His left eye fused shut by sand, sweat and tears, and his right
eye barely functional behind his sand-shielding sunglasses, Doug
Gallaher was suddenly without tracks to follow as darkness fell
on the Sahara on April 10, the fourth day of the 17th Marathon
des Sables. "The wind was howling, I could barely see anything,
and I was all alone surrounded by 300-foot-high dunes," recalls
the 33-year-old Web developer from San Francisco. "Up to that
point the race had been...I wouldn't say a fun thing, but a
challenging thing. Suddenly it became a serious thing that could
have much bigger consequences than I had imagined. That's when I
had my little insanity breakdown."
Almost everyone who attempts the weeklong Marathon des Sables
(or the Marathon of the Sands) has one eventually: That moment
of truth when the blistering heat or the blinding sandstorms or
the steady diet of freeze-dried food drives him to the edge of
despair. It is one of the reasons Patrick Bauer, a former
concert promoter from Troyes, France, who concocted the event in
1986, proudly bills the MdS as "the toughest footrace on earth."
Bauer's inspiration for creating it came in 1984, when he walked
200 miles alone across the Algerian Sahara. He found the
experience so harsh and clarifying that he realized he could
create a similar event in which people would pay to participate.
The resulting annual ordeal, which begins in the middle of the
desert, four hours from Ouarzazate, Morocco, and ends in the
small Moroccan village of Foum Zguit, requires its 600 or so
participants to run the equivalent of more than five marathons
in six stages over seven days. The exact course and conditions
vary, but typically there is one marathon stage of 26.2 miles
and one 50-mile leg that runners have 40 hours to complete, as
well as one "dune day" that includes roughly 14 miles up and
down large walls of sand. All told, participants cover about 142
miles running, walking or hobbling over rocky plateaus, dried
lake and river beds, village streets and sand dunes, often in
punishing sandstorms and heat that can reach 120[degrees]. Race
organizers provide nine liters of water a day and spartan Berber
accommodations (nine to a burlap-sack tent) at night. Every
other necessity, such as a sleeping bag, a distress flare, an
antivenom pump (in case of snakebites) and food for seven days,
must be lugged by the runner. Though some medical aid is
available, any racer who requires more than one IV is
disqualified and must suffer the humiliation of having his or
her name added to the QUITTERS list posted outside the bivouac
The only requirements for entry are $2,600 (including a mandatory
"corpse repatriation fee") and evidence of a recent
electrocardiogram and medical exam. (Evidence of a recent
psychiatric checkup is, apparently, optional.) While many of the
participants are accomplished endurance athletes looking for a
new challenge, some are regular folk with an adventurous spirit
but little idea of what they are getting into. Nevertheless, only
one participant has expired en route--a Frenchman in his 20s died
of a massive heart attack during the 1988 race--and only one has
been lost for more than a day. In 1994 Mauro Prosperi of Sicily
got lost in a sandstorm and wandered the desert for nine days,
living off captured bats before being found 125 miles off course
and some 40 pounds lighter. Calling the experience both
"terrible" and "great," Prosperi returned to compete in 1998,
only to be felled by a severely stubbed toe.
Gallaher, an experienced marathoner and triathlete who had signed
up for the MdS as part of Team Clif Bar a year and a half ago as
a way to forget a failed love affair, would have better luck than
Prosperi. Alone among the dunes on that bleak night of April 10
(in a stroke of cruel genius, event organizers had made dune day
part of the 50-mile nonstop stage) and weeping sand from every
crevice and orifice, Gallaher backtracked until he met up with
some other racers, with whom he traveled until the dunes were
behind them. When he finally staggered into the race checkpoint
around 9:30 that night, Gallaher was focused on a single task:
fashioning nighttime goggles out of a scarf and a cut-up water
bottle to keep the infernal sand out of his eyes. "I was crazed;
I kept thinking, I...must...make...goggles!" says Gallaher,
who would finish the race in 23rd place. "Then the wind picked up
and blew my whole project away."
