Moroccan Mohamad Ahansal and Salameh Al Aqra of Jordan will continue their nearly decade-long duel for the top spot during the 2014 Marathon des Sables (MdS).
Last year, the U.K.’s Danny Kendall finished in the top 10, the highest ever finish by a Brit at the MdS. This year, he’s got a shot at a top-five finish.
In the following interviews, learn what’s on Mohamad’s mind a couple days before the race as well as the backpack and shoes he’s using, learn about the slight injury Salameh is carrying from a previous race into this one, and see Danny’s thoughts about where he’s at fitness- and preparation-wise this year as compared to 2013. Jump to our interview with Mohamad Ahansal, Salameh Al Aqra, or Danny Kendall.
For more information on the 2014 Marathon des Sables, be sure to check out our full preview as well as our pre-race interviews with Laurence Klein, Nikki Kimball, and Julie Bryan.
iRunFar: Mohamad, how are you?
Mohamad Ahansal: I am fine. I am okay. Thank you. I am in the desert now in Merzouga at the finish line of last year.
iRunFar: Are you actually in the town of Merzouga, by the big sand dunes?
Ahansal: Yes, 10 days or one week here.
iRunFar: For your final preparations?
Ahansal: Yes, the last preparations.
iRunFar: Have you been running in the sand dunes every day?
Ahansal: Every day running. One day in the dunes, and one day not [in the dunes.]
iRunFar: It’s just a few days before MdS now. The race starts Sunday. How are you feeling?
Ahansal: Now I feel better and good, but this year I think it will be very quick maybe. [laughs]
iRunFar: You think the Marathon des Sables will be very fast this year?
Ahansal: Yes. Fast. Very fast.
iRunFar: Is that because of the course or because of the competition? Why do you think this year will be very fast?
Ahansal: Rachid [El Morabity] came back. Salameh Al Aqra. And there’s a new runner from Morocco that has a 2:06 marathon[, Abdelkader El Mouaziz,] who is very quick. I think for the first and second and third stages it will be very fast, very fast. After, it will be very hot.
iRunFar: You think that because of the four of you as competition that it will make the first couple stages go a lot faster?
Ahansal: Yes, the first and second and third stages maybe.
iRunFar: Abdelkader, the 2:06 marathoner, have you met him before?
Ahansal: Yes. We ran together in the New York Marathon.
iRunFar: Have you trained in the desert with him?
Ahansal: No, not together.
iRunFar: So only in road marathons you’ve run together?
Ahansal: Yes—New York Marathon 2000. [Editor’s Note: Abdelkader won the New York Marathon that year with a 2:10:09 and Mohamad finished in 2:30:30.]
iRunFar: When I think about the Marathon des Sables this year for the men’s competition, it reminds me of 2011 and 2012 when it was you and Salameh and Rachid together pushing each other. When you think of this year, do you think of those past years, too?
Ahansal: The long stage is very important this year, and I think the results for the long stage is the finish for the Marathon des Sables. The long stage is very important because it’s difficult and long.
iRunFar: Each year I interview you, you tell me the long stage is the most important and then you go and do very well on the long stage. How do you focus on making the long stage so good for you?
Ahansal: Because my experience and because my training includes two 60-kilometer runs and two 45-kilometer runs. I think it’s very important for the long stage. I also did two weeks with one week at 230 kilometers and one week at 260 kilometers.
iRunFar: During those big weeks, how many kilometers did you run with your pack?
Ahansal: Not every time but maybe 35 to 60k runs with the pack.
iRunFar: So you did your long training runs with your pack.
Ahansal: Yes, exactly. Now these last 10 days, I alternated one day with pack and one day without. Maybe this Friday I’ll run 25 to 30k in the morning with the pack.
iRunFar: This Friday before MdS which starts on Sunday?
Ahansal: Yes, this Friday before going to the bivouac.
iRunFar: Maybe a little bit crazy but for you this is normal? [laughs] What rucksack are you running with this year?
Ahansal: It’s different than last year. It’s the old Ahansal pack from my brother[, Lahcen Ahansal, who has won the MdS 10 times.] Maybe next year there will be a new rucksack.
iRunFar: I saw a picture of you wearing a new rucksack.
iRunFar: So is that the one for the future?
Ahansal: In the future, yes.
iRunFar: The new rucksack, is it from a different company or did you make it?
Ahansal: Yes, my company that I have with my brother. It’s a lot of work this year. Maybe next year we work together with UVU Racing.
iRunFar: Ah, I understand. So this year you use the old Ahansal rucksack, and maybe next year there will be a new UVU rucksack?
