© Marta Bacardit photographer
After a stonking 2018 race season where she was crowned Trail World Champion, Skyrunning Ultra Champion and overall winner of the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series, you could have forgiven Dutch athlete Ragna Debats for easing into her 2019 season. But instead she celebrated her first race of 2019 – the multi-stage desert ultra, the Marathon des Sables – with a decisive win, finishing nearly three hours ahead of the next female runner.
It was Ragna’s first experience running in the desert, and despite being sick and becoming dehydrated due to pain in her back (aggravated by a too-big backpack), the Merrell ambassador won the 250km race in 22 hours and 33 minutes. Lucky for me, I had the opportunity to chat to Ragna last week and hear first-hand about her training, preparation and Marathon des Sables (MdS) race experience.
Am I right in thinking the Marathon des Sables was your first desert ultra?
Yes, it was. I’d never been in a desert so I didn’t know what to expect really. I’ve heard many things about the desert and I had some kind of vision about what it would be like, but exactly what it would be like, I had no idea!
Was it similar to what you’d envisioned?
Yeah, it was – all the stony bits were similar to expected. I trained in similar conditions, so I think that part I was able to do really well. I trained in a dry riverbed so it was very similar in a way – not with the views obviously, but the terrain was similar. The dunes were above my expectations. I expected them to be smaller and not so pretty; I thought it would be a mix of stones and dunes but it was amazing, it was just big areas of yellow sand.
Did you enjoy it?
Yes, a lot. I found it very, very special and also a very complete race – because I was self-sufficient, because of the conditions, sharing with other people, and trying to be able to run well. It was not just surviving, but a real challenge to perform well in specific [desert] conditions.
What was the best piece of advice you were given ahead of the race?
People made me aware of the stones and the wind as it can be very windy there, so those were really helpful. And it was very helpful that people told me that it was very cold at night [laughs] because it was. It was very important to protect yourself from the cold because if you get cold in the night you can’t perform the next day. For your recuperation, it’s very important to be warm and to rest, so I think I was lucky to know about the cold and be able to prepare myself.
Did you bring any specific kit with the cold nights in mind?
I took some different clothing. I took two different sleeping bags for the days before the race so I could decide beforehand which sleeping bag I would take. Also I had a very light down jacket in case I had to take that. But I didn’t have many options [to try things out] – for example, in February I went to Costa Rica where it’s very hot, but even at night it was still hot that you didn’t even need a sleeping bag or a down jacket. In the end, I decided to take all the warm stuff I had with me to the Marathon des Sables because I thought it was worth carrying a couple of grams more and being warm at night rather than spending the night lying awake being cold [laughs].
What kind of training did you do in the run-up to the Marathon des Sables?
I never really left the mountains because I knew straight afterwards I was going to start polishing my training for the mountain season. So I did some long, slow training sessions in the mountains with my backpack with weight in it to make it more physical. I did a lot of height gain (elevation) with a backpack, sometimes with 7kg. Then I did a lot of interval training on flat cross-country terrain, sometimes without weight to be able to run far. Other times with different kinds of weight, say 2kg or 4kg.
How did you prepare for the terrain?
I ran in a dry riverbed, mainly against the current (i.e. uphill) so it’s dry, but very sandy, [with] little stones, very tiny little stones, all different kinds of terrain, within the riverbed. Running against the current gave the idea of running against the wind, and you need a lot of strength in your legs to be able to run slightly upwards all of the time, so it helped me a lot – when I ran MdS sometimes it felt really easy because it was flatter that when I trained, so I didn’t have to push so hard to run so fast. Sometimes, if you make it more difficult in your training sessions it feels easy when you run a race, which is the effect it had.
The only thing I didn’t really train was running in the heat because now it’s not very hot in Barcelona.
What was the longest run you did in your preparation, because you don’t tend to run far in training, even for ultra distances, do you?
Yes, that’s right, I don’t. Probably about 25km. 24/25km on flattish terrain. If I go in the mountains I don’t run so many kilometres [laughs].
During the race your backpack kept bashing your back – can you explain what happened?
I’m very tiny and even the smallest backpack was slightly a little bit too big for me. I thought that it would be fine because in my training session it worked out alright. [But] Every step it hit my back muscle, and the continued stress of this caused me an oedema, like a bruise. It was like a big hill (swelling) on my back – an injury from all the little hits on my back, all because my backpack was just slightly too big.
The pain made you sick, is that right?
It only started to hurt me on the second day; I think it was just too much stress on my back, and I started to use a lot more of my abdominal muscles [to compensate], which started to hurt a lot. It’s like having a child; you’re in pain for many hours. If you’re only in pain for half an hour, it would be fine, but because you feel this pain for so many hours, it’s really painful. I had to endure this pain all this time when I was running, and in the end I couldn’t cope with it and started to vomit. And because I started to vomit, I got dehydrated, so that was the problem I had! That was during the last part of the third stage, so I decided to take it very easy on the long stage to reduce the impact of the heat and ensure I win the fourth stage as well.
What kept you going when you were dehydrated and in so much pain?
