The Marathon des Sables
The taste of the hot, sweet Moroccan tea is nectar indeed. Handed out at the end of each stage, it’s the perfect little pick-me-up and significantly more appetising than the initially-cold-but-quickly-becoming-lukewarm water that’s consumed throughout the day. As it’s quickly gulped down, an ever-efficient support team member punches the final hole in our plastic race ticket to signify the day is over. Attention instantly shifts to the tent and the simple pleasure of that glorious shade – a more appealing goal throughout the day than the finish line itself.
With all forms of energy but the minimum required to hobble to the tent having been used up, but with the sun still high in the sky, every second in the shade counts. The feet are first to indicate an impending struggle as they begin to pulse, sensing the end of the day is nigh. The closest tent is always the most appealing port of call as they begin to ache and swell, but stopping even for a brief break here is ill advised as things can very quickly seize up. So instead, treading delicately as if making our way across a rocky beach we shuffle through camp. Rounds of applause build from tents around us from anyone with enough energy to do so. It’s a nice touch offered to all competitors upon their return and is typical of the level of camaraderie throughout the week.
Then after what seems like a stage in itself we finally reach the tent, desperate to see as many familiar faces as possible. This meant we had all made it through yet another stage. Hazel and I were lucky to have a great group for tent-mates, each with their own goal, but with most – like us - just looking to complete the race. Never first, nor last to return each day, we almost always settled in for the evening with a near full house; with seven out of eight of us completing the full 2017 edition of this race. Following the race and after a few beers, the eighth member of our tent informed us that he had already signed up for next year. He’s a braver man than I.
When finishing any endurance event – particularly one so tough on the feet - we always try to follow the same simple ritual: Shoes off, feet up, protein shake consumed and let gravity do its job on all that nasty painful lactic acid seeping from the soles of the feet. It’s also a great chance to reflect on the day past and an opportunity to plan for the next.
As we sit around, there is giddiness. Everyone is happy at passing this latest challenge and there is reward reaped in the knowledge that each has learned a little bit more about themselves; gaining an extra ounce of confidence as to how far we can push our bodies and minds. It’s just another day closer to realising how determined and strong we can be. And because of this and the short term nature of physical pain versus the fond memories that remain, we'll all likely sign up for something even tougher as soon as we return home.
When it’s all over we’ll miss the new sights and smells that those ten days has provided, although a return to the relative greenery of Northern Morocco will be a welcome change for the senses. The sunrises which give life to this often-barren desert are rarely matched and are truly a wonder to behold, although we won't miss the insatiable heat (over 50C) that they produce. We’ll certainly miss the simplicity of self sufficiency during our short-term nomadic life, but not the coming face to face with a snake during the night, and we’ll miss the sounds of the variety of languages – with an incredible 52 nationalities represented this year.
And as with so many of these large gathering type of events, it’s the people from all over the world that make it special. Whether it’s double amputee Duncan Slater, blind participant Didier Benguigu, or Kevin Webber, who ran with terminal prostate cancer, we each have our own indomitable reason for tackling a personal challenge.
Quite often these people are wholly unaware of the positive impact each of their individual actions has on other competitors. It can be completely life changing to everyone else.
And then, just as the day started, it ends with the gentle hum of generators, the scrunching of plastic water bottles and the intermittent sound of snoring from exhausted but very satisfied competitors.