The MdS Backpack

On April 10, 2009, in Racing, by Meghan

Whichever way you look at it, the Marathon des Sables (MdS) is so much about the backpack. For all the running and other training you do for MdS back at home, one’s on-site experience becomes contingent upon what is, or isn’t, inside that damn backpack.

With my backpack I’ve developed a love-hate relationship. After training with it for months here at home, then carrying it some more across the Sahara Desert, I was many times tempted to give it the ol’ heave-ho from a nearby cliff top or dune crest. Then again, over there in Morocco, each time I opened my backpack, I felt like I was unburying some long lost but still loved treasure. While I adored it and I loathed it, my backpack and its contents delivered me with success across the desert.

In general, one wants to carry an MdS backpack that is as light as possible while still containing ample appropriate food and other required stuffs. I would bore you to tears and reveal my true compulsivity if I posted the Excel spreadsheets I developed to plan the contents of my MdS backpack. However, those spreadsheets allowed me to monitor, to the gram and kilocalorie, exactly what I lugged through the desert.

Inov-8 Race Pro 22 pack, my 2009 Marathon des Sables racing pack (from

Here is an abbreviated list of my backpack and its contents:

  • Inov-8 Race Pro 22 backpack
  • 2 Inov-8 shoulder strap water bottle holders
  • 2 Raidlight water bottles and straws
  • Western Mountaineering Highlite sleeping bag
  • Thermarest Ridgerest sleeping pad
  • Petzl E+lite headlamp
  • survival gear required by MdS
  • passport and money
  • Light My Fire spork
  • camp clothing
  • toiletry kit
  • first aid/foot care kit
  • Ipod shuffle
  • salt via Nuun tabs and Endurolyte pills
  • food, food, and more food!

Every single item I put into my backpack was chosen for my specific needs. For example, my Inov-8 backpack fit my body and was the right size for my gear and food volume. Also, I chose the heavier and warmer Western Mountaineering sleeping bag, instead of another lighter but cooler one, because I knew that I would need extra warmth at night. Also, each piece of gear was modified to make it as light as possible. For example, I cut down my Thermarest Ridgerest until it weighed a mere 95 grams.

While food gets only one line on the above list, it was by far the main contents of my backpack. Here is a list of the food I ate for one day at MdS that included a marathon of running. There were 3455 kilocalories allotted for this day:

  • granola and powdered milk, 519 kilocalories
  • 3 bags of Clif Shot Bloks, 600 kcals
  • 3 Gus, 300 kcals
  • 1 Clif Bar, 240 kcals
  • Ultragen powder, 196 kcals
  • cashews and banana chips snack mix, 660 kcals
  • Mountain House Macaroni and Cheese backpacking dinner, 940 kcals

At go time, a grand total of 19377 kilocalories of specifically selected food inhabited my backpack, ready to sustain me for 7 days and 250 kilometers of running. I chose my food for both its nutritional value and its lightweight-ness. My food followed roughly the same pattern as above each day. However, I tried to vary my post-race snacks and dinners to infuse a little variety.

Sifting through my gear and food lists now, with the 20-20 vision of post-race experience, highlights several small mistakes. For example, I wish I hadn’t taken Clif Bars. I love these bars here at home, but they were wholly unappealing in the Sahara. Also, I wish I hadn’t taken the Petzl E+lite. First, it has a finicky on-off mechanism that kept jamming with sand. More importantly, I ran for about 4 ½ hours in the dark during the race’s long stage, and the E+lite wasn’t bright enough. While there are several more modifications I would make to my gear and food lists for a future MdS race (Why didn’t I bring some sort of chocolate?), I was happy with my choices on this go-round.

I cherished a few pieces of gear at MdS, tiny creature comforts that made all the difference. It’s possible that I would have never slept without ear plugs. Put over 1000 people in close proximity to each other, and quiet moments are non-existent. Compression socks were a luxury for which my lower legs and feet thanked me. Hand sanitizer, do I really need to elaborate? Another creature comfort was Nuun. On the gram-saving MdS scale, Nuun tablets are heavy for the amount of electrolytes they provide. However, on the Meghan happiness scale, they were indispensable for their taste. My Ipod Shuffle delivered me through a few mentally tough race sections. And, the Buff. I was a Buff non-believer before MdS, but now I’ve come to Jesus over those things and their infinite uses.

There were many days and nights before MdS where I could be found sitting on the floor of my place here in California with gear and food spread around me, pondering and re-pondering my choices. Shall I pack 1 piece of Nuskin, or two (It’s gold out there, whatever you bring.)? Baby wipes or soap and a washcloth (I packed 5 grams of soap and a 5 gram wash cloth, and would do it again.)? Comb or no comb (I combed my hair once, but didn’t really need to.)? 165 sheets of toilet paper or 220 (220, and worth every gram.)? Really, just 1 pair of racing socks (Yep, if you’ve tested and trialed them, and you can wash them after a stage or two with the aforementioned soap, why not?)? I was certain that the choices I made here would render me with a useless pack on the other side of the world. However, every single thing worked out just fine, and most times even better than fine.

