APRIL 5, 2013 THE BIVOUAC: At 8 am this morning we board buses to bring us on the long trip south from Ouarzazote to the race site. The hours pass quickly as I chat with the few Americans sitting around me- Glenn and Carlos, whom I met in the Casablanca airport during my long layover and Stephanie, Jim and Bobby, who will be in the same tent as Glenn. During the bus ride we are given the Road Book in which the map of the race course for this year is finally revealed.
A page from the Road Book
Another page from the Road Book
After almost 7 hours, we arrive at some anonymous and desolate place in the Moroccan Sahara close to the town of Rissani (I think). From the caravan of buses, we are shuttled with our packs and luggage into the back of flat bed army trucks for the final few miles of off road driving to the bivouac. The sky is darkening and the wind is picking up as a sandstorm rolls in, so we can barely see the bivouac in the distance as the trucks lurch forward over the sand. When the trucks stop, we scramble to heave luggage and packs over the side of the truck, jump 3 feet to the ground and fight the winds to find our assigned tents.
Army trucks waiting to take runners to the bivouac
The tents are arranged by country in three rings. I have been assigned to Tent 56 within the North American section. I use the word “tent” loosely here, as it is a two sided berber tent with a couple of sticks holding up the middle on top of a woven rug placed on the rocky desert ground. There are supposed to be 8 of us in the tent, but over the next hour only 7 of us arrive (2 women and 5 men).
The sandstorm has picked up force and it is barely possible to see as we scour the desert for large rocks in the last few minutes of daylight in an effort to anchor down the two open sides of the tent and shelter from the storm. As the sun sets it turns bitter cold and we are all happy to have the extra clothing in our luggage for that first night. Tomorrow we will have to give up our luggage and will have only our pack until we finish the race.
The first night is spent getting to know these virtual strangers who will share a very small living space for the next 9 nights. Thankfully my tent mates are fantastic and we are all joking and howling with laughter within minutes of meeting each other. There is Pat, a nurse from Vancouver and my only other female cohort in the tent; Jim, a doctor from California; Ryan, a firefighter from Texas; Arthur, a software developer from New Jersey; Martin, a construction company owner from Ontario who is racing the MdS for the 4th time; and Patrick, a legend among the competitors, who is here to tackle his 13th MdS.
I finally meet my online MdS friend Juan Pablo who very sweetly brings me a bag of coffee from his home of El Salvador and makes me feel like I have an old friend here. Thanks JP!!
APRIL 6, 2013 THE BIVOUAC: I thankfully slept about 5 hours last night despite waking to freezing winds and a layer of sand covering everything including my face. Today we will undergo all of the administrative procedures necessary to start the race, but first we are gathered together for a meeting of the over 1,000 competitors where we are greeted by Patrick Bauer, the race director. As each country competing is announced, there are cheers from that country’s runners, the British the loudest, as they far outnumber everyone else. From the USA there are only 29 of us but we total 60 under the umbrella of North America and Jay, from Dreamchasers, is our awesome leader. The mood is boisterous and it is evident that everyone is excited to finally be here after the long months of training. Helicopters are circling and taking photographs as some runners wave flags and others signs.
The admin and staff tents
The check-in process begins shortly after the assembly with assigned times by tent and our tent is one of the last to check in around 2 pm. After showing our passports, we are issued race numbers to be worn on our front and back, a punch card for each allotment of water that we will receive during the race and a timing chip to be worn around our ankle to track us. We are also given certain mandatory items that we must carry in our pack, among them a packet of 120 salt tablets to prevent dehydration and a flare to be set off in case of emergencies on the course. The flare is huge and even though it supposedly weighs a little less than a pound, it feels like it weighs 10 pounds when added to my already stuffed pack. We each sit with a medical team as they look over the medical forms we have filled out with a certification and EKG report issued by our personal physicians before arriving in Morocco. One of the race doctors zeroes in on my Achilles repair surgery and tells me it is possible to get a cortizone shot if I need it, which I find pretty funny since my own doctor would not even give me one and no one even mentions the fact that I have MS. Finally, we hand over the extra luggage that we have brought with us and are now left with only the items in our pack for survival. I’ve decided to ditch my stove, titanium cooking cup and alcohol tablets to save on weight and will rely on only lukewarm water to rehydrate my dinners. I’m a little nervous about this decision.
