Race report: Talk Ultra's Ian Corless reports from the 2013 Sultan Marathon des Sables, taking a close look at the performance of the British entrants
As the sun drops down behind the impressive Merzouga dunes, the 28th edition of the Sultan Marathon des Sables draws to an end. Mohamad Ahansal described the race as the hardest MDS he had ever undertaken. He should know… he has won the race five times and has placed second numerous times.
The Marathon des Sables has been described as one of the toughest races in the world. Created by the charismatic Patrick Bauer in the mid 80’s, the multi-stage race has been added to the ‘bucket list’ for many a runner. James Cracknell produced the best performance ever by a British male in the 2010 edition of the race with an 12th overall placing. In the same year, Jen Salter from Wales placed 3rd overall in the ladies race. They were stand out performances and they have inspired British runners in particular, to attend the race and test themselves on one of the ultimate adventures in the ultra world.
Entrants from the UK now represent over one third of the total entries in the race. Despite this, the stronghold by French and Moroccan runners has not been broken. That is until this year!
Photos © Ian Corless
Danny Kendall, who had raced at MDS four times previously, returned to the 28th edition with one purpose. To run hard, improve on his 23rd place in 2012 and hopefully make the top 10.
By contrast, Jo Meek entered the race several years ago with an expectation that she would be toeing the line in 2014, maybe 2015. However, in November 2012 she received confirmation that 2013 would be the year! Jo is competitive by nature and with a marathon PB of 2:46 recorded in Berlin in 2009 and only one experience of ultra running, she had no idea what to expect at the 28th edition of this iconic race.
Danny completely understood the needs and demands of performing at the highest level in the heat, sand and dunes of the Sahara. When I asked him about specific preparation he was clear and methodical, “I increased my running, with plenty of back-to-back runs and I made sure I ran off road. The mud we experience in the UK is great preparation for the constant changes of terrain that Morocco provides”
It’s not all about terrain though, “I went out for a ‘hot’ holiday three weeks out from the race and I ran 20 miles a day for nine days in the heat of the day. It was ideal preparation. When I returned to the UK it was important not to loose the adaptation I had gained so I maintained some heat training in a ‘heat chamber’ by running on a treadmill. I must say, I never found the heat a real issue in the race” said Danny.
Jo started running as a means to loose weight way back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. She found out she had a talent for running whilst competing for the Army. She was a repeat champion in the inter-championships. Her running has been plagued though by injuries and even in the latter stages of 2012 she had had an operation that may very well have jeopardized her performance at the MDS. But she recovered, started to train specifically and prior to the race she had added to her MDS entry form under the ‘Why are you running the Marathon des Sables?’ heading that, “I want to do the Marathon des Sables for the challenge but also to do the best I can. I want to race, I don’t want to just take part” And race she did.
Both Danny and Jo excelled on the first day of 37.2km. This was an unusually long first day… no easing in. It was a day of undulating terrain with small ergs, a wadi (dried lake) and dunes covering 5km. Danny placed 7th overall and Jo rocked the ladies field with a 2nd place beating one of the pre race favorites, Meghan Hicks into 3rd (Meghan was 3rd in 2009 and 5th in 2012).
Suddenly the 2013 race was looking extremely interesting. The pre race favorites of Mohamad Ahansal and Laurence Klein both fulfilled expectations but behind, new names created a stir.
A main point of interest was the rise of the British contingent. Suddenly we had several Brits in the ladies and men’s field all within the top 20. Andrew Fargus 15th, Alexander Visram 19th, Zoe Salt 4th for the ladies followed by Amelia Watts 7th and Alison Young in 11th.
Performing for one day and exceeding expectations is possible for one day. But at the MDS you need to get up the next day and repeat the process again and again. When you add to this the extreme conditions of bivouac life, restricted calories, no washing facilities and rationed water, the challenge becomes much more than a race; it is an adventure!
Photos © Ian Corless
Day two in retrospect was a pivotal stage in the race. Many had thought that at 30.7km it would be an easier day after the tough introduction stage. Not so. Increasing heat, three djebels (mountains) to cross (the final with a 25% gradient) and a 4km section of dunes to the finish broke many. Tobias Mews from the UK (21st in the 2011 race) who was currently placed 23rd overall said at the finish, “It was on incredibly tough day. Three climbs (djebels) interspersed with some ridge running and flat sections between CP’s and the third djebel was a brute that included dunes, rocks, roped sections and all with a 25% gradient. It wasn’t over at the top. The bivouac was insight some 4km’s away but we had a tough rock hopping descent and then a series of dunes that teased us to the finish line. It was like running for 28km and then finishing off with a ‘Stairmaster” session. It was brutal”.
Danny had struggled a little on the final djebel but held on and finished the stage in 10th. Laurence Klein was dominating the ladies race but behind a battle was starting between Meghan and Jo. Performing beyond expectation, Jo rallied and finished the stage in a strong 3rd place.
