How a 52-year-old trained for a tough ultra marathon in the Sahara

A 52-year-old former armyman speaks to Lounge about the way he trained in order to complete the tough Marathon Des Sables in Morocco

Shail Desai
First Published10 May 2024
Manoj Varma negotiates the Marathon Des Sables.
Manoj Varma negotiates the Marathon Des Sables.

During his decade-long service with the Indian Army, where he also served with the Black Cat Commandos as a counter hijack specialist, Manoj Varma was first exposed to the world of running. The cross-country medallist soon graduated to half and full marathons, until he discovered ultra-running. And the one race that he put on his bucket list was Marathon Des Sables, a six-stage, 250km race in the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco.

That dream was fulfilled on 14 April, when he lined up at the start near the historic city of Ouarzazate with over 800 other runners.  By the end of 43 hours 10 minutes, he gave a good account of his ability by finishing in the top 30% bracket of runners, and 42nd of 173 runners in his age group (50-59 years).

“Self-supported ultra-marathons are a mental challenge since they are all about survival. It’s the ultimate test of human endurance where you are trying to understand how much you can push yourself on limited resources, all of which is carried on your back. And to be able to do this gives me a different kind of thrill,” Varma, 52, says. 

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The Delhi-based runner experienced his first ultra-marathon, the Gobi March (250km) in 2012 and was hooked. Over the next few years, he ran similar distances in Cambodia, Chile and Iceland, besides the Comrades Marathon (89km) in South Africa in 2019. Last year, he felt he was ready for the Marathon Des Sables and started training for it in September. 

This was also the first race where he decided to work with a coach. Through remote sessions, seven-time Ironman winner, Christian Nitschke of Germany, customised a training plan for him. “My work requires quite a bit of travel,  so a lot of the running work happened on a treadmill. It was no different back home in Delhi during the winters, when you can rarely put in a run in the outdoors,” he says. 

His weekly mileage hovered around the 70km mark, which he admits was far lower than what he usually logs while gearing up for shorter races. But he believes his running experience, alongside his natural inclination towards endurance runs, helped him train well for his latest attempt. 

Most of the endurance work and interval training was spread across four days every week, while the rest was dedicated to strength sessions. Through February and March, he added about 8kg to his backpack to get used to running with weight. “I really enjoy running long distances, where consistency is more important as compared to speed. I get more confident with time during an ultra-marathon. So the bigger the run, the better it gets for me as the race progresses,” he says. 

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The plan for the Marathon Des Sables was to take on a run-walk approach, making the most of the flat sections while taking it easy on the inclines and in areas with deep sand. “There’s no need to be fast unless you are competing for the top positions. As long as you plan well and maintain about 4kmph, you are going to make the cutoff. So if you run a smart race, there’s no way you will not finish. You just need the mental strength to endure,” he says. 

Varma considers Stage 1 (31.1km) to be the toughest day since it took him a while to get used to the terrain, besides the temperature, which hit 48 degrees Celsius at one point. Varma wanted to test how his body was reacting to the conditions, and only gradually pick up speed as the race progressed. Sand dunes made the going rough during Stage 2 (40.8km), but he made the cutoff well in time. 

Varma negotiated the longest leg, Stage 3 (85.3km), with an elevation gain of around 1,300m, in a single push to catch adequate rest at the end of it. “A lot of runners tend to slow down or get some rest along the way, but I don’t like breaks when I’m running. The only issue that I faced was with consuming gels, salt tablets and dry fruits every hour. After a point, you’re just swallowing down a lot of it with water because the body just doesn’t accept it. It’s not a lot of fun,” he says. 

But there were special moments along the way when he came across septuagenarians navigating the course at their own pace. And the announcements that marked the arrival of the last runner at the end of every stage.

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“Every single person would step out to cheer the slower runners. It was incredible to see how resolute they were, making slow progress yet so strong mentally as they kept pushing towards the end of the stage. The tears on display were overwhelming and it was humbling to see how the race meant different things to different runners. That’s what a race like this is all about,” he says. 

Over the final three stages (43.1km, 31.4km and 21.1km), Varma picked up the pace. He felt strong as he got to the finish, soaking in the atmosphere amid all the celebrations. “The methodic training really worked and I was thrilled to make the finish with such ease. I just hope my race inspires other runners and there’s a better representation from India at a race like this.”

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.

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