When check-in is finished it is time to line up for dinner, the last meal we will eat before self-sufficiency starts. The catered food is fantastic and we are given our choice of a can of Coke, beer or small bottle of wine. I err on the side of caution and choose a Coke. I sit with all of my tent mates for this last supper of sorts and we are all hysterical over Jim being issued a race number during check-in identifying him as part of the Japanese team even though he is actually an American of Chinese descent.
When we finish dinner, night has already descended on the desert and we must use our headlamps to find our way back to the tent. The night here is pitch black. With no ambient lights and only strategically placed glow sticks around the bivouac, I quickly learn to sleep with my headlamp wrapped around my wrist for any night time bathroom issues.
The white curtained poo palace in the distance behind the camels
“Bathroom” is another word that I use very loosely here, as there really is no bathroom. Peeing consists of finding a place to squat as a woman. Number 2 is a little more complicated and is required to be done in a special bag that is stretched over a plastic seat. The plastic seats are grouped in threes around camp and each is surrounded by a shower curtain of sorts. In Tent 56 we refer to these makeshift toilets the “poo palace”, the nickname Pat has given them. We have each been given 8 “sh*t bags” as they are commonly referred to for this purpose.
Back at the tent, we climb into our sleeping bags early. The first stage is tomorrow!
APRIL 7, 2013 STAGE 1: It is the same drill every morning. Around 6 am we are woken by the sound of the Berbers speaking loudly in Arabic and taking down the tents around us.
Berbers taking down the tents
Once the tent is down we have about another hour before they come back for the carpet, so we scramble to get ready and get to the start line for our pre-stage speech from the race director. Everyone is excited to get started and it is almost torturous to stand in the hot sun with a heavy pack and listen to a long speech, the announcement of today’s birthdays and then the singing of “Happy Birthday”. Finally, ACDC’s “Highway to Hell” is sent blaring over the sound system, the countdown is shouted and the race begins.
The 37.2 kilometers today is the longest first stage distance in the history of the MdS. The ground is treacherous- sand, rocks, crevasses, hills, mountains and sand dunes.
It is impossible to look up for even a second without stumbling. Each step must be calculated to avoid twisting an ankle or worse, falling. It takes close to three times as long to traverse a kilometer as I am used to. Wearing my Garmin and tracking the distance passing so slowly is demoralizing and my pack feels so much heavier than it ever did at home. The checkpoints where water is distributed are spaced about every 9 to 12 kilometers throughout each stage. Each checkpoint has a timing mat, so it feels like a small accomplishment hearing the beep of my timing chip as each checkpoint is passed. My back and neck hurt and my feet are sore by the time I cross the finish of Stage 1, but once back in the tent I discover that I have only two small blisters so I am pretty happy about that.
Tent 56 ready for Stage 1
Tent 56 feels like home now and my tent mates like old friends, as we swap Stage 1 stories and jokes. Ryan has named our missing 8th tent mate Cindy Hampton and she becomes the butt of all jokes and blamed for anything and everything that has gone wrong during the race. Over the next few days everyone in our tent receives some hilarious double entendre emails from Cindy, which we found out later were being sent from Ryan’s sister in Texas.
APRIL 8, 2013 STAGE 2:
I am excited to see that the distance of the second stage is a little over 30 kilometers, a full 7 kilometers shorter than yesterday. I should have known that nothing in this race could be that easy…the majority of today’s distance being vertical climbs and descents. We must traverse two mountain passes, each a few kilometers high with steeper than 25% gradients.
