Marathon Des Sables - Equipment and Logistics for a Multi-Day Desert Race

Outside Guest Blog: Wes Cole offers an expert guide to the gear and logistics needed to tackle the Marathon des Sables, one of the world's most gruelling ultra races.

What is the Marathon Des Sables?

The Marathon Des Sables or MDS is a 250km/155 mile foot race that takes place annually in the Moroccan Sahara desert. In 2021, a field of 700 runners took part in the 35th edition of this famous race in October, a Covid enforced change to the usual March / April start.

The self-sufficient race consists of 6 stages which take place over 7 days including a 80+km long stage with varied terrain ranging from hard packed rocky tracks to steep soft sand dunes and temperatures ranging from 5°C at night to over 50°C in the daytime.

outside-marathon-des-sables-ultra-running-gear-w-cole Wes Cole - Marathon des Sables Ultra Race 2021

With only water provided and runners carrying all their food and equipment throughout the race, good kit choice and logistics are arguably as important as fitness if you want to survive one of the world’s toughest foot races.

My name is Wes Cole and I was one of 351 finishers in the 2021 Marathon Des Sables. In this blog post I am going to talk about some of my kit choices and logistics tips for running a multi stage desert race. Many of the ideas below can be adapted to any multi stage or overnight trip where you need to be self sufficient for days at a time.

I won’t go into too much detail about the race itself this year. Ian Coreless, a photographer at the event, has written a fantastic race summary here. But I will say that this year, with extreme temperatures and a 50% finish rate, it will be remembered as one of the toughest editions of the Marathon Des Sables ever.

outside-marathon-des-sables-ultra-running-gear-w-cole Wes Cole, Marathon des Sables Ultra Race 2021

Running Kit

In 2021, the temperatures were higher than average, in part due to the postponed October start and partly due to unseasonably high temperatures for the time of year.

This meant that on arrival in camp, a quick repack was required to reduce down the pack size and remove any non-essentials to save weight and give us the best chance of finishing what was to be a gruelling race.

Therefore, there is no mention below of a synthetic or down jacket which would normally be essential for cold evenings, and I took no spares of anything except 1 spare pair of socks. It turned out to be a wise decision, as daytime temperatures were regularly above 50°C and rarely did the mercury drop below 20°C at night.

Headwear

I used a Raidlight cap with a detachable neck cover. Almost any lightweight hat will do but the neck cover was really useful, particularly as I could remove it in camp or during the night on the long stage.

I wore a pair of Julbo Explorer 2.0 sunglasses and barely took them off the whole week. I really like them due to the category 4 lenses which keep out the brightest sun in the middle of the day and they have detachable shields which stop sand getting into your eyes from the side. As with all kit, make sure you test, test, test. You will need glasses you can run in for hours at a time which don’t bounce or rub. These are excellent.

Top tip, place your sunglasses over your neck cover. It pins the neck cover down which stops it blowing around which can be annoying.

Finally, a Buff was essential. Useful in sandstorms, for wiping sweat away and as a Covid mask!

Running Top

I used a Raidlight Ultra protect long sleeved top and so did about 50% of all runners this year. It’s very light at just over 100g but tough. I didn’t take a change of top, and it held up despite lots of lying around on the floor, snags on branches of bushes and a rubbing bag for 50hrs!

It has useful thumb loops but also a watch window so you can see your watch without pulling your sleeves back, useful when the sand is blowing. It has reinforced panels on the shoulders and a variety of attachments you can clip onto the zip pull including a hydration bladder tube holder or a whistle.

Shorts

Go with whatever is comfortable. I wore a pair of Salomon twin-skin shorts but I also wore a pair of Saxx boxer shorts underneath to prevent any chaffing. I had no issues all week.

Footwear

I wore calf guards, and was surprised so many other runners did too. They turned out to be useful for a number of reasons. A bit of extra leg protection meant less skin that required sun cream, which meant less sun cream overall and therefore less weight to carry. They also worked well with socks and gaiters to give that extra sand barrier.

I am a big fan of toe-socks and used Injinjis throughout training and the race. I’ve never had a blister when wearing them. I wore a single pair, no liner, and combined them with the calf guard and gaiter for a comfortable set up.

Sand gaiters - Marathon des Sables 2021 ultra race gear Sand gaiters - Marathon des Sables 2021

In most years, the main reason for DNF’s is due to blisters and these are frequently caused by sand entering the shoes. For this reason, sand gaiters are essential and I found Raidlight’s offering to be tough, comfortable and well-priced.

Sand gaiters work by attaching Velcro to your shoes all the way round just above the rand. The gaiter goes over the shoe and attaches to the Velcro forming a tight seal. A specialist cobbler will need to do the work for you as it is essential the Velcro is fitted as a single piece (so there are no gaps for sand to get in) and the Velcro must be glued AND sewn in. At 55 degrees the glue will melt, sewing alone leaves small gaps so both are essential.

The fit of running shoes is so individual that it’s important to go to a good shop and get them fitted properly. I always used to wear a size UK 9/ EU 43 because I once found a pair that size that were comfortable. It wasn’t until I got measured properly that I realised I am actually nearly a UK10 / EU44.5.

Contrary to popular belief, your feet don’t expand massively in the hot desert and certainly not length-ways. So ignore the myth that you need to go 2 sizes bigger. You’ll only get more blisters that way. Go for a size that gives you a thumbnail width of extra room at the end of your toe, and try them with the socks you intend to run in. Once you’ve found a pair you like, run in them for 6 months and then buy an identical pair. Run for a few hours in the new pair and then keep them to be sent off for stitching as shown.

Poles

A marmite topic depending on your race goals. I noted that hardly anyone in the top 25% of runners used them. Around half of the ‘mid-pack’ runners used them, and almost all of the slower runners used poles. Which makes sense, as more time on feet requires more support, especially in soft sand.

