2012 Marathon des Sables Preview

Marathon des Sables logoAnother year, another race across a little piece of the Sahara Desert. On Sunday, April 8th, the 2012 Marathon des Sables (MdS) begins in southern Morocco. The race is a seven-day, six-stage, 150-mile race of self-sufficiency. This means that this year’s 887 competitors carry everything needed for a week of racing, exempting water and a shade structure under which they rest and camp between stages, both of which the race administration provides daily. Tat means runners much carry all their food, clothing, a sleeping bag, personal supplies, and mandatory safety equipment for the week. Most folks’ packs weigh in at somewhere between 14.5 and 25 pounds.

In the week before the race, race administration released information on the race route, which changes every year. In 2012, competitors will face 246.5 kilometers (153.2 miles) over six stages between Tazzarine and Merzouga, Morocco. Notably, the sand dunes of Merzouga are some of Morocco’s largest! Here’s the breakdown of stage distances:

  • Stage 1 (April 8th) – 33.8 km (21.0 miles)
  • Stage 2 (April 9th) – 38.5 km (23.9 miles)
  • Stage 3 (April 10th) – 35 km (21.7 miles)
  • Stage 4 (April 11th and 12th) – 81.5 km (50.6 miles)
  • Stage 5 (April 13th) – 42.2 km (26.2 miles)
  • Stage 6 (April 14th) – 15.5 km (9.6 miles)

On the forefront of most runners’ minds, in addition to the race’s length and their pack, is the weather. While the climate varies in what is the Sahara Desert’s springtime, it’s typically dry and hot, with temperatures usually over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and sometimes over 125 degrees Fahrenheit each day. Sandstorms and wind occasionally grace the race with “sand-out” conditions and cool overnight temperatures can provide added challenge.

In this post, we preview the top men’s and women’s competitors. We’ll also show you how to find daily race results, follow iRunFar’s race coverage, send messages of support to competitors (Believe it or not and if technology is properly working way out there in the desert, competitors receive these messages at the camp each evening. Sending these messages is highly recommended and easy to do!), and find previous MdS race coverage on iRunFar.

Editor’s Addition: Meghan Hicks sent along the following pre-race thoughts on the Thursday before the race:

All systems are go within the organization and competitors for this year’s edition of the Marathon des Sables. In conversations with Race Director Patrick Bauer today, only minor challenges have arisen in getting almost 900 competitors and the massive organization to Morocco. Among the American contingency, a couple individuals are still awaiting the arrival of lost baggage containing gear they need for the race. Fingers crossed that Royal Air Maroc delivers! I saw Mohamad Ahansal this afternoon and he’s looking svelte and eager. The weather is forecast to be milder than average with possible lows dipping below 50 degrees F overnight at the bivouac. Competitors are, believe it or not, packing extra insulating layers for camp! Predicted highs, at this at this point in the week-long extended forecast don’t rise above 100 degrees F. Bus to the desert tomorrow, check-in on Saturday, and racing on Sunday. Let the play begin!

Top Men’s Competitors

  • Rachid El Morabity 2012 Marathon des Sables

    Rachid El Morabity in the Sahara prior to MdS '12. Photo: Meghan Hicks

    Rachid El Morabity (Morocco) – As last year’s MdS winner, he’ll be wearing bib #1 and he’s hungry for another victory. We’ve seen the Moroccan, who hails from Zagora, an outpost town in the Sahara, in action and he’s not only fit, but he’s also fired up. We interviewed Rachid ahead of race day.

