PYRAMID TRAINING for Marathon des Sables

Marathon des Sables has just finished and now, runners from all over the world are looking ahead to April and the next edition of the race.

It’s daunting and it can be intimidating.

Planning is key. All runner’s need to periodise training so that you get the most from it.

This ‘planning’ often comes in the form of a PYRAMID. The ‘classic’ pyramid training method is well established.

BUT, in this article I want us to look at this pyramid in two ways by looking at two different runners.

Runner 1– Runs regularly but MDS is a new target and pushes the boundaries of what they thought possible.

Runner 2– Has completed MDS and wants to go back and improve.

First of all, both runners need to count back. Let’s assume that training will start in June.

  1. April – MDS race.
  2. March
  3. February
  4. January
  5. December
  6. November
  7. October
  8. September
  9. August
  10. July
  11. June

Counting back, it’s easy to look at the objective in real terms and understand what one needs to achieve.

Depending on experience, how this plan is put together is very much dependent on the individual. However, certain key elements should be present in any training plan and this article is intended to provide the basics from which you can develop a strategy that works for you. I must stress, for you!

RUNNER 1

As stated, runner 1 “Runs regularly but MDS is a new target and pushes the boundaries of what they thought possible.”Therefore, a classic pyramid will be ideal.

See below:

Decide on objectives for the year, decide onCand targets, obviously, the ultimate A is MDS. Put them in a diary and ideally have a wall planner so that you have an overview of the year. It’s easy to see how a year looks on a planner. C should be something that one trains through, can be more challenging and have a taper for, A is very specific such as a training camp.

For example:

  1. April – MDS race – A RACE
  2. March
  3. February
  4. January – A
  5. December
  6. November – B
  7. October
  8. September
  9. August – C
  10. July
  11. June

MDS is a long way, typically 250km sobase training and getting the miles in is key. I have allocated 12 weeks for this in the plan below. Hours of easy miles progressively building up to a target, let’s say a marathon. It is always good to have a goal and a target to aim for. The is a training race/ event and will have no taper, you would race through it as a training long run.

Progressing through the season, this will be ‘the build phase’ so it’s a good idea to place a objective, in this case, November.  The B will allow you to progress to the objective and then the ultimate goal.

You can’t perform well at every event and this is why C,and targets are important. Ultimately, MDS is the one in which you must perform.

As in any plan, flexibility is needed. Nothing is fixed and one must be flexible and listen to one’s body. I recommend building for 3 weeks, recovering on the 4thweek and then building again (see the pyramid above)

  • 12 weeks of base – June/ July/ August
  • 8 weeks – September/ October
  • 6 weeks – November/ December
  • 4 weeks – December
  • 3 weeks – January
  • 3 weeks – Specific phase – February/ March
  • 3 weeks – Preparation phase – March
  • 3 weeks – Taper to event – March/ April
  • RACE

BE SPECIFIC

Marathon des Sables will need you to be specific. For example:

  • You will be carrying a pack that on day-1 of the race will weight at minimum, 8kg.
  • You will be racing in hot conditions.
  • You will be self-sufficient.
  • You will be compromised on calories.
  • You will almost certainly walk more than you anticipate.

The above list goes on and on and as training progresses, you should refer the list and asses importance. For now, I would place the above list in the following priority: walk!

No need to worry about the pack and the self-sufficient element now, the priority is on training.

As training progresses asses, one’s strengths and weaknesses and then adjust the plan.

  • Do you need to work on strength and core?
  • If you have poles, do you know how to use them?
  • Are you recovering?
  • How is your diet?
  • What is my resting heart rate, is it fluctuating?
  • Am I being specific and thinking of the race terrain and simulating it?

And so, on and so on. The above questions are a starting point. Read through the list and add your own questions to appraise what type of runner you are.

As the time progresses, not only will you feel more confident, you will be able to understand what needs to be done to achieve your goal.

RUNNER 2

As stated, runner 2 “Has completed MDS and wants to go back and improve.”

