Marathon des Sables 2000

My training for this, my first major race, was haphazard at best. I had one year to prepare after my father informed, early one Sunday morning as I was nursing a hangover in Los Angeles, that he had registered me for the 15th edition of the Marathon des Sables.
One year after pretty much ten years of inactivity (after I quit playing tennis in college). I trained and ran a marathon in November 1999, during which I pinched my sciatic nerve. I was unable to do much until February 2000, only two months before the Marathon des Sables.
I started to walk—two, four, six hours at a time. Then I ran again—and, miraculously,  my sciatica never flared up. I peak at around 50 miles of running/walking a week.
I went to saunas to accustom my body to the desert heat.
I practiced eating freeze-dried food.
I tried to go for as long as I could without water. 
Then I had a brilliant idea based on my scant knowledge of marathon training. 20 miles is roughly three-quarters of a marathon, which you do about one month out from the race: why not do three-quarters of the Marathon des Sables a month before the race?
Monday: 15 miles.
Tuesday: 20 miles.
Wednesday: 25 miles.
Thursday, the fourth day: 40 miles.
 A month later I left for Morocco.

April 2000, Sahara desert, southern Morocco.

Imagine a group of Parisians on a week-long retreat of silence in the middle—or so they presume—of the soaring dunes of Erg Chebbi, southern Morocco. 
Imagine the torturous bliss of three days of silence after the roaring life of Paris.
Now imagine that on their fourth day they are suddenly disturbed by 680 dirty, sweaty, dehydrated runners who appear out of nowhere on a 150-mile trek to somewhere, and who enter their camp with the hopes of finding water, believing that the white, pointy, Roman-style tents belong to the organization of the Marathon des Sables...

The Parisians are here for the same reason as the runners: a complete removal from their usual surroundings, exploring their limits, searching for inner silence.
Who is more authentic? Who has greater claim to the desert?
No matter—the runners never ask, never care. They impose their sense of superiority that stems from the belief that they are accomplishing an incredible feat of physical and mental prowess. That gives them all the rights, and they take over the site completely. 
The organisation has to helicopter in doctors to treat runners who are dropping like flies and refuse to continue after learning that this is not the end of the day’s stage, that these are Parisians who have paid a fortune to learn about silence (just like the runners, actually) and yet now are forced to break their vow (only a week’s vow!) to come to the aid of reckless runners.
The Parisians never affected the race, the runners destroyed their retreat.
Still—I must admit, the bewildered expression on their faces is priceless. I can imagine their response when they return home and have to answer their friends’ perennial question: “So? How was it?” 
I hope the Parisians, too, will laugh about it later.
What an incongruous, totally surreal encounter.
Isn’t that what life is about?
Life is what happens when you’re making other plans, sang John Lennon.

The encounter with the Parisians occurs on the third stage of the Marathon des Sables, a race in six stages that takes place over seven days: three of 23-25 miles each, a “long stage” of 50 miles that must be completed in under 35 hours, the official 26-mile marathon stage on day 6, and a final short stage of 10 miles to bring us to the finish line.
Every runner carries in their backpack enough food to cover 2,000 calories per day (though we are consuming anywhere from 5,000 to 12,000), as well as a cooking stove, a windbreaker, a sleeping bag, possibly a light mattress to protect from sharp rocks at night (since this is not mandatory, many wait in line each evening to receive cardboard boxes discarded by the organisation), a head lamp, an emergency blanket, a flare, a whistle, a compass, disinfectant, a venom extractor, and any extra clothing they may care to bring along—for a total weight of anywhere between 12 and 30 pounds.
I’ve managed to whittle mine down to just under 20 pounds, 8.8 kilos—not counting the 1.5-liter bottles of water that the organization gives us every 5 miles or so during each stage.

