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Marathon Des Sables – The Toughest Race on Earth

Beatrice Lessi

What Is It

Marathon des Sables has been called by the National Geographic the toughest footrace on earth. With about 250 km in the Sahara desert, at temperatures reaching 50 degrees while carrying a 12 Kg backpack with all your food and whatever you need for a week of racing and sleeping in the desert (without showering of course), this competition is indeed brutal – trust me: I did it. And it was the most amazing experience ever. Here is my blogpost written in April 2016, right after completing it.


Swollen hands and sand around my nails. Photo: courtesy of Markus Stöcklin.

What Makes It So Different

Can you become a better person by participating in a race? Really? Judging from what I saw there, yes. What makes  the MDS  so different develops in every competitor’s heart and soul: a real feeling of solidarity. Yeah right, you might think… a race is all about selling you t-shirts and souvenirs. And sure;  this race is a very good business and makes a lot of money indeed. But here’s the difference from the rest of them: in a standard race like a city marathon, for example, if you see a person stopping for cramps, you hardly notice, and you might even think “oh well, one less in the chart!”, and almost be pleased. There is a normal sense of competition, the other person is not in danger, so all you think about is your personal result. But in the MDS you might see someone fainting, or urinating blood, or being in a real bad state. You also spend a lot of time with this person, you might be sleeping in the same tent, and you are fighting together to resist the heat, the strong wind, the sand, the extremely low humidity, the hunger, the constant tiredness. When you see someone feeling bad, I promise: you’ll stop and really feel for this person. You’ll give your best to help and you’ll see that other people will help you too, as soon as you need something. When everybody is in need of the same things – food, rest, sleep, relief from the heat and so on – your achievements or social status count very little. Yes, people do feel equal.

Once, on a steep rocky terrain, a lady couldn’t keep her balance and fell badly. All she could say was: “did I hurt anybody? Sorry, I didn’t mean to fall!” She was more worried for others than for herself.


Team Spirit: myself, Cap, Fred, Markus and lovely Holly. Photo courtesy of Markus Stöcklin

Can You Laugh At Marathon Des Sables?

Oh yes! And this was the biggest surprise for me. You know when you are tired and start laughing for nothing, and your laugh is contagious? We had tons of moments like that in our tent, and even during the race (when we had the breath to talk). I managed to flirt, joke, giggle like a schoolgirl and enjoy myself like a teenager who is out for the first time. It helped me enormously to finish, and it was definitely real fun! One of the cheerful moments was when we realised we had no flag, no nationality (our tent was composed of a Swiss, two Brazilians, one Italian and an American) and no way to find our tent easily, in the middle of a long row of tents that looked the same. We picked one of my bras and hung it outside: it worked like magic and we knew immediately where home was.


First day: still fresh and posing – is my foot cute? My pink outfit, hat and jacket are by Odlo


Cap and Fred (the Brasilian father and son I shared the tent with) imitating my poses.


Our official flag! In the background you see our luxurious bed: a rug on the floor.

My Toughest Moment

There were two moments when I really felt I was losing control of my body. The first time was when I arrived to the tent shivering and saw in the looks of my companions that I didn’t look good at all. They prepared food for me and I managed to sleep for 9 hours in a row. The day after I felt completely regenerated, like nothing happened and there was no crisis? I couldn’t believe it myself. I guess that, when you have such a moment, either your body succumbs, or this is precisely the moment you train and become stronger.

The second bad moment was when I ran out of energy (and food and calories) and was still at about 3 km away from the finish line. I thought I could make it, but everything started to turn, my hands lost coordination and I first couldn’t find the zip of my pocket, then I couldn’t open it, and finally my legs started to lose coordination too. I felt I was going to faint any minute and didn’t know how to keep standing. A photographer saw me and came towards me. The simple relief of having someone watching me (and who would ask for help if I did faint) was an incredible boost: I felt safe and protected. And this showed me that everything is in the mind, and that when you feel safe, you can do incredible things. The photographer walked with me for 3 km , at about 45 degrees, and was sweating like mad. I believe I finished thanks to his presence.


I wasn’t in my best shape at all when a photographer saw me. Just his presence made my mind positive again. Photo: courtesy of Markus Stöcklin.

My Best Moment

There have been  at least 50 “best moments” for me: from the night running under the incredible stars, to the giggling in the tent, to the moment a volunteer announced to me I reached the last check point (and reminded me of my husband telling me “I see the head” when I was giving birth), and many more. But if I had to select one, it was when we started running at 8 am, and the elite runners started at 11. We, slow runners, were hardly managing to hike and keep our balance on a steep rocky terrain, when the best runners passed us by like they were flying. I looked in awe at their grace and agility on the rocks. The moment they passed me, they encouraged me by saying “bravo Beatrice!”, “go on like this!”, “good job!”. I had never seen anything like this in my whole life: people racing hard and beautifully, and wasting their breath to encourage me, the slow runner! For me this was the real spirit of sport. These guys might not earn much money by running, but they are for sure real champions.


Dirty, smelly, swollen – and outrageously happy!

