The 30th anniversary of the Marathon des Sables, the world’s largest and longest-standing expedition stage race is upon us, beginning Sunday, April 5 and ending Saturday, April 11 in the Sahara Desert of southern Morocco.
This is iRunFar’s sixth year of covering the race live, and we’ll provide you daily updates from the race just like previous years. Below we preview the race itself–given its unusual format–as well as the top men’s and women’s competitors.
The 2015 race will have six competitive stages totaling something close to 250 kilometers/155 miles, held over seven days. This year, 1,363 competitors are expected to start, including 209 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 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.
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, five days before the race is set to start, race-week temperatures are forecast to be normal to start the race with a slight cooling trend for the final two stages. We’ll keep watching that extended forecast.
The MdS changes its route each year. The MdS race organization waits until competitors are on the organized transport buses to the starting-line bivouac two days before the race start to reveal specific information about the course. However, at a press conference in Paris a couple weeks ago, they revealed a couple interesting details. First, the race promised the longest ‘long stage’ in race history, in celebration of the 30th anniversary. Stage 4 is the ‘long stage,’ usually something in the range of 45 to 50 miles. The longest long stage the race has had so far was 56 miles in 2009. While the race administration hasn’t confirmed it, rumors are circulating that the 2015 long stage may be 100 kilometers in length. The other meaty piece of information revealed was that Stage 1 is going to be unusually long. Typically totaling somewhere between 20 and 23 miles, this probably means Stage 1 will approach the marathon distance.
Women’s Preview – 2015 Marathon des Sables
The way I see it, the women’s race is Laurence Klein’s (France) to lose. She’s incredibly fast on the Sahara’s cross-country terrain while carrying the heavy backpack of self-sufficiency. She ran to uncontested wins in 2007, 2011, and 2012. In 2013, she dropped with heat exhaustion and came in second to winner Nikki Kimball at the 2014 edition. Last year, she was still recovering from a partial Achilles tear which occurred at a race after the 2013 MdS, but we understand her ability to train and resulting fitness is back. She just won the Eco-Trail de Paris 50k as a tune-up two weeks before the start of MdS.
Liza Howard (U.S.), a Texas dweller, is a proven entity on flat to rolling terrain and in the heat of her home state. Two months ago, she took second at the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile in 15:34, running this off minimal long-run training while nursing a shin issue back to health. In 2014, Liza took second at the Bandera 100k, won the Umstead 100 Mile in a course record 15:07, and took second at the Leadville 100 Mile.
Meghan Hicks (U.S.) has finished MdS four times, winning in 2013, taking second in 2009, and fifth in 2012 but more than three hours behind winner Laurence Klein. Meghan had a tough 2014, spending the first half of the year injured and having a rough go at but finishing the Tor des Géants. She’s regained much of her lost fitness and has run some solid training races ahead of MdS.
The Netherlands’s Jolanda Linschooten will make her third attempt at MdS. She finished second in 2010, just 30 minutes back of that year’s winner, and fourth in 2011, but 2 hours and 45 minutes back of that year’s winner Laurence Klein. Jolanda has a fascinating expedition history, including crossing Iceland on foot, tackling part of the Yukon and Alaska in an almost 1,000-mile multi-sport expedition, and traveling the 450-mile King’s Trail in Sweden in a week. Let’s just say that she’s tough as nails.
Luisa Balsamo of Italy has finished the MdS six times, with five of those finishes in the top 10. Her fastest finish as been a sixth in 2010, but she was around five hours back of second place Jolanda Linschooten that year. In 2014, Luisa won the non-stop TransOmania 285k and was ninth at the Tor des Géants.
Ireland’s Claire Morrissey takes on her second MdS. She was seventh last year, but five hours behind winner Nikki Kimball and four hours back of second-place Laurence Klein.
Eli Sanchez Brito, who lives in the Canary Islands, is a multi-sport athlete for whom the MdS will be one of her first forays into ultrarunning. She’s a solid Ironman triathlete with a few 50k races under her belt.
Men’s Preview – 2015 Marathon des Sables
The men’s race is stacked with seven of last year’s top 10 returning and a passel of other men with top 10 potential who will be chasing them down.
Top 10 Returnees
Defending champion and 2011 MdS champ Rachid El Morabity (Morocco) is a likely contender. That said, as this is published, he’s participating in a 150k-ish stage race in Morocco. Even if he’s running it very slowly, the multiple days of running and camping in severe desert conditions will surely take their toll. Though Rachid has amazing talent, the ability to put himself in the hurt box, and is a local to the race location, I can’t see a man winning this year’s MdS without having a perfect race, start to finish.