Halfway up the second climb over a mile high during Stage 2
I am completely unprepared for the rigorous and technical climbing which requires me to haul myself and my pack over steep rocks using upper body strength. I am not alone in being ill prepared for a technical climb, as runners are sprawled out and clinging to rocks on the side of the steep mountains trying to catch their breath and avoid looking down at the perilous and deadly distance to the ground. Still other runners on the summit of the second mountain are laid out receiving emergency IVs from race doctors who have reached the summit on helicopter. On the summit of each mountain, the views are amazing, but almost impossible to enjoy as the winds are quick, gusting around 30 mph, threatening to sweep runners over the edge. The descents are equally as technical and dangerous as runners inch slowly down using quad strength and hands to steel against a forward tumble with our center of gravity changed by the pack on our backs.
Tons of blisters and 6 toenails gone
At the finish of Stage 2 I am physically and emotionally wrecked. At some point my Garmin even though it has a 50% charge has completely stopped working and I give it to a Berber at the second checkpoint. My supposedly indestructible gaiters have been torn on the rocks and are now being held together by some duct tape I had in my pack. My feet are shredded- a bloody mess. For the first time doubt creeps into my mind about whether I can finish this race. I feel a little better when both Patrick and Martin, as MdS veterans, say that it is the toughest day of climbing that they have ever had during this race.
APRIL 9, 2013 STAGE 3: I have cleaned and bandaged my feet the best that I can but every step hurts and when I hear “Highway to Hell” this morning it is with dread and not excitement that I start the over 38 kilometer run of mostly sand dunes today.
The start line
Actually the word run does not apply to me much, as I am forced to traverse almost the entire distance of Stage 3 walking step by painful step. Luckily a couple of my tent mates are also among the walking wounded and I have Arthur to keep me company to the first checkpoint and Ryan for the rest of the race. Walking slowly through the dunes a few kilometers from the finish we are hit by a small sandstorm, adding insult to injury for the day. After I cross the finish line of Stage 3, I call home and tell Rich that I don’t think there is any way I can cover over 75 kilometers on the long stage tomorrow. He gives me a pep talk and tells me that I CAN finish this race and I WILL finish this race. I know he has the utmost faith in me but I know he is also thinking that he doesn’t want to deal with the hell of living with me over the next year as I lament quitting something for the first time in my life
Back in my tent, I joke with my tent mates and try to forget that my feet are in agony, that I am filthy dirty, that I’ve eaten nothing but gels, nuts, dried fruit and cold dehydrated food for the last three days and that my Ipod which must have gotten turned on accidentally inside my pack is completely dead so I won’t have the few precious hours of music that I intended to use during the long stage tomorrow.
APRIL 10 and 11, 2013 STAGE 4: I wake with a renewed sense of purpose and determination and an arsenal of Paracetamol acquired from the medical tent to mask the pain of my injured feet. It is the hottest day so far today topping 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tent 56 ready for Stage 4
At the start line everyone is discussing where they will stop over the more than 75 kilometer distance that we have the next 34 hours to complete- 20 minutes at this checkpoint to rest, 30 minutes at another checkpoint to make a dehydrated meal for dinner, possibly sleeping the night at one of the later checkpoints. In my head I tell myself I will not stop at all, except for the few minutes required to refill my water at each checkpoint and this is exactly what I do. I DO NOT STOP. For over 17 hours I DO NOT STOP. I run, I walk, I jog, but I DO NOT STOP. Darkness descends upon me as I reach the top of some steep dunes where it looks like I will fall off the edge of the Earth and I strap on my headlamp, but I DO NOT STOP.
Steep dunes at dusk during Stage 4
I pass checkpoints where runners are sprawled out on the ground in sleeping bags but I DO NOT STOP. I DO NOT STOP until I reach the finish line of Stage 4 at after 1 am in the morning. I know I am mentally tough but this is the truest test of that toughness that I have ever undergone. For 17 hours I am alone. For 17 hours I am in my own head willing myself to keep moving forward. It is absolute pure elation that I feel when I cross the finish line of Stage 4. This is the feeling that I have come here for. This is what I have trained tirelessly for over the last nine months. This is the feeling of accomplishment that is truly all mine and I will never forget this feeling as long as a I live.
