17 April 2015

A desert in Barbary: Stages of the sand

I am four days removed from the Sahara's buffeting wind, a wind which enveloped me from all sides, whether urging me forth, mocking my progress across the land, embracing me in a lazy caress, or causing comedic havoc by collapsing our sleeping quarters in the middle of the night. The wind was a beautiful constant for me out there on the course, whether strong or soft, and most notable in the moments of its absence, when the desert sat still and hot.

The Marathon des Sables was everything I had hoped for upon my return, 15 years after I first tasted the air of anticipation at the starting line. It was grand and epic and humbling and exhausting, but not once did I doubt my ability to arrive at the end of this journey. I am grateful and humbled. In this conclusion, I hope the efforts I have put forth have inspired you in some small way and that the money I have raised assists those injured Marines & sailors as they rehab and find their new normal.

For the recap, I am breaking the race recap into three days: Arrival & Stage 1, Stages 2 & 3, and Stages 4 & 5. I haven't yet conceived of how I will write the concluding blog to this grand adventure (or whether there should even be one!). For now, the stages of the sand......

31 Mar, 0900L:
Mosi & I arrived at Charlotte Int'l to take the first of three flights which carried us to Africa....four hours early. Yup, neither of us double-checked the departure time and we both had it in our heads that it was 1100, so there we were, dropped off by an Uber driver (who had pretty much the best travel story of being a tourist in Jamaica, replete with crashing his scooter with his wife on the back) and excited to embark on our trek. Wah-wah.....We chilled out at the US Airways lounge and triple-checked our gear.

1 Apr, 0800L:
We arrived into Madrid-Barajas airport as the sun was rising and as we completed morning ablutions in the airport restrooms, we were joined by several other Americans (Steve & Doug) and we repaired to Mas Q Menos for some breakfast sustenance, consisting of café con leche, pan rústico con jamón ibérico y brie y un donut de chocolate. Mosi had not yet before experienced the amazing-ness that is jamón ibérico and thus was born a saying listing one's life priorities: "Get money, get ham."
Landing at Madrid-Barajas.
We boarded the flight to Marrakech, now accompanied by multiple racers from a variety of nations, including Russia and Spain, and, just shy of three hours later, landed in Africa. It is hard to describe the arrival; we were in a major city, after all, but it was at once banal and exotic, for the pungent aroma of cigarettes and spices, the anticipation, the regularity of passing through customs and locating our bus driver. (There was a hilarious moment when the driver wouldn't leave the airport because we had one passenger missing, and it took me calling Jay Batchen, the U.S. coordinator, to get him to go. Turns out our missing passenger, Dave M., had boarded the wrong flight and had ended up in Agadir, on the southern coast. But that's another story.) Ten of us boarded the bus.

View of the Atlas Mountains from the plane as we came in for landing.

Double-decker cow transport.
The drive took us over the northern end of the Atlas mountains, and as we progressed up the passes, there were more than a couple upset stomachs, which the cool air of the peaks weren't quite able to quell. The road was narrow, under construction at points and would have been closed had we been in the States. The views were gorgeous, the scenery initially and unexpectedly green due to heavy winter rains and snow, giving way to the forest pines and rust-colored hillsides where homes jutted and crumbled in succession from the red earth. We arrived in Ouarzazate (whar-za-zat) as the sun gave way to the blue of night.

3 Apr, 0800L:
After a day of reassessing gear and adjusting to time zones, we, along with about 275 others, boarded the MdS buses that would shuttle us to the first bivouac. And by shuttle, I mean a six-hour ride. There was a lunch stop and a pee break, the latter setting the benchmark for the devolving level of modesty by which all racers relieved themselves as the race progressed. Upon arrival, Mosi and I settled into our home for the next six days, Tent 178, with our fellow racers: Alissa, Ricky, Patrick, Dean (AUS), Martin (CAN) and Rachel. We quickly realize that our tent's vibe is on point, replete with several bad-ass runners, both a 5- and a 13-time MdS veteran, ridiculous innuendos and random hilarity. Each of their stories inspired me, and I was in awe of their drive, talents and touched by the graciousness of their hearts. I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to be with for this race.

4 Apr:
Admin day, which meant getting your bib numbers, your water and medical cards, your GPS ankle tracker and your emergency locator device, having your pack weighed and one last assessment of gear. There are 180 tents in the bivouac, set up three-deep in a horseshoe, with around 7-8 occupants per tent from over 40 countries. They announce 1,360 registered to start, with 209 of them women. I got to meet several fellow runners, including the folks in Tent 179, an 8-man team from Canada and France who will be carrying three disabled children in a modified rickshaw across the desert. Wow.

The course sweepers; always be ahead of the camels. The line in the back is the check-in.
Sun setting over the camp...
My amusement for the day? Having my race book, with all the routes and instructions, fall apart, after I had marked it up with the headings for the routes. My solution? Get tape and fix it in the middle of a windstorm at the Commissaire du Course tent (HQ), of course. We also receive our poop bags, which go over plastic seats in makeshift latrines situated approx 50yds from the tents. (In order to use these in the ever-present wind, you had to put small rocks in the bottom, which you collected en route, first checking to ensure they hadn't been peed on, as the usual course of action was to relieve oneself between the two aforementioned points.) The stellar ultra-runner Liza Howard commented on this best,

"The tent city was set up in concentric horseshoes, and everyday people stood a little closer to the tents to pee. My crew's tent (177!) was in the outermost ring, so we had front row seats to the encroaching urine line. Actually, the 200+ women continued to make futile efforts to find cover throughout the race. Most adopted a head-down quick step past the urinating men and their exposed parts until they’d gone exactly As-Far-As-Their-Mother-Would-Expect-Them-To-Walk-Divided-By-Overall-Kilometers-Run-&-Feminism. At that point, they resigned themselves to a few inadvertent sightings of their bottoms, squatted behind some scraggly 7-inch desert shrub, and tried 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."

5 Apr, 0900GMT: Stage One, 36.2km (22.49mi):
Here's what it looked like in the book.
Course map & instructions for Stage One.

The hand-drawn version.
This is what it looked like as we got ready:
Prepping. The Berbers invariably take the tent down before we've finished this task.
Fixing my socks and shoes.
Tent 178, Stage 1: Martin, Patrick, me, Rachel, Ricky, Alissa, Dean & Mosi
Birthday announcements, camels and stallions, last-minute pee breaks and a racer-made #30 to commemorate the anniversary made for the start of the race.
Starting line. 
Mosi and I mostly ran to the first checkpoint, without issue, and then I realized I had a long race ahead and I hadn't come to be fast or to beat my previous times but to take each stage start to finish. I told Mosi this and he goes, "I was wondering when you were going to recognize that." After that, we took it much easier and just enjoyed the scenery and the moments.

The first of many climbs throughout the week. 

Stage One complete! 
My reward for completing day one was a lovely MRE meal of spaghetti in meat sauce, wheat bread with cheese spread and blisters across both sides of each heel. At this moment, I should have returned my original laces to my running shoes, which I had swapped out for elastic quick-laces. I would rue not doing so. No other feet or muscle issues. That night, our tent thinks up which actors would play each of us in a comedic movie version of the race. I think I got Kristen Wiig.

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