Marathon des Sables 2001

Morocco, April 2001.

My father dropped out yesterday—the second day of the race—as did another poor sap from Citibank whom he convinced to sign up for the 16th edition of the Marathon des Sables but who sprained his ankle on the sleet rock terrain.
My father is just tired: he hasn’t started on chemo yet, but the hormone injections don’t do much for his stamina.
My uncle—my father’s brother—is with us too. A real family reunion. I can’t help but think that my father wants us around for his last Marathon des Sables. To share something with the two closest members of his family because he has barely seen them for most of their lives.
My uncle has such a sunny and happy-go-lucky disposition that it makes my random fatigue-induced moodiness appear downright cantankerous. Everyone in the tent loves his optimism, and I love getting to know the guy better.
He’s four years younger than my father and idolizes his older brother. While my father’s drive and ambition—and desire to turn his back completely on Portland, Oregon—compelled him to start working at the age of 10 as a paper boy, pay his way through college in four years (the first in his family to get a degree) and work his way through the ranks of Citibank, his brother chose a more laidback approach to life. He loves their hometown for its proximity to both snow and surf, and though he shares my dad’s love of traveling, he always made Portland his home base. He enroled in the Marine Corps at the age of 17, was volunteered to attend the atom bomb tests in the Nevada desert, finally graduated from college in eight years, and then moved from one job to another for the next thirty years, including a bout of unemployment. Since his work was mainly blue-collar, he’s kept in shape, and now he’s coasting to retirement working in the shipyard unloading cement from Japanese ships. 
Kurt tells me that he quit drinking for the three months running up to the race. “Longest stretch without beer since I was fourteen!”
He definitely intends to appreciate every moment in the desert.

What we are definitely ALL inspired, by - and when I say "all" I mean all 600+ participants, not just me and my family - are the ten people carrying two children afflicted with muscular dystrophy disorder across the desert...


“This guy is insane!” I hear a competitor in my tent cry out as he drops his backpack.
He is the last to arrive at the end of this third stage.
A few other competitors join in on the recriminations against Patrick Bauer. I can’t help but smile. It’s the same litany of verbal abuse I heard also on the third day of the race last year. This is when reality seeps into the runners’ minds. Their bravado has been punched out of them. They realise this race is not about the distance, but about lack of calories, high heat, sand grit, stumbling in dunes, blisters, not to mention sleeping on wafer-thin mattresses (if they even brought one) with eight snoring smelly tentmates—and getting up every morning for six days to face five, eight, twelve or twenty-four hours in the desert.
Their expressions of anger also belie their fear. The fear of the long stage tomorrow. If they make it through, however, I know they will the first to drop to their knees on the seventh day to receive their medal and thank Patrick tearfully for enabling to have such a mind-blowing experience. In fact, only a few travel a mental downward spiral that leads them to quitting; most pass this 3rd-day mindfuck and realise that actually the Marathon des Sables is doable, you just have to stick with it.
I’m a little apprehensive, of course, because tomorrow we face the longest “long stage” of the race’s history, over 50 miles, and doable doesn't mean that I'm guaranteed to finish, no matter that I did so last year and am in much better shape physically and mentally this year. (this year I have cotton gaters sewn into my shoes, Spandex shorts, plenty of magnesium, and a five-dollar, ultra-light tyvek suit used by painters and that is ideal to guard against the nighttime cold and wind. I saw a lot of people using it last year and figured it was a good idea: it is.)
There are a lot of imponderables. Anything can happen, but certainly I'm going in with confidence. I'll have to break a bone to stop at this point.
Yesterday, I did briefly wonder what I was doing back, but now I’m hoping I’ll be able to return next year. 
This is before my hand cramps up when I try to open one of the three bottles of water I received at today’s finish line.

