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Tips for completing the Marathon Des Sables

Updated: Apr 17, 2018

Always think FEET – FOOD – WATER – SALT. The rest is just head games. If you go in the right direction and never stop then you will always finish.

The tips shown here are really a list of what I did in order to drag my arse around the MdS. I am not saying they are perfect but it worked for me and I was able to hang in there and finish in 98th position. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any more questions. Enjoy and good luck.

1        Feet

1.1        Shoes

I used the PT-03 shoes by UK Gear. I brought them a full European size larger then my normal size. They worked well although the rubber used on the sole has not got good friction on rock. The best thing about this shoe is the anti bruise mid plate and the overall bulldozer like construction. There are long sections on the race where there are flat plains covered in small rocks that are painful for the more sensitive shoe. Run and Become in Victoria stock this shoe if you need to try them on. You do not want a shoe with an aggressive sole as this can increase the chance of getting blisters.

1.2        Gaiters.

I used the Raid light gaiter by Salomon. They have changed them slightly but the new ones look very similar. They worked really well but were in tatters at the end of the race. In general, apart from the gaiters, I would avoid Raidlight kit as it is too light and cannot handle the job. Do not glue gaiters to shoes. I went to a cobbler and got them to sew a full length of Velcro around the outside of the shoe, with a double strip on the toe to stop the gaiter lifting off the front. Explain to the cobbler what you are doing so as to try and get them not to bunch the lining of the shoe. This keeps out most of the sand but I also taped the top of the gaiter to my leg to stop sand falling in from the top. I did this by taping some 5cm wide tape to my leg and then sandwiched the top of the gaiter between this and another strip of 5cm tape on top. I was very happy with this system.

1.3        Socks

I used the Ironman sock. They worked really well. I carried 2 spare pairs with me and I rotated them from my feet to tied on the back of my pack to dry and a fresh pair in my bag ready and sand free to put on. I changed socks every 3 hours to make sure my feet were not getting too wet from sweat and were free from very fine sand. This is classic “stich in nine saves time”. You will feel like you are wasting time but your feet will love you for doing it.

1.4        Foot powder

I carried foot powder with me. It was a non-perfumed anti athletes foot powder type from Boots. I dusted my feet with it every time I changed my socks. This meant that I could dry them properly and wipe away fine sand easily. Again your feet will love you for it.

1.5        Blisters

If you get blisters do not go to Doc Trotter. Doc Trotter is a big tent with people who slice and dice open blisters willy-nilly with poor dressings leaving them open to infection

The pain a blister gives you is nothing compared to one that is infected. I had to slice away rotting infected tissue from friend’s feet that smelt of fish and had eaten a few millimeters into the flesh in a matter of a few days. One completed a standard marathon in around 8 hours as a result of the pain. If you are still not convinced then have a look at the image below.

This is my general rule for dealing with blisters on the feet. Because my feet are very prone to getting blisters I always tape my feet before a race. The tape I use is called Leukoplast it is very sticky and stays in place well with slight elasticity, which helps to contour around the foot. I take 1 roll of 5cm and 1 roll of 2.5cm tape. The process sounds OTT and your feet will look like they belong to a mummy, but the system works well for me. The process takes me about an hour to complete.

  1. The foot must be super clean and all dead skin removed. Best to soak the foot and get a foot file to remove the skin. Let the foot dry. Then I put a layer of Friars Balsam solution over the foot, which makes the skin very sticky and also sterile.

  2. I then glove each individual toe by using the 2.5cm tape and 5cm on the big toe. I do this very carefully making sure there are no ridges in the tape. The tape can contour to a certain extent but it will need help when it wraps around the end of the toe. I put vertical cuts in the tape with a scalpel and fold down the tape over the end of the toe 1 strip at a time. I do this on all my toes. Do not wrap them too tight, as your toes will swell up.

  3. I then put three layers of 5cm wide tape on my heels.

  4. I then wrap 5cm tape under the ball of my feet. Leukoplast is stretchy enough to contour round the ball of the foot whilst not getting in the way of the toes and not creating any ridges in the tape. To help this stay in place I bring this around to meet the other end on top of my feet. Remember your feet will swell so put all your weight on your foot (making it swell) when you join the two ends together. When you release the pressure on the foot the tape will go all wrinkly leaving loads of space for the foot to swell without the tape restricting blood flow.

