Marathon Des Sables Stages 1 & 2

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The Marathon Des Sables is a funny race. It starts with a long journey, usually 24 hours or more for those of us traveling from the West Coast. Then you sleep in a tent with eight people, the same people who are going to stay with you for the six stages and seven days of the race.

The next day, I call it “day zero,” is an important day. It’s when you leave your comfortable civilian clothes and bag to live with your race kit, and nothing more. It’s also your last chance for checking your gear. It may be the only day of your race prep that you are 100% focused on it: there’s no email or social media here, no boss, no kids, no husband or wife. Nothing. The Sahara is a very mineral place. There are rocks, sand and very little life.

The race managers check your bag, check your health, ask you a few questions and you’re good to go. In theory. If you forgot your whistle, you get a penalty. If you forgot your doctor’s note, you have to pay $200. There are a lot of rules and regulations that tend to raise questions. But there’s only one answer: Don’t mess with the Sahara.

Small details can mean the difference between life and death in the Sahara. It’s all good fun and very safe if you respect the rules and let the organizers – who have 33 years of experience – do their job. They know exactly what they’re doing. Everything has been thought through again and again.

“Day zero” is an introduction to the desert lifestyle and how to survive.

Then the race begins.

Many runners are obsessed with their times and ranking in the race. Yes, it is a race. But it is also so much more than that. The Sahara is a visual shock, a creation like no other, a temple. It is emotionally moving enough for everyone in this race to fall in love with it, to experience intense introspection, to seek answers to enormous life questions and to find them.

Photo: Cimbaly International

Photo: Cimbaly International

Day 1 was a short, but not easy, 30km. There was not one DNF, which is very uncommon at MDS.

Day 2, a hilly 39km, drove us all into the heart of darkness, so to speak. I don’t think that stage was easy for anyone. I encourage you to log onto marathondessables.com to check the elite results. I am far behind them all and that’s not really the point of this daily column. I’m here to let you know what it is to live MDS from the inside, as a regular age-grouper and to give you my thoughts about the race.

Magdalena Boulet, the current women’s leader, is among those staying in the same tent as me. Magda came in second yesterday for Stage 1 but the woman ahead of her, Natalia Sedykh, got a one hour penalty for losing her whistle. I have not met Magda before this. I know she’s tough, but I sense that she’s hurting a little. If she can take the pounding, she should be fine. But the other woman is strong and has won this race before.

Another strong runner sharing the tent with us is Christopher Moroch from North Carolina. He was ranked 39th yesterday, which is amazing given the number of great European and northern African runners here. But he has blisters and had a stomach ache today. He’s now ranked 68th.

A friend of mine in the tent is Jay Batchen. He’s managing all the American runners. He’s a 13-time finisher and it shows: he’s laid back, happy, smiling, joking. He’s mastering the art of being cool.

Too many runners go too fast too quickly in this race. I can’t wait to tell you how they do in the coming days.

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About Author

Born in France, raised in Mexico, Gaël Couturier, a sports journalist for over 20 years, recently returned from a 3-years stint in India as an editor for a local adventure magazine. While there, he directed an ultra by the Pakistan border, making friends with paramilitary soldiers, as well as king cobras. A four-time UTMB, seven-time Marathon Des Sables and 13-time Ironman triathlon finisher, he now divides his time between Venice, Italy and San Clemente, CA. It’s also not uncommon to find Gaël in Asia and the Middle East where he runs ultras, writes stories, records interviews and takes long, repetitive naps. He's also a “dad” of two lazy English bulldogs, Key Lime Pie and Trouble.

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