Marathon des Sables
This is our chronicle of the desert ultra Marathon des Sables which we completed in April 2013. It’s rather lengthy, but please go ahead and read it – we promise you that you won’t be disappointed. Enjoy!
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.
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.
Marathon des Sables, Stage 3 (38 km)
Tuesday 9th April 2013
The day dawned bright and warm, promising us a sweltering Stage 3. On paper it looked like a pretty flat and uneventful run despite its 38 km. Still feeling full after yesterday’s freeze-dried pasta bolognaise, I forced my breakfast down with a couple of gulps of water. Jakob, it seemed, was constantly hungry and looked forward to every single meal with the same excitement. This enthusiasm even manifested itself during the runs. “Oooh, I wonder what kind of bar I’ll randomly pick up next? Will it be chocolate or my favourite: orange?” But that’s what it’s all about. Attitude. As an athlete – or as a human being, I suppose – it’s your own choice how you will react to unexpected challenges in everyday life as well as in races like this one.
If it’s one thing Jakob and I have learnt during our escapades, it’s that nothing ever goes as planned and that you always miss at least one crucial detail during the planning and execution of a competiton. It doesn’t mean that you should dispense with the planning altogether, only that you should pay more attention next time. A thing that swiftly came to mind, for instance, was the salt tablets we only brought with us as an afterthought to France last summer and that quite clearly saved our lives during that ultramarathon. It’s important to take unwanted surprises in their stride. That’s why I like Jakob so much. Or rather, one of the reasons. His ability to always see things from the sunny side. How are you doing, Jakob? You seem to be limping? “Never been better! I feel strong!” Doesn’t that bar taste aweful? You’ve had 30 of them already. “I LOVE these bars – they taste phenomenal! I could LIVE on them for an entire month!” Do you feel hot? Nauseous? It’s passed 50°C, you know. ”Oh, this is nothing. I love the sun, I really do.”
Setting out to the tunes of Highway from Hell for the third time, we had found a rhythm we were comfortable with. The first 13 km were pretty uneventful crossing a flat plain. As we ran through the pass of El Maharch we were passed by trucks with waving locals who high-fived us through their windows. Reaching CP1 we got a pleasant surprise with Patrick Bauer waiting for us, waving and posing for a photo. This will sound extremely weird but Jakob will support me in this observation which was the lasting memory we had of the encounter. Mr Bauer – wait for it – smelled of roses and soap. No, really, he did. Our noses had gotten so accustomed to our own sweat that when we encountered a normal human being who had paid a little attention to regular hygeine, our senses were overwhelmed. I hesitate to put this in writing, but it’s safe to say that it was one of the most wonderful aromas I had ever smelled.
Leaving the CP and crossing Ras Khemmouna Jebel, one thing became increasingly apparent. The heat. The first two stages had been accompanied by pleasant breezes that had made the oppressive heat bearable. This was the first day that we didn’t have the slightest stirring of wind at all. None. Zilch. Nada. For the first time I noticed that our shadows were very short, extending a mere 50 cm or so from our feet. This close to the equator the sun was almost exactly above us, beating us down into the ground like a sledge hammer. After passing CP2 we ascended a sandy medium sized ridge and it was all I could do to stand upright. 23,4 km into Stage 3 was my toughest moment during the entire race and Jakob had to pull me up the slope. My feet felt like leaden dead weights and the single thought in my mind consisted of moving one foot in front of the other. I had just taken two salt tablets, pulled a long swig from my water bottle and swallowed an energy gel. Despite all these precautions at the CP, I was experiencing the first signs of dehydration or maybe even sun stroke. I began feeling dizzy but I was determined to reach the top of the hill. Jakob, damn him, was skipping across the stones ahead of me as light-footed as a nymph. If only I had a little strength maybe I could strangle him when he got close enough? Not a lot of strangling mind you, just a bit. With heaving breaths akin to a moribund asthmatic I crested the hill and was carressed by a soft puff of fresh air against my face. I picked up my pace downhill, intent on giving Jakob a good throttling when I reached him but somehow I forgot all about it at the next incline. Feeling loads better, I followed my friend who was happily unaware of how close he had brushed to death only minutes before and just like that we were surfing down yet another off piste of sand.