You may say, well, the above pyramid for runner 1 applies here.

Yes and no?

I want to throw a curve ball in here and suggest reversing the pyramid.

For runner 1, the emphasis is building a base and then slowly but surely progressing up the pyramid to the pinnacle, MDS. Speedwork and faster sessions are not as important as building the endurance for the event, speed will form a very small element of training.

But we know that runner 2 already has a good base of fitness. How do we know? Well, they have already completed MDS…

So, if they are going back to the race, almost certainly, they will be looking to progress. So, before planning training, the following should be asked:

  • Did they lack endurance?
  • Did they lack speed?
  • Was strength and core weak?
  • Were they mentally strong?

With answers to the following, one can look at the pyramid in a new way, turn it upside down and instead of putting a priority on long steady sessions early on, they can place a priority on:

  • Strength and core
  • Speedwork
  • The mental approach

Speed training is usually used to add the finishing touches to a solid block of training. But as stated, as an MDS finisher, they already have endurance, so, working on speed now is a great use of time.

  • June, July and August can be used to get faster and stronger with a C target, something like a fast(er) half-marathon or marathon.
  • September and October can be used to add endurance to the speed so that longer sessions can also be faster and at the end, a B target.
  • November, December and January can then be used to add speed to the endurance to complete the event and importantly, the long day. This period can can have an A objective.
  • February is about adding the finishing touches.
  • March about being specific and the tapering.

If you are someone looking to perform and improve, you need to be more self-critical. Plan your training and periodise your training so that you are able to (hopefully) predict good form on 1 or multiple Arace days in a year. This is not easy.

Remember you can only hold form for a limited length of time and if you want to peak, you need to make sure that this planning stage is done early so that you understand what you are trying to achieve. It’s all about stepping stones. And make sure you consider the terrain that the race will take place on.

Finally…

This article is not a hard and fast plan, it’s a guide for you to go away, look at your targets having assessed past targets and hopefully it makes you think about future objectives so that you can plan for a successful, injury free year of running and racing.

Are you runner 1 or runner 2?

There are many more questions to ask and points to consider when planning but these should come after getting the training plan and schedule prepared.

  • Preparing for heat. (Heat chamber)
  • Planning equipment.
  • Working on food for the race.

Fancy an early season multi-day TRAINING CAMP? Join us in Lanzarote with 2x Marathon des Sables champion, Elisabet Barnes HERE

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Marathon des Sables 2019 #MDS #MDS2019 – Stage 4 76.3km

Day-4, the feared and loved ‘long day’ of the MDS. A brutal 76.3km route that for many, personifies what the Marathon des Sables is. A journey of survival, through the varied terrain that the Sahara has to offer.

For most people, it is all about survival and getting through the day, the night and maybe the next day as easy as possible.

The day started at 0815 for the majority of the filed and the top-50 and top-5 women started at 1115 with the prospect of chasing the whole field down.

The day started to cool and cloudy and it looked like the conditions would play in to the runners hands, allowing a comfortable journey throughout the day. Not so. By 10am, the heat of the day came and it stayed that way, just a gentle breeze helping to provide some illusion of cooler temperatures.

The elite race as in previous day’s was all about two people or maybe three if we include Cactus the MDS dog.

Ragna Debats was once again on fire, For sure, she respected the long day and started at a more relaxed pace, but her speed and ability is so far ahead of the rest of the women, that she almost cruised to the line. In all honesty, Ragna’s biggest threat is possibly herself! She is chasing a top-10 ranking overall and that does come with some risk. To push in the Sahara needs a fine balance, get it wrong and dehydration could prove to be the end of an adventure. Ragna is managing everything well and looks incredible.

The real story of the long day was the rise of the UK’s Gemma Game. She looked incredible all day, ran an amazing and controlled race and she moved up the field to now make 3rd on the women’s podium. Aziza Raji ran a solid day and is still 2nd overall, approximately 36-minutes ahead of Gemma. Past winner, Meghan Hicks from the USA had a tough day of sickness and finished well down the field allowing Lauren Woodwiss to move to 4th overall.

