Sahara Survival - Page 3The 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.