Marathon des Sables – Chapter 12 – The Real World Beckons

The Real World Beckons

The next four days, which was the remainder of the event, pretty much ran into each other from my perspective. From the moment I withdrew from the race at the end of day three, I no longer felt like I was part of it all. No doubt it was only in my head, but I now felt outside what was going on.

The daily routine for those who withdrew but chose to stay with the event began with breakfast in the official food tent, sitting with some of the volunteer workers. More people joined the group of withdrawees each day, so by day seven there were around fifty of us bouncing across the desert in the old Mercedes mini buses.

As I expected, the breakfast that was provided did not fulfil my food requirements, so I was constantly topping up from my race food. No matter where I went or what I was doing, for the rest of my time away from home I had a small selection of race food in my pocket. Even though I was no longer walking across the Sahara desert, I was still a long way from civilization and a regular food supply, so in essence I still had to be self-sufficient. Thank goodness the race officials relented and let me keep my food.

Immediately after breakfast was finished they loaded us into the mini buses, ready to bounce and crash to the next bivouac. Now let me explain these mini buses to you. Once upon a time, these Mercedes mini buses would have been wonderful. But that was once upon a time, in a far away world. Now, after many years of rough Moroccan driving, they were well beyond their prime. For a start, none of the bench seats were bolted to the floor, so every time there was a serious bash across a ditch or rock, the bench seats would move. Next, the buses let every bit of dust that the desert owned inside, so there were times when the inside was a cloud of choking dust. It seemed that whatever suspension they once boasted was now just a dim memory. The radio / cassette player was welded onto a local station, so for four days we enjoyed the Moroccan top of the pops.

Loading us into the buses didn’t mean that we were going anywhere. We often sat there for an hour as the drivers and their organisers decided where we were going, how we were going to get there, what time we needed to arrive and whatever other detail needed deciding before we could leave. It was funny sitting there watching, as I like to do, as people in the bus got restless and would choose to decamp to stretch their legs. You could guarantee that no sooner had a couple of people left than the drivers would decide it was time to leave. Then the search would begin for the people who were missing. They would eventually come back but now the drivers had been sidetracked. On the final day we had Spanish, Italians, French, Americans, New Zealanders, a Paraguayan and me, the sole Australian, on the bus, so keeping this mixture of people together was only slightly easier than herding cats.

Our driver was great. I stayed in the same bus and had the same driver for the whole four days. I was told his name but can’t remember, so I’ll call him Abdul. He was a native Berban and appeared to be running a side business as local “fixer” while also driving us around. We ended up calling him Schumaker as his driving skills in the rough of the desert were beyond question. No matter where we were in this vast wilderness, Abdul knew somebody and was regularly waving at someone and yelling out a greeting. His mobile phone was often stuck to his head as he shouted instructions down the line. We were regularly stopping at some wayward, haphazard looking building where Abdul would jump from the driver’s seat while the bus was still moving and run over to see a fellow inside. A minute or two later he would reappear, jump back in the driver’s seat and off we’d go again.

Abdul didn’t like to play follow the leader, so when we were meant to be part of an orderly convoy making it’s way towards a set destination, Abdul would get frustrated with the slow pace and set off along a shortcut. More than once his mobile phone would ring, there’d be a brief but loud exchange of information, then Abdul would hang back and we’d join the convoy again.

The most important thing for us to do while enjoying our desert crossing was to hang on. The jumping and lurching and rocking and rolling would have taken a much harsher toll on us if we weren’t all gripping on for grim life. That, combined with the un-tethered seats, meant that our bumpy journey across the desert was an endurance event in itself.

On the longer sections we’d stop at one of the rare trees and sit in the shade to eat our bagged lunch. My fellow travellers soon came to learn that I had special food requirements, so would pass over their peanuts and cheeses while I handed out the various items that I couldn’t eat. It was a good arrangement that led to them asking me questions about my MdS experiences and the diabetes. To explain further, and for clarity, I am also ceoliac, so I needed to carefully avoid anything with even a hint of gluten.

