Philippe Gatta
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Marathon des Sables
215 km running race in the Sahara, Morocco

Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)
Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)

The Marathon des Sables

The Marathon des Sables (Marathon of Sands) is a mythic race, a race that all ultra-distance runners must do at least once. Since the first edition in 1986 the race has been more and more popular and there are now more than 800 runners coming from more than 30 countries every year.
Despite its name, it’s not a Marathon but +200km (125 miles) race with 6 stages, including a 80 km non-stop stage. The race takes places in Morocco in the Sahara desert which adds two difficulties; heat and sands. Runners also have to be self-sufficient, which means that they have to carry their food (14,000 calories minimum), stove, clothe, sleeping bag and survival kit. The race organization only provide them with 10 to 12 liters of water per depending on the stage.

Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)
Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)

Programme of Marathon des Sables

Usually the Le Marathon des Sables lasts 10 days to/from Paris. First day: travel from Paris to Morocco and drive to the bivouac. Second day: technical and medical formalities. Third to 9th day: race. Last two days: reward ceremony and return flight.

Start of the 21st MDS. Karim Mosta #13 (© P. Gatta)
Start of the 21st MDS. Karim Mosta #13 (© P. Gatta)

My gear for MDS (© P. Gatta)
My gear for MDS (© P. Gatta)

21st Marathon des Sables

April 9, stage 1: Ait Sâadane - Rich Merzoug

Distance: 28 km, 2 checkpoints (1.5L of water at each). Temperature: 41°C, hygrometry: 14%. 731 runners at the start.

I start the race with a 7.7kg backpack (without water), it includes warm clothes, sleeping bad, security material and 4.5kg of food (21,000 calories). This 1st stage is supposed to be the acclimatization day but the race starts really fast and I wonder if these guys know that we have 212km to run. Like many others, I start walking between CP1 and CP2 at a steep hill climb. I enjoy the great 360 views from the top until I see that the finish line is so far away. I finish in 3h34, at this time the windstorm has blown away most of 100 tents, the staff is too busy to help us and I'm too tired to put back the tent. It's too windy to cook so I eat my dehydrated soup and mashed potatoes with cold water. Around 5pm the wind stops and we can have a quiet evening and a good night.

Ahansal won this stage in 2h03, the last one finished in 11h30.

Patrick Bauer's briefing before the start (© P. Gatta)
Patrick Bauer's briefing before the start (© P. Gatta)

Start of the 21st Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)
Start of the 21st Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)

Between the CP1 and CP2 of Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)
Between the CP1 and CP2 of Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)

Our tent at the bivouac (© P. Gatta)
Our tent at the bivouac (© P. Gatta)

April 10, stage 2: Rich Merzoug - Ma'der El Kebir

Distance: 35 km, 2 checkpoints (1.5L of water at each). Temperature: 42°C, hygrometry: 15%. 719 runners at the start of today's stage, 12 had retired.

We can hear at the briefing that <<this could be the most difficult start to MDS ever. The competitors were given a rough ride yesterday and today should be the same. The problem remains the same: the combination of high hygrometry levels and high temperatures mean some competitors are over-heating.>> I take it easy, I run the first 7km then I walk fast instead of running, I’m glad I have my MP3 because it’s going to be another long day. The sandstorm begins when we start the 4km dune section (after CP2). The sandstorm darkens the sky, it’s cooler, and everybody is forced to walk, nobody pass me in these spooky conditions. After the dunes, we had 7km on a dried-out lake, we couldn’t see further than 300m, I was too tired to run, I had 3 blisters and I was close to get lost a couple of times. In summary it was a “never ending story” and I hated this stage. I finished in 5h27, like yesterday the tents have blown away, I have to eat cold and the sand is everywhere.

Ahansal won this stage in 3h03, the last one finished in 10h26.

Philippe on the trail to the old mine (© P. Gatta)
Philippe on the trail to the old mine (© P. Gatta)

Sandstorm in the dunes (© P. Gatta)
Sandstorm in the dunes (© P. Gatta)

2nd stage of Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)
2nd stage of Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)

2nd stage of Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)
2nd stage of Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)

April 11, stage 3: Ma'der El Kebir - Maharch

Distance: 38 km, 3 check-points. Temperature: 39.4°C, hygrometry: 18%. 663 runners at start of this stage, 68 retirements.

Yesterday I saved my energy and today I feel good. The weather is nice, there is no wind and the scenery is beautiful. It remains the same most of the day; great variety of landscapes and colors. The cliffs around give some contrast to the sand and help to see the progression. The CP2 is at the top of a hill offering great views. What a difference with yesterday. The 3km of dried-out lake before CP3 is the tough part of the stage, the ground is white and reflects the light of the sun, it’s time to slow down the pace (well, I wasn’t fast anyway ;-)  Few kms later there is a solar powered pump; some runners dare to drink the water, I just splash myself to cool down but I rapidly regret it as the smell is terrible, even the camels avoid me.

I finished in 6h01, good news the tents are up, I have plenty of time to eat and see the doctors to take care of a few blisters. The socks I used today are too thin, I throw them away and try to clean the ones I had the previous days. Two good news in the evening; we have an extra bottle of water and I start receiving emails, thank you all.

Ahansal won this stage in 3h10, the last one finished in 11h39.

Philippe, Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)
Philippe, Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)

Runners in the désert (© P. Gatta)
Runners in the désert (© P. Gatta)

3rd stage (© P. Gatta)
3rd stage (© P. Gatta)

Getting ready for the start (© P. Gatta)
Getting ready for the start (© P. Gatta)

April 12, stage 4: Maharch - Jebel El Mraïer

Distance: 57 km, 5 check-points (3L of water at each). Temperature: 39°C at 6pm, hygrometry: 13%. 607 runners at start of this stage, 124 retirements.

