The Marathon des Sables – “The Toughest Footrace on Earth”
Race Report – Ben Hall
So after 8 months of training I find myself on a plane flying to Morocco, full of nervous but excited runners, and with every conversation about training, kit, preparation etc. convincing myself this is a bad idea!!
Day 1 - On arrival at Ouarzazate, probably one of the first planes that has landed there since last year’s MdS, it’s straight onto a coach for a 6 hour journey into the middle of nowhere (the Sahara Desert). Eventually the bus pulls up near to where we will be camping and we head off in a group of 8 that we had previously planned, to look for a Bivouac. Eventually after a couple of hours of mayhem and trying to talk to Berbers we got our heads down for the night.
Day 2 – Waking up the following morning spirits were still pretty high, no mad rush to get up and nobody actually starving yet. This day was mainly an admin day. After a good 3-4 hours queuing in the baking heat, I had been through my medical checks, collected my transponder, passed kit checks and finally had my race number. My suitcase was now on its way back to Ouarzazate and all I had left with me was my kit for the following week.
Day 3 – Woken by some crazy Berbers taking down the Bivouac whilst we were still sleeping it was time to get up. Stage 1 of the MdS was finally here and with a 9am start we were off! A 36.2km stage, with two checkpoints, that would take us to the second Bivouac. With the early starts the temperature wasn’t too intense, for the first hour or so and a bit of false hope crept in with quite a flat rocky terrain into checkpoint 1. I’d made a good start at a reasonable pace and felt strong…. It didn’t last. Leaving the checkpoint the sand dunes soon began and the temperature was rising, through the middle of the day it seemed unbearable and a slow plod was about all I could manage. But, sure enough, with a lot of sand dunes, and finishing again with a very rocky terrain, the first stage came to an end in 5 hours and 43 seconds for me (8 retirements).
Day 4 – Time for Stage 2, and you start to realise this whole week is going to be a routine of, waking up, eating, running, eating, going back to sleep. A 31.1km stage, again with two checkpoints, but this time a lot less sand. Instead of sand, three jebels described to us at the start line as the equivalent of climbing Snowdon. Hitting the final and biggest climb, around 1pm in the blistering heat, I had to take two stops on the way up just to compose myself and try to lower my heart rate! Once reaching the summit the views were incredible and the best part of it being camp in the distance! A technical descent and Stage 2 was complete in 5 hours, 1 minute and 32 seconds (total of 37 retirements).
Day 5 – The third stage of the race was very similar to the first, a lot of sand dunes with a few sections of harder ground where you could pick up the pace totalling 36.7km. This time the harder ground came in the form of a dried up lake. A very dusty, hard, cracked earth in a valley turned out to be an incredible heat trap. Temperatures were recorded up to 53°C on Stage 3 (the hottest part of the race). When I reached the finish line a part of me was relieved, this was 3 stages complete and only 2 official stages to go, however, walking through camp to the Bivouac I overheard someone say “we’re not even half way until checkpoint 1 tomorrow”, massive reality check! I completed Stage 3 in 5 hours, 2 minutes and 7 seconds (total of 62 retirements).
Day 6 – The dreaded long stage was finally here! This stage covered all the terrains you could possibly think of and the distance definitely didn’t disappoint. A total of 91.7km with seven checkpoints, starting on an uphill slope, which was only a taster of what was to come. Sand dunes, Jebels, dried up river beds, valleys, rocky terrain and running in the pitch black over 16 hours, 49 minutes and 39 seconds took me to the finish line a broken man. It was now 1 o’clock the following morning, I collected my water and hobbled to my tent. Shaking uncontrollably I couldn’t even bring myself to eat to re-fuel and went straight to sleep.
Day 7 – After a gruelling day the reward for not stopping on the long stage was the rest day we now had ahead of us. I spent the whole day limping around camp, eating and sleeping, constantly trying to get my head around how I would manage the marathon stage tomorrow, at this point in time it seemed impossible. Around 6pm the news came around camp that we had a surprise that we had to collect from the middle of the Bivouac’s. A slightly cold can of coke! Doesn’t seem like a great treat, but trust me, after 7 days of only drinking water and limited calories this seemed like heaven in a can. All the runners went over to the finish line to see the last competitors finish which was a great example of the support around the camp (total of 89 retirements).
Day 8 – Waking up my legs were still in bits, and a marathon seemed an unrealistic achievement today, for the first time this week I spent a long time stretching and even did a bit of a warm up run on the way to the start line. This was it, one more official stage to go, 42.2km with some incredible sand dunes in the middle and one last chance to leave it all out there on the course. Setting off the atmosphere was incredible and seemed to give me a massive lift. I managed to get quite near the front by checkpoint 1, so I refused to stop for more than 30 seconds hoping I would be able to keep up the momentum. From checkpoint 1 onwards I just set my sights on the person in front in the distance and picking them off one at a time. Hitting a huge set of sand dunes I was in second place but couldn’t see the bloke in first, or the course markers for that matter. I went well off route and by the time I got to checkpoint 2 I was back down to fourth place. About 5km from the finish line my legs were dead, I had nothing left, a steady plod but maintaining fourth place took me home to a greeting from Patrick Bauer (the race organiser) and a medal around my neck. A huge sense of relief and pride from an overwhelming finish line thanks to all the organisers support. Finishing this stage in 4 hours, 23 minutes and 57 seconds and overall 220th position out of 1,330 competitors (total of 96 retirements). Sitting in camp this evening it all seemed a bit surreal, after 36 hours and 18 minutes of running, it was all over!
Day 9 – The atmosphere around camp was still buzzing waking up the following day. Everyone collected their Unicef t-shirts and walked to the start line for the charity stage. This stage of the race didn’t count towards your finish time or overall position so we used it as a good chance to stick together as a tent and walked the final stage of 11.5km together in to the finish line. One last water collection and onto a coach for the 7 hour journey back to the hotel. The Marathon des Sables was the hardest physical experience of my life, and at many a time I was sure I wasn’t going to make it. It just goes to show that with a bit of will power, determination and hard graft you really can do anything. The Toughest Footrace on Earth… DONE.
In April 2015, Ben Hall completed the 30th Marathon Des Sables.
Described as the toughest footrace on earth, the marathon des sables is one of the most gruelling events anyone can compete in. It is a six-day, 251 km (156 mi) ultramarathon, which is the equivalent of six regular marathons. The longest single stage (2009) is 91 km (57 mi) long. This multiday race is held every year in southern Morocco, in the Sahara Desert.
Ben has written a race report detailing just what it's like running this incredible race, below.
Huge congratulations to Ben, who definitely cements himself into Rolls-Royce Harriers history books!