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MARATHON DES SABLES RACE REPORT, Sean Hartman posted 5/1/02
Sean is a new team member this year and completed the 145 mile trek across the Saharah Desert in the Marathon des Sables. This is his first-hand account of the experience.

Marathon des Sables
April 7 - 13, 2002

From April 7-13, I had the opportunity and privilege to compete in the 17th Annual Marathon des Sables, a 7-day, approximately 141 mile footrace through the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Competitors are required to carry all of their own food and gear for the entire week and are provided only 9 litres of water per day (staged out over each day) and an open-sided Berber tent at night by the race organizers. It has been described as “The Toughest Footrace on Earth.”

Well, my first response to people who ask me “Why?” about this and other things I do is typically, “If I have to explain it, you don’t understand.” That being said, I read an article in Outside Magazine a while back, “Where have all the wise men gone?”. In a nutshell, it describes at length the brutal conditions, the mangled feet, the mental and physical anguish racers experience, etc. I finished the article and, inexplicably, said to myself, “I must do this.” So I signed up. There are only 50 slots for Americans each year, filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

The expedition nature of this race requires not only physical preparation, but also attention to detail in terms of gear and food. Since we were required to carry all food and gear with us while running, minimizing weight was of utmost importance. There were several mandatory items, which were: a backpack, a sleeping bag, a flashlight w/ spare batteries, 10 safety pins, a compass, a lighter, a knife, a tropical disinfectant packet, an anti-venom pump, a whistle, a signal mirror, and a minimum of 2000 calories per day.

I opted for one pair of clothes – a Railriders Eco-Mesh shirt, one pair of spandex shorts, and one pair of nylon North Face shorts (mostly for the pockets). I wore these the entire week, and they will never be quite the same again. I also took two pairs of socks. This was about it, aside from sunglasses, hat, etc.

For food, I was going to survive on instant oatmeal for breakfast and ramen noodles for dinner. I didn’t take a stove so I just let the stuff soak in warm water (sometimes in the sun for a little added cooking effect). During the day while running, I had some electrolyte and energy drinks, and a total of 4 powerbars for the week. I also drank a quart of Endurox each day after finishing the stage. I wound up with slightly over 2000 calories / day.

Total pack weight at start, without water: 8.8 kilos, or 19.4 pounds. Not bad.

My physical preparation for this race was, well, radically less than I would have liked. After last season (in which I hammered out 3 Ironmans in 3 months, following up the final one only one week later with a marathon – and these were my first races of any sort since a 3 mile Turkey Trot in 1997, which was essentially the longest race I had ever done), I needed a breather (note that I was uninjured all season). I took this in the form of a couple months of unstructured and relaxed ‘training’ in November and December, some international traveling to Peru and Mexico, and family time with my dad and siblings. January 1 was to be the beginning of my training for MdS 2002, and for the 2002 season overall.

I started off in grand style, with a 14 mile run, with a pack on. The next day’s recovery run was fine – no problems. Then the next day the left knee pain started. To make a rather long story very short, home remedies, time off, etc didn’t work and it was finally in mid-March, 2 ½ weeks before the race, that I finally got into the orthopedist. A slew of diagnostic efforts including an MRI revealed that my knee is essentially perfect, except for a congenital thing called the plica – a band of scar tissue that is found in less than ½ of people overall – which serves absolutely no function except to become inflamed in some of the less fortunate. The good news was that no matter how much it hurt, I wasn’t actually doing myself any real damage.

The bad news was that the pain had been great enough to basically bring me to a halt 20 minutes into any run January through march, and leave me more or less crippled for a couple days after such runs. Fortunately, I got some PT in the form of iontophoresis in the weeks leading up to the race, and this enabled me to run a bit again in the few weeks before the race.

Still, I entered the toughest footrace on earth with fewer than 40 running miles TOTAL under my belt in the previous 3 ½ months. I had been biking, swimming, and pool running a lot, though. I knew I was in for it. But I was registered, I was paid, I had my plane ticket, and I was going. I accepted that there might be a lot of walking time, but you can complete this race walking. Or limping. Just an added dimension of challenge, as I saw it. I was going to learn a lot, any way I looked at it.

After traveling around Morocco for a week before the race – hands down the most incredible travel experience of my life (but that’s another story entirely) – I showed up at the Hotel Belere in Ourzazate, (approx 5 hours South-Southeast of Marrakech over the Atlas Mountains), at 9am on Friday morning. And the fun began.

