2014 Marathon des Sables Preview

2014 MdS logo sqAnother year, another Marathon des Sables (MdS)! It’s the 29th annual edition of the world’s first and biggest expedition stage race, which takes place in the Moroccan Sahara Desert beginning on Sunday, April 6 and ending Saturday, April 12.

This is iRunFar’s fifth year of covering the race live. Below 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

The 2014 race features five competitive stages and one non-competitive charity stage totaling something close to 250 kilometers/155 miles. This year, 1,079 competitors are expected to start, among them 165 women.

The MdS is a self-sufficiency stage race meaning that each competitor carries what they need for six stages 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.

Stage racing in trail and ultrarunning is a unique format. Think Tour de France-style without the wheels. Each day’s stage has a start and an end point. At the MdS, the end point becomes a campground for the night, what the race refers to as a bivouac, as well as the start line for the next day. Time is kept while the runners are out on each stage, and there are both stage winners as well as overall winners, the men and women with the lowest cumulative time for all of the stages.

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 typical 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 probability of other weather besides just hot sun. Wind, sandstorms, rain, below-normal temperatures, increased humidity, and thunderstorms are all possible.

At the time of this publishing, six days before the race is set to start, race-week temperatures are forecasting as below normal for the first half of the week and approaching normal toward the end of the week. There is currently a weather system predicted to arrive during the second half of the week, which, during the spring in the Sahara, usually means a decent amount of wind. And a decent amount of wind means blowing sand and sandstorms. We’ll keep watching that extended forecast.

Course

Unlike many races, the MdS changes its route each year. The MdS race organization has always waited until competitors were on the organized transport buses to the starting-line bivouac two days before the race start to reveal specific information about the course. We choose to respect the organization’s wishes, so we won’t reveal any information about this year’s course until the race begins.

Women’s Preview – 2014 Marathon des Sables

Laurence Klein

Laurence Klein

I’ve got to call France’s Laurence Klein (pre-race interview) as one of two favorites in this year’s edition. Laurence is a three-time MdS winner, in 2007, 2011, and 2012. The 2008 European 100k champion has great leg speed, which comes in handy on the many miles of flat terrain in this race. However, the last year has been a challenging one for her. She dropped from the 2013 race due to dehydration and heat issues, then tore her Achilles tendon during a race back in France not long after. What resulted was seven months off from running almost entirely and just one race since her injury, a 50k earlier this year (which she won uncontested). She’s been training well for this year’s MdS edition, though she says she’s trained fewer kilometers as a result of her injury.

Nikki Kimball (pre-race interview) of the U.S. is the other women’s favorite. The three-time Western States 100 champion and Bridger Ridge Run 20 miler course-record holder knows how to thrive in seriously tough race conditions. Not only has she finished on the podium of almost every ultramarathon she’s entered in her almost 15-year-long ultra career, she’s familiar with the MdS’s style after having run one expedition-length self-sufficiency stage race in the past, the Jungle Marathon in 2009. She’s fit and healthy, and she’s already raced in the heat this spring, the Run the Rann 101k in India in February. Nikki says her weakness these days is running on the flats, of which MdS has loads. And she’s not done a lick of training with her pack. What does all this mean? I think there’s still a good chance that the MdS women’s champion could be an American for the second year in a row.

Julie Bryan

Julie Bryan

I think the U.S.’s Julie Bryan (pre-race interview) has a decent shot at finding the women’s podium. She’s a former member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team and her previous specialty has been shorter-distance mountain running. That was until last year when previous MdS champ Lisa Smith-Batchen started training Julie for the 2013 MdS. Last year didn’t work out for her, though, as she was carrying over an injury from training and she also struggled a bit with getting her electrolyte intake right in the heat; she dropped after a couple of days. This year she’s trained more and more specifically for the MdS’s challenges, and, even better, she’s healthy and she has last year’s experience out there, so she knows the MdS ropes. Finally, I know she’s really hungry for a good performance. My only question about Julie is if she can be patient enough. She’s a shorter-distance runner by background, used to racing hard from the gun for a short period of time, and I saw what looked a bit to me like impatience in her pacing early in last year’s race. If she can get her pacing down, I expect good things from her.

Aline Pierron, who is French but who lives on Martinique, has run MdS once before, finishing 11th in 2012. I think we’re going to be seeing a different Aline at this year’s starting line, however. I think she’s not only fitter but she’s smarter about what the MdS entails. Finally, she’s been traveling to Morocco for some training, posting some fast long runs in the desert. I don’t think she’ll compete for the podium, but I could see her landing around fifth place this year.

