Six days and 150 miles, in 110-degree heat. Was I crazy?
The Marathon Des Sables is the brainchild of Frenchman Patrick Bauer, who once trekked solo 300 miles through the Sahara, and was so spiritually moved that he wanted others to share the experience.
Picture this: 225 human beings from 20 countries, wrapped from head to toe in anything that would cover them, looking more like mummies than runners, impatiently pacing in the 120 degree heat.
The organization is all very Spartan; things are run almost like a Foreign Legion campaign.
At the starting line in the small town of Ouarzazate, in southern Morocco, hellishly hot sand blows in my face, but I take it with a shrug. It’s about 110 degrees.
Is it normal to subject one’s body to such extremes? That’s one thing I’m here to find out. We’re going to run 151 miles, over six days.
After 20 years of playing a weekly tennis game together, my partner, a coworker who was a runner, suggested I try running in a marathon. So at age 47, I ran my first marathon in Long Beach, California. Without any training, I finished in 4:05 hours.
I was hooked. Over the past 20 years I have run about 125 ultra marathons — long, multi-day runs, often under severe conditions — on all seven continents, and most of the world’s highest, lowest, northern and southern-most foot races. I’ve run the Mt. Everest Marathon in Nepal, the Mt. Kinabalu Climathon on Borneo, the inaugural Antarctica Marathon, the Comrades 87 k in South Africa, the Inca Trail run in Peru, and the Havana Marathon in Cuba.
Ultra running isn’t cutthroat competitive, and the top performers don’t hold themselves snobbishly apart. That’s likely because there’s rarely any prize money at stake. There is a camaraderie among competitors.
As we wait at the starting line, I hear the French version of the race rules taking about 15 minutes, the English only five. I wonder what they are not telling us.
Then there’s dead silence, as race director Patrick Bauer steps up with a pistol in his hand and, on the count of three, fires a shot, signaling the start of an adventure race most people would say is crazy to even attempt.
Rocky Desert Turf
To have any chance of winning this six-day adventure race, the faster runners and favorites take off like rabbits, while slower, and really slow, runners (like me) trot along in the soft sand, backpacks bouncing.
The first day is supposed to be a little easier — it’s only nine miles — but gives us a taste of what lies ahead.
Most people believe that the desert is mostly sand, which is a misnomer, as many deserts have large areas of ERG, an area of rock-hard underground with stones and rocks of all shapes and sizes. Walking up a dune, no matter how small, is a challenge. It’s like walking in quicksand, taking two steps up and sliding one back down, not to mention the powder-like fine sand that gets into your shoes and socks, rubbing against your skin. Once reaching the top of the first dune I just drop to the ground, trying to catch my breath.
About eight months before this race I severed my hamstring, which relegated me to walking the entire distance. But I am confident I can make the daily cutoffs because I am a strong walker.
The first night at the camp looked more like an open-air first aid field unit, as many runners showed first signs of rashes, blisters and other ailments. Bandages of all sizes, and ointments and creams were applied. Believing in preemptive treatment, I draped several bands of a large bandage over both shoulders to avoid any shaving from my backpack. I also had modified my backpack with extra cushioning, and wider and padded shoulder and waist straps.
Our quarters were open-sided Berber tents with a couple of layers of carpets laid over the hard and rocky underground. Trying to save weight, instead of a sleeping bag I brought a bivy bag, which had one major flaw; it behaved like plastic, making a racket every time I moved, driving my seven tent-mates crazy. And it retained all moisture, causing me to awake soaked in sweat the first couple of mornings.
This was a self-sufficient event, meaning we had to live with whatever we brought. As a way of training, I’d spent three weeks, four times a week, running and walking on the beach with a 25-pound backpack with snowshoes.
Did I look stupid? Several people who saw me said so, but it gave me an idea of what I was in for. Running for an hour on the beach is one thing; walking (or running, like most every other participant did) for days over sand dunes and rocky terrain with a 25 to 30-pound pack is another.
Follow suggestions in the race instructions, I brought a ton of dehydrated food, but after seeing the other runners’ packs, I left about half of it behind with the staff. Some runners wanted to travel as lightly as possible, and tried to survive on Power Bars and such. But such drastic measures were not for me.
In the morning, the Bedouins were rushing us to get our stuff off of their carpets, wanting to break down the tents. It was like being on a campground without a tent, with the whole world seeing what you are doing.
One morning as I was heating water for coffee and porridge, my small burner burned a hole into one of the Berber carpets. That really pissed the caretakers off, but no one finked on me — camaraderie, you know.