Jordan’s Salameh Al Aqra was second and 10 minutes back of winner El Morabity last year. Salameh was the 2012 champ and is a nine-time finisher of the race. He’s finished second a total of five times and has been third twice. Salameh takes every stage out very fast. Sometimes he can hold the fast pace, while on other days he slows to a more human pace. Salameh had an absolutely insane long stage last year, taking off fast and holding his speed all the way through the finish. He finished around 25 minutes faster than any other man. It might have been the best-played long stage in the history of MdS. If there’s one thing that’s for certain, it’s that he’ll be gunning from the gun.
Moroccan Mohamad Ahansal finished third last year, 23 minutes back from winner Rachid El Morabity. Mohamad is a 20-time finisher of the MdS. Twenty! He’s won the race five times–as recently as 2013–and placed second 10 times. Mohamad learned of the MdS when the race ran through the town in which he was living, Zagora, when he was a child. We understand his fitness is very good this year. Mohamad is a smart racer and he won’t get sucked in to early-stage too-fast shenanigans. I expect him to finish the first couple stages a couple minutes off the lead, then push for a big day on the long Stage 4.
Carlos Sá (Portugal) is a four-time MdS finisher, having taken eighth in 2011, fourth in 2012, seventh in 2013, and fourth and just under an hour back of the winner last year. Carlos is a three-time top-10 finisher of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, including an eighth place last year. He’s finished the Badwater Ultramarathon twice, winning in 2013 and finishing third last year. Look for him to race tactically from start to finish, running his own race and moving up on anyone who falters as the week goes on.
The only person who could be a better European MdS tactician than Carlos Sá is the U.K.’s Danny Kendall, who finished fifth last year, about 63 minutes off the lead, and only a couple minutes off fourth place and first Euro Carlos, with whom Danny dueled all week. Danny has seven MdS finishes that align in an outstanding forward trajectory: 85th in 2007, 92nd in 2008, 55th in 2009, 23rd in 2012, 10th in 2013, and fifth in 2014. I’m sure Danny is gunning for top Euro or the podium this year.
Now, Morocco’s Abdelkader El Mouaziz will be one to watch for the win this year. Though he’s past his top-end-leg-speed prime, he’ll have the fastest marathon PR among the top men by a long way, a 2:06:46 that he earned at the 2002 Chicago Marathon. His other road marathoning credentials: winner of the 1999 London Marathon, seventh in the marathon at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, winner of the 2000 New York Marathon, and winner of the 2001 London Marathon. Phew! Last year, Adbelakder was in the thick of things for the first couple stages, but he faltered during the long fourth stage and finished more than two hours back of the stage winner that day. That was his first ultra-distance effort, and he bounced back just fine to win the fifth stage by 10 minutes finish seventh place overall. If he can apply what he learned last year, he’ll be a clear contender for the win this year. However, some of his fellow Moroccan contenders think this is unlikely.
Christophe Le Saux (France) finished 10th and nearly 2 hours, 30 minutes off the lead last year. He’s finished MdS three times, always inside the top 10. Christophe is a prolific racer and among his accolades for just the past year was a tie for third place at the Tor des Géants with countrymate, friend, and competitor at this year’s MdS Antoine Guillon. Christophe’s performances so far this year don’t represent his ability, a 16th at the Hong Kong 100k and a 20th at the Transgrancanaria 125k. Another aggressive racer, Christophe will be pushing from the start.
Other Top 10 Hopefuls
Morocco’s Aziz El Akad is a five-time MdS finisher, which includes one second, three thirds, and one fifth. His most recent performance was a fifth place in 2013, about 100 minutes behind that year’s winner, Mohamad Ahansal. Aziz will be in the mix all week, including early on in the stages as he like to push things early. The long stage is typically where he drops back a bit. He loves to win the marathon-distance Stage 5, so watch for him to be pushing there. With smart racing, Aziz should be inside the top five.
Samir Akhdar (Morocco) is a six-time MdS finisher. He’s never finished outside the top 10, but he’s also never finished inside the top five. His most recent finish was eighth place in 2013. Samir, a local to the race region, has had good training for this year’s race edition, first several weeks of high-altitude training in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains followed by several weeks in the Sahara Desert.
I think Mustafa Ait Amar (Morocco) has finished the MdS 13 times. He’s been on the podium once and most recently he was fifth in 2011 and 12th in 2012. His long, lanky build and often quiet presence behind his frontrunner countrymates can make him an easy person to overlook. Another top-10 finish is well within his ability.
The U.S.’s Dave Mackey will be pushing for a top place in his debut MdS. Dave’s ultra-distance accolades extend more than 15 years back, but so far this year he took a close second at the Black Canyon 100k. In 2013, Dave was fifth at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile and eighth at the TNF EC 50-Mile Championships. In 2014, he took eighth at the Hong Kong 100k and fifth at the Leadville 100 Mile.
