The Ultimate Desert Stage Race: Marathon des Sables

Marathon des Sables, French for Marathon of Sands (or MdS for short), is known as the “Toughest Footrace on Earth.”

Why? Because it is roughly a 250-kilometer journey in seven days run in the hot sands of the Saharan desert. It is fully self-supported meaning there are no race crews, and you have to carry your supplies. 

There are no showers, so you run the entire race covered in sand. There are no flushing toilets. And you spend the night in communal goats-hair Berber tents with no sides protecting you from the desert winds. 

The threat of a visit from snakes or scorpions loom.

In this article, we will unpack  . . .

  • the story behind the Marathon des Sables,
  • what makes it so difficult,
  • and how to prepare for one of the toughest ultras in the world, and more.
marathon des sables

Where is the Marathon Des Sables held? 

The MdS is held in southern Morocco, in the Sahara Desert. 

How many days is the Marathon Des Sables?

The MdS is a six-day stage race run over seven days (with one rest day). 

Related: Learn about multi-day stage races.

How long is the Marathon des Sables?

The course changes every year but roughly the MdS is which cover 156 miles or 251 km in a total of seven days. 

How does the Marathon des Sables work?

The MdS is a six-stage race in which the first three days participants run about a marathon each day.

On Day 4 runners will run about a double-marathon distance.

Day 5 is a rest day and Day 6 is the day runners finish the race.  

marathon des sables
Credit: Erik Sampers

What is the terrain like for the Marathon des Sables?

The MdS is run entirely in a desert so runners will run “endless sand dunes over rocky jebels and across white-hot salt plains,” writes one participant

Related: The 4 Deserts Race Series

How hard is the Marathon des Sables?

Combining the distance, the sand, the heat, the wind, and the weight of carrying your own supplies, the MdS is regarded as one of the toughest footraces in the world. 

Having said that, the completion rate is well over 90%, and many competitors are not seasons ultrarunners.

Marathon des Sables is popular with bucket-listers: recreational runners who want to do a once-in-a-lifetime challenge.

If you can put up with the discomfort, heat, and sand, you actually have a decent chance of finishing.

As one participant puts it: “It is an absolutely blast. If you don’t mind sand, blisters, pooping in a bag and being VERY HUNGRY.”

When did the Marathon des Sables start?

The first Marathon des Sables was run in 1986. 

The Ultimate Desert Stage Race: Marathon des Sables 1

Who started the Marathon des Sables?

The Marathon des Sables was created by a French concert promotor Patrick Bauer. In 1984 Bauer crossed the Saharan desert on foot alone. He covered 214 miles (350 km) in 12 days. He reportedly did so without a single oasis or any community support. 

Two years later, the first Marathon des Sables was run with 23 participants. Now more than a thousand sign up and run the desert race each year.

What should you eat for the Marathon des Sables?

The MdS has specific advice on its site for what runners should eat for the ultramarathon.

It recommends runners pack enough food for all meals from the first breakfast to the last to lunch at the last stage. 

Food should be freeze-dried in which water is added to eat. “Carefully calculate your calories: 3000 – 4000 are necessary daily (varying between individuals). This plus energy bars should be the basis of your nourishment,” reads the site.

Is water provided during the MdS?

Runners running in the sweltering desert need water. So, yes. The MdS does provide water to its participants – though only at certain points. The race site says “162,000 liters of water are consumed during the event.” 

The race distributes “some water per day to each competitor, at departure, check-points and arrival. You must manage your water from the starting line of one stage to the starting line of the next stage.”

Related: Complete Guide to UTMB

The Ultimate Desert Stage Race: Marathon des Sables 2
Credit: Erik Sampers

What should you pack for the Marathon des Sables?

What you carry for the MdS can quickly make or break your race. 

