At one point in my life I participated in an event that could only be described as extreme. The Marathon des Sables is an ultramarathon stage race that takes place each April in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Participants in the race are required to carry all of the food and supplies they'll need in a backpack. You can find out more about the Marathon des Sables (MDS), and my motivations for doing it here. What follows is an account of my participation in the 2016 Marathon des Sables, which was the 31st version of the race. Everything in this story really happened.
Since returning home from the MDS I've only told a few people about my real experience about running in the desert. The truth is that my experience was much more dire, and circumstances dramatic than I've led on. You may think that after reading this account I regretted my experience running the MDS, but that isn't true. I'm immensely proud to have gotten through it, and I don't regret participating at all. Like all rewarding journeys there are both peaks and valleys to traverse. In my case during the 2016 MDS, those peaks and valleys included quite a bit of sand.
Out of the Frying pan and Into the Fire
Flying to Morocco from Utah isn't easy. It requires layovers, changing planes, and many hours spent in airports. What made travel all the more inconvenient was the fact that I was carrying everything I needed to participate in the Marathon des Sables, the ultramarathon stage race that takes place in the Sahara Desert. The Marathon des Sables is considered by many to be the most difficult footrace on earth. My bag was full of freeze-dried food, clothing, and medical supplies. It wasn't until I boarded my flight from Madrid to Marrakesh that I spotted a few other people who were also competing in the MDS. The bags that they were packing (similar to mine) were a dead giveaway.
Despite the fact that I was getting closer to the daunting event, I wasn't nervous, more optimistic about my chances. I landed in Marrakesh where I met yet more runners. The MDS attracts quite a diverse crowd. There were over 1,100 people who signed up for the 2016 MDS from 40 different countries. Most of the participants are French or English, however Africa and Asia were also well represented. I was one of only a handful of Americans who were taking on the MDS. Most of the runners in the MDS have different reasons for doing it. Many were adventurous travel-types, others were ultra-athletes who relished extreme physical competition and being pushed to their limits. I've already expressed my reasons. Regardless of the reasons, everyone who signs up for the MDS wants to finish. The race is both expensive and time-consuming. Not finishing can be demoralizing to those who spend most of the year and supplemental income on training and transportation. Traditionally a quarter of the participants in the MDS fail to finish. The 2016 version was both the longest and sandiest in the history of the competition. With the runners I met in Marrakesh, we all traveled together to a city in the High Atlas Mountains called Ouarzazate, which is the closest city to the start of the race, and about 3-4 hours from the intimidating yet serene dunes of the Sahara Desert.
Arriving in the Sahara
Ouarzazate, Morocco is a city straight out of a movie set. In fact many of the most famous movies shot within desert landscapes (Laurence of Arabia, Gladiator, The Mummy, etc), were filmed in Ouarzazate. The itinerary called for a night of calm, where all of the racers would get settled in to their hotels making any last minute additions to their race kits. We also received our road books, which are detailed guides of the race for each stage with information detailing the distance and terrain. All of the runners gathering together in Ouarzazate felt like a scene in a dystopian science fiction movie. Think The Running Man meets The Hunger Games. I don't think any of us, outside of the runners that had already participated in the race, knew what to expect or just how brutal the next week would be.
By the time I went to sleep that night in Ouarzazate, I was getting antsy. There was nothing left to do but sit and think. With the benefit of hindsight, I probably should have appreciated the amenities of which I had access at the time. This was the last bed I would sleep in, and the last shower I would take for the next 10 days.
After boarding a bus from the hotel, all of the runners started the trip from Ouarzazate to the Sahara. It was about a 3 hour drive straight into the teeth of the most famous desert in the world. Due to the harsh terrain, the buses couldn't take us all the way into the first bivouac. Racers were forced to walk the last few hundred meters to officially enter the bivouac, and start the check-in process. Even though I had arrived at the start of the race, the competition still wouldn't begin for another day and a half. This gave all of us more time to think about the event that we were about to take on. As soon as I stepped foot off the bus the heat hit me like a brick to the face. The temperature change, even from Ouarzazate, was noticeable. This is the world that we were now in. Temperatures each day would regularly exceed 105 degrees Fahrenheit with the hottest days surpassing 110. Shortly after arriving in the Sahara Desert, all racers are assigned a tent and race number. This is where you meet the rest of the runners with whom you'll be sharing your tent for the duration of the race. Usually the tent number corresponds with your nationality, which means that you will likely spend the majority of the race with fellow countrymen, however I had an international tent, which I really enjoyed. In my tent there was a racer from Ireland, Morocco, and Colombia, along with a two other Americans.
