Getting to the start line of the Marathon des Sables takes serious commitment.
It’s expensive to enter and to buy the extra-light, specialised equipment and food. Even if you disagree with Discovery’s assessment of “the world’s toughest footrace,” it is exceptionally exacting, so you simply have to be in the best condition you can, as lean and strong as possible.
That means many hours invested in different forms of training - for a year, if you want to do it right. It means running with 9 kg of dried fruit in your pack, which you’ve got your Mom to double stitch because it broke while training on Robberg Beach. It means having your Mom tell you she does, “not approve of this type of thing,” while she re-stitches your backpack. It means that small children point and stare at your funny shoes and hat. Getting there costs other people too. They have listen to you talk, endlessly, about calories and grams, hydration and blister prevention. They feign interest in the velcro stitched onto your shoes. They sacrifice your company in usual activities while you’re out running daft distances at silly hours. Let’s be clear – there is an inherent and necessary narcissism involved in preparing for this monster, and the people around you have to not only put up with it, but help you get there.
So, once you land in Ouarzazate, after whatever winding route you’ve used to get there, I reckon you’re compelled to be one of the most positive people on the planet.
Please don’t do the MdS if you’re going to complain. Don’t swear about how the French volunteer on the bus can’t speak English. To the foul-mouth seated five rows from the back, it’s a French-facilitated affair, so learn to parle Français or just smile. Don’t grumble about limited water (I’m telling you now you won’t have enough and will have to fight the temptation to take an extra bottle at cost of time penalty). Don’t protest having to poo in a plastic bag (just hold it carefully when you stand up so it doesn’t spill onto your only pair of shorts). Don’t gripe about being exposed to the elements for eight days in the same clothes (which will stand up straight with dirt and sweat when you take them off). Don’t poke at Patrick Bauer’s route “improvements”, bringing deeper dunes and longer lengths (he is the Tillerman of this trail and a genius of organisation). Don’t whine about waiting for two hours to have your blisters popped and filled with iodine (the sweet stinging will pass and you’ll be running again in the morning). Don’t moan about munching freeze-dried food, again, while you can smell the freshly showered support staff’s meat grilling nearby (they volunteered their holidays to back you, Bro). Don’t bleat about the heat and sand like the two young Englishmen who were still on about it when they crossed the finish line (this race takes place in the Sahara Desert and it’s called the Marathon of the Sands).
If you’re fortunate enough to get to the MdS, injury free, with all gear in hand, and the love and support of your family and friends, don’t complain. About anything at all. Understand that you’re one of the most privileged people on the face of this glorious globe (approx. 0.0000162%, actually). Decide that you’re going to receive whatever it brings with wonder and delight. Choose to celebrate the skies, sweltering with sun by day and swollen with stars at night when the wind drops its drapes of dust. Wonder at the wide, white dunes welcoming, but not needing you. Delight at the dried lakes drowning in the red evening. Be entranced by the endless erg with its waves of sand staring you down. Let the jbels give you joy in the jaded aspects of your life. Embrace the efficient simplicity of the bivouac as an opportunity to declutter your usual spaces full of noisy possessions robbing your attention. Thank every volunteer, every time, for making this possible for you. Celebrate that you are alive and can do this, no, are doing this.
Tough? Sure the MdS is tough. The double day alone is harder than the TufferPuffer which is double the distance. So don’t go if you want easy. Stay home and run on roads around suburbs. But if you go, oh, friend, if you put your hand up for this one, go proud. Get as ready as you can and go full of curiosity and courage.
Tell yourself, and that desert, that while it may measure you, you will meet it with the best of yourself. Declare that you will not be intimidated into resentment of so remarkable an occasion. And even if you have to bail, as half of my tent mates did, do it with the graciousness, humility and appreciation they did. Because you will be, quite simply, heroic and hugely privileged for having tried.