2016 Marathon Des Sables Preview

Marathon des Sables logoThe 31st edition of the Marathon des Sables, the world’s largest and longest-standing expedition stage race is upon us, beginning this Sunday, April 10 and ending Saturday, April 16 in the Sahara Desert of southern Morocco.

This is iRunFar’s seventh year of covering the race. Below we preview the race itself–given its unusual format–as well as the top men’s and women’s competitors. Stay tuned for race-week coverage!

Race Format

The 2016 race will have five competitive stages totaling something close to 257 kilometers/159.5 miles and one more short, non-competitive charity stage, all held over seven days.

This year, 1,173 competitors are on the entrants list at the time of this publishing, including 189 women.

The MdS is a self-sufficiency stage race, meaning that each competitor carries what they need for a week of running and camping, 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 the Tour de France on foot. 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 the 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 man and woman with the lowest cumulative time for all of the stages.

MdS has changed its number and arrangement of stages several times through its history, but the present schedule has five competitive stages plus a sixth non-competitive charity stage. The first three days generally range in the 30k to 42k range, the fourth stage is typically around 80k and competitors are given about 1.5 days to complete it, and the fifth competitive stage is a marathon precisely. The fifth competitive stage is followed by the charity stage where competitors travel at any speed they wish on a short, fun route.

2015 Marathon des Sables - Stage 3 - Start

The start of the 2015 Marathon des Sables’s Stage 3. Photo: Kirsten Kortebein

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 usually range between 95 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit with typical spikes to above 120 degrees. The Sahara cools down at night, so runners should expect lows in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit for sleeping. Most years, the daytime 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, temperatures are forecast to be several degrees below normal to start the race with a slight warming trend as the week progresses. There’s also a chance of significant wind on Sunday night and Monday, which can cause sandstorms and impact both the race itself and life in the bivouac. We’ll keep watching the forecast.

Course

The MdS changes its route each year. The MdS race organization typically waits until competitors are on the organized transport buses to the starting-line bivouac two days before the race start to reveal to competitors specific information about the course. The administration about simultaneously places specific course information online for the rest of the world to devour. A fun aspect of the MdS set-up is this relative course mystery!

However, at a press conference in Paris a couple weeks ago, they revealed one key course detail as a teaser. The race promised the longest course in MdS history, 257k/159.5 miles for the five competitive stages alone, and a few more kilometers to be added in the non-competitive charity stage on the last day. Last week, the race also released a couple more teaser details, which were pretty humorous because those basically promised sand of different kinds and at different times throughout the course. You betcha’ there will be sand; it’s the Sahara! The recent teaser information seemed to indicate that the race would include a crossing of one of Morocco’s largest dune fields, the Erg Chebbi, on the first day, which is always a feature of the beginning or the end of the MdS. (The 2015 edition ended with it while the 2014 race began with it.)

We’ll post detailed course information as it’s released closer to race day.

2014 Marathon des Sables - Mohamad Ahansal in Erg Chebbi

Morocco’s Mohamad Ahansal splits from the pack to navigate his way through the dunes of Erg Chebbi alone during Stage 1 of the 2014 Marathon des Sables. Photo: Kirsten Kortebein

2016 Marathon des Sables Women’s Preview

Podium Contenders

As a five-time finisher of the MdS and a fan of this race for many years, I’m confident in saying this year will be the most competitive women’s race by a long shot. There is significant depth to the pointiest end of the women’s field that I don’t believe this race has ever seen. What fun it’s going to be to watch a this group of equally strong women running their hearts out for the win at this year’s race.

Elisabet Barnes - 2015 Marathon des Sables sq

Elisabet Barnes

Elisabet Barnes (Sweden but lives in the U.K.) woman handled the heck out of MdS last year, winning each of the stages with grace and seeming ease, even the final marathon stage when she said she started feeling a bit unwell (interview). Her win last year earned her a lot of race invitations around the world, and we’ve seen her frequently race. Most recently and about a month and a half before the start of the MdS, Elisabet took second at The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica, a stage race of the same length as MdS but where you don’t have to carry a pack with a week’s supplies. It will take a performance like last year–basically a perfect race–to put her in contention for the win among this year’s competition, and I am curious if Elisabet will be recovered from all those k’s in Costa Rica.

