Multi-Day Racing – It’s not complicated

It’s Not Complicated…

Let’s get one thing clear, multi-day racing is simple, it is often over complicated and this creates too many questions and too much confusion.

Let’s hark back to Patrick Bauer’s pioneering days and simplify the process, just like he did. Over the years I have interviewed and chatted with many runners in bivouac and after racing who have done just that, they had applied simple logic and worked out what would work for them. 

Yes, they had taken advice, looked at websites, processed information but importantly they had found out what worked for them. They realized early on that they were an individual and as such, they needed a personal approach to multi-day racing and not a generic one. Not all multi-day races are the same, some are completely self-sufficient, some are semi self-sufficient and others are supported where all you need is transported for you.

When you break a race down, particularly a self-sufficient race, key things are really important:

Pack

Must fit and be comfortable when loaded. Have enough room (but not too much) for all your equipment and provide easy access to fluid. You must also make sure that your race number is visible as per race rules. Think about additional pockets, such as a waist belt for snacks.

Sleeping Bag

Lightweight, packs small and warm enough. I would always recommend a sleeping bag and jacket as it offers more flexibility, reduced weight and reduced pack size. Popular sleeping bags year-on-year are PHD, Yeti and OMM. Read HERE on how to choose a sleeping bag.

Clothes

You just need what you will run in. However, a spare pair of socks is often commonplace and many runners have one or all of the following: a warm base layer, a lightweight down jacket or waist coat, buff and maybe long lightweight pants. Remember, you have to carry everything, so, it’s all about getting the pack as close to minimum weight. At MDS that is 6.5kg plus water.

Sleeping Matt

It’s optional but a good nights sleep is important and usually those who do not take one wish they had. It provides comfort and importantly an insulating layer between you and the ground. Two options exist – inflatable and roll out solid foam. The choice is yours. The inflatable ones offer more comfort, more flexibility in packing but with poor admin, you do run the risk of a puncture. I’ve used inflatable for many years with no issue. A solid foam Matt will last the week with no risks of problems but they roll large and need to sit outside the pack.

Shoes and Gaiters

Shoes (more below) are personal, just make sure they have a good fit, appropriate drop for your needs and suit your run/walk style with enough durability for you. I say ‘you’ because someone like Rachid El Morabity can complete the whole of MDS race in say 21-hours whereas most people won’t even do just the long day in that time – his shoe shoe choice will and can be very different to what most of us need!

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Choosing a Sleeping Bag for an Adventure

If you are going on an adventure, taking part in a multi-day race or basically going on a one night jolly in the wilds somewhere, a sleeping bag is going to be an essential item.

Choosing a sleeping bag one would think is easy… Go to a shop, find one that fits into your budget, purchase and use.

The reality is, the above is far from the truth.

ASK INITIAL QUESTIONS

A good sleeping bag is not cheap and going cheap is most certainly not a good idea. So, from the off, accept that you will need to dedicate a good portion of your hard earned cash.

One sleeping bag will not work in all situations, however, if one is clever, one can make a sleeping bag adapt to other situations and therefore it is possible to increase the range of use and temperatures that a sleeping bag will work in.

Sleeping bags mainly use two fillings: Down or synthetic such as Primaloft.

  • Down: Is lighter and the weight to warmth ratio is higher. It packs smaller and can be compressed to a very tiny package if required. Down however cannot get wet. If it gets wet it all sticks together and will offer no warmth at all. Down is expensive and one should make sure that if purchasing down that it is ethically sourced.
  • Primaloft: A synthetic product, it is heavier and packs larger than down. It’s a cheaper product than down and importantly it can get wet and still retains warmth.

The first questions one should ask are:

  1. Am I using the sleeping bag in a dry or wet climate?
  2. Is the weight of the bag really important. Normally the answer here is, if you are carrying it, yes, the weight is important.
  3. Do I need the sleeping bag to pack as small as possible?
  4. Do I need the bag to work in one or more situations? Another way of looking at this is, do I need to compromise on points 1-3 to get value for money.

