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Used and abused - kit that stands the test during the Marathon des Sables

by Editor
Friday 24th July 2015
Tags  Simon Ward   |   Marathon des Sables   |   30th Sultan Marathon des Sables   |   MDS   |   SULTAN MARATHON DES SABLES   |   Sultan MDS   |   Salomon   |   1000 Mile Socks   |   Sport Kitchen

Product review: Having completed the 30th Sultan Marathon des Sables (Southern Maroccan Sahara, April 3-13, 2015), Simon Ward talks us through his kit choices for the event

Used and abused - kit that stands the test during the Marathon des Sables

The marathon Des Sables is known as the toughest foot race on earth.

One of the reasons for this is that the athlete has to carry all of his or her kit this makes kids selection prior to the race an absolute priority whilst many people are fussing over how much training to do they forget to pay attention to the equipment required. Thus when they get to the race they find that problems caused not by fitness but by equipment.

In advance of the 2015 MdS we spent a lot of time sourcing our clothing food and other equipment.

We were given a lot of support in particular by Salomon, 1000 Mile Socks and Sport Kitchen Nutrition. These generous sponsors provided us with some of the more expensive items and this definitely helped without budget for the event.

In the paragraphs below I will review some of this equipment and give my recommendations for usage in future deserts marathons.

Let's start with clothing

Salomon running shorts

I wore these shorts for the entire Marathon des Sables

Due to the limited supply of water I wasn't able to wash any clothes at all once we had started the event, so that by the time we finished I had completed 250km in 6 stages over 7 days and a total of over 60 hours of running and walking in temperatures over 40ºC.

The Salomon shorts took everything in their stride (no pun intended). They absorbed dust, sand, sweat and other bodily fluids. And yet, at no time did I get any rubbing or chafing. They were as comfortable to wear on Day 7 as they were on day 1.

I can’t think of a tougher test for any item of clothing and they and my body came through with flying colours. I would highly recommend these shorts, whether you are popping out for a short run in the sunshine or participating in the “toughest footrace on earth”.

When I got home and washed them they came out like new.

Since returning to more normal running, I have continued to wear this product and they are still just as comfortable

Salomon running shirt

This was my T-shirt of choice  for the Marathon des Sables. I preferred to have something that was slightly looser fitting. Some of my tent mates chose tighter fitting almost compression garments.

I found this T-shirt to be comfortable and quick drying. The Sahara desert is a tough environment with temperatures well over 40ºC on each stage (the highest was 53ºC). It was windy and dusty so the shirt had to absorb not only sweat (and the subsequent salt after the sweat dried) but also the sand hat was blown around by the wind. I was wearing a backpack for each stage which should have caused some rubbing of the material and the skin.

After returning home the T-shirt was washed and looks (almost) new. I had no chafing at all on my torso or shoulders.

I’m hugely impressed with this T shirt for its ability to keep me cool and to function for 7 days without being washed. Another massive recommendation for either a warm weather run or a multi day desert experience.

1000 mile socks

Managing your feet during the Marathon des Sables is critical. This starts with the socks. I chose the 1000 mile ultra performance sock. I took two pairs and used both equally during the race. Most people accept that blisters are a natural part of this event and you just have to get used to them. Not so. Good foot care can reduce or eliminate the potential for blisters.

After taping up the toes that I thought might cause a problem the next task was to swap socks at every check point. These were every 10-12km or about 2hours of run/walk.

As I had gaiters over my shoes (to prevent sand getting into the shoes) my feet sweated a bit more than normal. This meant the socks were quite damp by the time I took them off. At each check point  I removed the socks and hung them onto the outside of my backpack to dry. This didn't take long in the hot dry conditions. I then put on a pair of dry socks. Obviously after the first wearing (2 hours on day 1) they were crusted with salt and sand. I did my best to rub and shake this out but this only had a minimal effect: lack of water meant I had no opportunity to wash them. Not withstanding, this policy of putting on dry socks every 2 hours made a massive difference.