In the last couple of years, Nathalie Mauclair (France) has become one of the world’s best long-distance mountain runners. Among her big 2015 performances were a win at the IAU Trail World Championships (interview) and UTMB (interview). Hello. She is sure to be in contention at this race. That said, MdS is a flat, runners’ race and Nathalie specializes in steep elevation change. I don’t know much about her experience in flatter races; can anyone add any facts here? Additionally, since MdS requires you to carry a heavy pack, and Nathalie is quite a petite woman, the pack-to-body-mass ratio in her case will be most challenging. Even so, Nathalie went to the Sahara for a training week a couple of months ago and has been training dutifully with a weighted pack. My guess is that she’ll be among the leaders for the first several days, and if the pack weight is an issue at all, we’ll see her slow in the second half of the fourth, long stage when the week’s fatigue starts to set in. Given her enormous talent and drive, she seems a podium shoo-in for sure.

Liza Howard, 2015 Leadville Trail 100 Mile Champion sq

Liza Howard

In theory, I believe Liza Howard (USA) could win MdS. She has many more factors in her pros column than her cons column for doing so. Among the top of the pros list, Liza’s a flat-terrain ultrarunner–she has lots of experience racing relatively flat ultras and she can maintain superior leg speed over the long haul. She raced MdS last year and was in podium contention until a tough blow-up on the long fourth stage, so she knows all the ins and outs of how to ‘do’ this race. Perhaps most importantly, she came straight back to the race, meaning I think she’s hungry to do this race ‘right.’ In the cons category is that she, like Nathalie, is a smaller-sized woman and it’s just harder to carry around the same-weight pack as everyone else when you have less body mass. We, indeed, saw Liza run strong in the shorter stages last year but flag in the long one. Lastly, she tends to take things out hard. The problem with this is that when things go bad in MdS, they go bad really fast because of the heat and the heavy pack. So, for instance, a teensy bit of overracing can become a big problem within minutes and then can take hours or a couple days to recover from. If Liza can channel her talent to run her own race start to finish despite what the other women are doing, I think Liza could win this race.

Morocco’s Aziza Raji will make her MdS debut, though she’s been trying to garner a sponsor for the race for a few years. She’s been road running in Morocco for quite some time and has a 2:50-ish marathon PR. Last year, she won the Trans Atlas Marathon handily, another Moroccan stage race which takes place in the Atlas Mountains. Last year she also took second behind Elisabet Barnes at the Oman Desert Marathon, another multi-day stage race, after winning in 2015. She is mentored by several of the fast, MdS-experienced Moroccan men, including on her training and her pack, so she should be logistically prepared and fit. From what I understand via Moroccan friends, her goal is the women’s podium for her first MdS.

Meghan Arbogast - aging

Meghan Arbogast

Meghan Arbogast (USA) is another speedy American who should do well at this race as she excels in tough, hot, and flat running conditions. Though this will be her first time racing MdS, she has been a close study of the event for years and has been very thoroughly testing gear and training with a pack. She’s a nine-time Western States finisher, including 12th last year, and she took seventh at last year’s Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. Most recently she took fourth at the 2016 Red Hot Moab 55k. What will benefit Meghan the most at the race in addition to her leg speed is her racing wisdom. I’ve watched Meghan race a lot over the years and I’ve only seen her race patient. Given the MdS is a race where smart racing factors so heavily in, I think this is a significant reason to keep our eyes on Meghan as the week goes on. Also, word on the street is that this woman has had an epic and precision-specific round of training for this race. Watch out.

Fernanda Maciel (Brazil but lives in Spain) successfully does whatever she sets her out to do, and she takes all of her challenges on like the professional runner that she is. Last year we saw her take third at both the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji. Over this past South American summer, she also established the first women’s speed records on the continent’s tallest mountain, Aconcagua. Being Brazilian, Fernanda seems to do well whenever we see her race in hot conditions. I’ve mostly seen Fernanda race steep, long mountain races. Does anyone have beta on her flat running experience? In any case, she should go top five next week.