In the men’s race, many tried to attack the boss, Rachid El Morabity, but the king of the desert is too smart. He really is a joy to watch in this terrain. He holds back, paces himself, runs within a group and at all times watches what the other runners are doing. He does not panic, he manages his effort and then all of a sudden, he moves to another gear and accelerates away to take the lead and win.

This year’s long day was no different. Attacks came from Julien Chorier, Rob Pope and even Mohamed El Morabity, but the boss watched them and then made his move. Taking another stage victory, once again ahead of his brother, Mohamed. The duo now 1st and 2nd on the overall ranking with Abdelaziz Baghazza 3rd.

The long day will be remembered for a sand-storm that cam in around 5pm. It was quite incredible as the wind brought in a blanket of grating mist that covered all the runners and bivouac making visibility impossible. Runner’s halted in their tracks not able to see a hand place ahead of them. Luckily it was a storm that lasted less than 30-minutes but the carnage was visible to see.

Covering 76.3km’s is no easy task and while the top men and women can make it look easy, the real story is about the 800+ runners who look to survive and endure the conditions to earn a respected MDS medal.

This is the MDS, the human story of fighting conditions, hunger, dehydration and pain to achieve the glory of the finish line.

As darkness came, runner’s pushed in to the void with just the glow of a headlamp and the stars for company. For many, they will also see dawn and travel through another day. MDS is truly a life changing journey.

And finally, Cactus the MDS dog. What a story. The dog joined us on day-2, ran the whole of day-3 and yes folks, he ran the long day. He has become a mascot of the 34th edition. A heart warming story that has travelled the world. Many have worried about the dogs health and his ability to run long distances.

Rest assured, this fella is a true free spirit, a true nomad, a perfectly adapted animal for the terrain. He was checked by a vet and was given the all-clear. Calls for the dog to be ‘rescued’ and taken out of Morocco are well intended but wrong in my opinion. Cactus is in his home, doing what he loves. He should be allowed that freedom. And yes, he has an owner, a hotelier in Merzouga who has confirmed Cactus’ true nomadic spirit.

Tomorrow, the marathon day and the confirmation of the 2019 MDS male and female champions.

Overall Ranking

  1. Rachid El Morabity 15:23:31
  2. Mohamed El Morabity 15:29:12
  3. Abdelaziz Baghazza 16:08:27

 

  1. Ragna Debats 18:46:11
  2. Aziza Raji 20:54:23
  3. Gemma Game 21:29:11

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Marathon des Sables 2019 #MDS #MDS2019 – Stage 3 37.1km

It was a warmer night in camp and the winds that had increased during the afternoon made for a comfortable night in bivouac. The tough stage 2 had left a real positive mood in camp, ‘If we can complete day-2, we stand a good chance of completing this MDS!’ seemed to be the general consensus. Many had loved the tough day, embracing the dunes. Others had found it a struggle. It is the MDS, so, it is to be expected. Of course, the day took its toll and for some, the 34th edition of the MDS ended.

Day 3 at 37.1km in comparison to day-2 would be an ‘easy’ day. Little tough terrain with lots of hard packed ground, stones and some soft sand and dunes. It turned out to be a hot day though, maybe the hottest day so far.

For the first 10km it was hard packed ground and the pace at the front was hard and fast with Rachid El Morabity dictating the the tempo with Julien Chorier – an unusual tactic the MDS champ. Behind a group of 10 followed including lead lady, Ragna Debats.

At 8km. a section of dunes lasted 3km to cp1 and then dunes followed  to 16km. Rachid continued to push the pace and now his brother, Mohamed was closing the gap to join them. For the women, Ragna was in a race on her own, to be honest, she is pushing the men and overall top-10 classification.

Aziza Raji continued to chase Ragna as in all the previous day’s, but she just does not have the pace. Today, Gemma Game finally found her stride and started to look at home in the desert running ahead of the chasing women that included Meghan Hicks.

