Frenchman Patrick Bauer has long been the the heart and soul of the Marathon des Sables as the event’s race director. While he clearly loves Morocco and the competition, it’s the little stories that seem to have touched him the most. In the following interview, he shares some of those stories, what he has in store for the runners this, and who has the best chance to win the 27th Marathon des Sables.
Patrick Bauer, Marathon des Sables Race Director, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: I’m Meghan and I’m here with Patrick Bauer, the race director for Marathon des Sables. Today we have Steve, who is the United Kingdom liaison between competitors and the race administration. He’s also fluent in French, so he’s operating as our translator today. We’re here in Oaurzazate, which is sort of an outpost town in the Sahara Desert. It’s about 12 hours before the 900ish competitors will be shipped off to the Sahara Desert. Anticipation is high. We’re getting close to race time. We have a couple minutes to chat with Patrick, so I’ll be asking questions in English to which Steve will be translating back and forth from French for us.
My first question for you today, Patrick, is in regards to your relationship with your race. This is a long-standing race and you’ve been a part of it for a long time. You must have a heart for the race, for this country, the people, and the desert. We’d love to hear about that.
Patrick Bauer: You’ve absolutely got the nail on the head. I have a great passion for this country (Morocco) and my ambition is to become a nomad that every year comes here, does good things, creates a great thing, leaves, comes here again, and does that every year. The passion I have now, as at the beginning, it’s fantastic to come here. As you pointed out, tomorrow we’re sending off everybody. There’s the anticipation that goes on, the big smiles I see on everyone’s faces before, during, and after the event to make sure I keep doing this.
iRF: The country and all of us running are some of your motivators.
Bauer: It’s been 17 years now that I’ve been blessed in this country, to have the patronage of the King. You can’t get a higher authority or get a greater endorsement than to have the King of Morocco endorse his patronage upon the event. That together with the trust placed in me as the organizer of the event, I have pretty much a free hand to go anywhere and do anything. It’s the ultimate compliment.
iRF: Perfect. You’ve been a part of this race forever. You’ve probably seen highs and you’ve probably seen lows. Can you tell us one or two instances that have been big high and a big low that’s been a part of this race?
Bauer: Yes, there have been a lot of stories in 27 years. Some very, very simple moments represent those highs. An American runner came out, at the same time he was crossing the line, his wife rung to say they’d had a baby. So he’d run into my arms crying, and I started crying as well. All the emotion that comes out is fantastic.
iRF: Who was that runner? Do you remember?
Bauer: No, it was 4-5 years ago, so I’ve forgotten his name. Do you remember 3 years ago (24th Marathon des Sables) when we had the rain?
iRF: The year of the flood.
Bauer: You remember that year of the flood when the race in the Sahara went underwater. The problems they faced logistically were huge. But I was never ever going to give up on the race. I had to find a solution. We went out as 3 teams to find the solutions. I came back and all of the runners were there and they all kind of parted, like water, as I went through with the microphone and I said, “Do you want to do this race?” They all said, “YEAH!” So the point is something that could have been potentially really bad turned into something fantastic. The team spirit is really fundamental, as you probably recollect and experienced yourself in this race.
A couple of years ago, we lost an English competitor in the afternoon. We went through the night looking, though there was not a lot we could do at night. The first thing in the morning, I went up in the helicopter to look for the competitor and he actually saw the helicopter and pulled the distress flare. The elation to see the distress flare and swooping down to go pick her up and bringing her to the start line just as the race was about to start was just fantastic.
Another story about a competitor. I got a letter at the bivouac saying “My boyfriend is running with you. I’d like you to stand up and ask him if he’ll marry me.” I stood up in the Land Rover on her behalf and asked him. Everyone clapped.
iRF: He better have said yes.
Bauer: And he said yes.
iRF: That’s a fun story. I think you could probably write a book on all this stuff.
