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Training for the Marathon des Sables

Blog one – Gemma Morris

In August 2018 I decided that I was going to sign up to the 35th Marathon Des Sables, known as the toughest footrace on Earth. I tried to persuade many people into doing this with me but either way I was adamant I was going to do this. Unfortunately, I couldn’t twist anyone’s arm into doing this, so I was going it alone.

21st January 2019 the day of registration opened at 1000, I was sat by my computer with my debit card in hand ready for it to open. I think I thought it was like the Boston Marathon Sports Tour opening where it sold out in minutes.

By 1010 I was fully signed up and my deposit was paid. As it was this race doesn’t sell out, its still open now for people to take part, the reality is this is not for everyone. And if you really think about it 250km in blistering 50 degree heat, completely self-sufficient, eating freeze dried food which you have had to package up and cook yourself on the desert floor, sleeping in Bivouac with 7 other people you have never met before. Terrain like you have probably never seen before and the likelihood of losing all your beautifully manicured toenails in the space of 6 days…. Yep this isn’t for everyone, so its not a complete sell out straight away. However, the appeal is still there to challenge yourself like you have never been challenged before.

Once I knew I was going to do the MDS I started to go to the gym, something which was not in my realm, All I had known up until this stage was running and that’s it.

I started weight training to strengthen my back, arms, core and legs. One of the big differences about the MDS is the fact you must carry your full kit on your back, the backpack is going to be around 10-12kg. My strength needed work whether I liked it or not.

The strength training is something I have fallen in love with, I have built up slowly, but I am now dead lifting and back squatting my own weight and a little bit more. To think I started struggling to do a 15kg set of deadlifts is quite crazy now and shows I have come quite far.

To put this in perspective I started my strength training back in November 2018 for a race that was taking place in April 2020, I am so pleased I started that early.

The running training wasn’t so much of an issue as in October 2018 I had just come out of my Chicago marathon training plan and my next marathon rotation was set to start in January for London Marathon, the miles ticked over while clocking up the races throughout 2019 and I completed and Ultra 100km in August so I gave myself a confidence boost by doing that. The fact I now knew I had the capability was one step closer to the MDS for me.

In October I was set to start my real MDS training although I had upped my training throughout the year and added different aspects such as different types of cross training and strength training, the real training was about to begin. And wow what a shock I’ve had….

Each week the training has gone up like standard marathon training but to an extreme. My work roster is quite hard to work around, generally on long days at work I am unable to fit any training in, so all my long runs are committed to my days off only. So, it’s quite understandable I’m crying out for a day off at the moment of just me, no work no training. I’m finding each week tougher and tougher.

Each week consists of 2 sessions of strength training, 1 cross training session of my choice, 1 x easy 6-mile run, 1 long weighted run with my backpack followed the next day by another long run. Add that to a full-time job, fundraising, running a house and owning pets and flipping heck… there just aren’t enough hours in the day. There are days I am setting my alarm for 0350 just to get it all done (thank goodness for 24hour gyms), On Christmas day I ran 26.2 miles while at work…. Its fair to say training for this event is relentless.

I knew this wouldn’t ever be easy, it wouldn’t be a challenge if it was easy, its more the time everything is taking to get everything done. My advice to anyone thinking of taking on such a challenge is take a secondment from work (jokes…) but seriously you really need to be able to manage your time effectively

Its not just the actual physical training that is part of the run up to the desert but its also the equipment and the food. You need to test your meals first as they are all freeze dried light weight high calorie meals you need to know they work with you and fuel you properly and also you need to know you like the taste of them, Apparently the one thing you really look forward to at the end of each day is your meals and if you don’t like the taste that could actually be make or break.

Testing all of the equipment is important, for example I purchased some really expensive bottles to find that one of them leaked and I was unable to fill it fully but I’m so glad I found this out now instead of when I was half way though my first day in the MDS. Its all about trial and error and this is going to be ongoing for the next 75 days until departure.

Over the next 2 months I’ll be running on sand, using my poles and using a heat chamber for acclimatisation, the heat chamber is set to the desert temperature and humidity and you run with your backpack on the treadmill.

The salt that you expel is measured, your core body temperature is monitored as well as all your other statistics. Over the course of 5-6 sessions your body adapts to running in these temperatures and you acclimatise throughout.

Training for this epic race is an experience in itself, I’ve already learned so much about myself and I expect I will continue to do so over the next couple of months.

What I have been keeping in mind throughout this journey is I am running for a cause and knowing I am fundraising does help spur me on when things get tough. I am doing this to raise funds for Anthony Nolan and up to now have raised just over £19,000. Another piece of advice for anyone taking on something this huge is to support a charity that you have a connection with, and it really will help you through that tough training regime

Follow my journey on Instagram @gems_miles

My fundraising link is

Gemma will be back with part two of her blog soon.