It's billed as the toughest footrace one earth, a reputation difficult to dispute - lunacy in a good cause. The 24th Marathon des Sables has just finished in the Moroccan Sahara south of the town of Ouarzazate (at least, I believe everyone who was going to finish has finished). The race, equivalent to five and a half normal marathons, covers 240 kilometers (150 miles) over typically six days (including a rest day) - or more. Water and tents are supplied, but competitors have to carry everything else with them, food, clothes, medical supplies, suncream ...... Medical supplies are dominated by diverse treatments for the feet - photographic reporting of the event includes some truly gruesome images of sand-flagellated feet. And the competitors pay for this masochistic pleasure - if you wish to sign up for next year's event, put aside over $4000. However, the event is a a major means of obtaining sponsorship and it raises significant amounts for a variety of charities.
This year, more than 800 lunatics from all over the world entered the race (I'm not sure exactly how many finished, but it's generally around 80%). But they and the organisers were in for a surprise - torrential rains caused widespread flooding, swamping the camp at the start resulting in the runners being evacuated to hotels in the nearest town. The race eventually got underway, but was shortened. And the rain completely changed the ground conditions, wet sand being a very different material from dry sand. At the start, the eventual winner, the Moroccan Mohamad Ahansal, commented that "because of the rain, the ground is less soft. And, as you know, it is easier for runners to take a clear lead on sand surface. It will be harder than last year...." (which he won also). One surprising consequence was that he and a group of other old hands decided to avoid the sodden wadis and head for the dunes - promptly getting lost. They added several kilometers to their first stage.
Mohamad won the shortened event in a time of 16 hours and 27 minutes, with his older brother Lahcen fighting back but not making it into the top ten. However, Lahcen is truly the old hand - he has won ten of these ultramarathons and had beaten his brother into second place seven times (although they had a habit of crossing the finishing line together - see photo, right). It's Mohamad, however, who holds the record for the event: in 1998 he covered the 137 miles of the Marathon des Sables in 16 hours and 22 minutes, 29 seconds - which seems to me to be an average speed of around eight and a half miles per hour. He is, understandably, in the Guiness Book of Records. This year, for the women, the winner was Touda Didi, also Moroccan, also the winner of last year's race. Incredibly, a 60 year-old, Marco Olmo, came in in 12th place in the general men's rankings; the oldest person ever to complete the race was 78. They do say that it's as much a challenge of mental stamina as a physical one.
It's likely that few of the competitors are geologically inclined, and, even if they were, other priorities might absorb their attention. But the landscapes through which the Marathon des Sables passes are spectacular - here's a Google Earth image of the setting for one of this year's stages.
[The photo at the top is from the Royal Air Force Team in an earlier event, http://www.raf.mod.uk/news/archive.cfm?storyid=0BA59D3A-1143-EC82-2ECFDC433CA32B3F; for more on the Marathon (including entry forms for next year, should you wish), see http://www.saharamarathon.co.uk/index.html and http://www.darbaroud.com/index_uk.php]