Morning briefing: << In view of the severe weather conditions which have taken a heavy toll on competitors, the organization decided to reduce this long stage by 15km. The decision was also made to double the water rations at the first 3 check-points.>> Because of this change the start is delayed until 10am. I can't believe the pace of the race at the start and after 1h I'm probably ranked ~250. I don't even try to follow, alternating fast walk and running. Not surprisingly, many runners have to take long breaks at the CP to recover... The sceneries are beautiful with lots of sand dunes, looking like postcards. The windstorm starts again but we have it in the back, sometimes there so much sand in the air that is almost dark. I am not too tired when I reach CP5, I manage to run until the end of the stage and finish right before dark in 9h13, I enjoyed every minute of this stage, as I am slow it would have been better for my rank to keep the initial distance of 72km.

I set a new personal record; I drunk 13 liters of water since the beginning of the day, drinking almost every 5 minutes and eating every 30 minutes (total of 3000 calories).

AL Aqra won this stage in 4h53, the last one finished in 25h14.

Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)
Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)

Dunes (© P. Gatta)
Dunes... (© P. Gatta)

Another sandstorm (© P. Gatta)
Another sandstorm (© P. Gatta)

Cyril Cisinski at checkpoint (© P. Gatta)
Cyril Cisinski at the checkpoint (© P. Gatta)

Sunset (© P. Gatta)
Sunset (© P. Gatta)

Visit to the doctors (© P. Gatta)
Visit to the doctors (© P. Gatta)

April 13, rest day

Today is a rest day for the 374 who finished the 57km yesterday, the 233 others will pass the finish line throughout the day. The last one finishes at 11:14am after 25h14 of effort. I spend the day sleeping, eating and walking around in the camp; there are ~750 runners, 450 staff, 150 tents, many 4 wheels drive, several trucks and one helicopter. Everything has been installed in few hours and will disappear tomorrow. Believe it or not, at 6pm some runners decided to play football, they probably hadn't enough with 158km of the last days.

Temperature: 33°C, hygrometry: 19%.

The camp
The camp

The tents at the bivouac (© P. Gatta)
The tents at the bivouac (© P. Gatta)

April 14, stage 5: Jebel el Mraïer - Kourci Dial Zaïd

Distance: 42.2km (full marathon), 4 check-points. Temperature: 28.1°C, hygrometry: 20%. 585 runners at start of this stage, 146 retirements

I ate most of my food, so I'm glad to take the start with only 5.5kg in my back (including water). I start quickly and try to follow the pace of some good runners, and since we have strong head wind I manage to stay behind a tall guy. I pass the CP1 (10.5km) in 1h05, so far so good. CP2 (22.5km) in 2h15, still good. Dunes of l'Erg Znaïgui (30km) in 3h10, not good anymore. I feel bad and I'm freezing which are usually the symptoms of a hyperthermia, I definitively stop running, water my head, I can forget the ranking and focus on the camera instead of the stop watch. The dunes end at CP3, I take few kg of sand out of my shoes and continue the walk toward CP4. In a better shape I could have run here, but in my state I can't, I try to calm down listening to some music while half of the planet is passing me. I've partially recovered when I reach CP4, resume running and pass the finish line after 5h40. At 8pm we had a concert of classical music by musicians of the Paris orchestra.

Ahansal won this stage in 3h16, after 5 days of race, a backpack, the heat, and many kilometers of dunes, that's very impressive. The last one finished in 11h45.

The start of the Marathon stage (© P. Gatta)
The start of the Marathon stage (© P. Gatta)

The Marathon (© P. Gatta)
The Marathon (© P. Gatta)

During the Marathon stage (© P. Gatta)
During the Marathon stage (© P. Gatta)

During the Marathon stage (© P. Gatta)
During the Marathon stage (© P. Gatta)

April 15, stage 6: Kourci Dial Zaïd - Merzouga

Distance : 11.8km, no checkpoints. Temperature: 34.3°C, hygrometry: 19%. 585 runners at start of this stage, 146 retirements.

Everybody knew that the pace will be crazy for this short stage, even though we are crossing the highest dunes in Morocco (300m) and the second highest in the world. I run the first 7.5km in 28 min (16km/h) and keep running in the dunes. Finally I run the 11.8km in 1h03, I was so proud until I understood I was ranked 113th, they are all so strong. Anyway, this is the best I could give, I'm happy, one more time I'm very impressed by the level of the competitors, their motivation and the exceptional friendship and atmosphere throughout the race.

Start of the last stage (© P. Gatta)
Start of the last stage (© P. Gatta)

The dunes of Merzouga (© P. Gatta)
The dunes of Merzouga (© P. Gatta)

The dunes of Merzouga (© P. Gatta)
The dunes of Merzouga (© P. Gatta)

The last stage of MDS (© P. Gatta)
The last stage of MDS (© P. Gatta)

Overall

Lahcen Ahansel won in 17h14, Annette Herdman finished 585th in 67h09. I finished 111 in 31h01. 585 runners have finished this 21st Marathon des Sables out of the 731.

More information and the complete results are available on the Marathon des Sables web site.

Finish line of the 21st Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)
Finish line of the 21st Marathon des Sables (© P. Gatta)

Closing ceremony at Ouarzazate (© P. Gatta)
Closing ceremony at Ouarzazate (© P. Gatta)


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