2013 Marathon des Sables Preview

Marathon des Sables logoThe 2013 Marathon des Sables (MdS) is here! The 28th edition of the world’s first, biggest, and — dare I say — best stage race is set to start in the southern Moroccan Sahara Desert on Sunday, April 7th.

This is iRunFar’s fourth year covering the race and my fourth year running it! Us iRunFar folks love all things Marathon des Sables and look forward to bringing you another year of stories from the Sahara.

In the following article, we preview the race itself as well as the top men’s and women’s competitors. We’ll also show you how to follow iRunFar’s race coverage, find daily race resultssend messages of support to competitors, and peruse previous iRunFar MdS race coverage.

Race Format

Most years, the race is seven days long, with six stages and 250 kilometers of running. But this year, the race is one day and one stage short; it will wrap up after six days and five stages on Friday, April 12th. On Saturday, April 13th, before returning from the wilds, runners will participate in a seven-kilometer, non-competitive charity walk/run/crawl.

This year, 1,047 competitors (891 men, 156 women) will toe the line, carrying everything they need for those six days of running, including food, clothing, toiletries, and personal medical supplies. Race administration provides runners with a daily allotment of water, shade structures under which they can rest and sleep, and emergency medical care. Otherwise, it’s just the runners, the desert, and a long distance between the start and finish. As far as the world of trail and ultrarunning goes, we’re talking about high adventure.

Weather

April is spring in the Sahara Desert, which means temperatures, while still hot, are more benign than in summer. Daily highs during the race typically range between 95 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit with not-uncommon spikes to above 120 degrees. The Sahara, like all good deserts, cools down at night, so runners should expect lows in the 50’s and 60’s Fahrenheit for sleeping. Most years, the relative humidity is below 10%.

The spring season brings the statistical possibility of other weather besides just hot sun. Wind, sandstorms, rain, below-normal temperatures, increased humidity, and thunderstorms are all plausible, and I’ve seen them all over the course of my previous three outings at the MdS.

At the time of publishing, race week’s weather is forecasting as normal: sun, heat, and a chance of a day or two of decent winds mid-week.

Course

Unlike many races, the MdS changes its route each year, and the race administration doesn’t publicize the route until a day or two before the race starts. Though this adds great anticipation to the race, indeed, we’re still talking about a race in the Sahara Desert. Each day’s courses should have their fill of sand, rocky terrain, a few hills or maybe a mountain to cross, and dried up lakes and river beds. The MdS course is often close to flat but with challenging, uneven surfaces on which to run. As of this publishing, the 2013 race route has not been officially released.

Top Men’s Competitors

  • Salameh Al Aqra (Jordan) – Salameh is the defending MdS champion and he has over a half-dozen second place finishes to his name, including at the 2011 race. We know that his preparations for the 2013 MdS have been good in the Jordanian desert, so we expect him to defend his title well. (pre-race video interview)
  • Mohamad Ahansal (Morocco) – In 2012, Mohamad placed second behind Salameh (2012 post-race interview), and he also placed second in 2011 and first in 2010 (2010 post-race interview). He has a total of four wins, 10 second places, and 18 finishes at the MdS. In both 2011 and 2012, he had a couple light injuries that affected his training and racing, but he says he’s 100% healthy this year. Mohamad was born and bred in the Moroccan Sahara, so this race is a voyage through his homeland. (pre-race video interview)
  • Aziz El Akad (Morocco) – Another MdS veteran and Morocco local, Aziz finished third last year behind Salameh and Mohamad, and he’s also finished second in 2009 and third in 2008. We don’t know anything about his preparations for this year’s MdS.
  • Carlos Sa (Portugal) – Despite being outrun from the 2012 MdS podium by Aziz during the last stage, Carlos made an outstanding fourth-place showing at last year’s MdS. Carlos has one other MdS finish under his belt, an eighth place in 2008. Since last year, Carlos has been racing and running well, to both a fourth place at the 2012 TNF Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and a new speed record on the South American mountain Aconcogua already this year.
  • Christophe Le Saux (France) – Christophe placed sixth with some smart running at last year’s MdS. Since then, he placed third at the 2012 Tour des Geants.
  • Rachid El Morabity (Morocco) – The 2011 MdS champion succumbed to a femur fracture during the long stage of last year’s edition (2012 pre-race interview). After that, he spent about six months in rehab and not running, but he says he’s been training hard since getting back on his feet last December. Rachid is a local to the course and its terrain, and he has supreme talent, but I’m calling him a bit of a wild card after his injury and six months away from running. (pre-race video interview)
  • Lhoucine Akhdar (Morocco/France) – Local Lhoucine knows the MdS and the Sahara Desert like the back of his hand. He’s raced the MdS more than a dozen times with his highest finish being third in 2005. He’s also finished a number of other times inside the top 10. Lhoucine’s a mountain guide in the Atlas Mountains who spends part of his year with his family in France, but he’s been training basically full-time in the desert for this edition of MdS. I think he’s got excellent potential for breaking inside the top 5 men this year. (pre-race video interview)
  • Samir Akhdar (Morocco) – Younger brother to Lhoucine, Samir has two top 10 finishes at the MdS on his racing resume, sixth in 2011 and seventh in 2009. He’s a clear contender for one of the men’s top 10 spots, though we know he’s been away from his home in the Sahara Desert and studying to be a mountain guide in the Atlas Mountains. Thus, I can’t help but wonder if his time out of the heat and aridity will affect his race.
  • Antonio Salaris (Italy) – He was seventh at the 2012 MdS.
  • Anton Vencelj (Slovenia) – Anton was eighth overall at last year’s MdS, and he was also fourth in 2010. We don’t know much about this fellow, but those are some strong and consistent results for a non-desert dweller.