  5. I then ensure the tape edges are all stuck down and then I dust the foot with foot powder. This system seems very over the top, but it works and, if done well, it will still be there a week after the race.

  6. I have ripped ligaments in my ankles and they are prone to twisting. I put my foot in a neutral position and I put a long length of 5cm wide tape running from a third of the way up the outside of my lower leg under the heel of the foot and up a third of the way up the inside of the lower leg. This adds strength to the ankle if you do roll your ankle.

  7. The most important thing is prevention; it is easier to prevent a blister than to cure one. If you feel like you are getting a blister then stop and deal with it. Expect to loose toe nails and get the odd blister under the tape.

  8. If you do get a blister – First ask yourself will the blister pop by itself? If it is off the deep type that can just be there then leave it alone. If it looks like it will pop then get there first and pop it yourself.

Popping a blister.

1 – Cut the blister with a scalpel blade leaving an incision 2mm in diameter.

2 – Push out all fluid.

3 – Fill a 1mm syringe with Friars Balsam solution. Friars Balsam is an iodine-based solution that feels sticky. Push this into the small incision and fill the blister with the solution until all parts of the blister are full. Yes it will sting.

4 – Squeeze out the solution from the blister using excess solution to clean the area around the blister. This area is now clean and it should be treated as sterile.

5 – Wipe away excess with a gauze swab (not tissue or cotton wool). Let the area air-dry.

6 – Place a strip of 5cm wide tape over the blister.

7 – Stick a length of padded strapping tape over this to pad the blister.

8 – Now put another layer of 5cm wide tape over this creating a padding strapping       section sandwiched between two layers of tape.

9 – Nb. note there are no ridges in the tape and it is smooth over the skin.

10 – Ensure all edges are stuck down.

11 – Dust over the entire dressing with foot powder to help prevent the dressing from sticking to your socks.

This dressing is designed to stay in place and you should not remove it unless it falls off by itself.

If this dressing does come off then at the end of the day take the dressing off and start again. Treat it as an open wound that can easily get infected. Trust me, you do not want this to happen.

2        Clothing

I wore compression shorts and then a lightweight T-shirt with a vest over the top. Now that I know more I would also have taken a compression t-shirt and compression calf sleeves. I had a thermal long sleeve top to sleep in. The buff I used as a hat. I saw a lot of people with compression leggings to wear at the end of each day to help their legs recover.

3        Back pack

I saw some people using the raid light Salomon bags with the front chest pouches. At least two of these people were forced to carry their backpacks in their arms as the straps had broken, I do not know the reason for this, it may not be down to the design. I used the OMM Jirishanca 35.  It is not the lightest bag they do but it is tough and it can handle the job. The backboard comes out and can go towards your sleeping mat. They come with a waist strap that has zipped pockets to keep snacks in. The water bottles fit nicely down the sides of the bag. I added an elasticated cord and tied my water ration card to it so I could get it without having to take my bag off. My day’s snacks, spare socks and tape went in the lid pocket. Make sure you test your bag out during some training runs.

4        Lube and nipple tape

Do not leave home without it. I lube up my arse, nuts and also under my armpits. I then put some 5cm wide tape across my nipples to stop them being worn down to bleeding holes. Now this photo is what I call Brave Dave.

5        Poles or no poles

I took poles with me, as they were great on the uphills and on sand dunes. If you do get blisters or suffer from foot and leg pain you will be begging for a pair, as someone did with me on the last marathon into the finish.

6        Cooking

The hexi block burners worked well.

7        Food

Eat, eat and eat. Success will come down to your ability to take in food. Just because you love the taste now does not mean you will like it out there. Variety is very important, sweet salty, spicy etc. I took a multitude of snacks with me. Nuts and raisins, Haribo, Peperami, Thai chili rice crackers. I then had extra carbohydrate Sports in Science powders. At the end of each run I drank down 1.5 liters of the recovery drink they do and then had dinner. Dinner was a meal by travel lunch this was quickly followed by a dessert. These meals worked well but I am not sure if they were the best. I also took sachets of instant coffee to help get out of bed in the morning. Many others used the dehydrated meals by Expedition Foods. Again variety is very important here, vary every meal or you will loose your appetite. Do not scrimp on food. The more you eat the stronger you become and your bag just keeps getting lighter.