2016 Marathon Des Sables
A Rock for My Bed
To put in mildly, accommodations in the bivouacs are basic, and by basic I mean non-existent. There were seven runners to a tent, and we were packed in pretty tight. Any comforts that were desired for a pleasant sleep had to be brought and carried on my back for the entire race. In terms of how my pack compared to the other racers, I was on the lighter side. The heaviest items in my bag were my meals. All runners are required to have a minimum caloric requirement. I remember having a few energy bars in my bag that were no bigger than the average sized candy bar, yet it totaled nearly 1,000 calories. A person would be crazy to eat this bar anywhere else but in the MDS. In this race calories were currency, if you go broke, then you're out of the race, and likely going to the hospital once you make it out of the desert.
On the eve of the first stage, all of the runners enjoyed a large dinner provided by the race organizers. It was to be the last resource provided by MDS staffers. After this meal the runners would be on their own for food, clothing, and medical needs. Outside of rationed water and blister care, the runners would have to take care of themselves. The goal was simple, traverse 160 miles over 6 stages in the most inhospitable climate/terrain in the world. All this needed to be done before generous cut off times led by two camels. If any racers saw the camels coming, it likely meant the end of their MDS experience. It was at this point that a nervous energy overtook the entire bivouac. The waiting was nearly over. The equipment checks were done, and on the morrow 1,108 racers would come face-to-face with the toughest footrace on earth. For my part my irrational confidence hadn't really waned, but I was getting restless. As odd as it seems sleeping would rival running as the most challenging part of the event. In the Sahara temperatures would often dip into the low 40 degree range. Aside from the cold, the wind would throw sand everywhere. It took some getting used to, but by the start of the race I was accustomed to the layer of sand. It would it get worse once it was fused with sweat.
After the meal the racers are on their own for the entire week. Participants can use only what they can carry in their pack. It has to last them 159 miles in the desert, if not they fail. Jay Batchen is one of the Americans who had previously completed the MDS numerous times. He was also the person who organized the small group of American runners. He provided some important advice in preparation for the first stage. I'm paraphrasing a bit but the advice he offered was something like this:
"Just remember that this is the first of six stages. Don't kill yourself. It's smart to walk. There are a lot of miles to go. You'll be tempted to run quickly, which is a bad idea. Go slow and just make it through the first stage and you'll be glad you did."
These were pearls of wisdom. Unfortunately heeding this advice proved harder than I thought.
Baptism by Fire
Stage 1: 21.1 miles
All of the runners gathered near the starting line for the start of stage 1. We were miles into the Sahara Desert. Our camp was adjacent to a popular tourist area called Merzouga. In what would become a tradition before each of the stages, the race organizer, Patrick Bauer, a jolly and eccentric French man, would stand atop a pickup truck and shout instructions about the stage and pertinent information for the runners to know. After his speech the race would blast AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell', another MDS tradition. Then there was the countdown, '5..4..3..2..1..GO!'.
As the race officially began, I quickly forgot Jay's advice to take it slow. Caught up in the spectacle of the race, with helicopters flying above us, I started to run. Stage 1 was a beautiful yet brutal test. After 3km of running on hard sand pack, the race would jump right in to some of the most famous and large sand dunes in the world, Erg Chebbi. If you've seen a movie in the desert with large and impressive dunes that look more like mountains than hills, it's likely the film was shot at Erg Chebbi. They were pretty to look at, but hellish to climb, and the race was spending roughly the next 10 miles here. Running in sand dunes is miserable, your foot sinks into the sand and it difficult to keep your momentum going. It's hard to go anywhere without a lot of effort. MDS veterans have a unique method that gets them through the sand more efficiently. They almost go sideways up the dune to use less energy. Speaking of energy, it was quickly getting zapped by continually going up and down the dunes, and the unrelenting heat. Race organizers would go on to say that stage 1 of the 2016 MDS was one of the most difficult in the race's history.