Bauer: Yes, I have lots of little stories.
iRF: That’s wonderful. Turning our eyes to this year, the 27th edition of the Marathon des Sables, competitors are about to go out into the desert and they’ll start on Sunday. They’re going to face tremendous challenge and they’re going to face tremendous beauty. What are some of the highlights that competitors are going to find out there this year?
Bauer: We’re very fortunate as we’re in one of the most beautiful parts of Morocco. It’s 250km and this region has so much variety you can make it so that every day, it’s like you’re in a different region. This year, it’s got some really magical parts. One part that really stands out is the high ascent of the jebel, which is a rocky outcrop. And as you wind your way up, which seems like an incredible, mysterious path, you get to the top, you’ve got a 360-degree panorama. The descent from this bit is a really steep, sandy descent that you can skate down, come down it on your bum, run down it, it’s absolutely fantastic.
One of the challenges is where you put your bivouac. It’s an essential part. It’s where people arrive and where they spend most of their time. I’ve carefully thought about where I’ve put the bivouacs and I can vouch that they’re some fantastic spots.
There are other ways to create change within the MdS. One of the ways is by changing the rules. One of the things we’ve done for instance this year is to ban mobile phones from the course and the bivouac itself. The idea is it’s quite invasive having a phone because everyone gets emails at night and it’s quite intimate to sit and read emails when you get back to the bivouac. The phone is not really a part of that. So there’s a lot of things they’ve done to change the ambiance. One of the other things they’ve done to create more contact with the competitors and their families is to change the media. They are using a helicopter drone, and octocopter that’s got eight propellers. You can get in really close, within 1 meter of the competitor. Where you can’t get a helicopter, you can get an octocopter. That should get some really good footage.
Another thing that they’ve done is produce an MdS energy bar this year. It’s made specifically for MdS and will suit the environment and the challenge of it. It’s based upon all-natural products: tomatoes, nuts, cumin; it’s salted. I’m forgetting all the ingredients but I could do with one right now. [iRF: Pistachios.] [Steve: Pistachios. I’m redundant.]
In testing this year, for the first time, is an MdS rucksack. You know how the event requires something different. So they’re testing it this year. The idea is that if it gets to where it should be this year with production, next year it will be the standard.
iRF: Fun! Fun! Last question for you. This year, the competition, the men’s competition, the women’s competition is fierce. Both of the men’s and women’s champions are returning, Rachid El Morabity and Laurence Klein, as well as a number of challengers who will be chasing them along. Patrick, what do you think about the competition?
Bauer: This year we have extraordinary competition the way it’s working. You’ve got the two Mohamads. Last year, Mohamad Ahansal had this extraordinary year where his pupil beat him. [iRF: Rachid?] Rachid, yes. So as the master, that’s a hard pill to swallow. This year, we may well see something different happen.
iRF: And for the iRunFar folks watching from home, Rachid and Mohammed are from the same town, Zagora, Morocco. Previously, Mohamad has been training Rachid. So last year, Rachid beat his mentor.
Bauer: The whole landscape has changed this year. It’s been very strong with Moroccan competitors. Not only that, but I can think of 12 very strong competitors that come from Portugal, Spain, Italy, and a Jordanian who is a very strong contender, as well. It will be a very fierce fight at the top.
iRF: And in the women’s race?
Bauer: Laurence Klein, for me, is the favorite. She’s a fantastic competitor and raced extremely well last year. She’s come back this year. There’s also a Portuguese competitor as well who’s looking very, very strong. We’ve also got a British contingent who’s not too bad either. And we’ve gotten some inside news here, on the spot, there’s apparently an American competitor called, Meghan Hicks, who’s looking really hot this year.
iRF: (Blushing and laughing) Thank you, Patrick.
Bauer: With pleasure.
iRF: On behalf of all of us competitors who are headed out there into the desert tomorrow, we know that this is an epic event in the making and there’s so much that goes into it from you both emotionally and physically in the things that you do. So on behalf of all of us that will be out there this week, thank you for all that you do.