Marathon des Sables, one of the toughest races in the world?

Desert. A fascinating environment, bearer of legends that have fed us. There are the great stories of the desert war during World War II, where the soldiers boiled eggs on the hot hood of their tanks. Less tragically, there is Hergé’s story, which places Tintin and Captain Haddock in a survival position in the Sahara. And how can one not think of all that when we, dazed by the heat and close to dehydration, cover the first stage of the self-proclaimed “legendary” Marathon des Sables?

Extreme conditions

Before heading out into the desert, look at the numbers. 250 km divided into six stages from 30 to 85 km. 7 days in total self-sufficiency (except water of course) sleeping on the ground under a berber tent with 7 other runners. In other words, it means for an average runner to run every day between kl. 04.00 and 20.00 with a minimum of 8 kg on the back in at least 30 degrees and below 10% humidity in desert sand for 6 days right now.

The company does not seem the easiest, especially as the desert often has surprises in store, between the large temperature differences between day and night, sandstorms or blisters on the feet, which almost every MDS runner ends up in. By going through. Given all these limitations, the Marathon des Sables is actually the toughest physical challenge for many runners who have made this race their goal for a decade.

But for those who are used to high endurance efforts, the situation is not that simple. ” I will not return, not because the effort was insurmountable, but because the self-sufficient life made me miserable. To perform on the MDS, you must have a bag that does not exceed 7 kg. And to achieve that, one has to sacrifice on comfort, no mattress, a ridiculous sleeping bag and little food. I was very hungry, I slept very little, I was very hot and very cold. And even though the human adventure was amazing, I will not return Says Jason Schlarb, a runner among the world elite in the discipline.

It is not really the steps as such that are difficult on MDS. The time barriers make it possible to finish them on time with an average of 3 km / h, which is very wide. On the other hand, the self-sufficient life in the desert is not for everyone. It’s very spartan confirms a journalist specializing in ultra-endurance racing and multiple MDS finishes.

There are other more demanding tests

This is a feedback that often comes up when discussing “ultra” efforts with regular customers. A feeling that we ourselves felt: in an issue with “normal” conditions (not including MDS 2021 with its heat wave and its gastroenteritis virus that hit the bivouac), the race has become more a matter of good handling of conditions that are extreme effort . In any case, if we compare it to other great endurance races: an ultra-trail of 100 miles (160.9 km) with 10,000 m elevation gain is harder to complete in terms of pure effort than MDS. A swim run like Ötillö in Sweden is more brutal. An extreme triathlon like Norseman in Norway (“Ironman” distance) requires much more in-depth training.

With its 170 km distance, its 10,000 m drop and its limit of 46 h 30, UTMB is considered one of the most difficult races. (F.Odoux / UTMB)

This does not seem to suffer from contradiction. And there is obvious mathematical evidence to confirm this sentiment: The dropout rate regularly exceeds 25% on a race like UTMB when it is around 4% at the end of a “normal” version of MDS. ” This is something we claim: We want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to go to the end of the adventure, especially by imposing very wide time barriers. says MDS founder Patrick Bauer. Time limits that are much more permissible than those for UTMB and its 46 h 30 to complete at once 170 km and 10,000 m altitude climb.

Is MDS ultimately one of the toughest races in the world? No, and it is not a prejudice or an insult to the approximately 900 finishers in each edition. MDS is without a doubt an amazing adventure that requires a lot of physical preparation and above all logistics. A week-long adventure that asks participants to dive deep into self-sacrifice given the hardships of life in the desert. A real epic that impresses the soul more than it raises the endorphin level. Also, ask finalists what they remember from their experience at MDS: they will tell you that they participated in the human adventure of their lives. They will rarely tell you that they have completed one of the toughest races in the world.

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