The Marathon des Sables:
Ultra Endurance Running in the Heat of the Sahara
The Marathon des Sables is widely regarded as the toughtest footrace on Earth. It is a seven-day, multi-stage race in the Moroccan Sahara, during which competitors must carry all their food, clothing and equipment across the ~150-mile course.
The Marathon des Sables was Mark Hines' first excursion into the world of ultra-endurance adventure races. With a background far removed from endurance fitness, this book catalogues his training, preparation and participation in his first great race. Whilst the subsequent titles on the Jungle Marathon and Yukon Arctic Ultra clearly demonstrate his own evolution into an accomplished runner, the Marathon des Sables was where it all began. His training was unrefined and the equipment he chose far from the best, but this new reflective edition permits Mark to put into context all the decisions he made, and within the appendix can be found his true 'desired kit list' for such an event.
Calling on his background as an exercise physiologist, Mark easily explains the adaptations involved in training for an ultra-endurance event. This culminates in an in-depth analysis of the 'athlete's heart', which is introduced within the main text but features in its entirety in the appendix. This chapter alone should be considered a must-read for anyone preparing to begin training to become an endurance runner. The Marathon des Sables is an incredible race, described in this book through the eyes of a novice racer, but one with an academic background that balances well with his natural approach to training.
This version is a complete re-write of the original book by this author. The new format includes an appendix, which is filled with information and recommendations for runners regarding kit-lists, food and logistics. The writing style and content also places the book more firmly within the 'in extremis' series, along with the Jungle Marathon and Yukon Arctic Ultra titles.
Excerpts from the book:
Into the Furnace
A gentle breeze brought ever-hotter waves of the driest air against my skin, and as I shifted the heavy rucksack on my shoulders, the breeze pressed my sweat-drenched shirt against my back, and for a moment I felt cool. It was but a second more and the clothing had been dried entirely, and my moment of coolness subdued and overpowered by a commanding and relentless heat once again.
I peered over to my left, to the east, and could just make out some tall buildings on the edge of my vision - a satellite area of factory land encroaching upon the desert from the lush periphery of the Nile. Between the two lay the main road north, which headed through Cairo and continued onwards to Alexandria and the Mediterranean Sea. To my rear lay the past. Prior to seeing those buildings, the last sign of life I had encountered was a rabid dog, and that had given up on life long before and was, at the time I came across it, alive only with the thousands of maggots eating away at its corpse. It was midday now, and the canine's carcass was perhaps four hours behind me. Before that there had been a solitary crow, which followed me for a while and no doubt would have loved to take first dibs on my juicy eyeballs. Fortunately for me, its quarry was still in fair shape, all things considered.
I looked across to my right and around the edge of the basin, where short, rocky hills and sand dunes marked the valley's periphery. This was the standard of terrain I had been contending with all day. I moved off towards the hills, taking on a subtle gradient as I did so, and dreamed that things might have been different for me to make Al Fayoum today. Alas, the risk of detonating a landmine with my size fourteen boots was too great, and I had been forced by sense to keep to the more recently laid 4x4 tracks. Unfortunately, for me, those tracks worked in arcs rather than straight lines, as the Egyptians considered the risk of landmine encounters greater if driving in one direction only, and as I stuck to their tracks when I could, so my journey had undertaken a convoluted and indirect route.
The desert sands had been shifting the landmines around for decades, and there was no longer any practicable means of knowing where they lay. The one thing I knew was that there was no safe desert in this region. Where there were no tracks, I tended to be on hard ground higher up, where there was no possibility of landmines being hidden beneath the thick, solid surface.
A couple of hours away from my brief pause by the basin's edge, and my eyes were incessantly scouring the surroundings for somewhere to rest, but regrettably no hills offered overhangs to protect me from the sun. The best I could manage was to sit on a hillside, fully exposed, and enjoy that nanosecond of deep relief, as I removed my rucksack and for that one fleeting moment, felt my cool sweat blown sweetly against my back. And then it was dry again. Even when on the move, the wind forever wicked away my sweat and gave me the illusion that I was not sweating at all. My continual thirst told me otherwise, although as the day wore on I found myself taking licks of salt more and more. I would so dearly have loved to reach the lush desert oasis and the great lake at Al Fayoum. I was running across a vast open flat during the late afternoon, a few hours following my previous break, when I felt compelled to take my penultimate rest. A short mound, perhaps three metres or so in height, had the slightest of overhangs at its top, only a matter of inches in thickness, but as the sun was on its way down those few inches cast a shadow over the mound. The surface was littered with holes, indicating that here were to be found a number of inhabitants, most probably scarab beetles or scorpions. I dropped my rucksack to the ground and made of point of falling back heavily against the sandy knoll. The locals needed to know that the disturbance was something too heavy for them to want to bother themselves about. I still had an hour or two before it would be cool enough for them to want to venture out on their own initiative.
I gazed longingly toward the hills on the horizon, at the far extent of this plain, perhaps five or six miles further on.
Stage Two: 35 km
Monday, 26th March 2007
I opened my eyes in the dead of the night, as howling gusts of wind whipped and then pounded against the sides of the flimsy, sack-based tent. I peered bleary-eyed beneath a fold of canvas, over towards the bivouacs on the other side of the camp, perhaps fifty metres or so away, but they were invisible to me. A sandstorm was raging and we were in the middle of it.
Outside the comparative protection of the tent, the sand was being lifted up from the ground, before being driven into our rudimentary shelter. I could feel the grains within my sleeping bag and the clothes that I wore as I slept. The gritty feeling between my teeth as I closed my mouth told me they had made it in there too.
I closed both my eyes and my mouth, and attempted to settle back to sleep, thinking of former camping trips when the wind had howled outside; something that in a strong and secure tent I had always found to be oddly comforting. The next thing that happened, as I attempted to sleep amidst the ruckus of flapping canvas and ferocious winds, was that my world became one primarily dominated by black sacks. The storm had wrenched the poles down and the whole bivouac had collapsed on top of us.