Essential kit for the Marathon des Sables

by Rory Coleman
International Performance Coach

Rory Coleman, a professional running coach and ultra-athlete, is training Sir Ranulph Fiennes to run the Marathon des Sables, the toughest footrace on earth, to raise money for Marie Curie. Rory has run the Marathon des Sables 11 times, and is doing it again in 2015. He’s telling us all about the race, covering the highs and lows, and everything in-between.

Rory Coleman running in the Marathon des Sables
Rory taking on the race. Copyright - Ian Corless

The Marathon des Sables is a ‘self-sufficiency’ race. This means everything that’s needed for the week of the race, except the litres of water that are essential for survival in the desert and the Berber Tents for overnight accommodation, are carried on the competitors’ backs. The race has a list of compulsory equipment, which includes basic survival items such as a sleeping bag, suncream, signalling mirror, topical disinfectant and, rather alarmingly, an anti-venom pump!

Weight is the key

On top of this, everyone running needs to carry a minimum of 14,000 calories of food, weighing 3kgs ,which brings the basic pack to a minimum of 6.5kgs. This means that everyone starts with an equal handicap. Combined with the heat of the desert and endless sand, it adds at least an hour to everyone’s road marathon time, maybe more. The big mistake, especially for the British runners, is to bring far too many gadgets which add to the minimum pack weight and slow people down. We reckon an extra kilo of weight slows you down so much it adds 25 minutes to each day.

Temptation, temptation, temptation

The temptation to take, say, a solar-powered battery charger to power an iPhone to check emails back at the office is often far too much for some of the high city achievers the race attracts.

The more ‘Gear Junkie’ focused runner can overdose on the race and invest hundreds of pounds in super expensive prescription sunglasses, GPS watches and thermo-cooling compression wear, all designed to enhance performance and drain the wallet. The more sensible approach is to concentrate on weight reduction. By cutting the handle off a toothbrush and finding the lightest available compass for example, a pack can soon be trimmed down by a kilogram or more.

Finish fast, and save your feet

The items needed actually go into the hundreds. One thing to weary of is combatting germs. It’s really easy to get ill during the race, especially as there are no showers or flushing toilets. A small bottle of hand gel is very much ammunition against the dreadful ‘Moroccan trots’ that some people have to endure whilst trying to run the World’s Toughest Footrace.

I stress to all the people I train for the Marathon des Sables Clients that they need to ‘pack light and finish fast’. It’ll mean fewer blisters and a lot more happy faces in my experience. If you’re lighter, it’s easier to run further faster because your feet are in contact with the ground for a lot less time. This leads to a lot less friction and skin still left attached to your feet! It’s true that feet do swell width-wise but not length-wise like Ronald Mcdonald's. Road shoes are actually better than trail shoes, and specialist training shoe manufacturers such as Brooks have introduced width fittings. This is making the race a whole lot more comfortable. Because you only get one pair to wear during the race, getting the right pair has a direct influence on how well your Marathon des Sables adventure will go.

I’m going to make sure I use all of my Marathon des Sables experience to help get Sir Ranulph to the finish line in one piece. It’s going to be one hell of a battle… but I know who my money's on.

You can support Sir Ranulph Fiennes in his latest challenge by donating on his JustGiving page.

Enjoying our Marathon des Sables blogs? Take a look at our previous blogs: Jogging and running for beginners, The most memorable years of the Marathon des SablesThe dangers of the Marathon des SablesWhat it’s like to train Sir Ranulph Fiennes and What it's like to run the Marathon des Sables.