Laurence Klein

Laurence Klein

It’s strange for me to put France’s Laurence Klein this far down the list as she’s put down two of the top-four fastest women’s performances in the race’s long history and over the course of her three wins in 2007, 2011, and 2012. In 2013, she dropped after suffering big issues with the heat. In 2014, she took second but ran significantly off her regular speed. Last year she finished 10th, once again having problems with the heat after a couple fast stages early in the week. We last saw her race at the end of 2015 at the IAU 100k World Championships, where she took 14th and ran 7:56:and change. Honestly, I have no read on what Laurence MdS is going to get this year. But if she’s fit and heat acclimated, she’ll be among the contenders all week.

Natalia Sedykh’s (Russia but living in United Arab Emirates) presence at the MdS is a fascinating one. She came out of ultrarunning nowhere and ran to a really strong third place last year, but did so with a one-hour penalty for a gear-violation issue. Without that penalty, she would have taken second. I haven’t seen her race any other ultras, and can find only a small amount of info online that indicates she has a history and track and road running.

Pui-Yan ‘Wyan’ Chow (Hong Kong) should be a contender for the top five. She won the Vibram Hong Kong 100k in 2015 (interview). Being from Hong Kong, I’m guessing she’ll be okay with the heat of the Sahara, despite it being a dry heat. She’s another racer of the steeps so it’s hard to get a feel for how she’ll do on the desert flats.

If this was a gnarly mountain race in Europe, I’d place Federica Boifava (Italy) higher on this list. We haven’t seen her race a ‘runners” race, however. She’s incredibly gritty and I have no doubt that she’ll give it all she’s got from ‘go’ on the first day.

More Women to Watch

  • Isis Breiter (Mexico) — Loads of expedition-length stage-racing experience. In 2014, she completed all four of the races in the 4Deserts series in a year, winning two of them. Last year she won the Ultra Africa 200k Stage Race. She’ll undoubtedly hang well all week given her experience, but I think the depth of women’s competition at the MdS and competing within it will be a new challenge for her.
  • Janine Canham (U.K. but lives in Hong Kong) — 8th 2016 MSIG Sai Kung 50k
  • Gwenaelle Couenon (France) — 19th 2013 MdS
  • Elise Delannoy (France) — 10th 2014 MaxiRace Annecy

On the Entrants List but Not Running

  • Claire Price (U.K. but lives in Hong Kong)

2016 Marathon des Sables Men’s Preview

Podium Contenders

If history is any indicator, Moroccans almost always fill out the podium on the men’s side of the race. Their combined leg speed, adaptation to the sandy substrates and Sahara climate, impeccable specific training, and deep knowledge of the geography through which the race is run leave them far and away a step ahead of out-of-country contenders.

Rachid El Morabity - 2015 Marathon des Sables sq

Rachid El Morabity

Rachid El Morabity (Morocco) is a prototypical example of what I call the Moroccan racing personality. Super fiery inside a quiet, controlled exterior facade, and respectful to the nth degree of their competition–a kind of reverence for their competitors I haven’t seen in any other nationality of trail or ultrarunner yet. Rachid is a three-time MdS winner, including in 2011, 2014 (interview), and 2015 (interview). He exudes a quiet confidence when he’s fit and ready to race that has to be terrifying to stand next to on a starting line. From what I hear on the MdS grapevine, Rachid is as ready as ever. Thus, I call him the men’s favorite.

Then again, if there’s any year that Olympian Abdelkader El Mouaziz (Morocco) is going to win MdS, it’s going to be this year. He’s raced twice now, finishing seventh in 2014 and second last year, only 13 minutes and 44 seconds behind winner Rachid in 2015. That 13-minute cumulative deficit was built in little bits here and there, throughout the stages, not by just one day where Abdelkader felt bad. The previous year he was in the thick of the competition until he had a really bad day on the long fourth stage. He has sick leg speed: he has a 2:06:46 marathon PR that he earned at the 2002 Chicago Marathon, he was the winner of the 1999 London Marathon, he took seventh in the marathon at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, he was the winner of the 2000 New York Marathon, and he won again at the 2001 London Marathon. That combined with the endurance and the specific experience of racing MdS twice makes him a dangerous challenger. The win will come down to between Rachid and Abdelkader, I think, and it will be very close.

Morocco’s Aziz El Akad is a six-time MdS finisher, which includes one second, four thirds, and one fifth. One of those thirds was in 2015, 45 minutes off the lead. He typically hammers the fifth, marathon-distance stage, winning or coming close to it, which demonstrates his ability to maintain physical and mental integrity and to distribute his energy reserves well over a week of racing. I don’t think Aziz can ever win MdS as his leg speed isn’t quite on par with the best of the Moroccan best. However, he should finish in the top five and is a podium threat.

