The 37th edition of the iconic Marathon des Sables concluded at Merzouga Dunes (Erg Chebbi) after what is considered, one of the hardest and most challenging editions of the race, 2021 an exception.
Coming later in April due to Ramadan, the predictions were always for hotter temperatures and an increased chance of sandstorms – we got them both!
Gladly, the intense sandstorms subsided after stage 2, but the heat grew in intensity as the week progressed with 42 degree temperatures in the shade and low 50 degree temperatures recorded in the direct sun.
This of course impacted on every participant and every member of staff.
October 2021 and the 35th edition 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. However, significant sandstorms did increase the DNF rate to around 10%.
Here in 2023 there was no Norovirus, just intense heat that resulted in heat stroke, exhaustion and the second highest dropout rate in the 37-year history of the race – 30%.
1085 started the race on stage 1 and after the completion of the charity stage, 764 were confirmed finishers.
1085 partants started the race
Étape 1 : 21 abandons
Étape 2 : 106 abandons
Étape 3 : 72 abandons
Étape 4 : 119 abandons
Étape 5 : 3 abandons
Total : 321 abandons
Pourcentage DNF : 29,6%
What can be learnt from the 2023 edition and why such a high DNF rate?
Preparation – The 2021 edition of the race and huge dropout rate was a wakeup call for any racer, I would say that the 2023 edition of the race had participants who were well aware and understood the nature of the challenge. If the 35th and 36th editions can teach us anything, the key take away is you MUST be prepared for anything; intense heat, cold, sandstorms and the unexpected.
Sandstorms – They plagued the early stages of the 2023 edition, however, lessons had definitely been learnt from the 2022 edition when sandstorms increased the DNF rate. Far more runners in the 37th edition were prepared with specific eyewear that functions in harsh conditions. It’s a key item that to all intents and purposes should be mandatory on an MDS kit list. Gladly, sandstorms did not really impact when runners were on the course, the latter part of stage 2 an exception. The sandstorms impacted on camp life and comfort. Had they hit during racing, DNF rates may well have been higher.
Heat – It’s the Sahara, it gets hot! May sound silly to say, but, this is the nature of the event. Now of course, we can get extremes, 2021 and 2022 a perfect example, arguably the hottest and the coldest. 2023 sits most definitely in the hotter end of the 37-year history of the race and the DNF rate shows this. Quite simply heat adaptation and preparation is key coming in to the MDS in the 14-days before the race. If you do not do this, the adaptation will take place during the race and quite simply, the body cannot handle it and boom, you overheat, dehydrate, get sickness and withdraw. Stage 2 shows the impact with 106 abandons. I would normally say here, that by the time the ‘long day’ comes, DNF rates reduce due to adaptation taking place, BUT for the 37th edition they increased, why? Quite simply, temperatures continued to rise, the long day was arguably the hottest day of the race, it placed tired bodies in more intense heat and the knock on effects are easy to see. Also, let’s not forget the race distances.
Race Distances – The DNF rate in 2023 is without doubt a result of the intense heat, however, I do feel the race stages also contributed. To be clear here, I am not asking for easier stages, just providing an overview. Stage 1 at 36km was a long stage. When one considers that day 1 is ‘typically’ 29-32km, the additional distance adds to an immediate stress and strain. It’s easy to look on and say, but it is only 4km to 6km! True, but 4 to 6km for some can be 2 to 3-hours in the heat. It takes a toll. Stage 2 was a beautiful stage and a classic distance, however, this stage had more technicality and additional vertical gain, this in itself added a stress and strain, add intense heat and sandstorms towards the end of the day, plus carry over fatigue from stage 1 and we can see how 106 did not finish. Stage 3 is always a cautious stage as many want to preserve energy for stage 4, the long day. Starting with km after km of flat running, the stage was in comparison to other stages, an easier day, however, 72 abandoned. Stage 4 at 90km was the second longest ever stage of the MDS, coming in a brutality hot year, it was always going to be a tough challenge. A beautiful route that included climbing Jebel Otfal, the route had relentless soft sand and intense heat. Darkness and cooler temperatures were the saviour of many runners and despite this, 119 did not make the line. Stage 5 and the medal is in sight, no matter how tough the day is, the hug and kiss from Patrick makes one more day of pain manageable, despite this, sadly, 3 did not make the line.