Ask some personal questions:

  1. Do I sleep warm?
  2. Do I like to be warm and if not warm, am I miserable?
  3. Am I prepared to be a little cold to be as light as possible?
  4. Do I need a full-length zip, half-zip or am I happy to have no zip?

Consider other factors:

  1. If you are tall, wide, have big shoulders etcetera, etcetera then some sleeping bags will just not work for you as they will be too small.
  2. If you are small/ petite an off-the-shelf sleeping bag actually could be too big for you, this is not a huge problem, but if you wanted the bag to be as small and light as possible, you could go custom made.

Sleeping bags have a ‘Comfort Rating’ as follows:

Upper limit – the highest temperature the average male can expect to have a comfortable night’s sleep at without too much sweating.

*Comfort – the temperature at which the average adult woman can expect to have a comfortable sleep. *This is the ideal for most people choosing

Lower limit – the temperature at which the average adult male can expect to have a good night’s sleep in a curled position.

Extreme – the lowest temperature at which the average adult woman can survive. This rating comes with caution and additional consideration should be given if you plan to sleep in temperatures this low.

Layering:

Irrespective of what sleeping bag you choose. Layering for me is a key consideration when choosing a sleeping bag and this is one key factor that helps make a sleeping bag stretch over a multitude of uses and temperatures. (See the image below.)

  1. Sleeping alone.
  2. Sleeping bag, T-Shirt and shorts.
  3. Sleeping bag, L/S top and long leggings.
  4. Sleeping bag, L/S top, long leggings and Jacket (down or primaloft).
  5. Sleeping bag, L/S top, long leggings, Jacket (down or primaloft) and over-trousers (down or primaloft).

Note – By wearing a hat/ Buff/ balaclava or combination of all three, you will retain a great deal of body heat – remember this!

With the above diagram, you suddenly see how one sleeping bag can cover at least 5 temperature ranges and still provide comfort.

From a personal perspective, I prefer a sleeping bag that is probably not quite warm enough as stand alone for my chosen environment. Why? 

  1. Should the weather be warm, I know my sleeping bag will be fine on it’s own and if it has a zip, I can regulate even more.
  2. I know that I can get warm by incorporating layers.

How do I know what layers I will need and what about additional weight?

The answer to the above is actually part of the process and in some ways, part of the fun of what works for you. Let’s take two scenarios, Desert and Himalayas:

Desert:

Multi-day desert races such as Marathon des Sables, require runners to carry all they need for the duration of the event. Therefore, weight is critical. However, desert temperatures can vary greatly. Some evenings can be mild and even hot. Other nights you can be blasted by wind and sand and the temperature drops to zero or below. So, the sleeping system needs to potentially cover a range of temperatures, let’s say 10 degrees. If you purchase a sleeping bag that is warm at say zero, it is going to be way too hot at 10 degrees. The sleeping bag will also be heavier and pack larger. By contrast, if you had a sleeping bag that was good for say 5 degrees, not only will it be lighter, pack smaller but importantly it will be more comfortable in warmer temperatures. You then make the bag warmer, should you need by adding layers… hat, T, shorts, longer leggings and then finally jacket. A question is often raised about the need for a jacket? I personally think it is essential – they are perfect in the morning and evening when sitting around and importantly, they are that extra important layer if you get a cold night. From my drawing sample, you would be looking at 1 to 4.

“Smart lightweight campers have been using their clothes to boost the warmth of their sleeping bags for years and climbers do it when they have to. Yet most of us are still carrying bags much bulkier and heavier than we need.” – Peter Hutchinson Designs

Himalayas:

The principal of the desert applies to the Himalayas. But obviously, one would not use the same sleeping bag. The initial starting point will be a warmer bag that is obviously heavier and larger. Also, down would almost certainly be the choice. The layering would go from 1 to 5. The reason being that daily temperatures in the Himalayas can be say, 10/15 or even 20 degrees. In the evening, depending where you are and how high you are, the temperatures can be -20. That is a huge difference and therefore you need a system that works over a huge range – this can only come from layering! Read about my Three High Passes Trek HERE

NOTE: Both of the above systems benefit greatly from a good sleeping matt that provides a layer between you and the ground. This is an essential item in my opinion. Not only does it add a barrier, it importantly adds comfort. If you are comfortable, you will sleep better. A good nights sleep means you are fresh and recovered for the next day’s challenges.

