My Experience as a podiatrist at the Marathon Des Sables,

In April, Royal College of Podiatry Council member, Jake Heath, headed to the Sahara Desert to look after some of the world's best Ultramarathon runners. What he found there was resilience in the face of advertisty, harsh yet breathtaking landscapes and the enduring role of podiatric care in elite sports.

By Jake Heath

Stepping into Gatwick Airport, I joined a group of fellow medical professionals, adorned in our orange jackets, ready to embark on a journey unlike any other – the Marathon Des Sables (MDS). Among us were doctors, nurses, and three podiatrists, including myself, eager to support the runners through the challenges that lay ahead.

Reuniting with familiar faces like Ann Marie, whom I met during a podiatric sports medicine postgraduate course, added to the excitement of the adventure. As the runners learned of my podiatry background, I could sense their relief, knowing they had specialists to tend to their foot care needs. With feet problems making up a huge portion of the challenges faced during the MDS, our role was crucial. Feet problems account for 76% of the problems that runners face on MDS from their data report.

Boarding the charter flight to Morocco, anticipation coursed through me as I glimpsed the vast desert landscape awaiting us. The logistical marvel of organising such an event became apparent as we journeyed through the Atlas Mountain range, akin to a Moroccan Grand Canyon with its breathtaking views.

Joining the medical team, I was impressed by their preparedness for every eventuality, from chronic medical conditions among athletes to the meticulously coordinated logistics. Our duties ranged from preparing medical supplies to ensuring runners met the necessary criteria for participation. Two-thousand five hundred people applied to be part of the medical staff for this event. Seventy-two of us are here. There were 22 podiatrists from France and three from the UK. It is the first time they have accepted UK podiatrists.

Amidst the sweltering desert heat and swirling sandstorms, our focus remained on supporting the runners. From setting up checkpoints to providing essential foot care, every moment has been dedicated to their wellbeing. Witnessing the resilience of the runners, with some of them beating us as we travelled in our 4x4s to the checkpoints, left me in awe of their determination.

At each checkpoint, the joy and gratitude expressed by runners for simple gestures like cold water compress for the head and neck highlighted the mental fortitude required to endure such a gruelling race. The camaraderie among participants and the cultural significance of the event, supported by local Bedouins and their magnificent camels, has left a lasting impression on me.

As the days pass, I am finding fulfilment in not only providing care but also advocating for my profession. Conversations with the event organisers, Patrice and Bruno, underscored the growing demand for healthcare professionals in adventure sports, igniting a passion to promote podiatry as a vital component of elite sports medicine. They highlighted that adventure sports are growing, and that they will need increasingly more English doctors, nurses and podiatrists for events all around the world.

It is encouraging, as I feel podiatry in the UK will hopefully grow further into MSK sports medicine. Opportunities like this will become more accessible. That can only be a good thing for the profession. My goal is to get more podiatrists into these roles, to grow the scope and the visual appeal of podiatry.

We need more podiatrists and young people to see podiatry as an attractive career. Opening the world of adventure and elite sports to podiatrists is my goal. We have got the demand growing, so we need the podiatrists to be coming through our universities and apprenticeships along with current podiatrists to step up.

Amidst the frenetic atmosphere of the race, evenings offered moments of reflection over Moroccan dinners with my colleagues in the medical professions and, on ocassion, with the event organisers. The future of adventure sports, coupled with the demand for medical professionals, gives podiatrists great opportunities to travel the world and take part in experiences they will remember for the rest of their life. For me, I get the professional satisfaction, as well as the ability to enhance the visibility and scope of podiatry through my role on Council.

My journey so far at the Marathon Des Sables has been a testament to the power of teamwork, resilience, and the boundless spirit of human endurance. When I return home in a few days’ time, I will carry with me not only memories of the desert landscape, its terrains, harshness and its beauty, but also a renewed dedication to my profession and its potential to make a difference in the world of elite sports.

You can read more about Jake's MDS journey later in the year in the July/August 2024 issue of The Podiatrist.