Marathon des Sables – Chapter 9 – La Grande Aventure

La Grande Aventure
Getting There – Marrakesh

The old Marrakesh, or “The Medina” as it is known, is simply an extraordinary place. I was to learn much later that the further out from the centre of Marrakesh that you travel, the more modern the city becomes. But the heart of Marrakesh, both geographically and spiritually, is the Medina. I had stepped back a hundred years in time.

After navigating through the maze of backstreets and alleyways that surround the Medina, the driver finally had me at my accommodation. As always in a new city, the first thing I had to do was to find a reliable source of food. It may sound too mundane for normal people, but upper most in the mind of a person with type 1 diabetes is knowing where and how to get food. After thirty six years, for me this was paramount. The charming lady looking after the villa, who spoke only French and Arabic, was nice enough to arrange for a taxi to come to pick me up and drive me to a “supermarket”. The driver, who’s English was less than my Arabic, was a charming little fellow who was only too pleased to help. The villa lady had explained to him that I needed a supermarket, so there was little drama explaining that to him. Between us we were able to use four languages to communicate; French, Arabic, English and hand signals.

The supermarket he took me to was old but quite large. It was similar to large old grocery stores in country towns in Saudi Arabia. An interesting thing that I discovered as I looked for breakfast food, fruit juice, UHT milk and anything else that was durable, gluten free and carbohydrate, was that the only recognizable brands were Coca Cola and Pepsi. Everything else was either a local brand or French. I did find a box of breakfast food which, with careful study of the eight languages presented on the side, I was able to determine was gluten free. That was definitely a “phew” moment. At least now I had food to get me through the next few days of adventure.

After driving me around for over an hour to banks and supermarkets, as well as walking with me through the supermarket to carry my grocery basket, it came time to pay the driver. No matter which country you are in the world that doesn’t speak English, this is always an interesting time. It is also one of those moments where you can get a snapshot of the integrity of the local people. Was he going to attempt to fleece me? After a little hand-wringing and nervousness, the driver finally told me that the fare was one hundred dirhams. A quick division by seven told me that this was not a lot of Australian dollars, and would have cost considerably more if we were in Melbourne. So I handed him the one hundred dirhams and then gave him twenty more.

Within the walls of the old city of Marrakesh is a rabbit warren of little laneways that criss-cross and weave their way this way and that. It is truly amazing to see. After settling in to my room at the villa I went for a walk to explore this amazing place. I was suddenly in the old Middle East, with donkey’s and rugs and street markets and mosques and little motor scooters squirting blue smoke. It was enchanting and I wandered around, carefully so as not to get lost. I immersed myself in the humdrum for an hour before finally heading back to the villa to wait for Erick, one of the two MdS (Marathon des Sables) tent mates I had arranged to meet at the villa for the ride the next day to Ouarzazate.

Erick arrived at the allotted time, after being picked up from the airport. He came rolling in like a clap of thunder, so let me explain Erick to you.

Imagine, if you will, a very tall (six foot five inches), proportionally large, very fit, very American, loud speaking fellow who works as a project engineer with Microsoft. Now add to that image that he is a self-confessed geek who has managed to do a lot of things during his forty something years of life, and you are starting to get a picture of Erick. Erick is larger than life and is a robustly charming fellow who was to become one of the focal points within tent 126.

Erick and I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening talking about our preparations for the MdS, our history, or lack of, with events such as this and our common interest in computer stuff. But I must say that on all of these subjects, Erick was able to trump me, and he wasn’t even trying. The only subject where I was able to more than hold my own was that of diabetes.

The next day, Thursday the 1st of April, April Fool’s day, found Erick, myself and the third member of the merry trio, Samantha from Canada, in a taxi on our way to Ouarzazate (Wah_za_zat). This interestingly spelled town is a five hour ride from Marrakesh through the Atlas mountains. It seems to be a common thing to hire a taxi to travel from Marrakesh along this beautifully scenic and occasionally scary mountain road. I felt a bit like Harrison Ford or Matt Damon as we drove around the mountain passes and through villages big and small. Everywhere I looked, and I was trying to look everywhere, there were donkeys and mules and interesting looking people going about their normal business.

When we arrived in Ouarzazate, the driver pulled into a carpark that had many taxis and their drivers. As we were now hundreds of kilometres from Marrakesh, the problem was that our driver didn’t know how to find our hotel. So after chatting with the other drivers for a few minutes, with us sitting in the idling Mercedes wondering what was going on, Erick was asked to squeeze into the back seat so another driver could climb into the front passenger seat. He was going to guide our driver to the hotel, apparently. Our momentary concern, with thoughts such as “What the hell is going on?”, was based on nothing more than the willingness of Moroccans to help each other.

