The dangers of 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 finishes the Marathon des Sables 2


Everyone going to this year’s Marathon des Sables is putting themselves in danger. Let’s face it, that’s why they’re taking part. Being extreme, finding one’s limits of endurance and escaping the repetition of everyday life is a very attractive proposition on a cold and wet winter’s evening in the UK. Running in the Sahara Desert though is far from being safe.

The heat is public enemy number 1

At over 50°C (122°F) during the day it’s so hot, it practically boils you. You can feel the litres of water and valuable body salt being constantly sweated out. Every day of the race well over 13 litres of water goes in and not a lot comes out that isn’t sweat. Instead you have a thirst that an ocean of water couldn’t satisfy. Becoming severely dehydrated and hyperthermic (too hot) can lead to more serious and life threatening situations such as multi-organ failure and strokes. It’s dead scary! Severe fatigue and sleep loss doesn’t help either. They can lead to your mind playing tricks. In the middle of the 100km long stage that can mean poor decision making that might see you overlook things. If you forget to apply enough sun cream for example, the searing midday heat can burn your skin to a crisp in less than 10 minutes.

Don’t forget about the cold or the bugs

If the heat doesn’t get you, the cold at night can. Not because it’s sub-zero at night because it’s not, it’s nearer 10°C. It’s the temperature range that is more surprising. After each stage in the early hours it’s easy to get very cold and lose the valuable sleep that’s going to help repair your body. The creepy crawlies? Well, there’s not a huge amount of wildlife out in the sand but there are some rather angry looking scorpions that can give a race terminating sting if you aren’t vigilant in tipping your shoes out before putting them on in the morning. I’ve yet to see a famous camel spider, but they’re a mean looking bug that’s really fast on its feet… With all that in mind, you also have to manage your body’s slow decay as it loses about 5kgs of bodyweight during the week. It’s also a constant battle to try and stay clean and hygienic. There are no flushing loos, showers or washing facilities to keep stomach bugs at bay.

And then there are blisters

The biggest terror is of course the terrible blisters that the race is so famous for creating. In a few short miles the sand can turn perfect looking feet to ones that look as if they’ve been on a bacon slicer. It makes you wonder why people would want to place themselves in such danger. Every aspect of the race is super hard. Yet only 10% of the runners each year drop out. To me it’s amazing how people overcome all the obstacles that the race throws at the - they become their own real life 007s. Sir Ranulph, a proper 007, has made a career of overcoming such perils and he’ll be there at the finish line I’m sure. After all, he’s Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and ‘danger’ is his middle name. 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 beginnersThe most memorable years of the Marathon des SablesEssential kit for the Marathon des SablesWhat it’s like to train Sir Ranulph Fiennes and What it's like to run the Marathon des Sables.