Surviving the Sahara
In April 2015, Sam Taylor was one of five members from Running for Ranger’s who competed in the Marathon des Sables, a 260 kilometres foot race across the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Sam has never consider himself a ‘runner’.
My sister-in-law Hollie is an athlete. She is fit, healthy, positive and wholesome. She is also a blogger, and uses words like “awesome” to describe Marathons that ordinarily I would call a “prick of a thing”. That I somehow ended up doing an ultra marathon across the Sahara with her is a phenomenon that warrants explanation. Similarly, I think it’s important that I include the perspective of the Marathon des Sables from somebody that is not a salad-eating masochist.
Firstly, I need to state that I don’t like running. Weirdly, I used to be pretty good at it – mainly because I had a tendency to provide constructive criticism to big drunks in pubs, or made up for my fairly average skill set on the rugby field with a big mouth. Both these unfortunate habits required a good turn of pace to ensure survival. Critically, however, the distance generally ranged from 20 to 50 metres, at which point the drunk had fallen over or thrown his pint glass and the prop whose family member I may or may not have slandered had collapsed out of breath. I had no experience in running 260kms across the desert.
This was, however, what I ended up doing. And the fault was entirely my own. I work on Borana Conservancy, where I look after the wildlife and security. My men are trained by an ex soldier called Pete. Sadly Pete joined the army at 15 and as such is partial to things like eating re-constituted dehydrated food, cold showers and running long distances for no apparent reason. Sadly, as I entrust my rangers to this lunatic, I feel duty bound to undertake some of the tasks Pete sets for them – one of which is fitness.
It was on one of these training camps that my mouth over rode my brain, as it often wants to do. “Lets do the Marathon des Sables”, I said to Pete. Immediately I realised my error, as the battle hardened soldier jumped up like an excited Labrador and shouted “yes! Let’s!” Momentarily alarmed, and having realised that military types don’t really understand sarcasm, I immediately calmed down. I had heard how notoriously difficult it is to get a place, and if we tried to get an entry in 2016 I had plenty of time to pull a hamstring, get fired or any do a number of things to avoid having to jog across the Sahara desert.
In fact, I became cocky. Despite having no intention of doing it, I began telling people over drinks that I was planning to conquer the desert next year. I was to be a heterosexual, jogging Lawrence of Arabia, a colossus in Lycra. I began to enjoy the admiring looks from people who said, “You’re crazy!” “It’ll be fairly tough” I would reply, hoping my understatement would induce yet more admiration, “It’s two hundred and fifty kilometres, you know – fifty degree heat…” I would say in an off-hand manner, smoking my 40th cigarette of the day. I never had any intention of doing it – it was just hugely satisfying to brag to people. I still had plenty of time to fake an injury, have a psychological breakdown, get fired or deported. Anything really.
“You’re going to have to do this, you know”, said my wife, Flick. “You’ve already boasted to all two of your friends – you can’t get out of it now. I’ll talk to Hollie, I know she’d be keen”. I didn’t really pay attention to this, and so that evening you can imagine my horror when flick got off the phone with her twin sister to say that Hollie had got us a place, and for this year, not next, as I had planned on. Worse still, we were all signed up. We had six months. All those people I had bragged to now had no time to forget. Basically I was fucked. Understandably, I went into a small rage at my wife, who merely smiled smugly, and laughed at the sight of her husband now rocking with fear and mumbling to himself.
Nonetheless I took the bull by the horns, and the next morning I put on my running gear and went straight to the computer where I Googled the Marathon des Sables. I was inundated with thousands of suggestions about what shoes to buy, food to take and types of backpack to carry everything in. I read these thoroughly and then decided to buy some red shoes, as they are the generally fastest. I also ordered some skin-tight running gear that the people in the pictures seemed to wear. Opting for a “medium”, I subsequently discovered afterwards that a “medium” in the world of long distance running is the equivalent size of an anorexic gluten-free Ethiopian hobbit in the 80’s. Nonetheless, I squeezed into what amounted to a teenage girls crop top, put on my red shoes, had a final drag of my cigarette and started jogging. The first 300 metres were not unpleasant. The middle 600 metres was incredibly boring and the last 100 metres were just plain exhausting. I stopped for another smoke break to contemplate how my training could be improved and decided to go back to Google.