It turned out that, purely by dumb luck, the hotel we were booked into was the same hotel that the rest of the American / Canadian / Australian / New Zealand contingent was going to be based in. Erick and I had been billeted together, so I would be enjoying the larger-than-life camaraderie and companionship of Erick for another night.

Once settled into the room, and after a brief explore around the grounds of the hotel, I went for the virtually mandatory walk to find a supermarket. There I was able to buy my bag of emergency food needed to cover that evening, the next morning and the five hour coach trip to the Sahara the next day.

For non-diabetics reading this story, these “bags of emergency food” are a vital requirement whenever a ready source of food, specifically carbohydrate, cannot be guaranteed. And when travelling, or in a new town or hotel, this can often be the case. Without the “just-in-case” food, a diabetic faces the real risk of winding up in emergency in hospital, or even dying. I wish I was exaggerating, but sadly I’m not.

The next morning, at long last, things were starting to really happen. After the normal morning ablutions, we all gathered down in the reception area to be processed on to the coaches that were taking us out to the desert. This was the next phase of the trip into the unknown. We were told that the journey would take approximately five hours and that we would be provided with a packed lunch along the way. That was the full extent of our information as we all made our way onto the modern and comfortable coaches.

Everyone was in varying states of bewilderment and befuddlement. There were the experienced ones, for whom this was not the first MdS, who arranged themselves comfortably and sat there in relative serenity. Then there were the newbies, like me, who were caught in a whirlpool of excitement, concern and confusion. As we drove along we didn’t know which way to look. Did we look out of the windows on the left side to see the small fields of agriculture that were there, complete with their donkeys and men ploughing the fields, or did we look out of the right side windows to watch the development of the Sahara desert as it stretched away to the horizon? Or maybe we needed to meet, greet and talk to every person on the bus, find out where they came from and ask what was behind them being here. There was so much to do and so little time to do it.

After we had all piled on, organized our bags and stuff into the overhead racks and finally sat down, I was sitting next to a fellow from New York. I’m bad with remembering people’s names so unfortunately I can’t remember his, but he was an IT Manager for an international bank with his office in downtown Manhattan. I have to be honest here and tell you that I’ve never met anyone from “downtown Manhattan” before, so even talking to this fellow had a spark of excitement for me. He was great to talk to and swap IT stories with, and proved to be a good friend much later in the story.

At long last, after five hours of diminishing villages and growing desert scenery, we arrived at the embarkation point for the final brief, bumpy ride to the first bivouac.

There was a small fleet of ex-military trucks waiting for us. This was starting to look serious, and was taking on an air of urgency. It had taken so long, so much work, so much pain, and here I was about to drive into the Sahara desert.

We grabbed our luggage, which still consisted of our precious backpacks and our small suitcase for after the event, and made our way over to the waiting trucks. With our two pieces of luggage, the climb up onto the back of the trucks was not easy. I was fearful that my backpack was going to be damaged, because for that to happen at this juncture would be tantamount to disaster. But everyone was careful and was each gripping their backpacks closely, so no damage was forthcoming. There wasn’t much conversation during the short trip, bouncing a kilometre across the rocky track. Everyone must have been in a similar state of excited / bewildered / exhausted state of mind to myself, as the old trucks delivered us to our sanctuary for the next week.

Fortunately, Erick and I were able to find tent #126 easily, only about ten tents from the opening to the huge circle of tents that had been constructed. With over a thousand competitors and eight per tent, there were around one hundred and twenty tents arranged in a giant circle. Each tent consisted of a large and very heavy canopy of black woven material that felt like it was made from woven camel hair. This was held up with poles forming a tent shape, under which eight people could sit or sleep with a bit of a squeeze. On the stony ground were spread two rugs, each of which was the sleeping space for four people and their gear. It was cosy, but with some organising and compromise, quite enough room for the eight tent mates. These tents became our new home for the next eight days.

As the fleet of trucks gradually brought everyone from the coaches to the bivouac, our tent started to fill up. Erick, Sam and I already knew each other, so the new people for us were Stuart, Mark, Greg, Roz and Meghan. Stuart was a Scotsman who lives in Melbourne, Mark an Englishman who just happened to live five kilometres up the road from where I live in Melbourne, Greg an American who lived in … um …. the USA, Roz a young Australia girl / lady who lived in Sydney and Meghan an American lady who lived near Yellowstone National park. So our tent had four Australians, three Americans and one Canadian. From the start it felt like everyone was going to get along well.

