A Chronicle of Marathon des Sables, part 4
Marathon des Sables, resting day
Thursday 11th April 2013
We hadn’t dared to remove our socks when we tucked in the previous night in fear of revealing horrendous and bloody wounds. After breakfast, Jakob and I went straight over to the medic tent to give our poor feet the attention they deserved. Gingerly removing the band-aids I had applied the day before I winced at the sight of raw flesh and new, pretty chafings on my heels. Seeing a humongous blister almost completely encircling my left pinkie drew out a hysterical little laugh, drawing nervous glances from fellow patients sitting round us. The guy next to me gave me a furtive look, grabbed his stool and edged a foot away from me, turning the other way. Our feet pristine and scrubbed pink, we took cover from the sun in the berber tents next to the entrance to the big brown medic tent, awaiting our turn at professional pain infliction. Now, I don’t know if you have ever had somebody put out a cigarette butt against your forearm? No? How about breaking your leg in a car crash? Not that either? Given birth? Well. From the grimaces on Jakob’s face while they were puncturing and cleaning his microscopic blisters with alcohol, you would think that this would be a procedure of Pain Level 1 Alpha. Simply put: 50 on a scale from one to ten.
With Jakob writhing on the floor a couple of chairs away I lay down on my back on the rug and placed my feet at a stool in front of Clemente, a no-nonsense looking French lady who seemed to wield her instruments with professionalism and care. To this day, more than two weeks after the race, my toes are coloured with the red disinfectant eosin. Very effective. Jakob and I limped from the tent in our slippers and visited the preliminary result list in front of the official’s tent. After the slip-up of Stage 3, we had climbed to our highest rating yet; 555th and 556th position and pleased with ourselves we strolled around the encampment in order to soften up our muscles and joints. In the afternoon there rose a buzz from the centre of camp where we’d picked up our water in the morning. From out of nowhere there materialized red boxes with metal cylinders being distributed to people who had begun to run up to the truck. Passing the watergirls we saw that they were handing out a treat: a can of Coke! Skipping up and down in excitement, pushing people aside left and right, we finally received our cans. Oh. My. God. Coca Cola has never tasted so good! Ever! We were on a sugar high the rest of the evening and dinner time was spent telling and re-telling jokes in front of our small cooking fires. Falling asleep we promised ourselves that we would push ourselves to the brink during tomorrow’s last marathon stage.
We needed to finish the Marathon des Sables in style.
Marathon des Sables, Stage 5 (42,2 km)
Friday 12th April 2013
The morning shone bright and warm, promising a hot day. The days had only gotten warmer and warmer during the entire week and from what we’d heard the temperature had topped out at 54° during the previous day. We slipped our sore feet into our shoes for the final running stage of the competition and picked up our considerably lighter backpacks. The night before we had gotten rid of all excess calories and equipment that we wouldn’t need during the last stage. This evening we would get dinner from the organisation meaning the end of the self-sufficiency part of the race. Standing in the middle of our little sea of runners we smiled and nodded at familiar faces and traded jokes about the race with each other. Even though we had a full marathon to finish today it still felt like we had survived the worst part of the entire competition. The non-stop stage of 75,7 km had been on our minds since day one and having succesfully completed it gave us a sense of relief. Today’s stage was only a minor bump between us and our medals. Barely worth fretting about. We had run several marathons before, hadn’t we? Well, this should be a piece of cake.
We were swept over the starting line and waved to the camera man sitting precariously in the rusty red chopper swooping above our heads, dangling his feet over the edge. I turned to my right to say something to Jakob but he wasn’t there. It took me a couple of seconds to locate him in front of me. I caught him a few moments later and we ran on together across the first couple of kilometres towards Oued Ziz cutting a deep gash across the slightly sandy plain. ”Jakob, I think we should slow down a bit. It is a marathon, you know, and we still have 40k to go. The tempo’s a bit fast for me and my ankle”, I said. ”Oh. Yeah, right!”, he replied and dutifully slowed his pace. Zig-zagging around the camelgrass it took him a full ninety seconds before he once again quickened his pace. Dammit! ”Jakob”, I cautioned him, ”take it easy”. ”Yes. Right!”, he replied absent-mindedly and slowed down again. Earlier in the morning we had decided to push our speed as far as we dared. We wanted to finish the race properly and since we only had a short charity race to walk the following day we figured that we could be completely exhausted this afternoon provided that we crossed the finish line on our own two feet and not on a stretcher in one of the land rovers. Reaching CP1 in record time we took a mini-break and charged on, alternating running and walking. We hardly felt the weight of the backpacks since we’d dumped most of the food after breakfast and were rigorous with our hydration and salt intake. Nevertheless, I felt my ankle giving up on me after about half a marathon, just before CP2. I thought I’d wait with a painkiller until after the CP but after a couple of minutes I was limping so badly I had trouble keeping up. I cursed under my breath, heaved a heavy sigh and popped my last pill. Having crossed Oued Moha Fighnas we only had a couple of kilometres left. This stage had been spiced with many more spectators than usual and just before the halfway mark we climbed some low stone walls built of rubble and walked between fields of crop towards the waiting water rovers. We got our water card punched and charged on. The pain in my foot had numbed slightly but was still there. Chancing a slow jog we carried on across slightly stony terrain and entered a stretch of sand dunes. We’d been running for more than three hours when suddenly the wind died down and we once again found ourselves in a hellishly hot baking oven. The sweat was stinging my eyes and my lips were parched and cracked. I’d lost my sun stick balm during the long run and was now suffering the consequences. After 28,5 km we entered the dunes of Znaïgui Erg following a north-northwesterly course. Turning around to check on Jakob I saw him lagging behind with heavy steps. He was suffering from the brutal heat and was breathing heavily.
