I arrived into Ourazazate March 27th at noon. From the airplane, the snow covered high Atlas Mountains could be seen. More snow than I anticipated really. I met four other MdS runners on the plane, they were from Switzerland, France, Australia, and Bahrain. We all decided to split a cab to the hotel Belere in town. It was there that I met part of the American contingent group and checked into the hotel.
Immediately after checking in I showered and went to lunch with our group at the hotel Karam. I knew I would be running in the Sahara for seven days so I ate well. After lunch I unpacked and repacked all my gear and food, thinking very much about what luxuries I wanted to carry vs. the weight I would have on my back. I prepared six dinners, seven lunches, and six breakfasts. The all the food I was packing I previously tried here in the hill of Appalachia on runs like Trot to Hot, and others.
I struggled to cut out and shave off weight and after a few hours I was all packed up. Mentally I was preparing myself to be in the desert, and I was giddy to get out there.
March 28th-Ourazazate, Morocco
After a quick shower and breakfast, I dropped a bag at the hotel, and ran off to the bus. It was there that I saw signs of things that didn’t make sense. I t was drizzling outside as if I was on the streets of London. The problem was I was in the desert.
After waiting for two hours on the bus, and mingling with all the other American, Canadian, Australian, and Moroccan runners we were off. We expected to be on the bus for six hours and make it to the bivouac and finally be in the middle of nowhere 350 km away from our hotel in Ourzazate. Finally we were getting started.
Three hours into our bus ride I could see the rain only pouring down harder. I didn’t know what to expect, but some were worried that the tents would be flooded. The bus slowed down to a halt and everyone became quite and stood up to see what was going on. I was stunned to see a raging river that was flowing over the road we were supposed to cross.
Many of us exited the bus to witness what was going on. The rapids were powerful, and dug into the earth, and moved trees and boulders. The locals were out dancing as the rain was a source of life for them, and is quite rare in the desert. After brushing up on my Arabic I learned from the Moroccan team that they had not seen rain like this in 20 years. A 20 year flood was occurring on the first day of our MdS ultra in the middle of the Sahara desert, what are the odds? My luck at play here. Buses lined up all on the road and we sat in a parking lot.
Hours went by and many became frustrated as we did not know what to expect, and we also were witnessing what many thought at the time, a strong reason to cancel the race. The rain eventually died down a bid and the river was noticeably decreasing in rage. Some feared we would all spend the night on the bus as we may not have been able to cross.
Suddenly a local Moroccan logging truck loaded with timber decided to take the risk and cross into the river to try and make it across. This truck had monster sized tires and was carrying a full load to weigh it down. This would be a good test! Should the driver fail to make it across and the truck be swept downstream, severe injuries or death was eminent. The truck crossed with little difficult and we could see the depth of the fast flowing rain water.
Would our CTM bus make it across? The local Moroccan bus drivers were excited to see someone cross, and immediately asked that we all brace ourselves for an attempt to cross. We were in the second bus, so at least one bus was ahead of us. The first bus began to move forward and started to cross the flooded road.
You have to understand this was the most difficult part of the race, and the riskiest part. The rear tires of the first bas began to slide in the direction of the flowing river. If the bus had slid another two feet it would be off the road and in the rapids and may have been sucked downstream! The first bus made it across. Some in our bus were crying, some were in a state of shock, all of us were scared. Our buses turn came up, and driver gunned it. We made it across the road without falling in. We continued our journey to the desert in the continuous rain.
How would we sleep in our first bivouac with all the Berber tents? The rain was unforgiving. Some feared hypothermia. Freezing temperatures with a soaking wet down bag was not a good combination for a seven day stage race. No one knew what to expect and what was going on.
We finally reached a small desert town called Erfoud (sometimes spelled Arfoud). To give you an idea of where we were, Erfoud is roughly 35 km away from the Algerian boarder. Amazingly we learned that all 850+ runners and 450+ staff and volunteers would be spending the night in some hotel in this small town.
After stopping for another hour or so in the rain, the bus driver finally took us to the Hotel Kasbah Tizimi. I roomed with Dennis from Vancouver Canada. It was late and we did not know what the plan would be for tomorrow, so we decided to crash and rest.
March 29th-Erfoud, Morocco (Hotel Kasbah Tizimi)
The next morning we woke up to more rain. After breakfast we were told to wait, and just see. So we waited. After dinner we learned that we would spend another night in the hotel.
