The 2023 MARATHON DES SABLES draws near and as usual, here is a preview of the coming edition. We will look at the top contenders for the male and female podiums, provide an overview of MDS history and look at some crazy statistics.
Since 1986, well over 22,000 participants have raced at the Marathon des Sables and we have record (or close to record) for 2023, with1200+/- toeing the line. As per usual, the race is multi-national with over 50 represented. The French and British providing the largest contingent.
THE TOP MEN AND WOMEN
Rachid El Morabity returns looking for his 10th victory, all eyes will be on him, but he is in for a fight! 2019 female champion, Ragna Debats returns and is without doubt the hot favourite for the top of the women’s podium.
THE WOMEN RACE
Ragna Debats dominated the race in 2019 and in recent years has become one of the top trail, ultra and skyrunner’s in the world. When in form, she is incredibly difficult to beat. In 2022 she had an incredible season with four top victories, Transgrancanaria 129km, Istria by UTMB, Montreux Trail Festival and the 100m Nice Côte d’Azur by UTMB. Ragna has had a relatively quiet start to 2023 and recently she has changed her coach of 13-years. She will be meticulously prepared for MDS 2023.
Gemma Game from the UK has been on the podium of MDS twice, 2018 and 2019, on both occasions placing 3. Gemma most definitely can win MDS but, as she will tell you, she runs for fun and MDS is an escape from a very busy and hectic life with a high-powered job and family. Is she wants to, she will be on the podium again in 2023.
Manuela Socco from Belgium is not a runner I am very aware of; however, two results stand out, victory at Cappadocia Medium Trail in 2019 and Tarawera 100km in 2020. She has also represented Belgium at the Olympic Games in the marathon distance. With a 35min 10km, a 1:16 half marathon and a 2:37 marathon, she has all the running fire power to create a stir in the Sahara.
Maryline Nakache from France has a string of top results, she often wins! However, stand-out markers come from Templiers (3rd) 90km du Mont-Blanc (3rd), CCC (5th) Transgrancanaira Advanced (1st), Tenerife Blue Trail (1st), UTMB (6th) and in 2022 alone she was never out of the top-5.
Tomomi Bitoh from Japan was 3 in the 2021 MDS and has recently participated in The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica. She is an incredible personality, a fierce competitor and although the podium is a possibility in 2023, I feel that she will just be outside the top ranking.
Elise DELANNOY (France) was 18th in the 2016 MDS in 38-hours. This is a long way off the pace required to podium in 2023… But a great deal has happened since then, notably a 7th place at UTMB in 2019, so, Elise cannot be ruled out of shaking up the front of the race.
Corina Sommer from Zurich recently won the Oman Desert Marathon against Aziz Raji (past MDS champ) and Aziza El Amrany who had led the race only to have Corina run two incredibly strong days and take the victory. New to trail, she placed 18th at Templiers and 3rd at Istria by UTMB for the 68km. She will need a great week to make the podium, but it’s a distinct possibility.
Jodie Moss from the UK was 8th at MDS in 2019 and has been preparing meticulously for the 2023 edition. However, recent injury issues placed the race in question, but it looks like she will be in the Sahara, hopefully in great shape.
Ester Alves won The Coastal Challenge in 2016 and placed 3rd in 2017. She also raced MDS in 2017 ￼but the race did not go to plan… In recent years, she has had time away from the sport, but last year, Ester raced Everest Trail Race which will have no doubt provided some great momentum for the Sahara.
Maria Semerjian has results going back to 2009 and without doubt, she enjoys the tough mountain courses, UTMB, Raid de la Reunion, Grand Raid Pyrenees, UTMF, and more… The distance won’t be a problem, however, the speed to make the top-5 may well be the problem.
Brunhilde Girardet recently won Trail de Cité de Pierres as a warmup for MDS. It’s her first edition, so, let’s see…
Wild card – Katie Young from the UK.
