Blazing sun, blowing sand and blistered souls at the 2012 Marathon des Sables
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.
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.
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.
A group works together across a pebble-covered flat. Photo by Carolyn Schaffer.
Stage 2 is a furnace of 120-degree heat. I just dive-bombed today’s last descent, a 1000-footer that spit us onto flat ground composed of black gravel. I see the red finish-line banner and the black bivouac tents, warped by heat waves. Patrick designs each day’s course so that you either can’t see the finish line until you are at it or you see it from miles away. Either finish is his final form of daily course-design torment, and today’s is the latter variety.
A headwind flips up sheets of grit. I overtake another runner, noticing it is Mauro and giving him a come-with-me wave. He speeds up, steps ahead of me and plays (a totally legal) windbreak. His gesture is sweet, paternal even, and a wave of affection for him flushes over me. When it’s my turn to pull, Mauro slides into my slipstream. The wind lets up enough that I hear our shoes simultaneously crunching rocks. The rhythm is hypnotic and familiar.
I became a trail runner because of the repetitive, calming sound of feet on dirt. In 2006, I called myself a road runner and was headed to the starting line of Missoula, Montana’s Riverbank Run when my mom telephoned to say that my father had died while they were on vacation in South America. After that, my mother withered into depression and near non-functionality. Though much about the next couple of years sucked, watching my mom suffer broke my heart the most. I was working and living in Yellowstone National Park, and I coped by running trails.
Because friends forced me, I tried to heal in other ways. I visited a therapist, but she focused on the past. “Look,” I remember telling her, “your questions only ensure that I see my father’s drowned, blue body lying on a beach when I shut my eyes at night.”
On the trail, reality was the soft rhythm of shoes hitting earth. The act shut out the past, the future, the present. I ran so much that I dreamed about it, too. This kind of running was reckless and unsustainable in the long-term, but it provided the peace I found nowhere else.
Mauro and I cross the finish line. I thank him until he becomes bashful. “Sì, Sì, Sì, bella,” he says. My gratitude is for the 30-minute peloton, the memory of how I began in this sport and the relief of not having to run like that anymore.
With his sun hat, sunglasses, and opaque sunscreen, John Mulligan deflects the Sahara's intense sun. Photo by Kirsten Kortebein.
John Milligan knows how to suffer, I think as my new friend waddles past my tent like an exquisitely uncomfortable duck. He just finished Stage 3. “How are you?” I ask, immediately hating myself for those words. He’s clearly unwell.
“I’m going to finish this race,” he responds, pointing his finger at the ground as if he is a father lecturing his child. The 42-year-old is a business unit manager for the Vermeer Cooperation from Pella, Iowa. I understand, from the conversations we’ve shared since meeting each other in an Ouarzazate hotel before the race, John came to the MdS with big expectations. The Sahara Desert has its own plans for him, and it is chewing him up and spitting him out.
We sit in his tent. He removes his sand gaiters, shoes and socks, groaning through the movements. He has developed foot blisters that grow in size every day, and he says that they now cover half the surface area of each foot. At today’s finish line, the race’s medical staff treated the blisters and covered his feet with white bandages. I can’t see the podiatric disaster, and don’t want to.
“You’re a rock star,” says John, referring to me passing him during each of the three stages after he was slowed by those blisters. “You make it look easy.” John had hoped to finish among the top 50 runners, but now he says he’ll have to suffer much to finish in the top 50 percent. “I left my ego on Stage 1’s course. I had to.”
I understand that his heart is as raw as his feet and mutter, “I’m really sorry.” I mean, there is nothing easy about running 150 miles and otherwise surviving for a week in the Sahara, but what do you say to a man who is doing it without skin on his feet?
Stage 4 is a 50-miler. On this day, the top 50 men and five women begin three hours after the mass start. I am somewhere around 50th-place overall and the fifth-place woman.
After the other 800 runners depart at 8:30 a.m., I have all morning to fortify myself to my fate. Because I start slow and speed up, because European runners are notorious for their blazing beginnings and because I’m among the slowest of the speedsters, I will probably be the last person in this group of 55 for a while. I tuck my compass in my sports bra for fast access, so that I don’t end up in Algeria.
About an hour in, I have picked my way up a dry ravine to the top of a ridgeline of gray limestone filled with ancient seashells and other fossil debris. An 800-foot-tall, super-steep, peach-colored sand dune is our means of descending back to flat ground. The act of lowering oneself over this pile of sand is not glissading, not riding, not bounding. Because of the length of time I am separated from the steep dune and because of the soft footfalls, I feel like a lunar explorer as I jump. When each foot hits sand, it is gobbled up to the ankle. Flying leaps and feathery landings, I repeat this process until the dune slopes away to hard dirt.
Starting in the late group means that I catch many of the runners who started earlier and are moving at a slower pace. This is the purpose of a staggered start for the highest-ranking runners: runners of all kinds are mixed up and interacting with each other on course. I trot next to Didier Benguigui, a visually impaired runner from France, and his guide Gilles Clain.
Says Gilles, “C’est la femme Américaine, Meghan!”
Replies Didier, “Allez, Meghan!”
Didier keeps a solid pace on these flats. But he is near the back of the pack, so I know it must have taken him a long time to climb up that ravine and down the dune. My heart rises into my throat for the fact that I thought it was hard and Didier did it without sight.
I finally spit out, “Didier, vous êtes magnifique.”