  • Mohamad Ahansal (Morocco) – Mohamad placed second last year to El Morabity and suffered from a hamstring injury during the last few stages, which reportedly affected his gait and slowed his pace. He possesses four MdS victories as well as eight second places. We hear Mohamad is wicked fit physically and ready for a 2012 comeback. We interviewed Mohamad after his 2010 MdS victory.
  • Mustapha Ait Amar (Morocco) – The Moroccan who finished fifth last year brings with him a lot of MdS experience, including one previous third place and three fourth-place finishes. We expect to see him near the top of the rankings each day.
  • Aziz El Akad (Morocco) – Wearing bib #9 this year is Aziz, who also brings lots of experience racing MdS, especially his 2009 second place, where he finished just a few minutes behind Ahansal. We hear that he’s experienced a few injuries in the last couple years, but expect a strong showing from him if he’s healthy.
  • Salameh Al Aqra (Jordan) – He placed third last year behind El Morabity and Ahansal. He’s also got a second-place and another third-place finish under his belt. We know that he spent several weeks in Jordan’s desert training, so look for him to toe the line as prepared as it gets.
  • Leonid Shvetsov (Russia) – This top contender hails from far off, but he brings a stellar running history to his first go at MdS. Some of you might know him as the Comrades Marathon record hold for both the “up” and “down” directions. While the MdS is very different race, we expect his fleet feet to be up front every day. (As an aside, we also hear that he’s coming out of retirement to race Comrades again in 2012!)

A number of other men from around the world round out our list of expected top competitors in the men’s field. They include Morocco’s Abdelaziz Ait Abdelouahed, Slovenia’s Anton Vencelj, France’s Christophe Le Saux, France’s David Pasquio and Damien Vierdet, Italy’s Marco Olmo and Lorenzo Trincheri, and Portugal’s Carlos Sa.

Let us know of any other guys who’ll be fighting for a top spot at this year’s MdS.

Top Women’s Competitors

  • Meghan Hicks Marathon des Sables 2009

    Meghan Hicks prior to MdS '09. Photo: Bryon Powell

    Laurence Klein (France) – Laurence, the MdS women’s champ in both 2011 and 2007, is the clear favorite for this year’s MdS. She possesses a deep running pedigree that includes a 2008 European 100KM win. Look for her to race aggressively each day.

  • Jennifer Salter (United Kingdom) – Jennifer’s raced MdS a number of times, and always finishes among the top females. Her highest ranking was third in 2010. We hear that she’s very fit this year, so look for her on the women’s podium.
  • Aline Peirron (France ) – We’ll be watching for a strong showing out of Aline. It’s her first MdS, but she’s raced in Morocco before, taking second at the 2010 Ultra Trail Atlas Toubkal, a trail race in the Atlas Mountains.
  • Meryem Khali (Morocco) – Our Moroccan sources tell us that Meryem will be a woman to watch. She’s Moroccan and she’s run fast in road races around her country. This will be her first MdS.
  • Susana Simões (Portugal) – Susana earned a spot in the 2012 MdS by winning the 2011 Isostar Desert Marathon, a 112 km/70 mile desert race in Spain.
  • Meghan Hicks (United States) – iRunFar’s own Meghan has run MdS twice, finishing second in 2009 and pretty far off the podium in 2010. [Editor’s note: Read Meghan’s touching account of her 2010 MdS.] She’s fit and back for more in 2012 (and also a little bashful for putting her own name on this list). [Editor’s Note: You can read about Meghan’s race prep on her website.]

Leave a comment if we missed a fast woman who should be on this list.

2012 MdS Race Results

Each competitor wears a transponder on their ankle that records their progress over the start line, checkpoints, and finish line of each stage. If technology works properly, the MdS website will provide near-live tracking of athletes travel across the Sahara Desert. Also, a live video feed from the finish of each stage will play from the MdS website.

2012 iRunFar Race Coverage

Each day, iRunFar will post updates on the race, including photos, quotes from competitors, notes from the race administration, and Meghan’s thoughts. Stay tuned all week to watch the race evolve.

Sending Messages to Competitors

To send a message to a competitor, you’ll need their first name, last name, and race number. Check the competitor list for confirmation. To send those messages, navigate to the MdS website (This link goes to the English-translated website. Click on the flags in the upper right corner for an alternate translation.) and click on the “write a competitor” link between April 7th and 13th.

By the way, iRunFar’s Meghan Hicks is #973!

