INTERVIEW – Forced to postpone the Marathon des Sables in Egypt due to tensions in the Middle East, Cyril Gauthier looks back on the future of races in this region popular with ultramarathoners.
Since October 4, Cyril Gauthier has been at the head of a new entity born from the merger between the Marathon des Sables, a famous ultra-distance race in the desert in Morocco (240 km in five stages) and the Half-Marathon des Sables , shorter and more affordable races (70 to 120 km in three stages), always in the desert. This new giant of desert racing, however, experienced a disappointment with the postponement of the meeting in Egypt, initially scheduled for November 18 to 24, due to the repercussions of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. A hard blow which does not call into question the 2024 calendar even if heavy organizational constraints weigh on this type of event.
Why did you cancel the Marathon des Sables in Egypt?
Cyril Gauthier: The event was not canceled but postponed to November 2024. We could have maintained it because everyone wanted it: our teams already there and the local officials, but with new conditions imposed by Egypt just before racing, this was not possible because it made us lose our DNA. The losses as an organizer are colossal: between 500,000 and 700,000 euros because all our equipment, the medical device, the bivouac were already on site.
What were these new conditions?
The bivouac should have been placed near a village for security reasons, whereas normally we are isolated in the middle of nowhere. We were also required to no longer run at night while on the big stage, 70% of the runners complete the course at night. Finally, it was necessary to modify the routes with new routes on which the army would have been able to ensure surveillance. We could have accepted these conditions but we took the risk of dissatisfying a good part of the 450 registered.
Were you completely reured about the new security conditions?
There could always be a problem… There was a suspicion that we had not had the previous week with the event organized in Jordan where all the guarantees had been provided. However, this is a country even closer to the Israel-Hamas conflict, but we had no doubts about security, which was not the case in Egypt. We preferred to postpone the 2023 edition and let a little time p.
Is security a recurring headache for you as an organizer?
We always operate in the same way, whether in Morocco or the Canary Islands, and always in close liaison with the government. This becomes a headache in the event of conflict with reinforced protection of runners as was the case in Jordan. But we encountered problems on other continents too: in the midst of the crisis in Peru, we had to face a popular uprising and a curfew and we had to repatriate around 500 runners.
Have you ever received threats from armed groups as an organizer?
Are you worried about the future of racing in the Middle East in countries likely to be affected by the current conflict?
Even if we have some destinations that may be impacted, we have other races in other regions of the world, in South America, the Canaries or Turkey, a country could also be affected by a crisis. It’s obvious that if the whole Middle East catches fire, it could become a problem but I would still like to remind you that since 1986, only the Covid crisis has caused the cancellation of the Marathon des Sables in Morocco in 2020. During the war in Iraq and the Arab Spring, it had been maintained.
Are there plans to settle in other countries in the event of chronic instability in the Middle East?
Yes, some countries are asking for us, in Eastern Europe for example, like in Kazakhstan with incredible deserts but at the moment it is not possible with the proximity of Kyrgyzstan and tensions on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. There are also sublime deserts in Iran but at the moment it is impossible to go there. But everything can happen very quickly. For years, Mauritania was closed and today all travel agencies offer this destination ensuring that security is guaranteed in part of the country. Many countries are candidates to welcome us because several million euros are invested in each race on site in addition to the visibility that we offer them on social networks.
There is also a race project in Israel…
Unfortunately this is not possible at the moment but everything is ready for a race there. When I speak with the Jordanians and the Egyptians, they do not want an event to be held in this country but we do not do politics. I also met an Israeli billionaire who wants to support the event on one condition: that all faiths are present in the race. It would be great but this project is postponed for many years I think…
Saudi Arabia is an option but discussions are long and progress is slow
Is Saudi Arabia also an option?
Yes, the country made a request to us. This is an option but discussions are long and progress is slow. In recent years, more than 50% of competitors in the Half Marathons des Sables have been women. For the moment, there is no question of going to a country where conditions of participation would be imposed affecting the DNA of the event.
Carbon is our fear
What about the question of environmental protection and carbon impact for an organizer like you?
The theme is unavoidable. I take the example of Peru with which we are in negotiations: the government wishes to obtain another route in order to protect the natural environment. We have proven in several editions that we preserve the desert but political hazards are frequent… In Namibia, we are going to organize a race where no one has ever set foot, in a nature reserve, and we will meet at the end of the event to find out if we are continuing the adventure. We absolutely want the impact of our races to be as low as possible. Carbon is our fear. We know that we are going to ask our competitors to take the plane to come. On site, we bring the runner back to an animal stage, I want to say: he is in his tent, cooking his meals, using basic toilets or eating in a bag. The ecological impact is very low and we aim to reduce our carbon impact by 60 to 70% between the Marathon des Sables Legendary 2023 (new name of the Marathon des Sables) and that of 2024.
The 2024 racing program
April: Marathon des Sables Legendary, Morocco
May: Marathon des Sables, Namibia
May: Marathon des Sables, Jordan (to be confirmed)
June: Marathon des Sables, Cappadocia (Türkiye)
September: Marathon des Sables, Fuerteventura (Canary Islands)
October: Marathon des Sables, Morocco
November: Marathon des Sables, Jordan
November: Marathon des Sables, Egypt
December: Marathon des Sables, Peru (to be confirmed)