Blazing sun, blowing sand and blistered souls at the 2012 Marathon des Sables
A fatigue haze induced by two days and three continents of travel is my filter for this moment—midnight in an African airport—so I have to focus on doing what it takes to end this day: getting a passport stamp from a border-patrol agent, heaving my duffel onto the roof rack of a taxi cab with a sawed-off back end, greeting the hotel manager in a mixture of Arabic and French and discerning the difference between my room’s toilet and bidet.
A field of 854 runners which began the 2012 Marathon des Sables splays across a sandy swath of the Sahara Desert. Photo by Mark Gillett.
This article is from our December 2012 issue.
In the morning, the door lock clacks as a housekeeper helps herself inside my hotel room to make it up for the day. “Je dors! Je dors!” I bellow, bounding from bed in surprise. Through midday light flooding the room, she shoots me an alarmed glance and disappears. I sleep more.
When I wake next, I feel human. I open the wood window shutters and a breeze flows over my face. Here is the spread of Ouarzazate, Morocco, an almost-flat city made hazy by fine wind-blown sand. I was too tired to bother with pajamas last night and realize that I’m wearing just a T-shirt and underpants. Morocco’s Muslim culture is conservative, so I now understand the housekeeper’s shock.
I am here to run the Marathon des Sables (MdS) for the third time. The race, which begins in 10 days, has taken place in southern Morocco every April for 26 years. The brainchild of French race director Patrick Bauer and the granddaddy of all stage races, it
welcomes nearly 1000 athletes for a week of running 150 miles in the Sahara Desert while carrying a pack containing all the food, camping equipment and whatever else one needs for a week of running in the desert. The race administration, a flawlessly tuned orchestra of 400 staff and volunteers, provides runners with water rations, medical care and shade tents.
It’s around 85 degrees when I head out for a road run. To repent my earlier sin, I cover up with a long-sleeve shirt, three-quarter-length tights and a ball cap. I give the women in flowing hijabs my best smile, but they triple-take me anyway. Kids stop playing to stare. An ancient automobile burping blue fumes stalls when its driver pays too little attention to driving and too much attention to me. A white girl running—I am a sore thumb in Africa.
I’m now in Zagora,
a four-hour drive south of Ouarzazate, at the home of Rachid El Morabity, last year’s MdS champion. We sit cross-legged on pillows around a table topped with the biggest tagine I’ve ever seen. This Moroccan version of a crockpot contains a chicken-and-vegetable dinner prepared by the 30-year-old tour guide.
Around Rachid’s table is a hodgepodge group. First, there are brothers Lhoucine, 38, Samir, 31, and Ismail Akhdar, 27. Lhoucine and Samir both have high-ranking finishes at the MDS. Ismail jokes that he is the fat, non-running brother. Aissam Nebchi, a 32-year-old childhood friend of the Akhdars who plays national-level soccer, is also present. Janet Alexander, a 52-year-old Encinitas,
California-based strength and conditioning coach, is too. Janet and I had met some of these guys while running the MdS before and accepted their invitation for a weeklong visit to their hometown prior to the race this year.
Our conversation is chaotic and jovial. We jump between Arabic, French and English. Samir speaks all three languages the best. He garners the nickname “Google Translate.”
The group teases Ismail, a self-proclaimed philanderer, about the women he is dating. Relationships between men and women are evolving in Muslim culture, these men all agree, when the dialogue sobers up. They each say they’ll marry just one woman. Lhoucine, who is already hitched to a beautiful French gal, jokes, “One is plenty.” Lhoucine, Samir and Rachid all work in tourism, which is, according to them, suffering because of political instability in other Muslim countries. We sip mint tea, our host topping off glasses before they are empty.
After dinner, Rachid replaces the tagine with the food he plans to carry and eat during the MdS. The table becomes a pile of pasta shells, rice, spices, gels that Janet and I brought him from the U.S., nuts and dried dates Rachid plucked a couple weeks ago from trees around his home.
“How many calories is this?” asks Janet.
“Just enough,” is Rachid’s answer, which Samir translates into English from Arabic. Each MDS runner is required to begin the race with 14,000 calories of food, or 2000 calories for each of the seven race days.