Laurence Klein returns, she has won MDS three times, with no disrespect to the Queen of the desert, there is no chance of victory in 2023, but she will no doubt bring colour to the race.
Currently, Aziz Raji and Aziza El Amrany are NOT on the start list, but I hope they do make it to the 2023 edition. It’s important that Morocco has female representation and of course, both of them have great potential for the top 5. Raji has won the race and El Amrany was 3rd in 2022.
THE MEN RACE
The men’s race is extremely notable in 2023 as Rachid El Morabity will look for a 10th victory. This will without doubt add an extra dynamic to the race, particularly after the superb tactics which played out in the 2022 edition.
Rachid El Morabity is the boss of the Sahara and the hot favourite. BUT, I believe this year will be his toughest challenge. There are multiple reasons for this… Rachid has expectation on him, this is not really an issue, he can handle that. He has raced a great deal in the past 12-months, he may be tired? The Moroccan team is probably at its weakest, especially when compared to the past ten editions, so, the support network will be less. The competition, namely Mathieu Blanchard and Aziz Yachou are a serious threat. Will Rachid win? It is very hard to bet against him, but 2023 has the potential to be the upset year.
Mohamed El Morabity is the eternal 2nd at MDS and his possibilities of victory in 2023 are zero if Rachid is in good form. The only opportunity for Mohamed is if Rachid falters and he gets the green light from his elder brother to attack. In Oman Desert Marathon earlier in the year, Mohamed took victory ahead of Rachid, don’t be fooled in to thinking Mohamed was stronger, he was gifted the win as credit for April and the 2023 MDS. Mohamed can win the race, but just as we saw in 2022, he will be the super domestique for Rachid.
Aziz Yachou is the fly in the Moroccan ointment and 1-year on, has the potential to create fireworks and upset Rachid’s dream. He was 4th in 2021 and 3rd in 2022. Last year he was worked over by the tactics of Rachid and Mohamed, he will be prepared for that this year. Little is known about his training in the early part of 2023.
Mathieu Blanchard raced MDS in 2021 and finished 5th – he was hit by the bug that swept through camp just in time for the long day. One thing is for sure, after placing 2nd at UTMB in 2022, we are looking at a different Mathieu. He raced The Coastal Challenge in February and placed 2nd, he recently summited Kilimanjaro and most recently ran a 2:22 marathon in Paris. Mathieu can win MDS and the French have put a team together to potentially make that happen. Beating the Moroccans on home soil (sand) is tough, but THIS may be the year.
David KILGORE from the USA has been top-10 at Leadville 100, and recently 7th at Tarawera 50km. On paper, he is not an MDS podium contender, but he will be in the mix for the top-5.
Erik Clavery adds more fire power to the French line-up. He was 5th at MDS in 2016 and a fierce competitor. He has raced UTMB, WSER, Eiger Ultra and even 24H championships, so, he brings something special to the MDS.
Vasily Kortytkin (Russia) comes to MDS with a history in 6H and 24H races, he has PB’s of 86.493 and 260.570 respectively. He has won some trail races in Russia in 2021 and 2022, how he performs in the Sahara is a big question.
Pierre Meslet (France) placed 9th at MDS in 2021 and returns in 2023 not only to perform to the best of his ability (top-10) but to also help the French maybe win the race and also get the team prize.
Anton Samokhvalov also from Russia has been racing trail since 2014. He has a list of solid results but nothing spectacular, in 2021 he made 10th at Transgrancanaria Advanced.
Duncan Slater from the UK lost both legs during a mission in Afghanistan, he’s back this year for another medal!
Christian Ginter, dinosaur of the desert, returns for the 35th time!
1150 runners will toe the line (1263 were registered) and the youngest runner is 16-year-old Girard Fialon (she will run with her father, Grégory) and the eldest, Henry Botha, 81!