Samir Akhdar

Samir Akhdar

Samir Akhdar (Morocco) finished fourth last year but out of contact with the leaders at one hour, 20 minutes back. He’s got eight MdS finishes, and up until last year, he’d never finished higher than fifth or lower than 10th. I am confident the MdS hasn’t seen Samir’s full potential previously and, as I understand it, Samir is bringing a new level of fitness to this year’s race. He has an incredible aerobic engine, tons of MdS experience, and is super hungry to reach the MdS podium. The only con for him is that his frame is a little bigger than most Moroccan MdS runners, so he’s got some more weight in bones to carry around than his countrymates.

As with the arrival of road-running ace Abdelkader El Mouaziz in 2013 to MdS, in 2016 we’ll see a new influx of speedy Moroccan road runners giving MdS a shot. Word on the street is that all three of them have been training well, too. I expect that, of those three, Abderrahmane Moatacim will output the highest result. I can’t work out Adberrahmane’s ultimate PRs, but was able to find a 2:12 marathon result in 2015 and a 29:and change 10k in 2013. Interestingly, he also appears to have raced some ultras already, including coming second at a 150k in Morocco. Top-five potential and a stellar addition to the men’s front pack, for sure.

Hammou Moudouji (Morocco) appears to have a 2:14:12 marathon PR from a decade ago. As recently as 2012, I found a 1:04 marathon result. He, too, has ultra experience, including running 72k and a 100k events. With wheels and ultra experience, he’s another great racing addition.

Again, I can’t sort out road-racing PRs for Hassan Chibane (Morocco), but I can see he ran a 1:07 half marathon in 2010 and a 2:32 marathon in 2012. Does anyone know if Hassan has raced trails yet?

Top-10 Challengers

Once in a while, a European or North American squeaks onto the MdS podium. The last time that happened was in 2012 when the USA’s Michael Wardian took third–it took him several shots at the race to garner enough experience, however. Here’s who I think will challenge for top-10 positions.

If there’s anyone from out of the country who could challenge for the podium this year, it’s Jose Manuel ‘Chema’ Martinez (Spain). He was the top finisher last year who doesn’t come from a sandy, arid country, and 1 hour, 33 minutes off the lead in sixth place. That put him just 14 minutes back from Samir Akhdar. He’s an Olympian with PRs that include 13:11 for 5k, 28:09 for 10k, and 2:08:09 for the marathon. Prior to his debut at MdS last year, he’d raced the 4Deserts series stage races in 2014, winning three of them. I suspect, now that the guy has a year’s experience dealing with the heavy competition of MdS, built upon his inherent leg speed and expedition stage-racing experience, Chema’s potential this year could be the podium. That said, he just struggled a bit through The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica in February, ultimately finishing fourth. You gotta’ be 100% to compete at MdS. We’ll see on game day if he’s recovered.

Carlos Sá (Portugal) is a five-time MdS finisher, including eighth in 2011, fourth in 2012, seventh in 2013, 4th in 2014, and off the mark in 83rd last year. I’ll bet he’d like to finish this year in the form he is capable of. Like Chema, Carlos just ran the 250k The Coastal Challenge a month and a half ago, and he finished third. Carlos has top-five MdS potential.

The U.S.’s Harvey Lewis is running MdS. Now this guy has a resume that will make watching him race MdS very interesting. The 2014 Badwater Ultramarathon winner, with four total finishes at that race, who ran almost 158 miles at the 2015 USATF 24-Hour National Championships last fall focuses these days on flat, longer-distance ultrarunning, and he’s run well many times in the heat of Badwater. While I’m not sure if he has stage-racing experience, he brings a kind of specialization that will serve him very well. Also, I believe he’s toned his training this winter and spring to the needs of MdS’s racing environment. [Added April 4, 10 am U.S. Mountain Time]

Jason Schlarb - 2016 Tarawera Ultramarathon

Jason Schlarb

Jason Schlarb (USA) has the kind of talent that could take him a long way in this race, but I have a hard time imagining that he’s specifically prepared. He just–a couple weeks ago–came off a four-day, very tough ski of the Hardrock 100 Mile course. Super cool, ambitious project but methinks it could set him up for a sufferfest of the very runnable and hot MdS course. In 2015, he took second at the Eiger Ultra Trail and won the Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile, and so far this year, he was sixth at the Tarawera Ultra. Let’s all cross our fingers that Jason’s recovery has been good.