“When you have to be self-sufficient for all your food and water needs, everything you carry must be carefully weighed so that you aren’t carrying anything ill-adapted to your own physical performance,” reads the race site

Here are some tips from the race site on what to bring:

  • Rucksack or Backpack: Make sure the frame of your backpack doesn’t cause rubbing. Check the site for suitable packs. Some brand claim they are perfect for MdS. The race organization argues these statements are false. Also make sure the bag straps do not cover your number.
  • Waist bag: Most runners carry a rucksack and waist bag to balance the load.
  • Stove: Pack a heating stove with extra alcohol tablets to stay warm at night.
  • Sleeping bag: These are obligatory.
  • Head covering: You must cover your head to avoid sunstroke and heat exhaustion. 
  • Cotton clothes: The most suitable clothing is made of loose-fitting cotton, and a sweatshirt and track pants for nighttime. 
  • Gaiter: These keep sand out but should be lightweight and compactible.
  • Shoes: Shoes two sizes larger and with a wider fitting at toe level will be more comfortable when your feet swell due to the heat.
  • An aspivenin pump: Keep close at hand in case bitten by a poisonous snake or insect.
  • No ointment or greasy products: Lube is common to prevent chaffing but in the desert this will only turn your skin into sandpaper. 

How do you train for the Marathon des Sables?

The best way to prepare for the MdS is to spend lots of time on your feet. 

There is nothing better than training before the race to ensure the good condition of your feet during the race. They will carry you throughout the race if you take good care of them.”

The site’s training advice states that participants should spend at least six months training for the MdS:

Train progressively:

  • For the long-distance runner, weekly mileage should average 100 to 125 miles.
  • For more modest objectives, the goal should be 30 or 50 miles weekly. Increase your mileage progressively. 
  • Train occasionally with a backpack weighing 3 to 10 kg, increasing the weight gradually, so that you get adjusted to running while bearing weight.
  • Practice drinking water and eating energy foods during your training sessions.  

“If you have never run or if you are not used to training at least three times a week for several months, it is not reasonable to consider entering the Marathon des Sables,” writes the site.

How many people finish the Marathon des Sables?

With less than a thousand participants in each MdS, nearly all finish the endurance event.

In 2019, 96% of the 783 runners completed the event.

The Ultimate Desert Stage Race: Marathon des Sables 3

Is the Marathon des Sables self-supported?

Yes, you must carry your own supplies for the MdS but there is medical care. Runners must be cleared by a sports medical professional before arriving at the race. 

During the race, there is a medical team there for runners’ safety. Throughout the course of the race they will be there at each check point and at the night camp. 

“Do not hesitate to consult them. A small health problem treated in time will not turn into anything serious that could stop you from pursuing the magnificent MdS adventure.”

How hot does it get in the Marathon des Sables?

It reportedly gets to be more than 122 degrees Fahrenheit or 50 degrees Celsius during the MdS.

Who has won the most MdS races?

Morocco’s Rachid El Morabity won his seventh victory in 2019.

What happened to Mauro Prosperi in the Marathon des Sables?

In the 1994 MdS, Mauro Prosperi was veered 300 km off-course due to a 12-hour sandstorm.

He survived drinking his own urine and bat’s blood and eating lizards. 

After many days, he tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists.

But his dehydration prevented him from bleeding to death.

Eventually, he was found and after several years of rehabilitation, continued to compete in endurance events. 

Who is Cactus the dog?

Cactus the dog is a dog who ran the 2019 Marathon des Sables, who joined the peloton unexpectedly during the second stage and traveling 192 km with the competitors. 

The Ultimate Desert Stage Race: Marathon des Sables 4

Sadly, Cactus died after being hit by a car in 2020 in Morocco. 

How much does it cost to run the Marathon des Sables?

The cost of the MdS varies depending on your nationality and the package you purchase.

Roughly, it costs about $4,000 US dollars to enter the Marathon des Sables. 

When is the Marathon des Sables?

The MdS is held in late March or early April of each year. However, due to COVID, the Maraton des Sables of 2021 is being held in October.

Do you have to qualify to run the MdS?

No, you do not have to run a race to qualify for the Marathon des Sables.

marathon des sables

Does the Marathon Des Sables help a charity?

In 2009, the Solidarité Marathon des Sables association was created with a mission to assist children and disadvantaged populations in the areas of health, education, and sustainable development in Morocco.

Additionally, many participants run the race to raise money for a personal cause including raising money for a school, a charitable organization, or bringing awareness to a disease. 

Read more about these efforts at in the  MdS’s Competitor’s Corner.

Can I register for the next Marathon des Sables?

Registration is now open for the next Marathon des Sables. You can register here.

If you want to nail your ultramarathon, check out our Ultramarathon resources.

Photo of author
Whitney Heins is the founder of The Mother Runners and a VDOT-O2 certified running coach. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her two crazy, beautiful kids, pups, and husband. She is currently training to qualify for the US Olympic Trials marathon.

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