2016 Marathon Des Sables: Three American Ultrarunners On A Whirlwind Tour Of The Sahara Desert
[Editor’s Note: Liza Howard, Meghan Arbogast, and Jason Schlarb recently finished the Marathon des Sables (MdS) in the Moroccan Sahara Desert. Here is their humorous report.]
The Marathon des Sables:
- 1,000-plus runners
- 159 miles (256 kilometers)
- 6 stages
- 15-pound packs
- 8 nights under Berber tents
- 2,000-2,300 calories a day
Three American ultrarunners:
Jason Schlarb: A mountain runner living in Colorado whose MdS taper included the first winter crossing of the Hardrock 100 Mile course.
Meghan Arbogast: Excited about the oases, celebrating her 55th birthday somewhere exotic, and accessorizing her new Tyvek coveralls.
Liza Howard: Looking for redemption after last year’s MdS where she spent five hours of the 92k long stage spooning an unknown French couple between bouts of vomiting.
The MdS experience is easy to catalog, but nearly impossible to describe. It’s a French-accented logistical juggernaut with more than a thousand runners and hundreds of volunteers running and camping in different locations in the middle of the Moroccan Sahara. The international make-up of the runners, the unique social mores and loose camp dress code that arise, the water rationing and distribution system, the laundry list of penalties you can accrue, the Berber race employees pulling the black burlap tents down around you in the morning so that they can transfer camp to the day’s finish line, the fishing-vest-clad volunteer army, the nightly mail call, the lack of anywhere private to pee, the daredevil helicopter film crew, the recorded happy-birthday music before each “Highway to Hell”-scored start, and the hunger… No, the Hunger. And then there is the race itself, run over Lawrence of Arabia sand dunes and barren wasteland that only a geologist could get excited about, headwinds filled with sand, and aid stations that offer nothing more than bottled water, which is often the temperature of afternoon tea. And the epiphany-inducing suffering… They all defy description somehow. The MdS experience demands a talented storyteller or great writer to be fully understood.
On the other hand, the whole thing would also make for a pretty straightforward mass-market comedy film. Lying on the ground, wrecked, immobile, and hungry after Stage 4, Tent 166, our tent wrote the screenplay. It’ll star Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Chevy Chase, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Ben Stiller. Here is some of our inspiration for the script.
“How many ears do you have?”
Our tent group–the people with whom we’ve been assigned to share a tent with all week–stare down at the contents of Ridouane Amallah’s pack lying out on the Berber rug. Ridouane lives in the U.S., but grew up in France and was born in Morocco. This will be his first time camping and running this far.
“Two.” (Read this with your best French accent.)
“Then why are you taking so many Q-tips? Two ears, seven days, 14 Q-tips max. Dump the rest.”
“And what is that?”
“A bungee cord.”
“Good Lord! Okay, people, we need a to start making piles. Every gram you get rid of is a gram you’re not schlepping across the Sahara on your back in 100-plus-degree heat. Have you already cut down your emergency space blanket?”
In the end, we cull a good two pounds from Ridouane’s pack. A GoPro case, BAND-AIDs, extra foot-care supplies, Velcro, food packaging, glue, packages of tissues, spare shorts, extra suction cups for the venom extractor on the race’s mandatory kit list, tiny towels, and unnecessary pack straps filled a gallon Ziploc bag. Then we shorten his sleeping pad to torso length. We aren’t able to wrest his stove and his selfie stick from him–or two phones with spare batteries–and a GoPro, but we all feel pleased about the downsizing.
Tent 166 is ready for our Fellowship of the Sand.
Absurd things I say to my tent mates before the race starts:
- “I’ll do gel everyday during the run. I can stomach that no matter what.”
- “I won’t need extra electrolytes. It’s in my gels.”
- “I adapt to the heat really quickly. I’ll be great by the long run day.”
- “I won’t throw away any food.”
- “I know how to run in the dunes. I ran a 50k in the Gobi Desert. It will be just like that.”
- “I don’t need a sleeping pad, we’re sleeping in the sand.”
“Did you all see the runner with the bow and arrows at the race start this morning? He was right up front and shot one off right before the countdown finished. It went about two feet.”
Flat on my back. On a sandy rug. Sweating. A 10-inch by 24-inch piece of foam I removed from my fastpack under my tailbone. I lay around thinking about food and how I would survive another day in the Sahara.
I had no idea our sleeping tents would be nothing more than an open-air wool tarp propped up with sticks. I spend the first afternoon of the race with two of my tent buddies laying on our carpet, our buffs covering over our faces as a sandstorm violently covered everything in sand. We were helpless. Nowhere to go, no place to hide, and nothing to do but hope the wind will stop blowing.
Night-one realization: I should have gotten in the sleeping bag at home. I’m borrowing it from my friend who is about five feet tall. I’m 5’7″.
