A Chronicle of Marathon des Sables, Part 1
Marathon des Sables, stage 5 (228 km into the race)
Friday 12th April 2013
We charged down the dusty track and passed runner after runner, imagining ourselves flying graciously across the final stretch towards the red finishing line. In fact, we must have more resembled a pair of neurologically disabled convicts with Parkinson’s disease. Swallowing down a mouthful of water, slopping half of it down my shirt, I replaced the bottle in my pack and fumbled for my camera in the side pouch of my backpack. “We need to save this moment on a movie reel for future generations to be inspired by…”, “…or be deterred by”, Jakob finished graciously. “Yes, well there still are some sane people in the world, one might hope”. Getting closer to the bivouac we were cheered along by those that had finished before us and who lined the sides of the finishing line. Jakob and I crossed the finish line to the twin beep-beep of our GPS-transmitters and promptly fell into each others arms, grinning hysterically. “Sahara, thank you for a pleasant time”, I began, “but we won’t ever be coming back!”, Jakob finished.
Saturday 1st May 2010
Sitting down by the window in the café, my eyes were immediately drawn to the front page of the glossy weekend edition of a Norwegian newspaper. It featured an enormous golden sand dune crowned by the most magnificent clear blue sky. On the top of the dune there were runners with starting numbers pinned to their chests and backpacks strapped to their backs. The story inside the magazine chronicled the first Norwegian female to complete a desert ultramarathon known simply as Marathon des Sables, or Marathon of the Sands. I was awestruck. I showed my girlfriend the article the same afternoon and she immediately confronted me with a worried, almost pained expression. “You’re not seriously considering to run that race with Jakob, are you?”, she asked, pinning me to the wall with an iron stare. “Absolutely not, my love. Do you take me for a lunatic? I merely wished to show you a very captivating article about one of your fellow Norwegians. You always tell me that since I’m dating a Norwegian, it would be fitting that I show a little bit more interest and joy in your many athletic triumphs.” Not entirely placated and more than a little suspicious, she gave me a smile, for the moment convinced that I would never contemplate such an act of utter and complete lunacy. I mean, think about it for a moment. Running 240 km in the Sahara during six to seven days – the equivalent of almost a marathon per day – in sweltering heat carrying your own equipment and food and sleeping in berber tents during the nights. Lunacy. I wasted no time in sending a copy of the article to Jakob.
Thursday 4th April 2013
The room at the hostel Jakob had booked was small but very agreeable and best of all: it was on a prime location along Gran Vía in Madrid. After having settled in we quickly found a small restaurant around the corner, ordered lunch and considered our options. The previous day, my luggage had disappeared during my transit in Berlin. Even though Jakob had most of his gear with him from the US, many vital items for the race were trapped in my bag. The sleeping bags and mattresses that our sponsor Chillout Travel Centre had acquired for us were lost along with our freeze-dried food and my running shoes. Presumably, the bag was quietly decorating a baggage cart somewhere in the German capital’s airport. The question was: should we or should we not try to scour Madrid this afternoon for all of the gear we could get our hands on in order to have a fail-safe in case my bag didn’t show up tomorrow? And it really came down to this: did we want to be absolutely sure we would be able to run the race or not? Simple question, really. Which is why we wasted no time in finding the biggest sporting goods store in Madrid and engaged all of their staff in the hunt for the stuff we needed. Thank God the store closed at 22.00 or we would never have had the time to acquire everything on our list. The evening did, however, bring a pleasant surprise with it. In Madrid, we met up with Marcus, a gangly, good-humored and smiling fellow Swede who was travelling to the race alone after his running mate had been injured a couple of weeks ago. He helped us with the search and did his best to calm our nerves during dinner later that evening. I didn’t sleep much that night.