Crazy Statistics of the MDS
“The logistics are a big headache, and we organize every detail in advance! We’re a village of 2,000 people that must be set up and dismantled every day. We need to be self-sufficient in energy, food, water, and fuel. As one of my friends says, ‘Let’s expect the worst because the best will never surprise us!’ We also benefit from the infallible support of the Royal Moroccan Army, which makes available about 25 6WD military trucks to transport all our equipment.” – Patrick Bauer
You must see Marathon des Sables to appreciate the size and scale of the event. It’s like the largest moving circus you will ever see and it’s impressive to witness.
Following statistics provided by the Marathon des Sables office:
▪ 150 volunteers to supervise the race,
▪ 450 general support staff,
▪ 120,000 liters of bottled mineral water,
▪ 300 Berber and Saharan tents,
▪ 120 all-terrain vehicles and trucks,
▪ 2 Squirrel helicopters and 1 Cessna plane,
▪ 8 Transavia ‘MDS special’ commercial planes,
▪ 30 buses,
▪ 4 dromedaries,
▪ 1 incinerator lorry for burning waste,
▪ 5 quad bikes to monitor race environment and safety,
▪ 72 medical staff,
▪ 2.3kms of Elastoplast,
▪ 12,200 compresses,
▪ 6,000 painkillers,
▪ 150 liters of disinfectant,
▪ 1 editing bus,
▪ 5 cameras,
▪ 1 satellite image station,
▪ 10 satellite telephones,
▪ 30 computers, fax and internet,
▪ 20,000 competitors since 1986
▪ 3 runners aged 10-20, 108 aged 20-30, 314 aged 30-40, 491 aged 40-50, 299 aged 50-60 , 66 aged 60-70 and 13 aged 70-80 years.
▪ 14 km/hr.: average maximum speed, 3 km/hr.: average minimum speed,
▪ 15 years of age for the youngest competitor and the oldest, 83!
A brief history of the MDS
1984: At 28 years of age, Patrick Bauer decided to make for the Sahara to try to traverse a 350km expanse of uninhabited desert, on foot, alone, where he wouldn’t come into contact with a single village, oasis or watering place. Totally self-sufficient, with a rucksack weighing 35kg and containing water and food, he set off on a journey that was to last 12 days. It was the starting point of what was to become the MARATHON DES SABLES.
1986: The creation of the first MDS in the Moroccan Sahara. The 23 pioneers who took the start never imagined that their footprints would mark the start of a legendary event, which has today become a must among the major adventure sport meets. The creation of a non-mechanical competition in the Moroccan sands offers adventure runners a wealth of new prospects.
1987: Creation of the MDS logo: the face of a runner covered by a keffiyeh, the eyes protected by a pair of sunglasses and the pipette from the runner’s water container clenched between the teeth.
1989: 170 competitors take the start of the race.
1991: The gulf drama puts the MDS at a disadvantage and the financial partners withdraw. Fortunately, some runners answer the call. For these competitors, the true victory lies in meeting athletes from different backgrounds and their communion in the desert around the same goal. Sport proves once again that it can bring people together and create bonds.
1992: One and the same regulation for everyone. This year sees the establishing of unexpected draconian tests, to ensure that each participant properly transports all his or her gear from one end of the course to the other. A 30-point charter is drawn up.
First participation by the Moroccan Lahcen Ahansal
1994: Arrival of the Doc Trotters at the event.
1995: 10th anniversary. Since the start, over 1,500 men and women have left their footprint and their passion in the desert. Installation of water-pump for the inhabitants of the village of Ighef n’rifi (South of Er-Rachidia) – an idea by competitor Gilles Flamant and backed by Rolland Barthes and Patrick Bauer. Its success is to be repeated.
1996: First participation by Mohamed, a younger sibling of Ahansal. The two Moroccan brothers set off together and rank 4th and 5th respectively.
1997: This year heralds the start of the Ahansal saga. Morocco is honored with Lahcen’s first victory. He beats his two pursuers by nearly 30 minutes, despite them being international long-distance running champions.
