A Chronicle of Marathon des Sables, part 2
Marathon des Sables, Stage 1 (37,2 km)
Sunday 7th April 2013
We woke at 5.45 am to the chatter of the English in the tents behind us, slowly rubbing the sleep from our eyes and sliding into sitting positions in the tent. The sun was just about to climb over the mountains again and when it did, it looked as if it smiled in anticipation of welcoming us to the first stage of Marathon des Sables. I was to revise my impression of a friendly face in the sky many times during the days to come. It had been another cold night and wrapped as I was in double layers of windpants, longsleeved jersey and windjacket, it wasn’t easy crawling out of my sleeping bag.
I gave Jakob a kick in the ribs – this is the only safe way to wake him, since it ensures the possibility of a hasty retreat when he roars and lunges for your legs – and jumped smoothly out of the way, squinting towards the sunrise. First order of business was to boil water for breakfast and as I began rummaging around in my backpack for my neatly packaged plastic bag with today’s calories, Jakob gruntingly dug a shallow little hole outside the tent, poured some water in our metal kettle and lit the alcohol tablet below it. After the water had come to a boil we ripped open the top end of the bags holding our freeze-dried breakfasts, poured some hot water inside, stirred it with our spoons for a while and crouched down to eat. Snorting with laughter, I tried not to topple over watching Jakob trying to settle into at sitting Indian position, or the tailor position as it’s known in Swedish. Since his joints are grotesquely mishapen, he is incapable of this position and is often forced to sit with his legs bent and twisted in all kinds of anatomically curious directions which makes for lovely entertainment. After breakfast we changed into our race gear and helped each other pin the starting numbers to chests and backpacks before congregating by the starting line at 07.45.
Patrick Bauer is a very engaging man, as enthusiastic as he is friendly. In 1984, he went for a solo trek across the Sahara and wanting to share his experience, he created the Marathon des Sables a couple of years later. In 1986, 186 runners stood at the starting line and today, at the 28th Marathon des Sables, there were 1 027 of us from more than 50 different nations. We saw runners from Brunei, India, Slovakia, Japan, Poland and South Africa as well as French and English that made up the bulk of the athletes. Watching the faces all around us we were struck by the mix of intense concentration and huge anticipation. Mr Bauer and his English translator had climbed on top of one of the Land Rovers and welcomed us all to the start. Fiddling with my pack and nervous about the stage ahead, I don’t remember the details of his motivational speech, but there was a lot of cheering and clapping as he described the course and then launched into a French version of the English song Happy Birthday to celebrate all of the runners whose birthday it was today. And suddenly, out of the speakers there came the thumping of a very familiar song: Highway to Hell. Jakob and I looked at each other with a huge grin and my nervousness was no more. “CINQ! QUATRE! TROIS! DEUX! UN!!!”, and we were off to the loud tunes of the AC/DC’ classic. Jakob and I had decided to start out very carefully, using the first day as a kind of test of the climate and terrain. Better to start out slow and conserve our strength for the week to come than break ourselves on the first sandy ascent. It felt surreal when, after five minutes of whooping and laughing, the field became completely quiet but for the rhythmic thumping of more than a thousand pairs of feet against the hard gravel of the desert.
Stage 1 was 37,2 km and we started running almost due south from the bivouac. Our plan was to run in a stable tempo for twenty minutes and then walk for ten, drinking around 250-300 ml of water every 30 minutes, taking two salt tablets and a power bar or gel every hour. The massive field of runners quickly became strung out and we found some athletes whose pace we were comfortable with and followed them. We reached Checkpoint 1 (CP 1) at 13,4 km after less than two hours keeping to an average pace of almost 7 km/h which we were very satisfied with. We were feeling good and I remember comparing myself to a bulldozer, feeling strong and implacable. We threw away our empty water bottles at the CP, accepted new ones and after a very quick stop we were off again, running across sand mounds and zig-zagging through camel grass while crossing a valley and slowly climbing a plateau. The heat was intense, but not unbearable since we had a steady breeze cooling us off. Even so our pace slowed considerably when we entered the sand dunes just before CP2 at 24,8 km. Jakob gave me an ironic smile saying “I think we may have underestimated the amount of sand in the Sahara”, and he was completely right. Not having been able to properly test our gaiters in sand, only on forest trails and in snow, we had falsely assumed that they would be good enough for the dunes. This proved to be our greatest error during the entire race. After only three kilometres of sand dunes we needed to take a longer break at CP 2 in order to empty our shoes of all the sand that had accumulated. It wasn’t that sand seeping in from the top of our socks that caused the problem, but rather the fact that the gaiters only covered about half of the textile surface of the shoes which were leaking, as it were, profusely. Our toes were all curled up against the sand by the time we emptied our shoes and we couldn’t really envision running another 210 km in gaiters like these. We would have to come up with a different solution. So much for our meticulous preparations. “There’s sand in the Sahara? Nooo, really? And it seeps into our shoes at a rate exceeding that of a tropical waterfall? Well, I’ll be…”