Again, train with them and make sure they really add benefit to your race otherwise the weight will be a hindrance. I found my Mountain King Trail Blaze poles invaluable. Light, strong and simple to deploy.

Backpack

OM Classic 25 Rucksack - Marathon des Sables ultra race 2021 OM Classic 25 Rucksack - Marathon des Sables ultra race 2021

Whatever bag you choose, make sure it is something you have trained with at your target weight, which should be 7 to 7.5kg max. Remember that on Day 1 you will be given a marathon pack containing bibs, a spot transceiver etc. which will add to your starting weight.

I chose an OMM Classic 25 with an OMM front pouch giving an extra 4L of space. In reality, 20L is probably enough and lots of runners used the 20L Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 (or the female-specific version - the Fastpackher 20) or one of the 24L Raidlight options. The pack should be big enough to carry all your overnight gear and have plenty of pockets to access your day kit without needing to take it off.

The front pouch was helpful here, and also acts as a store for the additional bottle of water you get given at checkpoints.

Food and hydration

Food

Freeze dried meals - Marathon des Sables ultra race 2021 Freeze dried meals and essential gear - Marathon des Sables 2021

Fundamental in so many respects, the food you take on the MDS can define your race outcomes. Here’s some top tips

  • The heat will change your tastes and things you’ve previously enjoyed in training won’t be palatable on race day. Take a variety of options and swap with tent mates as the week goes on.
  • Don’t over pack food. You must take 2000 calories for each day of the race but most people took way more than this and ended up binning or giving food away. You won’t want to eat as much as you normally do so be realistic and test, test, test.
  • I chose to take a small 40g Firedragon mini solid fuel stove with fuel tablets and a lighter to heat water for my evening meal. I chose the comfort of warm food over the additional weight penalty. In reality, it was so hot I put the Firepot food and water in the sun in a bag for an hour and it was warm enough to eat and tasted great.
  • Remove food (like muesli and freeze-dried meals) from the original packing and vacuum pack in zip lock bags if you can. It will save weight but remember to list all food and calories if you aren’t keeping original packaging for kit inspections.

A typical day's food was an Expedition Food muesli for breakfast (500 calories); a Clif bar, stick of Shot Blox and some peanuts during each stage (700 calories); a Tailwind recovery drink post-race (245 calories) and a Firepot meal (500 calories) and 2 shortbread fingers (210 calories) on an evening. Total calories 2155.

During the long stage I had more Clif Bars and Shot Blox but basically followed the same pattern.

Hydration

I, like many others, took 2 Raidlight 800ml R go bottles with long straws. These were great and worked well all week, the long straws a constant reminder to hydrate. They are easy to access, which is essential at checkpoints and in this regard perform much better than a hydration bladder or soft flasks. Do remember that hygiene is critical in the desert so take care when putting your bag on the ground that the bottle bite valve doesn’t touch the floor and clean it with hand-sanitiser / disinfectant when it does.

Sleep System

Returning to camp each day you are provided with a berber tent to share with 7 other tent mates. The tents are basic with a thin mat on the floor and 2 sides to allow plenty of air, and sand, to blow through. Getting a good night's sleep is essential for recovery, but it’s important to strike the right balance with weight vs comfort.

Sleeping Mat

At this year's MDS, our tent had a range of approaches but there was a clear winner. The trick here is to find the lowest weight and pack size for the most comfortable night's sleep so it will be a personal choice. My advice would be to try and get hold of a few options then grab your sleeping bag and a towel and find a gravel path or driveway. Lay the towel down to simulate the tent mat then lay out your chosen mat and get in your sleeping bag. See which one works best.

From our tent's experience, one option was to go super light with an OMM Duomat. In reality it was too thin and offered little protection from the rough ground. Two people went for the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite (or similar) and after one night we were no longer talking to them. It's like sleeping on a packet of crisps. Bear in mind you are 8 to a tent so your personal space is 1m x 3m ish. Neither you nor your tent mates will get much sleep with a noisy mat.

The most popular choice was the Exped XS Z Mat. It’s not inflatable so doesn't pack small but can be strapped to the outside of your pack, weighs 200g and costs about £20. You can also sit on it to make food etc. and, most importantly, when you realise your pack is too heavy and hurts your shoulders you can cut off a section and use it for padding with some tape. You can't do that with an inflatable, although we did come very close to cutting up David's crinkly inflatable!

Sleeping Bag

Out of all my kit choices, this was probably the hardest decision to make and one of the most important. With possible night-time temperatures in the low single figures, choosing a sleeping bag for 5°C which was light and tough wasn’t easy. In the end I went for the Sea to Summit Spark SP1 down bag and it was perfect. At only 342g it was light and packed down to the size of a water bottle. Despite the rough ground, sand storms and collapsing tents it was robust and warm when needed. Which in all honesty wasn’t as often as expected. The unseasonably high temperatures this year meant night-time highs of over 30 degrees C at 4am, rendering the Spark SP1 an expensive pillow for the most part.

Marathon des Sables 2021 ultra race map Marathon des Sables 2021 ultra race overview

Conclusion

The key to a successful kit set up for multiday races is to test everything in advance and be prepared to adapt your plans. Unless you’ve raced multistage races a hundred times, you won’t be able to foresee all the changing obstacles that will be thrown in your way such as gaiter glue melting or a water bottle splitting (both happened). Know how to adapt your equipment to get you to the end.

There will be so many factors and variables during the race that you cannot control, such as the weather, so make sure the things you can control, such as your kit, are well understood and there to help you succeed.

Wesley at the Marathon des Sables 2021 finish - 51hr 39min Wes at the Marathon des Sables 2021 finish - 51hr 39min
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