The Marathon des Sables (MdS) claims to be “the toughest foot race on Earth”. It isn’t. But the terrain and temperatures ensure the six-day, 156-mile multi-stage race through the Sahara is still pretty tough. Damian Hall went to Rory Coleman, a 12-time entrant, to find out how best to prepare for, and complete it…

The Marathon des Sables is special

Rory Coleman: “For me, the Marathon des Sables is Christmas. I see the same people once a year. It’s a chance to go away and have a retreat at a place where I feel really comfortable. I feel a part of the race. I feel really alive. There’s something magical about the desert. It doesn’t matter who you are in your normal life, everyone’s the same there. I’ve done all these races around the world, but at the end of this one you put your arms in the air as you cross the finish line and feel that unique MDS spirit. You’re in a big family. It’s just awesome.”

The heat

The race takes place in the Saharan desert, where temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius with high humidity levels.

RC: “The MdS is all about feet and heat. Heat chamber training for the MdS has really taken off. Essentially what you’re doing is teaching your body to sweat less. However, the effects only last about 10 days, so most people will feel the benefit for about two days of the race, then everyone else’s body will have adapted too. But you can see a real difference in those first two days. It is quite extraordinary. However, you also do not want to start the race knackered, so do five sessions of 8km or an hour of running, in the 10 days before MdS and you’ll be sorted.

Test out salt drinks and gels whilst in the heat chamber too. Do your last session, leave the heat chamber and go straight up the steps onto the plane. If you can’t get to a heat chamber, run on treadmill, sit in a steam room, then get back on the treadmill. That should give you the swirling-head tunnel vision you’ll get at MdS.”

The sand

Sand is no one’s favourite running surface. It makes you slow, makes your muscles, tendons and ligaments work harder and sand gets everywhere.

RC: “At Merthyr Mawr, Bridgend, there’s the Big Dipper sand dune – the biggest single sand dune in the northern hemisphere. When I’m training for MdS, I’ll run 20-plus miles there once a week. It’s like running in treacle. There’s a real technique to it. It’s all about your heart rate and being rhythmical. Find that elusive rhythm and you’re okay. Go too hard and you literally sink. As soon as you walk, you’re stuck in a walk. And believe it or not the humidity there can be similar to Morocco. I see people running round Richmond Park to train for MdS. I’m not sure which parts of the Sahara Richmond Park mirrors.”

The pack

You’ll be carrying a pack weighing between 6.5-10kgs. This will push you further into the sand, make your shoulders angry, mutate your gait and slow you right down.

RC: “I have three golden rules for MdS: weigh as little as possible yourself (within reason), carry as little weight as possible in your pack (no more than 10 percent of your body weight) and do some training.

“Race rules stipulate your pack has to weigh at least 6.5kgs. The lighter you and your pack are, the less strain there is on the body and its muscles, ligaments and tendons, and you can therefore have a fantastic running holiday.

“Extra weight on your back can cause strain on your IT bands and Achilles tendons. Run with your pack once a week in training. Fill the pack up gradually with all the weight you’re losing yourself. I call this negative pack equity. You’ve lost 1kg from your waist. Stick 1kg in your pack. This way your body is used to running with the same weight and there’s no dramatic adjustment for it to make.”

The morning after

After the first day, you have to get up and do the same the next morning. And the next…

RC: “Christmas is the big training time. Do a mini MdS between 25th December and New Year. That means 20 miles a day for five days. Break it up over a day if you have to, some in the morning, some in the evening. Walk it, crawl it, whatever, just cover the distance.

“You need to know how it feels to wake up and not want to do it. At the end of day five at the MdS you will be so glad you’ve done that. It’s a massive confidence booster. Practice hiking too. If you lose all the skin on your feet on day one, which does happen, and walk the whole race, you’ll use different muscles and ligaments to running. If you’ve never walked 26 miles that’s going to be more uncomfortable than it sounds. On the long day you climb Snowdon nearly three times. So go run up some mountains to simulate that.”

The kit

But which equipment is best for running in the desert?

RC: “With equipment, the race’s fear factor often leads to over complicating things. If you say you’re taking something “just in case”, you definitely don’t need it. Take a very light rucksack. I go with a 387g RaidLight Olmo 20. But that’s less important than how much weight is inside it.

“Take a good sleeping bag. Some people take a sleeping bag, a liner, extra clothes… But why not take a good, warm (-5 rated) sleeping bag that weighs 700g and you’re sorted. I use a RaidLight Combi-duvet and no sleeping mat. Don’t wear compression clothing because it’s not very breathable and it’ll make you sweat, losing water and electrolytes more quickly. White reflects heat back onto the body. So wear baggy – which lets air through and helps wick sweat away – black clothing.

“The only luxury I take is music, to get in the zone (and perhaps a charger for my smartphone). If something of yours is broken or you forget it, people can lend it to you. Last year a guy arrived at MdS and his suitcase had gone missing on the flight. Other runners clubbed together and got enough extra kit for him. It’s interesting how much people throw away during the race too, sometimes expensive things.”

The fueling

Every gramme counts as it has to be carried, but you need enough calories to power you to the finish.

RC: “Take high energy foods, protein and carbs – the last thing you want is porridge or chicken tikka. Powders count now, so I make milkshakes. Nuts and beef jerky are nice and easy to eat. I also love custard and strawberries. Take a buffet, lots of different things. You’ll go off some things. During the run you need sugar – gels are really good, Shot Bloks, fruit pastels…”

The feet

Running 156 miles in the desert can make your feet angry.

RC: “I’ve been blister free on MdS for as long as I can remember. You don’t need trail shoes, you’re on sand so there’s little need for extra grip. Wear road shoes, they’re nice and wide. That width is there for when your feet expand and spread or if your toes need taping.

I pre-tape my toes. I tape the big, second biggest and little toes and wear my socks inside out – so there’s no rubbing from seams. If shoes start to feel too small, just take out the foot bed. Gaiters are a must to keep debris and sand out. I use RaidLight ones.”

The race

How to enjoy rather than endure MdS.

RC: “It’s not ultramarathon running. It’s a self-sufficiency race. It’s about how you manage yourself. You’ll need 13 litres of water a day, so drink at 15-minute intervals. Eat a minimum of 2,000 calories a day – you need 2,300 really. Eat before, during and after the run. Be orderly. Have a place for everything, Eat even if you don’t feel like it. If you don’t want to eat you may be dehydrated. Look after your feet. When you get to camp, are you going to be doing lots of chatting or resting? You need to start the long day with your feet in one piece.

“Running 50 miles with dysentery is no fun at all, you’re dehydrating to power of 10. Get some sleep. Go to bed at dark (7.30pm), to recover. You should love doing MdS, not hate it.”

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