Every Spring in the Moroccan Sahara, hundreds compete in a 150-mile footrace to test their endurance, but this year has been cancelled due to the coronavirus
Story and photographs by Robin Postell
Moroccan Sahara. The oppressive heat has me sweating like a slave. The temperature gauge on the side of the stripped-down Land Rover reads 120 degrees and the sun still hasn’t completed its mean parade through the day.
With a 102 degree fever and a stomach as weak as a newborn’s, this is the most miserable day of my life.
The second stage of the Marathon des Sables is being waged. This is war.
Competitors in this 150-mile footrace through the desert get to know their foes well in a week out here; winds that whip and kiss, a sun that licks with a tongue of fire, fields full of rocks to bully knees and ankles, and mountains made of glassy sand.
Each conspire with a general’s vigor to conquer the racers.
The Marquis de Sade would approve of the lengths the race goes to demoralize its competitors.
Tornadoes of sand and wind whirl in the distance. waves of heat gyrate up from the horizon, distorting the images of running figures.
Flies pop and zap at our sweaty brows, antagonizing the runners who continue to push through the hot miles.
We pore over maps, navigating the quickest way to the second state finish. I jump from the Rover, a wave of nausea yanking my stomach into knots. Secretly I pray that Carolyn, the Sports Illustrated photographer from New York City, catches my bug. Her smugness is as bad as the dysentery. She oozes disdain for my illness, her haughty sniffs and eye rolls far too openly displayed to go without eventual karmic payback.
“Just you wait,” I think.
Denise, our other Rover-mate, is a British tour guide who plays den mother to the British racing contingent. She has already been afflicted and has almost fully recovered from this awful plague. She enjoys watching my discomfort, laughing in between frequent jaunts to the dunes to be sick from one end or the other.
Our group in the Land Rover wait as I dry heave in the sand. Bickering ensues over which route to take. Ali, our Moroccan driver who speaks six languages fluently has been smoking hash all day. From one of the local villages, he’s an ace driver in high demand, surfing through the sandy dunes, throwing us to and fro with obvious glee. The hash, he insists, helps him drive better. His relentless jostling only exacerbates my nausea. Ali passes a cigarette laced with hash to me and says, “Feel better,” with a knowing wink.
“Feel better,” he says, with a knowing wink.
This is what suffering is made of, I catch myself thinking. Such a selfish thought, really, since I’m in the back of the Land Rover now bundled up in every piece of clothing I can dig out of my North Face yellow duffel bag. The fever has convinced me I’m freezing to death. My pain is supreme. I lie atop all of our bags, eyes closed, trying not to let the movement add to my nausea.
“How do they do it?” I holler, remembering that I’m at least being toted in a Land Rover and not running. As competitors are spewing in the sand, gettig IVs at checkpoint tents, and then continuing on, bent on acquiring the redemption they believe finishing this race will entitle them, I think they are all mad. You would have to be, to actually pay to run with everything you’ll need for the entire week in a backpack through temperatures sometimes over 140 degrees.
Only another hundred miles to go! What’s a little diarrhea and puke when you’re maxing your potential already in this kind of test of human endurance. Small price to pay for killing yourself for a week in the Sahara, right?
That cheap medal they’ll hang around their necks at the finish has got to be worth, what? Fifty cents? Maybe sixty when you throw in the cheap red and white ribbon.
They each paid $2400 to enter the Marathon des Sables. That’s not counting the money spent on training for it, time off from work for a couple of weeks getting here and returning, plus the travel costs.
Don’t forget to figure in the amount of time it might take for them to recover from the event and missing work.
Their feet, even the most seasoned, will get beaten up pretty good.
Chances of winning? Slim to none.
With over 600 racers to beat, unless they are made of balsa wood and paper, and fart jet fuel, they won’t be crossing the finish line before Mohamad and Lahcen Ahansal, the two dusty Sahara-born boys from the tiny sand-swept village of Zagora. Whichever one crosses the finish line first will win 30,000 French francs (about $4,500 US). For a Sahara boy, that’s about three years of salary, a hell of a big carrot for them to chase.