"They were pretty to look at, but hellish to climb. Now there were 10 miles of them to cross."
I continued to power through the stage, finally leaving the sand dunes and making it to the first checkpoint. Checkpoints are the only areas to collect precious water during the race. I had tried to run through the entire stage, hoping that I could get out of the heat quicker. Before the end of the stage I was seeing what a mistake this was, by the end of the stage I was utterly exhausted. What compounded the issue was that the first stage ended with another series of smaller dunes and a sandstorm. After fighting through cramps and near heat exhaustion, I dragged myself to the finish line of stage 1 utterly drained. The finish line was still a good 200 meters from the runner camp bivouac, and I was too tired to find out where my tent was, so I just collapsed under the first tent in my direction. I stayed there for about 45 minutes to an hour. Flat on my back. I was totally still. I couldn't move, if I tried my whole body would spasm due to cramping. Even the most subtle movement would send every muscle in my body in to a cramp. I've had muscle cramps before, but never this severe. It was some of the worst pain I'd ever felt, and I knew the rest of my race was in jeopardy. I never knew that the muscles in my fingers could cramp. Eventually other racers started to come in and I finally recovered enough to make it to my own tent where a few of my fellow tentmates had also finished.
I spent the rest of the day hydrating, taking salt tablets, and trying to eat what I could. We were just on day 1. Also the water was rationed, so I could only drink a little bit or risk running out in the Sahara Desert. There were minor sandstorms that made visibility and breathing challenging. Also the 110 degree temperature was higher than usual for the Sahara during that time of the year. By the end of the first day over 50 people had dropped out of the competition. More would follow each stage. My reckless style almost had me among them. Despite the fact that I adopted a reckless style, I did finish in the top 350 of the 1,100 runner pool. My spot in the standings was not going to last.
Death by a Thousand Pricks
Stages 2 & 3: 25.6 Miles & 23.3 Miles
Running in the desert is hard, but sleeping totally exposed to the elements may be worse. I didn't sleep more than a few hours for each night. The tarps were open, which means that the desert wind mercilessly whips sand in to the packs, food, shoes, and supplies of each runner. During the race I just became used to the sand. Especially each time I would grind my teeth, I could feel the crunch. I also had to get up every few hours during the night to urinate. I would see runners hobbling around trying to walk with blistered feet. The one good thing about hanging in the bivouac is getting to know the fellow runners. Inside my tent we had guys from different countries and backgrounds. We almost became a small family. We became invested in each others' successes. We all wanted to finish the race, and all pulled for each other. After I blew up on the first stage, I was able to hang with a tentmate named Hicham. He was a native Moroccan that I met on the bus ride to the Sahara. We stuck together for the next few stages since my new pace was now fast walk/slow jogging.
During the second and third stages I was mainly dealing with the ramifications of pushing myself so hard in stage 1. Thankfully thoughts of dropping out were forgotten as I began to feel a bit better after rehydrating. However I was forced to take it slow, which on the surface seems like it would be easier. However walking most of an MDS stage presents a different set of challenges. Certainly those who run the entire stage are pushing their bodies hard, but they also get through the stage quicker. During stage 2 the temperature in the Sahara was around 100 degrees. Being exposed to such heat absolutely zaps runners of their energy. Those who walked would be exposed to the sun longer, and would suffer under the unforgiving heat.
Stage 2 started out on rough terrain. It was difficult but still better than running in dunes. I started to run a more intelligent race, choosing to sit and cool down at checkpoints instead of blasting straight through them. At each checkpoint racers present a punch card with their allotted water ration. Race staffers would hand you a bottle of water that would need to last until the next checkpoint, or even until next morning. Despite the fact that this was only stage 2, more and more runners were dropping out. The final checkpoint of stage 2 was at the base of another dastardly sand dune. At each CP (checkpoint) there are two areas, to the left are rest tents where runners can simply lie down on the sand to cool down and rehydrate. The right side is the medical tent area. This area housed the runners who were facing serious medical issues. It is likely that if you are treated in the medical tent with some seriousness, your race is over.