Professional explorer, Eric Larsen commented to Outside online:

“Larsen firmly believes in layering heavily in the cold, an opinion developed after years spent sleeping in subfreezing temps. “There is no such thing as a cold night’s sleep, only not enough layers,” he says. “I layer when I’m inside the bag just as much as I do while outside the bag. When you’re climbing Everest, you’re not naked under your down suit. The more heat you can preserve in a warm layer next to your body, the better.”

url https://www.outsideonline.com/2271191/how-experts-layer-sleeping-bag

PRODUCTS

Choosing a sleeping bag is something very personal and we are all individual. A 6ft 2” guy weighing 85kg is going to need something very different than a 5ft 6” woman weighing 55kg, so, keep that in mind!

You know you! It’s ok to ask for advice and recommendations, but you need to keep the points above high in your mind.

There is a general rule with sleeping bags and down jackets, the more you spend, the better they are. But there are many options out there.

Understand that when purchasing a sleeping bag that often it is possible to choose a size, just like when purchasing clothing. For example, a Yeti Passion Three or a Western Mountaineering  Summer Lite comes in M, L and XL.

MDS two time champion, Elisabet Barnes, for many years has been offering advice and a one-stop shop – myRaceKit – for all multi-day essentials and the team at their store are able to provide excellent advice on what options are available for sleeping systems. They stock products from:

Hagolfs, OMM, Nordisk, RAB, Sea to Summit, Yeti, Western Mountaineering and Lightwave.

A UK based company PHD (Peter Hutchinson Designs) takes things one step further and can custom make a sleeping bag to your exact specifications and needs. “…a footzip, which adds 10g and allows some air circulation around the feet. Zips are an option on the Minim bags, but most competitors don’t ask for one. A short zip with draft tube adds about 55gm (2oz): a full zip and tube adds about 120gm (4oz). Zips also add to the packed size.” One of the advantages of PHD is you can get exactly what you need.

A few years ago I compared PHD, OMM and YETI at the Marathon des Sables. Read HERE

CONCLUSIONS

Sleeping bags are an essential piece of equipment. Choosing the correct one can make or break an adventure. In simple terms, a good nights sleep allows you to rest and recover for the next day’s demands.

Nobody likes being too cold, especially at night, so keep this in mind and embrace the layering system.

Understand that we are all individual, what works for one, does not work for all.

Research the race and environment you are racing and check the highest and lowest temperatures. Start looking at sleeping bags with the appropriate *comfort rating and narrow down a search from here.

Remember, not two places are the same! For example, there is a huge difference in the desert/ weather say for Morocco, Atacama and the Grand to Grand in the USA.

Also understand the specifics of your adventure and what bag best suits your needs. To clarify on this, if you are going to the desert and the Himalayas, you will need two sleeping bags as the demands are very different. However, if you are going to the desert and then going back-packing in France in summer, the same sleeping bag will almost certainly work.

A sleeping matt is a no brainer when it comes to sleeping. It adds comfort and a barrier between you and the ground. For example, in the Himalayas when the ground is frozen and hard, why would you not put a barrier between you and basically a hard block of ice. 

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Mount Toubkal, Morocco – Embrace the highest peak in North Africa

Located in the Toubkal National Park, Morocco, at 4167m, Jebel Toubkal is the highest peak in the Atlas Mountains. It is also, the highest peak in North Africa and the Arab World.

Located just 75-minutes drive from Marrakech (approximately 40-miles) the National Park and the Toubkal summit has long been an excellent opportunity for those looking for a challenge, either for a specific purpose or as an add-on to an active holiday. As ultra-running, mountain running and the desire to explore new places grows. Morocco and Toubkal is a great place to adventure. Toubkal is considered by many as a great entry level mountain and it’s altitude is a great allure.

Toubkal has two-seasons, Winter and Summer. In winter, summiting the peak brings different challenges as it is completely covered in snow and ice. Winter mountain skills are required and the use of crampons are essential.

