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- April 10, 1989
- Vol. 31
- No. 14
Sahara Marathoners: They're Hot to Trot
A Seven-Day Footrace Across the Blistering Deserts of Morocco Proves a Supreme Test of Endurance—or Madness
It is not true that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. So do mad Frenchmen, Swiss, Japanese, Belgians, Italians and some inhabitants of little old New York. They did it, 170 of them, day in and day out, for a week in the Moroccan Sahara, over a 125-mile course, up hills and down dried-out wadis. They did it carrying their food, clothing and bedding in packs on their backs. They each paid about $1,400 for the privilege. Some of them found dehydration and coma, and some of them found God.
Call it French Foreign Legionnaires' disease; its organizers call it the Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands). It is one of the more outrageous examples of what some have called the "new adventures"—experiences that exist at the intersection of competitive sport, personal daredevilry and masochism, inspired perhaps by the first world's nostalgia for the rigors of the third.
The brochure sent to Lahory Brummell and other interested parties by the race's founder, Patrick Bauer, noted that the event, which has existed since 1986, "has always occupied a special place...in the saga of great African adventure." Written in a sort of New Age Jock Franglais, the brochure continues, "[the race] has successfully surmounted the credibility stage and has been able over the past few years to reveal and affirm its personality."
Luckily, Brummell, like most of those who care about such things and can raise the entrance fee, knew enough about the marathon's personality without trying to figure out the ad copy. The race, over a slightly different route each year, consists of six legs run over seven days, through scenic stretches of Morocco that are difficult for Land-Rovers—and sometimes even for camels. Ever since the death by heatstroke of a well-trained young runner in the marathon's third year, the race has employed a helicopter to transport emergency cases, as well as the services of six physicians.
There is a type of person for whom such conditions are an inescapable lure. "You can't just take a top runner, bring him here and say, 'Go for it,' " says John Lister, a course official. "A lot depends on mentality."
THE DAY BEFORE
The normally quiet oasis village of Foum Zguid, close by (but unfortunately not in the shadow of) the rugged Atlas Mountains, is abuzz with arriving marathoners and observers. Among the 144 men and 26 women who have answered Des Sables' siren call can be found a butcher, a potter, some soldiers and students, two antique-piano restorers, an insurance broker and a psychiatrist. There is a contingent of policemen from Patrick Bauer's native Troyes, of firemen from Paris, two teams of troubled French adolescents on the rehabilitation trail and a Moroccan who uses a pool cue as a cane.
As the entrants socialize and compare gear, it becomes obvious that there are two schools of thought about the race. The first is expressed in Bauer's brochure, which talks of "surpassing physical and moral limits...and discovery or quest of the absolute." Its adherents include the contestant nostalgic for the years when the race seemed "more a private outing among friends"; last year's women's winner, Marie-Ange Malcuit, 33, who notes "the desert is my best love affair"; and Camille and Thérèse Giacosa, a couple from southern France who proclaim but one ambition: "to finish the race hand in hand with my spouse," and who have brought a container of Lourdes water to bless that effort.
But as the marathon has attracted more press attention, more sponsors and bigger prizes ($8,000 to the winner, $4,800 to the top team), it has also drawn less spiritually oriented contestants. Two-time winner Bernard Gaudin ("a beast of the desert," murmurs a race veteran) is a former 24-hour-run world record holder from Niort, France. His most likely challenger, a 25-year-old Orleans supermarket employee named Hassan Sebtaoui, describes his own motivation simply: "I'm here to win."
And then there is the 10-member U.S. team, which combines the hi-tech with the spiritual. All serious marathoners or ultramarathoners, they are also devotees of New York-based guru Sri Chinmoy. They intend to carry a three-pound "peace torch" through the marathon, as part of its longer trip around the globe.
Tonight the soon-to-be-starving runners carbo-load on chicken tajine and round loaves of Moroccan bread. The Americans sing peace songs and fire up the torch. Then, as the desert cools to 40°F, as the wind whistles and covers all in a fine layer of sand and an insomniac camel makes horrible gargling noises, all attempt to rest for the race.
They're off. The contestants burst out in waves of 40, each wave signaled by an honor guard of 15 white-robed Moroccans firing rifle salutes. Hot on their trail are: three Japanese TV crews, who have paid 200,000 francs for permission to record every detail; the anthropologist from Padua, Italy, studying the impact of the desert on runners; the textile-magnate sponsor of the Italian team; and a psychoanalyst with his patient ("I use the desert as a therapeutic tool," the doctor explains). Plus cooks, doctors, teamakers (for rest stops) and tent raisers. A retinue of 40 vehicles and a helicoptor carry the noncombatants. Two men on camels bring up the rear, poised to collect the fallen. The first day's 15 miles are relatively gentle, a beige blanket of desert dotted with boulders and thorn-bushes. The day's winner is Sebtaoui, followed closely, to no one's surprise, by Gaudin.
