Marathon des Sables 2021 35th Edition Summary and Thoughts

The 2021, 35th edition of the Marathon des Sables concluded early October after a 2.5-year hiatus due to the ongoing Covid pandemic issues worldwide. 

Three postponements, the first in April 2020, a second cancellation late 2020 and then a 3rd cancellation in April 2021 finally saw the race take place in October. October was selected due to climatic conditions typically being very similar to those of April. Little did we know that October would see freakish high temperatures that would impact on the race.

VIEW THE IMAGE GALLERIES HERE

I have worked on 7 MDS, 2021 was special! I provide this summary as an assessment as I saw the race unfold and how I experienced the conditions in the Sahara.

The 2021 race had relatively low start numbers, particularly in contrast to ‘normal’ MDS years, with approximately 700+/- toeing the line. It’s easy to understand why numbers would be low: 

  1. Repeated postponements caused apathy and a lack of focus and therefore refunds were requested.
  2. The October 2021 date was the 4th scheduling of the event, and many wondered ‘if’ it would go ahead and therefore moved entries to a safer and more predictable MDS in April 2022.
  3. Ongoing PCR requirements, Antigen tests and restricted border crossings and travel meant for many, October was just not possible.

One thing is for sure, Patrick Bauer and the MDS team were excited and motivated to resume proceedings in the Sahara and of course, Patrick wanted the event to be memorable for multiple reasons… It was the 35th edition and the first event post Covid.

2021 ROUTE

Stats show that 353 completed the event, Rachid El Morabity running the whole event in 21-hours, 17-minutes, and 32-seconds. Christine Taieb was 353rd in 72-hours, 41-minutes, 31-seconds.

From the 353 finishers, 91 were from the UK, Patrick Kennedy the fastest in 25:16:14 and placing in the top-10 with Martina Taylor the 91st in 44:06:16.

HEAT

Arriving in Errachidia and Erfoud several days before the runners, it was soon very clear to me that temperatures were high. On the first day, I ran in the desert starting at 11am and temperatures were already over 40 degrees. In the evening, for a second run starting at 1800hrs, temperatures were 36 degrees. The following morning, a run starting at 0700 and temperatures were already 34 degrees. No doubt about it, the 35th MDS was going to be a hot one. Chatting with locals and my driver Said, they all confirmed, ‘These temperatures are not normal for October!’

On social media I provided a ‘heads-up’ to all those travelling to Morocco of the heat situation, and yes, I understand that with just a few days before the race, there is little people could do, however, they could re-think clothing, sleeping bags and make allowances in packing for the ‘option’ to race lighter than originally planned.

Arrival at bivouac 1 early afternoon and the heat inside the tents was stifling, shade protected from the direct sun but not the heat. It was impossible to escape that.

Admin day was extremely hot, and this is notably important, no matter how slick or fast admin day is, runners will almost certainly be standing out in direct sun with no shade for a prolonged time. Here is a first top tip – Take an umbrella in your luggage that you can use when standing in the admin line. It will protect you from the direct sun and keep you cooler. Also, make sure you have water and snacks. Admin can take 30-mins if lucky, but it is possible to be out there for 60/90 or even 120-minutes.

The race started in oppressive heat, on day 1 this was recorded at 46 degrees in the shade and the forecast for the week predicted temperatures would go cooler. Those cooler temperatures did come BUT they were still extremely high and hotter than a ‘typical’ MDS and a ‘typical’ April or October month.

In my opinion, the Marathon des Sables is an extreme event that takes place in the Sahara. The nature of the event is self-management both physically and mentally to endure the challenge, survive and reach the finish line. The weather (heat) is one of those variables and in the 35-years of MDS there have been many hot years and many cool years. Nothing is guaranteed and surviving the weather is integral to the nature of the event. In my editions of MDS, 2021 was the hottest event from beginning to end. However, I have experienced equally hot days in past years, they were more in isolation though.

The impact of the heat for the 2021 race was substantial and hyperthermia was a very real risk and without question, countless runners succumbed to the rising mercury.

HEAT and SICKNESS

Heat is a brutal beast to manage and quite simply keeping core temperature lower, particularly when running can be difficult. It was very clear that many runners, maybe far more than usual were running considerably less and walking became the norm except for the front of the race, the top men and women were running as usual but at a reduced speed. It’s important to clarify here that walking is essential at MDS and many walk far more than they anticipate, even in a normal year. Heat and a pack add considerable strain and why many think pre-race they will run 80% and walk 20%, the reality is they will walk 80% and maybe run 20%. For 2021, walking was the norm.