Day three and Danny felt a little rough. It was by far his worst day of the race, “I just didn’t feel right. Everything was a struggle today but I was pleased to hold on and finish 12th and I am now 10th overall. Tomorrow is the ‘big day’ at over 75km’s, I am a little worried, I need to be on top of my game”.
The terrain in principal should have meant that day three was an ‘easier’ day with two djebels, 2 dried up lakes and lots of sand, but as Nick Mackenzie (no745) said, “I learnt today that the Marathon des Sables has no ‘easy’ days. Yesterday was very hard and technical but today was equally hard but from a different perspective. It was hot. Flat. Brutal”.
Jo continued her impressive debut with another consistent run finishing once again 3rd on the stage just over 4 min behind Meghan. Laurence Klein had once again stamped her authority on the ladies race and had gained another 20 mins over the chasers. The crunch would now come on stage 4, a bad day by any of the top three and the whole dynamic of the race could change.
Feared by all, the long day was a daunting prospect. Not only would the distance test every person but also the course breakdown of 30km of sand and 13km of large dunes would beat, break and reduce the most hardy and prepared competitor in the glistening sand.
Danny ran towards me. I was in the main dune section of the day just after CP4 and over halfway through the stage. It was a stunning rollercoaster ride of 2 to 3 meter high dunes. He was in the top 10 and held that placing to the line to finish and incredible 8th overall. His delight was clear to see. His race was coming together, the nerves and anticipation of the day before gone, he was now happy, content and looking forward to a days rest before the final competitive stage.
A flash of yellow announced the arrival of Meghan Hicks. But where was Laurence Klein? How you feeling Meghan? I asked, “I am good, its hot, real hot but I am feeling good,” she said with a beaming smile.Five minutes later red shorts and a white top, Jo Meek was keeping Meghan within sight but was now in-front of Laurence. Jo smiled, looked ahead and concentrated on the journey.
Thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, an hour, and then at one hour twenty-five minutes I heard over race radio that Laurence Klein was at CP4 and was in the medical tent. She was not out of the race but she was now lying 4th overall and struggling. Confirmation came that she had pulled out of the race due to sickness and dehydration. Meghan was race leader, Jo was 2nd and fellow Brit, Zoe Salt was now 3rd. Meghan stamped her authority on the race during the long stage showing everyone that she was the rightful owner of that coveted top of the podium slot. By the finish line Meghan had opened up the five-minute difference between her and Jo in the dunes to 70 minutes. It was an inspiring run.
The long day with a thirty-four hour cut off is followed by a rest day for the faster runners, but for many it is a long night and a following day on the trails. It’s an inspiring and motivating sight to see how many deal with and overcome the challenge that lies ahead of them. It is what the Marathon des Sables is all about. Sweat, joy, blisters and tears are shed over the many kilometers to the line. Each journey a story of inspiration. Each step taken, a step that will ultimately be a step to a changed person, the Marathon des Sables is an adventure of personal development.
Day five, the final leg was over the classic marathon distance. It was by no means an easy day. Sand dunes and searing heat, it was going to be tough finish.
Tired limbs, sore and blistered feet moved to the start and after the obligatory briefing by Patrick Bauer they were off, straight into dunes. A light and dark palette of dunes provided by far the most impressive start stage start of the entire race.
Barring a disaster; Mohamad Ahansal and Meghan Hicks would be crowned winners off the 28th Sultan Marathon des Sables. Jo Meek decided ahead of the stage that this was her day! “It’s my distance. It is what I do well. I wanted to push today” and push she did, not only did she dominate the ladies race for the stage she beat many of the top men in the process. Meghan had more than enough of a buffer and her victory was secure but Jo showed a glimpse of potential that in future years may very well see her on top of the MDS podium.
Danny was rejuvenated after a days rest and after running within himself in the early stages of the day decided to push over the final 10km and reeled in places to get 6th, the highest ever placing by a British runner on any stage of the Marathon des Sables.
Photos © Ian Corless
Mohamad Ahansal secured his 5th victory.
Danny maintained his 10th place overall and fulfilled his dream of being the highest ever placed male (one place ahead of James Cracknell) at the Marathon des Sables. Jo Meek in tears on the line, blank and shocked by what she had achieved sobbed on my shoulder. Not only had she secured the highest ever placing by a Brit she had secured her place on the podium as second overall.
The 2013 race had impressive results from so many of the UK contingent and notable mentions go to Andrew Fargus and Tobias Mews who place 11th and 15th respectively. Zoe Salt also had an incredible debut and made the podium equaling Jen Salters 3rd place from 2012.
The Marathon des Sables is more than a race. It is an adventure for all concerned and it holds true to Patrick Bauer’s initial vision from 1984 when he undertook his solo journey of 350 km over twelve days. It has come a long way in its 28 years. From modest beginnings in the mid 80”s with just twenty three runners taking part, the 2013 edition had over one thousand participants. As mentioned, the British contingent now makes up over one third of the race. With a two to three year waiting list I am absolutely sure that the future holds some great potential for UK runners.
The Brits are coming…!
Click here to find out more about the Marathon Des Sables
||Salameh Al Aqra
||Miguel Capo Soler
Click here for full results