2012 Marathon des Sables Training Update #1

On November 15, 2011, in Lifestyle, Running, by Meghan

As you may know, I’m racing the 2012 Marathon des Sables (MdS) next April in Morocco.

As you may also know, it’s a 150-ish mile, seven-day stage race in which you carry your own provisions (Except for water and a shade structure to sleep under, which are provided by the race administration.) in a backpack whilst running through the Sahara Desert.

As you may still know, I’ve run MdS twice before, in 2009 and 2010. My 2009 experience was almost entirely awesome, but my 2010 trip to the desert was not-so-fabulous. I was unfit physically and I brought with me a ton of mental baggage from home (My work, home, and life were pretty screwed up back then.). Thus, the Sahara Desert calls me and my unfinished business for one more desert crossing.

Some of you have been wondering what my training has been like, so this is the so-far scoop. I last wrote about what was going on with my athletic body and mind last June. I was pretty injured for a good chunk of time in 2010 and the beginnings of 2011. In April 2011, I began a long, long build-up to fitness.

In April, I was running 20 miles a week on roads and flat trails. By September, I was doing 50-60 miles per week on almost all burly mountain trails. And, I was spending five or more hours per week cross training, stretching, and just generally taking care of myself. That build-up process had no schedule. I ran when I wanted and rested when I didn’t. A six-month, moderate-mileage build-up is a real long time, but I had an extended period of injury beforehand that erased my base fitness. It took this long to do it right.

Me running down Handies Peak in Colorado back in July (Bryon Powell photo credit).

Once I possessed this solid base, I began a 29-week MdS training plan. Why 29 weeks? It was based on when in September I was home and recovered from a backpacking trip. I’m rippin’ through week nine now. I’m still running all my miles, save for the speed workouts, on mountain trails (Winter is working on burying those trails as I type. I’ll soon convert to roads and snowpacked, lowland trails.). Here’s how these first eight weeks have gone:

Week 1

19-mile long run
one speed workout focusing on leg turnover
25 miles of easy running in three other runs
one spinning workout, one hike, and one strength training session

Week 2

Back-to-back days of 10 and 15 miles
speed workout focusing on leg turnover
15 miles of easy running in two other runs
one strength training session

Week 3

50k training race (This turned out to be 37 miles due to getting lost and a long course. I ran the first 28 miles very slowly for me, then pushed the final nine miles.)
speed workout focusing on leg turnover
7 miles of easy running in two other runs
one strength training session

Week 4

0 miles running
43 miles backpacked in four days (the first half of my Great Smoky Mountains National Park backpacking trip)

Week 5

12-mile run
30 miles backpacked in three days (the second half of that backpacking trip)

Week 6

Back-to-back days of 13 miles and a double day that included 17 miles in the morning and 6 miles with a 7.5-pound pack in the afternoon
speed workout focusing on leg turnover
10 miles of easy running in two other runs
one spinning workout and one strength training session

Week 7

50K training race (I ran the distance several hours slower than my current level of fitness.)
speed workout focusing on leg turnover
15 miles of easy running in two other runs
one strength training session

Week 8

Double day that included 11 miles in the morning and 6 miles with an eight-pound pack in the afternoon
speed workout focusing on leg turnover
speed workout at tempo pace
one elliptical workout and two strength training sessions

Me headed out for a MdS pack training run with eight pounds on my back (photo by Bryon Powell).

I alwaysalwaysalways train with a purpose. Whenever I catch myself wanting to run miles for the simple act of adding numbers to the weekly total, I make myself stay home. Wiping out all junk from my training allows me to be ready for the runs that matter most. More telling, perhaps, than the above training map are the hows and the whys of certain workouts. Here are the important elements of my training so far and a little bit about what’s to come:

Lots of long runs

MdS has six stages that go something like this: 22-ish miles, 22-ish miles, 22-ish miles, 50 miles (With a rest day after this for the folks who finish the stage in a day.), marathon, and half marathon. To run with success at MdS, I must acclimate to pumping out near-marathon-length days.

Back-to-back long runs and double days

Back-to-back long runs (B2Bs) are critical for anyone headed into a stage race. B2Bs train you to run well and long on legs that have already run a bunch. Double days mimic the running-on-tired-legs phenomenon, too. I try to keep a double day’s mileage down so that it feels easier than a B2B. B2Bs and double days can be taxing on the body and mind, so I don’t do them every week.

Long runs at a very easy pace

At this early point in my training, I’m running my longest runs at some really slow paces. These early long runs allow me to adapt to time-on-feet and repetitive impact without creating deleterious training effects. I want to bounce back from them fast and I don’t want them to injure me. Look for long runs executed at specific paces later in my training.

Pack runs

Probably the biggest training challenge is teaching myself to run with a pack. At the MdS starting line, my pack will weigh about 15 pounds plus a couple more pounds of water. That’s roughly 15% percent of my body’s mass! I ran a couple times with a light pack in the first eight weeks of training to begin the adaptation process. As time goes on, you’ll see these runs grow longer, my pack get heavier, and pack running become more central to my training.

Speed workouts

MdS is a runner’s race. The Sahara Desert’s terrain is pretty flat and usually not technical. The top runners are really motoring. The top men run about 7.5 miles per hour and the top women run about 5.8 miles per hour as an average pace for 150-ish miles in six stages (If that pace sounds slow, remember that everyone is carrying a backpack with their week’s provisions and that they are running through 100-130 degree Fahrenheit temperatures.).

