For those who didn’t already know, I will be running this years Marathon des Sables (MdS). I hear you asking, ‘what is this Marathon des Sables you speak of?’. MdS is effectively 7 marathons in 6 days, running in the Sahara Desert, in April(temps of around 40 degrees C), carrying all your kit (around 7-8kg), sleeping in a Bedouin tent and eating freeze dried food. It has the reputation for being the toughest foot race in the world and this years 30th edition will see over 1000 people take part.
As mentioned before you have to carry all your own kit (except for a tent) which means you need to find the right balance between comfort and pack weight depending on your goals. A lot of the top guys and girls seem to have packs weighing around 6-7kg with them sacrificing many comforts such as cooking stoves, roll mats and even taking minimal food. However, everyone else seems to range from 7kg up to around 12kg with many taking far more kit and food than they need.
On top of that people are constantly looking to MdS veterans for tips and suggestions on what is the best kit for the race. What’s the best trainer? Best backpack? People even stress over the best type of freeze dried food and what colour top to wear! So while I haven’t yet run the race,I thought I’d give you a run down of some of my kit and also some thoughts on what kit you should seek advice on and what kit you should use your own judgement and experience on.
Kit I’ll Be Wearing
Cap – Ideally you want a cap with a neck cover on the back and ideally one that covers the ears too. There are a few out there and all I worried about was the two criteria above. It’s a hat not a high tech piece of machinery. I went for the hat from myracekit. http://bit.ly/1F4O0TU
Sunglasses – The amount of hours you could waste reading everyone’s opinions on the MdS Facebook group about sunglasses is unreal! You want some shades with rubber arms so they don’t bounce around on the face and ones that fit correctly. I got mine from Decathlon for £24.99. If you already have some Oakleys or other expensive brand then by all means use them, but why fork out a wad of cash to get some shades that will get sweaty, full of sand and perhaps a few scratches?http://bit.ly/1uNjkmJ
Buff – These are a great invention and I always have one on me regardless of what I do. So I will be taking one as a bit of extra neck protection/potential sweat rag. Get them from most outdoor shops. http://bit.ly/1B5ixQh
Top – I just went for a simple long sleeved top that I bought from Decathlon. You want something that is breathable and doesn’t chafe. Again it’s not rocket science, what long sleeve tops do you already use when you run? What’s wrong with using them? You don’t need to re-invent the wheel if you already have something that works, trust your own experience and just think would it hold up in warmer weather?
Shorts – Now I did spend a bit of money on these and went for Salomon Exo S-Lab Twin Skin. I have never suffered with chafe anywhere other than the inner thighs and I have done plenty of desert runs whilst living in Dubai. So I wanted a short with a liner to minimise rubbing and have had positive experience with these shorts and they have the added benefit of a compression inner. However if you already have a good pair of shorts then stick with them!! http://amzn.to/1DMl0Pf
Socks – I always use Hilly socks when I run. Never had problems in the UK or Dubai, on road, off road, sand dunes or mountains. I will use these and take 1 x spare pair to use on the long day. Trust the kit you have experience with! Blisters seem to be one of the biggest problems out there so if you are used to running in a certain pair of socks and remain blister free then chances are they will still be suitable for the desert. http://www.hillysocks.com/
Trainers – I will be using Asics GT 2000. I have worn Asics shoes my entire life and have never had any issues. However so many people will say their shoe is the best or another shoe is rubbish. Most MdS veterans will testify that there is a lot of compact/solid ground as well as rocky terrain and not jut soft sand. Always run in trail shoes? Use them! Always run in road shoes? Use them! Your particular brand isn’t all of a sudden going to melt and fall apart just because a bit of warm weather occurs. Yes you will see people say x shoes gave me blisters or x shoes heel collapsed in, but with trainers being so individual you can’t listen to these statements. Unless you are a really inexperienced runner then by all means follow advice, but you still need to test them over a period of months before making a decision. If you are already relatively experienced then trust your own judgement! If you’ve done marathons in a trainer and felt good and stayed blister free then why look for something new? I know people who have used Innov-8 shoes and completed the race blister free, however some of the well known MdS veterans absolutely slate the shoe. Who’s right?http://asics.tv/1KRuLO9
Backpack – I have gone for the OMM 25l. You may want a front pack, you may want a smaller or larger pack depending on goals. If you’re like me and you have a bigger pack you will more than likely fill it regardless if you need to or not which is why I stuck to 25l as I want my pack under 8kg. Ideally you want a pack with a waist belt and chest strap to help support the weight. I think it would be better having zipped pockets on your waist belt rather than pouches or drinks holders. That way you have easy access to food etc. Other than that you want a pack that feels comfortable over long distance. Most packs are very similar so it’s what works when you test it out. I’ve also had the Raidlight Runner R Light and really rate it but the material is a bit thin and I snagged and ripped it.