So, in this article, we look at Toubkal as a summer adventure and in due course, I will follow up with a Winter article.

PRACTICALITIES

Flights to Marrakech are in abundance and if you plan ahead, you can get very good deals, particularly from some of the budget airlines.

If you have not been to Marrakech before, I would say it is essential to soak up the atmosphere of the place by staying in the Medina (souk) in a typical Riad. Riad’s are standard Moroccan accommodation and like anywhere, you can go cheap or expensive. I have several favourites. My all time favourite, the ‘Dixneuf La Ksour’ (http://www.dixneuf-la-ksour.com ) which has only 6-rooms, excellent staff and they serve wonderful local food in the evenings and they have a licence to serve alcohol, if that is your thing!

My advice would be, arrive Marrakech and then spend two days sightseeing. Visit the Medina, get lost and haggle for a bargain. On the following day you could visit the Yves-Saint-Laurent Museum (https://www.museeyslmarrakech.com/fr/ ) and the Jardin de Marjorelle (https://www.jardinmajorelle.com)  both worth the effort. There are many other things that one can do, but this is a good starting point. You could then go to Imlil/ Toubkal for your adventure and the return back to Marrakech for another day or two before returning home.

TOUBKAL

Depending on your budget, you can either get a taxi or a private car to the village of Imlil. This is the starting place for all summit attempts. A taxi will be 35-40 euro and private car 80 euro.

OPTION ONE:

This is a standard option for Toubkal, and what most people do on a first attempt.

They leave Marrakech after breakfast, looking to arrive Imlil, say for 11am. You then meet your *guide, have tea (nearly always compulsory) and then leave for the refuge.

*A guide is now compulsory in the National Park and you cannot enter without one. There are currently three checkpoints that you go through and on each occasion your guide must provide your passport and the details are logged.

Imlil to the refuge is designed to introduce you to the terrain and slowly adapt you to the altitude. Imlil is at 1800m and the ‘Les Mouflons’ refuge is at 3207m. Depending on experience and adaptation, Imlil to the refuge can take 3-6 hours. 

Leaving Imlil, you have a narrow trail that rises quickly to a road and then the village of Aroumd. Here you will meet the first passport control and then you cross a floodplain before starting the climb to the refuge. The terrain is rocky and rough but not dangerous.

Chamharouch is the next passport control and here you will see a large white rock that is a Muslim Shrine. Here it is possible to get water, food if required and soft-drinks such as Coke.

The path now climbs steeply and gently reaches upwards, once again the terrain is rocky. You will arrive at two disused building that now sell drinks and here is the 3rd and final passport check. Before you know it, you will arrive at the refuge located at 3207m.

Depending on what you have arranged with your guide, you will have a meal at the refuge and then you will stay in a shared dorm with all the other climbers. These dorms are often unisex, so be prepared. You also need to be self-sufficient in terms of sleeping bag, additional clothes and warm layers. Everyone usually sleeps by 8/9pm.

The summit day will typically start at 0400 with breakfast and the intention will be to start the climb asap. Sunrise is approximately 0700, so, depending on your projected speed, the guide will advise on a departure time so you can climb from 3207m to 4167m.

In summer, the trail is very dry and although not a technical climb, Toubkal does have a great deal of loose scree and rocks. With the addition of the demands of altitude, the climb can provide an excellent challenge for someone new to experiences like this. Or, experienced runners and climbers can use it as a form of training. The trail goes straight up often zig-zagging to ease the gradient. Once at the saddle, the trail goes left and right. Here you go left for a final push to the summit. On a clear day, the views are magnificent and if you time it correctly, the sunrise can be truly magical.

Importantly, be prepared for the cold. It may be 30-40 degrees in Marrakech but the summit can be very cold and windy. Make sure you have wind proof jacket/ trousers, warm layer, hat and gloves as a minimum.

Most arrive at the summit between 0700 and 0900, you spend time soaking the views and taking photos and then return via the path you came. (There is another way down, more on that later!)

