Sophie Raworth's Hints for the Marathon des Sables
Getting ready for the Marathon des Sables is enough to induce panic. I signed up with a friend after a Christmas party one year, so the event seemed like a long way away at the time, but suddenly it came upon us and I had to knuckle down and get on with the training.
To be honest, I was actually quite scared about going. I wasn’t sure I could complete the race. A lot of me didn’t want to do it. I had no idea where we would be running, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like in that heat and I couldn’t understand why I had decided to do it in the ﬁrst place. What was I trying to prove? The problem was that after I signed up with my friend Tim, a whole lot of other friends signed up too. Suddenly there were seven of us and I knew I couldn’t back out. I did a lot of googling. What kit to wear, which shoes to take, what food to eat, how many people had died doing it...
Amazingly I ﬁnished. In fact, not only did I ﬁnish but I came in the top third, and 3rd in my age group. And I would love to do it all over again, knowing that I would arrive without the energy-sapping fear that gripped me in 2018. So, for anyone who is feeling the same as I did before going, I have written down the things that worked for me and what didn’t work. It might save you some time… and stress.
I agonised about which shoes to wear. Your feet are everything in the race. If they become a mess, it won’t be much fun (though it’s amazing how much pain you can put up with if you need to). In the end I just wore the shoes I always wear to run road marathons - Brooks Adrenaline GTS. Handily they do a wider version of that shoe - D or even E width - which was great and gave my toes more room when they swelled up. I also bought them half a UK size bigger. Be careful about this - the race organisers tell you to go up two sizes. It’s a French race. They mean two European sizes. Our tent neighbour, Nick, misunderstood this and went up two UK sizes. His feet were completely mashed by the end - though amazingly he did ﬁnish.
I wore two pairs. One pair of Injinji socks with individual toes and one pair of marathon socks. I have no idea if this made a diﬀerence but I didn’t get bad blisters compared to most. The only blisters I got were on the long stage because we hiked a lot of it rather than ran (there was a lot of climbing) and my feet weren’t used to walking instead of running such distances.
Get it right. It will be your best friend for 10 days. It has to be. I tried out three diﬀerent kinds. The MDS oﬃcial one (which was ﬁne, though others found some of the straps snapped under pressure), the Ultimate Direction pack (ﬁne too, but I found it too ﬁrm on my back) and the Raidlight Responsiv 25l for women. I ended up choosing the Raidlight and loved it. It had pockets to stuﬀ snacks into, I liked the drinking bottles, it was comfortable and I got everything in it. My backpack weighed in at 9kg on Day One.
I had 3000 calories a day - a 1000 calorie breakfast, 1000 calorie dinner and the rest made up with energy drinks, sweets and a lot of savoury food like dry roasted peanuts, salami, parmesan, more nuts. The savoury, salty food is good in the heat. You get sick of sugar fast. Variety is key. Make sure you have plenty of diﬀerent treats to look forward to.
I used the freeze dried Expedition Foods and they were surprisingly good. I loved the pasta and had a bit of variety with Korma. I had porridge for breakfast every morning but got sick of that and ended up trading it with a friend. I had a little stove and took some Nescafe instant latte sachets as a treat. I ended up trading those too, for tea bags. It’s amazing how precious some things become out there!
Just a warning - despite my 3000 calories a day, I still arrived home 10lbs (4kgs) lighter. However, I didn’t feel hungry at all during the race until the last day when it was all over and I just craved a hamburger and chips (which obviously I didn’t get…).
Susie Chan (my friend who had run the MdS three times before) came over to my house about two weeks before we left. We sat on the ﬂoor and weighed absolutely everything - from my sleeping bag to my spare pair of shorts. She was adamant that I shouldn’t take too many luxury items, but I insisted on a few and was very glad I did...
- a warm YETI jacket. It was expensive (even in the sale) but it was light and it kept me very warm when temperatures plummeted.
- A spare pair of shorts and a spare vest. You don’t shower for 10 days; there’s no running water. I took my shortest, lightest shorts and vest and was very glad of them when we returned to camp each day. It meant I could rinse out my race kit in a bottle of water and hang it out to dry for the next day.
- A blow-up pillow. I loved it. I slept better for it. Susie used her trainers as a pillow…!
- Flip ﬂops. Susie thought I was mad taking ﬂip ﬂops. They weighed 100g (which is a lot in the grand scheme of things). But again I loved them - and so did my tent-mates, who funnily enough used them a lot too…
This was the one thing that didn’t work. I had a self inﬂating mat. It wasn’t particularly thick in the ﬁrst place. Susie took a mat that was light, looked like an egg carton and rather uncomfortable. But what she knew and I didn’t is that the desert is full of little drawing pin-like thorns that get everywhere. And on Day 1 of the race, before I had even had a chance to try my mat out properly… it went pop. So I basically spent a week sleeping on the desert ﬂoor.
My sleeping bag however was glorious. I had planned to use one lent to me by a friend. But he’s 6 foot 2 and I’m not. I hadn’t quite grasped the concept of sleeping bags. For some reason I thought the more room, the more body heat, the warmer I’ll be. It’s quite the opposite. Too much room and you’ll be cold. So at the last minute I panicked and bought one from PHD designs - again expensive but I slept really well and was warm unlike some others.
I did take mine so that my kids could get hold of me if they needed to, but I hardly used it except for photos. If I did the MDS again, I would probably leave my phone in my luggage at the hotel. There is something magical about being completely cut oﬀ from everything for a week. It’s so rare nowadays. Also when my phone ran out of battery… that was that.
Choose your tent mates well. I had visions of wandering around camp chatting to lots of people and speaking lots of French. The reality was that we were all so knackered that once we got back to our tent, we barely left again. A lot of the MDS is about the camp life – it’s what you will remember. I was very lucky to be with a great bunch of people and we laughed a lot.
Last but not least…
…the training that will get you to the ﬁnish line! My training consisted of marathon training with some back to back long runs to get used to running on tired legs. I ran between 50 and 70 miles a week between January and March then tapered. I did the North Downs Way 50 mile ultra a year before the MDS just to reassure myself that I could do an ultra. Then I did the Pilgrim Challenge - a back to back 33 mile out and 33 mile home again race along the North Downs Way, with a night in between. Lots of people slept at the school on the ﬂoor, testing out their kit etc. I’m afraid I didn’t. I stayed at the Redhill Travelodge that had a Toby’s carvery attached to it… and ate huge amounts before collapsing. That race taught me though that I could run 33 miles, sleep and then get up again the next day and do it all again. I even managed a sprint ﬁnish!
In the last few months I started weighing down my backpack with tins and washing powder to see what it was like running with a load. I never carried more than 6kg - this was 3kg less than I started with at the MDS - because I was worried about getting injured, but it gave me enough of an idea. And ﬁnally for the two weeks before the MDS, I did heat chamber training with Susie and her husband at the crack of dawn at Kingston University, with the wonderfully encouraging Chris Howe. I say ‘encouraging’… he basically told me that no-one who had used his heat chamber had ever failed to ﬁnish the MDS. And that obviously meant that I could not be the ﬁrst…
The Marathon Des Sables was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I loved it. I felt very safe. There are checkpoints every 10km and dozens of doctors on hand. Cars go up and down the course checking that people are ok. You can’t get lost.
Remember to look forward to it, do your training, don’t cut corners and you will have the most unforgettable experience. It’s tough, of course. But out of the 1000 people who started it in 2018, only 100 or so didn’t ﬁnish. Above all, enjoy it, look around you, look at the stars at night, savour it. You will never forget it.