Feeling more than a little sheep-headed, we exited the dunes at Aitoulhetan Erg and took the new heading of 184° toward our bivouac and the finishing line at 37,2 km. The rest of the stage was moderately sandy with a few stony oueds that we crossed without any particular trouble. During the hottest part of the day, between noon and around 14.00, we followed the example of the other runners around us setting a brisk walking pace rather than starting to run again. Even though the breeze was refreshing it felt as if the temperature was in excess of 35°C and we didn’t want to run into the eponymous Wall. In addition, our backpacks weighed almost 13 kg each and the weight was beginning to rub our shoulders raw. Crossing the finish line in 6 hours 39 minutes it was a slower pace than we had hoped for but more than 40 minutes of that had been emptying sand from our shoes at different points. Still, from here we could only climb in the ratings. Back at the tent we were met by a pleasant surprise. Johan and Marcus had finished in the top 200 but Tomas, the fastest and most dedicated runner of us all, had managed to squeeze in among the top 50 runners! This was absolutely incredible! We spent a lovely afternoon regaling each other with praise, not having the sligtest clue of what we would be in for the next day. Jakob and I stood 40 minutes in line to the internet tent where we were allowed one e-mail per day. Jakob graciously offered to update our blog with a short statement while I sent a loving and somewhat sentimental mail to my pregnant wife at home. Despite the fact that we had had immense sand problems, our feet were in surprisingly good shape and we skipped back to our tent as quickly as possible for dinner. The sun set at around 18.30 and after dinner and some dirty jokes, all of us crept into our sleeping bags at around 20.00, tired but enormously satisfied with the day’s proceedings.
Marathon des Sables, Stage 2 (30,7 km)
Monday 8th April 2013
In the morning, the first thing we found out was that Christian, our coach who had run the race a couple of years earlier, would be withdrawing from the race. We were shocked that such an experienced runner had opted to quit so suddenly and quizzed him about details. He told us that despite a rigorous hydration plan and taking salt tablets as per the doctor’s orders, he had pushed himself pretty hard and had crossed the finish line severly dehydrated. After having spent the entire evening in the medic tent being rehydrated and suffering from headache, nausea and dizziness, he’d woken up with exactly the same symptoms and decided to call it a race, not wanting to jeopardize his health further. Including our coach, seven runners had been forced to withdraw after Stage 1. The first day had shown us that the desert was indeed merciless and would knock you to it’s sandy ground without a second thought if you were unprepared or even slightly off balance. Christian’s retirement was a wake-up call for both of us proving that even the most seasoned and experienced runners would take a beating this week. The key to succeeding would not only be our intimate and hard-won knowledge of how our bodies normally react to fatigue, dehydration and heat but it would also require humility. Humility in not being certain of success. Humility in acknowledging the fact that our bodies and minds could fail us.
Standing at the start, I didn’t really pay any attention to Patrick’s usual introductory speech and my mind wandered off while I scanned the crowd surrounding us. Jakob and I regarded our fellow runners with the deepest respect (most of them, anyway) and felt a little out of our league. At the same time, that’s what gives these races flavour. Since we started with our adventures we’ve completed every single one of our races and mostly finished in the top half. Barely, in most cases, but still. Jakob gave me a nudge with his elbow, and I snapped back to the present. ”Trois! Deux! Un!”, and once again we found ourselves immersed in a sea of whooping and cheering lunatics, being driven under the starting arch and into the desert. Stage 2 would bring an entirely different challenge than yesterday’s leg. The shortest stage of all – a mere 30,7 km – we knew that the real challenge lay in scaling vertical metres today. The first stretch seemed easy enough and we settled into our usual rhythm of running and walking briskly. We crossed Oued Tiscent and followed two tracks in a double file, runner after runner. Whenever somebody slowed down to a walk, we would overtake them by the side of the track and settle in behind somebody else further on. My biggest concern was that we would overexert ourselves in the beginning of each stage but the pace was comfortable and didn’t present us with too much trouble. After 7,3 km we started a slow ascent to the top of a ridge which presented us with a fabulous vista back to where we had started from. At the top we were met by a team of medics, cheerily checking in on us with a smiling ”Ça va?”. In the manner of ultrarunners, we were walking as quickly as our legs allowed uphill while speeding up and mostly running downhill. After a few photos we were on our way to the first CP at 12 km. Jakob and I felt in extremely good shape and only paused for as long as it took us to switch our empty water bottles for full ones and off we went. I took the lead, latching on to a tiny but quick girl with nimble and sure feet named Daniela (for one reason or another a few names stuck better than others, probably those whom we passed and were passed by several times during the week) whose pace was controlled and secure. After 16,5 km we started our ascent of the first big challenge of the day: Joua Baba Ali Jebel, a steep and extremely sandy incline where we climbed in single file and didn’t have the shadow of a chance to overtake anyone lest we lose our footing. Finding grips for both hands and feet, we finally reached semi-solid ground in the form of huge boulders and with a river of sweat dripping down my nose, I turned back towards Jakob with a huge smile and said, “This stage is made for us. Steep climbing and descending, just like Seven Sisters up in Sandnessjøen!” Sure enough, while other runners were sagging against the cliff walls, Jakob and I sped up when we reached sure footing and after a couple of minutes we reached the crest.