Having finished Stage 4 in half the allotted time, I have earned the rest of the night to sleep and a day off tomorrow. All of my tent mates are finished by early morning and we spend the day laying around our tent trying to shade ourselves from the burning sun which is again forcing the temperature up past 120.
A day off for Tent 56
The bivouac looks like a post apocalyptic survivor camp with people in varying states of undress hobbling around on walking poles and sticks as makeshift canes with white medical tape and gauze covering their feet and other injured body parts. Our tent by this point has become as raucous as a locker room and we amuse ourselves by snapping pics of guys in speedo-like underwear and girls with see-through tights for a jokingly proposed “people of MdS” website modeled after the “people of Walmart” website. I feel as if I’ve lost all sense of decorum- cleaning my spork with a dirty sock and hand sanitizer, and throwing out my hairbrush because I’m too darn tired to drag it through my knotted rats’ nest of hair. I visit the medical tent for some iodine and bandages to retape my feet and it is like a horror scene from the old tv show M*A*S*H- runners lying on the sandy carpet, injured, bloody and hooked to IV poles. It is actually comical to think that we all still have to run a marathon tomorrow, yet even as injured as we all are, I keep hearing the same sentence “just a marathon tomorrow and we’re done.” Clearly we are all mental to have signed up for this race in the first place or as my Aussie race friend Gedaliah said when I met him at check-in “we are all a little touched”- it sounds a lot nicer than mental.
APRIL 12, 2013 STAGE 5: Only 42.2 kilometers to the finish line! I don’t think I’ve ever felt this depleted and injured at the start of a marathon, yet I am psyched when I hear “Highway to Hell” this morning signaling the start of the stage. Every kilometer that
passes is one step closer to the finish line. It is another swelteringly hot day, but the course is pretty flat and rocky today with a small section of sand dunes. It is amazing in a race this big, but you tend to see the same runners around you day after day because they are the ones generally running a similar pace. It is such a boost when you come across a familiar face. I see Morten from Denmark, and both Carl and Mary from Canada who give a cheerful hello. I am running near the 4 girls from Senegal today who have absolutely rocked this race, dressed in purple, looking gorgeous every day and running together in a pace line they are a force to be reckoned with and their energy is contagious. We run through an old abandoned village and a group of tourists watches us pass perplexed.
Ancient village we pass through during Stage 5
With less than 6 kilometers left, we come to the top of a ridge and the finish line comes into view. An Italian runner in front of me falls to the ground with 5 kilometers left and I am there when a group of British runners pulls his flare from his pack and sets it off. It is heartbreaking to think that he made it all this way and dropped with the finish line in sight. I pass another runner down with 2 kilometers left. With half a kilometer left, a Brazilian woman comes up behind me whooping it up and spurring the few runners around us to sprint to the finish. I take off at a breakneck speed and push my body across the finish line with every ounce of energy that I have left. Martin and Arthur are at the finish line to see me cross. Patrick Bauer puts a medal on my neck and kisses me on both cheeks. Yes! MdS done! Check the box!
APRIL 13, 2013 THE CHARITY STAGE AND TRIP HOME: All I want to do is shower, yet we are required to put on a blue 100% hot as heck cotton Unicef shirt and march across 8km of the dunes of Merzouga, the largest in Morocco before another 7 hour bus ride back to Ouarzazate.
Tent 56 at the start of the Charity Stage
At the charity finish line we are surrounded by local children asking for our buffs and water bottles. I hand my water bottles to a couple of teenage boys and walk toward the buses that are waiting to take us back to Ouarzazate. Out of the corner of my eye I see a little boy of about 5 standing quietly watching the other children asking for things. I pull out my sleeping bag, hand it to the little boy and am rewarded with the biggest smile that just makes my day. These people truly have nothing and living a life similar to theirs in the desert for even a few days makes you appreciate the abundant and easy lives we lead. I have been changed by this experience in more ways than I ever imagined. I will never again sit in a hot bath, set a table full of fresh food in front of my children or sink into a warm comfortable bed at night without being thankful. Thankful for everything that I have been given in this life.
Finish line of the Charity Stage