Ragna Debats, who is from the Netherlands but who lives in Spain, won the 2019 Marathon des Sables in her debut at the event. In this interview, Ragna talks about what it was like to spend eight days in Morocco’s Sahara Desert, some of the highs and lows of her week in racing, how she managed to keep her focus for an entire week, if she’d like to race the MDS again, and where else she’ll race in 2019.
Learn more about how this year’s Marathon des Sables played out with our full-race recap, mid-race update, and preview, all in various articles of our ‘This Week in Running’ column.
Ragna Debats, 2019 Marathon des Sables Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar and I’m here with Ragna Debats. It’s two days after Marathon des Sables, and she’s the women’s champion. Congratulations, Ragna.
Ragna Debats: Thank you very much, Meghan.
iRunFar: So, what was it like being in the Sahara Desert for a week?
Debats: It was the first time for me to be in the desert. I really enjoyed it; it’s been a really good experience. It was, more or less, the way I expected it to be, I think, regarding the terrain. As I had never been in the desert, it was difficult to find out how to train. In the end, I found a dry riverbed close to my home. It’s long, about 15 kilometers long, and you can go up and down, obviously. I trained there and I wasn’t sure if it was going to be similar to what I was going to find here, but it worked out really well. It was interesting and it was good, so I felt really prepared for the marathon.
iRunFar: That’s fascinating. So you did a lot of your training in the same spot, running back and forth, over and over?
Debats: Well, I never left the mountains because I’m going to carry on doing Skyrunning races and trail races but, yeah, part of my training was in dry riverbeds. I did some training on the flats as well, some uphill training, some training sessions with the backpack on with different amounts of weight, and sometimes just a slow running pace in the dry riverbeds. There were some sections with bigger stones, but also some sections with smaller stones, which is very similar to running on sand.
iRunFar: I love that. That’s great. You kind of touched on all of the different components of the Marathon des Sables. It’s a stage race, which is something you’ve done before – you’ve been to the Coastal Challenge a couple times, I think. Then there’s the added bits of carrying the backpack and camping for a week, and the terrain of the Sahara. How did you find all of those variables this week?
Debats: It wasn’t easy to manage all of it. I’m really pleased with how it worked out. I had some difficulties as well. I think sleeping in a tent went well. I was really lucky that my tentmates helped me a lot and I felt at home with them. Yeah, conditions in the sand were more or less what I expected. The backpack was okay because I trained with the backpack and I think that’s important, so the weight wasn’t a problem at all–only they didn’t fit it completely well because it was a little bit too big for me [gestures around her waist and hips]. I could have gone to a tailor to get it exactly right. I didn’t do it because I thought I could manage, so I had a little banging on my back, which caused me back problems.
Otherwise, I liked the whole thing. It was interesting also to cope with the heat and then the cold at night. Actually, a lot of people talked about the heat beforehand but I knew it was going to be cold at night. I was more afraid about the nights than the heat during the day because the heat, in the end, I’ve run very often before in hot conditions–I know what that’s about. But the heat and then the cold at night, it’s difficult because I think it’s difficult for your body to regulate itself and to recover in those changing conditions. In the end, I think we spent nine or 10 days in the desert–that’s quite a lot.
iRunFar: What did you think about the food? You’re only carrying a couple thousand calories per day, which is not even close to the amount of energy you’re burning out there.
Debats: It’s interesting because I actually carried more than the minimum amount of calories. I carried the minimum amount plus the amount of food I needed during the race. I think, for me, that’s not too far over what I need. I wasn’t hungry at all, or I didn’t feel like I couldn’t fuel up again for the next day. I felt fine. I didn’t feel hungry at all.
