The Marathon des Sables
The day begins with the purring of generators and the creaking plastic of air mattresses. Increasingly loud pockets of laughter and occasional footsteps, shuffling awkwardly and painfully by the tent in handmade or white slippers - pinched from a spa - indicate that it’s probably time to think about getting up. The crushing of last night’s water bottles is a fine alarm clock – it’s impossible to quietly crush a plastic bottle. I’m definitely up now.
Sleep mask off and a quick glance at the glowing near-full orange moon reveals a low position in the sky as the sun impatiently waits its turn for prominence. With the moon in waxing through waning gibbous phases it was never really dark in the Sahara this year and one large hanging yolk simply replaced the other in the clear African sky.
Briefly taking in the beauty of the Sahara and ignoring those other full moons not far in the distance – i.e. the rogue silhouettes soiling the landscape around camp - the fatigued body is quickly worked into action by the brain which is already buzzing, plotting and planning for the day ahead. Others have the same plan.
The noise builds around camp as competitors awaken from their slumber; some lighting stoves, most repairing feet, while almost everyone gaggles nervously, informing others of their forthcoming tactics for the day ahead, but really in search of reassurance and any last minute advice.
Whilst this goes on, the industrious and legendary Berbers make an appearance. Soon the three-deep horseshoe shaped lines of black tents are downed and the sanctuary of that protective cover is no longer. Competitors, now left sitting on carpets without their only shield from the sun, are now exposed to each other, the baking early morning sun and the day ahead.
After a short pilgrimage to gather the morning water in the middle of camp for teeth-brushing and consumption, a trickle of runners make their way to the inflatable start line. You can almost hear the creaking joints as backpacks are thrown onto weary shoulders; the first delicate steps test the resolve of previous injuries and tired feet as the least painful method of forward movement is configured.
The dulcet tones of America – ‘A horse with no name’ fills the ears. Competitors assemble and bunch, some shuffling forward with others happy to wait at the back or find shade, in knowledge that a few seconds lost at the start is unlikely to seriously affect position in the race. Then Patrick, who once covered 350 km in 12 days alone in the Sahara before founding the MdS two years later, takes to the stage (the top of a 4x4) for his daily performance.
Speaking in his native French tongue, he wishes his subjects well, informs them of what’s ahead and then always completely runs out of time. His English translator gets a fraction of the airtime as the countdown nears. But there’s always time to wish each competitor whose birthday it is that day – a personalised greeting. It’s a unique offering.
Then as ‘Highway to Hell’ blasts out, the countdown is really on. Cheers fill the air, nervous energy reaches tipping point and raised cameras begin to bob up and down. We’re off!
Passing through the inflatable start / finish line, for many (certainly myself and Hazel included) the first kilometre or so is the fastest stretch of the day. Caught up in the heat of the moment and dragged along by the fastest on the course it feels great to be on the move. Anyway, we’d better get going…there are camels to outrun…