does the Marathon des Sables

In little over a week, I’ll be toeing the line for the first stage of the Marathon des Sables, an […]

By on March 20, 2009 | Comments

Marathon des Sables 2009In little over a week, I’ll be toeing the line for the first stage of the Marathon des Sables, an event that will be the most difficult challenge of my running career. Set south of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, the Marathon des Sables is a 7-day, 6-stage footrace across the Sahara Desert in which competitors carry all their gear for the week (except for extra water and the Berber group tent in which they sleep). With 20 pound packs on their backs, competitors cross approximately 150 miles of desert with temperatures capable of approaching 120-130F. While I hope I am prepared (more on that later), my writing you serves not only to inform you of what should be an interesting event to follow (more on that, too), but also to hold myself accountable to each of you when the heat and the sand and the miles take their toll on my body and spirit. (Below, I also share how you can contact me during the race.)

So what does one do when faced with a challenge as daunting as MdS? They do – or at least I did – two things. Learn as much as possible about the race/race preparation/gear/food/etc as possible and train their butts off! I shudder to think of all the time I spent researching this race and its constituent elements. While I do not know everything about the race, I felt like I put an honest effort into learning about it. I think I developed a sound training strategy, procured minimal yet sufficient set of lightweight gear (MdS footwear), and determined a nutritional plan for the race (energy gel comparison). More important, I put in the miles… and pound-miles. Not familiar with the pound-mile? Neither was I… nor anyone else until I started training for MdS. As I noted above, I’ll have to carry a heavy pack throughout the race, so I’ve been running with packs ranging from 12-23 pounds two or three times a week for the past five and a half months. Pound-miles or the weight of a pack times the number of miles run with that pack were a useful way for me to keep track of my training workload and progress. If you are interested in learning more about my training, check out my training summaries for weeks 1-8 and weeks 9-22. Given the extreme temperatures I’m likely to face during the race, I’m also finishing up a month of heat acclimation in which I spend up to 50 minutes in a 160F dry sauna up to 5 times a week.

With nearly a half a year of pack training and a month of sauna work behind me, I’m ready to hit the dunes. You, too, can join me in my trek across the desert. Once the race begins on Sunday, March 29, I’ll be able to send one email to one recipient each day. Fortunately, I’ve set up, so that I can post via email. Therefore, throughout the race (March 29-April 4) I intend to post daily about the race, my experience, and the standing of my team. I’m lucky enough to be on the Dreamchasers USA team with Michael Wardian, an international-caliber ultramarathoner and the top American at MdS in 2000 (iRF interview), as well as Ted Archer, the top American at MdS in 2008 and author of the just-released book about last year’s MdS, Carved by God, Cursed by the Devil. (Note that I may try to post some updates in the days before the race begins.)

While I will be in the company of good friends at MdS, I could still use your encouragement and support during this daunting event! The great news is that from March 28 through April 3 only, you can write me by going to the race website: and clicking on “écrire aux concurrents/write to competitors.” You will need to include my full name (Bryon Powell, last time I checked) and race number (869) for me to receive the message. Do not send any attachments, as such messages will not be delivered. This is understandable, as all email is downloaded via satellite phone before being printed and delivered to competitors. I can assure you that receiving your messages at the bivouac will do much to boost my spirits. Be sure to show your support as the race goes along… it will only get harder.

Alright, you are probably waiting for me to get around to pitching a donation to some charity. Indeed, many people who run MdS or similar events use the personal challenge as an opportunity to fundraise for a worthy cause. This is a noble effort, but I could never ask my friends and family to contribute to a cause on my behalf. However, don’t think I’m letting you off that easily! While I’m in Morocco, try to do one random act of kindness (i.e. an act for which you cannot or do not expect something in return). For the ambitious of you out there, try to do this once a day for the days I’ll be racing – March 29 to April 4. That said, if you are looking for a worthwhile charity to support in Morocco, I would suggest the Village of Hope orphanage in the Atlas Mountains, which includes 10 dwellings that each house up to 10 children in the care of a married couple.

If you want to follow my journey through the desert at the Marathon des Sables, subscribe to iRunFar via RSS or via email and you will receive updates automatically.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.