The Toughest Footrace on the Planet
Keith Petersons Six-Day Run Through the Sahara Desert with Oh, About 700 Other Runners at the Marathon des Sables.

With tortured cinematic visions of "Beau Geste" or "Lawrence of Arabia" swirling in their sun-baked heads, a select elite of the world's best ultrarunners convene each April in Morocco to compete in the six-day, 150-mile, self-supported Marathon des Sables. Translation: it means sand marathon, and it naturally takes place in a hot, desolate slice of the Sahara Desert near the village of Ourzazete. It's race organized by the French, and well, the French have their own Gallic way of administering pain and suffering. Each contestant must carry his or her own food, though race officials will provide each ultrarunner a daily ratio of nine liters of water. That's little over two gallons per diem, in heat that can reach 120 degrees Farenheit, over terrain that ranges from foot-numbing, rock-encrusted dry lake beds to towering 300-foot sand dunes known as ergs. Each night, racers bed down in portable Berber tents.

It takes a special breed of endurance athlete to consider competing here. Last spring, Keith Peterson, 45, of Portland, Oregon, took on the gritty challenge. Peterson is also the founder, president, and CEO of publicly traded Phoenix Gold, one of the leading American manufacturers of electronics, speakers and accessories for the car, home and professional covering the markets of audio, video and home theater. Keith started the company in his basement in 1985, and today it employs around 200 people in a 155,000 square feet facility.

Q: Just how hard was this race compared to other athletic challenges in your life?

Keith Peterson: To date, the Marathon des Sables race was the most difficult athletic challenge that I have done in my life.The footrace was tough, but it was the desolate environment and the conditions in which we had to live and compete that made the athletic challenge much more difficult-not to mention the 20 pounds of gear I started with in my pack. After several days of running and/or walking in the heat, the wind, the sand and the sandstorms, it put a toll on you by the end of each day. It was amazing, however, that you were ready to go each morning and feel really strong.

Q: What is it like to run on sand dunes?

KP: It's difficult at best. Those bloody sand dunes that never ended. It was extremely difficult to run in the dunes, in fact, on the major dune day my knee, which I had bruised during training, was quite painful again. I chose to take it easy this day and it paid off for my knee! I was, however, running painfully close to the cutoff time by the end of the day… I had to make it and I refused to be classified as DNF (Did Not Finish).I picked up the pace and started running some nine miles from the finish. For some reason, I was able to run without experiencing pain in my knee and continued running the entire distance while chanting "faster, faster". I made the cutoff time with time to spare and walked absolutely beaming back to the tent.

Q: How did you prepare yourself for the heat?

KP:I have lived most of my life in either New England or the Pacific Northwest. These climates do not prepare you for the heat I would experience in Morocco. During my training schedule, I had two four- day 80-100 mile training runs in Patagonia, Arizona near the Mexican border in January and February with 90 degree temperatures and one two- day training run in the sand dunes near Blythe, California. These were extremely helpful, however, the real difference came from my experiences in adventure racing, which prepared me for dealing with hydration, nutrition and various adversities while constantly moving forward.

Q: Did you ever get lost during the race? What about other racers? What happens if you are forced to quit in the middle of nowhere.

KP: I never had the misfortune of being lost. That is not say I didn't double check the course book at various times and compare the terrain! There was, however, many dropouts during the long day in the dunes. Racers are required to carry emergency flairs. And the fireworks day started in the dunes. It was amazing the numbers of racers who were going down around midday. Flares were rocketing all around us- in front, behind,and far to the side of us. We came across several French racers who were wrapped in space blankets and a couple of Brits who answered, "we're shattered," just as they launched their flares. Unfortunately, the instructions on how to use the flares were missing and he pulled the launch cord straight down instead of to the side. He ended up with a severely burned right hand. By this time, the helicopter was flying in medics and flying out the really tough cases. It reminded me of the opening scenes of "MASH." Later, the following day, the hottest day of all, more racers were dropping out while scores were being re-hydrated right on the course by the medics. Remember you only get IV (intravenous feeding) of these before you are disqualified.

Q: What about your food and drink? How did you manage?

KP:I was surprised that I never run into a shortage of water considering the amount of water I drink in a normal day at home. The water rationing stations were set up just as I was on my last few ounces of liquid. While running I carried bottles of Gatorade, plain water and/or a bottle of highly concentrated salt and potassium with sugar free Kool-Aid (Nutra-Sweet) mixed together which masked the highly salty mixture, allowing you to drink it. In prior races, I have found this to be very beneficial especially in hot conditions. After finishing the race each day, I consumed 12 ounces of water with a half a cup of Endurox R4 mixture. This replenished all the minerals and electrolytes that I lost during the day. I tell you, that made a difference.I swear by this product.Trail food consisted of Clif Bars, Gu, Ahi Jerky from Trader Joe's, cashew nuts, cheese crackers and the occasional Pop-Tart and dried fFruit. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal with nuts/dried fruit and Swiss Miss Chocolate mixed with water. Dinner was typically a very edible range of Mountain House delights, ranging from pasta primavera to enchiladas or Ramen Noodles.

Q: What was it like after each day of racing? How is it sleeping with dirty, sweaty strangers in a Berber tent each night?

