The 32nd Marathon des Sables

In early April 2017 we (Sam and James Stafford Allen), ran the Marathon des Sables, the “Toughest Footrace on Earth” (the Most Disorganised Footrace on Earth).


Is this a page taken from “Where’s Wally”?

Let’s be honest, we entered this event for ourselves. But, we also didn’t want to miss the opportunity to (get other people to) raise money for the deafblind charity Sense.

Sense are close to our heart: our sister Felicity has a degenerative disorder and Sense have provided support over the years, initially through respite holidays, and more recently through round-the-clock care. We felt this was an opportunity to thank them – so thank you all who donated.

If you haven’t donated and would like to:

In summary, the Marathon des Sables (MDS for those on the inside) is set in the Sahara Desert, in Morocco, not far from the Algerian border.


Exactly, the middle of nowhere.

It is a really long run; five races over six days.


Roughly: marathon, marathon, marathon, double marathon, rest day, marathon.

They add up your times, and the winner receives a serious amount of kudos (plus money, sponsorship deals etc).


Rashid el Morabity (middle!). This year’s champion (and 5 times winner) surrounded by his loyal followers – literally and figuratively (probably not twitterally?).


Spot the statistical anomaly.

Terrain varies:


From flat…


…to hilly…


…to rocky…


…to sandy (obviously).

We had to be self-sufficient: except water, we carried everything we would require over our run, including food, sleeping bag and medical kit (including an anti-venom pump!).


As we ate them, our packs got lighter each day.

To avoid elimination, all you have to do is keep ahead of the back marker(s).

back markers

The back marker(s).

The UK contingent flew out from Gatwick Airport – chartered flight. The pilot announced that this was by far the quickest boarding time he had ever seen.


We all just walked into the plane and sat down. Easy.

We landed at Ouarzazate (International?) Airport. “The Gateway to the Sahara”. Pronunciation similar to an appeal for a wicket during a game of cricket.


Is it actually made out of mud?

The queue for passport control was incredibly slow. Queuing was a general theme for the whole trip, and we failed to learn that to be a the back of the queue meant losing out (on something).


At the back of the passport control queue. This guy has no idea what he is doing.

This time it was a ride in the air conditioned bus for the six hour journey to camp one, to be replaced by an agonising drive in a very old Land Rover with a dusty, furry dashboard and a driver with a love of open windows and loud Moroccan music.

WhatsApp Image 2017-04-23 at 19.46.59

The bus was full so this chap’s steel capped boots drove us to our destination.

We were last to arrive in camp. Our first task was to find a tent. This proved difficult.

We fumbled for our head torches, dragging the useless wheels of a roller suitcase through the sand. The organisers pointed us in a direction towards some black tents (it was completely dark).

There were hundreds of tents, most of them full. When we came across a tent with space, each time we would hear ‘we’re waiting for our friends to arrive’.

Unlikely, given that we were the last to arrive – I suppose they valued the extra space!

Eventually the five members of tent 101 welcomed us, and we became seven.


The tent that finally took us in. Tent 101!

We were to learn over the week that these five people were absolute legends!


From left: Ben, Stuart, Ryan, James, Sam, Emily, Steve

Ryan was the lead runner in our tent, finishing 17th, ahead of many Moroccans!

It was an honour to share our tent with a celebrity: Emily, at 16 is the youngest lady to complete the MDS.


Always got to look your best when you are in the desert.


Tent 101. Home.

Sleeping at night was a challenge. Our next door neighbours (“the Chinese”), were incredibly noisy (until after ‘the long day’) and so ear plugs were used.

It was also crucial to keep the sand storms out. Tent maintenance was carried out.


There were no resident architects and so Stuart (a doctor) took charge.

It was essential to weigh everything down. When a sandstorm hit it would take jackets, papers, gaiters, pillows and roll mats out with it into the desert and deliver extra sand into the tent.


Ryan in a (three sided) ‘sandstorm ready’ tent.

Feet were a problem.


James’ feet.


Sam’s toes the week after.

Back to the queuing.

Before the start of the race, there would be announcements, followed by more announcements, followed by the singing of happy birthday. This was all done in French and then English and is a lot less efficient than a United Nations conference.

The translations were laughable – you could look past the fact that you were missing out on essential information and smile at the mis-translation of numbers, places, and the translation of 2 minutes stretches of French into one sentence of English!


Sam waiting patiently at the start line.


By the final day Sam was tired of the announcements.

A cold can of Coke was on offer after the long day. Heaven. Join the queue. We joined the queue late. When we got to the front of the queue, they only had Coke Zero left.

In an event where you have to carry your own food, where every single runner will suffer a huge calorie deficit over the 6 days, where gram to calorie ratio is all that matters, where almost everyone becomes seriously hungry, we are offered a drink that has ZERO calories!

As we sat and watched the volunteers drinking their real Coke, Sam had a tantrum that the rest of the tent joked about for the rest of the trip!


Ah man!

After 24 hours and the first run, civilisation went rapidly downhill. Many people didn’t bother with the ‘poo in a plastic bag’ requirement and queues for the “facilities” in the mornings were long.

It was sort of cross between a festival and a refugee camp (although I’ve not been to either).


The cleanest one.

Where once people would pee after a long walk into the desert, decency became less and less important and as long as the splashes didn’t go on the tent then that was plenty far away.

Does it matter that people are walking past only ten feet away? Or course it doesn’t!