Friday and Saturday – 05-06 APR 02
They bused us 5 hours into the Sahara and then dropped us off, with all our luggage, and left us. The first bivouac was a good mile+ away. Seeing as everyone had wheeled luggage, etc., with them, this was daunting. Perhaps even worthy of the status of the first stage of the race. Instead of making us walk, though, they herded us like cattle into the back of huge dump trucks, locked us in, and drove us to the first bivouac.

These two days were spent sifting through gear, getting to know our tent-mates, making last minute preparations, and on Saturday checking in all non-race gear which was transported back to the hotel for our return. Race organizers provided all meals these days, and the mood was actually very relaxed, given the rather ridiculous nature of the race that was about to ensue. We drank wine at dinner (French race organizers, remember) and had a merry time. What exactly had us so relaxed I don’t know. Perhaps it was denial mixed with ignorance of the suffering that was to ensue over the next 7 days.

Approximately 600 competitors do this race each year. We stayed in tents organized by nationality, 9 people to a tent. You self-organize into tents the first day on arrival and stay with those folks the entire time. I was extremely fortunate to wind up with outstanding tent mates: two men who had done the race before (Keith and Andy), three Clif bar sponsored athletes (Steven, Kory, and Doug), a former Guatemalan mountain biking champion (Juan Carlos), a firefighter from Arizona (Nancy), and an American living in Hong Kong (Aaron).

Saturday night was the last supper, so to speak. The weather had been, even, on these days at the first campsite. It had rained three days straight the previous week – the first rain in the area in 4 years.

Sunday – 07 APR 02 – Stage 1 (26 km)
Sunday morning. Race day (well, race day #1, at least). Start time, I recall, was to be around 9am. Maybe 9:30. A stiff tailwind was to be with us this entire day (the only day of the tailwind, I might add).

I had the ability to send and receive emails from the field. For $40, thanks to the wonders of satellite technology, I got to send 6 emails over the course of the week (I only had 10 minutes for each, though). Excerpts will be found throughout the remainder of this report (I’ve left in typos – the French keyboards were rather challenging). Here’s one from Sunday afternoon:

“we are at bivouac 2 now. this is the world of sand. constant wind with gusts repeatedly coats eerything in our tent with sand. literally - my ears are full of sand and my teetth are constantly gritty because there is always sand in my mouth. fun.

“v beautiful here.

“as for me: today was a short stage, though i am not feeling as good as i would have hoped. just feeling a little sick after the days stage. plica has been happier though it is not terrible yet. still, hangig i there with many days to go. one step at a time.”

I ran the entire first day which I was very happy with, given my knee. I was well within the top ½ of the field, and my knee was under control, though not perfect. I was hurting a little in a general sense, but given my “training” regimen of the past 3 months I thought I was doing ok. General consensus amongst the competitors was that it was a good warm-up stage and everyone was healthy and ready to attack the week. But most newbies I talked to were more or less unsure of how to pace for such a long event with such unpredictable conditions.

Monday – 08 APR 02 – Stage 2 (36 km)
The first day’s easterly running direction changed starting on stage 2 for the remainder of the week – directly into a brutal headwind almost the entirety of every day. Sandstorms plagued us on a fairly consistent basis for the rest of the week, while running and while in camp. Race organizers agreed that while the heat was not bad (and it really was quite mild temperature-wise), the conditions were the worst seen in the 17 years of the race, due to the mental and physical stress wrought by non-stop driving wind and sand.

Email excerpt from Monday afternoon:

“i feel better today than i did yesterday. knee hurt but was manageable - i ran the majoirity of the first 12 km to the first checkpoint. then began the remaining 24km, all of which was directly into a 35-45 mph CONSTANT wind. i walked almost the whole thing, but so did almost eeryone else i saw. partly due to sand and dunes,partly from fatigue, partly to save up a little for the remaining 5 days.

“one tentmate - doug - came in 12th today. another - juan carlos came in 59th. we also encountered quite a few dunes today. i ran through the first set with monica [Fernandez – current reigning Ultraman women’s champion 2 years running].

“today was largely the most bleak, inhospitable, god-forsaken landscape i have ever seen in my life, let alone tried to move my body through under my own power. also some of the most beautiful.

“this camp is about as windy and sandy as the last. blisters on both feet but so far manageable.”

This day, frankly, sucked. That was the general consensus. The sandstorm took it’s toll mentally and physically on everyone and the fact that we were only 2 days into this event made us realize it would be a difficult week in a more visceral sense than we had previously felt.

Tuesday - 09 APR 02 – Stage 3 (31 km)

Email excerpt from Tuesday afternoon:

“today was ‘only’ 31km. we ran through a palm tree grove and through a casbah. everything was good until just after the second and final check point for the day - at this point my knee started hurting quite a lot and i was reduced to a walk. and that is when the sandstorm began, and it has been going on ever since.