Eventually all had arrived and had introduced themselves, then settled down to play with their packs and gear. This was a fun game that we had all become addicted to as we trained and prepared for the MdS. The process of comparing gear and discussing the details of food choices filled a happy hour of discussion. I came to learn that we are very restricted in Australia with our choices of light weight gear and ultra- marathon food. I took the opportunity to explain to everyone that I was a little different, which has become quite a common thing for me to tell people, and explained to them briefly why. Sam, being the GP from Canada, helped me to explain that I may act strangely at some point over the next seven days, and why, but that it was my responsibility to ensure that it didn’t happen. Nobody had any questions, which is the usual response I get, which usually means that nobody had any previous exposure to diabetes and didn’t want to look silly asking the wrong question, emphasizing to me the importance of making sure I kept my sugar under control.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with the “getting to know you” activities and learning more about the arrangement of the bivouac. We found the toilets, the communication tent where emails and phone calls could be made, the administration tent and the food tent. This last one was important for us only for the first two nights and breakfast the next day.

The final activity for the day before we all settled down for our first night under the stars in the Sahara was for all 1026 of us to go to the food tent to get dinner. As there was no guarantee that the food would be OK for me, I was already self-sufficient, having eaten a freeze dried meal before we went to the food tent. Self sufficiency started for everyone else on the morning of the first day of the event and extended for six days plus one morning. Because of my food requirements and limitations, for me self sufficiency started two days before the event and extended for an extra day at the end.

With a climbing level of excitement and expectation, after our first night sleeping in a Berber tent we woke for the last day before the event began. This was the “check-in” day, where the event officials work through quite an extensive checklist for every entrant, to ensure that everything is in order. This list included personal details, ECG results, backpack weight, weight of food, a check of compulsory gear, how many calories each competitor was carrying, race number, electronic monitor and emergency flare. All of this was quite straight forward and progressed well for me until it got to the checking of the ECG results. I had forgotten the advice that anyone over the age of forty five should have a stress ECG test. The two French doctors were quite concerned that I had only the results of a resting ECG. Strangely, this had nothing to do with my diabetes, so when I realised that it wasn’t the diabetes that had them concerned, I laughed and joked with them and told them that I was healthier than anyone they were going to be seeing that day. Eventually they smiled and agreed with me. Fortunately common sense prevailed and they provided the required tick on the check list.

The whole exercise was undertaken in French, with a smattering of English words and lots of hand signals.

The checking of the food and calories was interesting. The thing that concerned them most was the weight of my pack. At 15.2kg, they were very concerned that this was too much. I found this odd as the rules say that the pack can be up to 15kg in weight. Yes, mine was over this limit by 200 grams, but that wasn’t what concerned them. They were concerned because it weighed more than 14kg. I found this a little strange, but would eventually understand their concern.

As I was starting to get a bit concerned that they may not let me continue, which was within their rights to do so, I emphasized to them in my extremely poor French, slow, deliberate English and frantic waving of hands that I was walking, not running, and that I was diabetic and my food requirements were different to everybody else. This touched a nerve with the doctors. I could see them briefly discuss me amongst themselves and heard mention of diabetes a number of times. It appeared that they agreed between them that my diabetes changed things, so they accepted the weight of my pack and the amount of food I needed to carry. Many or most of the doctors associated with this event in the field were volunteers. I was told by many people that French doctors are considered some of the best in the world, so their concerns weren’t to make life hard for me. They were attempting to stop me, or any of the other competitors, from killing ourselves. The conditions we would be facing from the next morning were going to extreme.

At last I received all of the required ticks and was now officially a participant in the 2010 running of the Marathon des Sables. An interesting side affect of the food weight thing was that the rules say that each person must carry a set minimum number of calories for each day. With the food that I needed to carry because of the carbohydrate requirements, I was carrying almost twice the minimum number of calories. No wonder people wonder why I’m as thin as I am.

There were now no more obstacles between myself and the event. The long road that began two years previously had now reached it’s end. All that was left to do now was to complete the two hundred and fifty kilometres.

Back at the tent, everyone was in a mild state of euphoria, as everyone in our tent had now completed the check-in process. For the experienced competitors this meant slowly slipping into race mode. I could see them again fine tuning their packs, fine tuning protective strapping on their feet, shoulders and back, fine tuning the various items that they knew they would be needing over the next seven days. For the newbies, finishing the check-in process meant the great unknown was looming as the nerves stepped up a notch. Some of the newbies started to get advice on packing minutia from the experienced ones, suddenly deciding to cut two centimetres off a loose strap on their pack to save a gram, or looking forlornly at their choice of morning breakfast powder. After two years of intensely hard work, I chose to have faith in what I had learned about my pack and food and not change anything. I was aware of the danger of suddenly doubting what had taken two years to learn and making a mistake by ditching a packet of food or rearranging a vital strap on the pack. I saw at least one example where somebody had panicked and cut two centimetres off a strap, only to discover the next morning that the strap was now too short.

