Where Have All the Wise Men Gone?
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Outside magazine, July 1998
Where Have All the Wise Men Gone?
Here they come now, the quitters. Hobbling into camp in the desert twilight, wincing, tears pooling in their eyes. Moving forward, just barely, in a solemn, arthritic procession. The bandaged. The damned. The quitters.
Some walk sideways, others backward, others on the toe-tips of their Nikes — searching for gaits that won’t aggravate the blisters deep inside their gauzed feet. One runner from Spain is in so much agony that a friend has to carry him into camp. Another, a blind racer, his red-tipped cane tapping the ground, is led by a badly limping friend. A soldier from England
The sun plinks out as abruptly as a heat lamp as it disappears behind a bulwark of dunes, and in the sweet, sanguinary light, they keep coming, this dirty straggle of gimps: The weak carrying the halt, the lame leading the blind.
On the announcement board in the center of camp, the French racing commissionaire has stapled a list of all the runners who’ve dropped out of the Marathon des Sables as of late afternoon, on the fourth day of this grim scramble across 142 miles of the Moroccan Sahara. The roster has now bloomed to more than three dozen after today’s 47-mile slog, the longest and most infernal
Organizers of the annual Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands) tout it as “the world’s toughest footrace,” and who’s to argue? Founded in 1986, it was the brainchild of Patrick Bauer, a former concert promoter from Troyes, France, who two years earlier had gone on an epic walkabout across 200 miles of the Algerian Sahara. Afterward, in a brilliant stroke of
As you run, then march, then crawl, and finally hallucinate your way across the bleached solitudes, you’re required to carry all of your own supplies: food, flashlight, sleeping bag, compass, knife, snakebite kit, distress flare, salt tablets,
In the Marathon des Sables, however, malingering has its virtues, and foremost among them is fine dining. In an effort to keep their pack weight down, the racers eat extremely low on the hog: military MREs, ramen noodles, boeuf de Mountain House. At night, they sullenly spoon their freeze-dried gruel and nod off, sleeping nine to a tent in a dark, tattered encampment
But once they elect to withdraw, the runners are allowed to crawl under the checkered tape that separates their squalid township from the more genteel wing of camp and break bread with the rest of us — marathon officials, journalists, medics, and other prosperous followers of the race. For us, the dining has been sublime. Desert? What desert? Each evening we’ve lounged on
The racers who dropped out after today’s 47-mile crucible are soon to join our happy crew. But wait, not so fast — before they can reach the steaming smorgasbord, they first must shamble past us as we lounge like emperors at our low tables. It’s a dreadful promenade to have to make, a walk of shame, and as I watch them lurching into our midst, I almost feel a stab of
AT DAWN ON THE OPENING DAY OF THE RACE, as the sun pops up bright but not yet brutal over the ruler-straight horizon, a crew of Berber hired hands collects trash and dismantles camp, stopping at one point to kneel in the direction of Mecca. A baby scorpion skitters
As the runners continue their nervous fussing — downing salt tablets, attaching race numbers, taping up their backs and nipples to lessen chafing — I’m drawn to an oasis of serenity. Maurice Daubard, a 68-year-old Frenchman of fiercely proud bearing, is folded in the lotus position, meditating. A tall, wizened figure with cold gray eyes, Daubard hails from Moulins,
So what’s he doing here, I ask him, in the furnace of the Earth?
He scrutinizes me. “I have learned to master the cold,” he says. “Now I must master the heat.” Daubard is ready for a change of pain-venue.
But why? What’s the point of this suffering? Daubard makes a tiny purse-lipped exhalation.”Suffering,” he says, “is everywhere. It is the human condition. Yet suffering has much to teach. I am not a runner. I am missing one lung, from boyhood tuberculosis.
Daubard is unique in his clarity of purpose. Not many contestants are willing to admit they’ve come to the Sahara expressly to torture themselves down to the cellular level. Asked on their entry forms, “Why do you participate,” the racers assembled here convey motivations that range from the strange to the salacious.
“Because this is the mother of all events.”
“The longest way is the shortest one.”
“Because this is the desert.”
“I’m looking for myself.”
“To fly my soul.”
A Frenchman: “Bread is the food of body, adventure is the food of mind.” An Italian: “Behind the sand dunes, you can meet wonderful girls.” An Englishman: “Because I am mad.”
Indeed, this race is a kind of gauntlet for those who possess the flagellant gene. We have a blind man from France who likes to box. We have a group of seven American runners who’ve hatched a plan for later this year to run seven marathons on seven continents
“It was a very bad and terrible experience,” Prosperi tells me, fingering the gold chain on his bare chest. “And yet it was a great one.”So now he’s going to try again. “I am a competitor,” he proclaims, “and I love the desert.”
