The Marathon des Sables – the toughest foot-race on Earth

Yes, you saw that right. Those are people. Running. Voluntarily. In the desert. The photo is a snapshot of one of the toughest endurance races on earth – the Marathon of the Sands, or as it is known in its own original language – the Marathon des Sables. 

 The MdS – as it abbreviated as – is the ultimate dream for many runners. Over the course of seven days, runners cover around 250 kilometres in the desert, carrying their own food, drinks and supplies, and sleeping at night in communal tents. 

The background:

Every day, runners have to cover a specific distance, with the distances ranging from 15 km. – 80 kilometres everyday. The longest distance covered on a day is about 82.2 kilometres, after which the runners have a rest day. The shortest distance is usually covered on the last day – marking the last stage of the race. 

Runners have to carry backpacks weighing around 6.4 kg. – 15 kg., including food and other mandatory supplies from the list that the race organizers provide. This includes all the gear that the runner needs to complete a week in the desert. Facilities, like waste disposal units, tents, toilet and bathing facilities are all provided by the race organisers. The backpacks are weighed and checked for their contents the day before the race. Water – perhaps the most important part of any race – is provided by the organisers. 1.5 liters are provided in the morning to every runner, while about 1.5 – 4.5 liters are provided throughout the day at the checkpoints situated every five-nine miles of the course. At the end of the day, 4.5 liters are provided to cover the activities of meals, for drinking purposes and for washing up.  

The teams consist of 450 overall staff, who operate sophisticated facilities for waste disposal, medical check-ups, live broadcasting, living arrangements. There are chutes located every 5 to 9 miles of the race, which runners enter to throw their waste, get water refills and get checked by the medical staff. The runners are constantly checked to assess who are unfit to carry on with the race.

The setting:

The MdS is held in the Moroccan Desert. Runners have to battle 50 degree Celsius temperatures, burning sand, rocky terrain and indigenous animal species to finally cross the finish line. Often, sand storms and high speed winds also can cause temporary halts in the course of the race. Runners await instructions from the officials in such cases. Often, race officials can also change routes to better accommodate the conditions at that time. 

Operation Desert Clean:

The race organizers have a sophisticated system of leaving no waste behind, and runners can get fined heavily for even leaving a bottle cap in the desert. There is total commitment towards keeping the desert clean and ensuring that no damage is done to what is a gift to us from nature. 

The MdS website lists “a touch of madness” in the list that covers all the facilities and staff and personnel involved in the race. Of course, to the ordinary person, the race seems like something only mad men and women would undertake. For runners, however, this ultimate challenge is a life-long dream for many –  the rarest diamond that outshines any other stone in their crown of running achievements. Crossing the finish line and getting that medal signifies something much bigger – it is an indicator of the fact that you were able to beat your own demons, conquer your thirst and push your body to extremes that one wouldn’t have imagined were humanly possible. It is a testament to what sports always tell us – the fact that anything and everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it.

Rajlakshmi Chavan

SY B.Sc Economics

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