Mohamad Ahansal, Salameh Al Aqra, Danny Kendall, and Samir Akhdar will all be vying for a top position at the 2015 Marathon des Sables. In these interviews, learn how five-time champion Mohamad is struggling with injury going into this year’s race, why Salameh runs so aggressively at the start of each stage, how Danny metes out his efforts for each of the stages, and why Samir thinks the Marathon des Sables is different from other races. Click on the name to jump to the appropriate interview below: Mohamad Ahansal, Salameh Al Aqra, Danny Kendall, and Samir Akhdar.
iRunFar: Mohamad, you’re participating in your 21st Marathon des Sables, is that right?
Mohamad Ahansal: Not 21, no, no, no—19.
iRunFar: 19. Next year will be your 20th.
Ahansal: Exactly, yes.
iRunFar: In that time you’ve won five times, and last year you were third, but not very far back from first and second. Do you have a certain goal for the number of times you want to race or why you keep racing each year?
Ahansal: I don’t know exactly. Yes, I’d like to continue to train and race, but when it’s not possible, it’s not possible.
iRunFar: You like to come back as often as you can.
Ahansal: Yes, exactly, yes.
iRunFar: I have been told that your training has gone very well for this year’s race. Samir Akhdar has told me you are fit.
Ahansal: Yes, I think the training is good, but after I had some problems that healed a little bit slowly. I have a problem with my knee and had less training, because it was not the same as the other leg.
iRunFar: Given that you’ve had some knee pain and a little bit of slower training, what are your goals for this year? How would you like to perform? Podium?
Ahansal: Yes, podium, but now I don’t know because my of knee. In January and February, trained for podium, but now I don’t know. I hope to finish with no problem in the knee, but with the knee problem coming I may have to stop.
iRunFar: You’re a person who focuses your mind pretty carefully on the race. In the past when we’ve been at the race together, you’ve always talked about trying to stay focused with your mind—staying calm, staying peaceful, being smart with the race every day.
Ahansal: Every time is the same. I’d like to win, but coming in with this problem is not positive. It’s difficult. I think tonight is better or tomorrow is better or next week is better, but every time is the same.
iRunFar: What will you try to think of during each stage this year? What will be on your mind during the race?
Ahansal: I have a lot of hope. I hope that I will be better.
iRunFar: I think the men’s race will be very strong this year with lots of fast runners. Who do you expect to see at the front of the race every day? Who is going to be a strong runner this year? Rachid [El Morabity]? Abdelkader El Mouaziz, Salameh [Al Aqra]?
Ahansal: Yes, Rachid now has experience here and is very strong with good training and preparation. El Mouaziz with his second experience maybe would like a win. Salameh is really, really strong this year. El Mouaziz has a good chance to win the long stage maybe. The leader will work very hard, but all is possible. The race is not one but is six days. I hope with experience and paying attention maybe I will come into the finish with no problems.
iRunFar: There is a rumor circulating that the long stage will be 100k.
Ahansal: I don’t know, but I heard this. I’m not sure if 100k or 90k.
iRunFar: What do you think about having such a long stage? The long stage is always a day that decides who does well and who doesn’t do so well in the overall race. It changes things. The long stage being even longer this year, what do you think of that?
Ahansal: Yes, I think 100k is important for the runners who are experienced. It’s not easy. It’s difficult for each runner. I think for me, I’ve run 92k, so 100k is the same. I have no problem. Now, I’m not sure. I hope when I run, my problem is clear. Maybe it’s good to have 100k.
iRunFar: Thank you so much for the interview, Mohamad.
Ahansal: You’re welcome. You’re welcome.
Salameh Al Aqra
iRunFar: I think this will be your 10th participation in the Marathon des Sables. You have talked before about the difficulty of the pressure of racing for so many years at the front of the MdS. And yet you are back again! What is drawing you back for your 10th participation?
Salameh Al Aqra: Quite frankly, I love this race and competing with its heroes. I will do all my best to win and run my best race.
iRunFar: I think you have had very good training, lots of miles and lots of fast miles along with some time training in some mountains in Jordan? Is that correct? How do you think your training has gone? And how does your preparation for this year compare to past years?
Al Aqra: Yes, I had very good training. I did good training in Jordan after my participation in the Oman Desert Marathon. In early March, I had some minor problems in the right leg and took time off–less than a week–until I was freed of pain. I am very happy and I think I am equipped.
iRunFar: Last year was an amazing race to watch from a spectator standpoint. You were fourth in the general classification after three stages, but had an incredible long stage where you beat the rest of the field by almost 25 minutes. This catapulted you into the second position, and you would finish the race second 10 minutes behind winner Rachid El Morabity. What memories do you have last year’s race? What aspects of your performance would you like to repeat this year? Did you make any mistakes?
Al Aqra: Yes, I awaited the long stage. I love it and it was my chance. I gave it my all and succeeded by a very large margin and got into second place [in the overall ranking]. I was very proud. I will never forget my friends’ encouragement, especially Ammar Sabbah.
iRunFar: You are known for your aggressive racing off the line, in every stage, which is a bit contrary to the nature of the race, which requires equal strength all week long. That is to say that your really fast stage starts are a bit risky given the full context of the race. Talk about this, which is clearly your chosen strategy. Is it to test your competitors? To shake out your legs? To challenge other runners to push themselves? Something else?
Al Aqra: Yes, in the beginning of the race I would like to discover the power of new competitors. I would love to be able to start strong again.
iRunFar: You have run many MdSes. What do you think of some of the new parts of the race that the administration is promising this year, such as the very long Stage 4, maybe even 100 kilometers. How will your strategy change throughout the race and on the long day so that your body will be able to tolerate the challenges?