With the start approaching, the runners turn to their race maps. Only yesterday were they handed these all-important “Road Books,” detailing each day’s route. (The course of the Marathon des Sables is altered every year.) According to the Road Book, today’s run will be short, a mere warm-up jaunt of 15 miles. It won’t be without its hardships, however. “In the event of a
Perhaps it was this portentous language that pushed Alan Syder, a British runner from Norwich, over the edge. Before the starter’s gun even went off this year, Syder became the event’s first quitter. “This race just gets the better of you,” was all he could say before hitching a ride back to Marrakech. He should know: Syder dropped out of the 1996 race, too, though he at least
The gothic atmospherics don’t affect everyone, however. American Keith Baker looks downright blithe. A computer technician from New Mexico, Baker is affixing a pair of gaiters to his shoes to keep the sand out, while a set of white balls nestles in the sand
Everywhere, the skinny marathoners and ultrarunners stretch. But there also are schlubs in our midst — stout volkwalkers curious to see if they can just survive this thing. “I’m three or four bowling balls overweight,” Bob Benorden, a big, pale NASA computer programmer from Houston tells me cheerfully. “I haven’t trained for this. I have no idea what to bring in my
Shouldering his elephantine pack, he strides purposefully to the start gate, which is now thronged with racers. A few Tuareg musicians are playing flutes and goatskin fiddles while two hired nomads stage a mock swordfight with ornamental sabers.
Patrick Bauer hops to the roof of a Land Rover, brandishes a microphone, and begins the long countdown. The Spaniards start singing football songs. The Italians perform Hail Marys. The Japanese become silent and grave.
Bauer yells, “Trois…deux…un…allez!” Then they’re off, screaming hordes in Supplex sunblock shirts and Foreign Legion hats, stumbling into the heat-shimmer and out across the mighty ergs and oueds of the Sahara.
Somewhere in the middle of the pack, just above the dusty stampede, three balls dance in the air.
WHATEVER THE MARATHON DES SABLES is, it’s not a spectator sport. The Saharan backdrops can be striking, to be sure, but mostly this is an internalized event, the story of wills overriding the vetoes of feet. Yet it draws journalists from around the world
For hours and days, the great exodus carries on, moving with mirthless conviction under the not-so-sheltering sky. The race is making a jagged easterly crease across the brow of the Sahara, passing close to the disputed border with Algeria. Along the way, the runners march over ridges the size of battleships and down indistinguishable corrugated dunes. If you look at a map, you
On the third day, while we’re waiting for the racers to arrive at our checkpoint, I climb to the top of Mount Tibert, a thousand-foot spine of black granite that erupts from the sand about 45 miles into the course. It’s the race’s first real obstacle. Somehow the runners will have to get themselves up and over this brutally steep escarpment, following a narrow, sandy path that
Now I also can see the column of runners heading this way, a long, steady march of fire ants stretching out over 15 miles or more. It’s a vista at once comical and profound, all these grunting, numbered forms inching across the void, following splotches
From this vantage, it becomes at least a little easier to appreciate the race’s aesthetic, to begin to see why the runners use words like “purifying” and “cathartic.” Of all the hostile climes in which to race, I can’t imagine any that reduce everything to such stark fundamentals. The epic blond monotony of the terrain drives the mind back on itself. There’s nothing to
As the line of racers draws nearer, the silence of the desert is punctured by the steady kwoish-kwoish of water bottles sloshing. Mauro Prosperi, the Sicilian cop, eventually limps by, in obvious pain. He’s stubbed a toe so severely that he’s torn off the nail. At the next checkpoint, he’ll have to drop out. But others press steadfastly on. I spot Bob Benorden, the mule from
ON THE FOURTH DAY COMES THE KILLER: the diabolical double-marathon stage that will produce so many abandons. When we drive over the route in the glare of forenoon, my impression of the race shifts from “this is nuts” to “surely people will die.” The distances
It seems almost impossible that people could run in this great convection oven, but the heat isn’t fazing the race leaders. In the vanguard are a pack of dauntless Italians, two Moroccans, and a Russian named Andrei Derksen who trains in the blazing heat of Siberia and has won the Marathon des Sables three times. All lope along easily.
About ten miles into the route, however, travail begins. I spot Maurice Daubard, the ice-water mystic, and he’s in sorry shape, barefoot, limping, his shoes slung over his shoulders. Stoic that he is, he tries not to let on. “I feel stronger with every step,” he assures me. “I am one with the earth. The desert is my teacher now.”