The dunes were magnificent and the sky a marvellous shade of azure, but their beauty was lost on poor Jakob who was struggling desperately. I stifled a cough of I-told-you-so, and contented myself to gloat inwardly. Exiting the dunes we started to ascend a coal-black slope towards CP 3 at 33,7 km, reaching it thoroughly exhausted. Only 8 km to go. We sat down, emptied our shoes of sand and had a drink. Of water. “OK, this is the home stretch. Come on!”, Jakob let out, his fatigue replaced with an iron determination. I pushed my throbbing ankle to the innermost reaches of my mind, firmly ignoring it and stood up with a firm “Let’s go!” We descended through a small pass, running along at a calm but steady pace picking up speed across the stony valley heading towards a rocky peak to our left. At the summit we passed the M’Fis mines whose miners didn’t pay us any notice. Having crazy runners galloping through their working place in multicoloured outfits was clearly not as strange an occurance as we liked to think. Slowing to a walk through an old village full of ruins we glimpsed hens and chickens among the withering walls. Taking a left turn around the final house we stared out over a field of oued beds and stony ground towards the bivouac. “Less than 5 km to go, my friend”, I informed Jakob after a hasty look at my GPS. “Care for a final run?”, he replied with a grin, and off we went. We had pushed ourselves to the absolute limit of our abilities and were it not for it being the absolutely final piece of the final stage our crazy dash would have been utter madness. As it was, 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.
I felt completely and utterly drained but at the same time full of energy and joy. This was the biggest adventure we had ever set out upon together and dauntingly difficult though it had seemed three years ago, we had conquered the golden desert after meticulous planning and training. In the words of Muhammad Ali. Impossible is nothing. Finishing the marathon in 7 hours 5 minutes 54 seconds, we had run the final Stage 5 in a record pace of 5,92 km per hour, completing the race in 43 hours 44 minutes 59 seconds (a full 24 hours after the winner Mohammad Ahansal, for comparison) and securing ourselves 582nd and 583rd place. We picked up our water rations and joined our fellow Swedes in the tent. Sharing war stories like old Afghanistan veterans, we changed into our trusty but dusty longsleeved Icebreakers and went in search of medical attention for our feet. A painful hour later we all congregated in the queue for dinner, savouring the smells and sights from the huge serving tent. I can tell you that seldom has a plate of lamb and couscous and a can of coke tasted so delicious.
After dinner we went to our tent to have a little break but it didn’t take long before Jakob said he was feeling a bit ill and had been dizzy for a while. After a week in the Sahara you learn to recognize the symptoms of beginning dehydration and the sooner you start treatment for it, the quicker you recover. I walked with him to the medical tent and left him in the custody of a big-bosomed nurse and since he had forgotten all about me after entering conversation with her I slipped away. I set course towards a big stage that had been erected next to our tent camp during the day. At the moment they were screening an awesome film of the race thus far, complete with a cool soundtrack. I found Marcus, limped over to where he sat and joined him in admiring the vistas and photos of the movie. After the film ended, a cover band entered the stage and even though I can’t recall the band’s name I vividly remember the lead vocals. A blonde woman with a very strong voice bid us welcome in both French and English, announcing that they were from Canada and had played during Marathon des Sables several times as a final sort of treat for the competitors. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. Here we were, sitting in the middle of the Moroccan desert only a few kilometres from the Algerian border, listening and clapping to a Canadian cover band.