The Sweetest Moment for Everybody

In the evening, the staff came to the tent with the printout of the emails we received during the day. This was the most emotional moment and sometimes brought us to tears. We had no internet and no way to communicate with our friends and family, but we could receive messages. Often, we discovered that people we would have never thought of were following us on the computer (we had a  GPS on our backpacks allowing the outside world and organisation to trace us, so we didn’t know where we were precisely, but people outside did). All messages were incredibly sweet and encouraging. We felt rewarded for our effort every evening, and thought about the words in the emails over and over again during the day.


Sky selfie in the desert – my white Odlo shirt is starting to become brown! Photo: courtesy of Markus Stöcklin.

How Does It Feel Without Internet?

I was offline for a total of 9 days. Remember: I am a blogger (I would say I am online 16 hours a day), and on top of that I am completely addicted to Whatsapp. Being in the nature, so busy surviving, and surrounded by people, I even forgot internet existed. It was the last of my thoughts and receiving the evening messages (so I knew everything was ok at home, and people were not too worried for me) was more than enough.


Apparently there are more people who want to join the MDS as volunteers and photographers than there are availabilities. Working for free in the desert is fun? Well, volunteers don’t get any money, but they get the desert, the incredible amount of stars at night, the tents, the good food, the grateful runners, the stories, the evening gatherings, the dune buggy trips, the cameraderie, and even the occasional spa (once we runners were starving and sweating during the long stage, apparently they spent some hours in a nearby luxury hotel having spa treatments done,  and could even see us from the windows! I hope they felt a bit guilty about that…). Most of these people lost their voice for too much rooting – I remember many of them and felt very grateful for their constant help.

Salt And Pepper

I hope I am allowed to boast about Holly and I. I met Holly just before the race and we immediately hit it off. During our week together we had countless moments of humour, emotions and pride.Holly is a mechanical engineer who used to design components for fighter aircraft and submarines. She is also a mother of four, and ended up in the top 300. And she looks great! Since we were often together and she is blonde, people in the camp started to call us salt and pepper. I was so proud when we both arrived at finish line (she’s much faster than me, but the last day we walked together for the charity event) – I hope we can inspire women to go for their dreams, whatever their situation might be. We are tough girls indeed – but, with 7 kids together, we  are also standard women with a  normally busy life. If we can do it, anybody can do it.


With Holly: mechanical engineer, mother of four, and MDS finisher that ended up in the top 300. A real inspiration!


Holly preparing Marathon des Sables: you can read about her training on www.hollyzimmermann.com


Holly is American and lives in Germany. Photo: www.hollyzimmermann.com

My Tips

I am not a typical MDS runner and I ended up 25th out of 45 women in my age group: nothing spectacular . But I managed to finish happy, without blisters and in a general good state. How did I do it? Here my tips for any beginner like me who might want to run this race.

  1. Train at least 8 hours a week (you can’t just try MDS without training – you’ll have no chance to finish. This is what I did and I reckon it was the real minimum);
  2. Prepare Your Feet (by using specific products at least 2 months before – Google the subject to find out more);
  3. Prepare Your Back (this was my weakest point and I should have done more weight training. The backpack is heavy indeed and back and shoulders do feel it – we all had pain at one stage or the other).
  4. Be Disciplined with Water (keep every single bottle they give you – even if it’s so bloody heavy – and drink religiously, before being thirsty. Never forget your salt. Don’t skip or be sloppy or think you can do with less water than average. Shut up and drink, or you’ll end up dehydrated – we have seen many of those).
  5. Bring Solid and Salty Food (I made a beginner’s mistake and took too many shakes and sweet gels. I realised many people made the same mistake and ended up with being sick or having serious digestion problems. I have learnt that the body needs solid food very regularly, and that too much sweet does upset you, no matter how wonderfully suitable to sport it sounds when you read its description).
  6. Sleep Sleep Sleep (I avoided caffeinated gels or boosters because I knew I would need a solid sleep during the night. If everything goes well, you should aim at running the whole MDS without using any medicine to recover, just sleep).
  7. It’s All in Your Mind (don’t complain, don’t whine, don’t get upset, turn everything you see or experience into positive. You have pain? Your body is functioning well and giving you signals. Your feet feel like pierced by needles? Every crisis ends at a certain point, concentrate on the pain and wait, etc).
  8. Imagine the Finish Line (or that you will be a local hero when you have finished, or what a person you love will tell you. Keep picturing the moment and feel the good vibes).

Would I Do It Again?

Difficult to answer, and hey, it was tough indeed. In these pictures I am always smiling, but I admit sometimes I was faking it, and actually I was suffering.

I also have a long bucket list so I tend to always look for the next race or experience, not to repeat the same event over and over again. But if a person, organisation or cause asked me to, I think I couldn’t resist the call of the desert…and of all the wonderfully crazy people who run the MDS.


A great joy indeed – thanks to Odlo for giving me the great outfits: everybody in the camp loved pink!

For more about my preparation, here you can find an article about training in Tuscany, and one about training in Dubai.

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