1999: A mobile hospital on the MDS comes into being. There are around thirty practitioners on the ground, with doctors and nurses joining the caravan. A dedicated helicopter and ten all-terrain vehicles track the competitors each day. On- board these vehicles there are doctors of course, as well as high-tech equipment. The village boasts a genuine field hospital.
2000: Internet appears in the large MDS village. The organization decides to broadcast the texts and photos of the race live, day after day. The competitors can communicate with their nearest and dearest and receive messages of encouragement.
2001: For the first time the long leg, traditionally called “The 70”, exceeds the 80km barrier to reach 82km. The threshold of 240km is also surpassed since the 16th MARATHON DES SABLES spans 243km. Another first relates to the fact that there are no Moroccans on the podium this year.
2002: This edition is punctuated by a sandstorm, involving headwinds, which lasts the entire week. The doctors invent a machine for ‘low pressure cleansing’ to rinse out the runners’ eyes. Despite the difficult conditions, there are few retirements to report as the wind considerably reduces the temperature.
2005: The Luxembourg runner Simone Kayser is the first woman to win 3 MARATHON DES SABLES. For this 20th edition, the total number of runners exceeds 700 for the first time, with no fewer than 777 runners taking the start.
2006: A drying wind and very high humidity levels cause damage to the runners’ bodies. Despite additional allocations of water, a whole series of retirements ensues. There are a total of 146 retirements ultimately, which equates to double that of the previous record… Race management decides to shorten the long leg by over 10km given how tired the runners seem.
2008: The Solidarité MDS association is created. The aim: to develop projects to assist children and disadvantaged populations in the domains of health, education, and sustainable development in Morocco.
2009: MDS is disrupted by flooding and the 1st and 6th stages are not able to take place. To avoid the flood zones, the organization is obliged to improvise new legs on a day-to-day basis. In this way, the edition goes down in legend for its 3rd leg, which is the longest ever contested: 92km of sand, loose stones, and rocks… The leg even sees the retirement of Lahcen Ahansal… At the prize giving the 2 winners admit to having competed in their hardest MDS. However, it was also the shortest: 202km.
2010: For its 25th edition, the number of participations reaches a record high of 1,013 participants. It is to be the longest MARATHON DES SABLES. It spans 250 kilometers with a course considered by former entrants to be the most difficult ever organized.
2012: A dramatic turn of events on the longest leg as the then leader in the overall standing, Rachid El Morabity (MAR) injures himself one kilometer from the finish. Medical examinations reveal a serious muscular lesion in the quadriceps. After over five years on the 2nd or 3rd step of the podium, Jordanian Salameh Al Aqra secures the title.
2013: 1,027 competitors on the start line make this a new participation record. New feature: a final “Charity” stage sponsored by UNICEF and traversing the Merzouga dunes round off the race. Sportswise, Mohamad Ahansal and Megan Hicks are the champions of the 231.5km event. On a human level, all of the finishers pull off their crazy bet.
2014: 2011 winner, Moroccan Rachid El Morabity (MAR) wins the overall ranking and takes Mohamad Ahansal’s crown. In the women’s category, another American stamps her mark, Nikki Kimball. The French revelation is one Michaël Gras, 22 years of age, 8th overall and top Frenchman. A major athletics star, Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj lines up to take the start of Saturday’s Unicef Charity leg.
2020: The Corona virus takes over the world.
2021: The Marathon des Sables returns but with an October edition due to the global pandemic. Celebrating 35-years, it is remembered as on one of the hottest editions and almost 50% not completing the race due to a possible Norovirus that swept through bivouac.
2022: Rapid El Morabity wins his 9th edition setting himself up for 10 in 2023. Sandstorms made for some difficult and challenging days.
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Not sure why you’re not mentioning Robert Merile. He has been so incredibly consistent over the years, 3rd in 2018, 6th in 2019, 3rd in 2021, 4th in 2022. He is over 50 and doesn’t have the speed of Mathieu but MDS is clearly something he has mastered.
Beacuse I was aware he was NOT able to race….