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 the Managing Editor of iRunFar and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.