Ahansal: Exactly, yes.
iRunFar: I look forward to seeing that new rucksack. What shoes are you going to wear this year?
Ahansal: I have tested a new shoe from Switzerland—the name is ON Running shoes. Do you know? They are very, very light. Under 280 grams. Very good. I have a picture on Facebook that you can see.
iRunFar: I will look. I’m sure you have heard a little bit about the course from the press conference in Casablanca a few weeks ago. What are you looking forward to?
Ahansal: The press conference from Casablanca says the first day is a lot of sand. I have no specific information but maybe the last stage of last year is the same as the first stage this year?
iRunFar: I’ve heard the same, that the first day will be pretty difficult.
Ahansal: A lot of sand. Maybe starting from Merzouga? Maybe the second stage very long, 45 to 50k? I don’t know. They said at the press conference that the second stage is very long.
iRunFar: So that’s two hard days to start off.
Ahansal: Yes, exactly.
iRunFar: Best of luck to you this year, Mohamad.
Salameh Al Aqra
iRunFar: Hello, Salameh. It’s the 29th edition of the Marathon des Sables. It’s about five days before the race. How are you feeling?
Salameh Al Aqra: It’s another competition, so the preparation and the feeling is the same as just before any other competition although there are some changes in the race every year now. I’ve learned to cope with them. I’ve learned to prepare and just cope with them.
iRunFar: The Marathon des Sables is a race that keeps drawing you back year after year. What keeps you coming back?
Al Aqra: The race is basically the biggest and by far the most reputable. When I keep coming back, I keep saying to myself, This year is the last one. I just can’t face the expectation of coming back every single year.
iRunFar: This is your ninth year?
Al Aqra: Yes, it is the ninth time. This year is a bit different for me. What’s keeping me worried this time is an injury that I suffered about a month ago. It’s still a bit lingering on. I’m hopeful that it will not slow me down.
iRunFar: Tell us a little bit about that injury. What’s going on?
Al Aqra: I had a very good year as far as racing and training. I did a couple of major races including Oman Desert Marathon and then the Four Deserts race that took place in Petra. Basically during the Oman race, I was chasing after Rachid El Morabity who came in first. I came in second. But in Four Deserts when I was running, I actually pulled my Achilles tendon. It’s kind of still sore until this moment.
iRunFar: So the Four Deserts race in Petra was back in February?
Al Aqra: Yes.
iRunFar: Just since November, the MdS will be your third multi-day, self-sufficient stage race. The Achilles tendon issue is maybe an indicator that you are feeling all those miles on your legs?
Al Aqra: When I saw Rachid in Oman and the competition was very fierce between us, I felt that I had to catch up to Rachid when it comes to Marathon des Sables. I started my training immediately after Oman. Then when I was at the Four Deserts, I actually used excessive speed according to many people in the race. During the long stage, I had over stretched my Achilles on a rock and I paid the price. In essence, I think the load might play some part, but it was an unlucky injury.
iRunFar: So tell me where the Achilles is at now. What is your game plan strategically for this race? Do you think it’s going to hold up through the week? Are you going to try to get as many good days out of it as possible? Are you going to race a little bit more conservatively to protect it?
Al Aqra: I’m going to do my best to win the race. Of course, anything in the top three would be fine by me. The doctors had told me that if the pain starts to get severe, that means I’m close to seriously injuring it. I’m worried about a rupture then. They have advised me to pull out of the race if it goes really bad, and that’s what I intend to do. I really need to preserve my body rather than just win one race.
iRunFar: There are always more races and then there is living the rest of life.
Al Aqra: Right. I don’t regret or have any bad feeling about the injury. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a part of the game. Any runner could get injured at any point and life goes on. I overstepped the rock. It could happen at any stage at any time to anyone. You just go on.
iRunFar: Absolutely. Injury is a part of running. When I think about the 2014 race, I think of it as a bit of a repeat to 2011 and 2012 when it was a very close battle between you, Mohamad Ahansal, and Rachid El Morabity. What do you think about when you think about this year? Are you thinking back to when you, Rachid, and Mohamad battled so closely? What’s in your mind?
Al Aqra: I’m drawing back to the emotions of 2012 when I won the race because I came also with an injury and I had thought of also pulling out of the race. Emotionally I’m trying to draw back on that experience.
iRunFar: You have run this race many times. You have finished on the podium many times. But you have won just once so far. There has to be a certain precision where all of the stars align and all of the variables come together for a win. What does it take to raise your game from finishing on the podium to winning?
Al Aqra: What I need to do is stay focused because there is one more factor that is in this year’s race which is Abdelkader El Mouaziz. Actually you’re familiar with him as the famous marathon runner.
