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Review: Half Marathon des Sables – Peru

Coming from road running, this is a snapshot of me taking part in my first ultra and stage race.

In life whilst you may not always be ready, sometimes you have to take an opportunity, and then figure out the steps for the person you intend to grow into on the way.


Breaking the Marathon Barrier

After completing the six world marathon majors this year in Boston, I had the opportunity to run in the Half Marathon Des Sables (MDS) in Peru. Whilst it’s shorter than the MDS, don’t let it fool you into thinking it’s half the challenge.

It’s over 100km for a three stage race over four days. Where you camp by the beach over looking the Pacific Ocean in the Ica Desert.

Bar a daily water allowance, you are entirely self sufficient, each morning before you run, you must carry all your food, and race kit for the full duration.

Situated in the Ica Desert, it’s a stunning environment to run and camp in, it’s a fully immersive experience for the four days, where you just focus on running.

This race made me face my own mental barrier of going past 26.2
miles. Like all imagined fears, the reality wasn’t as bad. By keeping my pace much slower than marathon pace, staying fed, hydrated, taking care of my feet, plus running it with friends (Jon and his partner Julia) helped me get past the barrier.


Shared experiences are priceless

Whilst you can run this on your own, and make some great friends in camp. I believe that running the event with friends is priceless. Everyone has highs and lows. Having people to support you, and visa versa during the whole 4 days, creates a great bond as you cross the line together.

Running with Jon and Julia, really made this a proper running adventure, and I thank them both as there were lots of laughs and conversations as the miles rolled on.

It was a real pleasure to meet my ASICS Frontrunner teammate from Sweden Jonas Buud. This guy is seriously rapid but is one of the most humble people I’ve met, he placed third male overall and this was his first half MDS race.

In the days after the race, I also met the global adventurer Ben Fogle, who’s recently completed Everest, run the full MDS to name a few. Even though he just checked in to the hotel, he was really kind to talk to me for a few minutes. It was an absolutely pleasure as he is someone I admire.

Additionally I got to meet the second place male overall Roberto Gil, who was staying at the same hotel. Another top guy.


Race strategy

Adapted from marathon strategy, each day before I started the race I had three key words to get me through the day, from ASICS sports pysch Stuart Halliday.

• Patience (10m) / (Day 1)

• Discipline (10m) / (Day 2)

• Courage (6.2m) / (Day 4)

For me this experience wasn’t about racing for a finishing place. It was about completing it, to see what the mind and body can do.

As this was my first ultra, the running strategy was conservative, this helped me finish stronger as the days progressed. This was important as it’s very easy to start too quickly on the first day and struggle for the following days.


Find the good in the moment

The route in Peru is well sign posted, with lots of support. Each runner has an SOS tag for emergencies. It’s a beautiful but a hard course. There’s so many variations of sand and terrain that you don’t appreciate it all until you run it. There’s so many subtle nuances from soft, fine, course sand all the way to rocks.

On day two, for the ultra marathon distance, I had my biggest mental challenge, from mile 17 we were running at a higher elevation, and there was a strong headwind for over 10k. It was like the Michael Jackson Earth Song Video, I was waiting for animals/debris to fly past me!

It was a difficult moment and I was questioning everything, and doubting myself. I really struggled to break through this. I had to keep my head down/nose covered from the sand which peppered me.

After hitting my low, I had to give myself a serious talking to. I reminded myself if you can run the weather of the 2018 Boston Marathon:

• 32 to 48 MPH wind;

• -1.1°C temperatures;

• Driving rain throughout.

Despite an injury to my knee at halfway, I still achieved a PB. I had to remind myself of that person. In moments like this you have to look to yourself, take responsibility as no one is going to pick you up.

I left the pity party, stopped walking, and I began to run.

In these moments it’s easy to look up, and see the horizon flying into every direction and feel like, everything seems out of your reach.

In these moments, you have to stop thinking about the distant future. It was difficult but, I had to go right back to the basics of putting one foot in front of the other and counting multiple sets of numbers to stay in the moment, focusing on every footstep. Then I’d look up and see the distance I had covered, then I would mentally bank it. Then keep repeating, and moving forward.

Race tip: To stay in the moment, is to count in multiple sets of 10. Don’t think about the past or the future, with each step aim to do the best you can in that very moment with each step.



Race tip: Find the win in each day. Knowing that each day my backpack was getting lighter as my food pack got smaller gave me a mental boost as the days progressed.

The race rules require that you bring 2000 kcal of food per day. Whilst this is under my Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) of 2015 kcal per day, pre race I thought it wasn’t enough so I carried more.

Excluding the two full water bottles, and all my kit for self sufficiency, 2000 kcal of food per day was enough, as the extra fuel is weight to carry and slowed me down.


