Marathon des Sables - Part 3

Off beat

Day 2 starts off innocently enough. Through closed eyes the light glows stronger and there is stillness. But it is just the desert spirits playing with our hopes. Sure enough, as 9 o’clock draws near dirt devils start forming, swirling and collapsing. A faint breeze brushes our cheeks. No, I mutter, stay still. But the spirits have written their own script.

Earlier in the morning I went to pick up my 3L of water. I approached the water station at the centre of our ring of shelters. “Deux, huit, cinq” I said in my best French accent, providing my race number, 285. The water giver looks at me like some errant school child. “Deux cent quatre-vingts-cinq”, she corrected me, quite pleased to have been able to prevent another foreigner from further mangling the French language.

I passed her my race tag that dangled from a zip chain around my neck. It is used to keep track of our water ration and race progress. Each time we receive water or pass a checkpoint, a corresponding hole is punched on the tag.

“Ou la la”, she exhaled, her eyes widening. “You did not get water yesterday morning”. No, I reply, I did not need it.

She clucked her tongue and beamed, “You will get a penalty.” Yes, I got a penalty, an hour added to my finishing time moving me from 309th to 505th place. And I think I made her day.

At the starting line a round of happy birthdays is sung to various racers and soon we are on our way.

Like the day before, as if on schedule, the wind picks up strength. It is as if the acceleration of the racers, like the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings has set off a chaotic motion that magnifies and blows back in our faces.

There is to be no wind at our backs today. We are headed due west for the whole 36km distance.

The wind is strong and gusty, blowing at 40km/hr at its strongest. I can only manage to shuffle along. Still very weak from the illness and with the weight of my almost full pack on my back, I cannot lengthen my stride.

I look around to see how the others are dealing with this wind. Some power through it, fists clench, punching the air with every step; some dance with it, speeding up, slowly down, stepping left, dodging right; some cheat it, drafting behind other runners but not returning the favour; some succumb to it, walking whenever it becomes too tough.

If I am having this much trouble running I wonder how one of the more off beat entries, the Save the Rhino team, with each member taking turns running inside a rhino costume, is coping.

I am a rhythm runner. If I cannot maintain 90 beats per minute I struggle. Today, I feel like a gecko in quicksand. The path to checkpoint 1 is sandy and rocky ending with one long hill at the top of which, hidden behind some outcrops, is the checkpoint. The organizers, I’ve noticed, like to surprise us with their checkpoint placements, often concealing them so that we don’t see the cluster of land cruisers until we’re almost upon them. I’ve decided that they are evil.

A short distance past the first checkpoint we are greeted with our first look at sand dunes. They are small but hard to run through on a day like today. I walk up the face and stride down the lee of each dune. Occasionally, I’ll skirt around if it’s possible.

At the end of this first set of dunes I stop and sit on a dunelette (small dune, I made this name up) to take off my gaiters and shake the sand from inside my shoes. The gaiters are worst than useless. They, in fact, seemed to conspire with the sand to direct it through the uppers of the toes of shoe. Since I seem to be scooping up half the desert and can’t be any worst off without them I stuffed the gaiters into my pack.

Sandra, a Canadian racer who has competed the previous two years catches up to me. There’s a tension bandage on her right knee. “What’s up?” I ask. “I’m hobbling. My knee is shot”, she says.

Sandra hasn’t had much luck with this race. Every year, bad luck and injuries seems to have kept her from competing at her best. One year it was the runs and dehydration (they hooked her up to IVs); another year it was a hip injury. But she’ll keep coming back, I guess, until she gets one right. This year doesn’t look to be it. “Keep her going”, I call out when I pass her after resuming my shuffle.

The wind increases it’s ferocity, blowing at a constant 40km/hr. I can run no more. My shuffle is barely faster than a walk so I walk the rest of the way to checkpoint 2 at 24 km.

At this point I don’t know what is worst, the wind or my stomach. I double over. Ok, it’s my stomach. The Imodium is working today but my stomach, in a reversal of function, feels like it’s the one begin eaten.

My shoulder is also taking a thrashing; my pack rests heavily on them. I adjust my hip belt. I’ll have to remember to wear them tighter tomorrow.

Sand is blowing straight at me, striking me like a grimy wall being cleaned by a sand blaster. I pull my hat lower; I stretch my Buff higher covering my nose and mouth. Sometimes I can’t take a single step, it’s all I can do to keep from falling over backwards. There’s no one in front of me. Well, there must be but at times I can’t see more than 30m.

Sore, tired and dehydrated from 6 and a quarter hours of barely moving faster than a walk, I stumble past the finish line, pick up my water for the night, collapse onto my back in the tent and lay there, not moving, for a long, long time. And at night I have strange and feverish dreams.

Race photos:

Continue to Part 4