Antoine Guillon (France) has said he’d like to finish in the top 15 of his first run at the MdS, but I think he could easily finish inside the top 10. He’s performed well over the years at trail ultramarathons around the world. In 2014, he was fifth at the Transgrancanaria 125k, fourth at Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji, and tied for third at Tor des Géants with friend Christophe Le Saux. He’s also seven times finished among the top four at Diagonale des Fous. This year, he has a pair of third places at the Hong Kong 100k and Transgrancanaria 125k. According to Facebook, he’s been obsessing with the weight of his backpack, and I have a bit of worry that he will be short on nourishment as the long week of racing goes on.
Spaniard José Manuel “Chema” Martínez boldly wants to finish in first by the time all the sand has settled. This may seem bold for this first time MdSer, but Chema is a former Olympian in both the 10,000m and marathon, represented Spain in the Cross Country World Championships seven times, and last year’s winner of the 4 Deserts series. His personal bests include 13:11 for 5k, 28:09 for 10k, and 2:08:09 for the marathon. In last year’s 4 Deserts series, he won the Atacama Crossing, Gobi March, and Last Desert (Antarctica) races, while taking second at the Sahara Race (Jordan) by four-and-a-half hours (22:44 to 27:10) to Salameh Al Aqra. He finished fifth at the more technical Columbia El Cruce 3-day, 103km stage race in Chile and Argentina this February.
Morocco’s Lahcen Ahansal has 10 wins of the MdS, more wins than anyone in the history of this race. Lahcen lives in the region where the race takes place, and is an older brother to race favorite Mohamad. Lahcen will be looking to finish the MdS for the first time since 2007 (he started but dropped in 2009 after feeling unwell, his most recent go at the race), but he’s racing non-competitively as a guide to a blind German runner. Truly an icon of the Sahara Desert.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes, famed British explorer, will take part in this year’s MdS. He’s explored to both the North and South Poles, climbed the Eiger, summited Everest, walked across the entire Antarctic continent unsupported, and more. He’s even amputated his own fingertips after getting severe frostbite from pulling his sled out of water in 2000 while trying to walk unsupported to the North Pole. Uh, he’s easily the toughest competitor at this year’s race.
Marco Olmo (Italy) — An ultra-distance icon, he’s finished MdS at least 14 times, but I think it’s more than that. Typically inside or near the top 20, even now that he’s in his upper 60s. Last year, he was 23rd. He’ll be a strong force every day.
Damien Vierdet (France) — Two-time MdS finisher, 4th in 2011 and 24th last year. I believe he started but had to drop from the 2012 edition, after placing well early, due to injury.
Xavier Teixido Marti-Ventosa (Andorra) — 14th at last year’s Mont Blanc 80k, which was part of the Skyrunning World Championships.
2015 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 correspondents, photojournalist Kirsten Kortebein and embedded runner Meghan Hicks. Stay tuned all week to watch the race evolve in our 2015 MdS Interim Results article. (We’ll share that link when it goes live.)
2015 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, 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 5 and 10. Here’s a direct link to the Write a Competitor page.
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.
- 2014 Marathon des Sables Preview
- Pre-Race Interviews with Laurence Klein, Nikki Kimball & Julie Bryan
- Pre-Race Interviews with Mohamad Ahansal, Salameh Al Aqra & Danny Kendall
- 2014 Marathon des Sables Results
- 2014 Marathon des Sables Photo Gallery
- Post-Race Interview with Champion Nikki Kimball
- Post-Race Interview with Champion Rachid El Morabity
- Nikki Kimball’s Race Report
- 2013 Marathon des Sables Preview
- Pre-Race Interview with Mohamad Ahansal
- Pre-Race Interview with Rachid El Morabity
- Pre-Race Interview with Lhoucine Akhdar
- Pre-Race Interview with Salameh Al Aqra
- 2013 Marathon des Sables Results
- Post-Race Interview with Champion Mohamad Ahansal
- Post-Race Interview with Champion Meghan Hicks
- Meghan Hicks’s Post-Race Report
- 2013 Marathon des Sables Photo Gallery
- Pre-Race Interview with Rachid El Morabity
- Pre-Race Interview with Race Director Patrick Bauer
- 2012 Marathon des Sables Preview
- 2012 Marathon des Sables Daily Updates and Results, And Overall Results
- Post-Race Interview with Salameh Al Aqra
- Post-Race Interview with Mohamad Ahansal
- 2010 Marathon des Sables Preview
- 2010 Marathon des Sables Results and Commentary
- Mohamad Ahansal (Marathon des Sables Champ) Video Interview
- Marathon des Sables 2009: A New Challenge
- iRunFar Does the Marathon des Sables
- MdS Prelude: The Deluge
- 2009 Admin Day Delayed, First Stage Canceled
- MdS Delusion
- MdS Admin Day Redo
- MdS 2009: Team Dreamchasers USA
- MdS 2009: Stage 1 (33k)
- MdS 2009: Stage 2 (36k)
- 2009 MdS: Stage 3 (56 miles)
- MdS 2009: Stage 4 and Overall Results