Lessons from the desert – 237 kilometers through the Moroccan Sahara

It was back in summer 2016, when I took the decision to sign up for this year’s Marathon des Sables. To be precise, it was my wife who brought up the idea when I raised the wish to add a long lasting and memorable experience to my ultra running curriculum. For sure she was remembering that this desert challenge is something I repeatedly referred to in the last 20 years. It took me very little time to buy in to my wife’s idea, although a participation was not what I seriously had in mind so far.

Having the support and backing of my family was very important and therefore this was quite an optimal starting point. It was only short after when I confirmed my participation.

The Marathon des Sables was founded by French pioneer Patrick Bauer and took place in 1986 for the first time. That time, only 23 participants lined up to face the challenge to cross the Moroccan desert. This year, the number of athletes was close to 1'200, a tremendous development and success story.

As a long year ultra runner I knew what was ahead of me and that success goes hand in hand with the details. In that respect, I relied very much on my affinity to managing complex projects, which is also owed to my role in daily business. But I also was able to look back to many lessons learned from more than 40 marathons and ultra races.

The first weeks after signing up I was mainly engaged in setting up my personal templates for equipment and nutrition. I was lucky enough to have some running colleagues and former Marathon des Sables participants around me who gave me lots of advice and personal tips. This is by the way something, which I perceive to be a unique thing in ultra running. Everybody supports each other and over the years you will reach a certain balance between give and take.

For the first time, I decided to engage a personal running coach. He developed a customized training plan for me, which in the end worked out perfectly. In my view, this was one of the crucial success factors for finishing the Marathon des Sables without substantial physical problems and issues. 150 hours of running with more than 1'400 kilometers, combined with cross training, body weight and foot gymnastics may sound to be a lot, but it was always the goal ahead of me who ensured that I sustained with my training plan. I think that I was able to put in place a high level of discipline and maybe the fact to have a coach besides and watching me helped quite a bit to overcome eventual critical moments of laziness.  

My role in business requires a lot of travelling and that didn’t change during my preparation time for the Marathon des Sables. I took this as an opportunity to plan my training runs wherever I was around the globe. Buenos Aires, Chicago, Boston, Dublin and Lisbon are only a few examples where I was feeding my trainings with inspiration.

I also wanted to give my experience a special purpose and decided to combine it with a cause. As a water ambassador for Plan International, I was able to raise funds for a project in Ghana where hopefully many people will profit from having access to water and a respective increase in their quality of life. During my run through the desert I often was thinking about it and it gave me a lot of positive energy and motivation.

The Marathon des Sables takes place in the Moroccan Sahara, the biggest dry desert in the world. This year’s route was leading through challenging terrain close to the Algerian border. The overall distance totaled 237 kilometers over 6 stages including a long one with 86.2 kilometers.

One thing, which makes the Marathon des Sables a unique experience, is the principle of self-sufficiency. Except water and a very simple Berber tent provided by the organization, I had to carry everything with me for the whole week. Every single item needed to be evaluated carefully and weight optimization developed to be a challenge itself. In the light of saving every gram of weight, you will automatically reduce your equipment to the absolute necessary. In the end my packing list comprised 71 items, many of them being mandatory ones. The absence of the latter will lead to significant time penalties or even disqualification.

As far as nutrition is concerned, 2'000 kcal per day is mandatory and will be checked pre-race or eventually during the week. I took 18'500 kcal for the seven days and it worked out to be just enough. For sure, there are some learning points re food composition and I would probably go for some smaller adaptions next time. But this was not critical at all for success and is more complaining on a high level.

The importance of managing water reserves very carefully is something I had to learn quickly and adapt in the first phase of the race. While the total amount given by the organization was between 10.5 and 24 liters per day, there is still a high level of discipline needed in order to not run out of fuel in the wrong moment. Furthermore, the daily amount of water also needed to serve other requirements like cooking or body hygiene. Water was handed out at marked checkpoints and I also had my own plan to taking the required salt tablets, which are essential to keep your body in shape.

The logistical effort taken by the organization was truly impressive and the passion and dedication of all volunteers was simply unbelievable. More than 450 people were engaged to make this experience a memorable one for every participant. All athletes are assigned to a tent when checking into the first bivouac and you will be with your tent mates for the whole time. Swiss tent 35 was working very well and I don’t want to miss the many hours I spent talking to my colleagues.

This year, 1'094 participants finished the Marathon des Sables and I was lucky to be ranked 333. Overall, my conclusions are only positive and there are some things relevant to succeed in my view, which I’m happy to share:

  • A painstaking and diligent preparation is an indispensable success factor
  • Thinking positive in difficult moments and situations is essential and wants to be practiced
  • Setting intermediate goals helps to overcome mental barriers and ensures you get a sense of achievement in short-term
  • Listening to your body and being aware of any unusual signals is absolutely critical for success
  • The support of the immediate social environment is very important, for me this was even a ‚conditio sine qua non’

Looking back, the efforts taken were paying back fully and I’m just thankful for having had the possibility to participate in this unique event. I encourage everybody to realize any dream you might have in mind. Willingness and discipline will shift existing borderlines and you will gain a lot of inspiration and energy for your future.

An old Berber saw says that the person who enters the desert will not be the same one who leaves it. This might sound a bit extreme but for me it feels like I developed myself a different or changed view and perspective on what is really important in my life. Spending some days in the desert, away from my usual daily life, gave me a lot and the luxury of unattainability cannot be appreciated enough.

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