MDS is a self-sufficient race with rationed water that echoes Patrick Bauer’s original journey. It was apparent after day 1 that water rations would need to be increased to compensate for the heat. An additional 1 x 1.5ltr bottle was added to each checkpoint (typically every 10km) for every runner and water allowance was increased at the end of the stage.

Additional water was required by all; however, this added an additional problem for many runners… Typically, runners use 2 x 750ml bottles on their chest or they use a 1.5ltr water bottle added on top of a front pack – the Moroccan runners prefer this method. The problem comes when you need to carry an additional 1.5ltr – there is nowhere to put it (typically) other than carry in one’s hand. Not only does this add another 1.5kg to overall weight but it can also alter running gait, and this can cause potential injury or stress.

In a normal year, the excessive heat would have without doubt impacted on the race and the number of runners who completed. However, I strongly believe that the DNF (did not finish) rates would probably have been more around the 10% mark or maybe 15%.

The main reason for DNF in 2021 was sickness (Diarrhoea and Vomiting) and the ongoing knock-on effects. The jury is out on the causes of this sickness and hopefully, in time, we may receive clarification of this from Doc Trotters and the MDS organisation. Of course, there are many rumours, however, here are a couple of my thoughts (I am no expert, so don’t shoot me down):

  1. Food poisoning – The only shared food came on day 1 and 2 before the race got underway. If there was a problem with the food provided by the race, everyone would have been impacted immediately and not over multiple days and the 7-days of the race. During the race, everyone is self-sufficient, so, food poisoning on a mass scale is not possible.
  2. Noro virus – A stomach bug that causes vomiting and diarrhoea which spreads rapidly and typically lasts no longer than 2-days. This sounds very similar to what MDS runners and staff experienced with most stating the ‘bug’ lasted just 24-hours.
  3. Bacteria – One or two (maybe more) were sick before the race, therefore, a form of bacteria (equally Noro virus) could have been brought in to camp and quickly spread from person-to-person and tent-to-tent.
  4. Hyperthermia – Increased heat and exposure to heat causes a failure to regulate mechanisms within the body that is extremely dangerous that can result in vomiting and diarrhoea and other symptoms.

Ultimately, the sickness at the 2021 MDS may well have been a combination of several of the above.

One thing is for sure, the sickness when it came was brutal and debilitating. I know, I had it! I got it on the evening of day 3 at 2000hrs and without going in to too much detail was losing fluids from both ends for 6-7 hours. By the following morning I was over the worst but struggled to drink and ate nothing for 24-hours. I had little to no energy for day 4 of MDS.

The above was a typical story for many a runner and quite simply, if you are losing fluids and energy as in the scenario above, combined with intense heat and trying to cover 32 to 82.5km’s a day, it is no wonder that so many DNF’d.

Many a runner proclaimed that they were fit, strong, well trained and prepared for the MDS only to have the race ‘robbed’ from them by a situation that was beyond their control. I fully understand this thought process and can only sympathise. I strongly believe that had it not been for the sickness, many more would have finished the race.

The impact of Covid and the Pandemic may well have impacted on every runner’s immunity and ability to fight bugs and bacteria? For most of us, we have isolated, social distanced and constantly washed our hands for 18+ months. Suddenly, we were all thrown in close proximity with less-than-ideal hygiene… I wonder if this resulted in some problems.

Multiple questions were asked by runners:

  • Race distances should be made shorter – As I have mentioned previously, the MDS is an extreme event that takes place in the Sahara. There are many variables of terrain and heat, and this is the challenge. The race is how runners manage this challenge and in 2021, 50% did this.
  • The race should be cancelled – Ask the 50% that finished should the race be cancelled; you would get a resounding no. I also spoke with many DNF runners who also confirmed that the race should have continued. Ultimately, MDS will assess the 2021 race and may well sit down and lay out a new set of protocols moving forward that make allowances for extreme conditions that are outside the normal extreme conditions of the race. For example, this could be early start times, longer cut-off times, the option to shorten stages or maybe a combination of elements. BUT would this take away from the ‘toughest foot-race’ tagline?
  • The race was compromised – The extreme heat and the sickness compromised the race experience for the runners and yes, it impacted on the MDS organisation with demand on 4×4 vehicles, doctors, helicopter rescues and so on at an all-time high. Typically, there are 400 staff on MDS, and in 2021 700 participants. Doc Trotters team was as large as usual, despite less competitors, therefore the ratio of doctors to runners was high. However, I described Doc Trotters as the NHS and the runners as Covid during the race. Quite simply, the 2021 MDS had a perfect storm of events that put all under pressure. It is important post-race that an assessment is done so lessons can be learnt. There are always lessons to be learnt.