The push from cp2 the finish offered a little of everything in regards to terrain, the heat probably the most troublesome issue. The old village of Taouz provided a stunning and varied backdrop along with the Kfiroun.

As on day-1, Rachid finally put the foot down to gain a slender lead over Mohamed and Abdelaziz Baghazza who finished just seconds apart in 2nd and 3rd.

Ragna once again finished almost 30-minutes ahead of the 2nd women, Aziza, but notably Gemma closed to within a handful of minutes for 3rd.

Tomorrow is the feared long-day! The battle will be very interesting for the 2nd and 3rd women’s podium – can Gemma push ahead of the Moroccan? It would now take a disaster for Ragna to lose this race.

Rachid normally secures his victory on the long-day and one has to assume this will be his plan tomorrow. He will run steady early on and then push making the others follow his relentless pace. The top-3 are close though, anything can happen!

Results

1. Ragna DEBATS 3:35:54
2. Aziza RAJI 4:03:37
3. Gemma GAME 4:11:56

Male:
1. Rachid EL MORABITY 2:58:45
2. Mohamed EL MORABITY 3:00:01
3. Abdelaziz BAGHAZZA 3:00:06

Dog:
1. Cactus the MDS dog 🐕

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Marathon des Sables 2019 #MDS #MDS2019 – Stage 2 32.5km

The mood in camp was one of happiness with day-1 completed, however, the thought of day-2 terrified most. For many year’s, Merzouga Dunes (the highest in Morocco) have often been used for the charity stage as a way to finish the race. In 2016, the dunes were used on stage 1, a sandstorm hit and it was carnage. So, the dunes demand respect.

This year, stage 2 would have the runners leave bivouac and have a relatively easy first 13km that would involve rocky plateau, small dunettes and pass through the village of Tisserdimine.

From cp1, the runners would enter the dunes and then stay there for another 13km – that is a long and tough journey, for anyone, even the best. So, it was with some anxiety that runners awoke to day-2.

The plus side coming that after the dunes, it was an easy and flat run in to the finish.

Ragna Debats after winning stage 1 looked happy in bivouac. Using a liquid only strategy for calories had no impact on day-1 and her enthusiasm for day-2 did not waver. ‘I hd a good day-1, rested well and I am now ready for day-2.’

 

 

Ragna departed with the leading men and over the early km’s was ahead of the Desert King, Rachid El Morabity. Her stride long, her form perfect and her posture with the pack, excellent. She was flying leaving all the other women in her wake. She once again obliterated the stage crossing the line in 3:14:22 and giving her 10th overall on the stage – wow!

Aziza Raji who placed 2nd on day-1 once again had a good day looking strong on home terrain. She finished 3rd in 4:05:32.

It was past MDS winner, Megan Hicks, who ran better today moving up the field to finish 2nd in 3:59:00 – a remarkable 45-minutes behind Ragna! Notably, Gemma Game who made the podium last-year had a much better day-2 and finished 4th ahead of Lauren Woodwiss.

The men’s race had many protagonists taking on the reigns of the race from the front, including Julien Chorier, Robert Merile, Abdelkader El Mouaziz, Robert Pope and so many more… But the experienced, Mohamed and Rachid El Morabity hung back allowing the first 13km to pass without incident. As the dunes arrived, the brothers unleashed ‘dune power’ and the rest of the men just had to suffer and follow in their desert prowess.

Mohamed and Rachid ran together and at the line, today, it was the younger brother Mohamed who crossed first, 6-seconds ahead of the MDS master. Their times, 2:52:30 and 2:52:36.

Behind, it was survival, with many of the early protagonists suffering in the terrain and heat.  Abdelkader El Mouaziz finished 3rd ahead of Antonio Alongi and Robert Mrile, their times 2:56:14, 3:01:14 and 3:04:02.

For the other 800 + runners it was a day of survival. But the MDS is all about taking on the challenge and finding the strength to push on. Each and every person out there is an inspiration, but look at Faris from the USA with a prosthetic – he personifies the courage of the MDS.