As all of this joyful fun was taking place, the lady who seemed to be Patrick Bowers right hand man and English translator came by to have a chat with the tent. Very sadly I don’t remember her name as she was a very nice lady whom I was to have dealings with throughout the event. She and I got talking and she was amazed by my story, being the diabetes, the two years of training, the intense focus on the food and the risk that I was running just being here. She told me that the media would likely want to have a talk with me later in the event. This was something that I was hopeful for, because it would have given me an opportunity to tell other type 1 diabetics that they don’t have to give up on life just because of their illness. Sadly it didn’t happen, but we’ll get to that in good time.

That evening, as I set about to warm water to cook my freeze dried meal, I discovered a couple of things. One was that in my desperate ditching of stuff in London to save weight in my luggage, I had inadvertently left the cigarette lighter behind. I’m not a smoker, but this was a mandatory piece of equipment, and I considered myself lucky that they hadn’t bothered to check the contents of my bag of emergency gear during check-in. I also discovered that lighting the solid fuel block for the stove was not easy when there was even a slight breeze blowing, as there was this night.

I borrowed a cigarette lighter then crouched in the lee of a scraggly bush in a desperate attempt to light my stove and heat the water. A lady came by looking for a spot to do precisely the same thing, so the two of us must have looked comical crouching down desperately trying to get the little fuel tablet to burn. We eventually succeeded, so barely luke-warm water was eventually there for the food. But this was an experience I was going to call on again in twenty four hours.

For the last time before the race started the next morning, dinner was provided for everyone at the dinner tent. But this time I knew that it wouldn’t have much for me, so went along mainly for the socializing aspect. Everyone in the camp was in a hyped-up, up-beat mood that night, as everyone was trained up, paid up, revved up and eager to get going. After dinner, we all wandered back to our tents and bedded down for the night. I arranged my lightweight sleeping mat as best I could so that my knees and shoulders received whatever meagre benefit it would provide. As I lay down for the night, in no mood to sleep, I discovered every rock, stone, unfortunate undulation and stone chip that lay under the rug on the ground. Sleeping hard on the ground is not comfortable, but it is do-able.

La Grande Aventure

Here it was, the first real day of the event. After nervously preparing our packs, checking food supplies and water, ensuring pockets contained the pre-planned contents, we were now standing at the start line. We had been instructed to be here a full thirty minutes before the start time as the organisers, ie. Patrick Bower, took this opportunity each day to provide housekeeping updates and chest pumping encouragement. That second part wasn’t necessary today as there was so much adrenalin coursing through the competitors, he would have been wasting his time. But he did anyway. Today the housekeeping consisted mainly of general statements, such as “drink all of your water”, “don’t forget your salt tablets” and “the doctors are there to help you if you need it”.

Part of the reason why the chest pumping encouragement wasn’t required was because hovering just over our heads, and swooping up and down only twenty metres over the top of us was a helicopter, in which the official photographers and videographers were taking their images. On either side of the start line was a stack of speakers on which was playing Queen, Hotel California and finally, as we all counted down from ten for the start of this life changing event, AC/DC playing “Highway to Hell”. The excitement and adrenalin was awesome. My heart felt like it was going to explode. People were hopping from foot to foot, punching the air and whooping and hollering as we all cheered and slowly spilled out over the start line. The Marathon des Sables 2010 was underway. OMG I hoped I had done enough training and preparation.

I was in a daze as we all set off. The early pace was very slow as the top runners were in the front and sprinted away, but the vast majority of the rest of us just slowly plodded off. Everyone was pretty much in a group for the first few kilometres, but eventually we started to stretch out. I certainly wasn’t near the front, but I wasn’t at the back either. As I walked along, with the early morning temperature around 30C, I was going over all of the things I had learned throughout my training. I was very aware of going out too fast by trying to keep up with those in front, so I purposely slowed myself down. I checked and rechecked my various pockets and pouches, my water bottles and drinking tubes, my hat, my boots and the many other items of gear and caches of food. I knew this was a way of calming myself down and hey, it worked. I had put three of the electrolyte tablets in each of my water bottles and so far they were working well. The electrolyte tablets became a vital part of my food kit when down at Wilsons Prom. During one of the early sixty two kilometre training walks I had started to wobble all over the track like the lady in the marathon in the 1996 olympics. The affect then was so bad that I needed to find out what was happening and what to do about it. After some weeks of investigation I finally learned that there are high-tech supplements that help overcome this dangerous situation. And these are what I now refer to as the electrolyte tablets.

These were what Robin had been so cautious, but so amazed about after he let me put them in his water down at The Prom. I wish I had thought more about them in my planning.

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