The 2022 and 36th edition of the Marathon des Sables concluded in the iconic Merzouga dunes (Erg Chebbi) on April 1st. Coming just 5-months after the 2021 race, re-scheduled from April 2021 to October due to the ongoing complications with the Coronavirus pandemic, the two races could not have been more different.
October 2021 was plagued by a Norovirus that debilitated many of the staff and runner’s, also, some of the most sustained and intensive heat that the race has experienced. It was a perfect storm that resulted in nearly 50% not completing the race. An in-depth article is HERE.
The 36th edition by contrast was the opposite, only confirming that extreme endurance challenges can bring anything and being prepared and adapting is key and integral for successful completion. Starting in March, a cooler MDS was anticipated and this is what we got.
Early evening, nights and mornings were cool and some would say cold, requiring additional layers and the use of a down jacket became essential for many, if not all participants. For those who raced too light, evenings were a somewhat miserable affair that wasted valuable energy trying to remain warm instead of recovering.
Daytime temperatures were on average mid 20’s, at least 20-degrees cooler than those experienced in 2021. One particular day did see a 10-degree rise in temperature in just 1-hour, even then, the temperatures never came close to 40-degrees. However, the race was marked by two days of storms that saw wind increase from early morning and become stronger as the day progressed bringing with it harsh and brutal sand storms. Day 2 in particular was very tough and on this day, over 60-participants did not complete the stage – A high number in any year!
Despite the storms, and occasional rain shower that appeared a couple of times on the ‘long day,’ the 2022 edition may well have had some of the cooler and easiest weather conditions that the MDS has ever experienced. Coming after October, that was no doubt a welcome contrast.
From an organizational stand point, the race was slick, streamlined and a pleasure to experience. No doubt some lessons were learnt in October and changes were made. With those lessons, those changes, the 2022 race gained praise from staff and runners. The mood was one of joy, positivity, laughter. Throughout the race and post-race three comments could be heard everywhere: ‘Best experience of my life… Super organisation… Faultless…’
From a racing perspective, 801 people completed the race with a dropout race of 11% (tbc) – exact figures will be confirmed in the coming days. Notably, over 50-people did not make the start line due to positive PCR checks in the 48-hour before departure for Morocco, a cruel blow coming so close to the race.
Covid and the pandemic was not a consideration during the race.
As with all races we have winners and as per usual, the 2022 race was eagerly anticipated with Rachid El Morabity going for his 9th victory and the potential of Aziz Yachou spoiling his winning streak. One thing was clear to me pre-race was Rachid looked more toned, a little lighter and focused.
On day 1, Rachid attacked from the start, he never does this, he always comes from behind and takes victory. This to me only confirmed that he feared Aziz and he wanted to set his stall out from the start. He won day 1 from the front but only by a slender margin. He had a race on his hands… From day 2 a strategy came in to play that was fascinating to watch and experience. Rachid, with his brother formulated a plan to fool Aziz that Rachid was not in the best shape. On stage 2 and 3 Rachid once again attacked from the front but on both days he gave up his lead and lost time. Aziz was positioned to lead the race and defend and by the time the ‘long day’ came, Rachis was in 3rd with 9-minutes to gain.
Come the long day, Rachid stamped his authority and put the plan in to action. By 10km he had 2-minutes lead, 4-minutes at 20km, 6-minutes at 30km and at 50-km he had 10-minutes – Rachid had gained the deficit and taken the race lead on the trail. By the finish he had gained almost 15-minutes on Aziz, a stunning and impressive run that was off-the-scale.
However, the tactics did not stop there. Behind, Mohamed marked Aziz all the way to 50km, noticing Aziz starting to slow, he made his move clawing back the 4-minutes he needed and at the finish line, he was crowned overall leader of the race with his brother, Rachid 37-seconds back.
Anticipation was high for the final marathon stage, would Mohamed win? Of course not! This plan had been formulated from day 2 and quite simply, Rachid and Mohamed would police Aziz on the last day and as the stage came to conclusion, Mohamed would slow allowing his brother to gain the required time and in the process his 9th victory. It was a masterpiece of tactics that worked perfectly. It was a pleasure to experience.
The women’s race was far less dramatic with Anna Comet Pascua winning each stage with a superlative performance of domination. Stage 1 started slowly as Anna eased in the race, but as the stages progressed, the Spanish runner felt comfortable and continually opened gaps to win by a convincing margin and place very close to the top-10 on general classification.
Sylvaine Cussot from France was always a contender and throughout the week ran a strong and consistent race, her 2nd place was one that was never in doubt, however, the gap to Anna was far too great for victory ever to be a possibility.
Azia Elamrany represented Morocco along with the 2021 female champion, Aziza Raji. Although not in 3rd place in the early part of the race, her consistency shone through and by the conclusion of the race her podium slot was secured ahead of her fellow Moroccan.
Outside of the top-3 in each category, there was countless string performances with Merile Robert once again showing his experience in the race, the return of Julien Chorier and the rise of the American, Jordan @@@@@@@. Patrick Kennedy placed 7th in 2021 and once again achieved a top-10 with 9th in 2022.
For the women, Aziza Raji will no doubt be disappointed with 4th after victory in 2021. Beth Rainbow and Amelia Culshaw from the UK both had top-10 placings, Beth placing 6th – a great result. We also saw the return of multi MDS champion, Laurence Klein who ran a solid race despite contracting Covid in the final build up to the race.
All Marathon des Sables are memorable. There is never a dull race. Personally, 2022 will be remembered for the stunning men’s race and the tactics used to ensure a 9th victory for Rachid. It was a masterpiece to see unfold and one that required supreme mental and physical confidence from Rachid. It’s all very well formulating a plan, pulling it off is the game changer… Imagine going in to an 85km stage with a 9-minute deficit knowing that you need to pull that back and in addition gain more time to provide a buffer so that victory can be secured! It was stunning. It’s important to mention the dedication, skill and ability of Mohamed El Morabity, he sacrifices personal glory for the greater good of his brother. It’s pointless asking the question, ‘Could Mohamed win the race?’ The simple answer is, as long as Rachid is in with a chance of a 10th and maybe 11th victory, no.
Anna Comet Pascua confirmed her ability as a versatile and adaptable runner. Known for trail, mountain and skyrunning with a victory at the multi-stage Everest Trail Race, her MDS victory confirms her as one of the top female trail runner’s in the world. Sylvaine Cussot has also confirmed herself as a one-to-watch for the future, I have this feeling she will be back at MDS very soon.
The 2022 route is arguably one of the most beautiful, last used in 2018. It has variety, stunning views, ridges, climbs, soft sand, two crossings of Jebel Otfal, salt flats and oasis. The long day, while not the longest (92km in 2009) is significant with an abundance of soft sand.
Finally, MDS is a wonderful, magical, moving road show that is difficult to understand and appreciate until you are in the Sahara. A small city moves seamlessly and like clockwork day-by-day, it is mind-blowing; a magical Saharan experience that really is one of the greatest experiences in running.
Back to basics, one tent, 8-people, one bag per person; rationed food, clothing, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, mandatory equipment and rationed water – multi-day experiences come no better. Stripped back from connection and technology, this week in the Sahara really is one of the ultimate raw experiences in this crazy modern and connected world.
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