Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Exotic Endurance: Tourism, Fitness and the Marathon Des Sables

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Exotic Endurance: Tourism, Fitness and the Marathon Des Sables

Article excerpt


This paper critically examines the intersections of global tourism and fitness in the Marathon des Sables, an annual ultramarathon in the Sahara desert in which over a thousand athletes run the equivalent of five marathons in six days. It demonstrates how the globalization of health and fitness resonates with familiar Western productions of exotic cultures for the purposes of tourist consumption. Of particular interest here is how established colonial asymmetries are recast in a neoliberal context as runners test their resilience, endurance and strength against an 'extreme' Saharan landscape. While the paper calls attention to these asymmetries, it is more concerned with troubling reductive colonial encounters in order to reveal their instability, heterogeneity and ambivalence. Indeed, the central conceit of the Marathon des Sables--that superior Western fitness regimes and technologies will dominate the race--is inverted by the overwhelming success of Moroccan runners and disaggregated by the biopolitical regulation of elite running bodies. These unexpected intersections of global tourism and fitness demand further attention because they reconfigure our received notions of who (and what) is capable of exerting agency in postcolonial encounters.

Keywords Tourism, fitness, postcolonial, biopolitical, neoliberalism. Marathon des Sables

The Toughest Race on Earth

Every April in the South-east corner of the Saharan desert in Morocco, over a thousand runners from around the world gather to participate in the Marathon des Sables (MdS), a six day, 254 km ultramarathon that is publicized as 'the toughest footrace on earth' (Marathon des Sables/United Kingdom, 2015a). It is the equivalent of over five full marathons run sequentially, but runners must carry all their food and clothing on their backs and camp each night in the desert. Race organizers ensure that runners carry sufficient calories in their packs, are provided with adequate water supplies at numerous stages throughout the race (including salt tablets) and undergo medical evaluations at each checkpoint to ensure they can keep running. The MdS is one of the most established global endurance events with a large presence on social media, dedicated national websites, celebrity participation, a charity infrastructure, sponsorship by numerous multinational companies and global media exposure. The race, which has just celebrated its 30th anniversary, has become so popular that regular places are now fully booked two years in advance.

I want to use the MdS as a starting place to explore what happens when dominant Western discourses of tourism and fitness converge in the Global South. For participants, organizers and their families, the MdS is undoubtedly a tourist experience facilitated by the Moroccan state and its well-established tourism industry. Indeed, part of my aim in this paper is to analyse how a tourist framing enables MdS visitors to reproduce a familiar colonial imagination in which strange, forbidding and alien landscapes populated by exotic Others are imagined in advance in order to be conquered. But the MdS is also something else: it is the ultimate endurance race for individuals seeking to achieve the ideal neoliberal body: healthy, fit, efficient, ascetic, resourceful, flexible and resilient. This paper critically examines how those desires for extreme fitness map onto the colonial asymmetries underscoring global tourism and asks whether such an alignment offers possibilities for reordering global power relations. By inverting and disaggregating these asymmetries, my aim is to foreground the liveliness, complexity and ambivalence of cross-cultural encounters. So while the paper does call attention to the powerful colonial echoes within the MdS, it is more interested in the awkward, unexpected and unruly moments that rearrange the constitutive asymmetries of Empire.

A growing body of literature within Sociology and Public Health examines how a dominant discourse of Health--often called 'Healthism' or 'Healthification'--produces and governs modern neoliberal subjects (Crawford, 1980; Fusco, 2006; King, 2013; Metzl and Kirkland, 2010). …

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