The world famous Marathon Des Sables multi-stage ultramarathon gets underway in the searing heat of the Moroccan desert on Friday, with over 1,000 competitors set to challenge themselves on the gruelling six-day, 251km course through one of the harshest environments on the planet.
Race director Patrick Bauer has overseen every edition of the race since it was first run in 1986. In this email interview with SportsPro, the Frenchman reveals the painstaking work that goes into organising what is often referred to as the toughest footrace on Earth.
What kind of work goes on behind the scenes throughout the year to promote and prepare for the Marathon Des Sables?
You cannot imagine the diversity of the specifications necessary for the organisation of such an event - there is always the invisible part of the iceberg. A lot of people think I spend my life travelling around the desert camping beneath the stars! There is a little bit of that, but too little unfortunately because I just love all that.
There are lots of administrative and legal steps required to secure all the official authorisation, the management of competitor registration, various insurance contracts, sponsorship searches, logistical organisation, organisation of bivouacs, purchase of equipment, the numerous choices involving service providers (timing bodies, helicopters, medical teams, hiring of 4x4s and trucks, telecommunications, stewardship, media services, air, road and boat companies), supervisory teams, organisation of press conferences, creation of the roadmaps, promotion in several countries, media campaigns, organisation of TV filming and satellite broadcasts, web content, photographers and the arrival of journalists on the ground, etc.
How is your organisation team structured throughout the year? How does that change during the race?
Year round there are seven employees at the agency, with one press officer and an outsourced audiovisual coordinator, and we work with official representatives across five continents. During the event all of the staff combined amounts to around 500 people in addition to the competitors, including 60 doctors, nurses and resuscitators, 120 staff involved in the technical supervision, drivers, assemblers, chefs, media staff, logistics, not to mention the unwavering support of the Royal Armed Forces who, together with 25 6x6 trucks and around 50 or so men, help us with the transport of heavy kit, tonnes of mineral water and fuel, etc.
What is your business model and where are your revenues generated – TV rights, sponsorship, entry fees, state funding?
Our business model involves having the maximum independence because we don’t benefit from subsidies, but we do negotiate sponsorship contracts with private companies. The bulk of the event funding comes from the participants’ entry fees and then the sponsorship, licensing and merchandising contracts and a few TV rights, but this is only a very small part as we’ve always been keen to have wide media coverage, both for the promotion of the event around the world as well as for the promotion of the destination, Morocco, which has been a fantastic land of welcome for the Marathon des Sables since its creation. This doubtless explains the tremendous internationalisation of the event with the participation of some fifty or so countries.
What is your approach to sponsorship? How do you ensure some kind of return for your sponsors?
Regarding sponsorship, we have a simple rule, which is to work with companies which share our values and with whom we really enjoy working. It’s not necessarily something we discover from the moment an agreement is established, but after a year’s contract we are able to make objective decisions. This probably isn’t a very business-like attitude, but for the sake of money we’re not prepared to sacrifice the ethics and philosophy that have driven us since the start, nor the pleasure and enthusiasm which are still very much in evidence, because you just can’t put a price on all those things!
However, we’re well aware that the returns on investment are essential and that’s why the media coverage plays a very important role in conveying the image of the partners who trust in us. The 2013 edition of the MDS generated over 150 hours of TV coverage across nearly 200 countries and over 1,800 press and web articles. The other aspect of this, which involves the sharing of values, enables our partners to carry out the kind of social actions that we set great store by in the desert or that favour the environment for all aspects of in-house communication and of course utilise the event’s image in any marketing campaigns they wish to conduct.
What is the economic impact of the race and how do you measure it?
The economic impact for Morocco is primarily local with the creation of specific jobs that the race generates in the Saharan provinces, whether it be for the car rental companies, the hoteliers, those pitching the tents, the handicraft shops or the restaurants, because after the event participants can enjoy a whole day on site in the town of Ouarzazate in particular. Further impact comes in the form of TV and press coverage across the world, which contributes to the touristic promotion of this magnificent country.
How is the race broadcast and produced for television?
