Marathon des Sables - Part 2

On your mark, get set, Go!

There’s something about a race that brings about a heightened sense of awareness, a clarity of moment one normally doesn’t possess. If I close my eyes and think back to those seven days in April I can remember every footfall, every twist and turn of the road ahead of me. Every conversation, every taste of every disgustingly uncooked camping meal and every smell (unfortunate since my tent held six other unwashed runners). The days before and after may eventually recede to a dull blur but those seven days are forever burnt into my memory.

Upon arriving at the bivouac we were given a block of numbers from which we were to select our tent for the remainder of our days in the desert. Tent 42 became my home. I selected it, or rather it selected me because it was one of the few tents that still had space. And upon seeing the Fleur de leis flag flapping outside I knew it had to be none other than my separatist québécois friends hidden in the shadows beneath the shelter.

As I entered I was greeted with big smiles all around. I dropped my packs, dug around inside one of them and then proceeded to unfurl my Canadian flag. “Ay, non, non, non”, René exclaimed. I think he was joking. They eyed me as I moved to fasten the flag below theirs. “Bon”, he nodded approvingly.

The next day was inspection day. We lined up and had our packs weighed (10kg) and our ECGs examined by one of the Doc Trotters, as the medical team was known. Somehow the name struck me as extremely funny, worthy of a few wisecracks at least. It became less funny though when I was afflicted with a miserable case of the “trots” later that evening.

I had brought some extra-strength Imodium with me but decided to pay a visit to the Doc Trotter tent. Maybe if I utter a few mea culpas about funning their name they may have something more effective for me to take. I was given some stopper-upper pills and some antipyretic medication to control a fever that was developing.

The pills didn’t seem to work very well as I got up three times during the night to commune with the desert. Like a shoalin warrior perfecting his martial moves this was a routine that I ended up practicing every few hours.

“Awa, awa, awa…”, the cry came closer and closer. It was 6 a.m. and the Beduoin breakdown crew was busy at work dismantling our shelters, often with still sleeping racers inside.

The morning air was cold and biting. We cooked and ate breakfast with our long shirts and tights on. Many stayed sitting upright in their sleeping bags. I ate some instant noodles and a pop tart.

We were given 5L of water the night before and I had only used up 2L. Not realizing that I would be penalized for not getting my ration of morning water I didn’t bother to pick up my 2 bottles.

I slowly gathered my gear, packed up my sleeping bag and Thermarest, emptied a pouch of GPush drink mix in my water bladder and filled it up. Slowly the sun rose and warmed the air.

The race starting chute had been erected the day before. The Canadian contingent gathered in front of the starting line and took turns snapping photos. Nine o’clock was fast approaching and we all stripped down to our racing clothes.

A crowd started forming behind the starting line and I walked amongst the other competitors feeling the music blaring from atop the race vehicle, feeling the sun warming up my legs and arms, listening to Patrick Bauer, the race director, wish us luck, waiting for the starting ceremony to end so that I could begin the race that consumed my life for the last 6 months.

To the euro-disco beat of "Castles in the sky", Patrick counted down from 10. Three, two, one, go! An air horn blasted its angry squeal amidst cheers and laughter. We were off.

Jesse and the Camera Dude

Ours was truly an international tent. Besides the four Canucks there was Tom from eastern U.S.A., Jeremy from Australia by way of Bordeaux, France, and Jesse (Ji Sung) from South Korea by way of Libya.

Jesse was our media superstar. To finance his entry into the race he had to sell his soul to the Camera Dude. Camera Dude worked for a television station in South Korea that was recording Jesse’s race, no, Jesse’s every living moment, for broadcast back home.

By association, the rest of us in the tent became bit-players in Jesse’s excellent adventure.

Here was the routine. At 6 a.m. every morning, Camera Dude shows up, crawls into our tent (forcing those lying near him aside) to film Jesse in his sleeping bag, Jesse waking up, Jesse building a fire out of twigs, Jesse cooking breakfast, eating breakfast, cleaning up, packing up, dressing, brushing his teeth, stretching, picking his nose, you get the idea.

Everywhere Jesse went, everything he did, the Camera Dude was sure to follow. Now you have to picture Jesse: fit, slim, running stud, being trailed everywhere by overweight, huffing, puffing, cigarette-smoking Camera Dude.

Such a scene unfolded about a kilometre into Stage 1. I had started slowly not sure how my stomach would behave. Helicopters buzzed us repeatedly, capturing footage of the mass start and then of the racers being strung out in a line. I caught up to Jesse at this point running rather slowly and being followed by Camera Dude in his truck, camera pointing out the window, cigarette in his mouth leaving a stream of smoke behind him. I nodded to them and continued on.

I’ve come up with a new medical term. You’ve all heard of the different physiological thresholds (anaerobic, lactate, aerobic etc.). Well, during this stage, my running never approached any one of those. I was, instead, experiencing my Imodium threshold. As soon as I exceeded it, I had to trot 20m or so off course, crouch in front of one of the few knee-high bushes for cover and fertilize it. Sometimes, though, there was nothing but rocky ground or sand in which case I mooned the racers trailing me.

The terrain was relatively flat to start. At one point we had to cross a running stream left over from a rare rainstorm the previous week. We had the wind at our backs, which definitely helped lighten our efforts. Without the ability to really give a good push-off I adjusted a bit, running more flatfooted than I’m used to.

Checkpoint 1 at roughly 10 km came quickly. I didn’t linger long, just time enough to refill my water bladder, down another pack of Cliff shot which I had been taking every hour and tried to catch up to those that kept their water bottles on their shoulder harnesses.

Checkpoint 2 came by at around 18 km. I stayed a little longer. My fever and stomach ailment the previous night had taken its toll. I didn’t have the energy to run continuously. We had also started turning into the wind, heading southward and eventually westward. I walked some, I ran some, and I tired much.

We were now all spread out. I could see sometimes one, sometimes two runners ahead. The same number behind. A couple of racers passed by, their concentration fixed at a point somewhere ahead of them.

Where is that finish banner? What will it look like? I think we were all wondering the same thing.

Finally, the white banner appeared in the distance. It grew ever so slowly; sometimes I’d lose sight of it in the undulating terrain when I dropped down into a valley.

I looked at my watch as I crossed: 3:11:59. A personal worst for 26km but I was happy. I had finished the first stage. I managed to run three-quarters of it. And best of all, my hip hadn’t complained one bit.

In my tent were the others save Tom and Jesse who would come in at close to 5 hours. What happened? “Camera Dude”, Jesse said shaking his head. “He said, ok, walk now. Ok, run now. Ok, walk again”. Just a day in the life of a media star.

Race photos:

Continue to Part 3