“there is no escape, save in this email tent, from the driving wind and sand. our tents, though we batten down the sides, are only made of mesh, and a steady misting of sand continually coats everything. this has been the case in every camp so far. i have never been this dirty in my life.

“as for my conditon, it is unclear how my knee will be tomorrow, but i think i may be walking a lot. blisters are still under control, though getting a bit worse, still nothing compared to others in my tent though. the heat got to me today and i took a short 5 minute breather under a palm tree which improved my condition. the wind has been great in terms of reducing the outside tempurature, however it poses other problems, especially when it involves a sandstorm. i have never been in conditions like this before - kind of like a blizzard but with sand instead of snow. sand fills your eyes and mouth and makes forward progress in the proper direction difficult.

“i will not write again until thursday afternoon. tomorrow/thursday is the "double marathon" stage, which is short this year at 42 miles, but they have combined it, in a sadistic twist, with dune day, so 1/2 way through we have to do 12 miles through the dunes, which will be devastating. given my knee, and the walking, it could well take me 20 hours or more.”

Normally “dune day” – namely, the day in which you conquer miles upon miles of gigantic sand dunes – is a day unto itself. But not this year. The next day was to prove to be one of the hardest stages ever seen in this race, as they combined dune day with the grueling “non-stop” stage, typically a double-marathon but in this edition mercifully shortened to a mere 42 miles.

Wednesday and Thursday – 10-11 APR 02 – Stage 4 (71 km)

From the press release from race organizers, April 10th:

“One of the most difficult stages in the history of the Marathon des Sables is being lived out. From the moment the first group (522 competitors) set off this morning at 9h, violent head winds have been forcing the runners to stick together in every sense; going it alone necessitating near superhuman qualities. Using the technique used by cyclists in times of strong winds, the runners are staying in groups of up to 40 at a time. Those at the front form a wall, sheltering those behind from the harsh winds. Each one then takes it in turns to go to the front and get his/her share of suffering…”

Suffering, yes. Big time. As it was, I was with only one other runner, and I was leading him the entire way to the first checkpoint, which did not arrive soon enough. I was actually feeling quite strong, having warmed up over the course of the first section, and I certainly felt stronger than the first day. This seemed to be par for the course for the week – I actually got stronger mentally and physically even within the course of the week, even though my body was breaking down.

The arrival at the first checkpoint, however, witnessed a bad plica development. To my email from the next day:

“yesterday started off ok. we began the 71km <42 mile> stage at 9am. i ran the first 11 or 12 km to the first checkpoint, right into a brutal wind, and was feeling ok, tho my knee was starting to hurt kind of a lot. at CP1 i refilled my water bottles and started going again, but it was clear that i had just passd the point of no return with my knee. i could run no more. in fact, walking was difficult. and so, i limped the rest of the way….”

And I literally meant the rest of the way – I limped for the next 36 miles, 12 miles of which were dunes. At CP 2 I had to stop to have a heel blister fixed by the Doc Trotter folks (the race medical team). Between CP2 and CP3, I had a wicked time even limping because I could not bend my left leg and therefore I could barely swing that foot over the rocks in one of the many rock fields I encountered.

It was here, for the first time, that I had the thought that I might not finish the race. A couple times I even found myself close to breaking down. I think almost everyone had at least one such moment in this race – a moment in which one is forced to dig very, very deep to get through the enormity of the challenge facing him / her. For me, it was a combination of the severe knee pain, the mental anguish of barely being able to walk in the middle of the toughest stage ever of the toughest footrace on earth, in the midst of a driving sandstorm, all alone, the worry that I might not reach CP4 by the cutoff time of 1am. This race, did I mention, is a mental battle to finish, much more than a physical one?

It was also early in this section (between CP2 and CP3) that I felt a piece of flesh tear off the bottom of my right foot and fluid gush into my sock. I did not know if it was simply blister pus or blood, but it hurt rather more than I can express in writing. And that is not only a painful, but also a yucky feeling, my friends, the gushing-unidentified-body-fluid-in-the-sock feeling. Nevertheless, I figured I’d just press on for another couple hours until the next checkpoint and get it fixed there. No sense exposing an open wound to a sandstorm, you know? That was my RIGHT foot, by the way, nicely balancing out the non-functional LEFT knee problem on the other half of my body. This was one of those “rough bits” in the race where things weren’t exactly “going my way.”