We saw Sondre Amdahl (Norway) race long ultras all over the earth last year, including taking second at the Vibram Hong Kong 100k and fourth at both Transgrancanaria and Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji. But then we also saw him DNF the 2015 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships last December and the 2016 Transgrancanaria this past February, the former with fatigue from his long season and the latter with hamstring issues. He’s been training specifically for MdS, however, including a week-long training stint in the Sahara. Hopefully he, too, is physically recovered and able to roll in Sondre style.

France’s Erik Clavery is certainly an interesting addition to the men’s race. Last year we saw him take second at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and seventh at UTMB. As far as we know, he’s not given MdS a shot previously.

Other Fast Contenders

  • Sebastiano Arlotta Tarino (Italy) — 2nd 2014 Gobi March
  • Jean-Sébastien Braun (France) — 9th 2014 MdS
  • Mohamed Faraj (Morocco) — 17th last year, six MdS finishes with his best being 12th in 2013
  • Anys Ghandoura (France) — 19th last year, three MdS finishes and I *think* he has Tunisian heritage, steadily improves his position each year so I bet he’ll finish higher this year
  • Michal Glowacki (Poland) — 14th last year
  • Marco Olmo (Italy) — Good grief, I think he’ll be 68 during the race this year. He has at least 15 MdS finishes including a 16th place last year. Such a bad ass.
  • Marco Pajusco (Italy) — Winner 2015 Trans d’Havet 80k

Top Runners Not on Entrants List

Times are changing at MdS. There are some seriously notable names who are absent from the men’s entrants list:

Mohamad Ahansal (Morocco) — He’s 21-time MdS finisher who has won the race five times–as recently as 2013–and placed second 10 times. He was third in 2014 and 11th last year, where he limped in with a knee injury. This year he says he couldn’t find a sponsor to pay the his race entry fee and that he’s still working on rehabbing the knee injury that bothered him last year.

Salameh Al Aqra (Jordan) — Salameh made his 10th MdS finish last year with a fifth place. He was the 2012 champ and he’s finished second a total of five times and has been third twice.

Danny Kendall (U.K.) — He’s an eight-time MdS finisher who finished eighth last year. His highest finish was fifth in 2014. For the last several years, Danny’s been pushing as the top non-sandy-country-dwelling men’s MdS finisher.

And here’s a fast dude who was previously listed as an entrant but who is no longer on the entrants list: Franco Collé (Italy)

2016 iRunFar Race Coverage

Given that it’s a week-long race, our coverage format is different from our traditional style. 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. We’ll also use our Twitter account to note daily top finishes. Stay tuned all week to watch the race evolve in our 2016 MdS interim results article–we’ll share that link when the article goes live.

2016 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. Links to live tracking and video feeds will be provided as they become available.

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, head over to the ‘write a competitor’ link on the race’s website. The link is live!

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?
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. Zanna Engelbrecht

    I’m one of the 9 US women racing. Packed and flying tomorrow. Pack weight is at 17.2 with the only ‘luxury items’ being a toothbrush and a comb. I’m going with a 1.8 pound sleeping bag since I get really cold at night, so there’s a trade off with weight there, but I’m unwilling to freeze. I’m looking forward to an incredible journey both of body and mind.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Zanna,

      As a big fan of and finisher of MdS, I wish you the best of luck on this life-changing journey. You don’t come out of the Sahara the same person who goes in, and it’s always for the better. Be strong of mind and body! :)

  2. enrico pollini

    Looking at the bottom end of the men’s list, Marco Pajusco finished 3rd at Ultrabericus Trail three weeks ago with a superb under 6 hours time; he’s not in for the podium, but for sure he’s in good shape.
    As for Federica Boifava, yes, it is not exactly her type of race, as there are no technical downhills, but if the matter becomes very very sandy, there might be a chance for her; consider also that she’s coming down from mountaneering, so probably will suffer less than others the weight and the uncomforts of the night camps.

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