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Marathon des Sables 2015 – the toughest footrace on earth

Marathon des Sables 2015 – the toughest footrace on earth

The Marathon des Sables 2015: The story of two South Africans


Ultrarunner ZA had the privilege of interviewing Genis and Tanya Pieterse from Centurion.  Tanya has been running since 2012 and has completed the 2013 – Addo Elephant 44km Trail Run, 2014 – Addo Elephant 76km Trail Run and the 2015 – Marathon des Sables 250km multi-stage race. Genis is a runner since 2012, and has completed the 2012 – Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon 250km multi-stage race, 2013 – Addo Elephant 44km Trail Run, 2013 – Marathon des Sables 250km multi-stage race, 2013 – Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon 250km multi-stage race, 2014 –Addo Elephant 76km Trail Run and 2015 – Marathon des Sables 250km multi-stage race.

The Marathon des Sables is ranked by the Discovery Channel as the toughest footrace on earth. Known simply as MdS, the race is a gruelling multi-stage adventure through a formidable landscape in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates – the Sahara desert.  The rules require you to be self-sufficient, to carry with you on your back everything except water that you need to survive.  You are given a place in a tent to sleep at night, but any other equipment and food must be carried.  Imagine yourself in the Sahara desert, with nothing but rolling sand dunes for miles around.  When you plough your feet through the sand, a fine dust kicks up.  You can’t feel the sweat dripping down your face because it’s evaporating in the baking heat. Your lungs feel parched.  Today’s temperature is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees centigrade).  Part of your brain is screaming at you to stop, right now, drop out of the race, but the other part of your brain is stronger.  The other part of your brain knows that when you complete the final stage of the MdS, you will have the equivalent of five and a half marathons in five or six days, a total distance of some 251kms, subject to race route.


Consensus among some of the repeat MdS runners is that the 2015 MdS was the toughest in the event’s 30 year history. One element that made it particularly challenging was the 91.7km long stage, the longest single stage to date.


On this year’s start line of the 250km self-sufficiency Marathon des Sables stood two South Africans from Centurion, Pretoria, and their aim to start and finish the race as a husband and wife team. Tanya, originally from Natal, and Genis had the privilege to start the race with the legendary British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who has climbed Everest, walked to both the South and North poles and crossed Antarctica on foot. The legend described the Marathon des Sables to the British Telegraph as “more hellish than hell”.

Genis and Tanya were received in Ouarzazate, Morocco by the Moroccan minister of Tourism, Mr Mohammed Belemlih, who made every effort to make this team feel at home, from meeting them at the airport to ensure that there were no problems with their visas and getting their equipment through customs to meeting the couple at the end of each day as they crossed the finish line. He went out of his way to arrange media coverage for the team whose interview went out across Morocco, Europe, Asia and the USA.


So why do such a gruelling race, was the question I asked Tanya: “It was for my amazing daughter that I ran each day and who was my reason to finish. I did it so that she could be proud of me and know that she can do anything in life”. Arielle, the couples 23 year old daughter kept the fort at home, and became the central hub of information for the family as Genis and Tanya faced some challenges out in the Sahara desert. “Arielle never doubted that I would finish” says Tanya. But there is more, according to Tanya “Genis wanted me to do the MDS because he knew I could and would finish it and that after such an accomplishment I would never again have to stand back for anyone in my life. He had complete trust in me and that is what kept me going.  He made sure we finished at each check point with two or three hours to spare and kept our pace telling me to keep it together.  We held hands while crossing each check point together. I had to trust that he knew where we were going and would get us there within the cut-off time. Now I can say that we have been through what very few couples will ever experience. Genis went over and beyond what I expected from him as he was only focused on me, making sure I was settled in for the night before he could try to do anything for himself, he has earned my total loyalty, devotion and trust. This was truly a team effort!”


I wanted to know what the Marathon des Sables was really like. According to Tanya it is “like crossing over a portal into another world”. She obviously had a deeply emotional experience and describes the brutality of the Sahara desert with symbolic clarity: “The salt plains of Ouarzazate in Morocco are where the souls wait in Purgatory and the dunes and mountains is where they are tormented in hell”. Daily routine is the same with the race director, Patrick Bauer, playing ACDC’s Highway to Hell while he dances to the music on his Landrover’s roof, counting down the seconds to the start of yet another very difficult day. Tanya says that “all I could see was the Devil taking pleasure in torturing us as we were faced with yet another day in Hell”. She tells me about the desert “it is barren and dead and sucks away at your soul. The heat is relentless and the flat salt pans stretch aimlessly in all directions. The mountains are treacherous and the dunes never end. You are pushed until you are exhausted and tried emotionally, spiritually and physically. The desert weaves its dark magic and time and distance no longer exists, it becomes an illusion. What feels like just a kilometre at home during training stretches ahead of you as far as the eye can see in the desert and the nearer you get to the check-in point the further away it seems. Your pack never gets lighter as the more tired you get the heavier it feels”.