So, why does everyone else do it? You won’t get a straight answer. An unspoken reasoning threads itself throughout the field of competitors. Once they finish, they’ll hold the secret and won’t tell you what it is. Attempts will be made but they’ll have a look in their eyes that wasn’t there before.
They’ll tell you, if you want to know, try it yourself. That’s the only way to fully grasp it.
For those who have done it and returned for more, they can easily take on an air of sanctimony. They earn that right to be smug, we in the Land Rover conclude.
Among the journalists, the topic of choice is always, why?
Like looking at an abstract painting, each viewer interprets it differently. We have days to philosophize about the meaning of the race, which winds up being about the meaning of life.
In the end, it becomes a rhetorical question.
This six-stage, seven-day race consists of a plethora of agonies.
Stage One teases everyone with a mere 15.6 miles, but today’s Dune Day, Stage Two, is what everyone has been dreading.
“I feel if we get through Dune Day,” Holly Hollenback from San Francisco says, “We’ll be okay.” She’s running with torn ligaments.Holly Hollenback from San Francisco
But there really is no hump day.
Every extra day might mean fewer miles, but added problems. Unlike typical marathons, when you hit a stride and just go for it, this race is stride-impossible because he terrain is so varied.
Dunes, rocks, hills, dried lake beds, the occasional village. There is always something new to get used to. Once you’re accustomed to one setting, it changes.
“There is no stride,” says 40-something Cathy Tibbets, a Marathon des Sables veteran who runs ultramarathons (100+-nonstop miles) and competes in Eco-Challenges for fun when she’s not practicing optometry in Arizona.
The physical rigors one must inevitably endure from attempting such a venture should not go without mention. Hollywood-worthy blisters; duct-tape covered, Astroglide-slicked crotch-rot; nipple-rash from the unending friction from nylon backpack straps; broken bones; heat stroke and all its relatives; prolapsed uterus (meaning it actually falls out); gangrene; dehydration; hunger and sleep deprivation; and even death.
In 1988 a marathon-savvy, healthy 24-year-old man became dehydrated, slipped into shock, and suffered a fatal heart attack. The race continued without him.
The bone-dry Sahara, ironically once the bottom of the ocean, is no place to hold a race.
Nonetheless, a race has been held here every spring. The 2020 race, which will be the 35th, has been cancelled due to the coronavirus scare, rescheduled for September.
During this time, the Marathon des Sables has grown and prospered.
The origin came from a Frenchman’s solo sojourn into the desert to test his will in 1984.
Patrick Bauer, 28, a photographer from Troyes, France, decided to walk across the Sahara. He chose a 350+-kilometer course between the Saharan villages of Tamanrasset and In Guezam, the last Algerian town located a few km from the Niger.
All Bauer took were walking shoes and a backpack containing a sleeping bag, a water tank, and food. According to race lore, he saw a shooting star while lying exhausted in the sand and came up with the idea for the race.
Bauer decided to share the experience with the world, holding the first event in 1987 with only 23 competitors and a course streching between the village of Zagora and Mhamid.
Steadily the field of competitors grew each year as sponsorship broadened. Adventurers and sportsmen around the world began to hear about it and sign up.
Today the race has grown to include over 600 competitors from over 30 countries and inspired other similar races worldwide. The Marathon des Sables has been passed around mostly through word of mouth.
For those looking for adventure and challenge, the MDS is a real mark of manhood. It makes babies out of men, and men out of babies.
Ages of competitors range from 16 to 80. More spiritual inquisition than innocuous athletic contest, it asks a lot and give nothing tangible in return.
The true goal of this race is not to reward you for beating eveyrone else to the finish, but rather to wrestle doubt, fear, temptation, anger, hunger and even death out of making you throw in the towel.
Most competitors entertain nearly constant thoughts of quitting.
But stopping hurts worse.
Only those in the very front, those that don’t stop or seem to have the need for food, sleep, or comfort, know the meaning of this race in the true sense of the word “race.”
There are three races with the Marathon des Sables. At the very front are those wo are trying to actually win.
