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Friday, April 22, 2016

MdS 2016: Stage 1

You can find an in-depth account of the other stages in my book: Ultramarathon Mom: From the Sahara to the Arctic to be released in April 2018!!!

Stage 1: 34 km, 800 m positive elevation 

Patrick Bauer and his crew giving instructions
The sand dunes were daunting. They dominated the view from Base Camp, or Bivouac 1, as it was called by the organizers. From the Road Book we all knew that the first day would entail getting across those massive mounds of beautifully sculptured sand, but what we didn’t know was that Mother Nature had something else in store for us that day which would make crossing the dunes feel like a walk in the park.

At the starting line the tension in the air was palpable as we all knew what lay just ahead. Patrick Bauer, the race organizer and founder, stood on top of an SUV with his translator and gave us the daily news and race instructions. Check points and water rations were relayed. Birthdays were announced and we sang. Then the song that we all knew was coming, the song which would send us off every day into the desert, began to be heard softly and grew progressively louder until the refrain was blaring, runners were dancing and all were howling out the lyrics…we were most definitively setting out on A Highway to Hell. Then the countdown was on, the helicopter was swooping in on us and finally we were in motion. The 31st Marathon des Sables in the Moroccan Sahara was underway.

Sand as far as the eye can see!
The helicopter flew to the front of the pack and then turned and sideswiped the entire queue of runners not 10m over our heads. The roar of the engines was deafening. The adrenalin was on full tilt and my legs and body felt strong after two weeks of tapering.

The race started out with 3km of flat ground interspersed with sandy areas where running was comfortably easy. Helicopter daredevil-maneuvers followed us throughout this entire section. Such stunts would never be allowed in the “civilized world”. It was exciting but scary.
Entering the dunes so early in the race meant that the runners were still densely packed and everyone tried their best to run when the terrain was flat or downhill, but then amicably queued-up when there was a dune to climb or a ridge to follow.

12km of dunes to cross on the first day!
The dunes of Erg Chebbi near Merzouga are massive seas of dunes formed by wind-blown sand that lie adjacent to the Algerian border. The dunes are 150m high in places and span an area of about 50km north to south and up to 10km across. A more beautiful work of nature is difficult to find and despite the strenuous work entailed in crossing them, their magnificence could not be overlooked. Traversing a ridge at one point which fell off dramatically to my right and left, I couldn’t help but be awestruck by the perfect pinnacle of the crest of the dune and how it gently curved and fell off to its own liking.

We crossed 12km of the sandy dunes, which took me just over two hours.
Running nearly impossible
I breathed a sigh of relief thinking that the ‘worst’ of the day was over, but I was soon to find out that it had just begun.

A head-wind then kicked up, which initially brought cool relief, and although the terrain was now flat, the going was still slowed by sand and rocks. However, the wind never relented, but began to grow stronger. It kicked up the sand and whirled and twirled it at and around us, piercing it against my raw skin. I had to keep my head down to keep the sand out of my eyes and to be safe on every step. Visibility was restricted but still good enough to keep moving on. But then I’d look up in the distance again to see yet another mass of thick sand being blown to and fro, with an unpredictable path like that of a tornado. I could only hope and pray that it would blow itself on a course away from me. But more often than not it would head directly at me and I’d simply have to stop in my tracks and brace myself for the onslaught, which luckily lasted only a minute or so, before moving on as fast as possible just to get to the safety of the bivouac.

Five hours and fifty-one minutes after I’d started that morning I finally crossed the finish line, the first of six that week.

I drank a small cup of mint tea, offered to all runners at the finish, but it was not at all refreshing, it was hot, too hot, though I drank it because the sugar would do me good. Then I collected my three bottles of water (1.5 liters each) and trudged off to my tent where I found that I was the first one there, which meant ‘tent duty’: lifting the rug and clearing the underlying ground of stones. But first things first. Remove the backpack, collapse onto the carpet and lie immobile for an indeterminable amount of time. 

