I get a lot of questions about the MDS and I wanted to share some thoughts on what I think is important to be successful in this race or other similar stage races. Success in this context doesn’t mean winning, but having a race that is enjoyable and that meets your goals. The MDS is a complex race where many factors influence your performance, not only your running ability. If you understand what they are and prepare accordingly you will have a greater chance of succeeding. This is not an exhaustive list but 10 things (in no particular order) I feel most people would benefit from considering.
1. DO TRAINING THAT IS SPECIFIC TO YOUR GOAL AND TAILORED TO YOUR NEEDS
This may sound straight forward but I see people getting carried away, thinking they will run 250km. Sure, you will, but not in one day and this is very important to note. If you want to be fast in the MDS you need to be fast over distances of 30km to a Marathon and able to run the long stage well. Therefore, apart from some ultra distance experience, I believe that Marathon training is highly relevant for the MDS for many people.
If you are intending to walk the race however, think about what this means in terms of time on feet each day as well as limited recovery. Your training might consist of longer walks back to back instead. Are you going to use poles? If so, make sure you train with them and learn effective technique.
Don’t worry about what others do, take confidence in your own plan. If someone else is running 100 miles a week and you are doing 25 it doesn’t mean that you are wrong.
2. PEAK AT THE RIGHT TIME
Don’t underestimate the effects of a proper taper. This year I observed several people who I think could have done better had they backed off training earlier (or trained less altogether). You need to be at the start line as fit, strong and rested as you can be. If you are in doubt, then in March, “less is more” should be your mantra.
3. ACCLIMATISE TO THE HEAT
There are many ways of acclimatising to the heat. You can run in a heat chamber, sit in a sauna, go somewhere hot, or put on a few extra layers for your workout. Adapting in the last 2-3 weeks before you go out to the Sahara (if you are not already lucky enough to live somewhere hot) is important and will make you feel comfortable and perform better from day one.
4. SELECT THE RIGHT KIT FOR YOUR NEEDS
We are all different shapes and sizes and we have different race ambitions and running styles. Therefore there is no one size fits all in terms of backpack, clothing, shoes and equipment. Some people would like you to think there is a magic answer because they sell that particular backpack or sleeping bag only. Take your time selecting your kit and think about your needs as there are many options out there and no right or wrong answer.
5. SELECT THE RIGHT FOOD FOR YOUR NEEDS
As with kit we are all different when it comes to food due to differing calorie needs, religions, beliefs, philosophy etc. A walker can easily chew bars whereas a fast runner will likely find that difficult and will need powders and gels. The regulations are very clear and you can take any food you like as long as you can prove you have the minimum amount of calories. Consider, based on your target race ambition, what your daily race schedule might look like and what type of food you need to bring for each day. Don’t forget that when you have nothing else to worry about apart from running and sleeping, food becomes very important and is a great morale booster.
6. MINIMISE RISK OF BLISTERS
Learn in training how to avoid blisters and how to treat them if they occur. Try different socks and shoes and find what you feel comfortable with. Also try some anti-chafing products such as Gurney Goo and 2Toms BlisterShield. That is no guarantee that you will not get blisters during the race but the more informed you are the better.
7. MAXIMISE RECOVERY EVERY DAY
The secret to success in the MDS is to wake up as strong as possible every day and put in a good performance day after day. A good night’s sleep should not be underestimated. Some people are used to sleeping without much comfort, others aren’t. Look at your sleeping mat and sleeping bag in combination as a good mat can add a significant amount of warmth compared to not having a mat or having a cheap alternative. Get rest when you can and eat something as soon as you finish every day.
8. MANAGE HYDRATION & NUTRITION CAREFULLY
In the extreme heat even the smallest mistake can have devastating effects. The best thing is if you understand your sweat rate and hydration needs before starting the race and then manage your fluid intake carefully. Take the salt tablets and eat little and often. A surprising amount of people end up on drips and you can get into trouble incredibly quickly if you are not careful. Understand the signs from your body. For example, can you associate a certain feeling with a high core temperature? Can you tell if you haven’t taken in enough salt etc. Make sure all your race stage food, salt tablets and water is easily accessible at the front of your pack so you can get to anything you need on the go.
9. BE A SURVIVER
I have realised that many competitors struggle with the “survival” element of Marathon Des Sables. You don’t have to be Bear Grylls but be prepared for a week of rough living. The wind will blow straight through open tents where you live with seven other people in a very confined space. Sometimes the tents collapse due to heavy winds. Toilet facilities are incredibly basic and frankly, the scarcely scattered bushes provide a more attractive option but be prepared to see people do their business pretty much everywhere. For women there are changing cubicles but despite very clear instructions they get mistaken for toilets and quickly become unusable for their intended purpose.
You might be cold at night, and you might struggle to eat your food as your taste buds change and your body reacts to this new environment. If you come prepared for this with a can-do attitude you will do much better than those who expect luxury facilities and comfort.
10. STAY POSITIVE
As much as you prepare things can still go wrong and even if they don’t it will be a tough week. Glass half full makes it far easier than glass half empty. Develop your mental coping strategies before the race. What will get you through when things get hard, when everything hurts, when you have blisters, are hungry and the battery of your iPod has run out? Is it your family? Are you raising money for charity? Are people depending on you? Or are you just one of those incredibly positive people? No matter what works, be prepared to dig deep on a few occasions.