I reached CP3, still in daylight (around 4 or 5pm, as I recall) ate some ramen, fixed my new blister (it was pus, by the way, not blood, but it was kind of a nasty blister), and set off without much dilly-dallying. I had 6 miles of dunes to cover in 5 hours at a speed well slower than I think I’ve ever moved in my life, save perhaps pool running.

Back to the email:

“we had until 1am to reach CP4 in the middle of the 12 miles of dunes BIG dunes. i managed to get there at around 8pm i the midst of brutal headwinds and blinding sand. in the minutes before reachin it i foud myself more or less alone in almost pitch dark in blinding sand following my compass praying the cp was about to appear. it did…”

I should mention that one hour into the dunes, I all of a sudden realized that I was going to finish the race, and all worries on that count dropped away. I cannot explain this, but I knew I could negotiate the dunes, despite the knee, even if only very slowly, and I knew I’d make CP4 (barring a major navigational snafu) by 1am.

My dune traversing technique was rather lame looking, but certainly showed determination, if not speed. As mentioned, I could not really bend my left leg after the first 12km of the stage. Thus, I was forced to use my hands to help me climb up one side of each dune, and then walk down the other side backwards. I also walked backwards when the cant of the slope I was on was “wrong” for my knee situation. I was passed by more people than I could count.

As it became dark the continuing sandstorm and brutal headwind left us with the lose-lose situation of either leaving glasses/goggles on to protect eyes from driving wind and sand (in which case we couldn’t see, because it was dark and we were wearing sunglasses), or removing sunglasses / goggles (in which case we couldn’t see, because we were blinded by driving wind and sand). Fortunately, I was only a few hundred metres from CP4 by the time things got bad on this count (not that I knew I was that close – there were no light beacons, nothing save the headlamps of the few people at the CP in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the dunes). I was lucky to find it.

And it was within 100 metres or so of CP4 that the Rhino caught me. Now, folks, this was demoralizing, to say the least, even with the knee injury. The Save the Rhino team had 6 or so members, who swapped turns running with this huge rhino suit on. I hold them in the greatest respect, to be doing this. But to be caught by the Rhino was, to me, symbolic of something. A less than good something, the knee notwithstanding. Thinking about it in retrospect, I can articulate it that something quite clearly as, “Moving so slowly that the damn rhino caught me.”

At CP4 I got interviewed by one of the cameramen (Matthew, specifically) as I ate some cold soaked ramen noodles and tried to stay warm as I contemplated my next move. He asked me questions about why I was doing the race, about what I say to people who ask me if I am “crazy,” about the role of “suffering” as part of the experience. These were difficult questions to answer as I sat there freezing my butt off in the middle of a sandstorm, in the middle of endless sand dunes extending in all directions, eating cold ramen noodles, with a bum knee. Back to the email from the field:

“i decided to spend the night there, because they were only letting people go in groups and i could not kep up with anyone else. and because it was cold and i could not move fast enough to keep myself warm. and beause i was injured, crawling up dunes and walking backwards down the other side, i thought it better to sleep up there.”

That about sums it up. While part of me was disappointed in myself for not pressing on, I was at that point pretty sure that it was the correct decision under the circumstances (now I am quite sure of that fact). Hypothermia, believe it or not, was my greatest concern, and since I was nearly shivering at that point and couldn’t even walk, I couldn’t justify the risk. I was in contention for nothing and simply finishing was my goal.

It was also at CP4 that night that I decided I would definitely return and do the race again - when I was healthy, and when I had a few years (at least) of ultrarunning experience under my belt (ie at least a few years from now!).

Email excerpt:

“at dawn i set off again, again alone, and after another 6 miles of dunes and headwinds i dropped into a salt flat that honestly seemed infinite in all directions. this i limped for 13km, all into a brutal headwind / sandstorm which turned into a freezing cold driving rain storm before turning back into a sandstorm. this is hard to desribe.”

Upon setting off at dawn the next morning, I knew I was in the last 20 people or so in the entire field (because CP4 was almost empty, and everyone had to be there by 1am at the latest).

At CP5 I knew I was practically in last place, which at this point I was finding more humorous than anything. Quite a good number of the remaining few people had passed me in the last 6 miles of dunes. As I was emptying my shoes at CP5 I chatted with a competitor smoking a cigarette. Then began the mentally brutal push across the salt flat. There really is no way to describe the feeling of limping across an infinite salt flat in the Sahara Desert, alone, in what I was sure was nearly last place, and being treated to alternating sandstorm blasts and frigid rain storms which left me shivering, all in the face of a brutal direct headwind, to a destination which seemed like it would never, ever arrive.

