Marathon des Sables - Part 5

A hard day's night

“We’ve never had conditions like this,” Race Director, Patrick Bauer said from atop his Land Rover. “Never in the previous 16 years have we had 3 straight days of wind storms!”

“Other years we’ve had hot weather and maybe more people dropping out because of dehydration and heat-related problems. But we’ve never had 3 days of unrelenting wind. Today, they are forecasting more wind.” Groans all around.

“This year we’re using a new technology to help you traverse the dunes. Some of you will be crossing the large dunes when night falls. We have a laser, that we will turn on and beam over the dunes. Look for the light and follow it if you are running through the large dunes at night.”

The geek in me was thoroughly impressed. Although if I saw a light at that point, I wouldn’t be sure if it was the laser or a near-death experience.

The previous afternoon as I sat in front of a computer composing an email reply to one of my fellow SOBER DRS’ers (whose enthusiasm and support throughout the race helped more than you will know. Thanks gang!) Trent, the Calgary Herald reporter, popped his head into the email tent.

“Ed, been looking for you. Heard you had a great run today!”

“Yeah, it was all right.”

“Mind if I ask you some questions for my next article?”

I nodded.

“So, how do you account for the 136th place finish? That’s a huge improvement over your previous results.”

“No more diarrhoea.” I replied. The others in the tent laughed.

“Uhmmm, I can’t print that…”

“Print whatever you like. That’s what happened.” I smiled.

We sat about on the ground or on our mats eating breakfast on the fourth morning. The tents had long ago been dismantled by the Bedouins and tossed onto the truck to be transported to the next location, our finish line for the day.

I carefully retaped each of my toes to prevent blisters. Maurice’s feet were already bloodied and blistered. He had been to the medical tent to get them bandaged. Those new Merrell shoes had rubbed them raw.

I felt around my lower back. Ouch. The rubbing from the bottom of the pack had caused a rash. It was red, swollen and painful to the touch. I unwound some duct tape from my water bottle and had Jeremy carefully press it onto the rash. Good to go.

“Ed,” René held up my plastic bowl that I had stopped using because a film of sand always seemed to be coating it.

“Poubelle,” I said. My tent-mates chuckled as he threw it in the garbage bag. More and more of our gear ended up there as we prepared for the longest stage: a 71km suffer fest with over 20km of giant dunes, up to 60m in height, coming 35km into the course. Patrick Bauer had called it the toughest stage in the history of the Marathon des Sables. Like we needed to know that beforehand.

The sun shone bright. The wind blew straight into our faces and 522 runner lined up at the starting line. It looked to be an epic day.

To mix things up a bit, the top 50 runners would start 3 hours after the main group. This speedy group, Patrick decided, would include Algerian, Salameh Al Aqra, and Moroccan, Mustafa Ait Amar, the 3rd and 4th place runners from the first stage who had gotten lost for 5 hours (or misled on purpose by Mustafa to ruin any chances for the Algerian to win, so the rumours went) during the second stage “because obviously they belong with the fast group”.

I started cautiously. It was going to a long day, or days. I couldn’t be sure. The organizers had given us two days to complete this stage.

The ever-present wind blew harder earlier. The pack quickly spread out and I found myself alone for stretches at a time. The footing was tricky with bands of sand running in the direction we were heading.

After that we skirted on the edge of small dunes. I was happy not to have to traverse them today. It took all my effort to keep up a decent pace with the headwind blowing upwards of 50km/hr.

A dry, salty riverbed appeared at 6km. The earth was cracked in the familiar pentagonal forms. My lips were salty when I licked them. I had pulled my Buff way up over my mouth and nose and kept my head angled downwards to keep the debris off my face.

Rolling hills covered with rather large rocks came next. I had to dance over them with each step to keep from twisting my feet. Finally the first checkpoint appeared at 11km.

I grabbed some water, refilled my water bladder and ran off. This wasn’t the day to stay too long at the water stations.