Al Aqra: His participation will be a little bit of a distraction possibly. I want to stay focused on my own game. I think if I do that, I stand a good chance.
iRunFar: Yes, throwing a 2:06 marathoner into the Marathon des Sables is an interesting twist, isn’t it?
Al Aqra: Although yes, it’s in theory great, there’s only one way to find out what his capabilities in the desert are and that is to be there.
iRunFar: There are probably few races in the world where you can say that it is one thing to be a 2:06 marathoner and it’s really quite another to win the Marathon des Sables.
Al Aqra: Yes, it is. I think it is exactly like you say. It doesn’t mean much in regards to what you do [on the road] because the desert is a totally different ball game. It’s a psychological push for everybody at the front to push harder because we know we have him. It might actually add some pressure but I feel to me it will actually be helpful rather than hindering.
iRunFar: My last question for you, Salameh. It’s your ninth trip back to the MdS. I know you come for the competition. This is the most competitive stage race in the world, but you must also come for something the Sahara has to offer. What are you looking forward to terrain-wise or aesthetically this week?
Al Aqra: I wouldn’t mind any terrain that they throw at me because I’m emotionally always attached to this race, but my main focus is performance actually.
iRunFar: Best of luck to you.
Al Aqra: Thank you so much for your sentiments and your feelings. Thank you for the interview.
iRunFar: This is going to be your sixth MdS, is that right?
Danny Kendall: Yes.
iRunFar: You keep going back. Last year you became the highest-ranking Brit in the race’s history. That’s a pretty stellar achievement. You surpassed the mark of an Olympian, James Cracknell, to do that.
iRunFar: Your quest is continuing. You keep coming back. Why?
Kendall: It’s a good question. I think I can go quicker. I don’t really want to put a number on it this year, but it’s time to go quicker and see where that can get me. I just really enjoy the race as well. It’s good fun out there. It’s just because I enjoy the experience, but also because I think I can go a bit quicker.
iRunFar: You have an outstanding trajectory with this race if you look at your numbers over the years. In 2007 and 2008, you were back in the 80’s and 90’s in terms of your final placement. Then in 2009, you were 55th. In 2012, you really bettered yourself and finished 23rd. Then you cracked the top 10 last year. That’s a supernova trajectory. To what things do you attribute that?
Kendall: Finishing 23rd was a bit of a surprise to me because I took a couple of years off [from MdS], so 2010 and 2011 I didn’t go. Then when I went back in 2012, I wasn’t expecting to be that much quicker because I hadn’t really done a great deal of extra training or anything really that different. So I was quite surprised when I went out there because I was thinking I’d be around the top 50. I think that performance there was just a bit of an accumulation of year after year after year of training. I just slowly got better.
Then the difference between 23rd and 10th was because after I did quite well in 2012, I became much more motivated and realized that if I did actually put a lot more effort in and become a lot more focused and just completely change and improve my preparation that I could probably do quite a lot better. So the difference between 2012 and 2013, I did a lot more miles; I did a lot more intensity and a lot more races. I cut my pack way down. I did heat training. I just approached the race completely differently in the past two years. It was quite nice to get the improvement in those two years. We’ll see what happens this year.
iRunFar: If you keep improving by the same degree that you improved between 2009 and 2012 and then 2012 and last year, you’ll be inside the top five.
Kendall: [laughs] I don’t want to put a number on it. We’ll have to see. It all depends on who turns up and how they perform. In terms of general fitness, I think I’m way ahead this year of where I was last year, but in terms of MdS-specific stuff, I probably haven’t changed a great deal. My pure MdS training this year is quite similar, but my general fitness in terms of speedwork and shorter races in the U.K., I’m performing much better than I did last year. The backpack stuff and the heat training, that stuff is probably maybe on par or maybe slightly less than last year. We’ll see how the increased fitness translates to the MdS.
iRunFar: You are a prolific racer. It seems like almost every weekend you are racing. You do races of all types like fell races, road races, short, long, everything.
Kendall: Yeah, I like to get to get into all that. I try to do it all and be well-rounded which I think can help at MdS because you’ve got the shorter stages which are maybe 20 miles and then you’ve got the long stage at 50 miles. I’ve tried to do a bit of everything.
iRunFar: Walk me through a week of your peak training a month out or three weeks out from MdS this year.