Descending becomes easier from an altitude perspective, with every meter you go down, the easier it will become to breathe. However, I think many find the descent harder and more challenging than the climb. This is due to the loose scree and rocky terrain. If experienced, one can drop from the summit to the refuge in 60-75 minutes. However, many eek their way down and falling/ slipping is a very real possibility. To clarify, there are no exposed ridges or real danger. It will just be a slip and a slide.

Once back at the refuge, many take a break for lunch and they will look to descend back to Imlil in the afternoon via the exact same route they went up the previous day. The out and back route is approximately 22 miles.

Once back in Imlil, it makes sense to book a local Riad, they are very inexpensive and serve great Tagine. The following morning you can arrange for a taxi/ car to collect you and you will be back in Marrakech for lunch.

OPTION TWO:

If you are experienced or want a challenge. Imlil-Toubkal-Imlil can be done in one day. I have done this twice now, once in Winter and once in Summer.

Most recently (August) I left Marrakech at 0530. I met my guide at 0700. We summited at midday and I was back in Imlil before 4pm in the afternoon. I had a car collect me and I was back in Marrakech before 7pm.

The above is not for everyone, but for me, it was an ideal opportunity to fit an action packed day between holiday days, before and after in Marrakech.

OPTION THREE:

As option two, but from the summit it is possible to take another route down. This is a more challenging descent with some exposure, very loose scree and lots of technical rocks. In terms of distance, it is maybe a little less than the standard up and down route but it does offer more excitement! I took this route down on my first trip to Toubkal. It rejoins the path up to the refuge below Les Mouflons.

EQUIPMENT:

During the day, shorts and t-shirt is ideal for the climb to the refuge. Shoes should be good trail running shoes with toe protection. Hikers will probably use walking shoes, approach shoes or boots. I used VJ Sport MAXx shoes which were perfect on these trails. You will need a pack and in that pack a change of clothes, warm layers, a sleeping bag and the capacity to carry liquid and some snacks. Refuge to the summit and back can be cold and windy. Be prepared with a Primaloft warm layer, gloves, hat and wind proof pants and jacket. It is recommended to have waterproof (just in case!)

I think poles for most people are an essential item. They will considerably help on the climb up and on the descent, they will add a security blanket.

TIME OF YEAR:

August for me is perfect. Marrakech is hot but has less tourists. Expect 30-40 degrees during the day. Imlil to the refuge, temperatures will be somewhere between 15 degs at 0700 and 30 deg in the afternoon. May can still have snow, so, be careful.

BOOKING:

The refuge at Toubkal is a great place to liaise with in regard to booking. 

refugetoubkal@gmail.com  – Liaise with Hamid.

Refuge Tariffs:

34.5 euro per person per night full board ( Dinner, breakfast and lunch )

29.5 euro per person per night half board ( Dinner and breakfast  )

19.5 euros per person per night ( without meals )

The refuge can also arrange the following for you:

Transport from and back to Marrakech

Accommodation in Imlil

Mountain Guide – A guide will be approximately 80 euro per day and is payable in cash only.

IMLIL HOTEL:

The Riad Atlas Prestige is located on the climb out of Imlil. It’s cozy, provides an excellent service and the food is great. It also very inexpensive at typically 30 euros a night for 2-people.

The hotel is on booking.com or you can contact directly +212 666 494954

SAFETY:

Morocco is safe. I have been travelling in different areas for over 7-years and I have always had a great time with wonderful experiences. Of course, there are cultural differences and as a tourist, it is we that must adapt. Women in particular should consider ‘covering up’ a little more, particular if running. But, in Marrakech, there are so many tourists that pretty much anything goes. Taking photographs, one should be careful. The locals really do not like it, and this I know from first hand experience.

Unfortunately, in December 2018 two girls were murdered between Imlil and Toubkal and this created a stir worldwide and locally. Hence the need for a guide and three passport controls now. I cannot emphasise enough that this incident was a one-off and to clarify, I have been back to Morocco and Imlil twice since this incident and at no point was I worried.