A number of other men from around the world round out our list of expected top competitors in the men’s field. Italy’s Marco Olmo, the endurance icon, has finished many times inside the top 10, but these days he’s been finishing in the top 20. Vincent Delebarre of France has one MdS finish under his belt—ninth in 2005—but he cleans up well at races in Europe, including a win at the second TNF Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in 2004. Abdelaaziz Tayss was France’s national cross-country champion in both 2008 and 2011, and he’s no doubt going to be applying his short-distance abilities to this long event.

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

Top Women’s Competitors

  • Laurence Klein (France) – Laurence is far-and-away the favorite for this year’s women’s race. She led the rest of the ladies’ field last year by over an hour. She was also the champ in both 2007 and 2011. In addition, she was the 2008 European 100k champion. She’ll begin and end each stage with her quintessentially strong, fast pace. (Editor’s Note: We attempted to interview Klein before the race, but it didn’t work out.)
  • Sada Crawford (United States) – Sada is a standout ultrarunner in California and the surrounding region. In the last year, she’s won the Grand Teton 50 Mile, came third at the Angeles Crest 100, and won the Bishop High Sierra 100k. It’s Sada’s first journey to the MdS.
  • Julie Bryan (United States) – Another MdS first-timer, Julie’s background is mountain running, and she has previously been a member of the US Mountain Running Team. Julie’s been running and racing short distances for a long time, though she’s completed a couple ultradistance events.
  • Amelia Watts (Great Britain) – Amelia is my pick for the MdS and ultrarunning newbie with the best chance for success here. This Brit has only five road marathons under her belt racing-wise, but a lifetime’s involvement in other competitive sports and physical training. I’ve been training with her for the last week in the Sahara Desert and I know she’s well trained and acclimatized to the special rigors of the MdS.
  • Meghan Hicks (United States) – iRunFar’s own Meghan has run MdS three times, finishing second in 2009, fifth in 2012, and pretty far off the podium in 2010. She’s fit and ready for 2013’s fun. (pardon the third-person)

Notable women not on this list

Britain’s Jennifer Salter has a long history with the MdS and lots of podium and near-podium finishes in the last couple of years, but she’s not toeing the line this year. While Morocco’s Meryem Khali is still on the entrants’ list, we don’t believe that last year’s second-place woman is racing this year. According to her Moroccan acquaintances, she’s encountered a problem with sponsors that’s precluding her attendance.

Did we miss a fast woman who should be on this list? Let us know in the comments section!

2013 iRunFar Race Coverage

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

2013 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, too. This is a great way to get glimpses of your loved one’s journey.

Sending Messages to Competitors

You can send competitors messages of support! By way of satellite, MdS race administration downloads messages and distributes them to competitors a couple times during the race. To send a message to a competitor, you’ll need their first name, last name, and race number. Here’s the competitor list if you need any information.

To send 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 12th.

By the way, iRunFar’s Meghan Hicks is #1082!

Previous Marathon des Sables Coverage on iRunFar

The iRunFar staff has previously raced and posted plenty about MdS in the past:

MdS Tips and Training
We’ve collated our Marathon des Sables training and racing tips into a guide.

2012 coverage

2010 coverage

2009 coverage

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 6 comments

  1. olga

    Go, Meghan! I don't know about other ladies, but I've seen you (and followed you around) this year, and I think you're in best shape I remember! Go after it, smart, but kill it!

  2. Shelby

    Well, I'll be rooting for the divine Miss M, who is a badass with an MdS pack. You have trained so hard and smart this year, I know you'll do well. Happy (sandy) trails, Meghan!

  3. Patrick

    Good luck Meghan and thanks for the coverage! You are the only person I "know" in the race so you also win by default :).

  4. Kristin Z

    GOOOO MEGHAN!!! be fleet of feet, strong of heart, sound of mind, and let it flowwwwwwwww! You're smart, prepared, and experienced. Here's to the podium!

  5. Bill Coleman

    Wow, 3rd position after Stage One! Way to go, Meghan! Must send to the Park Record and KPCW! Julie just a bit behind you…!

Post Your Thoughts