I caught up to a large pack of runners, maybe 20 in total. I tucked in behind the last runners. What a relief to be out of the force of the relentless wind. Like the peleton in a cycling race we stayed together, bodies shifting position, some moving to the front while others slid back, a multicellular organism of finely choreographed movements.

There was a Danish team all in red. The Spaniards with their flag flapping in the wind. French runners and a couple of Brits. Men and women. Sometimes we’d chat; mostly we focused on running. All were happy to be working together to make better progress before the large dunes.

I took my turn at the front. Surprisingly, I felt quite good and spent longer periods of time breaking the wind.

We stayed together past checkpoint 2 at 23km. Sometimes we’d pick up more people as we passed them. Other times we’d lose people who couldn’t keep the pace.

At 26km I felt the peleton was slowing. People were naturally tiring or saving strength for the toughest part of the race yet to come. I glanced behind me and found that I had left the group behind.

About 6km farther on I noticed some white sticks glistening in the sun. A skeleton rose out of the sand, luckily not human but camel. Its bones were bleached white. I paused a moment to take in the bizarre scene. A couple of runners posed beside it for some photos and then they were gone.

Continuing on, I crossed another dry lakebed, this one stretching for almost 3km. On the other side was checkpoint 3. I had run 36km, halfway there.

Mary, the US race coordinator was at the checkpoint and asked how I felt. We had corresponded in the months before the race so she knew me. Good, I’m feeling strong, I told her. She suggested that I get under the tent out of the wind. I sat under the coffee burlap tarp and took my time refilling my water supply and getting some energy bars into my stomach.

After about 10 minutes I stood up and peered into the distance. Ahead of me for as far as I could see were wave upon wave of yellow dunes, towering over my head. At the tops of the dunes, sand swirled about looking like wisps of smoke rising into the air. The dunes of Erg Mhâzil.

I saw Jesse just as I was leaving the checkpoint so we ran together for a kilometre or two. Everyone has their own rhythm and technique for running dunes. I like to do a fast climb up the face followed by a freefall down the lee. Others run up followed by a slower descent.

Eventually we separate, runners stringing out behind one another, some still in small groups, some alone. In some spots we have to go single file following the route that required the least amount of climbing and energy even if that meant we ran along the tops of the dune angling away from the ideal straight line of the compass bearing.

It was hot in these dunes. The taller dunes acted like a wall sheltering us from the full force of the now raging 50km/hr wind. It isn’t until we approach the apex of a dune do we get blown back by a mighty jet of air and sand.

We all struggled as best as we could during these moments. It is impossible to run until we can descend a bit and be relatively sheltered once again.

I found a good rhythm and stayed relaxed. Up, down, up, down. The dunes were unrelentless in their regularity but my legs loved the cadence and I made solid progress.

It is beautiful in here I found myself thinking. There is an uncomplicated beauty in running into the unknown, across a vast expanse of continually shifting sands, each step being erased soon after it is made. It’s as if you were never there and the desert doesn’t care. Your mind empties of most thoughts and distractions because the task at hand is to meditate on the grain of sand in front of you, and the next, and the next.

You never see any real progress. From dune top to dune top the view ahead always looked the same reaching to the horizon. At times I could believe that the dunes of Erg Mhâzil never ended and that only by its good graces would I be released and be able to step out on the other side.

The only landmark appeared up ahead. It was checkpoint 4. I was halfway through the dunes. I sat down with my back to the wind because the only shelter there was full of runners. I checked a hot spot under my left foot. A blistered appeared to be forming so I took out a Band-Aid second skin pad and slapped it on. I heard a voice louder than the rest, looked up and saw Monica.

Monica Fernandez from Guatemala, currently residing in the US, is a multisport stud. Two-time winner of the Ultraman triathlon and finisher of numerous Ironmans she is a bronze goddess, and not just in my then zonked out state of mind. Overheard by the hotel pool after the race, one guy lounging on a deck chair says to another, “I know I’m gay and all but she is sure turning me on!”