Heat Stroke – D&V did happen during the race and while some questioned if a virus was present, it was clear to see that any resemblance to 2021 was not there. Heat stroke has very similar symptoms to a bug: tiredness · dizziness · headache · feeling sick or being sick · diarrhea. I saw countless runners with heat rash on their legs and bodies.
Pack Weight – Again and again, one of the key easy gains for MDS completion is getting pack weight as close to 6.5kg as possible. Additional weight is additional strain. In intense heat this is only magnified.
Walking – If I had a euro for every time I have preached, ‘learn to walk’ I would be a rich man. MDS always makes people walk far more than they want or anticipate. Add intense heat, walking becomes normal for everyone, the elite excluded. Rising core temperatures require you to reduce stress on you and the body, even if you do not want to walk you will be forced too. Continue raising internal temperature and eventually you’ll need to stop, hopefully seek shade and reset and carry on. The DNF’s in 2023 show that heat just wiped people out. So, effective walking is a key MDS strategy.
Poles – Quite simply, poles and knowing how to use them are a key weapon in helping achieve an MDS finish for those typically outside the top-50. However, Norwegian runner Gaute Løset was the personification of great pole technique and placing 11th overall. Poles provide 4-wheel drive, stability and help reduce some fatigue by helping to distribute load stresses. Trust me, poles are a key weapon for most at MDS.
Mind – Broken and tired bodies were willed to the end through thick and thin due to incredible mental strength and fortitude. Training is not only physical, but mental.
Be Prepared – Hot or cold, dry or humid, windy or not, the Sahara can throw anything at you. Racing MDS is not complicated, understand the challenge and prepare accordingly. The greater the preparation, the greater chance of completion!
Rachid El Morabity was going for a 10th MDS victory and all eyes were on him. Ragna Debats was returning to MDS after winning the race in 2019, she was the odds-on favourite for victory. It was not to be for either of them.
Rachid was running a typically smart race using his brother, Mohamed as a decoy to counter any threat from Aziz Yachou and Mathieu Blanchard. Fireworks were expected come stage 4 but the race felt nuetralized with Rachid, Mohamed and Aziz all finishing within 1-minute. This placed Mohamed the leader of the race. During the ‘rest day’ thoughts for the race strategy come the marathon stage were simple, Rachid would mark Aziz, Mohamed would police the race and then conveniently lose enough time to place Rachid winner of the race and gain his 10th victory. However, at 2pm on the rest day, Rachid and Aziz El Akad were both issued with 3-hour time penalties after failing a bag check just before the start of stage 4. The reason being ‘outside assistance!’
They both had items that could only have been provided by another person therefore giving them an advantage. To be clear here, many other runners were also tested before stage 4. Rachid’s chances of victory were over, he and Aziz withdrew from the race. Finally after many years being domestique to his elder brother, Mohamed clinched his first victory with Aziz Yachou placing second and Mathieu Blanchard third.
Ragna Debats dominated the early stages of the race building a huge time gap, we all thought the race was over. Signs of some fatigue and distress were visible on stage 3. However, come stage 4, the race unfolded for Ragna and she fought a long and hard day to finish many hours outside the top 3 women and therefore there was no longer a chance of victory or podium.
Maryline Nakache took over the reigns and despite Aziza El Amrany winning the long stage, she held on to victory with Aziza second and Tomomi Bitoh once again placed 3rd as she did in 2021.
The 2023 was classic, stage 2 and the long day providing the best of this region of the Sahara. Combined with the intense heat, it was a tough race. The long day, while not the longest (92km in 2009) was a significant challenge with an abundance of soft sand. Stunning views, ridges, climbs, soft sand, two crossings of Jebel Otfal, salt flats and oasis, the 2023 route was special.
MDS is a magical Saharan experience that really is one of the greatest experiences in running. A small city moves seamlessly and like clockwork day-by-day, a wonderful, magical, moving road show that is difficult to understand and appreciate until you are living it.
Stripped back from connection and technology, MDS is one of the ultimate raw experiences in this crazy modern and connected world; one tent, 8-people, one bag per person; rationed food, clothing, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, mandatory equipment and rationed water, it gets no simpler or basic. For those who have experienced it, they know the life changing process that the experience brings. They dared to place themselves in the arena knowing that if at least they fail, they do so while daring greatly.
See you in 2024!
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