Previous MdS Race Coverage on iRunFar

The iRunFar staff has previously raced and posted plenty about MdS in the past. Check out iRunFar’s 2010 coverage:

And, here are links to our 2009 coverage, which feature Bryon Powell’s thoughts as a competitor:

Marathon des Sables Powell Wardian Archer

Bryon Powell along with his teammates Ted Archer and Michael Wardian after they placed third at the 2009 Marathon des Sables. Photo courtesy of Michael Wardian.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Do you dream of running the Marathon des Sables?
  • If you’ve run MdS, please share thoughts on your experience.
  • Who do you think will finish on the men’s and women’s podiums at this year’s MdS?
Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com’s Senior Editor, the author of ‘Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,’ and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world’s wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 29 comments

  1. fredpendergrast

    Ha ha, what a stupid race. Why even cover it? I mean it costs at least $5,000.00 to enter, let alone the cost of airfare and lodging, etc. This should be billed as Maratahon de Affluenza. Who cares who wins? All they did was beat the other people that had 10 grand or so to waste.

      1. fredpendergrast

        Yes, it does attract some good competitors, but it is far, very far, from attracting the cream of the crop. Another contrived event, and judging by the number of comments on hyour Marathon de Affluenza stories, most of your loyal readers dom't care too much about this silly race. end of story.

        1. dogrunner

          hey fred,

          ALL athletic events are contrived, not just ultras. People do them for all sorts of reasons and pay attention or not for all sorts of reasons. Personally I do not understand why anyone would spend $1000s for gi-normous TVs so they can sit on their a$$es all day. But that's just me. Lots of folks spend $1000s every year to play all sorts of sports or other activities they enjoy. You and I are not the judges of what anyone else does with their $, however much they have.

          Bryon and Meghan – sorry for the thread drift.

          Again, GO MEGHAN!!

          p.s. did I miss your gear list ?

        2. David T.

          I love that this race is getting attention because:

          1) I get to learn about a different area of the world

          2) I get to learn about athletes I haven't heard about before

          3) I get to learn about a different kind of race than I have experienced

          4) I love following any race that pushes the particpants to extremes

          5) I am a big fan of irunfar and so will be cheering for Meghan

          6) It is a world-class event

          I could go on….

          1. Kim Neill

            I believe a lot of irunfar followers are interested in hearing about this race. I don't ever plan on running it myself, but it is absolutely fascinating hearing about the training, gear, travel and the race itself. We can all learn something from Meghan's adventure. Thank you Bryon and Meghan for reporting on MDS!

  2. Danni Coffman

    fredpendergrast — I hate to break it to you but all ultramarathons are "contrived events." And, it's hard to not notice that virtually all ultrarunners, even the ones who live in their cars to support their lifestyle of doing nothing but running, are affluent white people. Just sayin.

    Good luck Meghan!!!! We are all rooting for you!

  3. fredpendergrast

    Well, that's just my point. Certainly it is much better to go and have a positive experience like this than to spend money on big t.v.'s and stuff,

    but considering the entry fee is the same as the average yearly income for a Moroccan (CIA Factbook) it should be viewed more as a great running vacation than a world-class competition. Certainly many great athletes can't attend due to the price, let alone any unsponsored native Moroccans. It would be like if Transrockies charged $47,000 entry fee, which is the average us income.

    P.S. I doubt anyone reading irunfar is learning very much about Morocco.

    1. Bryon Powell

      I hope Michael Wardian, Ian Sharman, or their like can chime in regarding the level of elite competition at MdS. I'd guess it would rank up there with any ultras other than Comrades or maybe 2 Oceans. I can't speak personally to the level of competition among the top 10, but when I ran MdS three years ago, running Top 20 there was roughly equivalent to running Top 20 at Western States.

      1. Ian Sharman

        The guys at the front of the MdS are insanely good and are the best in the world at desert running, without a doubt. Previous 100k World Championship podium road guys and Comrades podium runners (like Wardian and several others I can't be bothered to look up the names of) have failed to beat them. The level of competition falls off dramatically after the top 5 or so men, but that's the case in most ultras. Yes, most people are there just to finish or to go for a target time/place that's way off the leaders, but that's the case at most ultras too.

        Marco Olmo raced in the top 10 at the MdS a few times when he was winning UTMB (he'd have probably done better if the stages were put back-to-back :)).

        It's expensive, a vacation and exotic, but the competition is incredibly good still. The locals get very discounted entries, especially if they placed highly the year before and they win much more money than they spend on the event.

