2021 Marathon des Sables

After a break of more than two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 35th edition of the legendary Marathon des Sables took place last week. The famous desert race, which runs through the Moroccan Sahara, covers 155 miles (250 kilometres) over seven days, traversing sand dunes and stone-filled plains in an arid climate where mid-day temperatures frequently reach 48 degrees. The event is staffed by no fewer than 450 support staff and 140 volunteers on the course itself.

Each day, a mobile bivouac is erected in the desert, which serves as the day’s finish line, campground for the night and the following day’s start line. There are six stages in all, five of them competitive stages, the final one being an untimed charity stage. Participants must carry their own equipment including food, camping materials, and survival gear along with water rations supplied by the race organization.

Usually, the race takes place in April, springtime in the Sahara Desert. Taking place this month meant that participants experienced conditions even hotter and drier than usual for this time of the year and, in addition to the heat, a stomach virus ravaged many of the participants. By the end of the week, the dropout rate had reached over 40% of all starters, a much higher figure than usual. This year the youngest runner was 16 years of age and the oldest 83!

For much of the 2021 event, Moroccan brothers Rachid and Mohamed Morabity ran together, leading the rest of the men’s field comfortably, but in the end Rachid won out by just under five minutes. In the women’s race, Morocco’s Aziza Raji notched up a much bigger victory, beating Aicha Omrani (France) and Hassna Hamdouch (Morocco) by more than four hours.

Remarkably, 10-time Marathon des Sables winner and Moroccan sand running legend Lahcen Ahansal finished ninth in the age 50-59 category with a time of 38:16:32.