The Marathon des Sables
The dust clouds of sand settle as that initial burst of pace wanes. The level of chat amongst competitors, typically inverse to temperature at any particular point, remains high. The sound of the heavy pounding of feet dissipates as the swarm spreads out across the Sahara.
The day is young and the sun sits low in the sky; energy levels remain elevated. The cool conditions provide impetus to make progress early, so most do just that, recognising that running under the midday heat is much less appealing and achievable. Having the opportunity to journey through this unique environment feeds the human instinct to explore. That’s a real buzz in itself.
Initial progress is only interrupted by the welcoming sound of our watch alarms – every 25 mins - set up as a reminder to eat, drink and take our salt tablets. Small and regular consumption of each is key, and each bite means one less gram to carry in the bag. It’s a win-win situation.
Then before you know it…checkpoint! Wow – that was quick! That didn’t feel like 10km at all. Two large bottles of water provided to runners are used for a quick drink and a refill of personal bottles. The remainder is squeezed carefully through the suncap over the head – it’s important not to waste anyway – and it’s the best feeling of the day. Then it’s off. This feels like a proper race. The mantra holds: run when you can, not when you have to.
A short distance and it feels a million miles from the comfort of the checkpoint. The temperature grinds higher as shadows shorten. More water required please. The body feels like its soaking up the heat more quickly than it’s being consumed and only a few minutes after being purposely soaked at the checkpoint, my t-shirt’s already bone dry. The glances at the watch are already more frequent and urgent. How far until that next checkpoint again?
Unlike Antarctica, any breeze during the day is a blessing. With the full force of the equatorial sun unrestricted by any cloud, a small amount of wind from any direction is more than welcome respite; it’s a real psychological boost. But, you don’t want too much of a good thing.
When the wind picked up in the 1994 Marathon des Sables, Mauro Prosperi found himself amid a great sandstorm. He became lost. Very lost. Drinking his own urine and eating raw bats, snakes and lizards to survive, he was eventually found 10 days later after crossing the border into Algeria. He was 291km (181 miles) off course and lucky to be alive.
At the next few checkpoints the temptation to grab a spot of cover is too much. The once sparsely populated shaded areas become crowded, competitors are happier to chat now. A conversation is an excuse not to leave this sanctuary for a few minutes longer.
These man-made oases play an important psychological role too. We approached the longest of the days – a heavy 86.2km – not as a double marathon but instead as a series of seven shorter checkpoints. We know we can run 10km. There just happens to be 8.6 10kms in a row. Raising our feet against the 4x4 vehicles to drain the lactic acid, it was always much tougher to leave than arrive.
The day begins to stretch out and feel long. And there’s trouble ahead: jebels. These mountain passes – typically relatively easy climbs in more temperate environments – are brutal. On day three we had four of these to whet our appetite for a nice panoramic view of the Sahara. Rising up hundreds of metres, the combination of sandy, uneven surfaces and the relentless heat means it’s a laborious task. Heavy legs feel drained as we form a procession. Just follow the feet in front and don’t look up until they stop.
It begins to flatten out. All around us beautiful sand dunes below – think the money-shot from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Like a line of ants, we can see competitors carefully shuffling and feeling their way through the landscape, heaving their bodies through these waves of sand. Descending from this panorama it becomes clear we’re heading deep into these dunes. In vain we make an attempt to count how many ups and downs – not only so water consumption can be planned - but it feels more manageable this way.
As we enter, the sun reflects off the bright yellow sand and with the wind unable to penetrate the dips, we’ve climbed into an oven. It reached 54oC on one day when many succumbed to IV drips through heat exhaustion. Climbing up each dune, the feet sink into soft sand and fall lower, forcefully digging in toes seems to be the way forward. But how it’s worth it for those 5 seconds of downhill on the other side – free-running through the soft sand is quite simply an unparalleled running experience. Just so much fun.
The final stretch of the day always feels like the longest. Checking the watch every few hundred metres or so, the prospect of a rest and some shade is alluring. It’s almost too much to take. As with any checkpoint, despite the initial psychological boost of seeing the finish line in the distance, on balance, it’s probably better not to see one at all than for one to appear in the distance – and never seem to get any closer.
And then it all starts to take shape. The outline of the tents, initially appearing as the pointed peaks of mountains in the foreground, reveal themselves and the reassuring humming of the generators, often the very first sign of home, fills the ears. We regain that burst of pace from the start of the day to cross the finish line running. Always running. I knew I’d left something in the tank for this moment.