The next five kilometres to CP3 were extremely heavy, the horizon moving further and further away without the Range Rovers of the CP coming any closer. For every little indentation in the ground we thought that the sand would stop, but no. Do you know how many different types of sand there are in the Sahara? I’ve heard that eskimoes have a hundred different names for different types of snow. Well, I imagine that the Berbers and Bedouins have a thousand different names for sand. I only had one, and colourful though it is, it’s hardly suited for print in a chronicle such as this. Reaching CP3 at 32,4 km we had less than six km left to the bivouac across an arid plain that looked like it once had been a sea bed. Unfortunately, the wind had died out, leaving us at the mercy of the late afternoon sun. Jakob was wondering if we should start running soon in order to overtake some competitors before the finish. Not feeling particularly frisky, I convinced Jakob to follow me in a quick walking pace. I asked how many he would like to pass before the finish line, and he promptly replied ”Fifteen”, in order to set an acceptable number. ”I promise that we’ll pass at least fifteen runners with the pace I set, but I can’t run a single step right now and we have to think about tomorrow. 75,7 km will be hard enough as it is without us overstraining ourselves today”. Said and done, we set a grim walking pace, passing at least twenty runners before we crossed the finish line in 6 hours 35 minutes. We had dropped below 600th position today, but I could live with that. Marathon des Sables would start for real tomorrow morning.
The mailman stopped by our tent in the evening, dropping off e-mail sent to us from our families and friends and even people we didn’t know before the race but that had decided to support our small little Swedish team with small texts of encouragement. Among others, we all got mail from Karolina, a mother of four living in Paris and who has followed the race for several years, as well as Rikard, who had run last year’s race and wanted to support us as well. The rest of you – Honey, mom, dad, Marija, Robert, Maria and Nicolas – you cannot imagine how much you lifted our spirits during the evenings and we can’t thank you enough! It had also become time to address an issue that had caused us quite a bit of trouble during the last couple of stages. We had to find a different solution for our gaiters. The plan was to glue and sew cut-up parts of our spare t-shirts onto our shoes. After dinner, we sat down with our design plans and got to work. I think I saw Jakob shed a few tears over having to destroy his trusted shirt that had faded from black to grey a long time ago. It was the shirt of the Malta Marathon, the first marathon he’d ever run. But its death served a higher purpose and to be honest it couldn’t have met a better end than protecting his feet in the most gruelling race on earth. We cut the shirts up by the sleeves, taped the edges with silver tape and spent a considerable amount of time convincing a male nurse to borrow his staple gun to fasten the shirts more tightly to our shoes. In the end our new gaiters actually looked pretty impressive.
Marathon des Sables, Stage 4 (75,7 km)
Wednesday 10th April 2013
I have learnt the hard way how my psyche works prior to hard races and the tougher the challenge the more nervous I seem to get. It starts the night before and if it’s really bad I can’t sleep at all. Jakob is the exact opposite and can never wait to get started. The very things that give me the shivers gives him little twitches of excitement. For instance, I was nervous for running during the night in pitch darkness in the Sahara. I mean, neither Jakob nor I had practiced particularly with our compasses and we were now at the mercy of our own shortcomings. “It’ll be allright! We’ll find our way. I mean, how hard can it be? You just follow the lights in front of us – everybody will have a glow stick attached to their backpack, right?” No arguing there. But still – the distance! 75,7 km! “Yeah, well we managed 108 km last summer, didn’t we?” Yup, we did at that. I’m always sick with anticipation when I’m about to embark upon something so tough that my mind has trouble comprehending the magnitude of it. Jakob simply thinks it cool. The tent was more still than usual, all the more so since one of our team mates, Ariel, had decided to retire due to severe dehydration with fever, shivers, nausea and dizziness. All of us had extreme respect for the distance ahead of us. At the same time, we all knew what we were capable of. As soon as I start running, my doubts run off me like water off a goose and I become completely and utterly focused on the task at hand, often compartmentalizing the distance into manageable smaller chunks.
Stage 4 started with Patrick cautioning us to take it easy since the temperatures would soar higher than ever before. The winner today would be the one who paced himself the best. When the gun went off we started running slowly than at the earlier starts. Everybody was taking it easy. We ran eastwards, over a flat and slowly inclining sandy plain, reaching CP1 after 11,5 km. We were handed two bottles with three litres and quickly poured at least half a litre over our buffs and heads to keep cool. Already, the sun was baking our heads and the wind had disappeared again. We didn’t bother to rest this early into the stage and started to walk up the ascent towards Jebel Zireg. Somewhat out of character, I heard Jakob grumbling behind me. I turned and was a bit surprised to see him struggling. Already? We had barely been on the run for a couple of hours and had a long way to go. “I’m OK. Just need a drink of water”, he panted. It was getting hotter by the minute and it was tough and slow walking up the slope.
