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Madness in Morocco: Canadians get ready for the Marathon des Sables

Canada's Yvan L'Heureux ran on a treadmill in over 50 degree heat to prepare for this six-day event across the Sahara desert

Photo by: Kevin Mackinnon

Yvan L’Heureux (pictured above) has competed in many ultra-marathon events over the years, including the TransPyranea, a 900 km event with over 55,000 m of elevation gain, but the Marathon des Sables poses a whole new challenge for the 48-year-old from Riviere du Loupe, Quebec. L’Heureux hates the heat and gets heat stroke easily.

Which begs the question of what on earth he’s doing here to take on the 250 km challenge through the Sahara Desert. L’Heureux says he wanted to challenge himself with something new – this will be his first stage race, so he sees the chance to sleep in a tent every night with the other Canadians he’s met online as he prepared for this race as “luxury.”

“Stopping every night is pretty amazing,” he said a couple of days before the race. “The other ultra races I’ve done you’ve been alone for all of it.”

L’Heureux hopes to finish in the top-100 at this week’s race. How’s that going to happen for someone who doesn’t like the heat? Over the last few months he’s been on a mission to train his body to handle it. He set up an industrial heater in a room in his house and started running on the treadmill. He cranked the heat up to 50 to 55 degrees C and ran. In January his body shut down after 20 minutes. Two weeks ago he ran for four and a half hours. He had to teach himself to drink a lot more, too – in the past he struggled to try and get one litre of water down every hour. Now he can get 2.5 down. He learned pretty quickly that he couldn’t digest food in the heat while he was running, so he’ll be drinking all his energy while he’s running.

He’s also honed in his equipment for the race. Rather than using the traditional MDS bag many of the competitors use, he’s using one that’s considerably smaller and lighter. He’s ground all of his food into powder to lighten the load, too. He’ll be right on the 6.5 kg limit organizers require.

The Canadian contingent set to compete at the Marathon des Sables.

Bucket list event

There are 12 Canadians registered for the event, but its not certain if all of those will be starting the race tomorrow. I caught up with a few of them yesterday – they were connected by the MDS organizers through Facebook, and they’ve become fast friends. Sharing a tent in the bivouac, they were enjoying a meal after the long trip to Morocco on Friday.

Winnipeg’s Carolyn Wiebe, 51, was inspired by the event after reading a book by a finisher.

“I just thought I could never do that,” Wiebe said. After she started running ultramarathons eight years ago, she met a former winner of the event at a presentation, who convinced her that she could finish the MDS. She wanted to compete here at the Marathon des Sables when she turned 50. COVID threw that dream out the window, but she’s here a year later and ready to take on the event.

Bathurst, New Brunswick’s Johanne Theriault is also here at the Marathon des Sables to check off a list from her bucket-list.

“One of the magic of a stage race like this is waking up every morning and starting all over again, like a crazy person, and redoing the same thing,” Theriault said when asked what she thought would be the biggest challenge. “We just saw the road book … its going to be interesting with the long stage (the fourth stage, at 96 km, is the longest stage the event has had for a number of years). We just have to adapt. Coming from Canada, we’ve had a tough winter, so it’s going to be hard for us all to adapt coming from cold and quite a bit of snow to running through the desert.”

Today the athletes have to drop off their luggage – from here on in everything they are eating, wearing or sleeping in must fit on their backs.

Race time

Last night the organization fed the athletes dinner, then they were able to line up for breakfast this morning. After that it was time to check in their luggage and pick up their first 3 l of water – from here on in they are on their own for food. They’ll carry their clothes, sleeping bags and mats for the rest of the week. Their bags are all weighed (they must be between 6.5 and 15 kg) , and they must show that they have enough food and calories to get them through the week. There’s a medical check, and then they head back to their tent in the bivouac to rest up for tomorrow’s first 30.3 km stage.

Every athlete’s backpack is weighed and must be between 6.5 and 15 kg.

Let the fun begin!