• Marathon des sables 

    The excitement around the table was palpable. It was the day before The 2007 Great Tibetan marathon in Leh. It would be Girish’s first extreme marathon and he was having dinner with the other participants - international runners and adventure seekers. One of them, a German ultra endurance athlete called Brigid Welfelbergen was talking about the adventures and ultra marathons that she had participated in.

    “But MDS was the toughest of them all,” she ended.

    That was the first Girish had ever heard of the Marathon Des Sables. He told her he’d like to try it some day. Brigid was very encouraging but as Girish discovered later, MDS is one of the toughest multi-stage ultra marathons in the world. He had been running on his own since his college days but he had only begun running marathons as recently as 2004 (Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon.

    The Marathon Des Sables, first held in 1986, is one of the oldest ultra-marathons in the world. It is organised by Atlantide Organisation Internationale (AOI). What makes the MDS remarkable is that it takes place in the middle of the Sahara desert. This makes it one of the harshest locations in the world for a marathon. The desert offers a wide range of terrains - sand dunes but also stony trails, hills and very dry shrub farmland. The temperature soars upwards of 40 degrees celsius in the day, then drops to below 10 degrees in the night. It is also extremely dry.

    The race has seven stages (6 race stages totaling 250kms and an additional charity stage). The shorter stages are the ones with harsher terrains. Girish compares it to running in Delhi’s peak summer at 10 AM for six days in a row (average 40km a day) with a 10 kg load on your back. Not for nothing is the Marathon Des Sables called the toughest foot race on Earth.

    Who runs marathaon des sables

    The race draws a lot of interest from Britain and France with a fair spread around the rest of the world. About 25% of the runners are women. The cost of the race may have something to do with the age of its participants, averaging 45 years. Most people are financially stable enough to afford that in their 40s. Girish, for instance, spent over Rs.4 lakhs on the race fees, airfare, transit and specialty gear and food. He believes that it is also a time when people try to rediscover themselves with a life-changing experience like this.

    Almost half the participants are repeat runners, having attempted it more than once. Three runners hold the record of attempting MDS 25 times of its 28 runs. Most participants are not professional runners but regular people who train through the year and save up for the Marathon Des Sables. Girish describes the race is a pilgrimage of sorts and a humbling experience that keeps runners coming back for more.


    Girish Mallya at Marathon des sables

    Marathon challenges

    The stark extremes of temperature are probably the biggest pressure on the human body. In the 2013 MDS, the reigning female champion’s body overheated on Day 4, needing her to be airlifted to a specialty hospital 500km away.

    Sand storms are the other big nightmare in the desert. The dunes of Merzouga in the Sahara, the highest in the world can kick up quite a storm! A storm in the night is the worst combination since it wipes out most markers, putting runners on the risky path of running without directions. One year, a runner lost his way and was discovered 9 days later in a different country!

    Even with all these challenges, every year over 1000 runners run the Marathon Des Sables, which has a waiting list spanning months, even years. The race has 95% successful finish rate, indicating the level of preparation undertaken by the participants.

    Indians at Marathon des sables

    Girish finally found himself on the participant list of Marathon Des Sables in 2013. With Brigid’s help, his application was routed through Germany. The event began with two days of acclimatization before the race. As per the rules, the race had been replotted and the participants were given the run route. Each day, participants would cover around 30-42km within 10 hours. One of the stages was an overnight run of about 70-90km and had to be covered in 32-35 hours. During the race, everyone would sleep in open tents (anything else would blow away in the wind). Participants carried their own sleeping bags and had to vacate by 6:30 AM so the tents could be packed and transported to the next stop.

    The MDS is a near spiritual experience for many of the runners, who see it as unadulterated ‘me time’ away from technology and the comforts of urban living. Even so, they were not entirely cut off from the world. There were around six satellite phones (calls costing a euro a minute) shared among 1000 participants and 500 staff members. Participants were also allowed to send one email a day to a single address each, restricted to 1000 words, no pictures, to help them stay in touch with their families and friends. Girish would send daily updates to a friend who would post on his behalf to Facebook and Twitter. This, though, would still require an additional hour’s wait in the sun, after the day’s run was over.

    Participants could also receive messages via the organiser website. Every evening, printouts of these would be distributed among the runners. Girish says these messages of support and love from his loved ones were what made each day’s aches and pains vanish.

    The Marathon Des Sables ended with a day of celebration. Top quality French cuisine had been shipped into the middle of the desert. Generator powered cold storage trucks rode in to serve the participants cold cuts, French cheese, orange juice for breakfast, chilled beer through the day and red wine and meat for dinner.

    Looking back, Girish says he can now understand Brigid’s complete conviction that the MDS would his most memorable experience. Her faith in his ability helped him think about the ultramarathon and eventually reach the Sahara for Marathon Des Sables. He describes it as the most exhausting but also exhilarating experiences of his life.


    Marathon des sables quote

    Marathon des sables tips

    1. Practice walking for long hours. It’s impossible to run on some days and some stages.
    2. Practice running with a backpack. (5kgs for 8 months and 10kgs for 2 months after that)
    3. Combine running with strength training and cross training to stay injury-free. Running and cycling are a good combination. If you prefer the gym, circuit training works well with running.
    4. Train for endurance by doing a half- marathon a day for 10 successive days.
    5. Run a few full marathons on different terrains and conditions (trail, city, hills, tropical) first.
    6. Attempt at least one ultramarathon of 75km or more before.
    7. Register for a local (usually cheaper) self-sustaining, multi-stage ultramarathon before attempting exotic/tougher ones like MDS or the Amazon jungle ultramarathon. The Kerala multi-stage ultramarathon in January is a good place to start.


    Girish Mallya is the only Indian national to have completed the Marathon Des Sables so far.

    Girish Mallya


    A Mumbai-based endurance runner, Girish has completed several marathons and multi-stage self-sustaining ultra marathons in India and abroad. He is the only Indian national to have successfully completed the Marathon Des Sables, one of the toughest footraces in the world. He is a media professional (Publisher of T3 India & Smart Photography magazine) and is a running expert for Puma India. He can be reached at @girishmallya


    Cover pic image courtesy: Flickr user tent86

    Editing credits: Ramya Pandyan is a blogger, spoken word artist and guest editor at Athlos. In her head, she's piloting a paper plane. IRL, she treads on a lot of toes (on trains and on her blogs) when she talks about men, life and the dirty island that she calls home. She tweets as @ideasmithy.


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