My shoulders were in agony, the muscles connecting the shoulder to the neck was where I carried all the weight of the backpack. I could not lift my arms without being in excruciating pain. How was I going to carry the pack again tomorrow?

Drink and eat. I knew this was necessary but it had to be forced. I had some of the cashews that I’d brought, roasted and doused in soy sauce. A great source of protein and salt. Exactly what I needed and not too heavy, as my appetite was minimal anyway. Then on to tent duty. I folded up the rug on either side and used my feet to scrape away the stones and even out the soil. Markus, from Zurich and our only Swiss-man in a Swiss tent, returned after about an hour and helped me finish the job. He’d run the MdS a few times before and was the veteran of our group; we were constantly going to him with questions and asking for advice. He showed me how to use one of the large sticks used to hold up the tent, to sweep it across the ground and loosen up the embedded rocks. It was quickly done with his help and then we could spread out our things and relax.

Last dinner before self-sufficiency, with Beatrice and Cap
A quick trip to the Internet tent was also on my agenda, just to let my family know that I was ok. I waited in a short line then wrote my message, which was limited to 1,000 words. And only one email per person was allowed, though you could queue up again as many times as you wanted, but I wanted to get off my feet, so I write my single email then headed back ‘home’. 

By then the rest of the tent members had also arrived. Beatrice was the other female cohabiter, a spicy little Italian woman, who now lives in Zurich with her husband and three kids. She runs a fashion blog and has an aura the size of Texas. We had exchanged emails for a couple of weeks before the race so we knew each other a bit, but we really hit it off there and bonded right from the start. The other two were from Brazil, a father and son pair, Cap (our captain) and Fred (Frederico). Cap, the patriarch, still lives in Brazil and his English was rudimentary, but Fred has lived outside of Zurich for a few years and had also run the MdS before. Our tent language was then, conveniently enough for me, English! 

Our tent mates...what a team!
Everyone began recalling tales of the day and began to prepare the evening meals. I had a dehaydrated camping meal of Vegetable Jambalaya with me. I simply added water and set it out into the sun to ‘cook’. After about 45 minutes I was ready to eat, and it seemed to be cooked through, but the slight cramping in my stomach an hour later told me that maybe boiling water was actually necessary to make the food edible. Oh, well. I had a full stomach and the calories would be absorbed.

Around 7pm the sun began to set and provided us with some spectacular photos of a bright orange sky and the sun descending behind the mountains. Then it was time for bed. By 8pm we were all tucked in and hoping for slumber to heal our bodies as much as possible before we had to get up and do it again.

Beautiful sunrises and sunsets
I hadn’t brought a mattress with me. Why am I the only one without one?, was what I thought as I looked into other tents. Coach said I didn’t need one. The carpets were thick, he said. Really? One centimeter is ‘thick’? But after the first night of tossing and turning every time my side would ache from the hard ground, I needed another solution. Thankfully Beatrice’s short frame didn’t require anywhere near the 2m of the foam fold-up mat that she brought and so she cut off a section that was large enough to place from my hips to shoulders. It was still hard, but heavenly in comparison to the cold, hard ground. Cold? Yes. By 3 or 4am temperatures dropped significantly and despite wearing long compression tights and a light fleece jacket, and even though my sleeping bag claimed to keep you warm to 8C, I was cold every night. And if the tent wasn’t closed on one side, or if the wind direction changed, then we had a wind tunnel effect and all you could do was pull the draw string tight on the sleeping bag and hope to get a few more winks before sunrise. Needless to say, sleep was another of the many challenges that I would face that week. 

But each night, as I lay awake in the tent, body aching, I peeked outside to see a sky full of bright stars that reached to the horizon. 

The cost was indeed high, but the benefits were priceless.


  1. Very nice report. This is very inspiring. My friend Kerstin who lives in your city told me about the TV interview and your blog. Your story is just what I needed as a prepare for my first 100 mile event on May 30th. I'm looking forward to the next segment of your MdS desert run.