Marathon de Sables 2019 in Words and Pictures
The Marathon des Sables, the original desert ultra held in southern Morocco, was staged for the 34th time in 2019. It is a six-stage race run over seven days and over a total distance of approximately 250 kilometres. Medical care and (rationed) water are provided at checkpoints and at the camps, but otherwise competitors must be self-sufficient, which means carrying their food, equipment and bedding for the whole of the week on their backs. More than 20,000 people have run the Marathon des Sables since it began in 1986 - in 2019 there were around 800 competitors. For many runners, the MdS is such an adventure that they describe the experience of the race as life-changing. Photos courtesy Cimbaly Marathon des Sables.
Read more about the Marathon des Sables. And read interviews with competitors from this year -
The Long Day, Day 4 of MdS 2019, ran near the Morocco-Algeria border through desolate terrain - baked earth, gravel plain, some sand dunes - and a sand-storm.
Here’s how the Marathon des Sables 2019 unfolded
Day Zero minus One. The 800 or so competitors for the Marathon des Sables 2019 arrived in Ouarzazate in southern Morocco and were transported east to the first campsite in the desert near Erfoud.
Day Zero, is spent in the first camp verifying gear. Competitors must carry a list of mandatory equipment, including compass, whistle and survival blanket as well as all their own food and bedding.
Tents are made from hessian supported on pegs with a carpet to lie on. They provide no warmth - and the desert can be cold at night - but they do offer shade from the desert sun. Usually there are ten competitors per tent.
It’s a nervous day. Most competitors simply want to get going, to start the running. On the other hand, the hours of enforced inactivity offer a chance to get to know your tent-mates, who are a key part of the MdS experience.
The spectacular setting of the Sahara Desert
Day One: The first stage of the Marathon des Sables 2019 was 32 kilometres long and the 800 competitors ran through terrain typical of the south-east of Morocco – the vast expanse of gravel plain is broken by wadis – dry river-courses - and by small sand dunes.
Day Two: The second stage of MdS 2019 was dune day, with approximately 13 kilometres among the huge Merzuga sand dunes. Dunes are hard to run in, of course, but they also radiate heat, making it extremely hot.
The temperature on Day 1 was in the high 20s centigrade. Dutch runner Ragna Debats took the lead in the women’s race, finishing 25 minutes ahead of her nearest rival. The leading male runner was Moroccan Rachid El Morabity.
After the dunes there remained a 6 kilometre run to the end of the 32 km leg among the date palms and over the rocky surface of a wadi to the third camp.
Day 3: After dune day on Day 2, competitors might have hoped to be spared more sand, but Day 3’s 37km course had tall dunes as well as rocky plains and wadis.
The competitors were now in the far south of Morocco and the remote and desolate nature of the desert, and its majesty and cruel beauty, were clear to see.
Day 4 is the long day, around 80 kilometres or nearly a double marathon, a long and even lonely haul. Competitors have 31 hours to complete the distance. It is followed by a rest day.
The leaders managed to finish the stage in less than 10 hours, but most competitors ran and walked into night. They had 31 hours to complete the leg, till the early afternoon of the following day.
…and to attend to brutalized feet
Day 5, offered a chance to rest the weary body…
Competitors spent the day organising themselves and ekeing out their food…
A dog, nick-named Cactus, joined the race. Here event inspirer Patrick Bauer congratulates him for finishing Day 4.
After the rest day, the competitors geared up for a full marathon on the following day…
Day 6, was a full marathon of 42.2.km
Day 6, the full marathon, contained sting in the tail; some leg-sapping dunes to test exhausted legs…
…and other surprises. It was the last competitive stage of the Marathon des Sables 2019.
Tired competitors, who had now covered some 200km in five days, struggle up the final obstacles…
The winning runners were Rachid El Morabity…
…and Ragna Debats
And now a final word for the support staff, the Moroccans who help with the tents (though they seem like ogres when they remove them from around you in the mornings) and with ‘sweeping’ the back of the field. Also, the photographers had lots of fun too.