March 30th-Erfoud, Morocco (Hotel Kasbah Tizimi)
Day 1 - 20 miles
We officially started the MdS 3.30.2009. Over 800 runners took to the start and were off into the desert. The sand dunes and dunnettes (French for small dunes) are just as majestic up close as they are from afar, it is truly amazing! You may as well be on a different plant. ran well for the first half of today’s stage and then slowed down to save myself from the exposed heat. By this point we were carrying the MdS roadbook which highlights in detail the route for each day and the terrain that you should expect to cover. All runners are obligated to carry this roadbook at all times, or suffer a time penalty. The first day of the race was cancelled, and we all knew that the routes would be planned on the fly as the weather had created a huge challenge for the race officials. They could not move the trucks, and thus could not set up the bivouacs (Tent City) where they needed to. Thus, each day we were told the distance we needed to travel at around 6:30am. Some were a little frustrated because they did not know what to expect for that day. Just before the first checkpoint, as I was running thru a wadi (dried out river bed) that was slick with fresh mud from the rains, I took a huge spill. This was the first day of the run only after the first few kilometers. My shirt, shorts, water bottles, and pack were all covered in mud. It was a mistake that not only cost me time, I had to run for the next 5 days with the same cloths. After I grabbed my water bottle, I took a 10 minute pit stop to clean up. Despite the torrential down pours, the sun delivered fully exposed radiation and baked my body. There is literally no shade, so you will get toasted. After running for 20 kilometers or so I slowed my pace down to a fast walk. I could have pushed harder and ran the last 10 km, but I decided to play it safe. I knew I had to run another 5 days. The first day was the most beautiful. The largest sand dunes appeared here, some of which were several hundred foot climbs. Total elevation for the 20 miles was 3,060 feet. I finished the first stage in 4:57. At the Bivouac (Tent City), I took off my shirt, lied in the Berber tent for a while and pulled out my first meal of mac and cheese. I added water to a Ziploc bag with the mac and cheese and let it sit out in the sun. After eating I decided to walk around the world (walk the entire loop of tent city) and hung out by the open fire with the local Berbers. I practiced my Arabic.
Day 2 - 22.7 miles
Today the run started off fast. After the first mile I spotted a brown viper which I was able to dodge. This viper is exactly why all competitors that run the MdS are required to carry an anti-venom pump. I was fortunate enough to have a few runners ahead of me dodge the snake and give me a quick warning. After the 1st checkpoint I slowed down and began to bake under the sun again. After the 2nd checkpoint I was reduced to a walk for the last 5 miles. My stomach was tied into knots, and the pain only hurt my pace. I took in some Imodium which didn’t seem to help at all. We are still running in the sand dunes which can be lots of climbing but the beauty of them make you forget the pain. Tomorrow is the 50 mile leg which will be incredibly difficult. Thankfully my feet are fine with just one hot spot on my pinky toe. I finished the second stage in 5:46. I hobbled to my tent and remember thinking that I packed the wrong type of food. I was craving salt, and hated anything that had sugar in it. I was taking in salt tablets regularly, but I craved the taste of salt itself. My body was telling me what I was eating wasn’t sufficient. I forced myself to eat what I had, and my stomach could not take it. I traded some food with a tentmate, and gobbled up some chips. It was on the night of the second day that a beautiful French women appeared and delivered emails to all of us in the tent. She also confirmed that tomorrow would be a 50 mile day. I can not tell you how uplifting these emails were at that point of time. “Much love to my family that sent me an email in the last few days, they were delievered to my tent today (Bouchra, Ammo Abdel Hakim, and Bachir, love you guys for the message). Uplifting messages were sent also by Bob B, Annette B, Liz J, Cy J, Brian T, Ann E, Greg P, Nattu, Audra, Jonathan S, and DC!! You guys rock! I will have your emails with me tomorrow and reading them again at mile 30 when I will need the energy. I hope to finish tomorrow by 2am.” I had predicted that I would finish by 2am while running the 50 mile leg. That night I packed and repacked what I needed for the long day. I tossed some extra weight and shuffled thru the food and carried only what I needed.