Results Day-2

Mohamed El Morabity

Rachid El Morabity

Abdelkader El Mouaziz

 

Ragna Debats

Megan Hicks

Aziz Raji

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Lanzarote Training Camp 2019 – Day 5

Plenty of soft sand today with a really specific session out in Lanzarote’s small dunes. It was a 60min run to the dune section and then a prolonged period allowing everyone to run up, down and around the section.

All about understanding how the sand reacts, how much energy you expend and what is the best approach.

Soft sand was followed by a run to the coast and an opportunity to explore one of the many volcano on foot before returning back to the coast and eventually Club La Santa. It was another 4-5 hour session.

The afternoon had a talk by Elisabet Barnes on how to look after your feet for a multi-day race and this included practical taping solutions.

The day concluded with an easy evening shake out run.

Join our 2020 Training Camp HERE

Ultra Mirage© El Djerid #UMED 2018 Race Summary and Images

Backed by the space port of Mos Espa (Star Wars Episode 1) the 2nd edition of UMED ( Ultra Mirage© El Djerid) got underway with the morning glow of a strong orange sun after it had tipped over the summits of the surrounding high dunes.  

Over 130 runners from 23 nations stepped forward to undertake a circular 100km route through the Tunisian desert. Heat, sand, mixed terrain, palm groves, oasis all providing a stunning backdrop to an ultimate running challenge. The calm and quiet of the Sahara broken only by the sound of birds. 

Any running journey can be a lonely one, but the desert really does provide isolation, only a snake or a camel providing any company. Of course, the sun only leaves the runner with darkness and as the rest from intense heat may be welcome, the complete darkness of the desert provides its own challenges as the runners navigate via reflective strips all the way back to where they started, the lunar landscape of Mos Espa and the bulbous film set village made famous by Star Wars.

The 2017 champion, Mohamed El Morabity had returned to defend his title, however, the desert king (Mohamed’s elder brother) Rachid El Morabity was also on the start line looking to upset the 2017 champions dreams. In the women’s field, two-time MDS champion, Elisabet Barnes was returning to racing after an almost year-long hiatus – what would the day hold for all of them? 

On the stroke of 0700 the runners were released. They had 20-hours to complete the desert journey via marked route and 5 checkpoints placed at 20km, 35km, 50km, 65km, 80km and the finish providing an end to an epic journey.

With no wind, the 30-degree temperatures seemed intense. From the start, the experienced runners reigned in their pace but at the front, Marwen Kahil from Tunisia dictated the pace followed by fellow Tunisian, Mohamed Mnsari – the duo no doubt wanting to put on a good show on home ground. All the main contenders followed some way back, they were in no rush to push the pace and Rachid, Mohamed and Sondre Amdahl maintained a close eye on each other.

In the women’s race, Elisabet Barnes dictated the pace, shadowed by Tunisian, Shefia Hendaoui. Behind, Orianne Dujardin from France followed looking relaxed and in control.

At 20km, the positions had hardly changed. However, Elisabet had broken away from her shadow and was now dictating the pace at the front. With 80km to go, it was a brave move, but she looked strong and in control. For the men, there was little but the front of the race was starting to fragment with runners either forming small groups or running alone seconds and minutes apart.

By CP2, it was all change. The desert king Rachid had gently pressed on his accelerator pedal and in doing so he had split the men’s race apart. The early protagonists were left to struggle with the only runners able to follow the Moroccan’s pace coming from his brother, Mohamed and Tunisian, Emir Grairi. The duo looked strong and in control and then minutes later it was the arrival of Sondre Amdahl.

For the women, Elisabet was now pulling away from Shefia and Oriane and her pace was starting to impact on the men’s race with the Swedish runner placing well in the top 10.

With 50% of the race covered and the arrival of the first Oasis the race was taking shape. Rachid and Elisabet had opened huge gaps and were looking strong for victory, but behind them both the race was changing.