The runners rise at 6:00 A.M. and are soon pounding over fossil-strewn fields of rock, then across the endless expanse of a dried lake bed. The temperature climbs to 100°F; vegetation is scarce. Three-quarters of the way through the day's 18-mile leg, Lahory Brummell spots the final bivouac—floating atop shimmering blue water. Her first mirage. But three hours after setting out, she really does finish. The American team eats its vegetarian dinner...and zips its packs smaller. Sebtaoui comes in first; Gaudin follows.
That night, spirits are generally high. Amid terrain that normally hears only wind and whispering sands, two of the doctors serenade the runners with trumpet and saxophone.
For the first time this week, true Lawrence-of-Arabia scenery: Thirty-foot dunes, endless vistas of golden sand, swirls of sand, and maddening dust that sticks and turns to mud when mixed with sweat. Not even the Jeeps can follow here; the runners are ants struggling atop the backs of the dunes. Those contestants wise in desert ways walk up and run down. Fifteen miles later, by day's end, Lahory Brummell is 83rd in the general ranking; sixth among the women. "Are my teeth black?" she asks. "My skin looks like elephant skin. I'm covered in mud." Still, she feels "a deep sense of joy."
DAYS FOUR and FIVE
These are the killers. Past the first level stretch, a cruelly beautiful oasis. And then 21 miles of rocks, gravel and dunes at temperatures as high as 125°F. The top runners set a punishing pace; perhaps too punishing. The recreational athletes, some of whom have never even run a marathon, cross the day's finish line holding one another up, hobbling and sobbing, their feet masses of bloody blisters, their backs scraped raw by their packs. Nor do they all cross that line. Twenty-five miles from the start, the medical team finds Armand Mussard, 39, a cook from Troyes, semiconscious and lapsing into a coma. As the film crews and photographers crowd around, the helicopter airlifts him to the town of Zagora. Tomorrow he will regain his senses and catch a plane back to Paris.
As shocking, in terms of the race's outcome, is the fate of Gaudin. Just past the oasis, he begins vomiting and slows to a walk. Several miles later, two photographers discover him wandering off the trail, on the edge of delirium, his water gone. (Each runner gets nine liters a day.) The lensmen—illegally—give him some of theirs, and he manages to finish the leg. But his time is pathetic; the race appears to belong to the implacable Sebtaoui.
The day's comic relief comes from a couple who have distinguished themselves by their nightly bickering and have now found a way to continue it en route. Flagging a passing Jeep, the man sends a message: "Tell her I'm way ahead and not to bother to try and catch up, she'd need the Concorde." The Jeep roars off to his beloved. "I couldn't care less," she snaps.
In the course of today's run, the contestants come upon a breathtaking vista—the valley of Dra, an almost endless, arid, empty plain encircled by a ridge of mountains only dimly discerned. But few of the runners notice. Even though they were allowed to rest yesterday to recover from their ordeal, they are in no mood for aesthetic contemplation. "It was like running across Death Valley," Brummell will explain. "There was no wind. You think the wind is your enemy until you don't have it. It moves the heat, and otherwise it's a still, dead heat that bakes you. A person could die out here."
Curiously, though the runners have jettisoned all extra weight and most excess sentimentality, the Sri Chinmoy peace torch, all three pounds of it, is still aloft and aglow. Runners from different teams take turns bearing it. Although not everybody in the race subscribes to guruism, the flame has somehow become an informal symbol of their own drive to prevail.
Sebtaoui finishes first again.
One of the Parisian firemen has greeted every morning of the race by crowing like a cock. He crows this morning, but not loudly. The distance to be covered today is only 12 miles across a barren plain of baked earth giving way to an oasis and palm grove outside Zagora. A merciful thing, too, because when the starting signal is given, the runners-filthy, hobbling and stumbling, their clothes torn and encrusted with dust-look more like a phalanx of beggars than athletes.
Hassan Sebtaoui runs the last half-mile accompanied by a swarm of little boys, past the dusty pink houses lining the route. As unflappable in victory as in competition, he allows himself to be doused with celebratory water, and then declares graciously, "It was fabulous—wonderfully organized."
But it is the 159 runners-up who, in the end, make some of Patrick Bauer's boasting about the race and the human spirit seem appropriate. At the finish, the cock-crowing fireman breaks into "Love is a bunch of violets." Yves Pol, a Frenchman now living in New York, crosses the line backward, a desert flower between his teeth. The female winner, Marie-Claude Battistelli, 39, arrives holding hands with two of her competitors, laughing. Many other contestants show up holding hands with the children. And the Giacosas, Lourdes bless 'em, arrive as promised, hand in hand with one another. The Americans arrive with the peace torch held high.
A young man named Alfred Rosales crosses the line. A veteran of last year's race, this time he brought along his surfboard, to see if he could surf down the sides of the dunes. He couldn't. But after all. he says, it's not the speed that counts. "It's the people. The talks are really good when the times are hard, when the runners realize that it's the head and not the muscles that count. People fall apart and you find their true natures. I found myself screaming at rocks. I said to myself, 'Why are you screaming? Nobody's listening.' I discovered that I'm weak in the face of nature. During the hard moments, I'd think, 'Why am I here? The race is terrible. The organizers are rotten.' Then I'd realize I was there to find my limits. The people who come on the race are the people who want to evolve."
—David Van Biema, Cathy Nolan in Morocco
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