Tackling the hardest race in the world - The Marathon des Sables

On April 4th, Lisa, our Morocco Product Manager, set off to the Moroccan Sahara desert to tackle the hardest race in the world – the Marathon des Sa... Read more
Tackling the hardest race in the world - The Marathon des Sables
On April 4th, Lisa, our Morocco Product Manager, set off to the Moroccan Sahara desert to tackle the hardest race in the world – the Marathon des Sables. The marathon is also known as the Sahara Marathon and is a six-day, 228 km, ultramarathon, which is approximately the distance of six regular marathons. The longest single stage is 76km. Stage 2 includes a 13km traverse of giant sand dunes.

It was one of the toughest experiences of her life, and wasn't without disappointment. Here Lisa shares what it was like to run across the desert and why she wants to go back.


These were probably the two most asked questions when I told everyone I was heading there. Measuring 9 million square kilometres, and with 25% of it being covered in dunes, yes there is a good chance you are going to see quite a bit of sand.

This was my 6th visit to Morocco and as the Sahara is the hottest desert on the planet, I had visions of sand and strong sun; I didn’t think it had anything else to offer.

However, as starkly beautiful mountains filled the horizon on the journey from Ouarzazate, I suddenly realised this adventure was going to throw up a lot of surprises. With a breath-taking landscape stretching as far as the eye could see, I suddenly felt as tiny as a grain of sand and from then on I knew I would really enjoy the desert road ahead.

And I did. Each day the colour and variety of the region truly took my breath away.

Ergs are known as the pavements of the desert and these remnants of rivers and sea beds are used by villagers, nomads and camels to travel from one place to another.

Filling the horizon were also towering peaks which have walking trails that can be traversed from one valley to another. I wasn’t expecting to see any mountains, so this was a real highlight and an absolute joy.

However, the Sahara wouldn’t be the Sahara without its famed dunes. With constantly moving sand, once you’re immersed in them, you’re part of a forever changing landscape which is pure magic. Stage 2 of the Marathon des Sables included a continuous 13km traverse of sweeping dunes which filled me with dread! However, once I was submerged in somewhere so beautiful, it felt as if time had stood still. Apart from the wind, it’s a world of utter silence and engulfed in a kaleidoscope of colour, and with no set trails to follow, I felt as if I’d landed on the set of Laurence of Arabia.

So what about the heat you ask? Well as you can imagine with a desert destination it’s pretty warm, but surprisingly chilly at night. During the day a good sun hat, sun cream and loose fitting clothing turns the climate into part of the overall experience. South East Asia and Europe in the summer are also hot, but we seem to be able accept that as all part of going on holiday abroad so I’m not sure why we worry so much about deserts.

Perhaps we forget how amazing the human body can adapt once the mind realises it’s not going to be the same as home. As you’d expect, drinking plenty of water is essential, and don’t forget life in the desert moves at a slow pace for a reason. If you’re looking for fast-paced, peak bagging destination the Sahara isn’t for you. There is a reason after all why nomads and their camels move at such an energy saving pace.

I can honestly say for me there are very few places on the planet that compare to the incredibly rich landscape of the Sahara.


Not only was this my first desert racing experience, but the first time I’d spent over a week with hundreds of people I didn’t know. I was surrounded by a real mix of nationalities in very basic conditions with rationed water and my whole life in an 8 kilo rucksack. I loved camp life which in some ways was like a group trip experience. Evenings were spent making camp fires, cooking food and getting to know the other 7 people in your rustic Berber tent. Whilst days on the trail consisted of time alone taking in the magnificent scenery or moments of time spent with people from all walks of life who were all on their own adventure, including the famous Marathon des Sables dog – Cactus.

I’ll never forget the blind runner and his guide, or the flag waving Army chap and his mini speakers who played “Hearts of Oak”, the Navy anthem for me, when he found out I was ex-Navy. This was a much needed boost as we sang our heads off to the next checkpoint. Lovely retired John who’d recently lost his wife and was walking in memory of her, French Gloria dressed in bright pink and always smiling, Kevin raising awareness of prostate cancer and much needed funds for charity, Amy an American amputee who was the most inspiring person I’ve ever met in my life. Here we were, a group of strangers sharing an incredible experience whilst travelling in the same direction.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an event for everyone, especially the primitive conditions with no privacy, lack of sleep, basic food rations and limited water, but as someone who loves endurance events, it’s the passion for adventure that drives me on.



Well, I crossed the finish line of stages 1 (32.3km), 2 (33.7km) and 3 (37.5km) but despite all my training and nutrition planning I had to withdraw at 146km. My feet had swollen so much because of my salt and hydration levels, that my shoes didn’t fit. Despite cutting holes in my shoes at 140km to release the pressure, I realised it was going to be pretty hard to run another 80kms when I couldn’t get my shoes on! Anyone who has had to pull out of a high altitude trek, leave a walking holiday early because of injury, been unable to get to the top of that “once in a lifetime holiday peak” or booked a grade that is above their ability, knows how upsetting it is to make the “retire” decision.
I had to accept that it wasn’t my year. Maybe I could have hobbled on to the end, but there was always more to this adventure than a medal, it was about the journey, the people and the overall desert racing experience. The worry of not getting back to running fitness again after battling on to the end or the skin on my feet not healing properly, made me think “there is always another time....like 2020.”



Well first I went from medical bags on my feet to Moroccan slippers, then once back in the UK I invested in a pair of road shoes 1.5 sizes bigger so I could start with 5 km runs loosely resembling Ronald McDonald! A day ago I managed to get my trail shoes back on and complete my first trot up the little peak of Latrigg (368m) close to the KE office.

As the sun shone and whilst surrounded by the Cumbrian Mountains, I knew keeping my entry for the 100km mountain trail event at the end of June was the right decision. June is also my birthday and it’s a standing joke with friends and family about birthday treats I buy myself (a 27 mile race across the Malvern Hills, a 50 mile Yorkshire 3 Peaks race and an entry to a 100 miler) so this year’s treat will be my deposit for the 2020 Marathon des Sables.

I started this journey as one of life’s adventures, so it’s not unfinished business, just a wish to go back and collect the miles I didn’t get this year whilst enjoying a 250km journey on foot through the Sahara.

The Marathon des Sables is all about an extremely tough journey through beautiful scenery with incredible people – yes it’s also about the medal. However, Patrick Bauer (the race director) is looking after mine until I go back in April 2020 with the aim of collecting it!

If this article has inspired you to visit the Moroccan Sahara, try KE's trekking trip - Edge of Sahara Trek.

Thanks to sponsors:

KE Adventure Travel (massive thanks!)
Cotswolds Outdoor, Keswick, for all my dehydrated food
The Climbing Shop, Ambleside, for my Ultimate Direction fastpack
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