2000 Marathon des Sables
Josh Miller/August 2021
The Marathon des Sables is roughly 150 miles long ran over seven days across remote sections of the Sahara Desert. Each competitor carries their own food, sleeping gear, hydration bottles/bladders, personal gear, and anything else you feel like humping along, which is usually not much. Competitors can draw up to roughly 10 liters of water per day which was plenty and at the end of the day runners sleep in a Berber tent erected by the hired locals. The open-sided tent allows plenty of sand and grit to invade every crevasse of your gear and body. Each morning this small city is torn down and relocated to the next days finish line. Competitors arrive in Marrakech or Casablanca where local drivers shuttle them to Ouarzazate across the picturesque Atlas Mountains.
Competitors arrive the day before and are placed in either the Hotel Berber or the Berber Palace. The following day we changed into our running gear, donned our packs, our personal luggage was tagged and collected, and we were bused to the start of the first stage. That night is a large buffet and each runner can have two, small bottles of wine. Being a former French colony the wine wasn’t bad at all, nor was the food!
We are issued our “Road Book” that night. This is a small book with each days stage mapped out to some degree. The course is generally well marked but I did use the book on occasion. It mentions landmarks, latitude and longitude, compass headings, and other information to help us stay on course. This is our first glimpse of the days ahead and I begin to devour each day to plan a strategy. The race is notorious for starting with shorter distances then ramping up. The three larger, and dreaded stages are the Marathon stage, Dune Day, and then the Ultra stage. The marathon day is just that, 26.2 miles, the Dune Day can be any length and is run across the enormous ergs of the Sahara, and the Ultra stage is roughly 45-50 miles.
Talking to runners that first night I was shocked to learn that most had completed only a marathon. They were equally shocked when I told them I had been an endurance runner for the last 5 years. The Ultra stage begins at 900am and competitors have two days to finish and must finish by midnight of night two. I had every intention of finishing that stage on the first day.
The logistics behind this event are impressive. Although in 2003 I had a very negative encounter with the Race Director (that story is coming soon!), it seems well organized. At the end of each days stage the medical tent looks like a mini-triage center. It was hard to believe that after the first stage folks were already lining up for treatment of dehydration, blisters and other issues.
The race starts are always exciting. The race helicopter gets air born, there’s celebratory events, and everyone is checking gear. This year Stage One was 16 miles. I thought I was set until I actually started running in the ankle deep soft sand with my loaded pack. It weighed in at 16 pounds and though I had trained with it, a lot, it took some time for my legs to get acclimated to the beating.
In short time I crossed the finish line and watched other runners finish well into the evening. I couldn’t help but wonder how in the hell were they going to finish the entire race.
The days become somewhat routine. Finish the stage, find your tent and set up your bedding, eat, drink, eat, drink, talk with your tent mates, and just enjoy the experience. Sometimes we’d go to the finish to cheer on the other runners. Our American tent had a few late night people but rack time came earlier for most of us. Mornings were spent boiling water for coffee or tea, a little breakfast, and then the call to the start. Once we left the tents the local workers went to dismantling the place and did so very quickly. We’d settle into our groove and often I found someone to pace alongside. With it being an international event I had the pleasure of meeting some incredible people from all over the world.
Aid stations/checkpoints/Water stops were staggered in no particular distance. It was mostly dictated by terrain. You would run through the shoot, have a plastic card punched indicating you were there, fill up with water, mix anything, and off you went. Though long, the Marathon and Ultra Stages progressed well. The marathon was the day before the ultra stage so that was a little intimidating but what are you going to do?! I finished the marathon stage in 5-6 hours and did my best to relax in the tent, knowing I’d need the energy the next day.
And as promised, we were soon on the starting line of the Ultra stage. This year was about 46 miles. My average finish time on a “normal” 50-miler was roughly 8 1/2 hours so I estimated 14-15 hours would be acceptable. At 9am we were off again but a lot of folks were walking. They knew they needed to take it easy. I paced myself, stopped occasionally to eat and mix my Hammer powder, and chatted up with fellow runners. As the sun began to set headlamps and flashlights came on and once dark, you could look to your front and rear and see a trail of runners trudging along endlessly. It was a surreal experience. In the US ambient light is everywhere, the noise of life is everywhere, planes flying over, radios, you name it. Here it was the opposite. The only sound and only light came from me. I’d stop, calm my breathing, turn off my light and the blackness was pervasive. You could not see anything and it was eerily quiet but exceptionally beautiful. But, no rest for the weary. We have miles to go!
A little before midnight I crossed the finish line and was beat. The night had cooled so I grabbed a couple bottles of water and sat in the dirt, watching other runners cross as I sipped. It wasn’t long before I made it to my tent, grabbed my now very dirty rag and with some water tried to get some of the filth off. It didn’t work well so I rolled out my small pad and sleeping bag, stuffed my pack under my head and drifted off. Despite runners coming in all night nothing woke me, not even runners bedding down in our tent. The good part was I had the next day “off”. It was incredible to watch runners filter in all day and into the next night. I couldn’t imagine being out there that long and the final days finisher came in just before midnight.
The last two days of running were not exceptional. The next day was 15 miles and the final leg was 12 and carried us into a small village that seemed to have been invaded by the race. Locals were cheering, kids were begging for candy, food and water, and music played. Buses began to arrive, we queued up, and got on a bus to get back to our hotel.
In every sense of the word I really did peel my clothes off. I had brought a plastic bag just to store them and took probably one of the top 5 showers of my life. The best shower was in Desert Storm…but that’s another story. The race banquet that night was exceptional with plenty of food and drink. The following day us Americans got back on the 747 we flew in on to make our trek home.
I am very fortunate to have been able to experience this event and in the end came in 85th place of about 500 runners. Little did I know I would have two more trips to this event. There is a quote I still love to this day and followed religiously during this time of my life. “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” ―