DEATH

The death of a runner on day 2 due to cardiac arrest was announced to all the runners and MDS staff publicly by Patrick Bauer in bivouac on the evening of day 2. The situation was clearly explained to all. It was a sad day and first and foremost it is important to pass on our love and thoughts to all those concerned.

For many, the death was a wakeup call and it suddenly brought home the real risk and danger of participating in extreme event. It changed viewpoints and it may well have influenced 2021 participants to ‘play safe!’ afterwards. Prior to the incident, the urge to push on and fight for a finish was a priority, however, for the start of day 3 and moving forward, I personally encountered runners making decisions based around the day 2 death and their own personal assessment of risk and what risks, they personally were prepared to take. It does not matter if those ‘risks’ were real or perceived (from an outside perspective), from the individuals’ perspective they were real.

On a personal note, I have been involved in extreme events for many years and unfortunately, I have experienced multiple deaths, I have been involved in multiple rescues and I have had to make the decision of when and when not to carry on personally. Just this year at the TDS, part of the UTMB week of races, a runner died during the night – I was there. It may sound blasé, but extreme events are not without risk, danger or death. After all, for many, it is ‘the risk’ that makes the event desirable. MDS, as a prime example, has used the tag of ‘toughest foot-race in the world’ for many years and those who sign up, quote this as a reason for participation. Prior to 2021, the race had experienced 2 deaths. The MDS is not without risk and these risks exist despite rigorous health checks before toeing the line on day 1 and incredible medical support and a huge logistical team. As J K Rowling said, ‘It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all…’

Risk at MDS is actually very low. The medical team and support in conjunction with live Spot tracking, countless 4×4 vehicles and 2 helicopters means that should an incident take place, you will normally be looked after within 20-minutes.

With all the above considered, the death of a runner had an impact.

THE RACE

The 35th MDS took place over 7-days with 5 timed stages and 1 charity stage. Days 1, 2 and 3 were 32 – 38km. Day 4 and 5 was the long day with an allocated 32-hours to complete 82.5km. Day 6 was the classic marathon stage where medals were awarded at the end and officially, this was the conclusion of the timed race with overall ranking positions awarded. Day 7 was a compulsory charity stage of 8.5km and the timing was not taken into consideration.

Day 1, 32.2km race summary HERE – On paper, was an ‘easy’ day with little challenging terrain. However, the 46-degree temperatures in the shade changed that. It turned out to be a very tough day, especially with the race operating on ‘normal’ water rations. The DNF rate after day 1 was modest. I personally anticipated the numbers to be much higher. The organisation assessed the heat and feedback from the race route and increased water rations.

Day 2 32.5km race summary HERE – Was a similar distance to day 1 BUT included a long and lengthy stretch of the Merzouga (Erg Chebbi) dunes. These dunes last 13km +/- and ran from CP1 to CP2. They are the highest dunes in Morocco and would be feared in any ‘normal’ year. For 2021, they were a formidable challenge. Top runners could pass through them in less than 2-hours but for most, they could anticipate 3, 4, 5 or maybe even 6-hours to cross. This is without any shade or additional aid stations. CP1 resembled a medical tent from a war zone with countless runners taking shade and on IV drips. The severity of the heat was soon apparent to all and while some had the ‘sickness,’ it was probably fair to assume at this point in the race many were suffering from hyperthermia. It was the evening of day 2 when bivouac and the MDS staff ere notified en-mass of the death of a runner.

Day 3 37.1km race summary HERE – Had a sombre start with silence and the whole race departing with a walk and clapping. The distance ahead longer than the previous two days and the death from day 2 lingering on many people’s mind. The ‘sickness’ within camp was now considerably more obvious, with many runners complaining of D+V and I personally witnessed countless situations of runners vomiting before me. The route was generally easier but there was a considerable amount of soft sand. The day was tough one with many withdrawing, the heat, sickness, and the death all playing instrumental in how individuals assessed their own personal risk assessment of the challenge ahead.