Barajas International Airport, Madrid
Friday 5th April 2013
The next morning the three of us met the rest of the Scandinavian and Spanish delegations (we would be flying together to Morocco) at the airport and the Spanish coordinator Olivier promptly put his local “handler” Rafael on the job of locating and retrieving my bag. After a nervous hour and a half he met us by our gate with a triumphant smile just as we were about to board. Not only had he waited at the runway for the flight carrying my bag but also – in an efficient, but highly illegal manner – been successful in carrying the bag straight to the plain chartered to fly us to Morocco without subjecting it to the rigorous and mandatory checks and screenings at the airport. Finally, we were ready to go.
Football really is the common denominator of all peoples of the world. And Zlatan Ibrahimovic really is the greatest footballer in the world. Any doubting Thomases would do well to visit the airport customs in the little town of Errachidia; a dusty little collection of buildings composed of pinkish red clay and brick houses divided by wide stretches of asphalt. Having reached the end of the line to the passport check, I handed my passport to the bored-looking clerk for a stamp of entry. Passport stampers in Morocco, by the way, are extremely serious in their stamping duty. The gusto with which they attempt to kill and maim your documents is impressive. At the look of the wine-red passport a sudden smile spread across the clerk’s face and turning his gaze towards me he enthusiastically exclaimed “Ibra!!!”, to which I grinned, showing him thumbs up. “Aaah, Ibra! Best football! Suede Angleterre quatre gol. Ibra best goal!”, referring of course to Sweden’s recent thrashing of England at their new national stadium 4-2 after a particularly spectacular bicycle kick by the Swedish captain. He went on making ooohing sounds of pleasure and laughingly explaining “PSG Barcelona deux deux” referring to PSG’s draw against the mighty FC Barcelona in Champions League the previous week. Killing my passport with a loud bang of his stamp he handed it back, waved me through with a smile and let me walk out into the Moroccan sun. Apparently, Ibrahimovic is famous even in the Sahara.
Bivouac, Southern Moroccan Sahara
After 90 minutes of driving along empty plains of dust, gravel and dirt, we were allowed to disembark. Next to the road were military trucks that king Mohammed VI had lent the organisation and climbing on the loading platform of one of them, we covered our faces from a particularly vehement sandstorm. At the first view of the bivouac, all of us cramped together on the truck bed fell silent. This was it. We were now in the Sahara. Off-loading the truck, we saw around 120 berbertents arranged in three concentric circles; one inside the other and the innermost measuring around 100 metres in inner diameter. The Scandinavian group were assigned the middle of the inner circles; tents 22 through 28. Apart from Marcus, neither Jakob nor I had spoken much with the other competitors but thanks to Aries, a pleasant Swede of Finnish roots with many anecdotes on store, six Swedes and two Finns converged together on the last tent in the line, number 28, and picked our individual spots inside for our packs. It’s no easy thing to describe what went through my head at this point. We were undeniably in the desert, pulling up the hoods of our jerseys against the sand blowing across the plain, but I still didn’t feel the familiar tingle in my stomach that normally heralds the beginning of an adventure. I simply had a bit of trouble grasping that we were already here. It had gone so fast. From the architecturally stunning airport in Madrid to a huge red rug in a berber tent in the Moroccan desert. It’s admittedly hard to have a bigger contrast than that. This being the evening of the first day, the program was fairly simple. Dinner in three hours and then, presumably, bedtime. Day two would be entirely given over to the technical check-in, the rest of the day given over to leisurely strolls around the camp if we wished. Self-sufficiency didn’t start until dawn on day three when the Marathon des Sables would start in earnest with Stage 1.