On the third day of the race, the first two stages appear in hindsight like sweet strolls in the park—getting us used to the heat (about 105-110°F) and the terrain (from sandy to rocky, with very few dunes) without taxing us too much in terms of distance. Less than two dozen miles covered in four to five hours.
From the start, I was told by an experience Marathon des Sables participant, a guy named Rory wrapped in clothes the color of the Union Jack and waving the UK flag, to just take it easy. Walk, jog, don’t run too much. “You’ll be passing them all on the fourth day,” he says.
As we pass the second check point on the third day, I’m still feeling good, having covered nine miles in an hour and a half, running now far more than I am walking—and no sciatica in sight. The landscape is extraordinary, enchanting; the ground smooth, relatively flat.
I receive my rations of three liters of water before heading into the dunes.

I had been warned me about the dunes on the third day of the race—and for the 15th edition of the Marathon des Sables, Patrick Bauer has really gone all out, making the stage more grueling than anything my father has seen in his five previous participations, forcing us to trudge 12 miles through calf-high sand up towering dunes.
Oh, and the heat. Did I mention the heat? Over 50°C (122°F), we are later informed.

I stop every fifteen minutes to empty my shoes, cursing my father for never having learned the lesson of affixing gaiters to keep out the sand—but thanking the stars that the pair of shoes, which a friend gave me only a week before the race, are two and a half sizes too big, providing space for my swelling feet.
Several competitors have removed their shoes and walk in socks. Only those with gaiters wade non-stop through the dunes.

I’m also grateful to a fellow competitor, a Swiss guy from Neuchatel who went into jewelry-making after going bankrupt in the housing crisis of early 1990s. Like most competitors, I don’t have a change of clothing—what’s the point really, just extra weight… Anyway, the shorts I brought with me were an old pair of gym shorts that would ride up my thighs at every step. That’s fine on a three to four hour hike, or even ten hours on flat ground. But here, with the hills, the heat and the sand, I ended up with severe burns on the inside of my thighs within a day and a half. The medical team applied ointment and taped gauze to the wounds, but it was quite obvious that it wouldn’t last the rest of the week.
Eric from Neuchatel gave me his second pair of Spandex shorts, for which I am deeply and eternally thankful. And I found out why most runners swear by them.

Three hours after Check Point two and there is still no end in sight to these dunes. Three hours following a single compass point—87°—trying not to veer off course. 
Soon I’ll run out of water. The little I have left is nauseously tepid, and tastes like melted plastic. 
The landscape is magical, but it sure doesn’t change much.
My fellow competitors are strung out single-file like a long line of POWs—bent over their toes, stumbling in the sand, suffering in silence. A suffering that was deliberately sought after but that surely none of us is now truly able to own up to; and a silence that is so complete we can hear the waves of heat rising from the dunes.
My fingers have swollen to size of sausages. I feel chills and goose bumps along my arms and down my spine. I’m convinced I’m going to collapse from heat stroke. Or even a plain stroke.
Not an idle fear: the sky soon lights up with explosions of emergency flares, and every half hour or so I come across yet another person lying on the flank of a dune, desperate for some shade, huddled under a survival blanket—always, thankfully, with one or two other people hovering over them, giving them sips of water, patting their foreheads with a soaked buff.
I thank these good samaritans, I smile at them weakly as I pass. I thank them for allowing me not to stop. What a terrible feeling, being forced to face up to one egotism…
Soon we hear the rotor sound of the helicopter flying in to evacuate someone, then flying them back to the campsite.
It’s like a remake of Apocalypse Now depicting the Gulf War. More surreal than tripping on acid, for sure.

The other terrible feeling is how the sight of these contestants for whom the show is now over actually boosts my own morale. As bad I feel, I know I am not nearing collapse (though I will find out in a future edition of the Marathon des Sables how quickly the tide turns). In fact, I’m feeling quite strong—as if my strength and determination were increasing in proportion with the mounting difficulties of sand, heat and lack of water.
Fueled by a grim to determination to prove that I am not worthless.