Day 4 82.5km race summary HERE – Was the long day with two starts, most of the race starting at 0800 and the top runners originally departing at 1100 but this time was brought forward. Importantly, the distance of the long day was not notified to the runners until the completion of day 3. This was one of the ‘surprises’ of the 35th edition. However, this no doubt contributed to the anxiety and worry for the 2021 participants. I know from experience, the first thing runners do when they receive the ‘road book’ for the edition in which they will participate, is that they look at what distance the long day will be. To not know this leaves question marks and worry. For the 2021 edition, with so much heat and sickness, this was one additional worry they did not need. As it turned out, the distance was normal 82.5km, however, it did include the infamous Jebel Oftal that for most, would be climbed at night. With less than 10km covered and before CP1, the long day was proving too much for many. I personally put 9 people in vehicles who were suffering from sickness, heat or a combination of both. CP1 was full of runners who would withdraw and who were already on IV drips. It was going to be a very long day, night and following day. Many headed advice taking the day as steady as possible looking to gain time during the cooler temperatures of the night.

Day 5 – Was the conclusion of the long day for those who needed it, or a great opportunity to sleep, relax, hydrate, eat and look after personal admin.

Day 6 42.2km race summary HERE – The marathon day and now approximately 50% of the race had DNF’d. For those who started the marathon day a medal waited at the end, and it was fair to assume that all those who started would run, walk and crawl to get that medal. All who started finished.

Day 7 was the charity stage, a compulsory 8.5km to help raise funds for charity and facilitate the departure from the desert and back to civilisation.

The race was won by Rachid El Morabity, his 8th victory and finally, Aziza Raji stood atop of the MDS podium for Morocco.

RESULTS

  • Rachid El Morabity 21:17:32
  • Mohamed El Morabity 21:32:12
  • Mérile Robert 22:39:02
  • Aziza Raji 30:30:24
  • Tomomi Bitoh 34:39:17
  • Aicha Omrani 35:47:48

NOTES ON THE RACE

I said previously that in my opinion, MDS and races like MDS are about management of the physical, mental and equipment to achieve a goal. After all, it’s a self-sufficient race in the Sahara. THIS IS the challenge. The route changes year-on-year, the terrain changes year-on-year and the heat and other conditions are not guaranteed.

What sets 2021 apart is the sickness that ripped through bivouac, not only for runners but also staff.

Without doubt, why so many DNF’d. 

A self-sufficient race is about personal management and I have always said to friends, participants and coaching clients, there are two things that cannot be controlled: 

  1. Injury.
  2. 2. Sickness.

The sickness the ripped through bivouac left runners drained, empty, void of calories and energy, despite the will and desire to push on, so many were left with empty shells that had to succumb to physical conditions. The physical conditions of course were only made worse by the oppressive and damaging heat.

2021 and the 35th MDS had a set of ‘perfect storm’ conditions that resulted in the highest DNF rate in the races long history.

It’s pointless to compare MDS to other races and state stats and figures. Some races have regularly few finishers due to the severity of route and the time allowance. Other races have a high DNF rate due to the terrain and weather. In most scenarios, runners when entering will research the race and understand the chances of completion. For MDS, stats show that typically less than 10% DNF. Therefore, any runner toeing the start line of the 35th edition will have had this in mind and will have hoped not to be in that relatively small percentage. The fact that 50% did DNF shows that the 2021 was an extreme race, but the major DNF factor was the sickness which cannot be planned for.