Reaching the summit at 16,5 km we were once again greeted by a magnificent view of the surrounding landscape. These devilish little hikes up the slopes were always rewarded with fabulous vistas of the Sahara and what a beautiful part of the world it was. Struggling through heavy sand with salty sweat stinging my eyes I caught myself smiling, not for the first time reflecting that we were indeed blessed to be able to participate in a race like this. And then it hit me. This wasn’t a race against the rest of the competitors. Or even Jakob. It was a race against myself in an equally beautiful as brutal corner of God’s green, and right now somewhat golden and ochre, Earth. Latching onto a Japanese guy with a huge green backpack, we slid down the sandy slope towards the silted up gorge we would be following to CP2. On my way down I noticed the teensiest beginnings of an ache in my left ankle. I hadn’t twisted it or anything. It only started to tingle a bit.
Trying to pick our way among the shrubs and looking for pink-coloured rocks to steer by, we emerged from the gorge and found CP2 by a lone tree at 24 km. Picking up our water we rested for around 15 minutes on the rug in the berber tents before we picked ourselves up and continued along the path aiming for Oued Rheris and CP3 at 36,7 km. My ankle had begun to throb and right now, at around 14.00 in the afternoon, we once again found ourselves in the anteroom of Hell with no wind. During a short break when Jakob was refilling his side pocket with fresh energy bars, we heard a thumping sound behind us and turning, we saw a rhinoceros charging straight at us! No, I’m just kidding. But it might have been. Instead, it was the two top male runners Mohammed Ahansal and Salameh Al Aqra battling it out in a pace that was warpspeeds faster than ours. During this, the longest stage of all, the top 50 men and top 5 women were set loose three hours later than us in order to chase us down like hungry wolves. It also gave us a fascinating chance to experience their unfathomable speed in this terrain first-hand. They flew past us like gazelles and after a short while there were others. Salaris from Spain and Capo Soler from Italy were duelling over third place and there was Christophe Le Saux from France with his characteristic bandana and shoulder-length curly hair bouncing up and down for every step he took. I was so enthralled that I completely forgot the pain in my ankle and when we reached CP3 I had a new spring in my step. We had passed the halfway mark and were pushing to reach CP4 at 45,2 km before nightfall. The reason for this was that after CP4 we had the biggest obstacle of all in our path: the biggest sand dunes in Morocco stretching for almost 20 km.
When we reached Oued Rheris, the pink markings disappeared but the race officials had thoughtfully put up a marker with a compass bearing of 53° just before we dove down among the three-to-four metre tall shrubs. We ignored the British and French who were following each other in circles and forced our way through the vegetation in a more or less straight line, hoping to exit the oued soon and aiming for the CP we still couldn’t see. My painkillers were working fine and we reached the CP running the last stretch of gravel. While resting from the sun for a bit under the black canopy of the tent we noticed a woman dressed in a yellow shirt and with a characteristic hair cut be led by two medics to the medic’s tent. She looked dizzy and her legs were frankly of no more help than a couple of over-cooked spaghetti straws. It was Laurence Klein, last year’s female winner of the race. Another one of the favourites to win the race had overestimated her ability and run headfirst into the redhot brickwall of severe dehydration. Shrugging into our backpacks we started out toward CP4. After a pretty uneventful 8,5 km where the highlight had been to wave and say “Bonjour!” to the local kids cheering us on (and trying to make us part with our buffs which seemed to be extremely popular) we reached CP4 which lay nestled next a huge, smooth sanddune. We were handed two bottles of water each along with a glow stick to attach to our backpacks. We rummaged around in our gear, finding our headtorches, changed batteries and prepared mentally for the darkness ahead. Quite clearly the toughest part of the entire race with the highest sand dunes of the competition separating us from CP5. Donning his NY Marathon beanie, Jakob turned towards me with a huge grin; “Here we go! This is what we’ve been waiting for all week. 30k to go and the coolest 30k of the entire race!!! Gaiters, do your stuff!” Our gaiters were already, after a mere marathondistance, reduced to pitiful shreds of their former selves. Half of the staples fastening them to our soles had fallen off, the silver-tape-strengthened edge of the cloth was torn and tattered and apart from a few staples at the front of our shoes, the only thing holding them together was the extra reinforcement bear thread we had sown them tight with. After