I signed off that day’s email thusly:

“anyway, i have to sign off now. i'm disappointed about my inability to run, so this race has turned into a different beast for me, namely just to finish, given i can barely walk. i am making the most of it!”

Thursday’s camp life was the most miserable of the entire week. The sandstorm was reaching ridiculous proportions, depositing sand drifts (literally) in our tent (to the point that people lost things in the tent), part-burying us in our sleeping bags, blowing into our bags, so on and so forth. People’s patience with each other was running short at times, and at least one person in my tent was reduced to tears from the overall misery and exhaustion that had been unleashed upon is. Then it just reached the point of sort of a desperate humor.

Friday – 12 APR 02 – Stage 5 (42 km)

Email excerpt:

“well, today was good and bad. miraculously, i started off jogging with Kory, one of my tentmates. this is miraculous because i was bsically unable to walk yesterday given my knee. today's stage was 42km . after 2.5 hours / 15km, the rhino passed us…”

At this point, I had had enough of the friggin’ Rhino passing me. My knee seemed under control. I was having a great time with Kory, but I was kind of chomping at the bit to run, especially given the state of my knee. The Rhino provided the impetus I needed. I started running…

“to my surprise, i started cranking with minimal knee issues and rocked for the next 15+ km. unfortunately at that point, some GI issues raised thir ugly head and while i could have continued running, i was in such misery that i decided walking would suffice for the last 10km or so. 6 bathroom stops later, i crossed the day's finish line.”

During one of those 6 stops I was squatting there doing my business and I noticed an approaching caravan of vehicles very nearby. “Funny,” I was thinking to myself, “those don’t look like race organization vehicles…” And they were not, in fact, race vehicles. They were a tourist group, a caravan of 7 or 8 large jeeps, with people hanging out windows, sitting on the top of the jeeps, all with cameras, all watching and photographing these crazy people running through the desert. I was within full view of these folks, but really was in no situation to try to move, given my condition, and there was nowhere else to go to, anyway.

After stages 4 and 5 the line to the medical tent was getting longer and longer…

“everyone here is damaged. everyone is limping. people's feet are mangled. etc.”

I still find it amazing that you can run all day, then cross the finish line and find yourself barely able to walk. Your feet are bandaged. You hurt. you wake up in the morning and can barely get far enough away from the tent to go to the bathroom. You hobble to the start line. And then…you run. All day. Somehow.

In addition to sending emails from the field, we were also able to receive them (for free). They would deliver them right to your tent. Family and friends inundated me with emails, and it’s hard to express how helpful support like that is in the midst of a race like the Marathon des Sables. I even got emails from people I didn’t know. Some via my father forwarding around my emails from the field to his friends. And then there was Team Envision, Boston’s all women’s triathlon team. My girlfriend, Amanda, is on this team, and she got a lot of TE women to email me in the field. Let me tell you, folks, this is a major morale booster, getting emails from a team of triathlete women you don’t even know!

Saturday – 13 APR 02 – Stage 6 (20 km), and post-race

Here’s an email excerpt from an email I wrote on Monday the 15th, a couple days after the final stage:

“the race ended on saturday with a 1/2 marathon (almost). i was actually able to run for the majority of it, but my knee failed me w/ approx 1 mile to go when i hit the pavement into the town in which we finished. i galloped that last mile in the fastest limp-run you have probably ever seen, and even passed a couple of people. somehow that seemed a fitting ending to "the toughest footrace on earth."

“the past couple days have been here in ourzazate recovering a little, drinking a bunch, eating. i'm still limping a bit from blisters on my right foot, one of which is still pussing and bleeding and festering, but am basically on the mend. somehow i actually feel stronger coming out of this race than i was when i entered. not sure if that is purely mental or physical as well. i think it's a bit of both…”

I’m now definitely headed more in the direction of adventure racing. I’ve got a 24-hour mountain bike race coming up in a couple months (I signed up solo – never mind that I’ve never done a mountain bike race before), and Ironman USA in July. Then, some adventure races – yet to be locked down – later in the year. Perhaps I’ll see some of you out there.

I’m not sure what more to say about this race – I am still digesting it. A week of traveling in Morocco the week before the race itself had an even further profound impact on me. It is really impossible to convey many things about this race if you haven’t experienced it. I can talk with my fellow tent mates and competitors and while everyone’s personal experience with the race was of course unique, we all now share a profound and deep experience.

So what else can I say? Perhaps just the following: get out there and see what you are capable of. Sign up, do some running, and go to Morocco for the Marathon des Sables. You can do it, and you won’t regret it.

Sean Hartman
Cambridge, MA