The Marathon des Sables 2000
I Went, I Saw ...
The days leading up to the race were quite enjoyable. The sardine tin with wings that flew from Gatwick with 150 British runners on board arrived ahead of schedule at a military airfield on the edge of the Moroccan township of Ouarzazate.
Judging from the appearance and demeanour of my fellow competitors, half of them were of a military background and quite a few were officially representing the British Army for PR purposes. It soon became quite clear this was going to be less of a traditional running race and more of a psychotic timed survival event. The army teams were well placed for it.
We were allowed a few hours spare time to prepare kit in the luxury of a local hotel before the hard work started, then we were swiftly shepherded off to the Saharan desert fringe by a fleet of 4-ton Moroccan Army trucks.
A few hours of bumpy rides and we were at Camp Sparticus - a huge circle of eighty open-sided bivouac made from cocoa sacks roughly sewn together and balanced over sticks, badly. Within minutes, our first sandstorm arrived, ripping through the tents and covering all the occupants with a fine layering of desert dust.
The organisers had placed our first base camp on the floor of a particularly windy and dusty desert valley, pitched ominously between the impressive peaks of two opposing mountain ranges. The early temperatures were kind however, well below the anticipated 40 ºC/100ºF, so we all remained upbeat.
Another plus for me was being pitched right next door to the Japanese bivouac, who thoughtfully rose at 05:30 each day to sing several chorus of their home made song, which comprised just three words "Good Morning, Sa'Harra" and was sung wonderfully to the melody of 'Happy Birthday'. Surreal stuff.
The main hurdle before starting the race was to get my medical paperwork past the glaring eyes of the resident Doc Trotter. Despite the abnormally large ventricle shown up by my pre-race ECG, I was let through. The Doc seemed more concerned with the explanatory covering letter from my cardiologist referring to me as a 'Gentleman'.
We now spent two nights maintaining self-sufficiency under our cocoa sack haven, sleeping on hard rocky ground and already filthy from the pre-race sirocco sweeping through the valley. Come 09:30 on Sunday 9th April 2000, we were all ready and primed for the starting gun, awaiting our journey into the unknown of 150 miles through the Sahara desert.
The resident press flew overhead in a helicopter, Roger Rabbit could be heard saying prayers in the background, the gun blasted and we were off.
I Ran, I Crawled ...
Like miniature men scampering frantically through a Lilliputian landscape, the first days saw us traversing more rocky terrain than picturesque Saharan sands. And so the myth was dispelled - the well-known image of the Sahara desert as a sea of sand is purely the romantic's version. In reality, it's a rocky, mountainous moonscape, quite reminiscent of the surface pictures sent back from Mars recently.
From day one of the race daytime temperatures soared. The water we carried boiled as we ran, sometimes to the point where it became indigestible. By 2pm each day, we were under heat of 45ºC/110ºF, and it was rising. The effort of running Marathon distances with a 30lb rucksack was beginning to take its toll. The measly nine litres of water ration was being very strictly enforced, and it was proving inadequate for most of us.
By the end of day 2, I was suffering, but no more than I expected. I'd allowed the Doc Trotter team to excavate one of my blisters, in their own notorious style (you don't want to know) for souvenirs sake, but my back was coping well with the friction of the 30lb rucksack.
Day 3 loomed, 'Dune Day', referred to as the toughest of the race, and this year apparently the toughest ever. Within the Marathon effort lurked a 22km/14mile stage of non-stop hilly dune running, with no medical support and only 3 litres of water on offer to see you through to the other side.
There were some very worried faces around, including mine. We were staring the meat of this race right between the eyes. To quote one of my panicking bivouac buddies, "This isn't 22km of hilly sand dunes against the clock, it's 3 litres of water then 'Sayonara Baby' !"
I Collapsed, I Lived to Return ...
All runner's feet had now swollen 2-3 sizes bigger than normal through the time spent on our feet each day in the extreme temperatures combined with the weight we were carrying.
As a result, our bandaged blisters and abrasions had to be painfully squeezed into our shoes each morning, which was proving to be a considerable effort in itself. The pace early on each day was therefore quite slow and tentative, but once the brain started to ignore those repetitive pain signals, comforts levels generally became bearable.
The notorious day 3 started well, leading upto the 22km dune stage. Then the problems started. Most of us entered the arena shortly after lunch and temperatures were now approaching their worst levels since we arrived, 50ºC/125ºF ! There are no words to explain the sensation of these temperatures beating down as you're trying to exert your efforts over a seriously slow terrain. In the dizzy haze that was my eyesight for most of the time spent running, I swear I was overtaken by a scorpion-like beetle at one point.
The dune stage was taking its toll - on entering and rising to the peak of each dune crest, the horizon was featureless and flat. After a while, I began to see emergency flares being fired by stricken competitors and the emergency helicopter was soon in action rescuing dozens of fated runners.
While I was coherent myself, I saw some amazing sights. Runners passing out at the top of dunes and tumbling to the base, unconscious - one elite runner broke his leg in such a fall. In the pit of the dunes the 50ºC temperatures were compounded further - a slow rescue from here could prove fatal.
Medics were being airlifted into the dunes to provide temporary care while the helicopter worked overtime attending casualties. Astonishingly, race regulations prevented any additional water from being issued until a competitor had withdrawn from the race.
By the end of the day, almost 100 competitors out of 600 had succumbed to the dunes and been withdrawn through ill health. Sadly, I was among them. The headcold that I'd brought to the race with me had developed through the extreme heat into a desert fever and laryngitis.
Thankfully and miraculously, through varying degrees of luck and judgement on the part of the organisers, there were no fatal casualties in the mayhem. Tempers were running high however back at base camp - an American organiser was so incensed over the strictly enforced water supplies that he was prompted into a near fist fight with the race director over the safety of his runners.
Me? After being rescued from the desert by helicopter, I just collapsed in the medical tent and slowly passed into a state of drowsy sub-consciousness, while medics busied around me on the most frantic day in the history of this astonishing race.
Little did we know that the French organisers had thoughtfully arranged for extra water rations - but you had to survive the dune stage to get to them!
The Final Leg?
I returned to the UK a physically changed man - much, much lighter in weight for my 5 nights in the desert, with several lacerations to the feet, lips split by the sun, a sand encrusted beard and the backs of my hands burnt a rosy dark brown. The easy running that I've done since my return to the UK has caused blisters to instantly form on the backs of my hands where the sweat isn't getting through the burnt skin.
But I'm almost back to normal now and simple pleasures are great, such as having a chair to sit on.
However, the extreme wilderness and isolation from 'humanity' are quite enticing. I may just go back there one day. And overall, I did truly enjoy the race itself, while it lasted.
Despite only reaching the halfway point of the race, I do feel a sense of achievement. During a speech, Roosevelt once said: It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or when the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails whilst daring greatly - so that his place shall never be with cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. ... For those who have had to fight for it, life has truly a flavour the protected shall never know
Go ahead, choose your arena.
© Jackson Griffith, 2000