was greeted by the race director and issued an MdS medal on a ribbon. Just like that it was over. Onto the buses for a 7hr bus ride back to Quarzazate, and into our hotel for the remaining 2 days until we made our way home.
Marathon de Sables is a life changing experience and one that most racers will say they won’t forget. This race is something special, the race itself, the friends you make, and the hardships endured all become special. The dunes, the rocks, the people and the intensity will never be forgotten; those who have done the race before said it would forever change you, and they were correct. There are quite a few races, or experiences that will never be forgotten, but there are few to which all others will be compared to.