a quick prayer we started climbing. Only half an hour or so after we left the CP the sun set behind the mountain range directly behind us, sending our shadows crawling far ahead of us on the sand dunes in front. After a while we lit our head torches and followed the glow sticks on a couple of backpacks 200 metres ahead of us. Running at night has always had a special place in my heart ever since our ultra in France last summer. You’re on your own against the elements and you have none of the comfort of landscape or structures to lift the monotony of the darkness. It’s quite a lot harder on your psyche to run in the dark, in your own bubble of light illuminating only maybe ten to fifteen metres in front of you. The sand dunes were endless. Up we climbed and down we surfed, getting a bit of sand in our shoes for every descent despite our gaiters. A short while afterwards it got pitch black and suddenly a poison green laser cut through the night sky pointing out the direction towards the CP. We checked our compasses for bearing 73° every quarter of an hour or so making sure the course coincided with the laser. After a while we started zig-zagging through camel grass and every time we crested a hill I was convinced that the laser was on the top of the next one. The way it shone, however, it could have been placed 200 metres or 200 kilometres ahead of us. Pushing foolishly and dragging Jakob along behind me, I was panting hard when we finally reached the military truck on which the huge laser was perched. We both heaved a heavy sigh of relief and ran down the final 500 metres to CP5 where we gratefully accepted our water bottles and settled down inside the tent to empty our shoes of all the sand. We were exhausted by now and my ankle was, quite frankly, killing me. In our minds we divided up the remaining distance into two 10 kilometre chunks, telling ourselves that we’d run 10k many, many times before and that this would be a piece of cake.
Heading almost due north, this section was unbelievably boring. Even though it was close to 22.00 the temperature was still a good way into the upper thirties. The absence of the Big Sledge Hammer In The Sky was a huge help though and since nightfall we’d been pushed along by a cool, gentle breeze. We passed many a struggling, lone runner (or walker, since we couldn’t see anyone truly running) while none passed us during the last stretch to the bivouac. We fell into conversation with Lettish, Poles, British and French and tried to buoy their spirits as best we could. A couple of them tried to keep up but had to fall away after a short while. Since we couldn’t run we walked, covering big chunks in short amounts of time. Due to my ankle and fatigue I was having a hard time during this section of the race and Jakob lifted my spirits with one bad joke after another, chattering away about trivial stuff that I can’t recall at all but that helped me immensely while we struggled across the many stony valleys between us and CP6. Finally reaching it after 65,2 km, I spread out on the rug in the resting tent and closed my eyes for a second. I was asleep faster than you could say bottleneck and just as quickly I woke, startled at what had happened. “If you hadn’t been here, I might have just taken a nap and not woken until tomorrow morning. Jesus!” “Don’t worry. I would have kicked you in the ribs until you woke up. We’re friends, remember?” Not wishing to delve further into what kind of friendships that are proven by physical abuse, we slowly and painfully rose, as graciously as a couple of rheumatics, and began limping down towards the glowstick marker further on.
I don’t remember much of the last 10k other than that we seemed to pass a lot of people. I was pretty alert but I guess it was the adrenaline that rushed through me in response to the certainty that we would most certainly cross the finish line in another hour and, by extension, the worst part of the Marathon des Sables. Which of course meant that we were only inches from finishing the entire race. What was a last day’s simple marathon distance? I mean, come on! True to his irrational form, Jakob wished to sprint the final half kilometre and for once I relented, joining him in a crazed and spastic shuffling across the gravelly sand separating us from the finish line. 16 hours 43 minutes 59 seconds after setting out on Stage 4 we managed to stumble under the big, white arch and were greeted by race officials cheering and whooping. It was a phenomenal feeling and we were so happy that we gulped down the hot, sugary tea served by the sponsors Sultan without a second thought. We got huge hugs from the girls at the water tent, picked up our rations and went in search for our tent. There we met our three Swedish compatriots who were all smiles and patting us on our backs. Hurting in every – every – single muscle and joint, we cooked dinner, ate, crept into our sleeping bags and quicker than a clubbed seal fell comatose.
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.