“Merci,” he continues, “Mais le monde est magnifique!”
Soon I am rock hopping a stream of moving, pooling, cool, clear water, which is a near-miracle in the desert. I dip my hat in, then use it to splash myself. Runners frolic everywhere and, as I climb the embankment on the stream’s far side, a half-dozen folks clap for me. I fist pump in reply.
A few hours later, I see Vince Antunez, 51, a seasoned stage racer from Texas. He wore FiveFingers at the bivouac before the race, and because most of us go large lengths to protect ourselves from the Sahara’s sharp things, they and their owner caught my eye. This week, I have learned that the military man has a hard outer shell and is goofy at heart, so I hug him and sprint off. I turn around to see that he has his head thrown back in laughter about my sneak attack. He finally shouts, “The best hug, ever!”
Mohammad Almatar, a speedy, sponsored 27-year-old from Kuwait, and I leave the 50-kilometer water checkpoint and enter a flat dune field together. He’s been finishing 15 or 20 minutes ahead of me in the previous stages, so I imagine he’s having a rough day. No matter, his sand-running skills are superb, which is appropriate given the volume of it in his home country.
He takes short, quick steps. Fast contact with the sand prevents him from sinking into it. He lands with his whole foot, toes and heel together, so as to spread his body weight over the entire shoe’s surface area. He follows the dunes’ crests, running on their harder-packed windward side, rather than in a straight line the direction we’re headed.
During this fray, I observe: Mohammad is playing. He is the runner version of a child in a sandbox, taking backscratcher leaps off 10-foot dune crests and landing on the soft sand below. And, as we weave back and forth—sometimes taking the same line, but other times running the crests of parallel dunes—we exchange smiles, grunts and even a handshake. His approach and others, from Didi’s observations of our beautiful world, to the runners’ splashing around in the only water we’ll see all week, to Vince’s ability to laugh in the middle of a one very long run, are jovial and light-hearted. I can see and feel in them and myself that this joy takes the pressure off of racing.
When I cross the finish line in the dark a few hours later, exactly 11 hours after starting, I jump around like I won the lottery. I shoot fists toward the stars. I grab handfuls of sand. I hug the race official who is minding the timing equipment. And then, because I tend to do so after efforts of this length and difficulty, I barf.
A bird's eye view of Stage 4's massive sand dune shows how steep it is. Photo by Carolyn Schaffer.
We just endured a 12-hour sandstorm and a one-hour thunderstorm. This is the second afternoon of the long stage, which has a day-and-a-half cutoff. Folks who finish the 50-miler in a day are afforded the luxury of a rest day. Many other runners and I have completed the long stage and are recovering in the bivouac. One must use a liberal interpretation of the term “rest day” if we are to describe waiting out this weather as rest, though.
My tentmates and I lie on the ground with our collapsed, wet tent on top of us. I use the Indiglo feature on my watch to see that it’s 2 p.m. on the dot. Storm clouds now yield to a turquoise sky, so we work together to raise our tent. I place my belongings in the sun to dry. I survey the bivouac, which looks like a nuclear weapon detonated in it.
Chloë stands next to her tent. Her body is visibly swollen, edema engulfing her toned musculature. She must be retaining five or seven pounds of liquid. Chloë and I spoke at the final water checkpoint last night. She was leaving it at a steady clip and in fine spirits, but said she had struggled with nausea for much of the day.
“You look good now,” I told her as we parted ways in the night.
We compare notes on yesterday and, with her eyes wandering among the mess that is the bivouac post-storm, she says, “My mind can make this race harder or easier than it inherently is. I choose to make it easy.”
The 2012 Marathon des Sables ends with a crossing of Morocco’s largest dunescape, the Merzouga Dunes. This field of cantaloupe-colored sand stretches 15 miles long, north-to-south, and five miles wide, east-to-west. Around the edge of the dunefield, the sand makes 20-foot-tall swells, like those of the high seas. The tallest dunes—more than 1000 feet in height—are located in the center of the dunefield and their crests cut curved lines across today’s azure sky.
There is not one thing that is sustainable about these dunes. In fact, the dunes could be one of Earth’s most uninhabitable spots. As for the rest of the Sahara Desert, intermittent water, food and shade make surviving a primitive existence. The Berber people who reside in small clusters out here—or Mauro for that matter—could probably articulate this better.
I love these dunes and our ribbon of colorful runners—the intermixing of a wilderness that is harsh, gritty and hot; the gregarious, quirky and loving people who race the MdS and the manner in which this race makes us bigger, bad-er, rad-er versions of ourselves—with every inch of my being. I suppose it is fortuitous, then, that the dunes are tough traveling and this 5.5-mile crossing takes me 68 minutes.
Hundreds of spectators, a combination of locals, foreign tourists and competitors’ family and friends, line the last half-mile to the finish. They are the first clean people we’ve interacted with in seven days and I smell their soaps and perfumes more than I see them. They shake big cowbells with deep-pitched rings and shout, “C’est une femme!”
Patrick waits, just under the finishing banner, to greet every runner who completes his race. When it is my turn, he bear hugs me, kisses my salty cheeks and lowers the finisher’s medal over my head. His voice is hoarse from so many days of hard work when he exclaims, “Meghan, again you finish! You still love the Sahara?”
Meghan Hicks is a Contributing Editor for Trail Runner. This article originally appeared in our December 2012 issue.