There are two Italians up ahead, following one another by only a few feet. The one behind is spewing forth a litany of phrases—va fan culo, puta di mierda! Patrick Bauer, brutto figlio di puttana bastardo!!!—the beauty and lyricism of which evidently belie a much harsher sentiment. His friend is gesticulating with obvious meaning: where’s the next fucking aid station!
The Japanese runner in front of me undoubtedly wonders the same thing. I stop to watch him clamber up yet another dune. Fifty or sixty feet high, but I’m not sure. It seems monstrous whatever the real height. The Japanese competitor has his hands on his thighs, as if that might help propell him upwards. He slips, dives headfirst into the sand, starts sliding down the mountain. I take a few steps and help him up. He spits out the sand, gives me a nod, and heads up the dune again. I’m astonished, amazed at his impassivity, his acceptance of fate.
But then he reaches the top and, of course, salvation is nowhere in sight. The sea of sand stretches before him mercilessly. He crouches down like a sumo wrestler and lets out a bloodcurdling cry that shatters the silence and spreads through air like a bomb exploding. Then he jumps two feet first and slides down the dune like a kid on a ski slope.
I start to make my way up the dune, shielding my eyes from the sun. When I reach the top, it’s worse than I think: the next dune towers before me even higher than this one.

It turns out to be a blessing in disguise, however, because beyond this next dune I finally spot is the spire of tent.
I pour the remaining drops of water on my swollen, itchy hands and tear down the dune.
A big mistake, it turns out.
It’s not the aid station, it’s the Parisians.

Some may have broken their vow of silence, they are nevertheless not allowed to give us any water—but of course they offer it anyway. Some accept—and are disqualified. Many of us refuse to do so. Bodies give way to evident dehydration and the organization is obliged to fly in a small team of doctors with IV units, and medivac at least one serious case of hyperthermia. Minds snap as runners collapse in tears.
I’m saved by the familiar sound of Swiss French, spoken in the lilting tongue of the Fribourg region. It’s one of my tent-mates, Gilles, who is venting his rage against the organization—and anger is the perfect antidote to despair.
So I latch on to him to cover the remaining three miles to the real Check Point. Forty minutes of mind-numbing stumbling through dunes of decreasing height in an attempt to reach our goal before we, too, collapse. It’s like driving faster when you’re running out of fuel—it makes no rational sense, but at this point only the mind matters anyway.
We down our alotted quart of water at the aid station before tearing across the final two-mile stretch of a mercifully hardened, dry—flat!—river bed. 

And we pass beneath the arrival arches in an explosive state where joyous relief and fury co-mingle in equal states. 
Over five and a half hours to cover 12 miles. We climbed 287 dunes. Someone counted...
Gilles and I rank well into the top half of surviving competitors. More than 10% drop out that day. The helicopter flew for more than six hours.
It doesn’t make sense to me. This is only my second footrace. I suppose my haphazard training wasn’t that bad.
The fury soon subsides and the sense of joy takes its place expanding to bliss.
And I discover for the first time a great paradox of extreme running, a focal point of its appeal: whatever makes you suffer the most during the race is what procures the greatest pleasure upon completing it, simply because it has ended. Because you overcame it. Because you did not stop.
You did not quit.

