After a 2.5-year break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was with great anticipation that the 2021 Marathon des Sables took place this week. The famous desert race, which runs in the Sahara Desert of Morocco, travels 155 miles (250 kilometers) over seven days, traversing sand dunes and stone-filled plains in an arid climate where mid-day temperatures easily reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius).
Each day, a mobile bivouac is erected in the desert, which serves as the day’s finish line, campground for the night, and the following day’s starting line. There are six stages total, and five of them are competitive stages. The final stage is an untimed charity stage. Participants must carry their own equipment including food, camping materials, and survival gear along with water rations supplied by the race organization.
Typically, the race takes place in April, which is spring in the Sahara Desert. This October edition was said to be hotter and drier than usual for this race and this time of the year. In addition to the heat, a stomach virus ravaged many of the participants. By the end of the week, dropouts amounted to over 40% of all starters, an unusually high drate for this particular race.
Sadly, the race claimed the life of one runner due to cardiac arrest. The French man, in his fifties, was an experienced ultrarunner who had met the medical requirements necessary to start the race. iRunFar covered this story earlier in the week.
For the first three days of the 2021 edition, it looked like parity might define the race. Moroccan brothers Rachid El Morabity and the younger Mohamed El Morabity ran close together, leading the rest of the men’s field by just minutes. On the women’s side, Morocco’s Aziza Raji held a bigger, but not insurmountable, half-hour lead over Aicha Omrani (France) and Hassna Hamdouch (Morocco) in second and third.
The stage was set for shakeups in the grueling 50-mile Stage 4. However, Raji and the El Morabity brothers were about to render the outcome academic. At the end of Stage 4, just 15 minutes separated Rachid and Mohamed El Morabity from each other in first and second overall — but the rest of the field lagged behind by over an hour. Meanwhile, Raji had built her lead over the women’s field from less than an hour to a mind-boggling four-plus hours.
2021 Marathon des Sables Men’s Results
In the end, Rachid El Morabity took the win, finishing with a time of 21:17:32. Mohamed took a narrow second in 21:32:12, less than 15 minutes behind his older brother. This marks Rachid El Morabity’s eighth win of this iconic sand race, and Mohamed El Morabity’s fourth 2nd place behind his brother.
Merile Robert (France) was the lone non-Moroccan on the men’s podium, a position with which he’s familiar. This marks his fifth Marathon des Sables finish, with his top previous finish also third behind the El Morabity brothers in 2018.
Aziz Yachou (Morocco) took fourth place, less than two minutes out of podium position, in what was an incredible breakout performance. According to his social media, Yachou received an hour’s penalty during the race due to losing an item of his required kit, which makes this podium near miss even more fascinating. (Required kit and the penalties for missing or losing items are clearly communicated by the race organization before the race.)
Mathieu Blanchard (France, lives in Canada) rounded out the top five, though he was a distant two hours and 20 minutes behind fourth place. He said on social media he suffered the stomach virus during Stage 4. Blanchard has had quite the 2021, following up his third place at the 2021 UTMB with this performance.
Here are the top-five men’s finishers:
- Rachid El Morabity (Morocco) — 21:17:32
- Mohamed El Morabity (Morocco) — 21:32:12
- Merile Robert (France) — 22:39:02
- Aziz Yachou (Morocco) — 22:41:46
- Mathieu Blanchard (France, lives in Canada) — 25:01:23
Notably, 10-time Marathon des Sables winner and Moroccan sand running legend Lahcen Ahansal finished ninth in the age 50-59 category with a time of 38:16:32.
2021 Marathon des Sables Women’s Results
Aziza Raji demolished the women’s field with a winning time of 30:30:24. It was Raji’s first win. She was second at the last edition and had a few top-five finishes before that. She’s only the second Moroccan woman in the history of the race to win it, after two-time women’s champion Touda Didi.
Tomomi Bitoh (Japan) took second in 34:39:17, moving up in the cumulative standings during the 50-mile Stage 4 and marathon-distance Stage 5 through a well-paced week of racing.
Aicha Omrani finished third in 35:47:48; remarkably, she finished the 2011 Marathon des Sables in nearly the double the time it took her finish this edition.
Hassna Hamdouch and Elise Caillet (France) rounded out the top five.
Here are the top-five women’s finishers:
- Aziza Raji (Morocco) — 30:30:24
- Tomomi Bitoh (Japan) — 34:39:17
- Aicha Omrani (France) — 35:47:48
- Hassna Hamdouch (Morocco) — 36:01:59
- Elise Caillet (France) — 36:27:15
- Lotte De Vet (Belgium) — 37:30:21