Antivenom pump? Check. Compass? Check. Sun cream? Check. Running shoes? Unavoidable. Spare pair of underpants? At 46g, maybe not.
With less than a week left before the start of the seven-day, 250km Marathon des Sables footrace in the Moroccan Sahara, I’m staring at the kitchen scales. I have cut my daily rations of nuts, salted corn and energy gels and identified another 1.1kg of items I could leave behind. Everything I pack, I have to carry across the dunes and barren desert between Ouarzazate and Merzouga. I’m not alone in my quandary.
“I don’t think I’ve ever put so much thought into what to put into a bag,” said Andrew Edwards, 41, chief executive officer of Monecor Ltd and a fellow competitor. “It’s times like this, knowing that every extra thing you take means a heavier weight on your back, when you really learn how to distinguish between ‘wants’ and ‘needs.’”
The Marathon des Sables, or marathon of the sands, has built a reputation as the “toughest footrace on Earth” since it began in 1986 with 23 runners. Three decades and 13,000 competitors later, almost 1,400 are to start tomorrow, including the 71-year-old British explorer Ranulph Fiennes, more famous for his polar exploits.
The rules require self-sufficiency: The organizers provide only essentials such as water (120,000 liters), Berber tents (300) and painkillers (6,000). And the race name is a misnomer: The distance is almost six times that of a marathon.
Three Moroccans have won 17 of the past 18 editions: defending champion Rachid El Morabity and brothers Mohamad and Lahcen Ahansal. Americans Nikki Kimball and Meghan Hicks have won the past two women’s races. Fiennes, who completed the first polar circumnavigation of the planet in 1982, hopes to become Britain’s oldest-ever finisher.
For the rest of us, it is not about winning, but finishing and earning the famous kiss on each cheek from Patrick Bauer, the race’s French founder.
The pile of stuff I’d like to take comes to 9.3kg, within the rules calling for 6.5kg to 15kg. Most runners aim for the lower end of that spectrum, including Fiennes, who says he is at about 7kg.
This year, 209 of the 1,363 participants are women. Marissa Harris, a banker at Citigroup in London, is competing for a fourth time and her bag is the lightest it has ever been at 6.8kg. The first year she brought running poles, a mistake she would not repeat. For this year’s edition, she is using a lighter sleeping bag and mat.
“Running is one of the few moments in my conscious life where I am fully focused on what I am doing,” said Harris, 37, who has raised US$150,000 for cancer research through her desert runs. “I have one purpose and that is to move forward. Left foot, right foot.”
Hot food or music? Gethin Davies made his choice.
“I was happy to trade the luxury of a stove to warm my food in order that I can fit in my iPod,” said Davies, 25, a lieutenant in the British Army. “Music plays a huge part in my running, and so that has to come.”
I draw the line there and am keeping the stove to heat my dinners: freeze-dried, 800-calorie, boil-in-the-bag ready meals. I’m also bringing biscuits, dried fruits, M&Ms, jelly babies, Peperami (a pork sausage snack) and biltong (dried beef). Any competitor failing to present at least 2,000 calories a day gets a penalty of two hours.
I’m contemplating ditching 24 grams of cooking fuel and a 301-gram storage charger, which means my GPS watch would run out of battery during the fourth stage, the longest by far with more than 92km to complete in two days.
The temperatures in the Sahara might top 40oC during the day and sink to freezing at night. Training for an event as grueling as the Marathon des Sables, or MdS, as it is called by runners, has been a challenge in the British winter.
I knew I could not possibly prepare for heat and sun in London, so I focused my training on long runs carrying a pack. Mostly it has been my 11km commute to and from work from east London to Parliament, or 16km for a more scenic route skirting the Isle of Dogs.
“I have always finished my races, even if I have to walk or crawl.”
Some of my fellow runners were more inventive with heat training. Henry Potter, a 25-year-old ship broker at Hartland Shipping, said he trained “in a boxing sweatsuit, getting some very strange looks.”
Michelle Payne, a 46-year-old legal personal assistant, has booked sessions on a treadmill in a special heat chamber, while Jonathan Kattenberg, a 45-year-old life coach from Yorkshire, followed his workouts with sessions in the sauna.
Others found sand where they could, like Aaron Jerling, a 31-year-old engineer at TrainTrick.com who ran in dunes in southeast England and Wales.
“I’m doing this for a love of running,” said Gemma Game, a 35-year-old fund manager in London at Norges Bank who trained on the sand track in Hyde Park. It is also “an interesting experiment to see how hard the MdS is in comparison to raising two toddlers and working full-time in the city.”
At least I’m not alone in my lack of preparation for desert weather. Fiennes, the first person to traverse Antarctica on foot, said commitments for a book contract have prevented him from doing any heat training.
“This is a shame, but unavoidable,” Fiennes said in an e-mail.
The mandatory antivenom pump is an unwelcome reminder that a scorpion or a snake may seek some body warmth in my sleeping back in the cold of the night. However, my biggest fear is not finishing. Although I have been building up to the event for a year and spent ￡3,600 (US$5,300) in fees, flight and prerace hotel, I can not predict how my body will fare running six marathons in the heat of the desert. Here again, it is comforting to know I’m not the only one.
“I have always finished my races, even if I have to walk or crawl,” said Ben Peresson, 41, Venezuela’s only entrant. “I can’t fail, I have sacrificed too much time, effort and money.”
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