Something that I didn’t expect to miss or to need was just little sweets. My tentmates had Spanish ham, some cheese, some nuts. My friend had some special cakes that I really liked. He told me to ask my husband what kind of treats I would really like because he’d been to Marathon des Sables and he knew that sometimes you need a treat. So, he brought them with him for me, which was really nice and really helpful. I don’t normally eat ham and cheese and for the first two days, I said, “No, I’m okay.” On the third day, I said, “Yes, please, can I have a little bit as well?” It was nice to share it with everybody. Just a nice moment. It was just a little bit because we shared it among everybody but I think that’s quite important. Apart from the food you need, the nutrition you need, to have just a little treat to keep you happy and to let you enjoy the special moment.
iRunFar: That’s interesting. So, it was a week of racing in the desert. This year, you were basically all alone at the front of the women’s race. You were basically competing with the men. What was it like, competing day after day, but basically having no competition around you?
Debats: I didn’t really mind because when I compete, I usually compete with myself. I want to achieve the best for myself and I’m not really competitive toward other people, I think. After the first two stages, I was close to the top 10 [overall], so I put an extra goal. Aside from winning [the women’s race], to get into the top 10 with the men. But then, the day after, on the third stage and in the second half of the race, I started to have my back problems. It set me back again a little bit.
I expected to do a really good fourth day because I think it’s good conditions for me and I think on a normal day I would have felt really comfortable. Because of the problems I was having, I wasn’t able to eat, to drink. I had to take it a lot easier than I planned to. It took me back again a little bit more. Then, on the fifth day, I felt really good. It was a really nice stage, with some good hills to run. I was jut running with a big smile on my face, as if it was the first day. I felt like speeding up all the time. I was just enjoying it so much. That was really satisfying, because if it had been a bad day, then the event as a whole would have gone downhill. Instead there were some good stages and some tough things to cope with, and finally another boost of energy to get to the finish line in the end.
iRunFar: Let’s talk for a minute about that problem that you had. Before we started the interview, you said that during the third stage your back pain–from the banging–got so bad that it got you physically sick.
Debats: Yeah, when I spoke to other people I described it as the pain you have when you’re having a baby–you can have so much pain that you start to vomit. That happened to me when I was giving birth. It was a bit like that–such severe pain, and not only for a couple of seconds, but the whole time. I couldn’t cope with it after. It was ongoing, like when you’re giving birth–it’s not just a couple of seconds, but hours and hours and hours. That’s what makes it really hard to endure.
At one point, it was too much for my body. I started vomiting, I had diarrhea, and I couldn’t get anything into my body anymore. I went into a downhill spiral. My abdominal muscles were hurting as well because I was working my abdominal muscles hard to avoid using my back muscles. Yeah, it was hard, but I got to the finish line for the third stage. I just lost time in the last probably 12 to 15 kilometers. In the beginning I only lost about 10 seconds per kilometer. When it got really bad and I started vomiting… when I got to the last aid station I was just fighting to move forward really. Fighting with myself in the dunes–it was a tough last part. It’s also satisfying when you have to go through some hard times and then you start to feel better afterward. In the end, I’m very pleased about my result.
iRunFar: You finished that stage and then the next day was the long step of 76k. How did you put it all together to recover your back and recover your stomach? I know you said you didn’t have a day that you really liked, but it was okay. How did you put yourself back together?
Debats: I rested a lot. I had really good food, I think. I was on a liquid diet. It was called Quick Meal, it’s like a shake. It’s a complete meal. You have the exact amounts of everything, so it helps you recover really well. Plus rest, and relaxing and trying to keep my head cool. Staying in the shade as well. I made a plan for the next day, and I felt recovered. I think as well, in the third stage I slowed down a little bit, so my legs weren’t actually so tired. Sometimes it helps when you slow down, maybe the rest of your body suffers, but your legs suffer less. I felt strong.
I made a new plan. I planned to run a really fast race on the ultra day. Instead I decided to start really slowly. Rather than go with the head group, I let them go and went at my slow pace, below the pace I would normally feel comfortable with, and then I thought that I could speed up after the first marathon. So for the last 35k, my goal was to go a little bit faster. It didn’t work out like that [laughs], because after 40k I started having a lot of trouble with my back again. Again it was the same thing: I couldn’t eat or drink, so I had to go on salt tablets and water basically. I think I was lucky because it got cold in the afternoon. That was one thing that helped me. And there was a tent with Moroccan tea, the very sugary tea, which I could take and it helped me a lot. It gave me a lot of sugar, I guess, to move forward again. So, I finished!
iRunFar: Do you mean the tea at checkpoint five?
iRunFar: You were able to drink that tea and that helped you?