On one of the journeys, somewhere in the middle of the Moroccan Sahara, we came across a house and family seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Abdul stopped the bus and we all clambered out for a stretch. There was a well there, with the rope and bucket, and someone raised a bucket of water. I looked at the water, which I certainly wouldn’t volunteer to drink, then the young children and where we were, ie. the middle of nowhere, and then considered where I lived and the environment of my existence. I won’t get philosophical here, but seeing the extreme conditions some people still live in really does give you a moment to pause and ponder.

A couple of interesting things happened during this time. Because I was wearing the satellite tracking device, Donna and any number of other people were watching when I stopped. Unfortunately, due to where we were and the extreme conditions we were in, it was a full 36 hours before I was finally able to make an expensive satellite telephone call and tell Donna what had happened and that I was alright.

On the evening of the second last day, it is a tradition that the organisers of the event bring a French orchestra in by helicopter. So all afternoon the helicopters were flying back and forth as they brought in a whole orchestra and their instruments for what ended up being a spell-binding evening of entertainment in the desert.

It was while sitting there watching the orchestra under the desert stars that I realised that I wasn’t clearly seeing what was happening on stage. I had double vision and no matter how much I blinked and wiped my eyes, it just wasn’t going away. I was sitting with my tent mate Meghan at the time and she may have wondered why I was being quiet, but I was rather concerned that I couldn’t see what was going on very well. Finally I figured it out; I was having only the second hypoglycaemia episode since getting to the desert seven days previously. That was something to be happy about, but right now I had to catch my “hypo” before it took over and rendered me incapable of helping myself. I guesstimate that I was less than fifteen minutes from oblivion when it finally turned the corner because of all the food I ate as quickly as I could. Living with type 1 diabetes can have detrimental consequences in so many ways, with Meghan now possibly considering that I’m a little strange. When the sugar goes low, it has many effects over a brief period of time, one being a feeling of confusion and disconnection, coupled with rapidly increasing difficulty speaking clearly. If you happen to be reading this Meghan, I hope you understand that it wasn’t your company that was causing me to be quiet, but a case of low blood glucose.

The remainder of the event, four days for me, passed this way for everyone who withdrew but chose to stay with the event. Even though it was heart-wrenching after all of the hard work and commitment over the previous two years, it did provide an opportunity to see the human spirit in action. Some examples that I learned of are:

  • Sarah-Jane, after suffering from the bug all day on day three, finished the event
  • Madhu, whose feet were like plates of minced meat at the end of day two, finished the event
  • The young boyfriend / girlfriend British couple that I was walking with, finished the event
  • A number of blind runners, being guided by a friend and a tether, finished the event. This one choked me up when I first saw a blind runner cross the line at the end of the 82km stage
  • Older people who looked as if they were close to death, continuing on and finishing the event

That is the most extraordinary part of the Marathon des Sables that the rest of the world struggles to comprehend. It is a living example of how the Human Spirit (notice the capitals) can soar and beat almost any adversity. I’ll be back in four years!

The 25th running of the Marathon des Sables was now over, but my adventure wasn’t. We were now at the finish line and the early runners were starting to come in. The first to cross was the local hero Mohammed, who finished in an extraordinary time considering what he had been through over the previous six days. The TV cameras were all over him when he crossed and he was interviewed like a Hollywood celebrity.

The fast runners crossed the finish line over the next ten minutes, all having completed the final 25km in a fairly close bunch. I stayed there until the fastest Australian, Stuart from Melbourne finished then, after congratulating him, walked around to see who else had finished. People were crossing the line in regular clumps now, but my feeling of exclusion persisted. There was no denying that I had not experienced the hardships of the last four days that the people now coming across the line had, so I could not fully share their experiences.