Running and walking along the ridge, we slowly made our way almost due west. On either side we had an extremely steep fall and since the path was small we didn’t have many chances to pass anyone. Still, time enough to enjoy the fantastic views that would prove to be the most spectacular during the entire race. We finally reached the sandy descent from the Jebel after 18,7 km and picking our way down the steep slope, Jakob remarked, “It’s awfully like an off piste, isn’t it?” At the bottom of the hill we had to sit down to remove our socks and shake the sand out of them. The sand in my left shoe would have been enough to fill a bunker at the 9th hole at the golf course back home. I mean, this was getting ridiculous! And the worst part of it was that the runners passing us was really getting on my nerves. For every time we emptied our shoes, we were passed by 10 to 12 people who’d had the good sense to buy proper gaiters and this annoyed me to no end! We were faster than these runners but if we didn’t pick it up they’d be crowning above us in the results! I regret to say that I was a bit snappy with my running mate, but it’s fair to say that he wasn’t a lightning bolt at taking off and putting on his shoes today. A mere five km ahead of us we could see the imposing range of Jebel Otfal and we started to run again, trying to pass the Gentlemen’s Royal Club of Geriatrics who had just passed us, walking sticks and all.
The mountain range in front of us looked insurmountable without the use of crampons and rope. Taking a short break from the baking sun in one of the black berber tents at CP2, we took a deep breath and started out again. Sure enough, the incline went from bad to worse to hellish in a surprisingly short amount of time. We were sweating copiously and the breeze had all but died out. Sand, sand and more sand. Reaching firmer cliffs to our right, in a natural sort of depression with an enormous sandy dune to our left and irregularly shaped, sharp cliffs to the right, we picked up the pace. Once again, this was our environment. “Will you look at that. A scorpion!”, Jakob exclaimed excitedly. After having broken the world record in highest jump from standing perfectly still, I climbed down from my perch to have a closer look. As promised, there was a ghostly pale scorpion, about 5 cm long, perching atop an overturned rock. This put a new safety perspective on our future climbing. There would be no grabbing of rocks above head level until we were absolutely sure that there weren’t any cousins of Sam the Scorpion lurking about. Right above us on the path, two medics were administering i.v. fluid to a runner sitting dazed on a boulder next to them. Stung by a scorpion or by the sun, we couldn’t tell, but he did look a bit on the pale side. Passing him, we picked up our pace.
Suddenly and from nowhere, I hit a solid wall of backpacks. Right in front of us there had formed up a queue of climbers, ringling in a zig-zag pattern up the wall and disappearing out of sight. My patience was already strung far beyond it’s normal borders and this jumble of people seemed to me especially foolish since there was a perfectly climbable passage right to the left of the queue, joining the path maybe ten or fifteen metres higher up. Jumping over to a rock next to the path, I started climbing with Jakob tailing me closely. In just thirty seconds or so we must have passed at least twenty people. Reaching the small plateau at the top, there was some grumbling from the throng. “Take it easy, fellas” I heard someone mutter. We squeezed in front of a LOT of people in the line and speed up via hands and feet to the very top. I can tell you that it was the most beautiful moment of the entire race so far. The view was astonishing and looking down at all of the perturbed runners below us we could see that we had done a fair bit of climbing to get to the top. Elated at having passed so many competitors we dropped the planned photo session and skipped down the almost equally steep and winding path down on the southern part of the Jebel towards the bivouac. I don’t mean to toot our own horn here, but we really rocked on both the climbing and the descents and this was by far our element, as well as the most entertaining part of the event so far. Exiting the range, only a couple of sand dunes separated us from the bivouac and we crossed the finish line in 6 hours 21 minutes having climbed a whopping 93 places in the ranking since the previous day! All in all, a good day on the job. 586th and 587th place. But it had been a tough day nonetheless, seeing 19 competitors withdrawing. Picking up our water rations of 4,5 litres we went in search of our tent for a change of clothes. According to the starting lists there was supposed to be a Slovak, a Czech and a couple of Poles in the German sections of the tent camp. We found the Czech, Josef, first – all smiles and handshakes at being able to speak his mother tongue with us. We found out that he’d beaten us soundly both the previous day and today by around an hour on each occasion. A bald, 57 –year old guy with impressing stamina, disarming humility and an even greater heart. This is why we keep doing these things. For the physical boundaries we break and for the lovely people we meet along the way. Jakob and I shared a glance, hoping against hope that we’d be as fit as this gregarious Czech we had met in the middle of the Sahara. After saying hi to the Slovak and the two Poles, we returned to our tent for some dinner.