In one of the CP tents I overheard a British man that had completed several MDS races state how these first two stages had been the most challenging that he could recall. I was able to team up with a friend that I made from South Africa to climb the sand dunes and finish the stage still alive and in relatively good spirits. This South African guy was swell, he also let me have a pair of extra gaiters and shoes once he saw what I had packed wasn't sufficient to keep the Sahara sand out. I probably owe him my entire race. At the end of the stage, and each subsequent stage, runners are offered hot Moroccan tea. Drinking boiling hot tea at the end of a desert marathon isn't quite my idea of refreshing, however the sugar in the tea made the drink worth it. After another restless night in the bivouac, stage 3 was about to begin. To be quite honest, I was already getting sick of AC/DC and Patrick Bauer's pre-race speeches. Patrick would usually sit on top of one of the many SUVs and pay tribute to the racers that dropped out the previous stage. It was eerie knowing that yet another batch of would-be MDS finishers would drop out before stage 3 was concluded. As painful as it was to have nasty blisters on your feet or heat exhaustion, it was worse to not finish. Everyone was afraid of it. We all know how much time and money was spent getting out here, nothing short of finishing the race would satisfy, so having to drop out would cause true despair.
"By the end of stage 1 over 50 people had dropped out of the competition. More would follow each day."
Similar to the previous day, stage 3 was a combination of hard sand pack, rough rock, and sand dune terrain. Thankfully the frequency of sand dunes drastically decreased after stage 1. By the end of the race sand dunes comprised only 20-30% of the total terrain, but those were the most challenging stretches. The third stage was going well, and I was recovering slowly. I was still being forced to walk most of the stage in order to recover from day 1, however I was moving well and feeling relatively good. The most difficult stretch was actually a long straightaway on terrain not too dissimilar from the Bonneville Salt Flats. The sun was merciless, and despite the fact that the terrain was flat and better to run in, it seemed to be attracting the sun's heat and reflecting it up into the faces of the runners. I don't even know if that's possible, but it felt like we were all running in a massive frying pan. After eventually crossing the flats and making it to the last CP, we were on the cusp of finishing the stage. I was feeling as good as possible at that point. My feet were starting to bother me, this would become a theme for the rest of the event. As effective as the sand gaiters were, the sand would inevitably get in, and when it did, blisters would follow. After finishing the stage I celebrated with my normal freeze-dried meal. One good thing about progressing to the next stage is that my bag would become lighter with the more food I ate, and supplies used. This particular meal was important. It would be important to load up on calories in preparation for the next stage. The long stage awaited, and if I thought the previous stages proved difficult, myself and the rest of the remaining MDS runners were about to be presented with a nasty reality check.
Hell on Earth
Stage 4: 52.3 miles (The Long Stage)
The fourth stage in the Marathon des Sables would present unquestionably the most difficult physical and mental test. Known as the long stage, runners are required to cover 52.3 miles in a single go. Cut off times are generous, however by this point in the race many runners are dealing with heat exhaustion, blistering, and a myriad of other issues that could knock them out of the race. It is the long stage which is the cause for most of the runners dropping out of the event. Going in to the day I knew it would be difficult, but wasn't totally aware of how brutal this was going to be. How could I be? The stage started off easily enough. Everyone remaining in the race, outside of the top 50 or so runners, begins at 9 am. The initial path took runners on hard sand pack. The terrain was gentle and the temperature not too extreme. After the first of 7 eventual checkpoints, the first major obstacle of the long stage presented itself, the Jebel El Oftal. Jebel is essentially a Middle Eastern or North African way of saying hill or mountain. If running the brutal 52 mile long stage wasn't hard enough, we were being required to climb a mountain at the very beginning of the stage, and this was certainly climbing. Runners would need rope and stakes in the ground to get up and over the Jebel El Oftal pass. Finally getting to the top, although rewarding, is completely draining. There seemed to be no end to the climbing. The satisfaction of actually making it the top was quickly erased by the thought of still being at the beginning of the stage. There were many miles to go and I would need to go well into the night, and even early the next morning.