So I found my allocated coach for the trip back to Ouarzazate and boarded for the six hour ride. I was steadily slipping into a deep gloom.

The journey back was picturesque, long and uneventful. As I was no longer nervous with anticipation like I was on the journey there nine days ago, I was able to see more clearly the countryside, towns and villages that we were driving through. Morocco is a very interesting and beautiful place, a mixture of typical Middle Eastern third world and the modern world. Out in country Morocco there are some very picturesque towns; many of the villages are like they would have been fifty years ago, with donkeys a common form of transport and women walking down the road fully covered with their black veils. There were children riding bicycles and playing ball games as our convoy of coaches drove through.

After many hours we finally rounded a bend in the highway and saw the lake which meant we were finally close to Ouarzazate. It wasn’t long before we were at the hotel and collecting our bags.

The rest of that afternoon and evening were probably the loneliest I experienced during my entire journey. Everyone who had completed the event, which meant the majority of the people there, were still on a euphoric high from having completed such a gruelling exercise. There was lots of excitement as people found their rooms, quickly showered and changed their clothes for the first time in over a week, then started gathering in groups to again go over what they had accomplished. It was important that I contact Donna by email as it had now been three days since the single satellite telephone conversion in which I had told her that I was still alive, so I hunted around until I found the email connection, then did battle with the French keyboard.

As a result of all of this I unfortunately misjudged the timing for my evening injection of insulin. I should have clarified what time the dinner room was going to open before having my jab because by the time the food was available, I was sinking rapidly into a serious hypo. This is where my Manhattan friend whom I mentioned earlier in the story became a real friend. He came and sat at my table as we waited for the food to be ready and asked me if everything was OK. I mustn’t have looked too good. I had enough brain power left to be honest and tell him that no, everything wasn’t alright; my sugar was dropping quickly. He immediately took charge and hassled the waiters until they got me an orange juice, then stayed on their case until they got me another one. Looking back at that moment, I can now see that I was on the edge of a bad medical situation, but was saved from further drama by my New York friend. If you are reading this in Manhattan, thank-you very much.

This situation is a classic example of how type 1 diabetes never lets you forget and relax. For the sake of ten or fifteen minutes, which to a healthy person may be reason to whinge that the food is taking too long, a person with type 1 diabetes can be left incapable of looking after themselves and potentially in hospital.

The dinner was finally ready and was very nice. It was 5 star Moroccan cuisine at its best. We ate our full then wandered off, looking for entertainment, with everybody by now separating off into groups to celebrate through the evening. I looked for my tent mates but found they were spread from one side of the hotel to the other. Eventually I decided that an early night in bed was probably called for, so called the day over. I was still deeply involved in the funk that had prevailed since my decision to pull out of the event. A sad result of this is that I didn’t get to say good-bye properly to anyone.

The next morning I rose very early in order to get the email computer before it was taken over by the hordes. Getting access to emails in the middle of Morocco is not easy and, as there were a lot of people following my progress back in Australia, England and other countries, I needed to let them know how things were going. This morning I was much more careful about having my injection and the timing of the food. But I had learned from the previous evening that it wasn’t just the timing of the food that was a possible concern, but also the nature of the food. So I found myself yet again being self-sufficient, almost as if I was back in the Sahara desert. I filled my pocket with the fruit strips and sports gels just in case the food in the dining room was late. I also delayed my injection for as long as was sensible. Sure enough, I needed to dip into my special food before the breakfast was ready.

As breakfast was spread over a two hour period, and I’m notoriously an early bird, I didn’t get to see any of my tent mates in the morning, either over breakfast or after. They must have all been enjoying the pleasure of a sleep-in after the rough sleeps and early risings during the event. So after having breakfast, doing emails, packing my bags and walking around looking for my tent mates without any success, I sadly left the hotel at 11 o’clock to walk the fifteen minutes to the hotel I stayed at when we first arrived in Ouarzazate. This is where I had arranged to meet my friend Nick from England.

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