Marathon Des Sables – The Toughest Race in the History

Have you ever been in a running race scene with different people, places, and races? It is an ultimate adventure most runners are joining, regardless of its level of difficulty that will last for many days.

Here is a grand trail, not the same as the common race. It requires a lot of passion and strength to get to the finish line. We are referring to Marathon Des Sables, an extraordinary race in the Sahara desert with 155-miles of total distance in six stages.

Running on sand is a tough journey and some more obstacles can exhaust runners, but there is a constantly increasing number of contenders through the years.

A Brief History of Marathon Des Sables (1986-2019)

There is one man who went on an epic walk in the desert to inspire others a unique race, incomparable to ordinary races. He is a 28-year old French man with a dream of a race promoting an eco-friendly way of running via routes across the Sahara desert.

Patrick Bauer initiated Marathon Des Sables, a race story that has started walking over 200-miles distance in 1984.


The first Marathon Des Sables with 23 pioneers took place in Moroccan Sahara. Who would have thought that three decades later the race attracts thousands of runners and other support teams?


MDS logo is created representing the face of a runner. Competitors have increased up to 170 runners in the next two years.


This is a challenging year for Marathon Des Sables because of some issues by Gulf Drama and the financial partners that led to withdrawals. However, the race story kept going resulting in a stronger bond among the competitors.


During the 7th MDS race, they added draconian tests to ensure all gears are complete until the end of the race. It is also the year when Moroccan Lahcen AHANSAL participates in the competition.


The next two years came to the arrival of Doc Trotter to enhance the event’s safety.


During MDS 10th anniversary, a water pump has been installed in the desert to aid both men and women runners alongside and also the other inhabitants.


Two Moroccan brothers decided to finish the race in 1996, and they placed fourth and fifth in the overall ranking. The race continues generating victory after victory for the Moroccan runners beating international contenders. It is also the year when Mohamad joined the race.


For added safety, a mobile hospital is built and made up of thirty practitioners, a helicopter, and high-tech equipment.


MDS was able to broadcast the race live to encourage competitors along the way. They can also receive messages from their loved ones.


No Moroccans have joined MDS this year yet it is when the first long-leg race occurred, called “The 70”. It surpasses the distance of the 16th race competition.


Another difficult year for MDS runners due to sandstorms and headwinds that lasted for a week. As a result, the experts created a low-pressure cleansing machine to rinse every runner’s eyes. The bad condition did not stop the one man’s dream race.


The first woman has won 3 MDS during the 20th race edition. It is also the first time not fewer than 777 runners have competed.


It is when the humidity level becomes very high that tired runners easily. The race management decided to cut the long-leg distance down to 10-kilometers and provided more water for the runner’s convenience.


The race became tougher in 2009 when a great flood in Morocco took place but the organization chose to avoid the flood zones. This could be the hard-hitting MDS season in history.


The 25th edition has the highest number of participants over thousands joining the longest span of the 250-kilometers race. The Solidarite association has been formed to assist children and other individuals in terms of education and health in Morocco.


Rachid EL MORABITY has injured himself during the race resulting in a serious muscular lesion. This is the most dramatic scene since MDS started.


The latter years have recorded more numbers of competitors which brought sponsors supporting the event. It includes the UNICEF charity leg that really helped competitors from start to finish. Mohamad AHANSAL and Megan Hicks won the race.


A new participation record has reached 1,300 competitors. Many young contenders have won the succeeding long leg race, most are closely related to the previous winners.


The longest MDS took place about 257-kilometers.


In the 32nd MDS race, the Moroccan brothers won over Thomas Evans. Elisabet Barnes got second place. It is also the first time a British veteran has become an amputee of the MDS race.


A French contender got the third step of the podium, since 2002. A woman from the United States also won.


Morocco won the 7th time and Netherlands ’ women’s side also got its first win. Among the list of winners is a dog named Cactus who traveled 192-kilometers with human competitors. The pet received a medal and became an inspiration in MDS race history.

How Does Marathon Des Sables Vary From Other Foot Races?

Marathon Des Sables is a legendary race that has built friendships and more inspiring stories. It is not the typical running scene race as MDS has its own trail.