8        Water

During the race you will get a water ration card. As you go through control posts you will get this punched as you are allocated the water. There is then a big bin where you dump the empty bottles once you have filled up your water bottles. This area is often filled with half drunk bottles and a good place to super-hydrate whilst not using your water. I did not take a camel back but did the following. I took two camel back pipes with me and on arrival took two bottles from the organiser (making sure they were the same bottles being used during the race). I then made a hole in each of the bottle tops (a small hole made bigger by melting it with a lighter) the hole should be just smaller then the diameter of the camel back pipes. Insert the pipes into the holes in the bottle tops. If the holes are too big then make the pipe wider by wrapping tape around it. Then screw the tops back onto the bottles. Adjust the pipe’s position so that the pipe’s end sits on the bottom of the bottle. Then tape and super glue the tops onto the tubes making an airtight seal. I then used 1 bottle for carbohydrate powders and one bottle for water. At water check points I just unscrewed the bottle top and put it onto the new bottles and off I went.

9        Sun / Heat Protection

P20 is a great sun cream that goes on in the morning and then should protect you for the day. 100ml should do you for the race. An extra factor-50 sun stick can then be used on lips and noses as they begin to burn. I took a sun peak (A baseball cap without the top) and placed this over a tri bandage. The tri bandage is lighter then the top of a normal hat so wicked away sweat quicker. It covered my neck and is much cheaper then other systems. I took a buff with me in case of sand storms and to use as a hat at night.

10     Tablets

Take salt tablets with you. They are cheap and light. Thermotabs seem to have taken over the market. I have not used them but they look similar to the ones I do use. Nuun tablets are Gucci and very expensive and harder to eat by themselves as you need to dissolve them in water. I also took Ibuprofen (read up on dangers with taking Ibuprofen when dehydrated). I also took ProPlus with me. They help to give you that little boost when times feel hard.

11     Sleeping

The mat I used to sleep on was a double back mat that comes in the OMM backpack. It was thin and nights would have been better with something thicker. You share a Berber style tent between 8 people. I got lucky with a great group of people. We all supported each other, which made a massive difference at the end of the day. I expect most tent groups would have been like this.

12     Training

If you have a good base level of fitness then further training is really there to help convince your mind that you are ready for the event. I ripped a ligament a few months before the event so in the end my training for the run was 32 runs spaced out over 8 months before the race. If you want to finish in the top 50 then this is a very different story. Do not just focus on running. You will need to go on long walks as well. Go on a 100km walk over 2 days to help break down the head game of doing long distances. Cross training on bikes and swimming is also great. Ignore what training others say they have done. It feels a bit like an exam at school, there are many people bragging about how much training they did before hand. You do what is right for you, and then watch these bragging idiots drop out as they go out far too fast because they feel they have something to prove.

13     Game Plan

Find a routine and stick to it. Mine was eating something every hour and take at least 1 salt tablet every hour possibly 2 every hour in stronger heat and if I felt like I was cramping. I drank about 1 liter of water every hour making sure I had drank all my water when I knew I was almost at the next water station. I changed socks every few hours. Go slower on the first two days till you find your swing and know how fast you can push yourself. Love your feet; if they go down then it does not matter how strong your legs are, or how expensive and lightweight your kit is.

  • Weight of kit. Do not get caught up with making everything as light as possible. Get kit that will be able to last. Knowing your kit is strong and can do the job adds a lot to your confidence. My full backpack, including 3kg water was 13.5kg at the start of the race.

  • Checkpoints. Do not waste time at the checkpoints talking, eating etc. Minutes add up quickly and soon add up to hours when you add up all the checkpoints. Go in, get water, change bottles, change socks, reorganise snacks and get going.

  • How much should you run? Have a look at previous race results and check out the average moving speeds. You will be shocked how slow people go. My rule of thumb was always walk hills. Run on flat and when I felt like it. I would walk fast (7km/hour) during other times. Over a section of dunes you will find that you will start to overtake people who are running and you are using far less energy.

  • Other people – Be careful with whom you run with. Some people can really eat away your morale and confidence. Make no promises before the race of running with friends. Use the time at camp to meet and greet.

  • Head Games – The MdS and ultra running is one big head game. If you can sort your head out then you will do well. Find things that make you happy, for example an IPod with songs that are attached to strong happy memories.

Good luck and please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any other questions.

I work as an expedition guide, safety consultant and production manager. In short I keep people safe and happy so that they can achieve their goals. Click here to find more about me and what services I can offer.


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