The U.K.’s Helen Bridle is a former elite orienteer, having taken sixth at the 2006 World Orienteering Championships as well as having won the World University Orienteering Championships Relay event in 2002 and 2006 and taking second at the World University Orienteering Championships Long Distance event in 2006. It appears she’s done loads of shorter distance road and trail racing with lots of solid results–5ks in the 18-minute range and half marathons in the 1:20’s range as examples–but I can’t find anything about her as an ultrarunner. She keeps a public training log on Attackpoint and it shows solid but fairly low-volume training for what the MdS is. She’s a fascinating unknown for this race.

The U.K. always seems to have several strong women pounce on this race from out of the relative woodwork. Think Jen Salter, Jo Meek, and Zoe Salt from recent years’ editions. I’ll be excited to see who turns up this year!

Notable Women Not on This List
iRunFar’s own Meghan Hicks is a four-time MdS finisher with two podium finishes including a win (post-race interview, race report) last year. She had an injury during training and withdrew from this year’s competition. [Author’s Note: That’s me. Sorry for the awkward third-person.]

Men’s Preview – 2014 Marathon des Sables

Mohamad Ahansal

Mohamad Ahansal

Mohamad Ahansal (pre-race interview) of Morocco is the returning MdS champion. He’s won the race a total of five times, placed second another 10 times, and finished the race a total of 19 times. The land over which is the MdS takes place is not only a land on which he’s raced so many times, but it’s also his homeland. He knows it and how to race it like the back of his hand, and he’s committed to getting every detail about his training and racing right. So long as Mohamad is physically healthy–and we hear that he is–he is the favorite.

Jordan’s Salameh Al Aqra (pre-race interview) is likely to be Mohamad’s greatest challenger. Salameh was the 2012 MdS champion (ahead of second place Mohamad Ahansal) and he’s an eight-time finisher of this race. In addition to his win, he’s finished second four times and third twice. Mohamad and Salameh have raced together many times, and Mohamad has come off ahead in about three quarters of their battles. While the Sahara isn’t Salameh’s home, he’s got plenty of sand to train on back in Jordan. Salameh is a prolific racer. Since November alone, he’s raced two multi-day stage races, the Oman Desert Marathon (where he was second to Rachid El Morabity) and Racing the Planet’s Sahara Race (he won it uncontested).

Miguel Capó Soler of Spain had a heckuva go at the 2013 MdS, finishing third in one of the handful of times in which the MdS men’s podium has been occupied by someone other than a sand-country dweller. His third last year seems to be his best result in trail and ultrarunning. In the past, he’s also finished on the fourth-place team at the 2011 Gore-Tex Transalpine-Run and 10th at the 2013 Lavaredo Ultra Trail. This is his second shot at the MdS.

Rachid El Morabity

Rachid El Morabity

Morocco’s Rachid El Morabity was the 2011 MdS champion, beating his mentor Mohamad Ahansal by a few minutes and Salameh Al Aqra by more than 45 minutes. Then, in 2012, he suffered a femur break during the race’s long stage, which mandated a long recovery. Rachid started last year’s race, but limped off the start line before stopping after just a couple kilometers, clearly not totally healthy yet after his major injury the year before. It appears that he’s been training well again, and he beat Salameh Al Aqra at the 165k, five-stage Oman Desert Marathon last November by a slim five minutes. If that’s any indication of what will ensue in the Sahara, some exciting racing is about to happen.

This year’s MdS will be Italian Antonio Filippo Salaris’s third trip to the Moroccan Sahara. In 2012, Antionio finished seventh before bettering his performance to just off the podium in fourth last year. And by just off the podium, I mean off by less than three minutes. It was a hotly contested race all week between he and third place Miguel Capó Soler. I honestly have no idea what he’s been up to since last year’s MdS. Does anyone know how Antonio’s preparations for this year have gone?

Carlos Sá of Portugal loves the MdS and this is his fourth trip back to the race. He finished eighth in 2011, fourth in 2012 (as the first non-desert-country dweller and ahead of Antonio Salaris), and seventh in 2013. Since last year’s MdS, Carlos, who has twice finished top five at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, has had some success and some trouble. He won the 2013 Madeira Island Ultra Trail 116k and the 2013 Badwater Ultramarathon, but finished sixth and 11th respectively at this year’s The Coastal Challenge and Ultramarathon Caballo Blanco due to an injury he’s been carrying along. Does anyone know Carlos’s current health status?