We got acquainted with our tentmates during the evening and felt both satisfaction and not a little bit of relief that they all seemed to be perfectly sane people, just like us. I mean, running an ultramarathon in Sahara is not so crazy, right? Right?! Apart from Marcus and Aries we said hello to Tomas, a thin, fast-talking and jovial guy that – from what we were to find out the following day – was an extremely talented runner. Our two Finns, Illka and Maunu, spoke little Swedish but we communicated in English without any particular trouble. With Illka living in New York City and Maunu in Helsinki, these Finnish brothers didn’t meet very often but in typical Finnish manner Maunu had agreed to apply for Marathon des Sables after a particularly wet night out, not really being sure what he was agreeing to. After having sobered up the next morning he googled the race and almost fell off his kitchen stool in shock. Very Finnish. Last, but by no means least, we said hello to Johan from Lund. Please have patience with me as I once again digress a bit from the narrative, but I promise it’ll be worth your while. Johan was the tent’s oldtimer by quite a margin but no-one could argue with his obvious running credentials, besting both me and Jakob soundly over every distance we discussed (not that that’s a particular claim to glory, but still). His hair and stubble were as salt-stained as his manner easygoing and humble and he won us over instantly. He also turned out to be the second-best joke-teller in the tent. What makes his story special is the reason why he started running in the first place. A summer’s night almost four years ago, the police knocked on the family’s door carrying horrible news: his fourteen-year old daughter had been killed in a train accident. After a long time mourning with his wife and two sons, a friend took him out running and he’s been at it ever since as a form of therapy. His daughter Lisa had dreamt of becoming a pediatrician and to work for Doctors Without Borders, and so it was that Johan decided to enter Marathon des Sables and raise money for that particular charity. He told us his story during our second day in camp, showing us a small piece of cloth sewn to his backpack with a picture of his daughter with angel wings. He told us that whenever he felt running hard and painful he asked his daughter to blow him forward and she always obliged. If we would need her help during the race, we had only ask. And she did.
After dinner it was time to try our sleeping bags for the very first time, and oh my GOD was I happy we had procured proper ones. The wind during the first night threatened to rip our tent from it’s moorings and all of us huddled closer together in the darkness. The sand was everywhere and the howl was, quite frankly, pretty scary. To make matters worse, it was freezing! It couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7°C and I had to pull on both of my longpants, a merino longsleeve plus my hoodie just to keep from freezing to death. When morning finally dawned, though, it was absolutely stunning. As chance had it, our tent was facing directly east and Jakob and I watched the golden disc of the sun slowly crest the mountains and bathe us in it’s glow. All memories of the night’s tempest were swept away and from now on everything looked hopeful. Today was the day for our weighing in, to use an apt boxing metaphor. Spending the morning sorting out our gear and carefully choosing what to pack in our backpacks we took our places in the line for the technical check-in. First, we received a small GPS to tie around our ankle and next we got an emergency flare for, well, emergencies. After having presented the staff with a list of all our items and signing a document promising we had the minimum requirement of calories for the week (12 000 kcal in total; 2 000 kcal per day), we were next sent to the medical corner of the tent. Scrutinizing my ECG for a long time, a female doctor wrinkled her nose and finally gave it an approving nod and signature before archiving it with my medical certificate. The organizers would provide us with salt tablets for the race; we needed 10 grams of salt per day to compensate for the salt loss due to sweating huge amounts in the extreme temperatures we would be facing. Along with the tablets we received our water ration cards to be punched every time we picked up our water rations in the morning, during checkpoints and in the evenings as well as our medical card where treatments and analgesics would be documented in case of seeing the medics during the race. Oh, and we got our brown poop-bags as well. Finally it was time for the weighing of our bags. An absolute minimum requirement was 6,5 kg which was a weight all of the elite runners operated with. One problem was that we now had a brandnew backpack (never before run in and heavier than INOV-8’s model) as well as extra clothes that both of us had packed in panic the same morning in fear of reliving arctic temperatures every single night. My bag weighed in at a shocking 10,5 kg. Add to that the water and it would weigh 12-13 kg! My back already winced at the prospect but there really wasn’t anything to do other than hoping the bag would become lighter with each dinner, gel and drinking powder swallowed during the days of the race. Still, it would be a heavy first day out there. As usual, Jakob and I laughed it off and went in search of dinner.