TOP TIPS

  • Understand the event, research it, train accordingly and prepare meticulously.
  • Heat acclimation pre the MDS will increase the chances of a successful completion, this should be done in the 7-10 days before the race. The best option is to travel to Morocco and be in the environment that the races take place in. Of course, this is not possible for most. Therefore, heat chambers, saunas, bikram yoga or even taking hot baths will all help.
  • Start slow and ease into the race.
  • The minimum requirement of a runners MDS pack is 6.5kg. You really need to get your pack as close to this weight as possible. Any additional weight is just a burden that adds to fatigue and stress. Test all your kit and fine tune it.
  • Prior to admin day, you have your luggage with you in the desert. Take options of kit so that you can fine tune kit selection based on climatic and other conditions. For example, 2021 was so hot a lighter sleeping bag was certainly possible and the need for a down jacket minimal.
  • When you arrive in bivouac you have dinner, breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided by the race before self-sufficiency begins. You could plan to be self-sufficient for food in this scenario and therefore reduce the risk of any potential stomach issues from unknown food.
  • Admin day as mentioned above can take a while, take an umbrella to provide shelter, take liquid and snacks.
  • Food options for the race are key, particularly when fatigue and heat take its toll. Look to eat well early in the race as food can become less appealing as the race progresses. Think high calorie and low weight. Balance sweet and savoury and understand that sweet is less inviting in intense heat and later in the race (for most people.)
  • Taping shoulders, lower back, and other potential friction points in advance of the race can be a great idea if you know from training this is a potential problem area. Tensoplast is perfect for this.
  • Get the correct shoes with the correct fit. A thumb nail of space above the longest toe is ideal. Do not go too big with shoes. A shoe that is too large allows the foot to move. A moving foot causes friction. Friction equals blisters. A shoe with a wider toe box can be a good idea as it allows toes to splay. Road shoes can work but the desert is harsh with lots of rocks, a trail shoe usually has better toe protection and an outsole that offers more durability.
  • Keep hydrated and take salt tablets as provided by the race.
  • Keep luxuries to a minimum. Always think about weight and ask, ‘can I eat it?’ MDS quite simply comes down to three simple things: Running, sleeping, and eating/drinking.
  • Take a mat, it provides comfort when relaxing and gives a better night’s sleep.
  • Personal hygiene is important – be careful. You will be in close proximity with many people with less-than-ideal hygiene conditions.
  • The long day is always feared but you have loads of time. Take the first day easy, controlling pace, reducing stress and if extremely hot, take more rest and shade. As the day comes to an end, look to maximise the night when cooler temperatures will facilitate a faster pace with less effort. If possible, look to get the long day done before the sunrise the next day… If you can avoid another day of heat, it is well worth it.

CONCLUSION

The oppressive heat of 2021 is a possibility that can appear in ‘any’ MDS and while the 35th edition was extreme, the heat has been experienced before, albeit not for a sustained period. One needs to be prepared to adapt and self-manage to achieve a finishers medal. This is Morocco. This is the Sahara and this is the nature of the event. With global warming and climatic conditions changing worldwide, hotter temperatures in the Sahara may well become the norm, plan accordingly.

The sickness that ripped through bivouac is an uncontrollable variable that cannot be mitigated against, and I can fully appreciate that many feel that a finishers medal was stolen from them. I would not disagree. However, this is nobody’s fault, just darn bad luck. Just like an injury, to coin a phrase, ‘shit happens!’

50% of runners managed to navigate the conditions, implement an effective race strategy, and finish the race. I am sure that many of the 50% avoided the sickness but not all did, I am aware of countless stories of runners who got ill, battled and somehow came out the other side.

The 2021 and 35th MDS was always going to be memorable, now the race is over, we can all confirm that it will never be forgotten. It will be talked about and discussed in many, many years to come.

There are lessons to be learnt from the 2021 race, for runners and the MDS organisation.

I for one experienced first-hand, day-to-day, on the course the challenge that everyone undertook and I can hand on heart say that I saw runners fight to the bitter end to hopefully achieve a lifetime goal and I equally saw MDS staff work 16+ hour days helping to facilitate that.

If you are entered for 2022 or 2023, don’t be worried. Respect the event and look at the extreme 2021 event as an opportunity to learn and plan.

The 2022 event will take place 25th March to April 4th.

Please support this website. I believe everyone deserves to read quality, independent and factual articles – that’s why this website is open to all. Free press has never been so vital. I hope I can keep providing independent articles with your help. Any contribution, however big or small, is so valuable to help finance regular content. Please support me on Patreon HERE.

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Marathon des Sables 2021 #MDS – GALLERY SLIDESHOW

The 35th edition of the MARATHON DES SABLES will go down in the history of the race as one of, if not the toughest edition.

Due to the Covid pandemic, the April 2020 edition was postponed three times to finally take place in October 2021.

Heat and conditions in October for the Sahara and Morocco are usually very similar to April, however, this year, the race had intense heat from beginning to end. Add to the mix sickness, and only 50% of the race completed the 250km journey. Rachid El Morabity won his 8th edition and Aziza Raji her 1st. A final race day summary is here.

Enjoy this highlight gallery of the race.

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Please support this website. I believe everyone deserves to read quality, independent and factual articles – that’s why this website is open to all. Free press has never been so vital. I hope I can keep providing independent articles with your help. Any contribution, however big or small, is so valuable to help finance regular content. Please support me on Patreon HERE.

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Marathon des Sables 2021 #MDS – Stage 5 

The 35th Marathon des Sables drew to a conclusion today with stage 5, the last official timed stage of the 2021 race. Tomorrow is the compulsory charity stage which is not taking in to consideration for overall ranking.

It’s a classic marathon stage and as such has become a tradition of the MDS. Just 351 runners started the day, 50% of the original line-up that started day-1.