Kit In My Backpack
Sleeping Bag – It can get cold at night in the desert and I have experienced that on many occasions when camping in Dubai so I would say you want a decent bag that goes down to at least 5 degrees c. You can get many quality brands that meet this criteria so literally the only thing you should be worrying about is the weight of it and the price of it. Again your goals and of course your bank balance will guide you on this one. Sleep is absolutely vital so if you suffer easily with cold then get a bag that goes down to 0 and then it’s up to you whether you want to pay more for a lighter bag or take the hit and go with a heavier cheaper version which does the same job. I want to try and come in the top 500 so went for a lighter more expensive sleeping bag. I went for the PHD Minimus K which weighs just over 350g and packs down nice and small. http://bit.ly/1AryPjl
Stove – Some people don’t even take a stove but having served in the Armed Forces and eaten my fair share of cold rations I would happily sacrifice a few hundred grams for a stove. I went for the Toaks pot with spork, windshield and cooker included. Tested it on a bushcraft course and it works great even without the windshield. Everything packs away into the pot so it takes little space in the pack. http://bit.ly/1yvihTA
Roll Mat – I still have to buy my roll-mat but I’m going for a Thermarest Z-Lite foam mat. Heard mixed reviews on inflatable roll mats but having used inflatable and still found comfort even if they do get a small puncture, the only reason I went for foam was price. They are all pretty similar so again it comes down to weight and price at the end of the day. http://bit.ly/1B5wzkN
Food – You have to have a minimum of 2000kcal per day and can use whatever you want. Obviously being a hot environment common sense should hopefully keep you away from certain foods. I’ve gone for Expedition freeze dried meals along with Clif Bars, Pepperamis and a REGO for each day. I have also got a pack of beef jerky and jelly babies to snack on throughout the day as well as electrolyte shots as and when I need.
Compulsory Kit – Along with backpack, sleeping bag and food there are certain items you must have on you which include:
– Anti-venom pump – Whistle
– Survival bag – Compass
– Small knife – Head torch and spare batteries
– 10 Safety pins – Lighter
– Topical disinfectant – Signalling mirror
– Sun cream – 200 Euros
– Small med-kit
I won’t go into detail on these but everyone seems to recommend P20 SPF 50 sun cream so I have gone for that. It apparently only needs 1 application per day which is why I went for it. Don’t spend too much time worrying about this. I use a Petzl Tikka + head torch and have used it in the desert before. It’s definitely not the brightest but it does the job. Pretty much everything else I bought from myracekit in one complete package as it was convenient and I didn’t want to waste my life researching which venom pump was best etc. The guys at myracekit are knowledgeable and experienced so I trust the gear is adequate for MdS.
Finally there are few other pieces of kit I will be taking:
Skins Trousers (not pictured) – I have always used compression as part of my recovery routine after long runs and really seen the benefit. They will also double up as warm kit if it gets really cold.
Duct Tape (not pictured) – In case I need to make any minor repairs to pack/gaiters etc.
Wemi Wipes – Small and light you just add water to them and they expand and turn into wet wipes! I’m going to be hot, sweaty and wearing the same clothes for 7 days so not too worried about taking a huge wash kit. These will do for the important areas.
Body Glide – Great anti-chafing roll-on and recommended by a lot of people.
Small Ear Defenders (not pictured) – For all those snorers in my tent.
Hand Gel (not pictured) – To try and avoid any chance of D+V.
Toilet Paper – Pretty obvious.
Travel Toothbrush and Toothpaste (not pictured) – Again pretty obvious.
Small Blister Kit – For any foot maintenance whilst running. Many vets say you can get plenty of supplies from the medical team on site so don’t need to take a huge first aid kit.
That’s pretty much it! Your pack may look completely different to mine and that’s ok. My biggest piece of advice pre-race is don’t over analyse everything! Yes I know some bits of kit may work better than others but because you run differently, sweat differently and recover differently you won’t know what works for you until you get out there! So it’s definitely not worth stressing out about which kit is the best as everyone’s opinion is different and while something may have failed for one person I guarantee you’ll find another account of it working really well for someone else! How far down the rabbit hole are you’re willing to go?
If you think of why most people fail to finish, it’s due to lack of training, injury or their feet (also an injury). How much are those things affected by what food you take or head torch you use? Training should be done prior, injuries are just unfortunate or as a result of lack of or too much training and feet all comes down to preventative measures and not whether you have toe socks or double layers.
I run the race on April 3rd to 13th and will update you on my experience as well as how my kit performed. If I’m completely wrong about my opinions above I will happily admit it to you all. Until then wish me luck and I’m looking forward to getting my golden tan back, even if it is only my forearms and shins!