Morocco's Marathon des Sables

A large group of runners begin a race in a desert landscape

Totaling more than 156 miles, Morocco’s Marathon des Sables is often called “the toughest footrace on earth.” The ultramarathon takes place over seven days under the harsh conditions of the Sahara Desert.

Its origins date to 1984 when runner Patrick Bauer made it his mission to cover an expanse of the Sahara Desert on foot. Taking with him only what he could carry, Bauer ran more than 215 miles in 12 days, beginning what would become the Marathon Des Sables tradition. Now, the race takes place annually near Merzouga, an isolated region of Eastern Morocco.

The first race with multiple participants—23 runners—was held in 1986. But over time, the number of competitors has swelled. In 2015, there were more than 1,300 people at the starting line of the grueling competition.

The exact path and distance of the race change every year. However, there are always six stages of running and one day of rest. The longest section is always on the fourth day and can be up to 53 miles long.

Temperatures in Morocco during race season can exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Outside of the scorching heat, runners tackle challenges with the sandy terrain and harsh winds. When rare sandstorms happen, runners face zero visibility and potentially dangerous conditions.

Water is rationed out to runners at the beginning and end of each day at checkpoints every five to nine miles throughout the course. Outside of water, runners’ only possessions are what they can carry in a backpack.

The race mandates that each runner bring a minimum of 2,500 calories of food per day. However, because of the strenuous nature of the race, participants consume a lot more than that. There is also a minimum backpack weight so that racers don’t forgo necessary items to lighten their load. The most intense competitors aiming to place will do things like cut their toothbrushes in half to carry as little weight as possible.

Each night the participants rest in communal tent encampments and get to bond with their fellow racers. The Marathon Des Sables aims to foster the spirit of camaraderie, sportsmanship, and overcoming difficult obstacles found in the running community.

Learn More:
What is the Marathon des Sables?
Marathon des Sables: Race Story
The Marathon des Sables: An Expert Guide