CONCLUSION:

An active weekend away or part of a longer trip to Morocco, Imlil and Toubkal is a real adventure and is highly recommended. For example, it would be quite feasible to fly from the UK (for example) on a Friday and return on Monday having visited Imlil and summited Toubkal over the weekend.

For those with more time Imlil is also a great place for a longer stay. There are many trails to explore in the area and the place is a hidden gem.

For those combining holiday and adventure, Imlil and Toubkal is a great active outlet amidst a more relaxed time in Marrakech. If you are planning to be in Morocco for longer than 7-days, also consider heading to the coast to visit Essaouira which is a 4-hour drive. It’s an old place with a very different feel to Marrakech. Of course, the options are only limited by your imagination and budget – it is also possible to go and stay overnight in the desert and have a bivouac experience.

As destinations go, Morocco is a magical place.

Strategy for Completing and not Competing

The last time I toed the line as a runner was 2012. It was at the Lakeland 50 in the UK. I was confident, I was really fit and in April, I had won an ultra in Turkey.

However, everything was not ok.

I was getting constant knee pain and I kept ignoring it… Ultra runners are good at that!

Anyway, for much of Lakeland 50 I was near the front, that is until Ambleside and then it all fell apart with constant knee pain. My hopes of a top-10 disappeared and I eventually crossed the line in 36th place in 9:59. My target had been to run around 8:40. In retrospect, I should have been happy. But I wasn’t. I went away knowing that my knee issue had stopped me performing and it needing addressing. 

I have not raced since…!

Now you may consider that to be sad? And yes, for a while I struggled with the demons of running twice a day to not running. But I was working on races as photographer, journalist and podcaster and I soon realised to move on.

My knee injury was chronic and required two, maybe three operations. I declined all knowing that knee surgery success is hit and miss. So, ever since, I have managed that pain, changed my goals and loved an adventure. Gladly, big hikes and fast packing is ok. I get pain, but it is not like running. So, all is good. I am happy to do what I can. I can run and my daily run would be normally 8-miles, sometimes I can do that back-to-back, but often I need to rest and then stress again. And yes, every now and again I run long. But I no longer compete, I complete.

So, why am I writing?

Well, I started running after cycling and triathlon. I have to say, I have never considered myself a good runner. I dropped my marathon PB to 2:53 which was creditable but in doing so, I lost the true reason for running. FUN! Do not get me wrong, I had loads of fun running but PB’s, time, diet and training all took over from a healthy outlook on my running. 

I was obsessed by my running. I must clarify, I was previously obsessed by cycling and triathlon and that is why I stopped…!

Being a photographer and journalist has allowed me to look at running in many different ways. I mostly follow the elites, but multi-day races, such as Marathon des Sables, allow me to follow runners achieving a life time goal. I must clarify, achieving a life time goal may be a 5km, 10km, half-marathon and so on. I use longer distances as this is the area I usually deal in – ultra.

They are looking to complete and not compete.

I have learnt since 2012 that I normally complete anything I set my mind to in sport and the reason for that is strategy, planning, getting the mind in the right place and embracing walking!

The Older I Get, The Better I was

So much truth here… For me anyway. As the time has passed from 2012 I have worked on races worldwide and all of those races require me to have a level of fitness. For example, Everest Trail Race, I do pretty much most of the race with cameras – it is the only way. For personal adventure, I have done big treks, the most recent being the ‘High Passes’ in Nepal with the additions of Kala Pather, EBC and Ama Dablam BC.

There is one truth in completing. YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO WALK.

Walking is often looked on as a negative. To be honest, I have heard some people say, ‘I don’t care what time I do, as long as I do not walk!’

The reality is, if walking is embraced, learned and practiced, finishing times will not only get faster but more enjoyable.

For perspective, we now include walking as a key training element at our Lanzarote Training Camp (HERE) with a specific walking group and one day dedicated to a long walk, for all!

So, how do you start?

Firstly, there is a big difference between walking to the shop for a carton of milk and walking in a race/ training. If there is not, there should be!

Walking in a race (or training) should be meaningful, strong and powerful.

There are many strategies one can use.

For example, one strategy I use is a thing I call “7’s” or “5×2”.