        Besides, irunfar covers interesting ultra news and I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds this style of race (deserts OR multi-day) equally as worthy as single-stage events.

    2. Danni Coffman

      The Iditarod Trail Invitational is pretty darn pricey and on the whole lacks "world class competition" yet there was quite a lot of interest in Geoff Roes' race report. I don't think Bryon ever claimed to only cover "world class competitions" on this website. He covers things of interest to ultrarunners, which include extreme stage races. If you aren't interested that's fine — I'm not interested in lots of races that others are interested in, especially east coast ones. If it offends you that the race is expensive, fine. I am offended by many things too.

      Also, not to rekindle a tired debate but arguably no ultramarathon is a "world class competition."

      Ultimately, it's an interesting race that Bryon has chosen to cover in part due to personal interest. Who cares.

    3. dogrunner

      Not to belabor the point, but so what? Some people with a desire to test themselves and who have the money will do this type of event. But there will still be top level athletes participating too. I expect the high fee has a lot to do with the high cost of support relative to the number of participants paying the cost. It is very similar to the Iditarod in that regard. Some top-level teams/athletes, plus a bunch of folks trying to test themselves / have a unique life experience, whatever.

      The difference between this and the Boston marathon or Comrades is just one of scale. And the larger scale of a big city marathon or big-time ultra lends itself to attracting top level athletes (participation and finances are linked in multiple ways- economy of scale, more participants = greater prestige, more interest among sponsors, etc…). I guess I do not know what this has to do with the value of iRunfar's coverage. It is an interesting race in an interesting part of the world. Nuff said.

    4. David T.

      Fred: I will learn more about Morocco (especially the terrain and geography) than if iRunfar chose not to cover it. In addition who knows what kind of additional interest it will stir in people which might motivate them to learn even more about the country.

      Eitherway you are coming across a bit snarky.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Allegedly used. Please avoid making speculative drug use allegations and, if you're going to make such allegations, please note them as such in your comment. While drug use in sports sucks, so do unfounded allegations about such use.

  4. fredpendergrast

    Ffrom: http://racingnews.runnersworld.com/2010/12/fallou

    …"Shvetsov, a former Russian Olympian and the current record holder of the famed Comrades Marathon in South Africa, was the person Hellebuyck told me had supplied and injected him with EPO. Raymer then proceeded with his own Shvetsov story. For a few months in 2003, while training in Albuquerque for the Boston Marathon, Raymer said he had lived in the same house with Shvetsov. Raymer told me that Shvetsov stocked EPO in the refrigerator behind the milk and orange juice, and that Shvetsov had offered to sell him EPO on several occasions."

    “Leonid is a big, menacing guy,” Raymer said. “I almost wanted to buy some EPO from him just to get him off my back.”

  5. Rasmus

    Let me just make sure you all understand how big MdS is in Europe (although, admittedly, it takes place in Africa). I bet if you asked the average Scandinavian to name one ultra race, they would think of that race in the sand and might even remember the name.

    Growing up, I remember watching the daily updates from the race. It's definitely big.

    I'm not saying that necessarily brings out the best in the world, of course, but you could say that for all ultras.

  6. dogrunner

    Thanks for the broader perspective. A lot of us in the U.S. are pretty oblivious to a lot of major events in the world unless Americans conspicuously compete in them. I guess many people had heard of TdF, but it did not have a high profile in the general public until Lance. Probably a lot of runners never heard of Comrades or UTMB or even a lot of North American ultras unless they follow ultras. I know about MdS primarily from a book written by a British guy (Survival of the Fittest, by Michael Stroud). So random internet posters should always be taken with a grain of salt. And thanks to iRunfar for bringing us all into this broader world.

    1. Pithydoug

      Excellent point(s)dogrunner. I knew very little other than the name of race. Putting the race into the limelight lends a more global view. Thanks to Meghan and Bryon and Irun for the education.

      As for Fred, maybe a little less snarkiness and he might have gotten the raise and done the race. ;)

  7. Kristin Z.

    GO MEGHAN! and i LOVE that iRUNFAR is covering events that are outside of our country… it's a big world with lots of runners of all abilities, interests, and speeds… fun to catch a glimpse if your opportunities to travel abroad are limited at this time!

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