I’m excited to watch the U.K.’s Danny Kendall (pre-race interview) race. His history with the race is a how-to for slowly, surely lighting oneself afire. This will be Danny’s sixth go at the race and here’s his history with it: 85th in 2007, 92nd in 2008, 55th in 2009, 23rd in 2012, and 10th last year. In finishing 10th in 2013, Danny became the top-placing Brit in the history of the event, taking the record away from Olympian James Cracknell. Danny says he thinks he’s fitter this year than last but that his MdS-specific training is either about he same or slightly less than last year. While he’s recently been the king of finishing in the bridesmaid position at road, trail, and fell races back at home, second might be a bit of a stretch out in the Sahara. But if Danny can shave about an hour off his cumulative time from last year, he’s got a legit chance at cracking the top five. Personally, I’d put my money on this possibility.

Morocco’s Abdelkader El Mouaziz might be the most interesting entrant in the 2014 MdS men’s field, and he’s definitely got the fastest marathon PR by a whole lot (2:06:46, at the 2002 Chicago Marathon). His list of marathoning credentials from between 10 and 20 years ago is a little preposterous: winner of the 1999 London Marathon, seventh in the marathon at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, winner of the 2000 New York Marathon, and winner of the 2001 London Marathon. He’s clearly not in his marathoning prime anymore but I’ll bet he’s still quite fast. He’s also Moroccan and just four years older than Mohamad Ahansal. I don’t think he’s raced ultramarathons before and certainly not self-sufficiency stage races, so I am fascinated to see how he does out in his home country’s desert.

Italian Lorenzo Trincheri has a long and decorated trail and ultrarunning career in Europe and he’s run the MdS three previous times, running to eighth in 2008,sixth in 2009, and fifth in 2012 (just behind Carlos Sá and just ahead of Christophe Le Saux and Antonio Filippo Salaris). He’s a 2:32 marathoner and a 3:05 50k-er, but there aren’t any race results for him in 2013, so I’m not sure what he’s recently been up to. Can any of our Italian friends fill us in?

Christophe Le Saux of France is not unlike Mike Wardian of the U.S. in how often he races, except that, unlike Mike, Christophe seems to focus on ultra-distance racing exclusively. This will be his third MdS with a sixth in 2012 and a ninth in 2013. Just two weeks after the 2013 MdS, he finished 13th at the Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji and already in 2014 he finished 15th at the Vibram Hong Kong 100k in January and 14th at Transgrancanaria in March. He’s a virtual shoo-in for the top 10 here.

This will be Cyril Cointre’s first visit to the MdS, though the Frenchman is no stranger to the Euro racing scene. His best races in the last few years are eighth at the 2013 Transgrancanaria, ninth at the 2013 Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji, and eighth again at the 2014 Transgrancanaria.

Italian Marco Olmo may be 65 years old but he’s still going to run well at the MdS. I have to say I’m not sure exactly how many times he’s run the MdS, but I’m pretty sure it’s every year since the perhaps the mid-1990s. He’s such a mainstay of the MdS that the company Raidlight built a backpack for the race with his recommendations and named it after him. At last year’s race, he finished 14th and looked like he was walking in the park each day.

Damien Vierdet of France will be another interesting one to watch. He’s started the MdS twice and finished it once, placing fourth in 2011. In 2012, he ran almost all of the race with his wife/partner (I’m not sure their legal relationship status) Laurence Klein, as permitted by race rules, before having to drop due to a leg injury. If he runs his own race, I bet we’ll see him in the top 10.

Notable Men Not on This List
Spain’s Miguel Heras is still on the entrants list after receiving entry via the Ultra-Trail World Tour. However, he confirmed with us that he won’t be racing as he’s injured.

2014 iRunFar Race Coverage

Each day, iRunFar will post updates on the race, including results, photos, quotes from competitors, notes from the race administration, and thoughts from our field correspondent. Stay tuned all week to watch the race evolve in our 2014 MdS Interim Results article.

2014 MdS Race Results

Each competitor wears a transponder 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.

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 6 and 12.

Call for Comments

  • Are you running the MdS this year? If so, do you have your backpack packed and are you ready to go? How has your training unfolded?
  • In the men’s and women’s races, who do you expect to occupy a top spot? Whose training or fitness do you know about? And, who haven’t we mentioned who might surprise the rest of the competition?

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.

2013 coverage

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 7 comments

  1. @PeterMcKinney

    Meghan,

    Any idea why we rarely have elite men from the US participating in events like MdS? Or stage races in general? I know Mike Wardian has done that and a few others, but it seems as though it's an event that is often ignored by US elites (on the men's side). I know we have plenty of women (yourself included!) who go out to races like that and kill it! Any thoughts?