“Each day held in a new trial for me, I found it hard to cope with the vast space, the extreme heights we had to reach, climbing the endless dunes and coping with the scorching heat. You have to stay focussed ALL the time.  The desert is unforgiving and doesn’t give you a second chance” says Tanya.


Tanya and Genis agree that they shared a bivouac with amazing tent mates and were fortunate to meet wonderful people. Some didn’t make it and for them this couple feel very sorry as they know the commitment and training that goes into preparing for this race, as well as the hardship one must endure every day during the race.


But it wasn’t a smooth run for Tanya as Genis describes how a number of things gradually started going wrong for Tanya from the outset: “Tanya started developing difficulty to swallow, which led to her not being able to take in sufficient nutrition and hydration. For the most part this was managed, but on the 91.7km long stage the desert took out all the stops to exploit her weaknesses. Big climbs, long and relentless dunes, 50 plus degree Celsius temperatures on the salt flats all worked together to wreak havoc with her blood glucose levels, she dehydrated, gradually lost her sight until she was mostly blind and developed intense pain. We continued on throughout the night, and took a brief two hour rest at around 48km’s, hoping that all of this would pass, but it didn’t. I had to lead Tanya onwards, through the night and at around the 60km checkpoint she decided to seek medical attention. The doctors infused her to get her hydration levels up, gave an infusion of glucose to stabilize her blood glucose level and administered a morphine injection for the pain. An hour later she claimed all was better and that her sight was back, not the total truth, but her determination was not going to keep her from finishing the stage. We left the checkpoint with 7-hours to complete an unknown 32km’s and I knew that we needed to keep the pace up, something Tanya was remarkably able to do and we completed the stage three hours before cut-off. To finish the last 32km’s, in those conditions, with heavy backpacks and Tanya and that condition within four hours was amazing and showed just how strong and determined my wife is”


Tanya adds that “during the long stage I started to hallucinate, I could see the footprints in the dunes illuminated by my head-torch and the shadows they casted morphed into grotesque sculls, empty eye sockets staring up at me”.


I asked Tanya, at what point did her achievement became real to her: “It was after pausing to look back from the top of a mountain during the long stage and all I could see we’re the dunes we had crossed and the mountainous region we had just climbed and I thought to myself – no human can do that – I felt like Super Woman and the immensity of what I accomplished became so real it frightened me. And then again on the six hour bus journey back to the hotel after finishing the race, I looked at everyone in the bus and thought; they are truly a league of extraordinary men and woman!”


But was it life changing? “I had the most amazing adventure of my life! I’ve always wanted my life to count for something, to have and fulfil a quest, to do something remarkable – that’s what the MDS felt like.  It was as though my whole life prepared me for it and I had the courage and perseverance inside of me. I did what seemed impossible at the time and was surrounded by normal people who had the inner strength to do something extraordinary – they truly were in a league of their own. It was so much more than just a desert race, it proved to me that I have what it takes as I had to dig deep for the strength needed to complete each stage. I hope people will see that if you don’t give up, take each day at a time and just continue to go forward one foot at a time you will be able to complete and conquer anything life throws at you – you are braver than you believe and stronger than you feel – just never give up!!” says Tanya. “It was an adventure of a lifetime, a quest through the Sahara desert – an experience never to be equalled where hardship forges new friendships, where nationalities and men and woman no longer exist as you become one through shared suffering. It was a privilege to have shared the hardship out in the Sahara desert with remarkable people, with soldiers, firemen, policemen and real adventurers, normal everyday people each with their own reason for being there, each fighting their own battle with grit and determination”.


“For me this year’s MdS was much harder than 2013, the long stage was particularly challenging especially with what Tanya had to endure, but I wouldn’t have swopped the experience for anything. To do this with my wife was amazing, everything from preparing for the event to completing it. The past two years have been a journey for the two of us and allowed us to spend far more quality time together, and to face those challenges while holding Tanya’s hand was simply the best thing I have ever done in my life. So was it life changing, absolutely, I saw Tanya reach something so unreachable that she now sees herself differently, she now knows that she can overcome anything, and for me, I had to learn to deal with my own fears, I had to allow Tanya to face the danger, not on her own, or protected by me but rather at my side facing it together and I realised we are a remarkable team”.


People who are interested can read about the Marathon des Sables and other similar adventures on the website where Genis maintains a blog with some valuable information for any adventure or extreme enthusiast. Also be on the lookout for Tanya’s book about her Marathon des Sables adventure.

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Zelda Coetzee

Media Manager & Blogger at UltraRunner ZA
Really crazy lady with a passion for trail running and photography. She is often referred to as the "Ultra Mommy" because she takes good care of everyone on the team.
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About The Author

Really crazy lady with a passion for trail running and photography. She is often referred to as the "Ultra Mommy" because she takes good care of everyone on the team.

1 Comment

  1. . So was it life changing, absolutely, I saw Tanya reach something so unreachable that she now sees herself differently, she now knows that she can overcome anything, and for me, I had to learn to deal with my own fears, I had to allow Tanya to face the danger, not on her own, or protected by me but rather at my side facing it together and I realised we are a remarkable team”.


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