The 35th edition was always going to be memorable after three postponements, and while many thought this edition would be about handling a safe race around Covid, the reality was far from this. Covid has arguably not been mentioned or discussed since the start of stage-1. Instead, intense heat has been a major consideration, the death of a runner on day 2 and diarrhea and vomiting spreading through camp like a fire. The combination of self-sufficiency, rationed water and food, heat and sickness has all been too much for many and this is reflected in the finishing numbers. People were exhausted. Currently the exact cause of sickness is unknown or confirmed, it could be hyperthermia, bacteria, a bug, virus or maybe a combination of elements?

Starting in two waves, 0700 and 0830, runners had 12-hours to complete the course. The men’s race came down to a furious sprint with Mohamed El Morabity pipping a revived Mathieu Blanchard to the line.

Young sensation, Aziz Yachou placed 3rd and the boss, Rachid El Morabity placed 4th and in the process won his 8th Marathon des Sables.

The ever smiling and happy Tomomi Bitoh won the ladies race with a strong run. She was full of emotion and tears at the finish. The realisation of an intense week coming to a dream ending.

Aziza Raji finished 17-minutes later but her overall victory was secure and finally, a Moroccan female top-slot on the podium was a reality, the last occasion being 2008/ 2009 with Touda Didi.

Aicha Omrani had a tough day finishing down the field and although she retained a podium place, the strong run bt Tomomi elevated her to 2nd and placed Aicha 3rd overall.

Needless to say, it was an emotional day as the 351 starters streamed in. Every and any finish at MDS is coveted, but this 35th 2021 edition may well just be the most coveted. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for all concerned. Considerable highs and lows have taken its toll and the elation of the marathon day finish line and the sight of a medal is a pleasure for all.

For now, it’s time to celebrate the race and finishers. Send our love to the fallen and his family and remind all those who this year who were forced to withdraw, that they were in the arena.

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” – Roosevelt

RESULTS

  • Rachid El Morabity 21:17:32
  • Mohamed El Morabity 21:32:12
  • Mérile Robert 22:39:02
  • Aziza Raji 30:30:24
  • Tomomi Bitoh 34:39:17
  • Aicha Omrani 35:47:48

Please support this website. I believe everyone deserves to read quality, independent and factual articles – that’s why this website is open to all. Free press has never been so vital. I hope I can keep providing independent articles with your help. Any contribution, however big or small, is so valuable to help finance regular content. Please support me on Patreon HERE.

Follow on:

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Marathon des Sables 2021 #MDS – Stage 4 (The Long Day)

The long day. The description and course distance for the toughest day of Marathon des Sables had been ket secret until the end of day-3. This in itself mentally challenged each and every runner. It played with the mind and of course, many asked questions of what the day would entail. In the end, the distance was a classic 82.5km with the unique challenge of climbing Jebel El Oftal during the night, except for the top and fast runners.

The mood of day 4 was mixed, there are two starts, the masses departing at 0815, the top-50 departing later at 1115.

Unfortunately, the devastation of heat and sickness and once again took its toll during day 3, during the night and in the morning of day 4. The exact drop out rate to be confirmed but certainly, statistics are showing that it is highly likely that less than 50% of the field will finish the 35th edition of this iconic race.

The illness and sickness has not only impacted on runners but also staff, logistical and medical teams making the race, at times, almost feel like a war zone.

However, the race goes on and with it, for some, a very well and hard earned medal at the finish.

Stage 4.

With over 20km’s of soft sand and dunes, the climb and descent of Jebel El Oftal, intense heat and balancing hydration and sickness, stage 4 of MDS was never going to be easy for anyone. This became apparent early on with many struggling to reach CP1.

The plan for most was to keep control and reduce stress during the day and then make the most of the cool night to gain time and ground.

Few were running. It was all about marching, one foot ahead of the other and survive.

Of course, the elite wave was slightly different with the top men and women still setting a relentless and excellent pace.

Aziza Raji for the women showed local knowledge and an understanding of the heat, the terrain and the race to excel on the 82.5km stage and take a convincing win. Aichi Omrani had showed great intention on day-1 of the race but has learnt as the race progressed that sometime less, is more. This was the case for the long day. She paced herself with Aziza but then settled at her own speed to maintain  a 6th place finish but her overall podium standing remaining 2nd. Race revelation, Tomomi Bitoh from Japan has run consistently well all race and on the long day she excelled finishing 3rd, always with an amazing smile and happiness. Severine Gaillez started in the early race start but set a great place to finish 2nd on the stage.