Al Aqra: I am very happy about the 100k. This will be tough for everyone. I’m used to this kind of distance but each distance has its own circumstances.
iRunFar: Last year when we spoke before your sixth crack at the MdS, you said that it was time for you to race MdS faster. You were a man of your word because you ran to fifth place, the fastest U.K. runner to date by far, and an exquisite result given the depth of competition at MdS from Moroccan runners and outside competition from elsewhere in Europe. Most men would be extremely content with a top-five finish at MdS. You are back again, your seventh go at the race. What’s your goal this year? Are you dreaming of the podium?
Danny Kendall: Initially, after coming fifth last year, I thought I’d achieved what I wanted to do and wasn’t planning to come back again, but with this year being the 30th anniversary I didn’t want to miss out on the party, so here I am again! I’m more relaxed about positions this time. I think the podium isn’t impossible, but everything would have to go right for me and a few of the competition would have to mess up, so I’ll take it a day at a time and see where I end up. I’m fitter and more experienced than last year, so I’ll be disappointed if I’m not somewhere in the top 10.
iRunFar: You have become a close study of the MdS over the years, using a combination of the terrain and environment, race format, and your skills in really cool sychronicity. The MdS race administration has hinted at some unique parts of this year’s race, the longest long stage in history, at least 93k and maybe 100k according to rumors, and maybe a longer and more difficult first stage than previously. The very lengthy long stage is a big deal. What are you thinking about the nuances of this year’s race, given your long experience?
Kendall: A 100k long stage would definitely change the dynamics of the race and could make the outcome much more unpredictable. This should obviously suit the ultrarunners and will add to the challenge for the ex-professional marathon runners in the field, so it should be interesting!
iRunFar: You are running with the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20 this year, I think. What do you think of the pack for MdS? Have you made changes to it for the race? Where are you carrying your water bottles?
Kendall: I liked the UD bag, but didn’t feel it was quite right for me for the MdS. It’s a popular choice among the Brits this year and I think it should work well at more moderate paces. I decided to go with the WAA pack in the end. It’s a bit heavier than a lot of the competition, but I’ve ditched most of the accessories and I find it very comfortable which is the key for me.
iRunFar: What kind of advice would you give to a runner tackling the MdS for the first time, but someone who would like to perform well, like to run inside the top 50 or 100? How do you balance performance and taking care of yourself? What about pacing over the course of the week? What about the minimal eating and sleeping situation, what last advices would you give on emotionally dealing with that?
Kendall: The most important advice would be training advice, but it’s too late for that! It’s always a challenge to pace correctly for an off-road, multi-day event and it has to be done on feel which becomes easier with experience. I think on the early days it’s important to hold something back and run around 5% below your maximum effort for the distance to save something for the long day where you can go closer to 100% as there is a rest day to follow. The mental side of the race is key and it’s vital to stay positive and know that whatever challenges you have with food and sleep, the competition is having the same issues.
iRunFar: You are a close study of the men’s competition and how it plays out every year. What will the race look like after Stage 1? Stage 3? After the long stage? Will positions we decided during any of the final two stages, do you think?
Kendall: Positions after Stage 1 are largely irrelevant. Stage 3 is more important as you don’t want to be too far behind and under pressure to catch up, but Stage 4 (the long stage) is where the battle is won and lost. I’m hoping that Stage 5 (the marathon stage) will be a relaxed, non-competitive jog to the finish, but from my past experience, there are usually still positions up for grabs so we may need to find that one last hard effort!
iRunFar: How many times have you race the Marathon des Sables before?
Akhdar: Six times—2006 was my first, then 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011, and 2013.
iRunFar: So six times the MdS. You’ve never finished outside of the top 10.
Akhdar: Yes, my best mark was sixth (three times) and two times eighth and a seventh.
iRunFar: Never finished outside of the top 10, but also never finished inside the top five. Is being inside the top five kind of a goal for you?
Akhdar: Yes, it’s my goal this year. I will work for that.
iRunFar: The men’s competition gets deeper and deeper every year—more fast men from Morocco race, more fast men from other Arabic countries race. Then, there are fast European men and sometimes fast American men. It gets harder and harder to finish in the top five.
Akhdar: Yes, for sure, but I think Marathon des Sables is a little bit different race… I don’t know how to say it in English.
iRunFar: Let me ask you this. You say that the Marathon des Sables is a different race. What makes it different than your typical running race? What evens the playing field between you and other competitors?
Akhdar: You can’t say that the fastest man will all the time win. I learned that from Lahcen Ahansal who told me all the time that I don’t have to be scared of the Marathon des Sables. It’s different. I was with him one time at some press interview and they told him that there was a fast man from France. He answered, “Marathon des Sables is different.” He was not scared. Marathon des Sables is different.
iRunFar: Because it’s hot?
Akhdar: Because of heat.
iRunFar: Because of sand?
Akhdar: Sand, and maybe also because of the difference of the landscape also.
iRunFar: It being a cross-country race rather than a trail race that goes up and down mountains. What are your strengths? What about the Marathon des Sables are some aspects that you’re good at?
Akhdar: I hope to feel good in the long stage. I don’t fear really heat. The Marathon des Sables weather can confuse other runners. For me, it’s a chance.
iRunFar: It’s an opportunity. This is a race that is near and dear to your heart. You were raised in the Sahara Desert. You live in the Sahara Desert. This is a race that takes place in the Sahara Desert. What are you looking forward to most about this race?
Akhdar: [Long pause] I don’t know exactly how to give you an answer for that.
iRunFar: You’ll have to tell me later?
Akhdar: Maybe after, yeah.
iRunFar: Best of luck to you.