Bob takes on the Toughest Footrace on Earth

Who would be crazy enough to sign up for a 251km Ultra in 50 degrees of heat (that’s Centigrade not Fahrenheit by the way) in the desert?  Bob Hermanutz apparently!  “My friend, Scott, came up with the idea of doing the Marathon des Sables and I had heard about the race from other people.  It sounded interesting, so I signed up”, says Bob.  Just like that!  Bob apparently likes to jump in with two feet and think about it later .. like when he signed up for Ironman last year, despite the fact that he could barely swim and had never ridden a road bike.  Brave or crazy?  Read about his experiences and make up your own mind …

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Just to give you some background on the race, the Marathon des Sables (affectionately known as MdS) is a gruelling multi-stage ultra in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates – the Sahara desert. Started in 1986, the race is now in its 28th consecutive year and attracts runners from all over the world.

The five stages of the race are of varying lengths and take place over six days.  The first three days are 30-35 km, Stage four can be run over one or two days  and is 75km and Stage five is a marathon, 42km.  Check points along the way ensure that runners are not going astray [according to wiki, during the 1994 race an Italian police officer, Mauro Prosperi,  lost his way during the race in a sand storm and wandered lost in the desert for more than nine days before being rescued].

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Training for the MdS?

The longest I’d run before the MdS was 50km, although I have completed  around ten 50km races including four or five Knee Knackerers.  Generally I find that the hillier and more technical the race is, the better I do – so the KK is a great race for me.    

Then last year, I took the year off to train for Ironman Canada in Penticton – so I had a good fitness base for MdS.  Getting over my fear of water for the Ironman was the most challenging part and by the time of the race, I had learned from experience to start the swim at the back of the pack. 

I signed up for MdS more than a year in advance, so I had lots of time to get ready.  I’m not great at sticking to a training plan, but I tried to run every day, even if only for 30 minutes;  once a week I did speed training and one long run.  I tried to do some runs on the beach to get used to running on sand – however, as I found out, the sand is totally different in the desert.  I did a few of my runs with a fully loaded pack – as according to the rules of the MdS, all runners have to be self-sufficient.  Water and a tent are provided, but a sleeping bag, food, cooking equipment and clothes all had to be carried. 

 To get used to the desert temperatures  – and I’m horrible in the heat – I went to hot yoga every day for a week before leaving for Morocco.  Just to give you an idea of how hot it got  – during the race, the thermometer in my pocket registered 42 degrees (in the shade) – and close to 55 degrees in the sun!  And we were all dressed like eskimos to avoid sunburn … long sleeves, long pants …. Got the picture?

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 About the Race …

About a thousand runners started the race, many of them from the UK or France but around two dozen Canadians were there.  Each stage was like a separate race, and we lined up for a mass start for every stage at around 8.30am or 9am every morning to ‘Highway to Hell’ blasting on a portable stereo.    

The terrain was quite varied – about 20-25% of the race was on sand dunes (which was difficult to run on), 10% was mountainous (Vancouverites felt at home on this part of the race, whereas a lot of others  were scared by the narrow paths and ridges), and the rest was on sandy gravel.  As you can imagine, the route was pretty flat – and you could see a long way in each direction.  It was hard to get lost, even with my bad sense of direction, but we were given a compass bearing to the next checkpoint just in case. 

At each checkpoint we were given a 1.5 litre bottle of water to last us until the next checkpoint – each runner was allocated 10.5 litres of water a day.  You need to keep drinking and take in a lot of electrolytes, as you lose so much in sweat – but it’s so dry that you never get wet as the sweat evaporates instantly in the heat.   

I had pulled a muscle in my lower stomach prior to the race, so I took my time and didn’t push it.  The longest day was stage four, which I decided to do in one long day – 75km.  It was a little freaky running at night in the desert, but I felt good and ran up and down the dunes taking photos at sunset.  Fifteen hours later, at 1am, I crossed the finish line. 

Gear and Nutrition?

To keep my pack as light as possible, I packed the bare minimum; a sleeping bag (the desert gets chilly at night), an improvised stove made out of a beer can with fuel cubes, one pair of windpants and a separate top, compression socks, and food – my pack weighed 20lb in total.  By the way, most runners on this race wear special gaiters attached to their runners with Velcro to keep out the sand. 

I was very scientific about my food – and had worked out in advance how much fibre, sodium, protein and carbs I needed each day to get me through.  My gourmet dinner consisted of hydrated food and a cliff bar, and throughout the day I ate every hour – waffles, pecans, cliff bars etc.  The MdS regulations call for a minimum of 2000 calories per day, but I planned for 3,500. 

My biggest surprise?  The desert is beautiful.  I wasn’t prepared for that – I thought it would be boring and plain.

Congratulations to Bob on completing this gruelling race, and to his friend, Scott, who was the fastest Canadian to complete!  To read Bob’s blog and for more photos, click on this link http://bobh.ca/mds/.

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