Sat, Apr 04, 2015 - Page 18 News List

Desert run separates wants from needs

By Alex Morales  /  Bloomberg

The International Space Station, a piece of which is visible, top, flies over the Sahara on Feb. 12.

Photo: AFP

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.

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