Monica was telling her running mates to hurry up and get going again. A few minutes later they all left. After a water refill I continued on before my legs decided to stiffen up.

The dunes on the other side of the checkpoint were the same. Seemingly unending, and unyielding until you took a step and slid down half of it. A short distance away from the checkpoint I heard the thwack-thwack-thwack of a helicopter. OK, here he comes, I thought.

The he is Mohamed Ahansal, winner of many previous Marathon des Sables races. The thwacking comes closer over the next kilometre until the sand around me is stirred up by the rotor blades. I glanced behind me and Mohamed was gliding (that’s the only word I can think of to describe it) closer. His feet barely touched the sand before it lifted again as he floated across the dunes. He runs up and down them without slowing. It is a sight to behold.

Mohamed passed me like I was standing still and I cheered him on. Soon he was gone. Over the next 10km a few more desert kangaroos run by but fewer that I would have expected.

At last the dunes began to look less towering and less imposing as I came upon a relatively flat plain. There were a trio of runners ahead and I headed in their direction thinking that I was still following the compass bearing that had gotten me almost to the end of the large dunes. We crested a few smaller dunes before they stopped and I caught up to them.

“Hi there, how’s it going?” I asked.

“We don’t know if we’re going in the right direction,” one of them said.

It was the goddess Monica.

“There aren’t any more footprints that we can make out.”

Oh, you mean you weren’t following a compass heading, I thought. I took out my Road Book and reread the instructions. There was no indication of a change in bearing through to the end of the course.

I took a heading of 274 degrees with my compass and looked behind me. I couldn’t spot where we had come from. Every dune looked the same and the wind had also erased our tracks. We couldn’t be too far off the correct line so I suggested that we just proceed onwards in the direction my compass pointed to.

Weren’t you using your compasses I asked? No, was the reply, our compasses don’t actually work very well. One of the guys pulled one out. It looked like a toy out of a Cracker Jack box.

We set off going as straight as we could. The wind was still ferocious in its intensity except now that the bigger dunes were gone so we had lost much of our shelter. The sun was ebbing slowly towards the horizon. Soon it would be dark. Darkness, tiredness, lost in the desert. I ran through our options. No, we can’t get lost. We’re all very tired, growing slower, and getting lower in energy. If this wind carried on through the night, getting lost would be put us in a very dangerous situation.

We ran slower making sure that when we skirted around dunes that we ended up at the right mark on the other side. Pretty soon more runners caught up with us. Eventually our group size reach about 10.

One of the runners was Angus Cowan from Canada. Once when I looked down at my compass he remarked, “Say, do you do adventure races?”

“Yeah, I do,” I replied, wondering why he was asking.

“Were you in the Raid the North?”

“Ah, yeah, a few times. You do them too?”

“Yes, and when you just looked at your compass I thought you looked familiar and I just thought ‘Raid the North’,” he said.

Wow, and I though that I had a good memory. We chatted a bit more as our group ran on, trying to beat the setting sun to checkpoint 5.

I looked about for distinguishing features that could help me place us on the map. There weren’t any. The landscaped looked the same in every direction. Once I thought I heard voices in the distance off to our left.

Dusk arrived and we had only a few more minutes of sunlight to spare. I dug into my pack for my headlamp and put it on. Ten headlamps in the desert marching off into the sunset. It made for a great scene.

“Why are you stopping?” Monica asked about 20 minutes later. I stared down on the ground.

“Look, we’ve hit a dried lake bed,” I replied. “According to the map, checkpoint 5 is at the edge of the first lake bed after the big dunes. If we follow the edge we should hit the checkpoint. Question is, do we go left or right? I’m thinking left.” I remembered those voices I heard.