Each day got progressively more challenging, as the distances increased. The ground got harder, and the blisters started to form. The pack got more difficult to carry, making my shoulders sag. Fine sand crept inside my socks, rubbing against the skin, and the rock-strewn hard surface we walked or ran on add more blisters.
At night, the camp looked like an ER unit. People took off their shoes, exposing black & blue toes, shoulders that were rubbed raw, and blisters filled with blood.
But I did okay. My shoulders covered with tape held up, except they were sore from the weight, forcing me to invent new ways to carry a backpack, frontal, over the shoulder and even on my head. I pricked my blisters open with a needle (a sterilized needle — are you kidding?), drained it and covered it with moleskin and a good adhesive bandage. As time went on, the pain became more acute, and I added another layer of cushioning over the old one, not wanting to tear away any skin that remained.
One evening a surprise awaited us. As each runner trotted into camp, most of them hot, exhausted, weary and in pain, we were handed an ice-cold Coca Cola, compliments of the Moroccan military, who had flown in the drinks by helicopter. I am not religious, but someone was looking out for us indeed.
Body in the Sand
One day I was trotting along when the sky became dark, announcing an imminent sandstorm. All you can do is wrap yourself into a space blanket or whatever you brought, lay low and hope it stops before you are totally covered with powder fine sand. Eventually it became eerily quiet, and I peeled myself out of my blanket and cloth, as sand had gotten literally into every crevice of my body.
I saw none of the yellow plastic course markers and was totally lost, but kept walking along.
Soon I saw a form in the sand, which upon closer inspection turned out to be the body of another runner. I heard an animal-like grunt and saw a blistery burned face as he tried to turn over. He was totally exhausted, had no water and seemed near death — he could not talk. I gave him some water to drink and covered him with my space blanket, letting him know that I would summon help (yeah, right).
After walking for 20 minutes more I saw two young Bedouin boys. Not speaking any French, I just grabbed their hands and pulled them toward the fallen runner. Once they saw the battered body, they left, presumably for help.
An hour later I saw the eeriest sight of my life. First came a galloping camel on the crest of a sand dune, one of the two boys riding it. We tried to drape the runner over the camel’s saddle, but he kept falling off. Just then a jeep appeared on the horizon with the other boy, and two race officials. They shoved the runner into the jeep and took off.
Two hours later I arrived at the aid station, exhausted. The runner had an IV in each arm, and had recovered. He thanked me for saving his life.
After reaching the next aid station three hours later, I wanted to quit, but every excuse I came up with was answered with a solution. A race official walked with me to keep me company, and I was told that I could take all the time I needed to make up for the time I’d lost. When I arrived at the camp at 10 p.m., about 20 runners were lined up to give me a hero’s welcome. I thanked those who would not let me quit the night before. I was glad to still be in the race.
Each morning it got tougher. It was not a question of whether your feet will hurt, but more a matter of minimizing the pain. Walking with blisters the size of walnuts over terrain that is hard as cement is agony. You can feel the rocks pushing against your sore feet and blisters. But having come that far and with only two days to go, I wasn’t about to quit.
The toughest day — a 50-mile trek — was ahead. Walking on a dry lakebed, every step made crunching sounds, but with a full moon overhead it was an eerie but yet gratifying sense to be one with nature. Alone for miles with only a plastic flag every few miles in the wide-open Sahara is about as far away from civilization one can get. It leaves time for reflection.
The next night a German camera crew came into the tent asking if I was up for an impromptu interview. Naturally I was.
On the last morning, the camp looked like a Mash unit after a planeload of wounded soldiers had arrived. I saw bandages and beat-up body parts, but everyone was in high spirits for being so close to the finish. After a quick breakfast I was ready to hobble the last few miles past date palm trees, fields and back into Ouarzazate. With a couple of miles to go, I hooked up with three Moroccan runners who were singing and laughing. Four abreast we linked arms and kind of hopscotched for a few hundred yards.
The last mile I actually ran, not feeling any pain, while locals lined the street and cheered us on as if we were heroes. It was an emotional moment for me. Patrick Bauer greeted each of us at the finish line with a bear hug and a few friendly words, and hung medals around our necks.
Walking practically the entire race, I came in 175th, dead last. But I was happy, since 25 others had not finished at all.
Would I do it again? No. I have nothing to prove. I know what I am capable of. And this experience reinforced my image of the desert: that it isn’t a dead or desolate place, but can be full of life, if one takes the time to explore it on its own terms.
Jurgen Ankenbrand is a writer and photographer who lives in Southern California.
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