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For over 30 years, Marathon des Sables (MDS as it is affectionately known) has paved the way for multi-day races worldwide. The self-sufficient format, where runners carry all they need for multiple days of running, has been copied time and time again but never bettered.
It all started back in the 1980s when the Frenchman Patrick Bauer decided to traverse the Sahara, alone, carrying all he required. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time, but craziness inspires and Bauer was motivated to bring his adventure to a wider audience. Two years after completing his journey in 1984, he introduced the 250K Marathon des Sables to the public. The early days had small numbers of participants, but now the race has grown to over 1,000 participants.
MDS is considered the Godfather of multi-day running. No brand stands still, though, and, as the world becomes smaller, MDS becomes larger. In September 2017, it launched its first “half” edition of the race on the Canary Island of Fuerteventura, designed as a stepping stone to the full-distance events.
In November 2017, the long-established MDS brand expanded its full-format race to Peru for the inaugural, Marathon des Sables PERU—a 250-kilometer adventure across the Ica Desert between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes. Five hundred runners from 31 countries participated, and the inaugural PERU edition drew rave reviews for its toughness, beauty and camaraderie.
Highlights included huge dunes, a sandy plateau and the amazing Pacific Ocean. Covering daily distances of 19.6 to 68.3 kilometers on restricted water and food, carrying all you need on your back and sleeping in a tent brings a whole new dimension to running. For many, it answers the question, “Why do we run?”
It’s about a journey, moving from one place to the next under one’s own power. Way back in time, running was never about fun; it was about survival, and that is what attracts so many runners to the multi-day format. It takes us back to a more primal time. Deprived of luxury, deprived of technology, deprived of phones and deprived of connecting to the outside world, the participants have one objective—to journey from one place to the next.
At either end of the day, racing like this forces everyone to connect, to sit in groups, chat about the day, share the journey in words and mutually bond—it is becoming a lost art. A race like MDS is life changing; people are not the same after the race and gain a new grasp of what is important and what is not.
Peru offered a new prospective to this process, and although similarities can be drawn to its Moroccan brother, this race provided a very different experience. For one, the presence of the Pacific Ocean on day four made for an incredible backdrop of sea and coastal ridges, a constant presence all the way to the finish line in Barlovento. The early days, one to three, were raw, particularly day one, which covered 37.2 kilometers from Cahuachi to Coyungu—it was a day of local villages, farms, riverbeds and lush vegetation.
For many, the highlights of the race were day two, Coyungo to Samaca (42.2 kilometers) and day five, Barlovento to Medieta (also 42.2K). Day two was filled with rolling dunes, open and expansive landscapes and huge vistas of sandy plateau hemmed in by jagged mountains. Day five weaved in an out of the coastline on a rollercoaster of sand, cliffs and sea.
From day one, despite competitive mens and ladies fields, sand experts Rachid El Morabity and Nathalie Mauclair dominated the race. El Morabity is a five-time champion of MDS Morocco, his first victory coming in 2011 and his last April 2017. Mauclair is a trail-running expert, has been an IAU world trail champion and has dominated ultras all over the world; however, victory at MDS Morocco has eluded her (she has placed second twice).
In Peru, the duo dictated from the front and won all six stages. They were head and shoulders above the competition, but Peru had a strong showing in both races with Aldo Ramirez placing second for the men and Rocio Carrion placing third for the ladies. Peruvian Remigio Huaman, who had won Half MDS Fuerteventura earlier in 2017, had been the prime contender to push El Morabity to the line, and he lived up to expectations. However, he picked up a time penalty at one of the controls for carrying insufficient calories for the remainder of the race, which relegated him to fifth. France’s Erik Clavery and Julien Chorier planed third and fourth. In the ladies’ race, Melanie Rousset, also from France, had run a strong and consistent race, but was no match for Mauclair; she finished second, over four hours behind.
A full-time endurance-running photographer, Ian Corless travels constantly to shoot the sport’s greatest races.
Day 1 / 37.2 kilometers
Started in Cahuachi and concluded in Coyungo. The day was pretty much all downhill starting at an altitude of just over 350 meters and concluding a little higher than sea level.
Day 2 / 42.2 kilometers
Started in Coyungo and concluded in Samaca. The profile was more challenging than day 1, with a climb of 7.5 kilometers followed by a 10-kilometer descent and then a rollercoaster of small inclines and descents. It was a tough day with some steep sections, dunes and the canyon of Rio Ica.
Day 3 / 32.7 kilometers
Started in Samaca and concluded in Ocucaje. It was a mixed day of sand, Lunar-type landscape, stony terrain and big rounded dunes. The route climbed from just above sea level to around 550 meters in the first 13 kilometers. The remaining 20K rolled up and down all the way to the finish.
Day 4 / 68.3 kilometers
Started in Ocucaje and concluded in Barlovento. It was the long day and the one that often strikes fear in many of the runners. The first 40 kilometers undulated up and down above 400 meters until dropping to sea level at around the marathon point before once again climbing back up at 57K to around 63K and then a final drop back to the finish at sea level. It was a tough day of sand, dunes and hilltops but the incredible Pacific accompanied the runners throughout the day.
Day 5 / 42.2 kilometers
Started in Barlovento and concluded in Medieta. It was the classic marathon day, and all those who finished the long day were smelling the finish line. It ran along the coast and arguably was the most spectacular stage of the race—beaches, rocks, cliffs, protected archaeological zones and constant ups and downs.
Day 6 / 19.6 kilometers
Started in Medieta and concluded in La Cathedral. Like the day before, it was another coastal day but easier in regard to elevation gain and terrain: dirt roads, beaches and small cliffs concluded the 2017 MDS Peru.
This article originally appeared in the March, 2018 issue of Trail Runner.