Quite simply, it is about covering 7km by walking 5km and running 2km.

The Strategy:

Firstly, with my coaching clients I ask them to walk 5km and time it. We then look at technique and discuss how to get faster.

I need to clarify here, we keep the route flat on road or good hard trail.

I am aiming for, where possible, sub 10-minute km’s. Now of course, many variables come in to play – terrain, weather, climbing and descending to name but a few. But let us assume flat terrain, good weather and fast trail.

Once we get the walking of 5km in under 50-mins, I then add running. Firstly 1km. So, walk 5km and run 1km. Once that fees comfortable, I add another 1km. And here is where the “7’s” or “5×2” comes in.

Basically, the plan is walk 5km and jog 2km.

Like any plan it is progressive, starting with walk 5 and jog 2. Then walk 5, jog 2, walk 5. Then, walk 5, jog 2, walk 5, jog 2 and so on…

This teaches the mind to break down distance and time in manageable blocks. You can focus on the walking, knowing that a jogging break is coming up. You can endure the jogging, knowing that a walking break is coming up.

Why, “7’s” or “5×2.”

Well, 7 conveniently goes in to a marathon – 7/14/21/28/35 and 42.

I think a marathon is something we all understand and although I will round numbers up (for ease) 50-miles is two marathons and 100-miles is four marathons, 7’s provides a great strategy.

So, you see my thinking?

Let’s say, you trained your walking to be so good, that you could walk 5km and jog 2km in under 1-hour. Suddenly, you are doing a 6-hour marathon with actually only maybe 50-60 minutes of total running.

So, if that pace is maintainable, you could do 50-miles in sub 12-hours and maybe even 100-miles in the desirable sub 24-hours!

Here is an example and of course, pace fluctuates based on terrain conditions, but it provides a good perspective.

Continue reading

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 5 42.2km

Rachid El Morabity and Ragna Debats are the 2019 champions of the iconic Marathon des Sables.

Today. stage 5, ‘The Marathon Stage’ concluded just a short distance away from Tafraout. It was a day that started with cool temperatures as runners climbed the infamous, Djebel Oftal after a 3km warm up.

As the minutes ticked by, the sky cleared, the weather warmed up and the runners were treated to a classic MDS day and a truly beautiful course that provided the best of the Sahara.

Dunes, rocky plateau, salt flats, the oasis of El Maharch, gentle climbs, soft-sand descents and then a run in to the finish backed by a mountain range.

Despite early attacks in the men’s race including his brother Mohamed, Rachid El Morabity once again won the final stage and became the 2019 champion of the MDS once again. He really is the desert king. Mohamed El Morabity placed 2nd overall with Abdelaziz Baghazza completing the podium.

For the women, it may come as no surprise that Ragna Debats made 5 stage wins out of 5 and completely dominated the women’s race.

Credit must go to local runner, Aziza Raji who battled throughout the week to secure a very solid 2nd place for Morocco. Also, Gemma Game from the UK had a tough day-1 but battled and moved her way through the field throughout the week and once again rounded out the podium with 3rd place.

The MDS is all about every single runner and the finish line really does focus and release the emotions as tears flows, cries of joy are heard and the embraces of Patrick Bauer, the race creator, are received. The MDS is truly a magical journey and experience. It is a life -changer for many and I personally have experienced the transformation the desert and this race brings.

The 2019 edition certainly gained additional notoriety from a wonderful dog called Cactus. he joined us on day-2 and went on to complete day-3, 4 and today, day-5. This little dog has captured the hearts and minds of the world, not only in the media. There is a lesson to be learned from Cactus – to live life free and completely. He embraced the true spirit of what MDS stands for without realising it. And, in doing so, he has reconfirmed to all of us that life is for the living. I for one, am truly blessed to have experienced Cactus and all the 800+ plus runners on a truly magical 34th edition of the iconic ~Marathon de Sables.

Marathon des Sables 2019 #MDS #MDS2019 – Stage 4B Rest Day

The face of the Marathon des Sables after stage-4, ‘The Long Day’

 the 2019 edition of this iconic, self-sufficient multi-day race.

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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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