Legends of the Trail - Page 3
In his element: Bauer orchestrating the Marathon des Sables. Photo by Audray Saulem
In the beginning, there was Patrick Bauer and the Sahara Desert. It was January of 1984, and the young, former French-concert promoter had already spent a couple nomadic years exploring West Africa by car. In an effort to more deeply experience the desert, he undertook an almost-self-sufficient, 350-kilometer pedestrian expedition in southern Algeria. Bauer, then 26, carried all of his provisions save for water, which was resupplied from a car once daily by his brother and a friend. Twelve days later at the Niger border, Bauer emerged with a single thought: other people need to do what he just had.
Two years later, the first Marathon des Sables (MdS), a seven- day, six-stage, 250-kilometer running race of self-sufficiency (which means competitors carry everything they need for the week except water) was held in the more politically benign Moroccan Sahara. With 1986’s MdS, Bauer invented a new format: the stage race. Not even adventure racing had yet been born.
Twenty-three competitors undertook the inaugural MdS. Mário Machado, editor of Spiridon, a Portuguese running magazine, remembers that race well, “My biggest memory is a sense of aloneness, just 23 of us and the desert! For 10 kilometers at a time between checkpoints, I was alone on the unmarked route, using my compass for bearings. It was frightening, yes, but also exhilarating.” Machado has another vivid memory, “It was not easy in those days to find [backpacking] meals. I brought food out of survival packs, what’s stocked in lifeboats. It was horrible!”
The race grew wildly in popularity. In 1989, 170 competitors toed the line; in 2012, a throng of 854 jostled at the start.
“Patrick is the reason this race is so popular.” says Jay Batchen, the MdS representative who coordinates North American entrant registrations and who has finished the race eight times. “He wants every competitor to finish, but He also wants them to experience some sort of transcendent challenge.”
Getting the details of an expedition stage race in the remote and harsh Sahara Desert just right has always been tough. “In the late 1980s, the MdS was a unique event. We started from a blank copy,” says Bauer. each year offers up some unexpected challenge.
Batchen remembers the 2006 race not so fondly, “For unexplained reasons, hundreds of runners became sick. i woke up one morning and projectile vomited.” Such rampant illness threatened many runners’ ability to finish the race. Batchen says Bauer beefed up the race’s medical treatments and allotted competitors more water so they could recover and complete the race. “This was the first time i saw Patrick’s genuine concern for every participant’s experience.”
When asked about other unexpected challenges, Bauer’s response is instantaneous, “oh, 2009! The flood, a volume of water in the desert that i had never before seen! our ability to adapt has never been tested like that.” That year, the Sahara Desert experienced extreme flooding that shortened the race to four days and 202 kilometers, forced organizers to completely change the race route and provide for the safety of hundreds of competitors in cold, wet conditions.
The full-time mdS director, 55, married his wife, Marie, in 1998 after a long-term, live-in relationship, and the two have a 10-year-old son, Rayane. The family lives in France, but spends months each year in morocco. Bauer still runs, saying, with a laugh, “Well, I run when I’m not injured.” he also works on ecology projects in the Sahara, including building wells for remote villages in the region the MdS is held, his way of giving back.
What began as one man’s multi-day, algerian expedition has now blossomed into a race format so popular that dozens of stage races host thousands of runners around the world each year.
“I just wanted people to be able to chase their sense of adventure, and am elated to see more races providing venues to do this.” He pauses reflectively, concluding, “The desert called to me. What can I say? I knew it would call to others.”
— 1984 > Patrick Bauer hikes 350 kilometers (almost solo) in the Algerian Sahara. During the journey, he invents the stage-racing idea.
— 1986 > Bauer directs the first Marathon des Sables (MdS).
— 1997 > A Moroccan, Lahcen Ahansal, wins the MdS for the first time. This draws interest in the race from in-country runners, and now elite Moroccans compete each year.
— 1999 > Bauer implements a roving field hospital at the MdS that has since been credited with saving multiple lives.
— 2005 > 777 runners begin the MdS.
— 2009 > Record-level rains flood the Sahara Desert. Bauer makes adaptations to ensure competitor safety and allow the race to take place.