I’ve been into running for a long time. So much so that I’m not afraid of marathons. But every time I come here, I ask myself:
“Why did I come here? Why the desert? What am I doing here?”.
Such thoughts have been on the minds of thousands people crossing the Sahara Desert throughout the five days of the multi-day race, the resoundingly named Marathon de Sables.
Each of the participants in this crazy self-test of strength has their own incentives, their own attachments, and their own habits. They share only one passion and one desire. It is the desire to stand out from the “gray human mass”, to paint themselves in desert colors and tell the whole world:
“Wow! I did it!”.
Of course, for most ordinary people, who today mostly live in a virtual world, see only Youtube, Instagram and Facebook and consider themselves experts in everything, this phrase will mean nothing. They are used to living in a world of comfort, electronic devices, fast food, cafes, the Internet and social networks.
Others, who try to comprehend the motivation of people to run for five days in the desert are perplexed: “Why go so far? After all, they can run in fitness! And not paying for it thousands of euros. Are they nuts?”. And I’ll tell you:
“No, guys. We’re not nuts. We’re just seriously thinking about our physical form. And we understand that going to the fitness center a couple of times a week and running a marathon in natural conditions are completely different things. This is a completely different level of self-test of strength and own capabilities”.
Marathon des Sables is unique. It takes place in the Sahara Desert. It’s limit of 12 liters of water in one hand every day, it’s heat and scorching sun, it’s eternal of corns, leg cramps from fatigue. It’s beauty all around, constant movement, interesting companions, food points and tents in military style, freeze-dried food, sleep in desert… And so for almost a week: sunrise, start, run, sunset, sleep, sunrise, start, run, sunset, sleep… At night you are left with the desert one-on-one. Someone is sleeping in the escort buggy, someone taking off their tent.
This is where the mindset resets. After a few hours of running, wild fatigue begins to appear, but the mind becomes very clear. This is where the reassessment of values takes place. This is where you begin to enjoy what you have, like a child. It is only here that you truly understand that human possibilities are much broader than you are used to thinking.
This is also where you realize the value of water. When we are at home, we don’t think about what we drink and how much we drink. But here, in the Sahara, water takes on a superior value. It is more important than any money or all the gold in the world!
That’s why the marathon organizers take great care that there is enough water so none of the participants gets dehydrated. What’s interesting: the water here is not simple, but slightly salted (containing 2 tablets of salt per 2 liters of water). Why?
During a marathon, an athlete can lose up to 4-5 liters of fluid. Together with sweat, the body loses sodium and potassium salts in a ratio of about 4:1, which are important for water-salt balance and the nervous system. This loss leads to the most common problem of endurance runners: hyponatremia. This problem can be caused by either a lack of fluid or an excess of fluid. The amount of fluid to prevent dehydration at a marathon depends on height and weight, sweating, air temperature, and humidity. As a rule of thumb, a runner needs to drink enough so that weight loss after a marathon does not exceed 2-3%.
Practice shows that most runners struggle to drink more than 500 ml of fluid per hour, however, some professional marathon runners absorb up to 1 liter of fluid per hour. But that’s in normal conditions, not in the desert. Here we were in completely different conditions: heat of +40 – +50°C. Thus, no matter how much you drink, you still feel like a “dried roach” at the finish line of each stage, since all the salt exudes from your body and stays on your T-shirt.
By the way, you can collect this salt and use it to cook food, sitting at the bivouac near a bonfire in the evening. That is how we spent our nights: sitting in total darkness, stirring the gruel boiling on the fire with a spoon, and admiring the beautiful sunset and then the billions of stars.
In one interview I was asked: “Does sleeping in a tent with strangers make me uncomfortable?”. Do you know what I answered? It doesn’t matter here. Maybe the first night people are confused about something, but the second night you don’t care where or with whom you sleep! You’re instantly knocked out as soon as your sleeping place is pointed out to you. And both men and women can sleep in the tent at the same time. And it can be people from completely different parts of the world, so the main language of communication here is gestures and bad English.
Speaking of communication. At the Marathon des Sables, the first question from a stranger is almost always not “What’s your name?”, but what was your final result on the stage. Yes, the competitive spirit here is infected literally all participants.
One of the rules of this event: “I carry all my stuff with me”. Therefore, it is very important for the participant to find a suitable backpack: spacious enough to take with you in the desert what you need for five days, but not too bulky and heavy. Often beginners make a mistake in this question, forgetting that the entire weight of the backpack must be carried on itself for nearly 250 km! So the smaller your list of essentials is, the faster you will finish the distance. The more accurate your daily menu calculations are, the better you’ll recover.
Of course, you should not save space in your backpack for food. After all, you will definitely go hungry. So if you are not sure how much food to take, take with you local money. So at least you’ll have the opportunity to buy food and drinks from the local Bedouins, who often move through the desert on camels.
Here are some more interesting facts that I want to share with you:
- Since water in the desert is worth as “weight of gold”, we used to wash dishes with… sand. I never thought it was possible, but as it turns out, sand does the job just fine;
- Fire in the desert is made from dry alcohol. You can buy it from the organizers with delivery to the base camp. Don’t forget to order this alcohol in advance, otherwise you will have to crawl through the desert in search of dried prickles to use as firewood;
- Marathoners’ menus can be varied. But as a rule, participants take the lightest and most caloric food with them (to weigh less in their backpack): dry rations, gels, bars, powders, freeze-dried foods, dried fruits, nuts etc;
- Half of your success in this marathon depends on your running shoes. The sneakers should be lightweight, sand-tight and yet well ventilated. The more comfortable your shoes are and the higher your fitness level, the closer you will be to the leaderboard;
- Contrary to popular belief, scorpions and snakes are rare here. Why? Because they are afraid of noise and crowds of people. In case you do get bitten by a poisonous insect, every participant should have poison suction or an antidote in backpack;
- In order not to get lost in the desert during the race, a helicopter is constantly flying above you. Already from it you can understand where the nearest food point or base camp is. In addition, more than a thousand people run with you and the course is marked every 500 meters. At night the track is illuminated with a green laser beam. So it’s almost impossible to get lost here.