In the heat of the day, when the temperatures hit 54*C (130*F), you have to be very careful not to run too fast (or run at all). It was good to know that even some of the army guys in the next door tent ended up ‘on a drip’ due to dehydration.

Sometimes we ran:


Sometimes we crawled:


Webcam shot, end of Day Four


Webcam shot, end of Day Four

But we managed to finish.

Of approximately 1,300 competitors, Sam managed to roll in 336th place and James finished an impressive 83rd , putting him in the top 7% of all competitors!


Sam crossing the finish line on the final day; a broken man!

If you haven’t donated and would like to please visit:


Final week…

We are now entering the final few days of preparation and we can’t wait to get out to Morocco!

We have shaken off the odd niggling injury and have spent the last week or so exercising in an environmental heat chamber at the University of Kent’s sports science lab.

We are spending much of this week going through the mandatory kit list and making sure we have everything. It is a requirement for competitors to take at least 2,000 KCals per day, although we will be taking considerably more!

WhatsApp Image 2017-04-02 at 11.55.16

60 minutes is long enough at 45 degrees Celsius!


Pilgrims Challenge (66 miles over two days)

Most training plans do not recommend running two ultra marathons over two weekends. In fact, I have read that recovery from an ultra marathon could take 4-6 weeks. We only had 6 days to recover following the epic Peddars Way Ultra. We were given some basic mobility exercises from cousin Damian – movements that encouraged our body to mend. We tried to ensure that we got plenty of walking, sleeping and vitamins during the 6 day recovery (running long distances seems to take a hit on your immune system).

Now for the Pilgrims Challenge!  This is a multi-day ultra marathon over two days, traveling 66 miles along the North Downs Way national trail.  The route was once trodden by pilgrims heading for Canterbury and the race soaks up ancient countryside, picturesque villages and areas of outstanding natural beauty.



View from Box Hill, Surrey


Roy the Bulldog – Head of Security at the start

Over the two days we met several people who will be running the MdS in April and, being 8 weeks out, this event proved to be an excellent training opportunity. We decided to carry some weight in our packs to get extra training value. This proved challenging when moving uphill especially as the route was not flat (as seen below my the elevation data recorded from my watch.)


Day 1 elevation. We climbed over 1km in height (Scafell Pike is 978m)

The ridiculous amount of mud added to the challenge and it seemed to zap energy out of us as we went along. I ran in my road shoes which was silly (I had no alternative!) Despite slipping and sliding all over the place, I managed to stay on my feet up until the last 15 minutes when I slipped over – right in front of some runners who we had just overtaken!img_8209  On Saturday night we slept on the sports hall floor at Chart Wood School, Merstham. It was a strange atmosphere on Saturday evening in the ‘camp’ with lots of people hobbling around and sharing ‘war stories’ from the day’s run. On one hand, morale was good because everyone had just completed a challenging 33 miles. On the other hand, people were apprehensive because we had to get up in the morning and run another 33 miles! The two of us were in surprisingly good shape. We had paced ourselves and were playing the ‘long game’. Day 2 was considerably quicker for us; very few runners ran the second day quicker – and we managed to by over 20 minutes.

I haven’t mentioned the weather yet. For the second weekend running we were seriously lucky. It had rained considerably the week before (hence the ankle deep mud) and even on Saturday night, but by and large it was clear with sunny spells.

By the time we finished we were pretty exhausted. We received our medals from world record holder Susie Chan. Five minutes after finishing, we met up with Julia who drove Sam back to Norfolk. I was dropped off at the station and soon en route back to London where Lucy was cooking a roast…

Another challenging but epic weekend with 59 days to go…









The Peddars Way Ultra – 48 Miles (28 Jan 2017)

The highlight of the running calendar. Knettishall (Suffolk) to Holme-next-the-Sea (Norfolk) along the Peddars Way, which follows the route of a Roman road. The name is said to be derived from the Latin pedester – on foot. It is first mentioned on a map of 1587 AD.



Once again we relied on our home support to get us to the start line on time. Timings in the morning were tight when our cousin, Damo, did his routine ‘faffing’. In fact, as we were leaving Castle Acre we had to turn back to collect his toast.



Ready to go…


The race started at first light and soon we were running through Stanford military training area (firing ranges). It was bizarre to be running past the sound of machine gun fire and grenades. Eight years ago, I would have been on the other side of the fence!

After approx 26 miles of running along flat, partly wooded ground, we arrived at Castle Acre. Here we were cheered on by our four-legged supporters.

Mother and dogs cheering us on…


Enter a caption

Gravity and a large supper the night before meant that I had to pause from the run and dive into the facilities at Tudor Lodgings. It was a worthwhile break because I attacked the sausage rolls on the way out. Damo called it a day (I think he wanted more sausage rolls).

Eating on the go…


22 more miles later we reached the North Norfolk coast. We were lucky with the weather, which stayed dry throughout, and had some lovely panoramic views of rural Norfolk. Legs were pretty tired, especially in the last few miles, but we were glad to get to the village hall before it got dark.

Sam’s sprint finish


I finished the run just before Gus and Damo arrived to pick us up and we all cheered on Sam’s sprint finish. We were both delighted to be in the top 18 runners and superb endurance training for the MdS. We only had six days off before our next big run – the Pilgrims Challenge (66 miles in 2 days).

All smiles in the end…





Sunday morning training session with Robbie Fotheringham Fitness!