By the end of the event I’d only suffered one blister underneath one of my toes. This was as much to do with friction from another toe as it was the socks.

I’m sure there were as many different varieties of socks as there were competitors but for me the 1000 mile ultra performance socks came up trumps.

Just to let you know, that when I got home and eventually did get to wash them the first attempt had little impact. I dropped them in a bowl of water and washing powder and they were so crusted with salt and sweat that they just floated on the surface without absorbing any fluid. However after a more vigorous scrub and a wash in the machine they were fine and I’m still wearing them. No holes in them at all

Salomon Ultra Sense 4G shoes

The Marathon des Sables is the “toughest footrace on earth” so shoes are one of if not the most important piece of kit. If the fit is wrong then blisters are an inevitable consequence and with them comes immense discomfort and pain.

There’s no option to carry spare footwear so I wore these shoes for the entire Marathon des Sables. In the dry but changeable conditions (we walked/ran on hard packed sand, loose sand, knee deep sand dunes, rock, hard packed dirt with rocks and combinations of the above). The soles were more than up to the challenge and I never once felt like lack of grip was an issue.

They are a slightly narrower fit than many shoes but they fitted my feet perfectly and choosing a bigger than normal size to give my toes some extra room was a good move. This also meant I had a bit of “expansion” room as my feet swelled up during the week (due to the relentless pounding).

I like the “quick draw” laces system and it allowed me a choice of tighter fit (for the first stages) to a looser fit later in the week as I had to apply tape to my feet for the blister prevention.

If I had any complaints about the shoe it's that there isn't much cushioning. After more than 60 hours of walking I felt that my heels were a bit bruised but then maybe this would have been the case with any shoes. In all of my training previous to the event I never had any problem so its probably just a consequence of the number of miles walked on hard ground.

If these shoes suit your feet then I’d have no problem in recommending them for the MdS and other trail runs.

Used and abused - kit that stands the test during the Marathon des Sables

Salomon trail 20 back pack

The Marathon des Sables is a self sufficient event. Once the race starts the organisers provide water at check points and the overnight camps and a tent for you to sleep in. This means you need to carry everything else - sleeping bag and mattress, food for 7 days (minimum 2000 calories/day) stove, mandatory medical kit, night time bed wear (clean T shirt and shorts) and any spare clothing.

There’s no limit to how much you can take once you have the mandatory items but of course there is a trade off. The heavier the pack the more energy it takes to walk and the greater the stress on the body (especially the back and the feet)

The minimum weight allowed is 6.5k (I guess the organisers have worked out over the years that any lighter than this and it means somebody is missing either the required amount of food or a vital piece of compulsory kit such as a sleeping bag). Of the people I spoke with the range of weight was 7-12kg. On top of that most people probably had 2 x 750l water bottles (a weight of 1.5kg)

My bag at the start line on day 1 weighed 9kg fully laden.

So how did I choose this pack?

Most people go for either the Raid Light OlLMO or the Ultimate Direction or the specifically designed WAA MdS pack.

However I’ve used a Salomon XA20 Trail pack before for running and mountain biking and its always been very comfortable. Even with 10kg in weight during training, the pack always felt comfortable. The waist strap (with additional storage pockets) allowed me to distribute the weight onto my hips and this came in very useful during our longest stage, which took us 28 hours to complete.

I added a water bottle holder to each of the main shoulder straps as these are a better and more practical alternative to a bladder with a mouth piece.

I must confess that on day 1 it was a bit of a squeeze to get everything in to the pack and then get it zipped up. The additional waist pockets and the external mesh pockets were fully utilised and came in very useful. The plus side is that when the pack is fully loaded and strapped up these elasticated external pockets were very snug so none of my kit was able to fall out.

At the end of our journey I had worn this pack for over 60 hours. I had small amount of upper back tightness, more from the sheer volume of walking with a pack than from the pack itself.

There was no chafing at any of the contact points so the pack must have fitted me perfectly.

I found it comfortable to run and walk with and the weight was well distributed. Neither too much lower down or top heavy. I never once felt uncomfortable during the event.