There I discovered many other things about this race. Firstly, it was more like joining a cult. There were secret groups to join in Facebook, full of people wearing bandannas and headbands talking about cadence, heart rates, nutrition and other such things that were neither interesting nor useful. They were both wholesome and creepy all at the same time, and delighted in encouraging people whilst intimidating them simultaneously. I left that group, and, at a loss, I decided to buy more things on the Internet. I bought a backpack that others seemed to recommend, that had so many straps it looked more like a small hammock. I bought a heart rate monitor and corresponding watch – critical for knowing how close you are to cardiac arrest and exactly what time it will be when you collapse.
Fully equipped, it seemed now that I would actually have to become a runner. I started running respectable distances. I started monitoring my heart. Slowly I became one of those people. I stopped smoking and started eating salad. I drank light beer sparingly and became obsessed with being ‘hydrated’. Soon I was taking on more water than the Rainbow Warrior. More importantly, I developed the smugness that I used to associate with the healthy. I think I even ate muesli one morning.
Days, weeks and months drifted by, and soon it was time to head to Morocco to finish what my stupid mouth had started. My team mates: Soldier Pete, Hollie and her friend Jacqs and Joss, another young fellow who unsuspectingly got caught up in Pete’s enthusiasm, where all there at Gatwick, ready to board the plane to Morocco. Around us were all our competitors. They were all dressed in neon sporting gear – tracksuits, running gaiters, running packs. I, not wanting to appear too keen had put all my gear in the luggage, and was wearing a leather jacket and jeans. A number of gaiter-wearing muesli-eaters pointed out to me the inappropriateness of my attire. “Bugger off ” I replied.
Taking the ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, stay away from ‘em’ approach, I retained this spirit of non-compliance with these running nerds all the way to the desert. Now there are many books written about the desert. Many people (including the thousand or so lunatics who were just about to voluntarily run across it) wax lyrical about the splendour and majesty of the dunes. I beg to differ. It’s a barren wasteland. In fact it’s so grim, that in the millions of years of evolution, nothing has decided to try to live there. Apart from scorpions. And that was presumably because, like ultra marathon runners, no one liked them.
We arrived at the first bivouac where we learned how the week was to play out. Essentially we would queue for bottles of water, sleep on a carpet, under another carpet held up by sticks, shit in a plastic bag, watch other people shit in a bag, watch French people shit everywhere but in a bag, and eat powdered food that we carried in our backpacks. When we weren’t doing that we ran in one long exhausted line, in blistering heat, across the desert after some Moroccans, (who presumably knew they were in a race, and not just being chased by a bunch of sunburnt Brits and unhygienic Frenchies trying to steal their couscous).
I had no epiphany. I had no spiritual moment. I was just tired. The whole time. With sore feet, and a sunburnt neck. Amazingly, however, I was the lucky one. Every one of my teammates (including the two quite entertaining Brits who had joined us) had feet that looked like sausage meat that had burst out of its skin. They were weirdly cheerful about this, and delighted in showing everyone else how buggered their feet were. Pete’s were the worst. His feet looked like those of a man who had just played hopscotch through a minefield. He should have stopped but weirdly he got faster. And more upbeat.
Now, I am a man who resents enthusiasm. Usually, I reserve the right to winge, and I particularly reserve the right to bring down optimists. However, a weird thing happened to me out there. I became a born-again happy-clapping running freak. I started laughing at shit jokes. I even offered to help a Welshman that was hobbling around camp like Gandalf. Even the sanitary challenged continentals didn’t annoy me so much. And like the Vontrap family we all skipped across the finish line having completed 260 kilometres. It was a fantastic feeling, and while we engaged in an awkward three-way head-clashing hug, I even became mildly emotional.
I am now hooked on these adventures. Next year I plan to run 230 kilometres through the Amazon Jungle in Peru. It will cost me a fortune, and I’ll hate every minute leading up to it. But I’m going to do it. Because finishing was “awesome” as my sister-in-law would say.