For the men, the expected challenge from French duo Mathieu Blanchard and Mérile Robert started well but sickness ruined Mathieu’s chances and while Mérile tagged Rachid El Morabity for a good percentage of the race, in the end, the Moroccan’s dominance and experience was just too great. Rachid took over the reigns at the front and ran a superb race.

Mohamed El Morabity once again finished 2nd behind his brother and Mériile finished 3rd.

Now the runners are fighting through another day for a coveted long day finish and the opportunity to tow the line of stage 5 and receive a 2021 35th edition medal from Patrick Bauer. The allocated time is 32-hours to complete stage 4’s 82.5km.

The elation of crossing the line is a special one.

Day 4 results (provisional):

  • Rachid El Morabity 8:46:16
  • Mohamed El Morabity 9:00:25
  • Mérile Robert 9:44:26

  • Aziza Raji 12:22:26
  • Severine Gaillez 14:45:57
  • Tomomi Bitoh 15:17:50

Please support this website. I believe everyone deserves to read quality, independent and factual articles – that’s why this website is open to all. Free press has never been so vital. I hope I can keep providing independent articles with your help. Any contribution, however big or small, is so valuable to help finance regular content. Please support me on Patreon HERE.

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Marathon des Sables 2021 #MDS – Stage 3

The 3rd stage of the 2021 Marathon des Sables started with a minutes silence and then, en-mass, the remaining runners started the day with a walk and clapping to honour a fallen friend of the MDS family.

Yesterday, sadly, a French male runner passed away after a cardiac arrest. The MDS is in mourning and our condolence and love go to the family and friends of a fallen comrade.

The 2021 MDS is experiencing unprecedented temperatures and the safety of each competitor is paramount. The combined forces of Doc Trotters, the MDS team, countless 4×4 vehicles, 2 helicopters, spot trackers for each runner and checkpoints every 10km mean that the MDS is truly a safe event. However, extreme events do have incidents, after all, the extreme element is the attraction. The man in question, who will currently remain anonymous in respect for the family was in his early fifties and had fulfilled all the medical requirements for the race, Notably, he had successfully completed the first stage without the need for medical assistance. After he collapsed, he was immediately rescued by two other competitors who are also doctors, who triggered the SOS button on his beacon and started the heart massage protocol. The event’s Medical Director arrived on the scene within minutes by helicopter and took over from the participants. After forty-five minutes of resuscitation, the medical team had to pronounce him dead. This is the third time that such an event has occurred on the MARATHON DES SABLES in 35 editions.

Stage 3.

The race continues and and today was 37.1km day with an 11-hour cut off over mixed terrain that would challenge the runners once again. Early morning temperatures were already warm and as the day started, the heat built. 

With just 7km covered, a dune section to CP1 at 10.7km was already causing many of the runners to slow and gently move through the terrain as efficiently as possible.

CP1 to CP2 at 22.7km had more runnable and arguably, easier terrain. However, the heat and tiredness from two already long days was challenging every participant.

In a first for the MDS a tunnel provided an underpass for a newly built road, no doubt it was utilised later in the race as a haven of shade.

The village of Taouz provided some visual variety with children, locals and mud buildings.

Flanked by mountains to the left, the runners passed through Oued Ziz (dried river) which was white. It reflected the heat back from the ground and the runners felt like they were in a sandwich press of intense heat.

CP3 provided shade and water before the final 6km push that concluded with a small section of dunes before the finish.

At the time of writing, the current (provisional, not confirmed) dropouts are 150+ (tbc) which is roughly 20-25% of the race. This is an unprecedented number and shows the severity of the 2021 edition.

Day 3 standings:

The day was full of action with Rachid and Mohamed once again starting steady and slowly moving through the gears to not only catch ebvery other runner but then pass them and finish strongly. Again, 1st and 2nd. Mathieu Blanchard who placed 3rd at UTMB had a great day and has now moved to the 3rd podium position no doubt relishing tomorrows long stage.

For the women, Aziza and Aicha ran together for much of the day but before CP3, Aziza made a move and opened a gap. Aicha and Hassana hold 2nd and 3rd places on the female podium.

  • Rachid El Morabity 11;57:56
  • Mohamed El Morabity 11:55:15
  • Mathieu Blanchard 12:00:11

  • Aziza Raji 13:25:17
  • Aicha Omrani 13:34:39
  • Hassana Hamdouch 14:04:11

Important news, the currently ‘unknown’ long stage will be 82.5km.

