Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Winners survive 'toughest race on Earth'

By Teo Kermeliotis, for CNN
updated 6:53 AM EDT, Sat April 13, 2013
Moroccan Mohamad Ahansal crosses the line with a cartwheel to be crowned winner of this year's Marathon des Sables (MDS). Moroccan Mohamad Ahansal crosses the line with a cartwheel to be crowned winner of this year's Marathon des Sables (MDS).
HIDE CAPTION
Marathon des Sables 2013
Marathon des Sables 2013
Marathon des Sables 2013
Marathon des Sables 2013
Marathon des Sables 2013
Marathon des Sables 2013
Marathon des Sables 2013
Marathon des Sables 2013
Marathon des Sables 2013
Marathon des Sables 2013
Marathon des Sables 2013
Marathon des Sables 2013
Marathon des Sables 2013
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mohamad Ahansal and Meghan Hicks are the winners of this year's Marathon des Sables
  • The epic race, taking place in the Southern Moroccan desert, is billed as the toughest footrace on Earth
  • Runners had to cover more than 220 kilometers over six stages

(CNN) -- The cries of pain turn into cheers of joy as the long-awaited finishing line finally looms on the horizon, stretching along the foot of an enormous desert dune. Mohamad Ahansal has already run more than 220 kilometers in the baking heat of the Sahara, but he still has the stamina to pull one last stunt.

The Moroccan runner is met with applause and awe as he crosses the line with a joyous cartwheel to be crowned winner of this year's Marathon des Sables (MDS), billed as the world's toughest footrace.

"I'm really very happy with this victory," said Ahansal, whose triumph Friday means he's now won the men's iconic race for an astonishing five times. "This edition has been very difficult as the competitors are increasingly strong and have a lot more experience with every passing year."

Ahansal's remarkable success was followed by the feat of Meghan Hicks, who took her first victory in the women's category.

Winning an initial victory here is just incredible.
Meghan Hicks, MDS winner

"Winning an initial victory here is just incredible," said the American runner, who first took part in the ultra-marathon four years ago.

Read this: 'The toughest race on Earth'

Overall, 980 out of the initial 1,024 participants started the fifth leg of this year's MDS, a grueling adventure challenging participants to test their bodies and minds as they take on whipping sandstorms and blazing temperatures of up to 50C in their epic journey across the Southern Moroccan desert.

Starting last Sunday, men and women of all ages from nearly 50 countries had to cover the equivalent of five and a half marathons over six stages -- including a non-stop leg of some 75 kilometers.

To toughen the ordeal, competitors were provided with just their water supply and a tent to sleep in at night. They were also required to carry all their equipment for the duration of the ultra-marathon -- from food and sleeping gear to an anti-venom pump and glow sticks -- as they battled with weariness and dehydration whilst snaking their way past rolling dunes, steep-sided uplands, dried-up lakes and abandoned settlements in the hostile heat.

MDS route. Click to expand  MDS route. Click to expand
MDS route. Click to expandMDS route. Click to expand

Three runners have died in the 28 consecutive years the race has been taking place.

Read this: Sahara explorer taming the desert

The roots of the MDS can be traced back to 1984, when Patrick Bauer decided to embark on a self-sufficient journey across the Algerian desert on foot, covering a distance of 350 kilometers over 12 days.

That expedition had a major influence on the adventurous Frenchman, who realized that other people would be interested in taking on similar challenges.

So in 1986 Bauer returned to Africa to organize the very first edition of the ultra marathon, completed that year by 23 pioneering runners. Twenty-eight years and more than 12,000 participants later, the MDS has grown to become a major endurance event whose model has been copied by several other races.

Some runners come here to push back their limits and brave the extreme to write their tale.
Patrick Bauer, MDS creator

"Some runners come here to push back their limits and brave the extreme to write their tale," says Bauer.

"For a lot of participants, the Marathon des Sables is an opportunity to break with everyday life and feel a sense of timelessness. There is even a spiritual dimension, a quest for answers to what are at times very personal questions," he adds. "The desert magnifies the soul."

Putting the race together requires months of preparations and a plethora of resources: 120,000 liters of mineral water, 6.5 kilometers of Elastoplast, 400 support staff, 270 berber and Saharan tents, 100 all-terrain vehicles, 52 medical staff, 23 buses, 19,000 compresses and 6,000 painkillers. In addition, the organizers have two helicopters, one Cessna plane and six commercial planes at their disposal.

The MDS continued Saturday with its sixth and final, untimed, stage -- a 7.7 kilometer charity leg for UNICEF.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
No one knows what causes "fairy circles" in Namibia's desert. A new study, however, may have solved the mystery.
updated 6:54 AM EDT, Thu April 3, 2014
A picture shows the Rwenzori mountain range on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on March 8, 2014. At 5,109 metres (16,763 feet), Mount Stanley's jagged peak is the third highest mountain in Africa, topped only by Mount Kenya and Tanzania's iconic Kilimanjaro.
The 'African Alps' are melting, and it may be too late. Now may be your last chance to see the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains.
updated 5:29 AM EST, Fri February 28, 2014
Food blogger Nisrine Merzouki gives a guide to classic Moroccan food.
updated 5:34 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
The Hadza are one of the oldest people on Earth. Today, they battle for land, and continued survival.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
CNN's Zain Verjee treks to Uganda to glimpse what kind of life these majestic primates live.
updated 5:37 AM EDT, Fri June 27, 2014
lake retba, senegal
On the edge of Senegal's Cap Vert peninsula, a lush coastal region, lies Lake Retba ... a coral pink lake.
updated 10:15 AM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
A huge spiral in the Sahara had Google Earth users baffled by what it could be. So what exactly is it?
updated 6:17 AM EST, Wed January 29, 2014
The ruined town of Great Zimbabwe is part of a kingdom that flourished almost 1,000 years ago, and a bridge to the past.
updated 6:20 AM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
Morocco is famous for its historic cities and rugged landscape. But it's becoming known as a surfer's paradise.
updated 5:37 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
african street food morocco olives
CNN readers share their images of the continent's best and most tantalizing street food.
updated 5:27 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
A photographer took to an ultra-light aircraft to capture Botswana's savannah from above. The results are amazing.
updated 12:37 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
Vintage helicopters, ziplines, private flying safaris offer new, spectacular views of wildlife and rugged terrain.
updated 6:10 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Xhosa boys must face an intense initiation before they are deemed men. When it's over, traditional clothing is swapped for formal wear.
updated 6:16 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Makoko Floating School
A new wave of African architects are creating remarkable buildings in the continent, and beyond.
Each week Inside Africa highlights the true diversity of the continent as seen through the mediums of art, music, travel and literature.
ADVERTISEMENT