After a few minutes of debate we all agreed to go left. It was pitch- black out except for our headlamps lighting the way. Footing was still tricky since we were at the edge of the dunes. Suddenly we saw a bright light flashing ahead and quickly approaching us. The sound of the Rover was the best thing I heard all day.

“Yeah, keep going. You’re almost at the checkpoint,” someone in the truck said.

We picked up the pace and within a minute saw the tent that was checkpoint 5.

Much relieved we all sat under the tent and went about preparing for the final leg to the finish that was still 13km away. Many of us tried to clean out our eyes, caked as they were with sand and grit from the day.

“Hey, do it like this,” Monica said demonstrating her newfound technique of pressing the opening of a bottle of water against her opened eye and upending the bottle while tilting her head backwards. I couldn’t help laughing.

Some racers were ready to call it a night, getting out their sleeping bags and using checkpoint 5 as their shelter. There was no doubt in my mind about continuing on so I stepped back out into the night, with the wind actually blowing stronger than it had been during the day.

The organizers had given us glow sticks that we each affixed onto our packs. They had also marked the path to the finish line with glow sticks placed every 400m or so but they were difficult to make out with all the sand, dirt and salt being blown about.

Every night so far the wind had died down, giving us a reprieve until the next morning. Not tonight.

I felt tired now. It was an effort to run and to put one foot in front of the other. Monica and her two running companions made good speed and were out of sight within a couple of kilometres. I sometimes ran alone, sometimes with one or two others as our paces changed with the ebb and flow of the wind and with the battle within ourselves.

After about 4km I found that everything had gone blurry. I had to keep blinking because it felt like a particle had lodged itself in my right eye. I tried to brush it out with my fingers but it didn’t work. Everyone part of my skin that was exposed to the elements was grimy and had a film of sand on it.

I could feel the sand and dirt caking up in my eyelashes again. Washing them would be no use because they would cake up again in an instant.

With every kilometre the wind picked up in strength. A couple of times I had to step around or over a racer who given up fighting the wind and had crawled into their sleeping bag.

So close, I couldn’t stop. All I thought about was the finish line and my tent and how wonderful it would finally feel to sleep beneath her coffee-coloured awnings once again.

Except now my eyesight was growing worst. I couldn’t make out the glow sticks at a distance anymore so I tried to run as straight as I could until I got close enough to see the next one, but it was extremely difficult to do with the wind battering me about.

I could faintly make out the glow stick of a racer ahead. I had to follow that stick. More importantly I couldn’t lose sight of that glow stick.

I trained my now very blurry sights on the racer ahead. I was exhausted but couldn’t slow down. A few times I lost him in the thickness of the blowing sand. After what felt like an hour I saw the soft glow of the bivouac in the distance. The lights of six trucks illuminated the white finish banner.

I stomped across the finish in a time of 12:56 in 191st place. What a day. What a night.

And in my tent were the Rona boys and Jeremy. I dropped my pack and stumbled around the bivouac looking for the Doc Trotter tent. My eyes were almost caked shut with dirt and there was definitely something wrong with my right eye. I couldn’t focus on anything far away or close by.

The tent resembled a M*A*S*H unit from the Korean War, racers were standing or laying about everywhere. After a short wait I was laid down on my back while a medic cleaned up my eyes.

Every time he squirted water into my right eye I felt a sting pulsing through it. Excruciating would be an understatement.

“Looks like you have a scratch in your cornea,” he said.

“Can you do anything for it?” I asked.

“No, it will heal by itself. Just keep it clean. I can put a patch on if you’d like.”

“Umm no, I can’t see out of my left one so I’ll need to use it good or bad.”

I walked slowly back to my tent. I ate what I could; my appetite was made very small from the hard day that had just ended. I kept my eyes closed whenever I could. Any bit of wind hitting my right eye caused a lot of pain. With the gale still howling outside I enjoyed a very good night’s sleep.

Race photos:

Continue to Part 6