For those who haven’t perhaps heard of the ‘Marathon des Sables’, it’s a gruelling 7-day race where the competitors effectively run a marathon every day for seven days, carrying all their supplies including water, across the Saharan desert. Why exactly anyone would enter this is quite a mystery to most. I mean, who in their right mind would pay to enter a week-long race through one of the driest, most arid, regions of the world? Plenty do though – I know some. But far fewer actually finish – dehydration, fatigue and illness, besides failing to meet the stringent medical checks bring an early end to many an entrant’s hopes of crossing the finish line.

Sunset at camp east of Erfoud
Sunset at camp east of Erfoud

There are, I believe, actually four great desert races held throughout the year. As well as the Marathon des Sables through the Sahara, there are races in the Gobi desert, the Atacama of Chile and at the other temperature extreme in the Antarctic desert. One world renowned runner, Dean Karnazes, this last year became the first of only two people ever to complete all four races in one year – he did pretty well too!

Having spent a few days in the Sahara, in south-eastern Morocco close to the Algerian border, camped amongst the dunes of Erg Chebbi, shading from the blistering (literally – I got sunburnt on my cycle ride into Erfoud and my arms are now covered in hundreds of little raised blisters – nice!) sun, I have a new-found respect for those who do complete this race, even if I still think it’s a somewhat idiotic and pointless thing to attempt in the first place. Each to their own and in all fairness, there’s probably several people who would question exactly why I am spending two years cycling 20,000km to Cape Town, the route which includes said desert, albeit along the edge of it.

Camp at Erg Chebbi with traditional Berber tent
Camp at Erg Chebbi with traditional Berber tent

My experience in the Sahara involved desert runs of an entirely different kind though… It turns out that my stomach upset in Er-Rachidia was not cured twenty-four hours later. It was merely a brief respite from the stomach cramps that enabled me to cycle to Erfoud and lull me into a false sense of well-being.

Whilst my companions in the dunes have been learning new desert survival skills, I have been wishing away the hours, lying in the foetal position upon my thermarest in the shade under the Land Rover. The continual buzzing of the ever increasing number of black flies that for all intent and purpose with their hovering and landing on any exposed body part add to the feeling that I may as well be rotting away in a foetid waste dump.

Besides chasing what shade there is to be found and ineffectually swatting away the pesky flies, I’ve been expending what little energy I have dashing as fast as is possible in sand, which is not very fast, over and down the ridge of a small dune, grasping a shovel en route to my own private, ever-expanding latrine in the desert.

Tracks in the sand
Tracks in the sand

Fortunately, my choice location for a toilet in this tract of sand, perched beneath a tuft of dry grass, was not a haven for camel ticks, waiting in ambush for the first living creature to pass by (or squat), as was the case with other such grassy outcrops. I was able to fend off one persistent camel tick, but a small army of them bent on feasting me may have been somewhat harder to fend off whilst otherwise engaged.

When the shovel was being used to dig out the stuck 4×4, my tool of choice for digging my shit-pit in this endless sand-pit was a flip-flop (partly because that’s what I had at hand when I needed to go). I was soon, out of necessity, as effective with this as any dung beetle that decided to tunnel into the sand, or indeed a dog burying a bone (I imagine, since there was no dog or bone).

I suppose the flies, however bothersome but present in daylight and by moonlight and rather than hovering round my ears preferred settling on my rear, did distract my mind from thoughts of other less benign animals in the area. It didn’t take an expert tracker to see signs of spiders, scorpions and snakes.

Dunes of Erg Chebbi
Dunes of Erg Chebbi

Indeed, it didn’t even take a tracker since I saw for myself three scorpions a wolf spider and several of the group I was with saw a sand viper (I could have too but was too exhausted to go investigate after my last dune-loo dash).

Looking on the bright side (not my backside), by being ill in the desert I was at least afforded a loo with a view and it was definitely preferable to several Moroccan toilets I’ve encountered on my way south.

So no I haven’t run the Marathon des Sables, but I have felt physically drained and dehydrated enough during my own mini desert runs to know it’s not something I’d ever do… and I have the greatest respect for all those who manage to complete it. Hats off to you all (and trousers up).