Sahara Survival - Page 5Stage 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.