I head to the medical tent. The doctor immediately diagnoses dyhdration and hooks me to an I.V. 
So, a half gallon of fluids, and I’m good to go. Not quite. Just as the doctor’s hooked up the third sack of dextrosed, electolyted water I suddenly have a pressing need to defecate.
The doctor is not happy. (“Neither am I,” I tell him.) Finally he hands me a roll of toilet paper and unhooks the I.V., explaining in a rasping mumble that I need to hold it over my head so the blood doesn’t seep back into the I.V. bag.
So off I trundle behind a dune (why I would care at this point about privacy among similarly afflicted runners is one for the students of human behavior and social interaction) and try all to manage removing my one-piece painter’s suit with one hand, squatting with one hand held high in the air, then using the toilet paper—well, I think the point is made.
When I return to the medical tent, I’m given Imodium to stem the diarrhea. Apparently, it’s all that magnesium I’ve been taking.
It’s midnight when the last drop of fluid seeps into my veins. But I am still not allowed to return to the relative comfort of my sleeping bag—the doctor wishes to keep me under observation.
What he intends to observe remains a mystery, since he promptly falls asleep after unhooking the I.V. and begins to snore like a freight train, while I struggle to find a decent position on this concave stretcher.
I’m forced to lie on my back. I hate sleeping on my back. I feel like I’m falling.

I barely have enough time the next morning to collect my backpack and head out to join the rest of the competitors at the starting line.
My father is nowhere to be seen. Someone tells me that he’s managed to convince the organisation to drive him and his fellow banker to Ouarzazate to catch an early plane home.
Suddenly I wonder why I am doing this if my father could care so little that he can leave without saying goodbye. And the thought of striking out for 50+ mile run on about two hours of sleep almost makes me want to quit.
But I have no choice. I need this, need desperately this accomplishment that gives meaning to my life. The one thing that I doesn’t make me feel ashamed, that I can even boast about.
The I.V. and anger do wonders for my energy, and I march through the day without many memories. I’m slower than last year, however, and when a sandstorm strikes at two o’clock in the morning, I am still about twelve miles from the finish line. I unroll my mattress and sleeping bag at the next checkpoint and promptly fall asleep for two hours.
At dawn, I begin to wonder if the roadbook isn’t lying about the distance between the last checkpoint and the stage finish line. Eight or nine miles, but I seem to be wandering along the edge of an oasis for ever
My mind is filled with dark thoughts. I think with anger at the past months of relapses and broken promises. Most of all, I’m cursing my father for abandoning me. I recollect all those evenings as a child waiting for him to come home, only to learn that he is away on another business trip.
I can’t believe he left without saying goodbye. Without even checking up on me…
“Ach, Eric – is that you?”
I spin around: it’s Mark, the same guy with whom I finished the long stage last year. Once again he is plagued with stomach problems. This time I can relate. I’ve been popping Imodium for the past 24 hours, but it hasn’t quite stemmed the diarrhea. I’ve run out of toilet paper and have begun to rip out the pages of my roadbook. Again.
We jog the rest of the way and, with company perking up my spirits, it turns out that it isn't far at all.
We cross the finish line hand in hand. 
My father is there, waiting for me, of course.

Handy portable cooking stove
The sight of him dissipates much of my anger—because if he is here then my reasons for being angry with him are now non-existent. But it’s a knee-jerk reaction and I grasp at straws, stating that at least he could have inquired about my health since I’d been in the medical tent all night. He tells me that he did, and was told that I was fine, that of course he’d never leave without telling me and in any case had no intention of doing so.
Now I feel guilty.

I sleep most of the next day—our rest day—amble around the camp a bit, basking in the glow of achievement. I see a Japanese competitor smoking a few yards from his tent and am tempted to ask him for a cigarette, but I don’t. 
I eat two freeze-dried meals, dry-roasted peanuts (my favorite) and macademia nuts, a quart of broth for salt and comfort (broth tastes so good after expending this much energy. These are my alloted 2,000 calories for the day. We have to justify at least that amount per racing day, or 14,000 calories total. Which is pretty much what we burn during the long stage alone, but no-one is about to carry more. My backpack weighed in at 22 pounds at the start of the event; now it’s down to half that now. I still have the emergency flare, compass, sleeping bag and mattress to carry, but it seems very light in comparison.
The marathon stage on Day Six and the final leg on Day Seven are a blur. I take it easy and have no pains to complain about.

I finish just as I’d hoped, and in 52 hours total, ranking somewhere in the middle. My uncle finishes also, just a few hours behind me.

Sunset in the Sahara

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