A morning sandstorm delays the start of the fourth day of the race, the 50-mile “long stage”. Huddling under our sleeping bags, we wait for the storm to abate. Finally, the race resumes at 9.45am. With more sand dunes. 
The terrain then morphs into a flat, rocky stretch and I find myself limping, tripping on flints of stone—thankful at least that I have no blisters.
But a nagging discomfort—not yet pain—is creeping from my hip down my right leg, my sciatica flaring up again. Morale is low and I have no idea how I am going to pull through. My stomach has started to act up, my nose begins to bleed, my head is spinning and I’m having difficulty keeping water down. 
Then something strange happens: A few runners break off from the main pack and head east up a mild hill.
I pull out the day’s pages of my road book from my front pack and check the coordinates that we are supposed to follow against my compass. Indeed, everyone except those who are making for the hill have veered slightly off course. Patrick Bauer, the organiser, is intent on having everyone experience the desert at night, and since the top runners will complete the 50 miles in seven to twelve hours, he makes them leave at noon. Therefore the front runners today are used to following, not leading—which might explain why they headed in the wrong direction, avoiding the hill, no doubt).
I decide also to change course and head up the hill. And this whole episode, which only lasts about five minutes, teaches me an invaluable lesson: that pain can be an illusion, and anxiety (in my case, the fear of quitting generated by the discomfort in my hip) is a mental construct that can be dispelled by recognising it for the chimera that it is, either by distracting the mind and forgetting about it or staring at it long enough for it to dissolve.

So I ignore the pain in my hip and it conveniently disappears. The day flows by quite easily. I’m chugging a magnesium pill every four hours since learning that it helps fight cramps and muscle soreness. I’m changing my socks at every check point just as my dad taught me to avoid blisters (I have three pairs, one on my feet and two tied to my backpack to dry in the desert air). I’m snacking on nuts: macadamia and dry roasted peanuts, my favorite.
The relentless sun is on my back, urging me forwards. The temperature has dropped, but still hovering at 110°F. The back of my calves feel as if they are being branded with hot coals. Long live nightfall...
I start jogging at an almost 6-mile an hour clip in the middle of the afternoon, just past mile 23. The terrain is as barren and black and flat as I imagine the surface of the moon to be. I am impatient to reach the next check point.

When I get there and sit down to change my socks, I realize that my calves are aflame, a nice first-degree burn. At the previous stop, I forgot to put on more suntan cream on.
I enter the medial tent. A few competitors are hooked to IV units, several more are just lying there, resting, pale.
One of them suddenly sits up, puts his arms on his raised knees, cradles his head in his hands. Says that he wants to quit. A doctor nearby jerks round, answers sharply: “Ah, you didn’t pay this much money to quit now! Just wait a couple of hours. Sun has set, you’re no longer dehydrated. You’ll be fine.” 
He walks over and it seems like he’s going to slap the runner aside the head. But he turns to me instead and asks me my problem; I show him my calves.
“Ever heard of suntan lotion?” he snaps.
“Got it right here,” I answer, feeling once again like I’m back in high school and forgot to do my homework. “Missed it at the last checkpoint.”
He grabs the tube. “Factor 30? Useless! You need 60, 50 at least.”
“Can you help me or not?” I ask, reasserting myself. Endurance sports return you to childhood, I realise: emotional, high-strung, self-centered, yet capable of a huge outpouring of joy, generosity and empathy.
The doctor smiles and leads me to a corner of the tent. I sit down on the coarse rug while he rubs soothing cream on my calves before binding them like a horse’s ankle straps.
I’m a stallion... Ah, this very image is all it takes for me to afix my headlamp and tear off into the night.
The temperature has now dropped to below 80°F, the desert feels air-conditioned. 
My legs, on the other hand, are like blocks of molten rock. Sometimes they hurt with a dull pain, sometimes I don’t feel them at all; most times I am able to to forget about them. It doesn’t make a difference. Tired legs will never be a reason to quit.
I soon turn off my headlamp. The moon is full, the stars are engorged and the landscape is like a movie set bathed in spot lights.
I pass over a few low dunes, past an oasis and through various stages and degrees of exhilaration.