Descending from the jebel was not as easy as one would assume. The steep decline meant that runners would have to take it slow in order to avoid tripping. Along the descent (and many other parts of the race) there were razor-sharp rocks. One misstep could result in serious knee/leg injury, or worse. Stepping on these rocks also made blisters on my feet nearly intolerable. It seemed as though even the lightest step on soft ground was akin to walking on glass. It was a pain that I never became numb to, but learned to simply get used to. Each step on the ground was painful, and my mind had to stop thinking about the fact that I had many thousands of steps to go. Breaking up the race into mini stages was one of the main reasons I made it through the long stage. Thinking about doing it all at once would have been mentally demoralizing. The reward for making it down from the jebel was another round of sand dunes. At this point the sun was nearing peak temperatures, and runners were really suffering. After what seemed like a lifetime I arrived at the third checkpoint. It was at this point that I started to recover. The sun was starting to set and the temperature dip offered a momentary reprieve from the heat.
As the sun was setting we climbed another steady incline. It wasn't too difficult, and it provided a stunning view of a massive canyon in the Sahara. For a brief moment I was able to enjoy the sights and the feeling of being in such an awesome and expansive area. It looked like I was visiting another planet, and I just wanted to take a picture of how beautiful it was. It reminded me of my initial plans I had to document the experience. I had plans to bring cameras, make video journals, and have a lot of fun documenting the journey. After the first stage it just became about finishing. As a result I don't have many pictures or really any video compared to my other travels. In a different physical state, I could have really enjoyed many of the sites of each stage. However the harsh reality was that despite being nearly 12 hours in, I was less than half finished with the long stage.
The passing of CP 4 would be my low point for the entire race. It was worst than blowing up in stage 1. I had covered nearly 30 miles, and the desert was covered in total darkness. Physically I was in a very bad way. Never in my life had I been so tired that it actually hurt, but this was the case. I was literally falling asleep on my feet. If it wasn't for the pain in my feet then I likely would have fallen over to sleep immediately. Mentally I was dreading the remaining miles ahead. Unlike what I was hoping, nothing was getting easier, there was no end to the sand, no end to the climbing, no end to the pain in my feet. I honestly don't remember much from CP 4 to CP 6. I do recall making it to the checkpoint and asking an MDS staffer who gave me my water what the cutoff time was. She assured me that I was several hours ahead of the camels. I was then presented with a decision. I could either choose to sleep for a bit and regain critical energy, or continue marching on with the pain in my feet lowered due to painkillers I had just taken. Without considering it too much I chose to sleep. It was probably an hour or so. The results of the rest were almost immediate. I felt much more energetic now that I was able to rest, then I stood up. The pain in my feet was almost crippling. What was painful but manageable before was now agonizing. I realized that my painkillers were hiding a much more dire blister situation. While more rested but limping badly, I continued on for the next several miles.
At another point in the stage I became, once again, very sleepy. It was perhaps unwise but I took 5 steps off the main path and laid on the sand face up. The path was totally covered in darkness, the only light coming from the vivid stars in the Sahara sky. I didn't even check to see if there were rocks, thorns, scorpions, etc. I was just on my back dead asleep once again. I didn't care about anything else around me. I had been asleep for about 15-20 minutes before I shot upright like a cannon. I had worried that I slept through the cutoff point and been eliminated from the race. Thankfully it was only a dream, but it was enough for me to get back up and continue marching on to the final checkpoint. Consequently this nightmare I had sleeping in the desert would be a recurring dream even weeks after I returned home from Morocco. I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking I'd missed the cutoff point during the long stage. CP 7 was the final checkpoint. By this time the sun was starting to come back up. The final checkpoint was initially a pleasant site because it offered a glimpse of the bivouac camp site, which was the end of the stage. However it was still over 5 miles away. Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me, but despite marching on for more hours the campsite didn't appear to get any closer. Finally after several hours, I had reached the finish line of the long stage. At this point the sun was up and it was clear daytime. I had finished the stage in about 22 hours. Hardly the stuff of elite runners, but I didn't care. A very surreal feeling came over me. It was the first time in the entire race that I allowed myself to feel like I was actually going to complete the MDS. It didn't even matter that my last remaining meal exploded in my bag and I was now without sufficient food for the final two days. We had one last official stage to go, after that I would be done. The evening ended with a pleasant surprise. The race organizers gave everyone remaining in the race an ice cold can of Coke. I don't drink pop often, however I can say without question that this can of Coke was the greatest food or drink that I have ever consumed. It may have had something to do with the fact that I was dying of thirst and hunger.
