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How an Indian runner trained for a brutal marathon in the Sahara Desert

Runner Mahasweta Ghosh became one of the few people to complete a challenging, multi-day marathon through the Sahara. This is how she did it

Mahasweta Ghosh at the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert.
Mahasweta Ghosh at the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert.

Somewhere in the middle of the Sahara Desert, runner Mahasweta Ghosh broke into song. At that point, the high tempo title track from Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was more a distraction than motivation to see her through to the next checkpoint. A solo game of antakshari played out for the next couple of hours. Soon enough, she had checked into camp. 

Entertaining yourself is vital for those competing at the Marathon des Sables (MDS)—a 250km stage race that unfolds over six days in southern Morocco. In May this year, Ghosh became the first Indian woman to make complete the race, in a time of 55 hours 42 minutes. “I heard of this race through a friend in 2019. A few things intrigued me: the format and the fact that you are living in the desert, in the wild. I had not done anything like it before,” Ghosh, 44, says. 

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The race can be a brutal experience, for multiple reasons. Runners must be self-sufficient for the duration of the race, carrying everything from their nutrition, meals and medicine, to the race equipment and bivouac gear needed at the end of the day. Besides the mammoth distance—the longest stage is 90km—there is the brutal Saharan environment to contend with. 

“I fell in love with desert terrain after running a race in Pokhran (in Rajasthan). You stop every now and then to look around at the stunning landscape. But the rest of the time, you are looking down constantly because either you’ll slide on sand or trip on stone. There is no shade and no respite from the sun. It is ruthless - your feet get really hot because of the sand. You have to be very focussed because invariably you’ll see mirages. Resilience is key,” Ghosh says. 

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“This year, the temperature reached a maximum of 48 degrees Celsius on a particular day, but living in Gurugram, the heat was the least of my concern,” she says, laughing. Her training needed precise planning, and plenty of work. When Ghosh she signed up for the race, she was already gearing up to run three back-to-back marathons in Berlin, Chicago and New York. It was only in December of last year that she began to focus on the MDS.

“I had a lot of mileage under me, close to 120km each week, so to jump to 130km wasn’t much. Running is a lifestyle for me, something I do everyday. That’s the advantage of being in training all the time—you just tweak it based on your goals,” she says.

In the past, Ghosh had trained to run a maximum distance of 100km without stopping. What changed this time around was how she was logging the weekly mileage. She took on multiple long runs over consecutive days, like three back-to-back 30km stretches. Her shorter runs were also around 18-20km during the same week.

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“You are running only about 40km during each stage of MDS. But the body should be ready to take on the same distance again the next day. What you need to develop is the ability to run with a tired body and on fatigued legs, rather than a very high volume,” she says. 

Besides running, Ghosh would also work on strength training and mobility workouts for 4-5 days of the week. And given her full-time day job as a technology marketeer, recovery and fuelling was as essential as training. Each run would end with foam rolling or resistance band exercises, followed by an ice bath. At the end of each week’s schedule, she would be attended to by a masseur and a physiotherapist.

“I eat basic, clean food with a target of consuming around 1,200 calories each day. But I’m very cautious about what I eat. I follow a gluten-free diet and also do intermittent fasting. The progress has been great and I’ve seen major improvements, especially when it comes to weight management,” she says. 

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Ghosh gives equal credit to her coach, Dr. Jason Karp, and her nutritionist, Dr. Ryan Fernando, for customising the routine as per her needs. “It’s not like I can finish a run, come back home and sleep, and then go train again. I have a full-time job, so I feel that having professional guidance is what makes it possible for me to perform,” she says. 

She arrived in Marrakech a week before the start of the race, and did short runs and light stretches. Meditation kept her mind calm, as did reading and watching movies. Yet at the start line, Ghosh felt edgy as she contemplated on the uncertainty of the next few days. Her race strategy was to simply finish each day and prepare for the next. 

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At the end of the first stage, she realised the need to lighten her 11.5kg backpack and kept only the essentials, even snipping her leggings in the process.  There was little in terms of recovery at the end of each day besides eating a meal and getting some rest. Each morning started with taping blisters, organising the gear and mentally preparing for the miles ahead. 

“This year, they had a dropout rate of 30% only for the second time, the most in the history of the race. I had just one thought: to finish. It’s a moment that will stay with me for life,” she says.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.

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