The next check point is one large tent surrounded by spattering of small campfires. It is nine o’clock at night, and many runners have stopped to enjoy a moonlit dinner in the shadows of outlying dunes. They have gathered in threes or fours. The laughter and lively banter that rises from the campfires makes me think of pirates celebrating on a desert island after a successful grapple with a treasure-laden ship.
I am not particularly hungry, however, feeding on peanuts, dried meat and a long-duration energy bar. Most of all, I feel the urge to be alone.
I have never felt such peace, such contentment. The exhilaration I felt when running at night through the desert after now four days and almost 80 miles has given way to a deep, suffused sense of well-being.
I briefly regret not having stopped at the previous check point and taken the time to enjoy a moonlit dinner with my fellow companions… Why so rushed? I am well within the cut-off time.

Then I pass a runner and hear my name.
I don’t want to stop, I’m enjoying the solitude. But I hear a quiet desperation in his voice. This runner needs company.
I turn around. “Mark”
“Ja… Es geht nicht ganz gut mit mir…” He’s a fellow Swiss runner, from Zurich. “It is not good with me,” he repeats, switching to an English that is far better than my German.
We barely pause to speak. He’s hobbling—but not walking—and I slow down slightly to match his pace. It feels more comfortable and I realize that it’s only an endorphin rush has allowed me to run faster than I should. Might as well slow down and not burn into my reserves.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“What’s not wrong?” he retorts.
Blisters cover his feet and he is plagued with stomach cramps that make it impossible for him to keep down fluids, let alone food. He’s afraid of dehydrating.
And he can’t stop farting. I make sure I stay a few steps ahead of him.
We jog, we walk at a fast clip, we jog again, and the miles fade away. Mostly in silence. A very comfortable silence punctuated by Mark’s farts. “Entschuldigung…” It’s all that Imodium he’s taken to stem the dysentery. No need to apologise. There is no shame among us anymore.
I also stop at one point to relieve my own sore bowels, barely hidden by a small cactus bush. I use the pages of the roadbook as toilet paper.
Just past midnight we enter a Kasbah that seems to have appeared out of the Middle Ages, with narrow candlelit alleys and towering walls behind which the desert has disappeared… Some children run alongside us, seeking a high-five before holding their hand out for money—but we have none to give, even in the name of charity. We hear some sporadic clapping as a group of men in jeans and flip-flops watch us go by. They are smiling, but I can tell that they really don’t understand this Western urge to run, run, run…
Are our lives that easy and free of pain that we have to create our own difficulties and submit ourselves to such suffering? Have our existences become so metronomic and void of challenge that we must go to such lengths to prove our worth?
We emerge from the Kasbah into a fantasmagoric landscape of palm trees and patches of irrigated land. Olive and lemon trees and cereal paddies stretch for several hundred yards until they bump up against a field of dunes.
More dunes? Just before the campsite.
Curse Patrick Bauer!
Still, my morale is good now and I couldn’t careless about my reasons for running. Here in the Sahara, at my first Marathon des Sables, I have certainly not reached the point where I wonder why I compete in such extreme endurance races, or even why I run at all… All I know is that I am turning a new leaf, I am finding myself, and proving my strength, my worth...
Whatever else they may be, the sensations generated by running for fifteen hours are spiritual indeed. 
You don’t mock or question the spiritual, for sure.

It is just past two o’clock in the morning when we cross the stage finish line, just under sixteen hours of racing. 
At the end of the first three days, I ranked in the lower 580s out of 680 competitors. We completed this stage somewhere around 250.
Mark thanks me—I thank him in turn. And we head to our separate tents.
I know I am going to finish the race now. Tomorrow I will rest all day—then a 26-mile marathon on day 6 and a measly eight miles on day 7. I have no blisters and no serious pain. But I acknowledge this without any particular emotion—especially since knowing that I will finish is not quite the same as actually finishing...
I am beyond pride. I expect nothing from myself or anyone else. I have no desires, no regrets, no ambition, no particular thought. I feel all at once like a switch has been turned off, empty inside—in a good way, with a sigh of relief at the sudden calm. No more agitation. Satori. 

I am haggard and bone-tired and I can’t even smile. But my heart is huge and my eyes are lit up like those of a Beatnik on Benzedrine. 

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