Please support this website. I believe everyone deserves to read quality, independent and factual articles – that’s why this website is open to all. Free press has never been so vital. I hope I can keep providing independent articles with your help. Any contribution, however big or small, is so valuable to help finance regular content. Please support me on Patreon HERE.

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Marathon des Sables 2021 #MDS – Stage 2

It was a sombre mood in bivouac this morning, the 25 withdrawals at the finish on day-1 increased during the night as runners struggled with vomiting, sickness and bad stomachs. At breakfast, there were approximately 39 out of the race.

At almost the same distance as day 1, day 2 caused anxiety amongst all the runners as it contained 13km of Erg Chebbi (Merzouga), the highest dunes at Morocco that would see the fastest runners complete in under 2-hours (for just the dunes) but for most, it would be a long, hard slog under a relentless sun with pounding heat.

A day of mixed terrain, there was some interesting terrain early on as the runners moved from the start and passed through Tisserdemine village before arriving at CP1.

Rachid, as ever started behind the front-runners and then slowly took control of the front of the race as he entered the dunes. He is a master of the terrain and a joy to watch.

His brother. Mohamed, started much farther back allowing the front to pull away from him. But again, like his brother, he moved in to 2nd place and it was here he finished 6-minutes behind Rachid. Aziz as in day 1 finished 3rd.

For the women, Aziza once again used her experience to pull-away in the dunes with a convincing lead ahead of Aicha and Hassana who finished closely together just a couple of minutes apart.

One again the terrain and the heat caused devastation on the race with medical teams and helicopters in constant use. CP1 before the dunes looked like a medical tent from a war zone with IV drips hanging everywhere.

Tomorrow is a longer day!

It’s going to be a restless night in bivouac.

*I will update this post in due course as Patrick Bauer has asked all runners and media to assemble in the middle of bivouac at 1900 hrs. He will address all with news…?

*Sadly, a runner died today due to a heart attack. Patrick informed the family this afternoon and has updated all the other participants and media. Needless to say, the race is in mourning for a fellow runner. A minutes silence will be held at the start tomorrow and the race will continue as normal.

Day 2 standings:

  • Rachid El Morabity 5:42:35
  • Mhoamed El Morabity 5:46:58
  • Aziz Yachou 5:53:16

  • Aziza Raji 8:22:00
  • Aicha Omrani 8:55:15
  • Hasssana Hamdouch 8:57:30

Marathon des Sables 2021 #MDS – Stage 1

The 35th Marathon des Sables finally got underway today after three postponements.

It was a very special moment to see over 700 runners from 40 nationalities depart under the sound of AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell.’ 

And what a highway to hell the 1st stage of 32.2km’s was!

The heatwave from the previous days did not disappear despite strong winds and sand storms throughout the previous night and race day turned out to be a scorching 45deg in the shade in the mid afternoon heat. As I write, there are currently 25 dropouts and and many runners required medical help from Doc Trotters out on the course.

The route, billed as an easy day was beautiful one with a little of everything, hard rocky plateau, villages with many children and soft sand and small dunettes to conclude the day.

The heat though and lack of any shade turned out to be the beast of the day and it reduced nearly the whole field to a slower pace and for most, that means walking!

Even the desert king, Rachid El Morabity, although wining easily ahead of his brother, looked tired and a little more exhausted from his 2h 36m run.

Aziza Raji from Morocco started the day at an easier pace and eventually took the lead ahead of the UK’s Anna Brown, however, just like Rachid, in the final km’s she looked ready to be over with the day.

The intense heat has now impacted on day 2 with the organisation bringing start time 30-minutes forward, 0800 instead of 0830. In addition, 1 extra bottle of water will be provided for each runner and CP1 and CP2.

The stage is another 32km day, BUT, many of those km’s take place in the relentless dunes of Merzouga (Erg Chebbi), the highest in Morocco.

Day 1 standings:

  • Rachid El Morabity
  • Mhoamed El Morabity
  • Aziz Yachou

  • Aziza Raji
  • Anna Brown
  • Aicha Omrani

Please support this website. I believe everyone deserves to read quality, independent and factual articles – that’s why this website is open to all. Free press has never been so vital. I hope I can keep providing independent articles with your help. Any contribution, however big or small, is so valuable to help finance regular content. Please support me on Patreon HERE.

Follow on:

Instagram – @iancorlessphotography

Twitter – @talkultra

facebook.com/iancorlessphotography

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