The Marathon des Sables is a 250km self-supported race over six days. For over 30 years, runners have tackled the Sahara sands of Morocco, battling the heat as they take on the epic challenge. But as prices and head-counts skyrocket, is it still the king of adventure races?
Marathon des Sables – An Introduction
Started in 1986, Marathon des Sables is the frontrunner of epic adventure racing. Tens of thousands of adventure runners have signed up to pit themselves against the desert over the past 20 years.
MdS describes itself as “an extraordinary race for extraordinary people in an extraordinary place”.
The premise is simple:
You spend six days running across the Sahara desert, carrying everything you need to survive. Tents and water are provided, otherwise you’re on your own.
The allure of the desert, the romanticism of detaching yourself from modern life, the internal and physical struggles, and the journey that awaits . . .it’s easy to see how someone with an adventurous spirit decides to click on the ‘Sign Up’ button and part with a decent chunk of cash.
Several great books have been written by past runners, detailing how the race has changed their lives. The critics can say it’s an antidote to a mid-life crisis, but the participants declare that it’s a life-affirming journey.
Runners follow course markers over the sands – there’s no need for navigation, or anything other than just running.
Growing Into An Industry
However, along with the prestige and history, Marathon des Sables has mushroomed into something bigger than anyone could have expected. Reports from recent races have detailed ballooning bib numbers (the 2017 edition had 1287 runners at the start line), high entry fees, a deterioration in the race spirit and a feeling of what might be termed as commercialization.
A herd moving slowly across the desert
In 1984, Patrick Bauer set out across the Sahara, his aim – to cover a 350km stretch on-foot, alone and self-supported. With his 35kg backpack he made it to the other side in 12 days – and the concept for Marathon des Sables was born.
The initial race in 1986 had only 23 participants. During the 1990s, MdS attracted numbers in the low 100’s. However, in recent years, MdS has welcomed over 1200 participants to each event. This ballooning in numbers had naturally led to a bigger group of runners out on the route. Whereas in the early days of the race a runner could expect to spend long stretches on her own, nowadays runners have become part of a herd moving over the dunes…thinning out to a snake-like line as the days draw on. It’s far from the the zen-like, epic quality one might picture when dreaming about running through the desert.
Look at pictures online from recent MdS races and instead of seeing a few stoic runners crossing the unspoilt dunes, you’ll see something else – lines. Other than those few front runners who get the pristine sands for themselves, most of us would probably find ourselves in the middle of the pack. Here, you’ll spend most of your time in close proximity to other runners. While company in the desert is not necessarily a bad thing, being part of a centipede of sports gear may not be what you had in mind.
Leaving A Trail
Then there’s the consequences of being part of a big group.
Big queues begin to pop up for anything you might have to queue for – this includes aid stations, toilets, check-in . . . if you are making a good pace, the last thing you want is to be held up at an aid station because you happen to come in behind a big group.
Queues at toilets are a pain in the neck, but inevitably happen at any big event. However, at MdS there is another consequence of having queues at the toilets. It means people are more likely to forego the toilets provided, and discreetly do their business behind tents, or just off the course. Walking through the campsite and seeing random dark patches, or accidentally stepping in one, is nobody’s idea of fun – especially when you have open blisters and are shuffling around camp in flip flops.
Increasing the size of the field seems to have also led to a larger degree of anonymity. Whereas in smaller events runners may feel more inclined to look after fellow runners and respect the campsite, once the race reaches a certain size, certain community-centred obligations go out the window.
Getting in and Tent Life
MdS divides up entries into allocation by country – this means that there’s usually a limited quantity of entries per country. Over the past few years, MdS has become increasingly popular for Brits especially – so much so that the British entries are usually snapped up within a few weeks of them being released – after that, you go on a waiting list.
The fact that you have to book your space a year (or more) in advance means that MdS is a serious commitment. You are committing to spending a year of your life preparing for the event, so it’s worth spending some time mulling over rather than signing up on impulse.
Once at the race itself, being part of such a big group means that it’s impossible to get to know, or even meet, everybody over the course of a week. Instead, it’s commonplace that MdS runners only really get to know their tentmates. Step outside your tent, and you’re back into the sea of anonymous faces.
How are tents decided? When you arrive in-country, competitors have to organize themselves into groups of eight – who are then assigned a tent. Tents are assigned on a first-come first-serve basis.
And although it’s a six-stage event, there’s a couple of days of admin and sitting around either side – so it quickly becomes a 10 day trip.
The Entry Fee
The price of MdS has crept up in recent years.
For a UK resident, the 2017 event cost £3950 (price is inclusive of a flight from Gatwick). This is a significant chunk of cash for any runner.
Is this price justified?
Well, one thing’s for sure – the infrastructure and care provided is top notch. You certainly get the sense that if something happened to you, the emergency response plans are in place to look after you. The organisers literally supply an army of support infrastructure to the middle of the desert for a week. They have to provide tents, water, medical support as well as all logistics and travel.
However, the price still seems kinda steep when you weigh it up against alternative races (check out our recent Great Adventure Stage Races blog) – especially given that many of the support crew you meet at MdS are volunteers, and that the annual price hikes seem . . . robust.
Is it worth the entry fee? Everyone will have their own opinion on this one – for so many people, it is a life-changing, amazing experience – so it’s hard to put a monetary value on it.
But given you can enter similar races for significantly cheaper, it’s a hard sell.
As a side note, demand for MdS grows year-on-year. It has become ridiculously popular for Brits in the last few years. Now there is an allocation of around 400 spots for runners from the UK, and sold on a first-come-first-serve basis. This demand likely justifies MdS increasing the entry fees to suit.
Building the MdS Brand
Aside from the high entry fee, the MdS organisers have clearly looked at ways to capitalize on the race and grow the brand.
These days there’s an official MdS online shop selling branded gear suited specifically for the race. There’s also new race formats and locations – this year will see the launch of two new MdS events, in Fuerteventura and Peru. The organisers are clearly keen to replicate their success in Morocco. These look like great locations and are a great way to explore new race formats and areas.
The finish line
Marathon des Sables calls itself “an extraordinary race for extraordinary people in an extraordinary place”. While this is true, the increasing prices, increasing numbers and perceived diminishing spirit have started to cause adventure runners to look elsewhere.
No-one grudges a company making money, but there is a quiet message coming back from the desert that MdS is growing to a size that dilutes the experience, while simultaneously increasing prices. And given the ‘life-affirming’ qualities of the race, few question the price point for what is seen as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience.
Marathon des Sables will undoubtedly always attract a strong crowd, and will continue to change lives and inspire it’s runners. But with so many other stage race options now available to runners, MdS will have to put customer experience front and centre if it wants to remain the king of adventure races.