Marathon des Sables - Part 4

Rock the Kasbah

When the going gets tough, the tough gets Pop Tarts

“How are you feeling today?” Sylvain, our Canadian race coordinator, asked as I crawled out of the tent on the third morning.

Half expecting me to reply, “Like shit!” as I had the previous two mornings, he grinned when I answered, “Feels better”.

“Good. Oh, you finished 338th yesterday.”

Whoa, almost half the racers had a worst day than I did. Unbelievable!

The morning was still cool as I stretched lightly and performed a systems check. My fever had finally run its course. My body didn’t ache anymore and my intestinal cramps were diminishing. Was I really, finally getting better? I don’t know. Mentally, I was very tired from both fighting the illness and the conditions we’ve had so far. But I remember thinking as I laid in my sleeping bag, listening to the rustling of the awakening camp, that I was in fact having a great time despite it all, and wishing that the end wouldn’t come as quickly as it inevitably will.

I was surrounded by new friends; I was experiencing a part of the world I had only read about; I was pushing my body in a direction it had never gone before. Above and beyond that I was in a place that reminded me of a journey I took twelve years ago when I spent five months in Yemen. And I’ve always felt at home in the natural places of the world.

My morning meal of Ramen instant noodles had left my stomach feeling bloated at the start of the last two stages. I decided to try something different today and pulled out a Pop Tart. The first two days so far hadn’t been easy and there was still five more to go. I needed a change now and it was going to start with the Pop Tart.

I picked up my pack to walk to the starting line. It was soaked, and the ground beneath was wet. I opened the pack and pulled out the water bladder. It looked like the weight of the contents had loosened the zip lock enough for the GPush flavoured water to leak out. About two-thirds of the 3L bladder had emptied. I rezipped the bladder and hesitantly put the pack on, feeling the wetness stick to my shirt and feeling the sugar water trickle down my legs. I remembered to pull my hip belt tighter to ease the strain on my shoulders.

Like a scene from Groundhog Day, the wind started up again as we crossed the start banner to begin our 31km stage.

But unlike the movie, right from the first step I felt different. There was lightness to my step and a quicker turnover to my legs. At first I thought it was just fresh legs, that after a kilometre or two I’d be back down to earth and struggling to keep up with the Rhino. One km turned into two and I wasn’t slowing down. If anything I was picking up the pace. It was like I had the proverbial piano lifted off my back, no, the piano and the orchestra, tossed into the desert wind and I was flying.

I had started near the back and began to pass the other runners in packs. I first passed Maurice from Team Merrell-Rona. “Maurice!” I called out. “Hey, allez, allez!” he shouted as I went by. I smiled back, “Vous aussi!”

Next I caught Jeremy between checkpoints 1 and 2. I haven’t seen any of my tent-mates the last two days until I got back to the bivouac. Jeremy’s story is an interesting one. He came to the race by way of Bordeaux, France where he worked as a manager of a vineyard. Originally from Australia he travelled and found himself on the doorstep of a winery. Speaking next to no French, but full of personality, he somehow managed to persuade the owners to let him manage the day-to-day operations of the vineyard. Possessing a quiet speaking voice but a quick wit, right from the start he and I got on well.

“Ed, where’d you come from?” he laughed as I pulled alongside. “Feeling good today, mate?” I said.
“Not me, I’ve got leg cramps.”
“Try these.” I pulled out some Succeed salt tablets.
“Thanks, but I’ll try to manage it.”
“Ok, take it easy. See you back.”

I couldn’t believe what I saw next. Trees. Palm trees. Next to a dirt road that we ran on until we were in sight of a Kasbah at 17km. As I got closer to the entrance of Mhâmid el Rhozlane, it looked like teachers had taken the class out to cheer us on. “Waaaaoooooh, merci”, I shouted as I went by, slapping hands, saying bonjour to those who made eye contact.

The passage inside the Kasbah was narrow, walled on both sides, with occasionally, people standing by doorways watching us silently. At one point, a shepherd herded a flock of sheep into the same alleyway that we ran through. I slowed, let out a few Baaaas, duly answered by the sheep and squeezed by. Out the other side of the Kasbah I could still hear others laughing and shouting inside.

I ran through irrigated fields and welcomed the relief from the wind in this sheltered area.

Checkpoint 2 came at 21km. I was very thirsty now, the water that had leaked out coming back to haunt me. I pressed on, only 10km left. I could wait to rehydrate properly back at the bivouac.

Back out into the open, the wind started to pick up. Ahead, I could see René of Team Merrell-Rona. René is a steamroller. He has one pace but it never falters no matter the condition. I slowly gained on him over the next kilometre.

“René”, I called out.

Men of few words.

He handed me a water bottle that he had been carrying and pointed to his backpack. Obligingly, I stuffed it into an outer pocket. Littering is not allowed in this race. Way to go organizers.

We ran side by side for a kilometre before I pulled ahead. Now the wind really picked up. Sand started to blow from our left side and from in front. Within 15 minutes it was almost as bad as the day before. I slowed; the finish banner was within sight but I could not even think of kicking it to the finish. With 800m left I slowed to a walk. Mr. Steamroller came running by. I laughed and shook my head. All right René!

We were lucky. The wind blew even stronger once René and I got back to our tent. We lay down for a bit and watched the sand pile up all around us. One by one the other racers staggered in exhausted. This has got to be the worst I thought. It can’t get worst than this. How wrong I was.

Race photos:

Continue to Part 5