A team of 25 people work on the production of the images produced by the organisation independently of the numerous television stations, which come along to the event to make reports for the media in their home countries. These images are produced daily and sent via satellite around three times a day to TV news agencies like Reuters, EVS or TV channels to whom we send daily articles.
There are a number of races that claim to be, or are referred to as, the toughest footrace on Earth. What is it that puts the Marathon Des Sables among them?
The MDS’ qualification as the toughest foot race on earth or one of the toughest races stems from the reputation that the event has earned itself over the years through competitors’ comments. On a personal level, I’m not able to say for sure whether this is the case, but it’s evident that several parameters are taken into consideration in this description, such as the variety of different terrains (djebels, ergs, wadis, dried-up lakes and regs); temperatures bordering on 50°; the fact that you have to be self-sufficient so you carry all your own food for a week; the weight of the rucksack which equates to an average of around ten kilos; a distance of around 250km to be covered in seven days with a daily average of 35 to 40km, including an 80km stage and a marathon stage; management of your repeated efforts, your hydration and your sleep, as well as the spartan life every evening in the bivouac in a nomad tent, where the much-awaited meal needs to be prepared in order to rack up the necessary calories to tackle the next stage, then the next one and the next one.
It has to be said that the choice of food you decide to bring along is fundamental. It all comes down to balancing energy intake, weight, consistency and above all the pleasure of eating a good meal, which will provide the calories the body needs as well as the necessary morale boost to continue running.
Is there anything that keeps you awake at night during the race?
My main concern during the race is the safety of the runners and the quality of the services we offer them, particularly the rankings, the supply of water, the erecting of the bivouacs, etc. For that we benefit from a professional, honed, medical staff of 60 people, two squirrel helicopters and a Cessna plane. The radio contact between all the land-based vehicles and those which fly is filtered through a Race HQ, which analyses the situation of the runners and the race on an organisational level in real time.
I go to bed late as I visit the teams, who work through the evening and I don’t sleep too badly because I’m lucky to have a dream team, which gives its all. In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my team as I have great respect for them.
What challenges are unique to organising the Marathon Des Sables, as opposed to an inner-city marathon or a smaller ultra-marathon?
We are a long way from the roads and towns and as a result the supply of water, fuel and food is organised in the run-up to the event and transported or indeed stored in depots close to the route beforehand for logistical reasons. The various features of difficult terrain, such as potential stranding in the sand, call for specific routes that need reconnoitring to ensure the installation of the bivouacs, which are taken down and re-erected each day. Sandstorms can last several days and this can make the race conditions very tough. Rain, a plague of locusts or high levels of humidity can also have a massive influence on the smooth running of the event. Aeromedical evacuation teams must respond quickly in order to reach the clinic set up in the bivouac or the closest airport for transport by jet in the most serious cases.
In what ways has the Marathon Des Sables grown and evolved over the years?
The Marathon des Sables has been lucky enough to expand gradually, which has meant that the organisation hasn’t felt overwhelmed and instead has been able to control its growth and have time to anticipate all the problems linked to this evolution. From 23 competitors back in 1986 to over a thousand today, a lot of water has flowed into the wadi, with a stack of tales along the way, which have helped build the legend of the event.
How has the sport of ultra-running in general developed?
The Marathon des Sables was a forerunner of today’s ultra trail because, around thirty years ago, there weren’t any non-urban races because such a thing didn’t exist. Even ten or so years ago, you could already see the evolution in technical gear offered by the equipment manufacturer, who was right to target the economic sector because it has just exploded. After the city marathons, runners felt a need for new testing grounds and today there are thousands of ultra races around the world.
Very recently, a Frenchman, Mr Cyril Gauthier, created the Ultra Trail World Tour, which gathers together the top ten elite races, which are run over five continents with a world ranking for the world’s top trail runners. The Marathon des Sables forms part of the UTWT and represents the African continent and Morocco in particular, which has played host to the Marathon des Sables for nearly three decades. It’s a great honour for both the MDS and Morocco, where it has been run for the past 19 consecutive years under the patronage of his Majesty the King Mohammed VI, a trusty sponsor of the Marathon des Sables.