I loved this pack and I’m going to continue to use it for my trail walking running and if you are planning on doing MdS or something similar then at the very least try this pack out.

On another note Fiona, my partner tried two other makes of pack neither of which was comfortable. Two days out from the event we purchased another Salomon Trail 20 pack packs and it was perfect for the event

One point of irritation for me is that the pack is called the Trail 20 and yet its only 16 litres. Why not call it the Trail 16?

Suunto Ambit 2

I use a GPS as much for recording data as I do like to monitor my performance. The ability to upload the data to software such a Training Peaks is invaluable for keeping track of my training load

I had been using a Garmin 910 but the HR chest strap started to give strange readings and so I switched to the Suunto. It performed perfectly for all of my training (15-20 hours per week for 20 weeks) and the data was much more robust.

Suunto’s Movescount interface is very easy to use (I find it easier than Garmin Connect), so uploading data after each session was easy. Just plug into my laptop and it synchs immediately. The benefit is that while its connected to the computer the watch is also charging up.

From there its another quick and simple task to export data to training peaks.

I found the watch easy to use and navigate and the face is large enough to see quickly on the move.

The downside to GPS watches is that the more accurate the data you collect (such as every 5seconds) the quicker it uses power. You can adjust the setting via the software to take data with longer gaps but this still only gives a 25 hour battery life.
I didn't take a solar charger to the desert so there was no opportunity to use the Ambit in the race, not that i needed it.

However I have no doubt about its ruggedness. It survived all manner of ill treatment during my training so I’m sure it would have been able to get back from Morocco unscathed.

Again another product I have continued to use and one which I would recommend for your training and racing

SportKitchen Meals

As I mentioned previously, MdS is about self sufficiency. There is only water provided after the start of Day 1, so you have to carry all of your own food.

With pack weight and size being a major consideration food is chosen for calorie density rather than nutrient density. This is about survival NOT health and in fact its not very healthy if you dont survive.

So freeze dried meals are the order of the day. Sport Nutrition make lovely freeze dried pasta or rice dinners and high protein and carb porridge for breakfast.

They supplied Fiona and I with enough meals for 7 days and provided the servings in custom sizes based on calories requested for each meal.

We went for 800 or so calories for breakfast and approximately 1000 for evening meals.

The only downside was the bulk. I just didn't have enough space in my pack to take all the meals so I selected all of the breakfasts and 4 evening meals with the others being plain old pot noodle form the supermarket.

I do have one suggestion to making them smaller. Just attack them in their plastic bag with a rolling pin. This breaks down the pasta and made them a lot less bulky. They still tasted good though

I have to say that I looked forward to my bolognese or country chicken with pasta each night and in the mornings the porridges were BIG meals. It took a day or two to get used to them cold (we often didn't have time to boil water) but I definitely didn't feel hungry during the day and was able to survive on small snacks at regular intervals.

OK, so another product I would highly recommend but as with all food you are best trying them before hand. I liked the taste but my tastes might not be the same as yours.

Used and abused - kit that stands the test during the Marathon des Sables

In summary, it might seem like I’m giving everyone the thumbs up here because they gave us free kit.

Thats absolutely not the case.

Before I approached the suppliers I did my homework. For example I was already familiar with Salomon products and I knew them to be robust and to my liking.

SportKitchen meals were recommended by the head of Nutrition for EIS (English Institute of Sport) so thats why I tried them.

Once I had the products it was just a matter of getting used to them and then hoping they survived the desert hammering, which they did.

Thats my final bit of advice. Do your homework.

These products worked for me. Clothes, shoes and pack fitted, the watch worked and the food tasted good. It suited me. I would recommend you try them out, but they may not suit you, so start your research early. The Sahara is not the place to discover that your choice of shoes are too narrow.

Product links

1000 mile Socks - www.1000mile.co.uk
Salomon - www.salomon.com/uk
Suunto - www.suunto.com/en-GB/
SportKitchen - www.sportkitchen.com


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