Kill the Beast
Stage 5: 26.2 Miles
The damage the long stage had done was apparent. I had, what looked like, the beginning stages of infection in my foot blisters. Thankfully the MDS gave runners the opportunity to have all of their blisters treated at a med camp. This allows me to say a word regarding, not only those medical volunteers working in the med camp, but all of the volunteers and staffers who help to put the race on. Bless their souls. Each time I was met at a checkpoint, it was always by a smiling volunteer who was giving words of encouragement. The volunteers know how hard the race is, and provide much needed levity and support for the racers. It's also not easy putting on a spectacle of this size in the middle of the Sahara Desert. The work they perform is impressive, and they deserve praise, especially those in the medical tent. The sounds that echoed from this area were haunting. There were moans and groans of every kind, usually related to the treatment of blisters. Red iodine was spilled around like water. The completion of the long stage brought my first visit to the medical tent. It put things in perspective for me. As bad as I was hurting, there were other runners in much worse shape. They were really suffering, and carrying on. Others were clearly suffering from heat exhaustion, and their race was over.
Stage 5 was the last stage of the official race, although there was more running after that (which I'll get to later). The distance was the exact equivalent of a normal marathon. It's also called, quite simply, 'The Marathon Stage'. Another note about the marathon stage is that the terrain is perhaps the most normal of all of the stages. Conditions are created to simulate a normal marathon experience, or at least as normal as they could be in the Sahara Desert. Since I knew that this was the last stage I altered my strategy. Instead of my fast walk/slow jog method I chose for a steady but still slow run throughout. I played it smart, stopping and resting at each checkpoint until my core temperature decreased. My pace wasn't great, but I was progressing pretty well considering the circumstances. It was during this stage that I was kicking myself for just how stupid I'd acted on day 1. Instead of trying to fly through the first stage like a madman, I should have taken my time at each checkpoint. This would have allowed me to run the entire way eventually earning a better final ranking.
The terrain for the final official stage was mild. After reaching the final CP, the finish line was in sight. Seeing the finish had quite the effect on me. It was almost like getting a shot of adrenaline, or a drink of that sweet and terrific Coke I had the night before. My slow jog nearly turned in to a dead sprint. I crossed the finish line on a high. Beaming with a smile the size of the desert itself. I had finally completed the official race. I was famished, thirsty, sunburnt, and exhausted, but the feeling of satisfaction was immense. I was expecting to receive the finisher's medal upon completing the last official stage. You can imagine my disappointment once I learned that no runner would be receiving the finisher's medal until the charity stage was complete. The charity stage was an additional stage of 11 miles sponsored by UNICEF. Despite the fact that this stage was 'optional', runners would not be receiving a winner's medal, nor official completion times without having completed it. It's optional yet also somehow mandatory. Needless to say I was a bit negative about it. I wasn't exactly sure how this extra stage was benefiting UNICEF. This also meant sleeping another night in the desert which brought more risk. Something could happen, I could trip over a rock, I could get bitten by a snake, or if I was incapacitated in any way then I wouldn't be getting the finisher's medal. In hindsight my attitude about the UNICEF stage was pretty poor, but I don't know that I was wrong.
Twisting the Knife for Charity
UNICEF Stage: 11 miles
After having already traversed nearly 150 miles in the desert, I wanted to run another stage like I wanted a hole in my head. However since it was apparently for charity (somehow), no one was allowed to complain. The night before the charity stage was actually the most brutal of the entire MDS. A sandstorm in the middle of the night terrorized the racers. The tarp fell over on us several times during the night. It was uncomfortable, freezing, and a difficult yet appropriate way to spend our last night in the Sahara. The race stage itself was rather uneventful. The charity stage is meant to be more laid back since the times aren't recorded for official competition purposes. It was just 11 more miles of running in the desert on sore feet and 100+ degree heat. Everyone running the stage was given a blue UNICEF shirt to wear. It was nice to be able to put something on that wasn't crusted with salt stains.
