It is billed as the “toughest footrace on Earth”, the equivalent of five and half marathons in stifling desert heat.
But runners at the Marathon des Sables have accused organisers of failing in their duty of care by letting the event go ahead in exceptionally high temperatures, and after a stomach bug swept through runners, as well as medical and support staff.
Some runners have told the Guardian they feared they would die in the dunes of the Sahara as they struggled under 56C heat, and were told a number of medical staff were out of action due to illness.
The six-day 250km Marathon Des Sables – Marathon of the Sands – normally takes place in April, but this year was delayed to October due to Covid and temperatures were much higher than usual.
Organisers said one runner died this year on the second day, the third death in the event’s 35-year history, and nearly half of competitors failed to cross the finish line – the highest drop out rate ever seen in the race, which is normally about 5% to 10%.
Temperatures during this year’s race were much higher than usual, regularly above 50 degrees, and a combination of heatstroke and a suspected stomach bug debilitated many people. The combination of factors has led some competitors to question whether the event should have been allowed to continue.
“I can really only describe it as an utter war zone,” said Charlotte Heaford, 31, who said she pulled out after the first day with her partner, Grant Moors, who became ill. “He was so sick, I’ve never seen him like that before. I tried pressing the call button on our beacons about five times but nothing came of it.”
She added that she felt it wasn’t made clear exactly how to use the device and this may have been why they didn’t receive assistance.
The couple, who live in Poole in Dorset, eventually received medical attention after walking a further 5km, and Heaford said despite her partner vomiting and being placed on a drip by medical staff they felt as if he was still pushed to carry on. “We’re all the type of people who obviously want a challenge and are ready to push ourselves. We knew what we were getting ourselves into.
“But when you are physically begging to quit because you have been projectile vomiting and can’t keep any water down and it’s over 52 degrees and a doctor has put you on a drip, yet they’re still pushing you to carry on. That’s how they behaved to my partner,” she suggested, adding the pair had trained “relentlessly” for a long time in preparation for the event.
“They made him feel embarrassed to not continue but we are adults and we know when we are putting ourselves in mortal danger.”
The race, which costs £5,000 to enter and usually attracts more than 1,000 participants, is spread over six days and runners are required to carry all their own food and supplies.
It was founded by Frenchman Patrick Bauer in 1986 after his own 200-mile trek across the desert.
One runner, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had run a number of ultramarathons before and regularly runs in 40C heat in Greece. “I’m pretty fit, I was in the top 20% of the runners at the end of day one,” he said. However, soon after he said he developed heatstroke and spent five hours on an IV drip before withdrawing the next day.
“To be honest, the care I received was pretty good, and I made the decision to say I’m not going further because I quite like life, and I didn’t want to risk it any further. But I think those that were less fortunate were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.
“The thing that frustrates me more than anything is the inability for the medical staff to say, this is actually too dangerous, people shouldn’t be running this, these heats are extreme.”
The event organisers defended their decision to go ahead with the race, saying average temperatures in the Moroccan Sahara in October are the same as in April, and this year’s heat “was an exceptional event that was not foreseeable”. They added that it is not the first time the race has been hit by high temperatures.
“Safety is rule number one on the Marathon des Sables,” a spokesperson said. “Everything is done so that nothing untoward happens: GPS beacons, three to five security vehicles depending on the stages, two helicopters and 45 members of medical staff for 672 participants at the start.”
Organisers conceded this year’s race “will undoubtedly be remembered as the most difficult race to date – between the heat, the global health crisis, intestinal problems, and the impact of the drama on the second day of the race”.
Another runner, who also asked not to be named, withdrew after passing out twice on the course on stage one and after returning home says she has been signed off work for two weeks due to trauma.
“At the medic tents on checkpoint two it was completely packed, with people on drips and throwing up, and then I passed out. When I heard that someone died it really shook me,” said the runner, who last month ran the length of Iceland. “I still don’t feel we’ve had all the answers of exactly what happened.”
Ben Gateley, 31, pulled out during stage four of the race with his running partner, Sarah. “We were starting to doubt whether the organisation was putting the runners and the competitors first, or whether they were putting the brand and the legend of the race first, so I think it made our decision really easy. We felt that we were a bit at risk, and we didn’t feel like we could necessarily trust them to look after us.”
A French runner in his early 50s died from cardiac arrest in the second stage of the race, and organisers said the event’s medical director and staff arrived on the scene within minutes via helicopter.
A spokesperson for Marathon des Sables said that “to improve the safety of the runners, two helicopters were medicalised and water bottles were provided to each runner at each check point”.
“Admittedly, it was difficult, and the gastric troubles considerably complicated the situation of the runners, and outright pushed some to stop. But nearly 350 people came out unsuccessful in this adventure, and even among those forced to abandon, we read many very positive comments.”