Since I was injured for about a year, and since I did only slow mountain running as my summer build-up, I lack foot speed in a major way. I began with a weekly speed workout and a goal to re-train my body to move efficiently at higher speed. Week eight brought my first tempo workout. There, I slowed down the speed a little and upped the amount of time running for each interval for the purpose of lactate threshold training. This type of speed workout will become a weekly staple.

Accessory training

These are the cross-training workouts, the spinning, hiking, elliptical, and other workouts that you see come across the training board. I like cross training as active recovery. I feel fresher after an hour of easy spinning than after a day of complete rest. Also, since running is a sport of mostly one motion and plane, I like working my muscles differently.

I began with strength training once per week, but you might notice that two sessions each week began in week eight. I’ll stick with two sessions per week for the duration now. My strength training is focused on my core as well as on my ankles and feet, which are my weak spots.

Keeping the mileage reigned in

For these first two months of training, my weekly mileage was almost the same as it was during the summer, somewhere around 50 miles per week. I’m doing more than just running long and slow now, with 50k training races, B2Bs, double days, and speed workouts. I’m giving my body time to adapt to these new stimuli before upping the mileage.

A Backpacking Trip?

My friend called and asked me to walk for a week with her in the Smokey Mountains. Of course I said yes! I’ll always say yes! We were on our feet for six to nine hours each day, carrying 40++ pound packs over hill and dale. This had to be good for me in some way.

One last note…

All this stuff is a near-complete wash if I’m not stoked on the places I get to run, the people with whom I share outings, and with the training process itself. I’ve got a big fire in my belly for this race and the training it involves.

I love running, I do (Bryon Powell photo credit).

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13 Responses to “2012 Marathon des Sables Training Update #1”

  1. Ewa says:

    Seems you have it all figured out very well. I will be following your training progress.
    What strength training exercises do you do for your ankles? I’ve been having some problems with mine lately. 🙁
    Will you have time/opportunity to train in the heat?
    More questions to come with your future posts. I would not want to overwhelm you now.
    Good going, Meghan!

  2. Danni says:

    Solid! I can’t wait to see how it all shapes up.

  3. That sounds awesome! Also, I love that you run in pigtails.

    Does each day have a pace goal?

    For me, days where the pace is intentionally slow are invaluable mentally. Some people call those junk miles, but I see them as anything but.

    I’m trying to figure out how to train for my next marathon. Any further tips on where to apply specific paces would be appreciated 🙂

    • Meghan says:


      Yes, each of my runs has a “pace” goal. That said, I “pace” myself via perceived effort rather than a pace on the GPS, except for speed workouts where I want to achieve a certain minute-per-mile pace.

      Right now, for my longest runs, more than 20 miles, I try to keep things in the “so super easy this feels like a long walk around the block” jog. For the shorter long runs, I keep it conversational, like I could chat and run through the whole thing and not have to stop either the talking or the running.

      I generally go out for one, two, or maybe three easy, shorter runs each week. I do these also in that conversational range, though the pace can vary because I often do these runs with others and my pace adapts to their needs.

      For speed workouts, I put them into three categories:

      1. Speedwork meant to increase your leg turnover and running economy. These are short intervals, 100 to 200 meters that are run at maybe two notches below top speed. You want to feel controlled yet very strong. These aren’t too taxing because you stop before your heart and body start feeling the work, so a minute of walking recovery between intervals is perfect.

      2. Speedwork meant to especially target VO2 max. These are 400 to 600 meter intervals run at approximately 5k race pace. Keep in mind that 5k race pace should not be one’s 5k PR, but what one is capable of running right now and under the current conditions (weather/altitude/training volume/fitness level/etc). Allow for full recoveries between intervals, as this is hard work, so jog super easy for the same distance as your interval.

      3. Speedwork meant to especially target lactate threshold. These are 800 meter to multiple-mile intervals meant to be run at (for the shorter intervals) or a bit slower than (for the longest ones) your current 10k race pace. Different runners have different recovery philosophies for this kind of speedwork. Some like very short recoveries that keep a runner’s heart rate up, some like full recoveries. I’ve been coached and I’ve coached runners both ways, and I personally think it’s best to mix it up. One week, create a workout with a full recovery and use short recoveries for the next week’s workout.

      Ideally, once you’ve created a strong endurance base and you’re well adapted to speedwork, it’s good to have a little bit of each kind in your weekly training routine.

      I hope that helps some, Karen. Run on!

  4. Paige says:

    Awesome, awesome! I’m excited for you 🙂

  5. Gretchen says:

    Keep it up, lady! Very inspiring. Winter can be a tough season to stick to a training plan, but if anyone can do it, you can. go, Go, GO!

    • Meghan says:

      Gretchen, you’re so right about the challenges of winter. On my side this go-round is the fact that I spent about a year on the injured list. Being fresh off and wickedly healthy is a fine kind of motivation. I miss you!

  6. […] Marathon des Sables (MdS) training once more. If you’d like to check out my first update, I published it back in […]

  7. […] 2012 Marathon des Sables Training Update #1 […]

  8. gregory b Pruner says:

    Just discovered your blog and was complete absorbed in all of your advice. Curious how the rest of your 29 week training panned out. I am signed up for 2017 and looking for a plan that works.


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