Kendall: My two peak weeks were both pretty big mileage—I think 115 miles one week and 120 the other week. I started with Monday as a rest day, so no running, just a little bit of cross training. I went to the gym and did 45 minutes of weights—not much but it’s a rest day. Tuesday is usually a track day. So I’ll go to my local running club track and do something like one week was 400-meter repeats; another week was 800-meter repeats. So it’s much faster stuff. It’s a group of people training for the London Marathon. So it’s quite a quick group. That would be Tuesday. Wednesday would be more of a recovery day. I’d probably do two runs on Wednesday both about six to eight miles at a low intensity maybe with a backpack on one of the runs and the other just complete recovery. Thursday I’d increase intensity again. I’d do some sort of tempo run at quite a fast pace maybe something like 5k on the grass in the local park or I might do 2 x 2 miles. Friday, again, I’d slow down. I try to do a hard day and then an easy day. Then on the easy day quite often I might run twice. So I’d get about 12 miles in total. Then Saturday and Sunday with the last two peak weeks, both were very similar. It was back-to-back long runs—something around maybe at least 20 miles going up to 50k. So quite a few runs. I think in the past couple of weeks, both times I did around 10 or 11 runs of varying distances and intensities.
iRunFar: Did you carry your pack for the long runs?
Kendall: Probably about a third of the miles I did were with a pack. That may be less than some people at MdS, but I wanted to keep my speed. I don’t use a pack that often but I probably did about 40 miles a week with a pack. I’d say in terms of off-road training, I probably spend more time off road. I think I did 75% of my runs off road. I live in London, [England] so there are no mountains around. It’s more of an occasion of just finding some grass and some hills and just trying to make it as off road as possible with living in London.
iRunFar: Over the years, you’ve become a pretty close study of the race. When you look at strategic points that have served you well, what helps you the most in the race?
Kendall: I think I’ve improved a lot over the last couple of years on the longer stuff. When I first started running the MdS, I sort of came at it from having done a couple of road marathons and then tried to do the MdS with basically the same training I did for road marathons which didn’t really work too well the first couple of times. I did okay but nothing special. Then as the years went by I tried to do a few more ultras.
In the early days it was the long stage that I feared. It was the stage I knew I was going to drop back in the field. I’d just try not to lose too many places or too much time. But the more I’ve trained and the more years I’ve raced and I’ve done more and more long stuff, I actually feel the long stage is the stage I can do well at. So that’s one thing I’ve sort of changed. I can run the long stages a lot better than I used to be able to.
The heat training is key as well. Last year was the first year I did heat training. It worked well, so I’m doing it again this year. Even over the three or four sessions I’ve done in the heat chamber so far, I’ve noticed it’s gotten much easier. That means when I go out there on day one, I should be ready to go.
iRunFar: You’ve really managed to pare down your rucksack over the years. Last year your kit looked about as minimal as it gets. Can you talk about how you managed to pare things down or maybe what you do with your food to get by?
Kendall: I managed to get my pack down to around the minimum weight of 6.5 kilos or whatever it is. My philosophy is, I’m pretty heavy for a runner. I’m about 75 kilos or 11.5 stone or 160-something pounds. I’m a little nervous about going too low or too minimum on the food. I think 2,000 calories per day probably isn’t enough to me. I try to get my pack down not so I’m taking the minimal amount of food, but rather taking no luxuries. So I don’t take a sleeping mat. I just use part of my bag that weighs about 20 grams; I put that inside my sleeping bag and use that. I take a very light sleeping bag that weighs 300-something grams. I won’t take a pair of slippers or anything. I just wear my shoes the whole time. I take one pair of socks and one pair of shorts and one t-shirt. It’s just no luxuries—no pillow, no book, no camera. Basically all the luxuries are stripped out of the bag and I try to keep a reasonable amount of food.
iRunFar: Your luxury then is your extra food, any calories that go over the 2,000-calorie-per-day mark?
Kendall: For me, the luxury is having the light pack.
iRunFar: This is meant as no offense to you; it’s meant to be funny. In my mind, it’s pretty humorous to think of these tiny, dark-skinned Moroccans and Jordanians who are pretty much running on their home terrain at this race, and then I look at, for example, you or the fellow that came in third last year, Miguel Capó Soler from Spain. You guys have fair skin and bigger builds. You come from the land of the rain and cool weather. It’s humorous in my mind to think about trying to compete with the local runners.
Kendall: Yeah, it’s quite difficult. [laughs] I think there is some advantage to being slightly bigger in terms of the backpack. If you’re thinking of the backpack in terms of percent of body weight, it’s probably one advantage that we have. Obviously we have a lot more weight to carry then, so there’s a disadvantage to that. There’s at least one advantage that the backpack should be at least less of an issue for somebody bigger.
iRunFar: Thanks so much, Danny. Best of luck to you out there. Perhaps a top-five finish for you.
Kendall: Thanks very much.