The middle of the race is comprised of competitors who know they can’t win but are definitely watching the clock and shooting for their highest times possible.
The others just want to finish, and prove to themselves they can do it. If they finish last along with the ever-present camels who trail behind the race, no matter.
They finished, and return to their normal lives with some excellent cocktail party anecdotes.
“I knew I was making good time and getting close to the front when everyone around me started getting skinnier,” Mark Spangler from Minnesota says.
At the end of Dune Day, seven people have dropped out.
Joe Girard. a Canadian police officer, lumbers back to his tent. “Where is the race director?” he asks deliriously. “We have a bone to pick with him. Those dunes were demoralizing. I was in the Airborne for 20 years and it didn’t come close to this level of difficulty. This was incredible.”
Girard gingerly unties his shoes and quips, “The agony of da feet…I just couldn’t quit stopping…I could see the bivouac but, I kept stopping like a dead battery.”
Everyone appears shell-shocked.
“It’s always hard,” Spangler adds. By the end of Dune Day, he has accumulated 15 blisters. “It always feels like something is wrong. It’s always hot…uncomfortable…”
STAGE THREE is 23.75 miles. Sandstorms abound. Runners wear turbans and goggles and lea into the win.
My fever has dropped a degree but I’m shivering and sweating in regular intervals. Carolyn looks on with quiet disgust. I wait for her inevitable doom.
From the first day of the race, competitors begin to drop out, but by today the toll rises. Compounded injuries, lack of water, and dysentery all combine to forma perfect recipe of torment.
Often those you expect to do well fail miserably, and vice versa.
An overlooked factor that makes the MdS worth enduring is its sense of family. A mini-UN of sorts, competitors come from all walks of life, all social strata, and economic brackets, religious and political creeds, every imaginable educational background, and countries on every continent.
One woman, Lisa Berry, came directly from Antarctica where she had spent the summer driving an ice tractor.
At any given race, you will witness the gamut of humanity.
During five years of my coverage of the race, I’ve met cocky investment bankers from Manhattan, two of which wound up in wheelchairs at the post-race bash with vicious cases of gangrene.
An Olympic pentathlon gold medalist and police officer from Rome who in 1994’s MDS was lost in a sandstorm for eight days, drank his own urine, sucked the blood out of a bat, tried to commit suicide with a dull knife, burnt his backpack to signal helicopters, and was finally rescued by Algerian soldiers when he wandered over the border 44 pounds lighter.
A team of San Miguel beer reps from Spain carrying heavy packs full of sausages and martini shakers, all proudly coming in dead last.
A team of cigarette-smoking French Foreign Legionnaires stationed in Djibouti who would only speak to me from the media because I was working for Solider of Fortune magazine.
A blind boxer from France.
A housewife from Italy.
A German femme fatale with the thighs of a quarterhorse who broke her arm in one race, had it put in a splint at a checkpoint, and continued the race coming in near the front.
A 70-year-old yogi from Paris.
A team of philanthropists from Hong Kong.
A British veteran who had lost an arm and a leg clearing landmines in Mozambique, running on a prosthetic which he said gave him an advantage because he could only get blisters on one foot.
A retired contractor from San Jose.
A bike shop owner from Michigan.
A public defender from D.C.
A merchant mariner from Florida.
A student from Nigeria.
A team of guards from Buckingham Palace.
The two now famously front-running brothers Ahansal from a Moroccan village.
An 80-year-old Frenchman who never stops smiling.
All come with their own notions about what the race will be like and how they will manage.
Rarely does it turn out how they planned. Forged bonds have a great impact on how they fare. The more people met, the larger the cheering squad. If they’re on their knees, hurling energy bar bile into a dune, his next-door tent neighbor could come along and convince him not to quit.
The fellowship of journeymen grows throughout the race. Rarely do you see competition get in the way of goodwill and decency. On occasion, you hear gossip and quibbling about so-and-sos pack being lighter than regulation; rumors that the race organization looks the other way in some cases, favoring some competitors over others.
Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. It is all part of the game. The Americans and Brits tend to make comments like, “That’s the French for you,” referring to the organization in charge of the race.
