My 3rd Marathon des Sables

It was delayed by a year but eventually I made it. Let me explain.

Really my MDS adventure started in 2013 after I watched a TV documentary about the race. Instantly I was bitten, the desert, the scenery, the challenge, the camping(!) – what was not to like? I just had to try it. I signed up on the website with the hope of trying it in 2014. Unfortunately work took over and I had no time to train. I never actually entered for the 2014 MDS. Skip forward to 2016 and by now I had retired and I was going to be 60 at the end of the year. My wife and I had already planned to do the Africa Eco Race RAID 4×4 event from Monaco to Dakar at the start of 2017, so maybe, while in adventure mode, I could try the MDS as well? Due to some lucky timing it turned out we could go back to Morocco in April with our Land Rover Defender, do the Carta Rallye 4×4 competition, then do the MDS, then do the Defender Trophy 4×4 event. Plans were made, training was done, experiences were had and finisher medals were collected.

What is the MDS? The Marathon des Sables (MDS) is a 250km 7 day foot race in the desert of Morocco fully loaded. It’s sort of like doing 6 marathons in 7 days off road with a big back pack. Rationed water is supplied by the organisers as is a tent. Everything else, for 7 days in the desert, has to be carried on your back. The 250km is split over 6 stages. The first 3 are usually between 30 and 40km each, the fourth is the long stage (in 2023 it was 90km) which goes overnight and into the next “rest” day. Stage 5 is the final “racing” day, a 42.2km standard marathon distance. The Finishers medals are awarded at the end of this stage and the day capped off with a party in the desert. The final Stage 6 is 9km untimed through the dunes out of the desert to the bus park and the hotel in the evening.

Strangely enough, on the first page of the 2017 MDS road book was an advert for a new MDS race 6 months later in the Ica desert of Peru. I signed up as soon as I could and collected my 2nd finishers medal before Christmas and my 61st birthday. Heck of a year 2017. See this page for details of my Peru MDS.

MDS 2022

Four years later, in 2021, I was 64 years old and had the idea that maybe I could do the MDS at 65. I signed up for 2022. Our 30 something super athletic son, Chris, decided he would like to do it with me so he signed up. Everything was going well until about a month before the start when I picked up a stress fracture in my pelvis. I had to cancel my MDS entry. Chris was OK so he did it on his own.

Chris is very keen to create awareness for a genetic disorder known as Angelman Syndrome. Having swum the English Channel publicising this he decided to do the same on the MDS. To this end he did the entire week dressed as Spiderman and carrying his Angelman Syndrome flag. He made a big impression on everyone there and photos of him appeared in many websites and magazines. See Marathon des Sables 2022 for more details and videos.

MDS 2023

Not wishing to miss out on my 3rd MDS, I signed up for 2023. Chris would have liked to have had another go as well, but this time it was his turn to have a medical problem so he was out. My training was going well until, once again, about a month before the race I had a problem. I thought it was another stress fracture, but luckily it just turned out to be a tendon problem. I almost cancelled as I could not run but decided to give it a go walking.

It was a real grind walking the entire thing. I found the first 36km day was really hard. Day 2 was 31.7km of more mountains than sand dunes so I really enjoyed it. Day 3 was 34.4km mostly in sand, but by now my head was into it so it went well. Day 4 was the longest stage at 90km and took me forever (32 hours) to walk. Unfortunately this meant I missed the day 5 rest day as I finished at 3pm. Day 6 should have been a simple marathon stage (42.2km) but I was tired and really out of energy so it became a real grind. The weather was super hot (35C to 50C) and I was stopped twice by the medical teams to let my internal temperature come back down to normal. I finished as “The Last Finisher” in 11h 59m 52s which was just 8 seconds inside the 12h cut off time. Super happy to receive my Finishers Medal.

Out of interest I looked at my pace analysis for the marathon stage – see below. Seems I stopped for about 15 minutes at Check Point 1, almost 50 minutes at Check Point 2 (either I made some food or I fell asleep!), then the Doc stopped me to cool down for 25 minutes. I stopped at Check Point 3 for 25 minutes and then another Doc stopped me to cool down for a final 25 minutes just a few km from the end.

MDS Day 5 Analysis

This means I was totally stationary for 2 hours 20 minutes. Add to that a further 40 minutes of tiny stops and you can see why my Garmin says I was moving for 9 hours yet the stage took me almost 12 hours.

The 2023 MDS turned out to be one of the hardest and hottest courses in the 37 year MDS history with 40% of the starters retiring before the end. There were about 1,100 starters and 700 finishers. (The only MDS worse than this was in 2021 when an infectious illness decimated the camp.) (Peru in 2017 was probably even worse. I remember there were about 300 starters and we lost 100 on the first day !) In 2023 our tent started with the usual 8 occupants. After a couple of days we were down to 4. Accidents and exhaustion in the heat took out half our tent in 2 days! The remaining 4 of us amazingly made it to the end successfully.

Tent 135 – The Medals Video


Despite the extra weight I took along my GoPro 11 Black with a 128GB SD card and 3 spare batteries. My plan was to record everything handheld at 5.7K with in-camera stabilization to give a smooth 4k output.

I used up all my batteries and recorded 275 clips totaling 3 hours 52 minutes of video in 75GB of storage. During the weeks after the MDS I edited and published the following videos on my YouTube channel and Facebook.

Video 1: My MDS in about 1 minute (1:23)

Having watched all the clips I quickly realised what a massive task this was going to be. In order to publish something quickly, while I was still keen, I put together this short 1 minute “taster” video to introduce my MDS. To date (19th June 23) this has been viewed 574 times on YouTube. I then made a portrait version and published it as a Facebook Reel (2,400 views) and a YouTube Short (210 views).

Video 2: My Full Course Animation (36:21)

Having loaded the GPS tracking data from my Garmin watch into my computer I realised I could make a fly-by type computer animation with Google Earth. This turned out to be much harder than expected and became a major distraction from the main video. The animation was super boring so I inter cut it with some of my GoPro video clips and added music. I think it came out really well. (It makes more sense if you were actually there). This has been viewed 181 times on my YouTube channel.

Video 3: All My MDS (1:13:42)

So finally after lots of work and artistic decisions I produced my long “Everything” MDS video. I tried to combine the actual story of my race along with the sights and scenery put to music. Unfortunately I mostly lost my voice after the first few days so speaking live to the camera went out of the window. I have tried to continue the story with voice inserts filmed later at home when my voice was, almost, back. To date this has been viewed 1,504 times on my YouTube channel.

In conclusion

I am still totally blown away by the fact that you can pay the money and drop yourself into such an amazing adventure. Certainly it is not for everyone. It is tough both physically and mentally. To avoid disappointment do not try it unless you are totally committed to a finish. This year, 2023, I was forced, for medical reasons, to walk the entire thing. I don’t recommend that. I found I was spending too much time on track and not enough for resting and recovery. Better to move a bit faster, at least some of the time. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys the outdoors, is somewhat athletic and enjoys a challenge. It helps if you like camping as well 🙂

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