My first glimpse of the Marathon des Sables comes from above – organisers have very kindly loaned my cameraman and I the use of their four-seater plane for the final hop into Morocco’s Sahara Desert.
Thankfully, they have also given us two pilots.
This aerial perspective underlines the scale of the challenge that makes one of the world’s toughest footraces – endless sand, salt pans, mountains and a sun that no runner can leave behind.
Eventually I spot firm evidence that sport’s most extreme nomadic collective has reconvened. There are black tents for the runners while the organisers, or commissars as they are known here, are under white canvas. Once the race begins, the two split into very distinct suburbs. For the runners, only basic shelter is provided along with strictly rationed water supplies. All other food and kit has to be in your backpack.
For the site’s less self-sufficient inhabitants, a ready supply of fresh food, fine wines and forgiving mattresses soften the edges of this particular camping experience. If a runner is spotted out of bounds, he or she had better have a convincing explanation. Time penalties or even disqualification can be the consequence of walk onto the wrong side of town.
How it started
This remote annual gathering is the result of the wanderlust of a Frenchman. Thirty years ago a concert promoter by the name of Patrick Bauer decided to go for a walk. Unimpressed by the charms of his local park, he decided instead to head for the Sahara.
Many days and many kilometres later, an idea came upon him to share his experience with others. A couple of years later, 23 runners lined up for the first ever Marathon des Sables.
Fast-forward three decades and the race is over-subscribed two years in advance. More than a thousand entrants from close to 50 countries are in camp this time around. All have happily paid a $6,000 entrance fee in exchange for guaranteed food and water deprivation.
Every runner I talk to has a different motivation for being here. Only a handful take part in the hope of actually winning. The vast majority only want to prove a point to themselves. The ethos of the race: it has no barriers. Entrants with disabilities are embraced and, within reason, no-one is deemed too young or too old.
I want to show them I can still make a contribution. If I can run this, they won't treat me like an old man
At 72, Mario Rebellato is back for a fifth time. The Londoner says he keeps returning because so many of his friends and family at home say he should not be doing it.
“I want to show them I can still make a contribution,” he tells me. “If I can run this, they won’t treat me like an old man.”
The start is quite something. Two television helicopters hover above the runners and ‘Highway to Hell’ blasts out from the sound system. Now overseeing his 29th race, Bauer gives an impassioned send off to his class of 2014. There are tears in his eyes as the running begins. The vast majority of the field set off embodying the mantra of the wise ultra runner. That is, if you feel like you are going slow at the start, go slower. They know all too well that six stages and more than 250 kilometres of timed racing lie ahead. The fourth stage measures up at a foot blistering 82 kilometres.
Keeping those feet healthy is a necessary obsession for all involved. The desert and running can make for unfortunate companions. Take one trainer, add a cup full of sweat and sprinkle in a hand full of the Sahara’s finest minerals and you can very quickly find yourself running on the equivalent of sandpaper.
The wonderfully named “Doc Trotter” medical tents are at every checkpoint and finish line. The medics tell me that every competitor just has to face up to the fact that at some point they will be in need of treatment. If you are not in the process of eating have a look at this (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3HbFfPS_hs) to get an idea of what a Marathon des Sables blister can look like.
Placing yourself in harm’s way is, it seems, one of the perverse attractions of this race.
Ice vs fire
I first met British runner Fiona Oakes last year when I decided to run a marathon in the Antarctic. Fiona is back for her second Marathon des Sables and she quickly makes our icy adventure sound like a gentle stretching exercise.
“It’s this race that has been a truly life changing experience,” she tells me at the start line. “It makes you appreciate what you have back home. It will take you to some dark places, but it really does give you time to get your head straight and think about what really matters.”
Fiona is far from atypical. Outsiders can quickly dismiss this event as a symptom of madness, but the competitors would not want to be anywhere else. They all seem to be enjoying this back to basics existence.
With very limited access to phones or internet, bonding in real time with real people is what matters. Food, sleep and, of course, running is all that is on their daily agenda. The challenge for many here will not really be about getting through the days ahead but thinking of what to do when it is all over.