KP: At the end of each day of racing, I immediately took a close-up photo of my face and it was amazing to see the progression of these pictures from one day to next. It went from clean and well-shaven to well, a rather dirty/tough looking hombre. Next on my routine was to get my water ration for the night, prepare a nightly meal and while it cooked in the hot 80-100 degree sun, it was time to prepare your "bed" by removing all the rocks and if you were lucky, scoring a cardboard box to act as an air mattress. Cleaning and preparing your feet for the next day was essential. I was extremely lucky in that I only had four or five blisters the entire race while one of tentmates had blisters covering the bottoms of both feet and one dropped out with huge blisters on both heels.

Everyone in our tent quickly became good friends and everyone was willing to help out whenever necessary. We all got dirtier and smellier as the race went on and it didn't bother any of us, except for maybe the journalists who were all so clean. The tents worked surprisingly well, yet nothing could stop the blowing sands. It seemed we always got a worst tent each night and every morning at 6:30 A.M., the Moroccan race staff tore down the tents. After the first day, I realized it was better to sleep as long as possible each morning as the races did not start until 9:00-10:00 depending on the day! So I moved my gear and sleeping bag out of the tent at 6:30 and continued sleeping until 8:00.This made a big difference especially at the end of the race. Then it was time to eat, dress, prepare your feet, which by the way were swelling,, and as an aside, it's a good idea to buy shoes which are two sizes larger), get your morning water ration and finally rest or stretch in the shade of the starting grid before the race start. It was amazing how hot it got each morning by 9:00 considering it reached 40 degrees at night. And then, when the gun went off and you were in race mode again!

Q: Did you run with other Americans?

KP:Yes, I ran with several Americans, Japanese since I can speak the language, British and Germans with whom I have continued to communicate via email. The Moroccan runners were simply amazing in their ability to run through the rocky terrain at an amazing fast pace.

Q: What about your clothing and gear?

KP: I took a limited amount of clothing and wore the same clothes the entire race. I wore RailRiders Weatherpants on the hottest of days in the dunes and during the night section on the 50-mile day. The Weatherpants offered great freedom of movement even while running and were typically cooler than wearing shorts in the blistering heat that radiated off the sand. The large leg openings at the bottom of the pants allowed me to put on and take off the pants without removing my shoes , which are Size 14's, and the Velcro tabs at the legs allowed great flexibility in adjustment without interference when running. The pants were virtually indestructible, extremely lightweight, quick drying and most importantly, when I wasn't wearing them, they took up very little room in my pack. As another aside, in a recent adventure race while bushwacking, I was surprised how the Weatherpants resisted the brush and tree limbs compared to wearing running tights. I normally end up with alot of cuts, scrapes and holes in my tights, but in this event the Weatherpants won hands down.

I was looking forward to using my RailRiders EcoMesh shirt for the race, but the morning of the race it had disappeared. So someone in Morocco is enjoying the shirt with the American flag and a Phoenix Gold International (PG) logo patch. Other clothes: Phoenix Gold Sapphire Running Shorts with Pockets--by the way pockets are a must; Lowe Long Sleeve PolyPro Zip Turtle for sleeping and the night run; four pairs of Ironman Tri Poly Socks--absolutely the best socks in the world; and MoleTracks Large Pack and Front Chest Pack.

Q: Would you do this race again?

KP: Absolutely. I am planning to run the race again in either 2001 or 2002. I would like run the race injury free from the start. The bruise to my kneecap before the race limited my abilities to run the race at a faster pace. My goal the first time was to experience the race and finish. the next time I want to finish and improve my time.

Q: What was your followup, athletically speaking, following the race?

KP: I competed solo in several one-day and multi-day adventure races, road and mountain bike races, off-road triathlons, trail runs, father and son fishing and paddling competition in Alaska, and Land Rover off-road challenge in England.

Q: To someone who has never done the Marathon Des Sables before and would like to race there one day, what advice would you give them?

KP: You must train your body, your mind and your spirit. You should be able to deal with adversity, pain, the highs and lows and most importantly hydrate and eat long before you are thirsty or hungry -every 15-20 minutes). As I said to the interviewer from the Oregonian newspaper before I left for Morocco, when asked about the race and my thoughts on finishing it, I stated, "I believe it has less to do with physical endurance than with the mental ability to overcome the pain and the heat and the desire to complete and finish the race."

Q: If you had to come back in your next life as either a scorpion or camel, both denizens of the desert, which would you prefer?

KP: Camel. They have an incredible ability to survive in a harsh environment, move people and trade across vast distances. However, I would not enjoy being so cranky in the morning.

Q: Did you carry a Walkman and listen to any music? If so, what kind?

KP: I carried a very small, lightweight MD (mini-disc) player that I played twice during the race (the dune and 50 mile day) and every evening before going to sleep. In all of my training I never ran with a player, however, another racer, Mary Gadams, told me it was essential for her during the race. So why not, I found the music to be a real release and it definitely made time pass quicker. I listened to Pink Floyd, Matchbox 20, Tina Turner and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Q: Briefly, what was your athletic background?

KP: I was very active in many outdoor sports. However, I was more involved in the shorter running distances while growing up. I did my first marathon and 50K trail race only months before the race.

Q: What did your friends and colleagues think of running in Morocco?

KP: Most of my friends, family and associates thought I was crazy. And they still do.Or that I had gone off the deep end. It was one thing to have a desire to get back in shape and start running 8-20K trail races, mountain biking. s or god forbid, a two-day adventure race. It was a totally different agenda to want to run 150 miles in the Sahara Desert… Everyone wished me luck and good health, yet not one of them would ever consider doing this at any price.

For more information about the Marathon des Sables, go to