The 2nd male to arrive was the Tunisian Emir looking strong. Then Sondre arrived. What had happened to the 2017 champion Mohamed? He finally arrived walking, looking broken and explaining that he had hurt his ankle. He looked set to drop out but at the 3rd CP he pushed on.

 For the women, the early pace had impacted on Shefia and now Oriane was running in 2nd. It was all to fight for though, the duo was only separated by minutes!

50-65km were the most challenging of the race with relentless soft sand that slowed the front runners to a walk at times. Behind, this section would eventually take its toll with over 30% of the UMED field not progressing past this section. Rachid and Elisabet took it in their stride but the impact on Emir was noticeable and he relinquished 2nd place to an in-form Sondre. Mohamed was somehow rejuvenated, and he now ran with the Tunisian, the duo looking for the final podium place. 

Rachid arrived at the 80km checkpoint looking tired and exhausted. The day was taking its toll. He searched for food and drink, but the fatigue was obviously confusing him, he was undecided what he needed. Sitting down he consumed two cartons of juice only to vomit them back up. He left for arguably the toughest 20km’s he would ever run. The gap Rachid had accumulated was crumbling and Sondre arrived just 3-minutes later. The fight was on!

 Sondre hunted the Moroccan down slowly pursuing but Rachid despite chronic fatigue never gave in, he arrived at the finish broken. He crossed the line and collapsed into the arms of the RD, Amir Ben Gacem. Moments later he was in the medic’s hands with an IV in his arm. Sondre finished a stunning 2nd just 6-minutes later. It had been an epic battle. The fight for 3rd came to an easy conclusion for the 2017 champion Mohamed when Emir dropped from the race with severe cramps just 5/6km from the line.

 Elisabet was the next to arrive, the new female champion and 4th overall – she was back! This was a stunning world-class performance and her time was just 9-minutes slower than the 2017 champion, Mohamed. 

“UMED was a really great experience. It was good to be back in a desert race after a break this year. I enjoyed the varying terrain, the heat, and the perfect mix of friendly atmosphere and hard racing.” – Elisabet Barnes

Behind, Oriane secured her 2nd place ahead of the local woman, Shefia.

With the arrival of darkness, the race took on a new challenge as the participants battled the terrain, darkness and the 0300 cut-off. As with all races, the dream of medals evaporated like water in a Mirage. Blisters, fatigue, dehydration, missing cut-off times, each runner had a story to tell.

“I did not dream of medal. I wanted to run strong and run well. That was my UMED goal. At half way I felt very unwell and I knew it was the beginning of heatstroke. I also had damaged feet with blisters… We had been advised that gaiters were not necessary, they were! I was mentally and emotionally strong, but I knew it was time to be kind to myself and I allowed myself to call it quits. I had done what I set out to do, I had run well, I had run strong, and that was for 50km. Next year’s goal will be to run well, run strong and get that medal.” – Sue Ding from Malaysia who had completed the 2018 Marathon des Sables.


As Roosevelt rightly said:

“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, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows 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 fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

 Racing does not give guarantees. It is why we test ourselves. Pain eases, memories fade, skin heals and soon, often the next day, the desire to return and put the demons to rest is what motivates everyone. The desert is magic and leaves only one desire: to come back and tame it! 

Post-race, RD Amir Ben Gacem was proud of the race, “Last year, we had just 60 runners, this year we had over 130 and I am proud to say, over 30 women. That is stunning. The race will evolve, and we learnt some lessons this year that will be applied for 2019 only to make the UMED bigger and better!”

“Wow, I am really happy with that,” Sondre exclaimed. “I am the first ‘human’ – to place 2nd behind the desert king Rachid and to have his brother behind me is a true honour.”

 RESULTS

  1. Elisabet Barnes 10:26:06
  2. Oriane Dujardin 12:58:57
  3. Shefia Hendaoui 13:35:57

 

  1. Rachid El Morabity 9:11:47
  2. Sondre Amdahl 9:18:12
  3. Mohamed El Morabity 10:17:33

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