The tent city is set up in concentric horseshoes, and a primitive bathroom setup exists for the disposal of solid human waste–you go into a private(ish) structure, poop in a brown plastic bag, and then throw the bag in the trash can outside. But for urinating, there’s no specific place to go except away from the tent city. Every day people stand a little closer to the tents to pee. Some have blistered and painful feet, some are injured, most are exhausted, but others just don’t seem to care about privacy anymore. Our tent is in the outermost ring, so we have front-row seats to the encroaching urine line.
Actually, the 150-plus female competitors continue to make futile efforts to find cover throughout the race. Most adopt a head-down quickstep past the urinating men and their exposed parts until they go exactly As-Far-As-Their-Mother-Would-Expect-Them-To-Walk-Divided-By-Overall-Kilometers-Run-And-Feminism. At that point, they resign themselves to a few inadvertent sightings of their bottoms, squat, and try not to pee on their shoes. Not urinating on your shoes is challenging on a good day. It can be particularly challenging on a windy day.
I want to email my husband about the hundreds of peeing men, but we are allowed to send from the race’s elaborate satellite email system one email with just a few-hundred words per day, and I can’t come up with any way to summarize the bathroom experience that doesn’t include the phrase “running a gauntlet of penises”–which I know wouldn’t sound reassuring.
You know that certainty late in a long race that you really aren’t having fun and that promise you make yourself that you won’t do this again? At least not for a long time?
At MdS, I quickly realize how brutally tough racing can be in 120-degree heat, under nourished, and tired, but yet I can’t promise myself a break longer than 20 hours… every day for a week.
Here’s a story I overheard on day 3 regarding the sachet of pressed salt tablets we’re issued by the race and required to carry, even if we use our own electrolyte supplements:
“Did you know you’re not supposed to chew them? You’re supposed to swallow them. I told the French doctor at a checkpoint that chewing them made me want to vomit. I think he called me an idiot.”
Day 3 in a nutshell: I get heart palpitations under three conditions–too much caffeine, fatigue, and dehydration. Nice to have all three.
Every runner is required to carry a guidebook issued by the race administrators. It contains maps and written descriptions of the course, cutoff times, and lists some penalties along with other important information.
“Did you all read the bit on sandstorms in the road book yet? Listen to this: “Before visibility drops to zero, it is essential to get into groups… DO NOT PANIC… Avoid the temptation to perform heroic deeds.”
“Does it list the time penalty for heroic deeds?”
Overheard in a neighboring tent: “She collapsed face down in the tent after the stage, so I ran over to the medical tents to get a doctor. I told the guy outside that my mom needed a doctor, but he didn’t speak English and I don’t speak any French, so we went through this horrible “Who’s On First?” routine.
“I need a doctor at my tent.”
“Yes, these are the medical tents.”
“No, I need a doctor to come to my tent. (Making walking motions with my fingers.) To my tent.”
“Oh, yes. Wash your feet.”
“No, it’s not my feet. It’s my mother.”
“Yes. She comes here. Two-hour wait.”
“No. See, she’s very sick.”
“At that point [American] Patrick Tomada came over from our tent, stood between me and the guy, and asked me why I was f—ing around. You need to get a doctor now, he said. I told him I wasn’t f—ing around, but before I got any further, he grabbed my arm like I was a schoolboy, and walked past the guy and into the med tent. The next thing I know we’re both in of one of the ambulances driving to my tent. They took good care of her and she was fine after a while. But Patrick kind of scares me sometimes.”
“Yeah, he’s done this race like 19 times. I heard one year he grabbed a guy by the shirt who was sitting on the ground and planning to drop and told him: “MdS is not a place for wimps! Now get up!”
“The guy got up and finished.”
Day 4 thoughts:
- If I don’t make eye contact while pooping by the side of the trail, no one can see me, right?
- Everything I ingest makes my stomach cramp and sends me into a tripod, and then behind a bush–if I can find one.
- Maybe now that it’s cooled down, I can eat some delicious gel.
- I can’t eat anything. This is ridiculous.
- I’m glad my headlamp is light, but it would nice if it actually lit a path rather than just glowed.
- I think that’s the path by the glow sticks (THUD). I think I’d better pay closer attention to the ground.
- What is up with the ground? It is like cement. I wonder if I can buy 12 inches of Christian’s sleeping pad.
Is it me or does it look like the guy wearing the camel costume seem to be sodomizing it?
Simplicity is king at MdS. Your entire world is simplified. Your tent home is taken away in the morning and you absolutely have to run to where it is taken. Most everyone has one set of clothes, no hard outfit decisions to make. Food for the day is in your pack in one bag. No fridge, no pantry, no menu options. Just eat what is in the bag. An entire tribe of a thousand people with almost no real decisions to make for a week.
You can only send out one email daily, but loved ones can send you many emails from home. The race organization prints and delivers these to the tents every night.
Some samplings that encapsulate my back-for-redemption race.
Stage 1: “Eagles fly in Morocco. Damnn Liiiiiiiizaaaa!! Back at it again with the steep jebelllls… Great work getting through the dunes of day one. I wish I were there to see you shine through this year. Hope your legs and your heart are light and that your spirit is buoyed with good company once more.”