We stop at a checkpoint that, with a rare nod toward mercy, has been set up in a shady grove of tamarisk trees. The race, especially today’s stage, is taking its toll, and the casualties are streaming into the MASH unit. A Frenchman is delirious. A guy from Hong Kong has a gruesome case of crotch burn. Others are being treated for sprained ankles, exhaustion, a fractured wrist,
Bauer drives up, wearing Ray-Bans and a natty vest proclaiming him Directeur de Course. He mixes amiably with the runners, grimacing at the IVs and the lanced blisters, but he’s an affable torturer: He doesn’t have the stomach for their suffering. He gives the
We head on to the next bivouac site, not expecting the leaders to come in for hours, not expecting too many runners to come in at all. I swing by the bulletin board, where the race officials have tacked up dozens of E-mail messages from the runners’ friends and family members. “You are an awesome piece of machinery. You must actually like this stuff!” “Next time choose
Repairing to my tent, I am just beginning to doze off when there’s an unexpected eruption of shouting and applause. Dashing outside, I behold an amazing sight: Mohamed and Lahcen Ahansal, two brothers from Morocco, are sprinting — sprinting! — into camp, weeping with joy, holding hands as they cross the day’s finish line. The Ahansals
While the Ahansals accept congratulations and sip their water ration, other runners trickle in, a lonely procession that drags on well into the night. The racers have until nightfall tomorrow to finish this stage before they’re disqualified. But the longer
Around midafternoon on the race’s only rest day, I walk over to meet the Ahansals, who are in a tent on the far side of the bivouac. Conditions in the runners’ encampment have deteriorated by now from bad to deplorable. Flies swarm over bandaged feet. Runners claw through their rucksacks, ditching tomorrow’s food, trading an empty stomach for a lighter pack. “Give you a
Against this backdrop, the Ahansals look like boulevardiers, carefree and rested. Mohamed even went out on a little joy run this morning, taking in the scenery. Lahcen somehow has found the energy for courtship. He’s putting the moves on Anke Molkenthin, a statuesque German runner who’s in fifth place among the women — despite a fractured arm. As in any tiny village, the
The brothers’ success wasn’t unanticipated, but no one expected them to be quite so dominant. Lahcen, at 28, is returning champion, having last year dethroned Russia’s Andrei Derksen. (Derksen dropped out only yesterday, overcome by exhaustion.) During most of the year, Lahcen works in his family’s palm groves, shinnying up trees, collecting dates. His rucksack is full of the
On the other hand, the crazy brothers are within two days of reaping almost unimaginable rewards. The first-place purse here is about $5,000, second place, $2,500, in a land where the average person earns maybe $1,200 a year. The Ahansals, I realize
THE FINISH LINE HAS BEEN ERECTED IN the town square of Rissani, a warren of mud and concrete pitched on the edge of the world’s largest palm grove, the Oases du Ziz. As Tuareg music blares, the king of Morocco scowls down from a portrait set on an easel. Our army escort is setting up barricades and wielding billy clubs, keeping the street urchins at bay.
Sipping mint tea, I mill among the quitters. There are plenty. Yesterday, during the penultimate and relatively puny 26-mile stage, dozens of runners succumbed to accrued wear and tear. One racer took off at the gun, paced three steps, and pitched face-first into the sand.
To my dismay, Bob Benorden was also among yesterday’s casualties. “I was coughing up something that I don’t know what it was,” he says as we wait for the leaders. Worried medics started an IV. Then they gave him another. And another after that. Rejuvenated, Bob stood up after his third, swaying only a bit, and prepared to re-enter the race. “But it
Still, Bob is ready for an encore. He’s already put down his deposit for next year’s race. “I think I’ve figured this thing out,” he says cheerfully. “I’ve just got to work on my hydration system.”
There’s a sudden eruption of cheers from the home crowd, and Mohamed Ahansal comes dashing in, his face burning with impish good cheer. He’s covered the 142 miles of the Marathon des Sables in a cumulative time of 16 hours, 22 minutes. Accepting his medal
Then the rest start trickling in, their eyes pooling with tears, faces lit with ecstasy, the un-quitters. Over the course of several hours, 200, 300, 400 cross the finish line; a total of 432 out of the original 495. The runners accept their medals. They scream. They dance and they cry. But mostly they stare with beatific expressions, the proud, dazed look of communicants
A few feet away from the main square, however, one runner’s mood is black. Mauro Prosperi still can’t believe he had to exit the race because of something so measly as a mangled toenail. The desert, it seems, has beaten him yet again, this time not with high drama — wandering lost in the wastelands — but with the banal. So Prosperi has the perfect response: “In the
The race winds down, the last dogged finishers plod across the line. Around the square, there’s both wild celebration and a small, niggling sense of anticlimax, of “so, this is it?” I’m watching the runners wander off to their buses, when a familiar, silver-maned figure catches my eye. Maurice! I didn’t see him finish, and I feared he had joined the ranks of the quitters. But
Hampton Sides, a former senior editor of Outside, is the author of Stomping Grounds (Morrow), a book about American subcultures.
Photographs by Dan Burn Forti