Between Friday, April 21 and Monday, May 1, some of the best ultra runners in the world will head to Morocco to race the Marathon des Sables.
Covering 251km of desert terrain over six days of racing, the event is one of the most coveted in ultra running and this year, the start list for the women’s field suggests the battle for the win will be incredibly entertaining.
Dutch ultra runner Ragna Debats is no stranger to putting in big performances at the highest level. As well as winning the 2019 Marathon des Sables, Spanish-born Debats has also previously won the World Trail Championships in 2018, the UTMB CCC in 2019 and finished on the podium at Western States in 2021.
Last year, Debats triumphed in the Istria 100 by UTMB, as well as the 126km Transgrancanaria race, and looks to be in even better form at the start of this season. In February, she landed the Aconcagua Trail Ultra title in South America, before announcing her intentions to tackle the Marathon des Sables again.
In 2019, Debats finished 11th overall as she took the win in the women’s race by almost three hours ahead of home favourite Aziza Raji, becoming the first Netherlander to win in 22:33:36. Having finished just an hour outside the women’s record in 2019, it will be interesting to see if an in-form Debats can challenge the 28-year-old mark this time around.
Sommer’s desert prep
Another challenger who will be competing at this year’s Marathon des Sables is Swiss athlete Corina Sommer, who in January won the Oman Desert Marathon (ODM) and looks to be coming into this race in fine form over the tough terrain that is synonymous with the MdS.
Whilst Oman mimicked the MdS terrain, the race was 165km, almost 90km shorter than the Marathon des Sables, which may prevent Sommer from being as competitive in Morocco as she was in Oman. The Swiss athlete, according to her UTMB profile, has never raced over 100km, with all three of her career UTMB podiums coming in the 50km event category.
Despite her inexperience over longer distances, Sommer could feature on the podium if her preparation has gone well, and will likely benefit from her experience on the sand in January when the going gets tough in the Sahara.
Laurence Klein is a familiar name to many Marathon des Sables fans, with the Frenchwoman one of only two women to have won the event on three separate occasions, with a win in 2007 plus consecutive victories in 2011-12.
Klein, who has personal bests of 3:55:46 for 50km and 7:56:24 for 100km, will be racing the Marathon des Sables for the 11th time. Having also finished on the podium in 2014, she is one of the most decorated women competing in the event this year and is likely to be fondly received on the start line.
Despite being unlikely to feature at the front of the race, expect the 54-year-old to compete for the win in the W50+ category, which she has finished second in previously but never quite managed to take the top spot.
Maryline Nakache (FRA) is competing in her first Marathon des Sables but has a plethora of wins to her name, including at EcoTrail Paris, Ultra-Trail Harricana du Canada and Ultra Trail Atlas Toubkal, another Moroccan race, last year.
Manuela Soccol (BEL) is another first timer at the Marathon des Sables – she represented her country in the marathon at the 2016 Olympic Games and was the 2020 winner at the Tarawera Ultramarathon.
Tomomi Bitoh (JAP) finished second at the 2019 Marathon des Sables, while Aziza El Amrany (MAR) was third last year and is tipped to compete with more established compatriots Touda Didi and Aziza Raji.
Gemma Game (GBR) clinched back-to-back podiums at the Marathon des Sables in 2018 and 2019, having also managed fourth in 2015. Ester Sofia Alves (POR) is another with Marathon des Sables history, finishing 10th in 2017.
Elise Delannoy (FRA) has stacks of ultra experience and a host of wins to her name, and was also seventh at Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in 2019. It is her second Marathon des Sables, having finished 18th in 2016.
Jodie Moss (GBR) was eighth at the 2019 Marathon des Sables and has recovered from a bone edema in time for this year’s race. She twice competed at the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona as a triathlete and clinched her first ultra win at The Druid Challenge last year.