Day 1 nutrition:

    • SiS BCAA Shot – 19 calories
    • Freeze dried breakfast – 600 calories
    • Handful of mixed nuts – 282 calories
    • SiS Beta Fuel (320k) x2 – 640 calories
    • SiS GO Electrolyte Sachet (146k) x2 – 292 calories
    • SiS GO Energy Bars one serving 139 x2 -278 calories
    • SiS Electrolyte Tablets – 9 calories
    • Decathlon freeze dried dinner – 508
    • SiS Protein Bar one serving 219 x3 (post race/lunch/before bed) 657 calories

Total: 3285 calories


What worked:

    • The SiS Beta Fuel packs were excellent, as it’s designed for long endurance over 2.5 hours. It’s light and gives you lots of calories to burn.
    • The SiS Protein Bars & SiS Hydro Electrolyte Tablets, were excellent for helping with recovery, as I didn’t have space in my 20L WAA backpack for a SiS Rego Recovery Shake, that I’d typically take post run at home.


Other lessons learnt:

This Half MDS event was one of the hardest, but one of the best things that I’ve done. I’d definitely run it again. There’s a couple of things I’d advise for anyone taking part in the Half MDS event:

      • Stick to 2000kcal
      • When flying, take as much kit as you can in the overhead storage, just in case the plane loses your luggage, this happened to one Woman at the event
      • Don’t have the same meal everyday. For example on day 4 you’ll go from enjoying eating oatmeal, to forcing it down your face. So vary the taste of your meal daily, to cleanse the taste of your palette
      • Prepare cold/powder shakes for breakfast. There’s less time cooking, boiling water, washing utensils, less weight etc. And that time can be banked in packing your kit ready to race
      • Save space. The freeze dried meals are great, but when you have a 20L bag, space is at a premium, so consider liquid options where appropriate
      • Bring string/old shoe laces as a backup to secure items
      • Keep the weight of your kit low. In future MDS races, I’d get a lighter weight sleeping bag for example
      • Look after your feet. Learn feet management to deal with blisters etc. Whilst there is medical staff that can do it for you. It’s great if you can be self sufficient in this area
      • Sun cream is a mandatory item. However bring sun protection for your lips as lots of people got sunburnt here
      • Get your gaiters done professionally, these keep the sand out of your shoe, and keep your feet happy
      • You will have highs and lows, so know what your whys are, for when the moments get tough
      • When running on soft sand, each step can sap your energy. If you can run in previously made footsteps, the compacted sand provides a more solid base to move quickly
      • A great tip from Jon was when running downhill place your feet like your toe punting a football. Otherwise if you run on your heel, each step acts concurrently slows you down whilst you then need to readjust and move forward
      • Be organised in your placing of kit whilst running, and also for the packing/unpacking of your kit for each stage
      • It’s a French organised race, so if you can learn some of the language it will help. However whilst things are translated into English, Spanish etc. French is the primary method for communication


Final Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed and will miss this race experience, because it took me back to a simple way of living. It’s easy to think that having more in our modern life is better, but going back to basics was brilliant. It helps you reconnect with yourself and the world.

I had so many moments during the race, I’d stop and be in awe of the naturally beautiful environment, compared to running in London. When you see how small you are in comparison to the vastness of the Ica desert, it really brings our place/problems on this amazing planet earth back into context.

Additionally having a simple routine daily around decanting camp, running, setting up camp etc was a great way to reconnect with myself and nature.

Whilst running fast has a place, I never fully appreciated the value that ultra running, particularly in a stage race has. I feel like it’s opened my eyes to a wider view of what running is and can be. This experience has given me recharged focus for my 2019 marathon target, which will be a series of weekly blogs titled, Sub 3 hour marathon training diary.

This race/experience/adventure reminded me that you are stronger than you think, and the added resistance of the challenging moments is an opportunity to see those qualities reflected back to you.

I learnt that the barrier of going beyond a marathon distance I had set was entirely mental, it was limiting and it was false.

A note of caution just like marathons, ultramarathons can be addictive! The risk is you do too many and get injured. So be sensible in the number you do each year.

Following this experience, I’d definitely look at taking part in other races in the series such as the half MDS in Fuerteventura, one for the sense of adventure and secondly afterwards it can double up as a good option for a family vacation.

So to close…When I started my running journey I looked at those who ran the full MDS as possessing something extra that I didn’t have. I know this now to be false.

The experience I’ve gained from completing the half MDS Peru has acted as a gateway to the full MDS and removed this limiting belief. I now believe, that if I prepare properly I can complete the full MDS in the years to come.

Watch this space

Written By

Marcus Brown