I’m a fighter. In the last kilometres of the third stage, I had a [crew] car following as close as it could get to me, and the medical people were watching me – they knew I was dehydrated and they probably thought I was going to pull-out or something [laughs]. I remember very well that I was aware of it; I was aware that I was dehydrated, I knew that I was fighting with myself, but I kept thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m getting in this car! I’m just going to keep going until I drop down,’ [laughs] but I knew that was not going to happen. I knew I was able to get to the finish. I would only give up if something stronger than me knocked me down [laughs], so as long as I am conscious I would just carry on.
Tell me about the food – what was in your pack and what did you eat?
I took some gels and I took some sugary fruit jelly bars, because they’re easy to eat. And I had special isotonic drinks and hydration tablets as well.
So you didn’t eat any ‘real’ food during the run?
No, the jelly bars were the most solid food I had. I had a couple of normal cereal bars for the long stage, but I didn’t eat them because I couldn’t keep them in. I had my normal meals during the day – these were completely liquid as well.
You’ve said that you’ll be back running the MdS again – would you do anything differently?
I would do most of the things the same way, I think. I would repeat the same liquid food, although I would do a little bit more research on the weight of the food during the race to create a little space for tiny little treats in the afternoon. Some of my tent mates had small pieces of salty Spanish ham, others had parmesan cheese. It was really nice to have that. I had some special cake from a specific region in Catalonia – a friend of mine spoke to my husband and asked what I really, really like, and he took them for me as a treat.
Myself, I didn’t bring any treats, only liquid food. I learned during the week that it’s important to have little treats for yourself, not because of the calories, just because of the treat you’re giving yourself. For example, the Spanish ham, the people who had it took 80g and there were eight people [in the tent] so at the most everyone could have 10g [each]. That’s nothing really, but the taste in your mouth works as a real treat, so that’s something I learned.
Did you find your tent mates all shared their food?
Yes, it was really amazing. I think the more severe the conditions are, the more solidarity people feel. I’ve noticed it a lot trail running in other countries; that people have very little, but still want to share. They know how important it is to share things with other people. In our culture we are very egocentric, I think – we don’t think about sharing, we’re focused on our own lives and don’t think about other people so much. In the Marathon des Sables, everyone was in the same conditions and suddenly solidarity, friendship – the real important things – became a lot more important.
When it came to preventing blisters did you do anything specific?
I had special gaiters that I created and made myself. Normally they are sewn to a low part of the shoe, but I put mine a lot higher because Merrell made some special shoes for me. They were a prototype which were impermeable, so no sand could get in apart from where you tie the laces together. So I only put my gaiters around the front bit. It was a very light solution so I didn’t lose the feeling of having my normal [running] shoes on. Sometimes when you have gaiters it feels like you’re running in boots.
So they were specially made for the MdS just for you?
Yes, I talked to Merrell and they made them especially for me for this event*. I think from next year you can wear exactly the ones I was wearing, but I wanted them in white because of the hot conditions, so it will probably be [available] in different colours. *Details of the new Merrell shoe coming soon!
What were your essential items of kit aside from your Merrell footwear?
So I had the compulsory things like a compass, space blanket, whistle… suncream, the basic things. Then you have to have food for seven desert days, at least 2000 calories per day; so 14000 calories at least for the whole race. That was the minimum, most people had a lot more. I had a lot more as well.
Then your bag needed to weigh at least 6.5kg at the first stage without liquid/water. Mine was 6.7kg, it was slightly heavier mainly because of the food I was having. I didn’t pack any luxury items apart from a sleeping bag – a sleeping bag was compulsory, and you could take a lighter one but I wanted to be warm, so mine weighed more than 300g; some people’s weighed less than 200g.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give someone doing the MdS for the first time?
I think it’s very important to prepare your bag very well. There were a lot of people with bags of around 11kg – if you start preparing your bag a month or longer before the race, you can avoid wearing all those kilos because you can plan how much you’re putting in it and whether it’s really necessary to carry a lot of weight. Because it’s going to be very hard carrying a lot of stuff in your bag. If you’re not going [there] to win, it’s not necessary to have a bag weighing 6.5kg but if you can make it 8.5/9kg you can have plenty of things and it’s easier to manage.
Get out there and try your bag – don’t leave it to the last moment to try running or walking with it, so your body gets used to the weight.
What’s your next big focus this year – will you be at the Trail Running World Championship again?
Yeah, I’m going to be at the Trail World Championship if everything goes well. Last year, that was my first goal and before that I didn’t do anything else (Ragna won the event last year and was crowned world champion). This year, it was the MdS and I didn’t do anything else before it. For The Trail World Championship I won’t be able to prepare as specifically as last year, but I will be there. And I’m going to follow the Skyrunning World Series, and I’m going to do the World Mountain Running Championship in November, in Argentina.
I’m also going to run a couple of the Golden Trail race series, not because I want to follow the series but because I like the races, like Marathon Mont-Blanc. I’m very interested in running them because they are a real challenge and are very prestigious.
Ragna Debats – 2018 double World champion in Skyrunning and Ultra-Trail and female champion of the 34th edition of the Marathon Des Sables – is a proud Merrell ambassador. Find out more about her here: https://www.merrell.com/UK/en_GB/merrell-ragna/#merrell-Ragna