Everest marathon finisher, Taher Merchant talks about his experience in tackling the toughest marathon, Marathon Des Sables in a two part series.
The great Muhammad Ali once said, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life”.
Those words resonated with me ever since I decided to take part in the “Marathon Des Sables” – the toughest footrace in the world. Here’s my story on that.
First up, I would like to thank you all, my dear friends for the wonderful messages you guys sent me that really encouraged and motivated me.
It was a regular summer day in July 2018, when my dear friend Lukas and I decided that we wanted to add a little craze to our lives. We had done our fair share of long-distance running in ‘bearable’ conditions but the added factor of extreme conditions was an exciting prospect.
That’s when I recollected a question my friend Heff from the UK had asked me during the Everest Ultra – ‘Now that the Everest marathon is done, what next? Maybe the MDS’? At that point, I thought the MDS was just another long-distance race but on further research, the magnitude of the race dawned on me and I knew – this was the race for me!
The “Marathon Des Sables”
The Marathon Des Sables is a gruelling 6-day ultra-race that will have you running 250K across endless dunes, rocky hills and across salt plainsin one of the world’s most inhospitable environments – the Sahara desert.
You have to be self-sufficient and carry your own food, clothing, water, and equipment for those 7days on your back. The organizers will provide 6 – 9L of water depending on the distance of the day and this is to be used for drinking, bathing, cooking and washing clothes.
My training journey
On a casual day run with my team, the Jayanagar Jaguars I caught up with my coach, Pramod Deshpande and told him about this race. Right away, he warned me that the training was going to be very tough mentally and physically but he was confident that I could do it. That did it for me – I knew from that moment on I was going.
October 2018 was when I started my training. My initial mileage was between 80K – 110K which was alternated with strength training. The challenge was not so much the distance but the timings of the training and also running with 10K on my back. On a typical training day, I would start training from noon until about 4 or 5 PM. It was important for me to get used to running in the heat as the Sahara was going to be hot. I also learned to run without a watch which at first was tough but I got used to it. Training took me places – Mysore, Ooty, Jaisalmer, etc.
The MDS was unlike any other race. It was a self-sustained race, so it was not only important to train right but also eat right to make it through the race. As an athlete, being associated with Fast & Up, my nutritional needs were very well supported by them. Qua nutrition was on board to plan my nutrition strategy.
When the going gets tough
January 2019 – things took a new turn. By now, my weekly mileage had increased to an average of 120K– 150K and I began training with limited water and food intake with a ten kg bag strapped onto me. It was tough but this was a choice I had made. Soon it was time for me to do a trial run in Kolar under the scorching sun. I ran four marathons back to back. At the end of it I was burnt, bruised and smelt like crap. I was living the MDS life!
Come March 2019, I began to taper my training and started to get my gear and nutrition in check. For the MDS it was mandatory for every participant to carry 2000 calories each day which is 14000 calories of food on your back from day one. The food had to be labelled separately and put into one bag per day and for seven days. My plan was to have my bag weighing 8kgs with 5.5 kgs of food, 1 kg of mandatory gear and rest in clothes.
Living the MDS Dream!
On April 3rd, I departed for Marrakech, Morocco where I spent a couple of days, after which I proceeded to Ouarzazate and from there to the Sahara to check in to the camp.
On arriving we were given tents according to the country we belonged to. Since I was the only one from India I did not have my own tent. My friends from the UAE were kind enough to let me in. The first day at camp was amazing. I made new friends and learned so much from them. We had discussions on running, cycling to events like the Ultra man, nutrition we were carrying and of course on the strategy to crack the MDS.
My tent mates were Aziza, Abdallah, Hashim, Ahmed Al Khatteri, Savio, Lukas, and Michael. I also happened to meet Rachid and Mohammed El Morabity, the fastest Moroccans on the sand. I made sure to hug them hoping something would rub onto me. The next day was spent at the camp acclimatizing to the heat and finishing mandatory technical and medical checks. It is at these checks that they examine the food and the weight of the bag. If the food was less than 2000 calories a day or 6.5kgs in weight the participant could be disqualified.
Later that day, we were addressed by Patrick Bauer, known to be the father of the MDS. He gave us a welcome speech and informed us about the rules of the race. That night all I could think of was my family, the sacrifices they had made so I could pursue my dreams and be at the MDS. I missed them!
Read the concluding part of this inspiring journey here.