Debats: Yes, I was. From the last checkpoint I was able to run with somebody else. That was really pleasant for me because I just followed his steps and we arrived together.
iRunFar: It must have felt very relieving to have passed through all of those difficulties and still have a strong finish in the long day.
Debats: Yeah, I was happy to arrive in first position. It’s always nice when you have the first position to keep it up, and not to lose it. It wasn’t the race I expected to do, but I think in the end it’s a multi-stage race and it’s hard to get it all perfect. It’s difficult, with difficult conditions in the end. I was really glad that the day afterward, we had a rest day, but I felt really recovered. My back had recovered a lot as well during this day of rest. I felt really strong during the last marathon. I was just running with a smile on my face the entire time, which was really nice. It was really nice ending strong and feeling good.
iRunFar: Now, I’ve run the Marathon des Sables a couple of times, and I thought the finish line of the marathon stage [stage 5] was really special. You were running along a ridgeline, and you could see the finish line out there beyond a lot of sand. What was going through your head as you were descending this beautiful plane of sand? You were coming to the end of the competitive stage of the race, you were the women’s champion. What was going through your head in that time?
Debats: I really enjoyed it, especially the part just before with an uphill. I felt really comfortable running it and I went past some other runners. I actually met with Alex [Alejandro Fraguela], my teammate. He was feeling down a bit, so I said, “Come on, Alex!” He speeded up a bit and we ran together the last bit. At the end of the climb, there was a really nice downhill in the dunes, and I really enjoyed it. Then we could see the finish line, as you said. At that point I knew I was going to win. That special moment when you know you are winning and nothing can go wrong, it’s always an emotion that goes through you. It’s like tears coming into your eyes and then you pass it away and it’s just running the last part. It wasn’t so easy because the sand made the finish line look close, but it was a couple of miles away.
iRunFar: And it was all sand.
Debats: It was all sand, so it took a lot of effort to run fast. You couldn’t run as fast as you would like to run, so it was hard work still until the end, basically. I just did what I could, but I ended up over-pushing it. When I was 100 meters from the finish line I speeded up and I was just so happy that I jumped and it was a real celebration for me.
iRunFar: Fantastic. 225k in the Sahara Desert. A week on liquid food. A week laying on the ground with no padding. Is this event something you think of as ‘one and done?’ Would you like to try it again?
Debats: I really enjoyed it. It’s been a really good experience and I would certainly do it again. Actually, I would like to try it again, to do better because I would like to do a good long stage once.
iRunFar: You’d come back to sleep on the dirt and the sand all week to try it again?
Debats: Yeah. We have a California van and we go into the mountains on a holiday or for a weekend and it’s pretty much the same. You can’t have a shower, it’s all similar. It’s not something completely unusual for me. In fact, I think I like the fact of being out there with nature, sharing time with other people, no distractions, no mobiles, nothing. Just you, the people, you’re running, calm and simple life.
iRunFar: I know that recovering from the Marathon des Sables is going to be something that takes a couple weeks, but what else is on your racing schedule for 2019?
Debats: I’m going to follow the schedule of the Skyrunner World Series again, and the Trail World Championships probably, and also the Long Distance Mountain Running Championships at the end of the year in Argentina. I don’t know if there’s anything else, but that will probably keep me quite busy. I am doing a couple of races from the Golden Trail Series as well because I think they are really interesting races. I’m going to do Pikes Peak Marathon because I think that’s a must-do race. It’s been on my list for quite some years. I want to do Sierre-Zinal as well, give it a go. Yeah, mainly marathon distance. The first one will probably be Transvulcania or maybe I will go to China, but that’s a bit soon.
iRunFar: Is that the Yading Skyrun?
Debats: Yeah, I think it’s on the third or fourth of May. So when I get home, I will try my legs and see if it’s worthwhile.
iRunFar: Fantastic! Well, congratulations on your win at the 2019 Marathon des Sables, Ragna.
Debats: Thank you very much!