The MDS race will happen in Southern Morocco, particularly in the Sahara desert with thousands of contenders. It is a 155-mile running race with six stages from morning to night of facing major obstacles. Both men and women can join the race and so must be ready to journey with the toughest footrace on earth.

Imagine running over in the heart of the desert following a particular route set by the organization. This seems tiring and demands more discipline for all the contenders. It also promotes cleanliness in the environment where the runners must leave no rubbish along the course. Discarding any waste at camps may cause a loss of points in the overall ranking.

MDS also values each competitor by giving encouragement at checkpoints because of how difficult the race seems. Some other essentials such as clean water, tools, gears, and farming are also easily accessible.

This type of footrace welcomes contenders coming from different nationalities and cultures. It aims to impart a race vision for local and international communities, just like how it started. That being said, MDS has been active for many years with an increasing number of runners and teams willing to support.

What to Expect?

A lot of contenders have been sharing real-time experiences with the MDS race and we can see how crazy the journey is. Deciding to join the race can take along anxieties despite the excitement of facing a new thing.

Upon registration, the admin will remind the joiners of everything they need to bring. Forgetting a thing or two is not the admin’s fault anymore. The medical staff will also provide a signed medical certificate, ECG results, and salt tablets.

Parting with the admin also requires leaving your extra bags. Only the running bags shall go with the contenders.

Checkpoints are present every five to nine miles of the course. In this room, runners can get fresh and clean water and throw trash before they go on. You can find medical staff in there to check up the participants and provide immediate treatments.

Another danger runners can encounter is the venomous snakes and scorpions, but they are nocturnal. Participants from young to old must be extra careful with these extra dangers.

Here are the six stages of the MDS race you can expect:

First Day of Marathon Des Sables

The best time to wake up is 6 a.m. as the race will start at 8:30 a.m. Loudspeakers will surely pump every runner’s adrenaline as the race begins.

Runners will rush off in the Sahara desert without even chatting with the other runners. At this point, everything seems easy with enough strength gained last night. There will be soft dunes needed to climb on, thus hiking sticks are essential.

Along the route are cute local kids cheering the runners with blow kisses and high-fives. This is such a relieving act of kindness!

Knowing this phase is just the beginning, some runners won’t last for it. Reaching the finish line you will see the remaining persons celebrating with you. Anyways, falling behind any object will make you out of the race.

Second Day of Marathon Des Sables

Before going to the MDS race make sure to strengthen your leg and cardio. On the second day, runners are expected to climb on massive dunes which demand greater strength than the first day of the race. This phase of the MDS race can result in bruises and body aches that many lose the battle.

Besides, hydrating yourself in every station must be prioritized more than the excitement. The best thing about MDS is the random acts of kindness along the race to ensure everyone’s wellbeing.

Some of the champions are in the tent, the Moroccans, and lift the spirits of the surviving runners. This will surely inspire an exhausted individual to keep going, regardless of wrecked feet. They even smile and will tap on the runners’ shoulders to motivate them.

Third Day of Marathon Des Sables

As the battle continues, expect a more difficult route that will test your endurance and passion to finish the race. The contenders must stay hydrated at every checkpoint for the best results.

MDS will make runners experience extraordinary pains and cracks from bottom to up knowing there is a time to beat. Happily, there are runners ever willing to help hurt contenders, even if it demands sacrificing their time.

If you are the one hurt, watching the other runners getting onto the finish line can lift your spirit. It will take a long day for most contenders to finally reach the tent in this phase.

The event’s organizers have a technique to encourage everyone in the best ways. They collect emails from your loved ones and put them into a tiny paper. MDS is a long journey and so receiving messages can boost your spirit little by little. It is the thought that counts showing the people you dearly love are journeying with you.

Fourth Day of Marathon Des Sables

The medical team will assure runners can go through the next phase keeping them bandaged. The fourth day is the so-called ultra-marathon about 76-kilometers of marching, walking, and running over sand dunes. Learn to conserve energies to strongly finish this phase.