At this moment, my dirty, salty MdS backpack is still sitting in my unopened suitcase. This is perhaps equally a function of my busy-ness and MdS backpack hate. If I never had to run with a 15-pound backpack again, or at least never for the next 6 months, I would be an elated girl. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t also grow to love that silly piece of equipment and the things it delivered me during MdS.

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16 Responses to “The MdS Backpack”

  1. Leslie's Keith says:

    Coffee? Chocolate? Life essentials that seem to ‘not be on the list’! I did see you mentioned some sort of Chocolate would have been nice…But tell me about coffee?!? If none, how did you manage to get over the withdrawl!?


  2. Danni says:

    I agree with Keith, I would have to carry coffee and my titanium backpacking french press. Maybe at the expense of soap — I’d rather be filthy and caffinated.

    I’m totally fascinated by this adventure. Did I mention how awesome you are?

  3. Audrey says:

    wow…i cannot imagine packing and carrying enough food for 7 days let alone 7 days of high calorie burning….i don’t too much about the race you just did but i can’t wait for the rest of your posts 🙂

    what a reminder that the race is about much more than phyical capability to run!!

  4. Anonymous says:

    should read: don’t *know too much


  5. JeffO says:

    Put me on your list, when you eventually send out your Excel spreadsheet.
    It was very interesting trying to follow along.
    The MdS website has quite a few videos about flooding before the race. Sounds like getting to the start was a whole adventure story in itself!
    I’m so glad you and Bryon did so well.
    I could give up coffee…if I had a pocket full of caffiene pills!

  6. Thomas says:

    I had MdS in the back of my mind, but after reading a few tales from this year’s survivors I’m not that keen any more. Nevertheless, I find your blog piece really interesting. I would be terrified having to choose between all those items, knowing that one mistake can ruin the entire adventure.

    Btw, I would be too worried about the chocolate melting to bring some along.

  7. Tom says:

    220 sheets of paper??? not going to do it!!

  8. Backofpack says:

    Whoa, Meghan! What an adventure – you are one gutsy woman. I can’t imagine heading out to run for seven days with the list you mentioned. Amazing…

  9. saschasdad says:

    You’re so cool, Meghan!

  10. Sunshine Girl says:

    Ah, yes. The little glorious pleasures and realities of fastpacking! Behold the JOY of asswipe and moisturized wet toilettes! How sweet it is! The question is:

    Did you wear your buff as a boob tube?? I reckon it would be a good look for you.

  11. elizabeth says:

    Congratulations on 2nd place!

    I love the Buff! I have several and wear them every day, especially in the winter for keeping my neck warm. Love the Polar Buff too.

  12. Roslyn says:

    Your speed, strength, and endurance are obviously awesome if you finished second (or finished at all), but equally awesome is how carefully, how BRILLIANTLY you prepared. Reading this made my jaw drop. I can’t wait for more!

  13. Kimberly says:

    We are proud of you! Congratulations on 2nd place. So when is your next race? What a adventure! Kim & Larry

  14. sea legs girl says:

    Really interesting post. But I’ve got to ask… what is Buff?

  15. Meghan says:

    Thanks for all your responses!

    Keith- No coffee, it was painful. MdS was a sacrifice in many ways. 🙂

    Danni- Yeah, I WISH I could have carried that. But, do you know how heavy those things are? I’d still be out there on course! 😉 Thank you for your kind words!

    Audrey- Indeed, this race is about many things, and just one part of it is the actual running.

    JeffO- I took a caffeine pill every morning, and it did the trick! Thanks!

    Thomas- Eh, don’t scratch MdS off your dream list quite yet. It was a fantastic experience that I’d recommend to any endurance athlete.

    Tom- Some people did not have enough toilet paper, and began sacrificing pieces of clothing and such. Desperate times call for desperate measures!

    Michelle- Thanks!

    Sean- Well, hello stranger! Thanks and how the heck are you?

    Leslie- I don’t know how those girls wear The Buff as a tube top. So many logisitical questions, and plus that’s just plain silly! 🙂

    Elizabeth- Thanks!

    Roslyn- How kind of you, thanks!

    Kim and Larry- Welcome to my blog! I don’t have another race scheduled. I’m still in recovery from this one, and enjoying and little R and R. 🙂

    SeaLegs- The Buff a piece of fabric in the shape of a tube that’s used for many things, hat, scarf, headband, washcloth, etc. Very useful backcountry tool!

    Have a great day, all!

  16. Journey to a Centum says:

    Thank you for sharing your love hate relationship with the MdS Pack. You should clean it out soon before the scorpion eggs hatch!

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