The traveling bivouac that becomes home and salvation is logistical brilliance. Desert nomads dressed in heavy robes or layered woolen garments are hired to erect the tent cities in the afternoons, then break them down and move it at daybreak.
My usual wake-up call is a Tuareg tearing up one of the stakes holding down my tent. The rattling canvas strikes terror into my soul as I struggle into wakefulness and throw everything in my bag to load back onto the Land Rover.
Racers sleep underneath black burlap, open-air tents, while journaalists and race personnel sleep in large white canvas tents – the difference between a Motel 6 and the Hilton.
A starting line is always present at each bivouac, and a finish line quickly erected at the next bivouac at the end of each stage.
Lifelong friendships are made in these traveling villages, sometimes even marriages are sparked. As the days go on, the friendships turn familial. There is an element that waves military, in that the competitors develop a platoon mentality. They are essentially “in the trenches” together, and some of the strongest bonds of a lifetime spring from just such sharing of suffering and overcoming, even if they never meet again.
The ability of these ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary acts out in the Sahara can in part be traced back to these bivouac settlements.
In the mornings, racers gather to discuss the coming day, sorting through the packs, exchanging advice and encouragement.
And at the end of the day’s leg, they collapse in tents (6-8 per) rehashing the day’s particular horrors. They lie next to one another’s sweaty bodies, stinking, aching, itching, bitching, groaning, bleeding, oozing, eating (and rationing) their allotted food, and finally falling asleep (or trying to). Snores, farts, and sleeptalking are as common as blisters and crotch rot.
Personal hygiene is a joke by Stage Three.
In the giant kitty litter box of the Sahara, competitors return to their ancestral roots of taking a squat. At first, modest competitors wander off until they’ve become a mere speck on the horizon in order to take a private dump.
But my mid-race competitors inch closer and closer to the bivouac and tent, modesty be damned.
Dubbed “the shitting fields” by the competitors, the horizon becomes littered with little tufts of wadded toilet tissue and they lament when one lands squarely in their lap. They accuse one another of not burying their tissue and shit.
With blistered feet, one gets lazy. Taking one step further than absolutely necessary seems a waste of time and effort.
Everyone is reduced to delirious prepubescent chatter and ranting as the race persists, simultaneously inspired to philosophical heights never before reached.
STAGE FOUR covers the fourth and fifth days of the race and many consider these by far the worst, second only to Dune Day.
At 51.26 miles, Stage Four is no cake walk. Because of the length, it stretches over a two-day period, although front-runners will finish in a handful of hours.
Today, Lahcen Ahansal and his younger brother Mohamad will break their previous year’s record, completing the stage in just over six hours.
They cross the finish line holding hands.
For the last five races, the brothers Ahansal have dominated the race. Their humble beginnings as Saharan village boys make their achievements in th race all the more incredible. Here, in the tiny wandering kingdom of the race, they are royalty.
All legs and arms and teeth, these two kings have made many worldly, weathered athletes and aesthetes alike break out in goosebumps of awe. Fellow racers idolize them and shyly stroll past their tents in hopes of catching a glimpse of them.
Their abilities seem preternatural. Kite-like, they blow across the sand and rock, averaging 10-kilometers an hour.
Close on their heels is Italian police officer Marco Gozzano, who through the years has also gained a near-celeb reputation in the race. Over 50, he astounds the Ahansal brothers who are in their mid-20s.
Marco Olmo, also from Italy and 50+, along with Frenchman Filles Diehl, are always in the front pack. They return every year.
Those who return more than likely swear they never will during this stage. But, like the labor of childbirth, eventually all of the pain is forgotten.
Pastel vistas of tall mountains and dunes paint this long stage of the race. Tamarin trees and short scruffy shrubs, interspersed with small rolling dunes pepper the course.
“No day compared to any of the other days,” comments Dan Baldi, who was having a problem getting primed up for this long leg of the race.
As night falls and the winds cool, competitors continue to cross the Stage Four finish.
