Marathon des Sables - Part 1 - Ed Wong

Well it seemed like a good idea. Do nothing except run, eat and sleep for a week in the desert with 600 or so of your new best friends. Turns out that was the easy part.

Morocco. The very name evokes images of deserts, Kasbahs and Bogart and Bergman. Now add to that about 600 runners dashing through the dunes.

The 17th staging of the Marathon des Sables began months before the horn sounded on the wind-swept morning of April 7th. A four-month mileage build-up interrupted by more than a month off spent nursing a hip injury meant that I was toeing the start line with less than ideal fitness.

February blues

In the crucial month of February when I should have been reaching the peak of my mileage, I was instead visiting therapists. I had strained some muscles in the upper quadriceps towards the end of January. Winter’s never a particularly good time to run lots with all the icy patches strewn about. My running shoes being No Balance 830s, this was an injury looking for a recipient. In attempting to run through the injury, the surrounding muscles seized up and compressed the hip so that I had shooting pains in my hip joint with every step whether running or walking.

Like any good runner (when realization finally strikes that running will not make the injury better) first I rested. It didn’t help. Then I stretched. Still no improvement. So I sought out more vigorous treatments. I scheduled an appointment with Bill Wells, a therapist in Active Release, on recommendation from my friend Irene.

Right from the first treatment I felt an improvement. A few more intensive sessions and unusual contortions later, most of the seized muscles had loosened up. I was then faced with overcoming the remaining tightness and the still strained quadriceps. I explained my predicament to Avina, my massage therapist at our monthly appointment who then, much to my horror, vigorously and I suspect sadistically, poked and prodded my strained muscles while I gritted my teeth. Imagine my surprise when I found myself pain free the next day.

After five weeks without running I resumed my workouts a week into March. I was leaving for Morocco the first week of April. Time, as the cliché goes, was of the essence.


In the months leading up to the race, I scoured outdoor equipment stores, journeyed to obscure internet sites, read reviews and listened to anecdotes in a quest to select the proper equipment, food and clothing.

In the end I selected the Moletracks Endure II backpack (in a very smart blue and grey colour combination) based on recommendations from previous competitors of the race and on the fact that it weighed only half a kilogram and could support a water bladder. For my lighting system I chose the extremely lightweight but remarkably bright Black Diamond LED headlight that can operate for 70 hours on 3 AAA batteries. My sleeping bag was the Western Mountain Beothuk (0.56kg) rated at +5 degrees Celsius. I also brought a 3/4 length Thermarest having no desire to sleep on discarded cardboard as some racers do.

My race clothing consisted of a white Hind coolmax running t-shirt, black New Balance shorts, my lightweight XSNRG cap with a bandana stuffed underneath to construct a French foreign legion style hat and a yellow, tubular Buff. A pair of New Balance 830 shoes completed the kit.

Working out

At its peak my weekly training included two long runs of 30km and four 10km runs. My peak lasted all of one week before getting injured. I had started to do twice-weekly long runs, at shorter distances, beginning in January and managed to keep them in my training both before and after my injury.

My last workout came a week before the race, a 32km run with my backpack loaded with 5kg of gear. Originally planned to be a taper day, I needed the training and confidence boost so I made the decision to run right up until my departure date.

On the Road

I felt my tension easing as the earth loosened its grip on the Air Maroc airplane carrying me and some of my fellow Canadian racers to the Morocco many hours away.

“Well my bags are packed, I’m ready to go”, bounced about annoyingly in my mind as I made yet another mental check that I really did have all of my gear with me.

I had been up for 36 hours packing and repacking my gear, storing each day’s ration of food in its own private Ziploc bag, triple checking that I had all the mandatory equipment. In the early hours of the morning, as the urge to sleep wafted to and fro in my brain, I decided that I must construct a water bottle holder on the left shoulder strap of my backpack out of duct tape and climbing webbing. When 6 a.m. rolled around, my friend Steve picked me up (literally), stuffed me and my gear in his van and dropped me off at Union Station to meet the train that would take me to Montreal.

My travelling mates were made up of mainly Québécois’: Sylvain Deschens, the Canadian coordinator for the race, the three members of Team Merrell – Rona Les Grand Brules (Serge, Maurice and René), veteran adventure racing photographer, Martin Paquette, and Troy, a reporter for the Calgary Herald.

Our flight route took us to New York City before landing in romantic Casablanca. Except, that the sleepy port town that we know and love from the movie of the same name had grown up to become a bustling city better known now in some parts for a mosque with the world’s largest minaret –

We landed in the morning and spent the day walking around in a sleep-deprived daze. Mostly we ate, checked for email at a local internet café, loitered on the beautifully tiled grounds of the Mosque of Hassan 2, where I fell asleep on a hard stone bench and was asked by the grounds police to “move on”, and tried our best not to eat anything that could get our bowels in a knot.

Evening came and we were more than happy to board a local flight to Ouarzazate where we were to acclimatize for a couple of days and wait for the rest of the racers to arrive from far flung lands.

I roomed with one of the Team Merrell-Ronas, Maurice, who it turns out, owns a couple of Rona Hardware stores. His English being about as good as my French we spoke in ‘sport’ a lot. At age 45 he had completed a triple Ironman distance race. Awesome, I thought. He showed me a pair of brand new Merrell running shoes that he was going to run the race in.

A warning bell went off in my head but I kept quiet that he might end up regretting that decision. He’s an experienced racer and runner, I thought, he must know what he’s doing.

Feeling pretty rested I ran one more time, with one of the western Canadian runners, the day before we boarded the bus that ferried us to the starting location. My hip still felt a bit unsure and running at altitude had me breathing harder than normal. Now was the time to begin quieting my doubts and to start conditioning my thoughts for the adventure ahead.

The bus convoy carried all 600 plus racers on a 5-hour ride through the brown countryside speckled with islands of green bushes and trees. We stopped suddenly in the middle of nowhere and the organizers herded us onto cattle trucks that took us through the sand to the bivouac that was to be our home for the next two days. Two days that we spent having our equipment and ECG inspected and our map book and final instructions given.

Continue to Part 2