The Marathon des Sables Expo

Saturday was the long-awaited Marathon des Sables expo, and really marks the start of this campaign (although, with only some 19 weeks until the race, anyone who hasn’t made a serious start on their training already is probably in a bit of trouble). It was very different to marathon expos I’ve been to before, which are normally a quick packet pick-up, a stroll past the dozens and dozens of sporting goods stands, buying some kit or race-branded tat, and then straight out. This one, on the other hand, was more of a full-day conference, with worthwhile talks scheduled all day and surprisingly little in the way of shopping opportunities.

 

I arrived reasonably early, met up with some of the other MDSers I had met on Twitter or been introduced to via mutual friends, and claimed my free bag: the WAA 20L Ultrabag specifically designed for the MDS, and quite generously (unless you think too hard about the £4,000 or so entry fee for the event as a whole) handed out to everyone who attended the expo. Although it’s not to everyone’s taste, especially those who want to pack seriously light, there’s no doubt it’s a very good bit of kit and, for a first-timer, there’s some comfort to using kit specifically designed for the event so at least I know I shouldn’t be going drastically wrong. I’d have almost certainly bought this pack anyway, so was very happy to be given a free one. I’ll review it properly in a future post.

After that, it was time for coffee and bacon, and then on to the first talk, an intro given by race director Patrick Bauer, in French, via an interpreter (interpreter/summariser, really, since even with my limited French I could tell that we weren’t being given every word Patrick was saying!). It was a good intro, a mix of inspiration and practical details, including the promise that every stage would start bang on time, apparently an issue that has wound up the generally punctual Brits at every previous event.

Following Patrick’s intro, James Cracknell gave a very entertaining talk and answered some questions. I’m not sure it taught me a huge amount for my own race, but it was funny and engaging and a great start to the day. I wanted to ask him about the Garmin I saw him wearing in one picture, and a) whether he worked to specific splits for the MDS (not something I plan to do) and b) how he kept it charged if so. I’m keen to use my Garmin so that at least I have an idea of how far I have to go on each stage, and so that I can keep the tracks and details for posterity, but I’m not sure any of my devices will last a week without being recharged. Any thoughts on that gratefully received.

After that there was time for more coffee and a quick pop round the stalls. As I mentioned, there were far fewer stalls than I expected; as far as actually buying kit goes there was really only MyRaceKit, selling a good range of very MDS-specific stuff, including all the mandatory items, and WAA, selling some shirts and shorts and sleeping bags. The four or five other stands were more info/service-based: i.e. providing assessments of sweat rate/composition, heat acclimatisation, foot assessments, and the Expedition Foods stand, talking about their range of dehydrated foods. These, incidentally, were also provided for lunch, and genuinely weren’t bad – I may be converted to taking some of these, although possibly not the two a day they tried to recommend. I’ll talk about my food plans in a future post.

Over the course of the day I went to four of the little 30-minute talks:

  • Packing and keeping kit light, by Graeme Harvey. A very useful and lively talk with some great examples of how small adjustments to kit can add up to more than a KG of weight-savings. I’ve already started to think about this for the mandatory kit, but I really need to plan everything else I’m taking and get an idea of what weight I’m at. 6.5KG is the minimum, for the real racing snakes – I’m going to aim for about 8, which should mean that even with the maximum water load at any point, I should never be carrying more than 11KG of weight. Interestingly, Graeme contradicted the popular wisdom about wearing shoes 1-2 sizes too big because your feet swell in the heat, and recommended shoes no bigger than 0.5 sizes bigger, if that.
  • Health and foot care, delivered in somewhat perfunctory style by the medical director and a podiatrist, but contained some very useful info about how to prepare your feet in advance. Interestingly/frustratingly, the podiatrist directly contradicted Graeme’s advice on shoes (above) by insisting that we should wear shoes 2 sizes too big.
  • Heat acclimatisation and hydration delivered by a chap from Porsche, who also had a stand and were taking bookings for their acclimatisation sessions at their performance centre at Silverstone. Most of the info about hydration I was fairly familiar with, but the info about heat acclimatisation was very helpful: in particular the advice to focus this in the 10 days before the race, and that even an hour a day in a sauna can make a big difference. I had been largely ignoring heat acclimatisation on the basis it’s just too hard to achieve in the UK, but this talk made me come round to the idea that I both can and should do something.
  • Nutrition mostly info I already knew, but some good bits of specific advice about finding foods that provide their calories with the right balance of carbs/protein/fat, and some particular food types to try, which I jotted down.

I skipped the panel Q&A, largely on the basis that I find that listening to lots of other people asking questions about things like this puts me off my game and stresses me out. I did, however, attend a surprisingly useful session by the designer of the WAA MDS pack, explaining how it all worked and how it could be used. I won’t go into that in detail because I want to write a proper post about the pack, but it was very useful and detailed, and well worth going to.

After that, I finally headed off. Overall, a really excellent and inspiring day which has given me a lot of useful info to continue my preparation over the next few months.

And then on Sunday I went for a 23 mile run wearing the new pack. Had to be done, really.

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