Seven days, five stages, temperatures of up to 55 degree Celsius and a combination of sand and rocky terrain, the Marathon des Sables 2015 was more than a simple race, it was a test of mental and physical endurance. From the moment you stepped on the coach and were handed the roadmap, you knew it was going to be challenging.
The roadmap leads to…
Day one to three didn’t look to bad on paper, the Lord-of-the-Rings-style illustrations showed that there were some ascents and rocky terrain – in fact – the distances of 36,2K, 30,2K and 36,2K are less than you’re used to. Day three was followed by the long day, in fact as it was the 30th year, it was the furthest that competitors have ever had to run – a 91-odd kilometre effort. With a day to recover, you would then complete the final marathon stage. All pretty doable if you consider how hard you’d trained.
Little did you realise what this actually meant. When coupled with the extreme desert conditions, feet that gave a whole new meaning to the word ‘cankles’ and a tummy that felt like it was constantly on a spin cycle, it was unbelievably tough. As the days went on, this ‘race’ became less about the overall distance and more about surviving between checkpoints (roughly every 12-15K).
It was a toss-up between pushing myself to run and be faced with the reality that you may not be able to complete or sitting back and taking it slow. Against my usual instinct to just suck it up and see, I took the latter route choosing to walk most of the stages. There was no way I was coming home without a medal.
Highway to hell?
There were fleeting moments when you thought what on earth am I doing? Does Patrick (the organiser) glean some kind of sadistic pleasure from tricking us to thinking the end is just around the corner when in fact you have to trudge your way across another dune? And then you see some ant-like creatures in the distance surmounting what seems to be a vertical climb. Jeez, I’ve got to hoist my body and my rucksack up there? This race is definitely living up to its reputation as “the toughest footrace on earth”. Blimey, what will they think of next? You’re in a quandary as you want to both know but don’t want that knowledge to put you off completely.
The best way I found to stop these internal thoughts from a total mind takeover was to look up, stop grimacing and absorb the surroundings. They may have mis-sold the idea of ‘mountainous relief’ in the roadmap but boy does the desert look beautiful from the top of a rocky ledge. The kilometres of dunes sap your energy completely but these pillows of gold pillows soften the rugged landscape. At night, it takes on a whole different meaning. As you plod on into the early hours during the long stage, you’re amazed by how the moon lights up the sky and it’s as if you can almost reach out and touch the stars (or maybe that’s just the painkillers talking). As for when dusk falls, well forget Monet’s Sunset in Venice, the invasion of red as the desert sun sets in the sky is intense, vivid and takes your breath away.
Solidarity and humanity
Then there are the people you meet on the way. You may talk for hours or simply acknowledge each other with a hello firstname (as everyone has their names on their numbers), as you play cat and mouse along the way. You work together, checking in with people, making sure they are feeling as well as can be expected or sharing your experience of the desert, knowledge of the housing market or simply talking about whatever pops into your head at that moment in time. The point is that these other competitors are helping you along the way. And that is what Patrick Bauer, who set up the Marathon des Sables after his own solo expedition across the desert 30 years ago, missed out on; the comfort of humanity in the desert.
No matter whether you’re a sprinter at the front or a walker near the camels, this challenge is as much about supporting each other towards a collective goal as it is about individual efforts. Not to mention the camp camaraderie, where you are sleeping side-by-side with folk you’ve only met a few days ago and yet you feel totally comfortable and part of a gang. More on my tent-mates later.
It is these characters and scenery on the sandy road that makes what could be a highway to hell a little piece of heaven.