Rachid, Lhoucine and Samir ration the foodstuffs into plastic bags, designating individual meals, tie each bag shut with a short piece of string and then trim the extra length of bag. It takes about an hour—during which we joke amply about starvation and stealing each other’s food during the race—for the guys to create seven neat piles, the food of a hopeful Moroccan champion.
Our group splinters into several. Lhoucine and I spider onto the flat roof of Rachid’s home in Zagora’s outskirts, where civilization diffuses into Sahara. The sky is deep blue. I know the night sky of North America well, but the stars are different here. Lhoucine guides me around his sky, and I realize that this is the first time tonight that I have felt like a foreigner.
The MdS begins in 36 hours.
Earlier today, we runners were transported to the race’s starting line, first by massive bus caravans and second by military trucks, cattle-to-market style. We were assigned to eight-person shade tents. Over 100 of them are staked in a circle about a half-mile in diameter. Called the bivouac and our roving home for the race, this camp is miraculously relocated from each stage’s start to finish line by a couple dozen Berber race staff while we run the distance between.
Mohamad Ahansal, the 39-year-old Moroccan who has won this race four times, pokes his head inside my tent. He grins so wide that his teeth fill half his face. We met and became friends when I ran the 2009 MdS. As per custom and even though we’ve already chatted today, we shake hands, double-cheek kiss and exchange multiple rounds of hello. “Right now, do you want to run?” he inquires. I follow him like a dog tailing its owner.
We are joined by two of Mohamad’s Italian buddies. The younger of the two, a chiseled man wearing all spandex and a smile I could get used to, introduces himself as Lorenzo De Ninno and his companion as Mauro. Mauro is a common Italian name, but it’s also closely associated with the MdS.
Lorenzo says, “You know of him? He is Mauro Prosperi.”
Mauro introduces himself, Italian-style, by pulling the back of my hand to his lips. He is the only man in the MdS’s long history who has been lost on course for an extended period of time. Found nine days later in Algeria, more than 100 miles off the race course in 1994, Mauro was evidently not deterred—he continues to run the race regularly. Though I pray to never become so lost in the Sahara that I have to eat bats and drink my own urine to survive, I am like Mauro in the fact that we and so many others are attracted enough to this place and the race that we keep returning.
Mohamad leads us down a wadi made of soft sand and dried mud. We talk sporadically, but a three-language barrier lapses us into more quiet than conversation. From elite Mohamad to survivor Mauro to good-looking Lorenzo, our unlikely friendships make me giddy.
On our return trip to camp, Mohamad breaks right and sprints for a knoll. Like a goat he gallops to the rocky summit, while the rest of us play chase. Low-angle, rust-colored sun beams strike our cheeks at the top, the bivouac about a mile to the north, and the flat Earth almost everywhere else. My brain processes the view as warm, welcoming, but still strange.
We link hands and raise our arms as a referee does with a winning boxer after a match. We wear self-satisfied grins that mean pretty much the same thing in every language.
We’re in the Sahara Desert’s wilderness,
with no other signs of humanity. Tan sand lies underfoot. Vegetation is non-existent, save for dried, waist-high grass growing in bunches every 200 feet or so. The horizon is far—perhaps 100 miles or more—in every direction and our view to it is punctuated by occasional technicolor mountains.
In contrast to the wild silence around us, the MdS starting line is frenetic insanity. We runners are a herd of screaming, hugging, sweating, jumping, fist-pumping, full-on-freaking runners from dozens of nations. I pick my way through this bulge of humanity, stumbling across Chloë Lanthier, a 45-year-old who lives in Revelstoke, British Columbia, and the X-Training School director. She has enormous biceps and a smile that puts me at ease. “Can I stand by you?” I ask and she nods, knowing the impossibility of conversation.
Patrick and his English-speaking translator stand atop a Land Rover, their voices booming over a sound system. A helicopter circles just off the deck, its sandy rotor wash mixing into us. Patrick says it’s one minute until go time as AC/DC’s Highway to Hell rocks the desert. We flail our arms and bodies to the beat. Patrick yells the magic word, the microphone screeching with feedback. The music gets even louder and we evolve into a moving mosh pit.