Indeed, MDS is a battle between physical and mental strength while ignoring the pain to get through it. There will be times rearranging your kit as it causes discomfort under the scorching heat. It is not as easy as you think though.

Exhaustion is ever felt in this stage that some runners tend to hallucinate because of extreme tiredness. There is a route that will require climbing two steep mountains, sounds frustrating but true. It is nearly similar to climbing Mount Everest but in a desert.

Fifth Day of Marathon Des Sables

Day five could be everyone’s favorite in the entire MDS journey – a rest day! It has been a while though.

It is time to deal with a variety of issues among the runners with the help of French volunteers in the medical tent. No one is exempted from the mess after the four day desert race. Some contenders may develop sickness aside from blisters that need to be treated before the final day.

MDS team supports camaraderie in helping the participants that no one will be left behind. Surely, the partakers can leave the desert safe and sound.

Sixth Day of Marathon Des Sables

The final race runners shall go 42 more kilometers, getting closer to the finish line. It will begin at 7 a.m. All you need is to do is to ignore the pain and just finish what you have started. It is too late to give up now.

Like the other parts of the desert, runners will still walk on dreaded dunes with full strength. The finish line can be seen 5-kilometers away, which is a precious moment for those surviving participants. Mixed emotions, a combination of physical exhaustion and joy, shall be felt in the last two kilometers of the race.

Overall, the MDS race is a rough journey while aiming for the best performances possible. MDS organizers will give the finest ending with a good cheer and applaud for the runners. Many unforgettable finale scenes have been told and are very inspiring and tear-jerking too.

Getting a medal can bring relief from all the struggles a runner has been through. It is worth all the pennies have spent and every drop of blood, sweat, and tears.

Things to Consider During MDS Race

Marathon Des Sables requires interested participants to register two years in advance due to high demand. It costs 4,250 pounds including all the possible privileges for an amazing race experience. Here are some things to keep in mind before and during the footrace:

What’s inside the backpack?

A runner’s backpack must be in a maximum weight of 15-kilograms to ensure better comfort while racing on top of the sand dunes. This also reduces injury risk while crossing the route. It includes food and other mandatory survival kits but excludes water.

Food and Water

The minimum calorie count for runners is 2000 per day. They must take a portion of food and drink mix with maximum calories of at least 14000 per day. Smaller runners are believed to need more calories to boost energies, said the experts.

Participants will need 120,000 liters of water on the entire event, with proper ration. It must be divided for drinking, meals, and washing up to make sure not to run out of water along the course. Keep in mind the strict rule about leaving no waste in the desert.

Gears for Sandstorm, Headwinds, and Heat

Walking on sand might result in discomfort if pieces get into your shoes. Most runners use Velcro gaiters or glue to prevent such uneasiness. One more way is to wear compression shorts not to irritate your skin with the sand.

Sandstorm can create zero visibility and is highly possible to happen during the race. When headwinds happen, racers must stop and wait for instructions avoiding greater risk. Runners may also wear a legionnaire hat and sweat-wicking apparel as protection against the scorching heat.

With that, runners must aim to hydrate regularly to keep the body temperature down. The provided salt tablets can also help.

Other Essentials to Bring

  • Whistle
  • Lighter
  • Extra money
  • Sun cream
  • Identity card
  • Signaling mirror
  • Compass
  • Head torch
  • Sleeping bag
  • Essential documents

To Sum It All Up

To be honest, many runners who finished the race never again tried it the second time. Joining Marathon Des Sables demands a strong commitment, regardless of the situation.

The team will guide participants along the course however the end of the race story greatly depends on the runner. You can browse a lot of inspiring stories that can attest to the worth of the MDS journey more than the medal to be given on the finish line.

Become part of the team as Marathon Des Sables framing team looks for volunteers. It is a tough job and yet very rewarding. Contact MDS now to save your spot!

Coach Brian
My name’s Brian and I created to help people run far. After conquering marathons and ultramarathons, I became a running coach to help others achieve their running goals! We help people run far. By using this website, you can spend less time searching the Internet and being overwhelmed with information and more time doing the one thing you want to do: become a better runner.

Take Your Running Further With Our Resources...


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Related Posts