For the 2023 Marathon des Sablesvictory goes to Mohamed El Morabity of Morocco and Maryline Nakache of France.
Taking place in the Sahara Desert in Morocco, the 2023 edition of the 250-kilometer (150 miles), seven-day, five-stage race kicked off on Sunday, April 23, with the final competitive stage closing on Friday, April 28.
Each year, more than 1,000 runners compete in the event’s five competitive stages, sleep at night in campsites, and operate with food and gear self-sufficiency. The race organization provides a shade tent in the camp, plenty of water, and medical and emergency assistance, when needed.
Given it takes place in the Sahara Desert, the event is known for its heat, as well as its sandy and rocky terrain. Official weather sources pointed to temperatures tipping over the 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) mark during several days of this year’s event, and thermometers on the ground pitched up above 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 Celsius).
There were big upsets in the latter stages of both the men’s and women’s races, with nine-time champion Rachid El Morabity of Morocco withdrawing after receiving a penalty for an infringement following the fourth stage, while in second place in the overall classification.
On the women’s side, 2019 champion, race leader for the first three stages, and Dutch runner and firm favorite Ragna Debats struggled with digestive issues during the long Stage 4, and fell back out of contention for the win.
Although Mohamed El Morabity’s victory might be somewhat tainted by the controversy surrounding his older brother’s withdrawal, Mohamed ran a stormer of a race, had already finished first in three of the four stages, and was in the lead overall at the time of the incident. While he’s finished in second place a remarkable five times at this event – each time behind his brother dele — this is his first victory of the Marathon des Sables.
Women’s champion Maryline Nakache had also run a steady and consistent race from the start, finishing second in each of the first four stages before ultimately moving into the overall women’s lead during Stage 4. This was her debut Marathon des Sables.
2023 Marathon des Sables Men’s Race
It was a speedy start to the week, with the first stage being about 36 kilometers long, featuring a climb to the summit of this event’s infamous Jebel El Otfal. Stormy and windy conditions in the afternoon made things difficult for the latter runners, but the front end of the race was largely unaffected by the storm.
Stage 1 went along predicted lines, with Rachid El Morabity taking the lead and finishing the stage in a time of 2:46. His younger brother, Mohamed El Morabityand fellow Moroccan, Aziz Yachou, followed just a minute back in 2:47. The 2022 UTMB second-place man, Mathieu Blanchardfrom France, was the first overseas runner to finish the stage, in fourth place in a time of 2:51.
Stage 2 was a bit shorter at just under 32k, but it moved into more technical terrain with increased elevation change. Rachid again took off in front, but in the latter part of the stage and on a smooth run into the finish, he was overtaken by his brother Mohamed, who won the stage in a time of 2:29, less than a minute ahead of Rachid in second and Yachou in third. Rachid still held the overall lead by a narrow margin at the end of the stage, followed by Mohamed and Yachou. Blanchard, who had finished fifth in the second stage behind Russia’s Vasily Korytkinheld on to fourth place overall.
In the third stage of around 34k, Mohamed asserted his dominance, winning the stage in 2:30 to Rachid and Yachou’s 2:33, and extending his overall lead to three minutes. Blanchard continued to hold his own in fourth place.
The men’s podium race for Stage 4 was so tight, especially given that it was the one long stage in the week in racing, this year clocked at 90k. Mohamed again crossed the line first, in 8:14:39. Yachou finished the stage in second place, just six seconds behind the lead, and Rachid arrived in third, only 19 seconds behind the winner. This tight race kept Mohamed in the lead in the overall classification, Rachid in second, and Yachou in third, but with a spread of only a few minutes.
Controversy ensued following this fourth stage, when Rachid was issued a three-hour time penalty for receiving outside assistance and with drew from the race, which we have more on in a separate news piece. After Rachid withdrew from the race, Yachou moved up to second place in the overall classification. Blanchard, who was steadily running his own race behind the leaders, now found himself in podium position.
On the marathon-distance Stage 5, the last competitive stage, Mohamed continued his show of strength to finish in 3:18, five minutes clear of Yachou in second. In a total time of 19:19:54 for the five competitive stages, Mohamed El Morabity was crowned the 2023 Marathon des Sables men’s champion.
A battle ensued behind, with Vasilii Korytkin eventually beating Blanchard to the line, to take third place in Stage 5. However, Blanchard hung on to third place overall in a time of 21:21:27.
2023 Marathon des Sables Men’s Results
- Mohamed El Morabity (Morocco) — 19:19:54
- Aziz Yachou (Morocco) — 19:29:09
- Mathieu Blanchard (France) — 21:21:27
- Vasily Korytkin (Russia) — 22:36:26
- Il Yass Zouhry (France) — 23:08:06
2023 Marathon des Sables Women’s Race
The fast first stage was dominated as expected by 2019 winner Ragna Debatswho finished in 3:26, almost 10 minutes clear of Maryline Nakache in second. The top spot was Aziza El Amrany of Morocco, who followed in third in 3:53. While this was Nakache’s first appearance at this race, El Amrany was returning following a third place at the 2022 edition.
The more mountainous terrain on Stage 2 played to Debats’s strengths, and she broke home in 3:19 to Nakache’s 3:36, thus extending her overall lead to around 28 minutes. El Amrany continued to run steady in third position.
Into the third stage, Debats finished 11 minutes ahead of Nakache, for the stage win. But Debats’s finish time and place does n’t reveal the full story, that she lagged for a period during Stage 3, she was passed and lost the lead, before regaining it to win the stage. As we would soon see, this was a harbinger of problems to come to Debats. El Armany again finished the stage in third, but this time only a minute back from Nakache and appearing very comfortable.
As we all now know, everything changed in the fourth day — the notorious long stage, which was 90k for 2023. Debats led at first, but then fell back a few hours after the start, reportedly suffering digestive issues. Admirably, although no longer in contention for a podium spot, she powered on to finish the stage in 21:34, nine hours and 49 minutes back from the lead. El Amrany, who appeared to be getting stronger as the week went on, won the stage in 11:44. Nakache again took second, this time trailing a different leader, and moved into pole position in the overall race, still almost 33 minutes ahead of El Armany in the overall classification.
For Stage 5, the race’s final competitive stage, Nakache sailed smoothly to the stage victory, finishing the day’s marathon distance in 4:18. This sealed Maryline Nakache’s victory at the 2023 Marathon des Sables with a total time of 27:02:17.
On this final day, Tomomi Bitoh, from Japan, was across the line in second in 4:33, and El Amrany crossed just a few minutes later in 4:36 in third place. El Amrany had a significant lead in second place, over Bitoh in third in the overall classification, so a fast finish was not needed. Following up on her third place her last year, Aziza El Amrany improves to take second in the 2023 Marathon des Sables women’s race in 27:53:37, and Tomomi Bitoh took third in 29:39:51.
Early leader Debats finished in eighth place in the overall classification for the women.
2023 Marathon des Sables Women’s Race
- Maryline Nakache (France) — 27:02:17
- Aziza El Amrany (Morocco) — 27:53:37
- Tomomi Bitoh (Japan) — 29:39:51
- Corina Sommer (Switzerland) — 31:35:13
- Elise Delannoy (France) — 33:32:01