I’m feeling better but still weak. Carolyn, about mid-afternoon, begins to fet a pinched look on her face. She’s lying prone in our tent with her hand on her head. I feign sympathy and give her some anti-nausea tablets. Simple joys.
I wander to the racer’s tent village. Jason Walker from Minnesota, a hardcore party animal on the club circuit, has been comic relief.
“I was thinking about ice cubes until about six hours ago, and then all I wanted was a hug,” Walker says, managing a laugh as he heads to the haven of his tent.
Those left on the course will endure frigid night air. Some will sprawl on the sand, opting for sleep and a morning finish. Others will slog on.
The distant glow of the bivouac beacon will serve as both inspiration and disillusionment to those wandering through the night, as it never seems to draw nearer.
By the end of Stage Four, 57 have withdrawn.
STAGE FIVE is Marathon Day.
I’m keeping food down and Carolyn is not. She’s so sick that I almost feel sorry for her but remember her apathy and quietly titter when I walk away from the tent.
By now, everyone knows the end is possible. Marathon Day, at 26.2 miles, almost sounds easy.
They are that much closer to a taste of what life was like before this week started.
“I can’t believe it,” Larry Brede says. “In 48 hours I’ll have a shower, clean clothes, food and as much beer in my gut as I can stand. Isn’t that great? Clean and drunk.”
Today’s heat is the worst. Black flies busily annoy everyone. The heat grinds its heel into your back until you collapse and wait for it to grow bored with you and leave, but it doesn’t.
If you’re sick, you’re sicker.
The Ahansals are still managing to keep their lead. Mohamad crosses the finish line first, his knotty bare feet bare as he lies on the rug of his tent and smiles for photos. His toes splay out to expose nothing but parched skin, no blisters. He and his brother Lahcen are mountain guides in the Atlas region of Morocco. Mohamad says that they use their winnings for building their own guide business. They bought their mother jewelry with their first win.
Mohomad tells me about Lahcen lounging in his robes one day years ago in Zagora.
“He saw the race as it came through,” Mohamad explains, “and he tears off his robes and starts running alongside the other competitors.”
MDS creator Patrick Bauer was so impressed with Lahcen’s high unofficial finish that he invited him to run the next year. After a couple of tries, he won.
And hasn’ stopped.
Mohamad joined in and took a win as well. Mohamad tells me they learned to run fast by stealing fruit from vendor’s carts in their village.
STAGE SIX is a mere skip at 13.1 miles. Finally the race winds itself out.
Lahcen Ahansal takes first, with a total time of 18 hours, 42 minutes, and 10 seconds.
Competitors run, walk, leap, cartwheel, dance and hobble across the finish line standing in the middle of the village. Some drop to their knees and kiss the ground.
Bauer meets each one, kissing both cheeks, draping a medal around their necks.
They hassle and search rabidly for something cold to drink, as it is usually a given to have treats waiting for their hungry, outstretched hands. They’ve been unable to accept anything from anyone for a week, and now, they’ll take hot cokes, junk food-filled lunch packets, and rolled carpets for winners and runners-up.
Mohamad and Lahcen do jogs for the crowd as Moroccan musicians surround them in dizzying exhibition.
I the end, what do they feel? Probably much like Bauer did in 1984. It will takes weeks, months, for their bodies to heal, and longer for the reality of having finished the race to sink in.
To cleanse the soul, add a blend of suffering, bake it in the sun in an oven of sand, then sweat it all out; all that damned trauma of civilization and all the bastard thoughts of contentment that diaper our tempered spirits and make us fat and indolent, and oftentimes quietly miserable, slip into the sands and leave you new.
At least for a little while.
Until you return to your air-conditioned nightmares, let a couple of weeks pass, and start tallying up your credit card debts all over again.
Back home, to worlds of plastic and fiberglass, hot and cold water, automatic ice cubes and commodes that flush without touching them, to beds covered in waffled of puff and pillows of down, to video games and cellphone and computers and cable TV. Back to your own private dins of iniquity, back to acquiring things instead of peace of mind, until it all needs purging again.
Which explains why you see so many of the same faces here year after year.