With the wind at a constant roar and the temperatures never
breaking 90 in the day and plummeting to the 40s at night, this
year's race was strangely devoid of the furnacelike heat for
which the event is so famous, yet it arguably had the most
adverse conditions in MdS history. "The story of this race was
sand and wind and cold," says Gallaher. "We were braced for
sweltering heat, but we didn't get it. I had no pants, no jacket.
We didn't bring stoves because we thought we'd be able to cook
stuff directly in the sun. The best we could do was half-cook
stuff. I ate a lot of crunchy pasta."
Some of that crunch was sand. Gallaher and his Team Clif Bar
teammate Stephen Houghton, a Web manager and office raconteur at
Clif Bar, the Berkeley, Calif.-based energy-bar company, had
wisely spent a month and a half before the race designing and
testing gaiters to keep sand out of their shoes. But they didn't
have much success keeping it out of anything else. The
sandstorms were so relentless that racers were occasionally
envious of the eight Brits who took turns wearing a 20-pound
rhino costume on behalf of the London-based Save the Rhino
foundation. In addition to providing some additional protection
from the blowing sand, the rhino costume established the race's
minimum standard of achievement among some runners. "People
would say, 'At least I beat the rhino,' or, 'I thought I was
doing well until the rhino passed me,'" says Gallaher. Team
Rhino finished the race, a big improvement over the 2000
performance of a fellow Brit who raced in a full bunny costume
for less than three days before he abandoned it and whatever
cause he was promoting and joined the quitters' list.
Day 5, an off day for those who had completed Stage 4 the night
before, offered up the worst of the week's sandstorms. To avoid a
continual blast, Gallaher passed most of the day zipped into his
sleeping bag inside the sievelike tent he shared with Houghton,
teammate Kory Helean and six others. "Everyone was miserable,"
says Gallaher. "Just facing a trip to the bathroom [primitive
squatty potties of which the short privacy screens had been blown
away by the wind] was a horrible decision to make."
That day Gallaher mustered the courage to visit the medical tent
to tend to a blood blister, another horrible decision. When a
medic mercilessly jabbed a scalpel underneath his second left
toenail to pop the blister, he unleashed a bloodcurdling scream.
"It was agony," he says. "My toe throbbed for days."
Even so, Gallaher was relieved when Day 6 and its marathon-length
run rolled around. After painfully slipping into his running
shoes--which were, as recommended, a size and a half bigger than
his usual shoes--he briskly set off straight into the same head
wind that had been torturing him for the previous four days. "It
was still windy, but after a day of being trapped in our tents,
we were finally doing something, and it was like we had a new
lease on life," says Gallaher. "People ran really fast. It felt
like a real marathon; it was by far the most competitive day. If
you could finish that, you knew you'd finish the whole thing."
After Houghton crossed the finish line on a paved street in Foum
Zguit after the final 12-mile run on Day 7, one of only two days
when the sand didn't blow, he cried a little. "On one hand I
thought that day would never come; on the other, I was already
mourning the loss of the whole adventure," says Houghton, who
came in 299th. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat, though probably
not next year. I think I have enough stories for the watercooler
to last me awhile."
COLOR PHOTO: MARTIN PAQUETTE Desert storm Though runners got a respite from the most brutal heat, there was no escaping some of the worst sandstorms in recent memory.
COLOR PHOTO: PIERRE VERDY/AFP Oasis of calm Free of harsh wind, the race's 26.2-mile fifth stage felt like a stroll through the park for many of the runners.
COLOR PHOTO: MARTIN PAQUETTE Worth the weight Team Rhino members bore the burden of a 20-pound costume, but it protected them from the infernal sands.
In 1994 a competitor got lost in a sandstorm and wandered the
desert for nine days, living off captured bats.
The rhino costume set a minimum standard of achievement. "People
said, 'At least I beat the rhino,'" says Gallaher.