At first glance, it looks like they’re running a race on Tatooine.
But that couldn’t be. The Jundland Wastes are not to be traveled lightly.
Besides (spoiler alert) . . . Tatooine doesn’t really exist. It’s a fictional planet from a galaxy far, far away.
No, this place in the pictures and this race are real. It’s the Marathon Des Sables, and real people really do travel to southern Morocco for a footrace in the Sahara Desert. The “Star Wars” scenes on Tatooine were shot a thousand miles away, in Tunisia, in the north central portion of the Sahara, where it only looks like a different planet.
The MDS is all-too real: 250 kilometers, on foot, over six stages held on consecutive days. Basically, you fly to Morocco, wake up one morning and run a marathon through the Sahara Desert. You wake up the next morning and do it again. Same with the next day. The following day’s a little different — you run roughly 80 kilometers. That’s about 49.7 miles. Pretty much two marathons.
Depending on how long it takes you to finish that Non-Stop Stage, you may wind up with a day off as you wait for the other participants to finish. Or you might bring up the rear, grab as much rest as you can, wake up and run another marathon. Then you finish with a short run — maybe a half-marathon, maybe less — to the finish line.
And you thought the podracing through Mos Esma was intense.
“This wasn’t on my radar until two years ago,” said Mike Jock, a New York-based trainer who will be competing with teammates Krista Simon and Nancy Levene in MDS 2017, beginning on April 9th. “I’d run a couple of ultra-marathons, and afterwards I was thinking, ‘I survived this race. What’s next? What’s tougher?’ ”
That would be the Marathon Des Sables, often referred to as “The Toughest Footrace on the Planet.” Now in its 32nd year of competition, the race has earned its rep for a variety of reasons.
There’s the terrain. The 1,300-person field has to contend with rocky slopes, steep sandy dunes, dried-out lakes and river beds. Running a marathon is hard enough. Running a series of them on ergs — another word for a “dune sea” (picture where R2D2 and C3PO began their journey after leaving their escape pod; that was an actual Saharan erg) — is an otherworldly challenge.
There’s the weather. Average temperatures in the area at this time of year ranges from 57-86º Fahrenheit. But there also are winds to contend with, even the occasional sandstorm. If that weren’t a realistic risk, would the exhaustive MDS rule book include instructions for such an incident? (“Art. 21: . . . In the event of sandstorm lowering visibility to zero, competitors must stop in their tracks and wait for instructions by the organizers.”) There’s no warning in there about Sand People attacks.
Then there’s everything else, as in everything else you need in order to live in the desert for a week. That includes a tent, since the full field will bivouac together at the end of each stage. There’s a sleeping bag or mat, clothes, and a lengthy list of mandatory gear, some you’d expect (a head lamp, sun screen, toilet paper, a whistle) and some you wouldn’t (an anti-venom pump).
“Our goal has been trying to find the lightest possible equipment for all the things we need,” said Mike. “We’re looking for a lightweight sleeping bag, cut the handles off our toothbrushes. The weight adds up.”
Race rules stipulate that backpacks must weight between 14-33 pounds (not counting water, which the organizers provide). Mike is targeting a 22-pound pack; his big decisions two weeks before departing for the race is whether he can carry luxury items: a foam pad and deck of playing cards.
Either way, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for the single biggest consideration: food.
“Most of the weight is our food,” said Mike. “We have to survive self-supported for seven days. We’re carrying 3,000 calories a day — 5,000 on the 50-mile day. That’s freeze-dried meals, gummy chews, powders, recovery shakes.”
This is no minor part of preparing for MDS. Whatever goes in a runner’s pack gets carried on that runner’s back. Training for a marathon becomes a bit more complicated when you also have to consider how much weight you will be hauling. You don’t see a lot of pack mules running the Kentucky Derby.
“The pack is a pretty significant obstacle,” he said. “We’ve had to do some intense strength training. When I’d run, my upper body would get more tired than my lower body. The last month, I’ve been doing 100 miles a week with the pack. It’s pretty insane.”
Insane. That’s the Marathon Des Sables, all right. For real.
Mike, Krista and Nancy are running in part to raise money for the Mount Sinai Dubin Breast Center. Support their efforts by visiting and contributing at their Flipgive Fundraising Page.