    1. Meghan Hicks

      @PeterMcKinney,

      Good questions. I don’t know if I can speculate on dudes’ intentions too much outside of this race. It is true, though, that the MdS is seems to be a rite of passage for many high-level male Euro ultrarunners but not for runners from the U.S. The MdS is costly, about $4,000 USD for an entrance fee plus the travel to Africa and back. And, the MdS does not offer comped/reduced entries for high-level runners except if you’ve earned a discount by winning stages the year prior. There’s a lot more money in Euro sponsorships than in those of the U.S., so I think these Euro runners are getting their entrance fees paid by their sponsors, whereas getting a U.S. sponsor to foot that bill would be a really big deal for all but a couple U.S. guys right now. Further it’s only a short, cheap flight from Euro countries to Morocco, so travel costs and time are much reduced. The Ultra-Trail World Tour offered a couple more elite entries to U.S. runners this year to MdS (in addition to Nikki Kimball, the only U.S. runner to use a UTWT slot this year), but those runners weren’t able to accept due to short notice/other life commitments/etc. The UTWT ticket, of having the entry fee and flight paid, might make this race more accessible in the future to both U.S. men and women.

      Lastly, and this is totally speculation, the MdS is a runner’s race. Though taking place in an exotic place, it’s quite flat. I get the sense that it’s a trend in U.S. trail/ultra culture right now that flat is ‘out.’

      Mike Wardian told me he wants another go at the MdS, and he’s going to try and make 2015 the year for it.

      If anyone else feels like chiming in with their thoughts on this, especially U.S. guys, that would be great!

      1. Ken_Z

        Well, I am far from an elite runner, but having done some ultras overseas, and in the US, there seems to be much more interest overseas, in general, in stage races. I was never interested in them before, as I kinda dismissed them as not being "long enough" (my interest was in how many miles I could race in one go, vs breaking those miles up which I had thought of as not as interesting).

        Then, just as training run(s) to prep for something else, I did a 30m/30m/30m three day stage race along the Thames in the UK. One of my favorite (or should I say "favourite" for the Brits) races to date. Stage races are way, way more fun than one would otherwise guess. If you have never done a stage race, you should, although I'd say that finding one that ensures you'll be camping/staying with the other racers is key.

        So I think it's a chicken/egg issue for the standard runner: there aren't many stage races in the US because no one's interested, but no one's interested because they haven't had enough opportunities to sample a stage race.

        As for the elites, and this is pure speculation, they'd want to race against the others in their core competition group, and with a $4k entry hurdle, that cuts out too many of their local (US) peer group.

      2. sharmanian

        The MdS is really fun and definitely has a higher profile in Europe than the US. It's what got me into running in the first place, but it's a very expensive race that requires specific training that's different to typical trail/mountain races since it means running with a relatively heavy backpack. It's therefore not the ideal build-up race to the major summer ultras but I know both Mike Wardian and I will race it again at some point.

    2. BuzzBurrell

      I think this is a good question also, so I'll take a crack at it, even as Meghan, Ken, and Ian already have posted good replies.

      I think it's fundamentally an emotional, a "romantic" decision. The French just love this stuff. Slogging alone across some god-forsaken desert? Sign me up! The French Foreign Legion and all that – it's in their cultural heritage.

      Us Yanks have our own deserts – really good ones at that – why spend a huge sum of money to go across the world to die of dehydration in someone else's desert, when you can have a perfectly good sufferfest in your own? For free? And drink shitty beer after?

      American men? We download the latest Kilian video, and with armpits dripping with sweat, immediately go online to check airfare to the Alps. That guy is obviously having fun. We go do that, or at least take some pictures of what he did, and our girlfriends will really want to have sex with us when we get back. We go to the Sahara, and she'll find some yoga teacher to pass the time with.

      Which is probably what the French want.

      1. sharmanian

        Buzz – isn't the Sahara Desert romantically epic? I think another reason it's bigger in Europe, especially the UK and France, is that it's on TV so a lot of people see it. They also see people walking the whole thing and think 'I could do that'. Many people haven't even run a marathon so most stages are the longest runs they've ever done.

        Eurosport has daily updates and there's usually at least one documentary made about it which goes on UK television – that's how I found out about it…and I wasn't a runner of any sort at the time but played a lot of team sports.

  2. AtomLawrence

    "Think of it as Tour de France without the wheels." Yes, and without the hotel rooms, real meals, and blood transfusions as well!

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