Marathon des Sables

The Torture Marathon

Words: Andreas Rottenschlager
Photography: Erik Sampers

A story in five pictures: The Torture Marathon in Morocco - the toughest multistage desert race in the world

1 THE COURSE

The Marathon des Sables in Morocco is the toughest multistage desert race in the world. The participants fight their way across 155 miles of the Sahara over six days, lugging food and a sleeping bag on their backs. They also have to carry a flare, a compass and a snake venom extractor pump. The record holder is Morocco’s own Lahcen Ahansal (above), who has won the desert race 10 times. 

Marathon des Sables

2 TO THE DUNES! 

The only supplies provided by the race organizers are water and Berber tents. The runners even gather their own firewood. After a night camping out, Morocco’s Rachid El Morabity sits by his breakfast bonfire and cools his sore toes with a bag of ice. All 1,300 participants have experience of foot injuries: Each year, more than 1.25 miles of tape are used. 

Marathon des Sables

3 THE PAIN

The desert runners wear gaiters to prevent sand seeping into their shoes on the dunes, which can be up to 500 feet high. The most important thing to remember when it’s almost 122°F is to drink regularly; the race organizers provide over 2 gallons of water a day. Pictured above: The runners near the village of Jdaid, shortly after setting out on stage five. 

Marathon des Sables

4 ALONE IN THE SAND

The most infamous incident in Marathon des Sables history occurred in 1994 when runner Mauro Prosperi lost his bearings in a sandstorm. The 39-year-old Italian spent 10 days wandering the Sahara, only staying alive by drinking his urine and sucking the blood from dead bats. Prosperi eventually stumbled across a Berber camp almost 200 miles off course. He had lost 33 pounds. Two years later, he was back in the starting lineup. Now, every runner can be located by a GPS tracking unit. 

Marathon des Sables

5 THE FINISH LINE

“You see very heightened emotions at the finish line,” says photographer Erik Sampers, who has been covering the desert race since 1990. “The runners often burst into tears or collapse from exhaustion. And yet most of them still come back.” Here we see 50-year-old New Zealander Philip Culpan completing the final stage of the 30th Marathon des Sables in 2015. Sampers calls this picture “The Victory of a Simple Runner.” 

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08 2015 THE RED BULLETIN

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