Stage 2: “Go Liza Go! You’re such an inspiration! We are so proud of you and amazed at the challenges you take on. Keep up the great work! Just keep running. All our love.”
Stage 3: “Just saw the stage 3 results. I hope you are physically ok. Worried about you. Anyway hang in there. We love you!”
Stage 4: “Thought you would appreciate this: ‘A trophy on the shelf gathers dust. Memories are forever.’ – Mary Lou Retton”
Stage 5: “I love you, Mom. What do you call an alligator in a vest? An investigator. You get it. InVESTtigator. Ha HA HA.”
Day 5 thoughts:
- Day off! Two freeze-dried meals today! And a ProBar for lunch! Woo hoo!!!
- I think I’m going to be sick if I eat this bar.
- Is anyone else hot under the black tent when it’s 100-plus outside, or is it just me?
- It’s so rewarding to wash the sand out of my clothes so they’ll be fresh for tomorrow.
- Friggin’ sandstorm filled all my clean clothes with sand!
- Pretty sure I would suck if I was in the Army.
- Ground is still hard. No matter how many rotisserie turns I make.
Most runners use any extra water they have to wash themselves a bit and maybe rinse their clothes. Sometimes this means the people in the outer ring of tents get quite a show.
“Is that man completely naked?!? And is that a loofah? Wow, he’s being very thorough.”
Day 6 thoughts:
- Just a marathon to go! Stomach is settled today.
- Stomach cramps again! No bushes, of course. Glad my name is on my bib.
- I can see the finish line! It’s finally over!
- Why yes, Christian, I would love a Slim Jim! Liza, these are the best things ever!
- What is that strange noise? I’ll take my earplugs out. Jeezus! It’s another sand storm! I hope it’s over by the morning. I’m never going to get out of here.
“Those pricey X-BIONIC spandex shorts are really popular this year.”
“Yeah, and they’re not holding up that well. I saw one guy who tried to duct tape the holes closed. They should call them ass-bionic.”
“Ass-bionic, it is.”
The best comparison I can make to being at MdS is my [military] deployment to Iraq. By no means is a deployment to Iraq and running MdS all that similar as a whole, but I did find a number of parallels. The daily MdS enduring, suffering, hot-and-sandy, get-through-it, groundhog-day routine has similarities to my deployment. Limited communication with family and friends, standardized “rules-of-engagement,” the lackluster accommodations, rations, schedule, and finally a bond with your fellow participants that went way past standard small talk and skin-deep friendship all reminded me of a deployment. I desperately wanted both my deployment to Iraq and MdS to end as soon as possible, but afterward, as I reflect, I’m better, stronger, and proud to have gotten through both.
At the awards ceremony after Stage 5 and before Stage 6, the non-competitive UNICEF charity stage, the race organization makes an announcement regarding a simple but meaningful (in the context of this calorically-deprived race) treat that the race has traditionally provided runners at some point during the race:
“After we give out all the awards, we will give you each a can of Coke!”
Loud cheers, yells, and applause.
An hour passes.
“And now you may have a drink!”
But that’s all that is said. There are no further directions. Just “And now you may have a drink!” With no guidance and no movement from the race officials on the stage, and filled with a great desire to drink something other than water after seven days in the desert, the 900-plus runners turn en masse and start to move zombie-like back toward the tents. A person in front sees something official looking near the commissioner’s tent and he turns toward it–turning the whole group behind him. It is as if we are a school of fish. There is nothing at the commissioner’s tent, so we turn en masse again, and head toward the last water-distribution point in the center of the tent circle. We move slowly, exhausted and confused. Where are the Cokes? Why are they taunting us with them? Finally, a race official runs up. There has been a miscommunication. The Cokes will arrive in 10 minutes. We wait like cattle. And then Coca-Cola missed filming the best commercial for Coke it could ever hope to make. Ever.
Day 7 thoughts:
- Sandstorm still going strong. Ugh.
- Eleven miles for the charity/solidarity run that doesn’t count toward the overall race score? Really? I feel a lot of solidarity with everyone here already.
- My legs feel pretty good. I could probably handle more days of running, but I don’t think I have any nights left in me.
If we were all sitting around a campfire after a long run, drinking beers and root beers, Jason, Meghan, and I could share more stories from the movie script. And you might laugh as hard as we did dreaming it up. And you might even get a sense of why the Marathon des Sables is so horribly wonderful (but mostly horrible) (and absolutely wonderful)–so you’d never have to take part yourself. Unless you needed an epiphany. Or perfect fellowship. Or wanted to laugh until you cried. Or wondered what it was like to urinate in a large group.
Call for Comments (from Meghan Hicks)
- Did you participate in the Marathon des Sables this year, or have you in the past?
- If so, what say you about the enormous challenges of the race and the fellowship among competitors about which Liza, Meghan, and Jason write? Does the fellowship trump the difficulties and make it worthwhile? Or is it just plain really difficult?