Marathon des Sables - Part 7

Homeward bound

Every night, when the heavy fog of sleep blankets the bivouac, I would get up 2 or 3 times, walk away from the circle of shelters to my own place in the desert and stare up at the brilliantly dark sky.

A utilitarian trip to empty the bladder became a ritual to gaze up at the canvas of stars, bisected by the arc of the Milky Way, a splash of light drunkenly painted on to the night. And as my thoughts drifted here and there I would sometimes wonder, out of all of life’s paths, why did I strike along the one that led me here, to the depths of the Sahara.

The words of Dr. Seuss came to mind:

You can get so confused
that you’ll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…

Sometimes it’s best not to think so hard, especially when alone in the dark.

On my last night in the desert, the pinpricks of light had blossomed into cotton balls, courtesy of my damaged eyesight. The stars spread out like blown dandelion fluff. I wished that time would hold still during moments like this. After a long while the coolness soaked through my skin and I grew cold. I shivered and walked back to the bivouac feeling my way from tent to tent and eventually crawled into my warm sleeping bag.

I awoke feeling stiff, groggy and sore, feeling exactly like I had just run for 6 days. My shoulders in particular felt like someone, some super-sized person, had been standing on them all week.

As we milled about going through our morning routine, everyone was in an upbeat yet reflective mood. It was our last day. The question, will I be able to finish, had mostly been answered. We wore the shell-shocked looked of having gone through an Arthurian quest and now that it was about to end, of wishing that we had a chance to prolong it. Yes, let’s throw that sword back into the lake, let’s rebury the treasure, let’s turn around, camels in tow and run back into the heart of the desert.

Jeremy with his customary blue woolly toque covering his head, and sporting a seven days growth of scraggly Soggy Bottom boy beard asked, “Well, Ed. What’s next for you, now that we’re almost done?”

“Home…” I replied not much liking the sound of that. “I can’t see very well still so Marrakech, steamy chai’s, steam baths, souks and bazaars are out of the question. I was so looking forward to it. How about you?”

“Back to Bordeaux”, he sighed, “I can’t be away much longer.”

I went off to mentally prepare for the day ahead munching on a Pop Tart, my 7th Pop Tart in as many days.

Warmed up and ready I wandered back to my pack. The boys of tent 42 were all there and we congratulated each other on making it to this day. I shouldered my pack. It felt so light now having slimmed down to a mere 1.5 kg of sleeping bag and clothes, most of the food having being eaten.

The music came on loud and bouncy, blasting through the bivouac. Like the Sirens of Homer’s Ulysses it beckoned us to the starting line.

At the appointed minute Patrick Bauer motioned for the music to be turned off. He climbed atop his Land Rover and congratulated us. “It is almost over. I will see you at Foum Zguid 20 kilometres that way.” He pointed beyond the starting banner.

Wild cheering erupted, the music started up again and everyone was anxious to get going.

Do you ever question your life?
Do you ever wonder why.
Do you ever see in your dreams.
All the castles in the sky.

Beeeeurrrrrp, the horn sounded, and the trucks sped off towards the distant hills leaving clouds of sand in their wake.

Oh tell me why, do we build castles in the sky
Oh tell me why, all the castles way up high

The music was still ringing in my ears a kilometre away as I tried to stay off the deep wheel ruts left by the Rovers. The sand was softer there and made running more difficult.

Out of all the days in this race, my legs felt the worst today, heavy with that day after a marathon kind of soreness. Wiseass voice inside said, “Well, what did you think you ran yesterday?”

By this point in the race one can’t really dwell on what went before. All of my energy was needed to complete the task at hand. If I had started to think about the distances that I had travelled I most likely would have stopped in my tracks and sat down weeping.

About three kilometres into the race I began savouring the moment. The sun was shining bright. The air was warm with only a hint of wind. What a great day to be alive and feel the body in motion, sore but moving nonetheless. You could sense that everyone was more relaxed as we made our way along.

I ran with Maurice, who bravely continued with horribly bleeding feet, for a few kilometres and then along came Jeremy who looked to have recovered from an upset stomach and some leg cramps the previous couple of days. His lips were cracked and crusty, the desert dryness exacting its toll.

I stopped to drink at the first water station at 9.5km, a direct line north from where we started. Maurice and Jeremy grabbed a bottle and kept running. I took some time to refill my water bladder. I felt in no rush to finish today.

About 2 km past the water stop I caught up to Maurice and then to Jeremy again. They had slowed a bit and I had found a comfortable rhythm so I ran on alone occasionally catching and passing more runners.

At about 13 km I came upon a road. It was a bit disorientating, like the times when I’ve worked or camped in Canada’s bush country for extended periods and upon seeing a road for the first time in weeks or months a faint queasiness would come over me. Roads meant civilization and order and conformity.

I looked both ways, some habits are hard to break, and crossed over. Another kilometre onwards was a dirt road that we followed. It ran parallel to the paved road. My gaze followed the contour of the paved road as it rose up above my position reaching into a curtain of cliffs. I wondered if we would stop before the cliffs or run through or up them.

Within another kilometre I had my answer. Foum Zguid appeared nestled on a wadi in front of the cliffs. It had the classic lines of old Arabic architecture. There were numerous sandy brown adobe buildings sporting white trimmings spread out along the wadi, none more than 3 or 4 stories high, and a gate, an entrance to the village that welcomed us.

The trail I was on meandered until it intersected the road again. The town grew larger and I could see activity past the gate.

The racers had spread themselves out by the time I stepped onto the road. There were a couple in front of me; I was neither catching nor being dropped by them. There were a few behind me, each looking ahead, wondering how far the finish line was.

I was running along a paved surface for the first time in over a week. And you know what? My foot absolutely ached! I tried to ignore it.

Village people had gathered along the roadside, leaning on their cars or doorways, watching us run by. Some clapped and called out encouragement. At least I think it was encouragement. Or they could be saying something like, “Here comes another one of those crazy runners!”

Farther along buses lined up alongside the road, beyond them some barricades and then the beautiful finish banner!

I strode down the middle of the road, a slight bounce returning to my steps. The finish area was filled along its flanks with people, cheering, clapping and welcoming us. “Whoooooo”, I hollered. I liked the sound of it. “Whoooo hoooo”, I yelled a few more times.

I waved and clapped my hands over my head egging the crowd on to make more noise. I clapped for the shear joy of finishing the race.

I didn’t know at the beginning of the day if I would get emotional. Now I was blinking away tears and a huge, silly smile made its way from ear to ear. I heard someone, it sounded like Mary Gadams, call out “Go Ed!” as I dashed towards the finish line. Just before I reached it I stopped, had a look and then walked over it. Patrick Bauer stood on the other side draping medals onto the finishers.

If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then such a journey surely ends with the last embrace. I gave Patrick a big bear hug and received French air kisses and a medal hung around my neck in return.

I had not spoken to Patrick at all during our seven days in the desert but to run his race is to know him, his love for the people, the Sahara and his enthusiasm for the knowledge the desert can bring. Years ago he had trekked alone into this part of the world and emerged some time later a different person.

He created this race, a reflection of what he learned and what he wished to share with others. To appreciate the beauty of a place, one must wander through it, sometimes in solitude, sometimes in the company of others, always with a sense of mindfulness and the willingness to let it lead you to the end.

The Marathon des Sables gave me a glimpse of this beauty. But, I know for me, it’s definitely not the end.

Race photos: