Blazing sun, blowing sand and blistered souls at the 2012 Marathon des Sables
A field of 854 runners which began the 2012 Marathon des Sables splays across a sandy swath of the Sahara Desert. Photo by Mark Gillett.
A fatigue haze induced by two days and three continents of travel is my filter for this moment—midnight in an African airport—so I have to focus on doing what it takes to end this day: getting a passport stamp from a border-patrol agent, heaving my duffel onto the roof rack of a taxi cab with a sawed-off back end, greeting the hotel manager in a mixture of Arabic and French and discerning the difference between my room’s toilet and bidet.
In the morning, the door lock clacks as a housekeeper helps herself inside my hotel room to make it up for the day. “Je dors! Je dors!” I bellow, bounding from bed in surprise. Through midday light flooding the room, she shoots me an alarmed glance and disappears. I sleep more.
When I wake next, I feel human. I open the wood window shutters and a breeze flows over my face. Here is the spread of Ouarzazate, Morocco, an almost-flat city made hazy by fine wind-blown sand. I was too tired to bother with pajamas last night and realize that I’m wearing just a T-shirt and underpants. Morocco’s Muslim culture is conservative, so I now understand the housekeeper’s shock.
I am here to run the Marathon des Sables (MdS) for the third time. The race, which begins in 10 days, has taken place in southern Morocco every April for 26 years. The brainchild of French race director Patrick Bauer and the granddaddy of all stage races, it
welcomes nearly 1000 athletes for a week of running 150 miles in the Sahara Desert while carrying a pack containing all the food, camping equipment and whatever else one needs for a week of running in the desert. The race administration, a flawlessly tuned orchestra of 400 staff and volunteers, provides runners with water rations, medical care and shade tents.
It’s around 85 degrees when I head out for a road run. To repent my earlier sin, I cover up with a long-sleeve shirt, three-quarter-length tights and a ball cap. I give the women in flowing hijabs my best smile, but they triple-take me anyway. Kids stop playing to stare. An ancient automobile burping blue fumes stalls when its driver pays too little attention to driving and too much attention to me. A white girl running—I am a sore thumb in Africa.