Inside Africa

220 km Sahara desert run: ‘The toughest race on Earth’

Story highlights

The 28th edition of the Marathon des Sables began Sunday

1,024 runners will cover more than 220 kilometers in six stages

The epic race is billed as the toughest footrace on Earth

It has to be entered several years in advance

CNN  — 

Would you pay thousands of dollars to spend seven days running under the scorching sun of the Sahara Desert, traversing shifting sand dunes and punishing rocky plateaus for more than 220 kilometers, with all your food and kit affixed to your back?

It may sound like insanity, but it’s exactly what daring men and women of all ages have chosen to do by taking part in this year’s iconic Marathon des Sables (MDS).

Known as the world’s toughest footrace, the MDS began Sunday morning as the driving sounds of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” blasted through loud speakers to usher a record 1,024 competitors from nearly 50 countries into the heart of the Southern Moroccan desert.

Over the next few days, the grueling adventure will challenge participants – the oldest aged 76 – to test their bodies and minds as they take on whipping sandstorms and blazing temperatures of up to 50C in their epic journey across the desert.

To toughen the ordeal, competitors are required to carry all their equipment for the duration of the ultra-marathon – from food and sleeping gear to an anti-venom pump and glow sticks. Three runners have died in the 28 years the race has been taking place.

“Some runners come here to push back their limits and brave the extreme to write their tale,” says Frenchman Patrick Bauer, who founded the race in the mid-1980s.

“For a lot of participants, the Marathon des Sables is an opportunity to break with everyday life and feel a sense of timelessness. There is even a spiritual dimension, a quest for answers to what are at times very personal questions,” he adds. “The desert magnifies the soul.”

‘Toughest race’

The exact route for the week-long event, which costs more than $4,500 to enter, changes slightly every year but racers have to complete the equivalent of five and a half marathons over six stages – including a non-stop stage of some 75 kilometers that must be completed in 34 hours.

Read this: Sahara explorer taming the desert

Runners are provided with just their water supply and a tent to sleep in at night. They’re also guaranteed spectacular views and stunning landscapes, as well as sore muscles, blisters on their feet and the inevitable moments of agonizing despair as they battle with weariness and dehydration whilst snaking their way past rolling dunes, steep-sided uplands, dried-up lakes and abandoned settlements in the baking heat.

MDS route. Click to expand

“It’s the toughest race I’ve ever done,” says British ultra-running champion Jen Salter, who’s competed at the MDS four times so far.

“That’s a combination of having to carry, obviously, quite a lot of weight on your back, the temperature and the terrain – some of the sand dunes, their stretches are really quite long. It’s just unlike anything you can really prepare for or train for in another country,” she adds.

Crème de la crème’

Yet despite such hostile conditions, the race’s popularity is growing every year; due to high interest, competitors have to apply to enter MDS several years in advance.

Currently in its 28th consecutive year, the roots of the MDS can be traced back to 1984, when Bauer decided to embark on a self-sufficient journey across the Algerian desert on foot, covering a distance of 350 kilometers over 12 days.