The marathon of the sands

How to meet the man of your dreams when you haven't washed for a week

Always carry wet wipes.

We all stank so much we didn't even stink anymore. But we could smell the soap on the grimacing/grinning hotel staff as we hobbled into the hotel lobby.

The marathon of the sands. A bonkers 150 mile running race in the Sahara Desert. Each day there is a different set distance to cover on foot. The distances range from 20 to 52 miles and you have to be quicker than two camels brining up the rear. If you get behind the two spitting beasts of burden, you're out. You're also self sufficient, carrying all your food, sleeping bag and medical kit for the week. When carrying all your kit over this distance in 45 degree heat, superfluous has new meaning: no spare underwear, no shampoo, soap. It's all too heavy. And ipods don't do too well in sand storms either. Every 8 miles a checkpoint gives you 1 ½ litres of water and an impression of how other runners are doing. Scattered bodies on drips, morphine injections for excruciating feet, and the chirpier sharing snacks and encouragement. If I imagine a war zone, it's a bit like this.

Every evening the French organizers put on a bizarre club med style entertainment. We had a string quartet, drumming, horseback displays, but most people were too ruined to move from the open sided canvas tents that were provided. These 'bedouin shelters' were quite comedy during the frequent sand storms. Not very effective.

I was cajoled into doing the event by a couple of friends. I'd read about it in 'Survival of the fittest', a book by Dr Mike Stroud about physical performance and evolution. A lot more interesting than it sounds, when it described the Marathon of the Sands, I remember thinking, 'who on earth would do that?' Well, me, apparently. When the boys asked, amid a stream of 'no' I suddenly heard myself saying 'yes'. Weird. When I started telling people about my plans, I was committed. Then the two friends backed out, and I ended up going alone. My God, it was dull. I trained hard for 7 months, but knowing that this was too distant a goal for me to focus, I slipped in some 'journey' goals/challenges along the way, the NY marathon and climbing Aconcagua.

There was just one highlight. On the longest day I ran into the last checkpoint - I'd run 44 miles and had another 8 to go. It was a starry night and I could see some one slumped against a sand dune smoking a cigarette. Assuming it was one of the staff, I walked past and then realized it was actually a runner. Incredulous, I said, "I can't believe you're smoking after running 44 miles." He said with an Irish brogue, "I was absolutely desperate, I was couldn't wait any ---------longer." And all I could think about was the extra weight of his fags and lighter he was carrying.

And the lowlight? That would be staggering into the hotel lobby, not having washed, barely eaten and literally hanging out of my running pants. Who was standing there, in that lobby? Brad Pitt.


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