Day 3 – 57 miles
We awoke to the same French women that told us the mileage for the day had been extended from 80km to 91km, or an additional 6.6 miles. She followed up the news with “This is not an April fools joke either!” We were told that the last day of the run would be canceled due to logistics, and the last day which would have been a very short day was being added to Day 3. It was these last minute changes that made everyone on mental standby. You were always waiting for more information. I personally didn’t mind extending the mileage, some were however not thrilled. This would be the longest stage the MdS would ever run in its 24 year history. 56 miles is a long run, but doable for a one day event. Having it in the middle of a stage run in the Sahara however is ballsy. For this event, the top 50 male runners and the top 5 female runners would start with a 3 hour handicap (12 noon). All other runners would start at 9am. My digestive tract was now getting a better work out than my legs, and this morning was no less of a work out. This day felt warmer than the others. I started with a fast paced walk and worked my way up to a slow run for the first three checkpoints. I didn’t stop at each checkpoint for any longer than 10 minutes. The sun beat down on my body again for three days in a row. My stomach wouldn’t allow me to run my normal running pace, and slowed me down again. I remember piecing up all my beef jerky for this day and savoring it for the first three check points. As the heat of the day began to die down I remember hiking up a pass in a chain of mountains. I passed a few people here, and felt back at home with some elevation! The last two days had been surprisingly and boringly flat. Some people love to run flats, I hate it. On the descent I passed even more people. It was here when I excelled. At each check point I would see aid tents full of people escaping the sun and resting or cooking a meal for the end of the day. I knew I would cook my meal when I reached my tent and not on the actual run. As the sun set and darkness was upon me I ran harder. It was here that I began to pass more runners. I would run for a while with a British group, and then I would go on and run with the French. Oddly enough I never stumbled on any Americans during the night. I began to feel the effects of fatigue and sleepiness around 9pm. I kept pushing thru thinking that this would be the day that I did my best and could save cumulative time for the race. The stars in the desert were crisp, clear, and you could see billions of stars. There could have been as many stars in the sky as there were grains of sand in the desert. Suddenly as I was glancing at a few starts a beam of green light appeared in the distance. I later learned that this beam is provided by the Moroccan military and is usually used for the finish line. They were teasing us by putting it on the last check point. The light appeared to be close by it was still miles away. My body was talking to me and telling me that I shouldn’t be out here. I pulled into the last check point, grabbed my water and lied in the Berber tent for a few minutes to get myself together. I knew if I lied down for too long I would end up slowing down, or even spend the night in the tent. Many of the runners on the long day spend the night on the desert. I kept trucking along. I hooked up with three guys from Luxemburg. They explained that someone from Luxemburg is a Luxemburger. The first thing that came to my mind was a hamburger, or even better yet a deluxemburger. I have to take the time to explain here that in my experience when running any ultra in the US and I run hard, at the end of the day I know I can refuel by eating well. During the MdS all I had to look forward to was a freezer dried meal with food that didn’t work well with me in the desert. So the cheeseburger thought was tempting. I learned that Luxemburg is a city state with a population of just over 400,000. We exchanged stories of running and kept each other awake and moving. These guys were moving at a good pace and I knew I would finish in better time than expected. It was just before 1am when I could see the bivouac. I told the guys that I had planned to run it all the way in and left them for a semi sprint that seemed to take 10 minutes. I finished in 230th place that night and was the first one in my tent for the night. I finished the long stage in 15:55. I lied down and rested and tried to eat, and then passed out.
Day 4 – Rest Day
I rested this day. I also visited the medical tent so that they could help me with the few blisters that were on my left foot. It was slightly painful. The people that I saw there and the conditions of their feet made me feel blessed to have only a few blisters.
Running in heat and sand can be a nasty combination for your feet and blisters.
Day 5 – 26.2 miles
On the 5th day of the MdS I can tell you my body was yelling at me. My legs were beat up, my entire body ached, and the most devastating my digestive tract was screaming out load.
The last day of the MdS felt warmer earlier than all the other days. I started with a healthy conservative pace and tried to push harder as I bagged mileage. It was my last day, and I needed to finish strong. It was only a marathon right?
After the first checkpoint the route turned very flat for miles. This, again, is harder for me than a route with elevation. I again baked under the sun and was forced to slow my role on this flat section. I was trying to consume more water as my body was clearly showing signs of dehydration. Being the in desert dehydrates you no mater how much water you take in. At this point my body didn’t even want to take in water. I was craving a hamburger and my body had been starving for days.
Forward relentless motion in the form of a shuffle was all the output I had. During the last third of this marathon a pair of Aussies I recognized from camp showed up. They weren’t particularly fast, but their approach to getting this last leg completed was amusing to my calorie deprived mind. They would run until they saw a trail marker and walk for a few minutes after they reached each trail marker. The markers were maybe a 100 meters apart from each other at the most. This made for 4 or 5 minutes of running for every 1 to 3 minutes walking. It worked, and I kept up with them.
In the distance another mountain pass came along. There a little Moroccan boy yelled out in French that we had 2 kilometers to get to the finish line. Was it over? Was it possible that the finish was finally so close? As I hiked up to the ridge I could see in the distance the finish. I ran down the scree like rocks and passed my Aussie friends for a run to the finish. A full sprint for the last 300 meters helped me pass a few runners to the finish line. Patrick Bauer was there to greet all the finishers with a medal. I was thrilled to have this run over with and successfully completed. The last stage of the MdS took me 6:11.
The overall distance of the 24th MdS was 126 Miles. I was ranked 296th place out of over 800 starting runners. My cumulative time was 32:49:42. I made a lot of friends, and the experience was great overall.Over the next week I traveled back to Ourazazate, and then I was off to Agadir, Marrakech, Casablanca, Rabat, Tangiers, and Cabo Negro. I had a great time traveling around and recovering from the run.