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Extreme Running: The Marathon Des Sables

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Earlier this year, Cab9 Team member Josie Adams traveled to the Sahara Desert of Southern Morocco to take part in what is known as one of the toughest running races on the planet: The Marathon des Sables. In this event, 900 competitors ran 250 Km over 5 days, carrying a backpack with food, sleeping gear and other material for self sufficiency, in a supreme test of endurance. We caught up with Josie to find out what it's like to run the equivalent of five marathons in searing temperatures that often top 50ºC!

When put like that, it doesn't seem like a whole lot of fun, what makes people want to do this event?!

The Marathon des Sables is a ‘bucket list’ race - being one of the first ultramarathons to get publicised and having grown to over 1000 participants it's well-known, both within and outside of the running world. The iconic status of ‘the toughest footrace on earth, naturally attracts people wanting to achieve a once-in-a-lifetime goal and experience what it’s like to push their limits. That said, the elite end of the scale is also competitive, with athletes from all over the world fighting for the status of MdS champion. And this unusual demographic (with everyone from one-timers to pros) creates a really special race atmosphere which - coupled with the intensity of a self-sufficient week spent in the desert - makes for a pretty life changing experience for many. 

It sounds amazing. You finished an impressive 6th place out of 170 women, congratulations! How strong is the competition and how hard did you have to push yourself to make the top 10?

Thanks! There will always be a few pros at the top who I know I don’t stand a chance against… I’ve raced with Ragna (the female winner) in the past - she’s a machine - and was aware of the other elites’ standards, so I knew a podium finish wasn’t likely. But I was aiming towards the top 5 with top 10 as my fallback, so my mindset was geared up to push to that whatever was necessary to achieve that. Once a race is underway, my focus is on maintaining position rather than speed and timings, so I use the females around me to base my race on. For me ‘pushing’ is all in the mind… I’m pretty good with keeping my head in the green and I have a fairly low-key, realistic approach to racing, so as far as a race like the MdS is concerned - which I’ve done before - I knew what I was facing and could mentally prepare towards my goal. Of course, if something goes wrong, that’s another story and the concept of pushing yourself takes on a whole different angle! But I was lucky during this race and didn’t encounter any problems, so the whole thing went smoothly and according to plan.

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How do you train for extreme conditions only found in the desert? And what is the biggest problem you have to overcome?

I do a lot of race prep with the environmental extremes labs at Brighton Uni. So in the week leading up to a desert race like the MdS I’ll spend up to 15 hours in a heat chamber, acclimatising to running in high temperatures. Heat is the main variable to consider for the MdS, but given the right preparation the body will adapt to cope with it and I’ve never had any problems in the heat. Another advantage of controlled training like this is being able to understand whats going on in our bodies and hence how to deal with the relative symptoms in a race environment.

Describe what a typical 24hrs is like on the race.

The simple-living aspect of race life in the desert is a massive appeal! Yes, we’re without comforts and luxuries out there, but with that comes a total detachment from ‘real life’ stresses and our hectic lifestyles. The camp starts stirring around 5am when the sun comes up, then personal admin (breakfast, packing away bedding, taping feet etc) takes a few hours. Our 8-man bivouac tents are whipped away by berbers, whether you’re still asleep or not, so that’s usually the proper ‘wake up’ moment for me.

A frantic rush to the start line (I honestly don’t know where those last 10 minutes go) with race-founder Patrick Bauer chatting away over the loudspeaker. The infamous united countdown song of ‘highway to hell’ and we’re off. Now it’s race time: different for everyone I guess, but for me it’s signified by an almost switch like transition of my brain: ‘relaxed friendly camplife’ (using the distraction and energy of others and simple tasks around me), to ‘race mode’ where I focus on looking in and associating in every possible way with what my body is doing and how I will maintain that state for the next 7, 8, 9 …. hours.  

By controlling my almost meditative state of mind whilst racing, the day’s stage is usually over before I know it! Back in camp the priorities are recovering in the shade, getting my feet seen to by doctors, eating and dozing for the remaining hours of daylight... When it gets dark admin becomes trickier so I’m usually fast asleep by 8pm! 

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Obviously equipment choice is important. You were wearing our The Edge sunglasses for the race. We're very interested for your feedback on how they performed in such a challenging environment.

They were great! I chose them over the other models due to the wider wrap which offered brilliant sun protection. They were super comfortable to wear for long periods of time (around 12 hours a day) and I never had any issues with rubbing or slipping around, even when wet. It’s great to have good quality kit that does the job so well that you’re not even thinking about it… Cab9 sunnies doing just that! Bravo. 

You must feel a huge sense of achievement when you reach the finish line, right? 

Crossing the finish line after a week-long race is quite hard to summarise - yes there’s always a sense of achievement (and relief!), but I actually don’t think it kicks in properly until I’m able to look back at the race as a whole and appreciate what happened throughout it. It takes me a while to fully understand how a race went - what might have gone wrong, where I could have pushed harder etc... I’m a pretty big self-critic but I’m working on having a better sense of achievement too!

Thanks Josie, this has been a really interesting chat and great to hear The Edge sunglasses performed as they're designed to in such challenging conditions. We look forward to hearing about more of your adventures soon!

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