I turned my eyes upward toward the dark sky and stared in wonder at the brightly shining stars starting to poke small holes in the curtain of the sky. After a while, Jakob joined us with a water bottle filled with some cocktail he had been ordered to drink. He looked a bit weary and announced that he was probably ready for bed soon, but no sooner did the pretty young female water bottle distributors start dancing in front of the stage than my dear friend perked visibly up and suggested we join them lest anyone else did quicker than us. Limping up to the stage we started dancing to Hendrix, Beyoncé and Red Hot Chili Peppers and we completely forgot our aching feet and painful toes. It was a magical concert and all around us runners were starting to join us on the “dance floor” of desert sand, loosening up and dancing along. It was a feeling of pure and unadulterated joy. Quite simply one of the most astonishing feelings I have ever had. Now we knew for certain that we had managed to finish the desert ultra. It was if it hadn’t sunken in until right at this very moment and filled with an ecstatic and at the same time strangely soothing feeling we danced the night away not going to bed until well after 01.00.
Marathon des Sables, Charity Stage (7,7 km)
Saturday 13th April 2013
The following morning it was time to pick up our complimentary azure blue shirts with Unicef’s logo on the chest. Today we were to walk the final charity stage of the ultramarathon, measuring a mere 7,7 km through the dunes that separated us from Merzouga from where we would ride our buses to Ouarzazate and our hotels. The organisation served us the best breakfast I believe I have ever eaten in my life. Not only did we get eggs (!) but also different sorts of jam, coffee and a slice of cheese. Gearing up for the last time, Team Sweden headed away towards the starting line where Patrick Bauer was announcing the winners of the race as well as several other laureates receiveing rewards for among other things most completed races (twentysix!!!), the visually disabled runner who had completed his tenth Marathon des Sables and would be adding a tenth star to his MdeS-tattoo on his arm and of course the winners of all the different age categories. After a while we finally got started and set course towards the finish line in Merzouga. Even though the distance was short it was still a formidable test of our final drops of endurance since we were walking through some very impressive dunes. Right next to the finish line, a huge balloon Berber was sipping tea from a huge balloon tea cup and we were all invited to share a cup of Sultan sponsor tea with our friends. The finish was well organized and quick and before we knew it, we had been liberated from our emergency flares and GPS-transmitters and would soon be boarding the buses bound for Ouarzazate. I felt tired, hot and dusty. My lips were cracked and dry and my neck was sandy below my buff. Also, I was strangely at ease. We had liberated our feet from our shoes with their torn gaiters and were sitting – sitting in a proper, soft seat! – barefoot together watching the bus slowly being filled by runners.
After a short while, the bus started rumbling along a gravelled side-road by the parking lot and we suddenly found ourselves hurtling down a highway at break-neck speed. Just like that we were heading towards civilisation again, philosophising about our experiences with Marcus who was sitting behind us. After a couple of hours the bus came to a halt next to the highway and we slowly filed outside with our lunch bags tightly clenched in our hands. Jakob, Marcus and I sat down on the gravelly slope next to the bus and watched our blue-clad fellow runners limp away a few metres across the open plain in front of us and standing with their backs to us relieve themselves after the bus ride. Jakob remarked that we all looked like convicts on a bus transport to some maximum security prison in Arizona. The majority of the men had grey stubble lining their jaws which, together with their hard, angled faces and emaciated expressions, gave them a fierce and unrelenting air. These were the toughest of the toughest and the hardest of the hardest. Quite simply some of the most perseverant endurance athletes in the world. And we were sitting right in their midst. It was such a hilarious moment.
The six-hour trip to Ouarzazate was uneventful. At the hotel we were finally reunited with the bags we had left at the technical check-in seven days ago. We carried them up to our spacious room and had a look around. It’s hard to explain the enthusiasm we felt over having a soft mattress and clean sheets to sleep in, a warm and soft rug to walk on and switching on the lights with a flick of our fingers. But the most fascinating aspect of our quarters was, as you may imagine, our bathroom. I tell you, civilisation’s most formidable achievement is that of running water in a shower and a toilet that can flush. Oh, and an unlimited supply of toilet paper. While I had an almost tear-inducing conversation with my wife on the phone, Jakob wasted no time in finding a shop right next to the hotel purchasing orange juice, chocolate bars and a set of rough sponges. I graciously allowed Jakob first dibs at the shower and enjoyed the view over the construction site from our balcony while Jakob did his best to flood the floor of the bathroom. Between us we used up an entire bottle of shampoo and the amount of dust, sand and grime in the bath tub was horrendous. Finally, smelling of roses and dressed in clean shirts, shorts and flip-flops for the first time in nine days, we descended the stairs towards the restaurant where we met up with Team Sweden and Finland for dinner and wine. That evening we managed to empty the hotel bar of all their beer – or so the staff claimed. The following morning we all met up again for breakfast in the lovely sunshine of the morning. We said our goodbyes to Johan, Marcus, Tomas, Aries, Illka and Mauna, promising we would stay in touch and joking that we would never enter the race again. Everyone except Tomas that announced he would be running it again the following year. It only took a moment for the rest of us to smile knowingly. Of course we would run the race again!
Because this was only the beginning.