Wednesday 16 January 2013

Marathon des Sables: getting used to your kit

I love my backpack!
Carrying a 10kg bag is fun!

By now you should be starting to think about what kit you are going to take (if you have not already done so). The smaller items to get matter less at present, but it is important to buy and get used to the bigger pieces. These include:-

Frontpack (if taking)
Hydration system
Clothes you will wear while shuffling

Your backpack will end up weighing between 6.5-15kg once all your kit is in there so it's important to get used to carrying it for long periods of time. However, one good piece of advice I was given was to NOT train with the heavy bag all the time, as it compromises your technique and can increase risk of injury.

I began by running (and walking) in and out of work with a lightish pack, and gradually built up the weight and the length I would carry it for, culminating in 45 miles with around 7kg and a marathon with 10kg. I began carrying a heavy bag from mid February onwards.

Because of this during MDS I had no problems with the bag (other than the obvious - it's a pain to carry and you will get sore shoulders and back. I would rotate between holding it up with my hands behind my back to pulling it forwards to release the pressure from my shoulders every few minutes!)

I also taped my shoulders where the straps sat and the top of my pelvis, where the bag tended to move, and therefore chaff. Other people taped down their spine. Over the tape I put bodyglide to prevent any further chaffing.

Another good reason to get used to your kit is you will also be testing out what works and what doesn't for you. I found that I wanted to add a small frontsack to carry easy-to-get-to items. Other people hated the idea of having extra weight in the front.

All runners know you have to give some time before a big race to get used to new trainers, so if you are going to run in a specific trail running shoe, get it soon. I ended up buying 2 different trail trainer and testing them at home inside, then I sent one pair back when I decided which felt more comfortable. I then spent the next couple of months worrying that I had chosen the right pair of trainers!

Buying trainers for MDS is a little different to normal running as you need to take into account that your feet will swell up, so you need a size or so too large. This means normal running will feel a little clumpy and you may need to wear extra socks.

Test your trainers in all conditions - mud, rain, sand, road, stones, up hills, down dunes to see how they feel and grip, and how cushioned they are.

You don't really need to get used to your gaiters, just test them out to check your combination of trainer and gaiter is sandtight. My better half found his choice of trainer was too holey and so sand was getting through, so he switched trainers. Much better to know pre-race.

Hydration system
Along with testing out your backpack for chaffiness and weightiness, is checking that your hydration system works for you. There are two options - bag or bottles. Most people I saw took bottles. Then you have the choice of carrying them in a frontsack or on the sides. I went with sides. Adding water to your rucksack will alter your balance slightly too, so do remember to trial your rucksack with full kit and full water allowance a few times to see what the difference is and how easy you can access your water along the way.

Clothes you will wear when shuffling
Not sure an essential to remember to do, but if you buy new clobber to wear on MDS, test it out a fair few times before you go to check where it may potentially rub. I've not added a post on clothing yet but will write one anyway as talking about clothes is always fun!


  1. Loving these posts, found your blog a wee while back when I was looking for MDS tips and these posts you are writing in the lead up to MDS 2013 are really useful. Thanks.

    1. Hi Colin
      Thank you. It makes my day when people post things like this! Are you running this year? Or have you run already? Unsure from your blog?
      All the best anyway and would love to know how you are getting on if you are running it this year.

  2. Hi Kate,
    Yes, running it this year. Deep in training, well kinda... always think I should be doing more. Big week this week. Heading up to Inverness, snow permitting with some other folk who are also running in 2013 to run the Great Glen Way over 2 days (79 miles). Will feel better about where I am fitness wise if I get through that relatively unscathed.

    Arghh, my blog, never updated it for years....posted once in the lead up to training for my first ultra in 2011 (Highland Fling). Think I also plans about trying to get into MDS 2010 but missed the date when the places went on sale. Prior to that, this MDS thing has been on my to do list since I first heard about it from a colleague who ran it in 2006. I now can't believe that I will be there in a little under 11 weeks time.

    I will endeavour to update my blog at some point, I had planned to chart my training progress but I never quite seem to get the time to sit down and post.

    Keep up the good work with the blog must be getting a fair bit of traffic as the MDS 2013 try to get every last little tip from people who have run it before (not sure how people managed before the internet).


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