The finish line of the charity stage also meant the official end of the race. There, at the finish, was Patrick Bauer and his fellow race organizers handing out the official finisher's medal. Those who receive their medals from Patrick also receive a kiss from him. There isn't much pomp and circumstance after the finish line. After collecting the medal and snapping a few pictures all racers are ushered onto buses to take them back to civilization. It was the first exposure to normal amenities that we'd forsaken while in the desert. All of a sudden a 3 hour bus ride seemed like a luxurious activity since we didn't have to run anywhere, or count how many ounces of water we had remaining. When the air conditioning in the bus kicked in I knew I was no longer in the Sahara.
After being dropped off at the hotel, it was time to assess the real damage that was done to my body. The clothes that I had been wearing for the past seven days were stained with sand, blood, sweat, salt, and all matter of unpleasant odors. Trying to get clean was nearly impossible. Sand was crusted onto my skin. It was as if I'd aged about 10 years in the last 10 days. Spending exposed time in the desert will probably have that effect on a person. All things considered I was quite lucky when it comes to the physical damage. Outside of some blisters on my feet and sunburn, I had escaped the MDS experience relatively unscathed from some of the horrors that afflicted other racers.
There were 1,108 participants that attempted the 2016 Marathon des Sables. Of those 973 were able to finish the race. My final placing (628th), was a far cry from the original plans I had to compete for a high place. If anything I was humbled by just how genuinely difficult the race was. The desert had taught me a lesson, but I was happy simply to finish. Now a word concerning the elite runners who actually ran to compete in the MDS; I marvel at their stamina and perseverance. I was in awe of their ability to keep such a pace in the heat. One of the contenders was in my tent. He ended up finishing in the top 50 and was a really nice guy. The eventual winner, Rachid El Morabity, almost made it look easy. The way he and his fellow Moroccans could navigate the terrain was a pleasure to watch. They didn't even seem human.
As harsh and as brutal as the MDS was, there were so many positives that came out of it. I became truly close with the other members of my tent group. It wasn't like any of the other organized races that I had done. There wasn't a collective competitive vibe that made you want to beat or hate the person next to you. I'm happy to say that everyone in my tent completed the race. Each time a member of our group stumbled in after a stage we were truly happy that another one of us had made it. This spirit of camaraderie permeated each bivouac. Perhaps it was because we knew that we were all in it together. It was a self-sufficient race, runners only had themselves to get through each stage, but the emotional support of the person next to you was a boost. Another element that kept me going in the desert was the cause that I was representing. I was lucky enough to represent the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Jon M. Huntsman is an inspirational figure in my life, and I know that conquering cancer was one of his great passions. I was gratefully able to represent the HCI during my run, and raised over $1,000 for the institute thanks to donations from friends and family. It's very common for runners in the MDS to represent various charitable causes. There is even a dedicated page on the MDS website that highlights every runner's cause/charity. Mine was a link to the page where visitors of the site could connect to the Huntsman Cancer Research donation page.
Soon after finishing the race I asked myself if the whole experience was worth the pain. I was thrilled beyond words to to complete the MDS. I certainly didn't regret it then or now. However I told myself that I would never sign up to subject my body and mind to this type of torture or abuse ever again. Full stop. And then time passes. The human mind is a fascinating thing. With time the brain (or at least mine) seems to filter out the pain, horror, misery, and bad moments. Instead I tend to concentrate or only vividly remember the rushes of adrenaline, the epic scenery, the other racers. Such has been my experience when reflecting back upon the MDS. One of the reasons I took so long to chronicle my experience is because I knew that if I wrote this immediately after the race, I would be dwelling too much on the negative. As time has come and gone, I've been reminded of just how special the experience in the Sahara Desert truly was. And while I can't say that I'll ever do the MDS again, I find myself thinking what would have happened had I adjusted my techniques during the race:
- What would have happened if I hadn't blown up on Stage 1?
- What would have happened if I adopted a more serious and dedicated training regimen in advance?
- What would have happened if I didn't wait until the night I left for Morocco to try on my backpack for the first time?
All of these 'what if...' scenarios occupy space in my mind, and lead me to believe that, 'next time', I could do a lot better.
Maybe I'm a fool for thinking it.