Marathon des Sables - Part 6

What, just a marathon?

All through the night the wind blew. Grain after grain of salt and sand threatened to bury us like some long lost civilization.

Even the discarded cardboard packaging we had scavenged while picking up our water and placed up against the tent’s windward facing wall provided little relief. I wondered what future archaeologists would think if they excavated us a thousand years from now.

“Appears to be a nomadic tribe living under primitive conditions who worshiped a goddess named Nike. They seem to have an extreme fetish for footwear.”

The couple of times I awoke to go “out back”, I had to brush off the mound that had formed on my sleeping bag and with my eyes closed, felt my way around to a spot.

Back in my sleeping bag and waiting for the good sleep to push back my consciousness once more, my intestines were going through some sort of frenzied peristalsis. I could feel the undulating wave of motion work it’s way from top to bottom, and finding little nutrient, doing it over and over again.

I slept past my normal waking hour, savouring the opportunity to be still. I tried opening my eyes to see if I could. Immediately, I had to shut them again when the wind caused too much pain.

I had a decision to make: to run or not to run. In my current condition, essentially blind, there was no choice. I would definitely have dropped out. But today was a day to rest and to heal. Tomorrow, if I could open my eyes, if there wasn’t any wind, I would run.

Sometime in the late morning Jesse found his way to our tent and crawled in, swearing to himself, “Never again, never again”.

What happened, we all wondered.

“The Camera dude. He followed me to checkpoint 5. It was late at night and he didn’t have any food or a sleeping bag with him. So I had to give him some food. And I had to share my sleeping bag with him.”

We all made faces, shook our heads and agreed that that was a truly disgusting moment.

“It’s not worth it,” Jesse continued, “Never again will I get sponsored by a television station!”

A considerable amount of people was slowly journeying into the bivouac as the day wore on. The wind kept up its intensity and the bivouac was mostly quiet except for the sound of flapping tents and occasional cheers as another racer made it across the line.

I slept as much as I could or chatted with the others during the course of the day. Mealtime came and went and soon night fell once again.

          * * *

“Awa, awa, awa,” the sound of the Bedouins approaching hastened my emergence from my sleeping bag.

The air was still, the sky was blue and everything appeared to have the soft, unfocused glow of looking through a Vaseline-covered lens. Oh good, I thought, I’m living in a soft-porn movie.

I put on my glasses. No difference what so ever; the world appeared fuzzy. My prescription, for those versed in ophthalmology, requires a –3.75 dioptre lens. In other words, I can see you clearly if you stand a foot in front of my face. Take a step back and the blurriness begins.

But there was no wind and I could keep my eyes open. The race was on!

Today, we were to truly run a marathon, 42.2km! We all joked that it was a going to be a piece of cake after the past 5 days.

By the time we started, when the winds had usually picked up in the previous stages, it was noticeably absent. Everyone was energized by the brilliance of the sun and by the rest from the previous day.

I ran hesitantly at first, still a little nervous. If the wind were to come back, my day was over. I prayed that we had seen the last of it.

We headed west running alongside or in the groove of the tracks made by the vehicles advancing ahead to our finish line.

Small dunes appeared followed by bigger ones at around 5km. Afterwards we followed a wadi, El Mdâouer, with trees on our right all the way to checkpoint 1 at 11km.

I was playing tag with Maurice and Jeremy. I had passed them at around 8km and at the checkpoint, they caught up and went ahead as I filled my water bladder. A short way down the wadi I passed them again.

I was feeling very good. My pack now only weighed 3 or 4 kg, most of my food having been consumed. My legs felt no hint of having finished 71km only two day before.

I could see runners ahead of me and in the distance, softly outlined jostling shapes that I could follow. I was now passing many people and quickly moving through the phalanx of runners.

As I passed a French runner he asked about my shoes. “How do you like running in them in this race?”

“They’ve been great. I’m used to them and haven’t had a problem.”

“I wear those shoes as well,” he said, “Except my friends convinced me to bring trail shoes. Now my feet hurt and the shoes are heavy. I wished I had brought my New Balance.”

The race is one of attrition between those with well-kept feet and those whose shoes have failed to protect them. Most people had brought shoes up to one and a half size bigger to accommodate the swelling that happens during the race.

My feet are flat. Swelling wasn’t going to be a problem for me so I gambled by bringing my usual runners. Two weeks prior to the race I had also prepared my feet by rubbing them with Betadine, a solution that I’ve been told helped to toughen the skin. My gamble and preparation combined with my toe taping seemed to have paid off. Save for a very small blister my feet were healthy.

And today I was running faster than I had run all week.

Here and there, I passed small clumps of vegetation. They dotted the landscape. Looking to my left I could see mesas similar to those I’ve climbed near Sedona.

At 21km a plateau appeared and the path to checkpoint 2 swung upwards. I quickly got my water and dashed off. The plateau continued for another 6km and descending, the ground was uneven with large rocks that we had to be careful not to step on least we twist our ankles. There was little space between the rocks so I slowed to better aim my feet.

Trees were starting to appear with larger types of vegetation. It felt good to be running through some greenery. I ran with five others for a couple of kilometres then moved ahead looking for the next person to catch.

I looked at my watch. I was running a 4h30 marathon pace and maybe better if I could push it. I sped up and continue to pass runners although they appeared less frequently and in smaller numbers now.

Back onto another wadi with tall, thin trees surrounding us I heard a runner catching up to me. The ground was gently rolling at this point and the wind had started to blow at about 10km/hr. I was waiting for him to pass but he never did. Instead he tucked behind me.

Normally, I wouldn’t mind but it shortly became clear that he wasn’t going to share the drafting duties. My competitive instincts were awakened. It became a race.

I sped up hoping to shake him off my back. He kept pace. I tried to move over to one side, a strong hint that I really didn’t want him to be drafting off of me. He followed.

It continued that way until the finish banner was within sight. We passed about five more runners. I could make out the colours of Team Merrell-Rona about 100m ahead of me but couldn’t see enough details to know whom it was. I later found out that it was Serge who did phenomenally well in the last two stages.

I tried one last rush to the finish with about 800m to go. At 400m the leech pulled out from behind and out kicked me to the finish. I crossed the banner in 4:27:22 in 92nd place.

Catching my breath in the line up for water I thanked him for pushing me. The day had been amazing, the most amazing being that I could actually run because the winds had mostly subsided.

I had started the day worried about continuing, about the effect that running would have on my eyesight, about being able to run without seeing clearly. But once I began, my worries disintegrated, reborn into a celebration of running, of blood flowing through veins, of muscles firing in unison to push and then to push harder as the race unfolded, of the joy of being in a space that allowed me to do these things.

But the truly best part of the day? That was when the Coca-cola truck came by and we were able to drink a nice cold one.

Race photos:

Continue to Part 7