Meet the Casual Runners Who Pay Thousands to Suffer Through the Most Difficult Footrace on Earth - Pacific Standard

Meet the Casual Runners Who Pay Thousands to Suffer Through the Most Difficult Footrace on Earth

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A look behind the logic of the six-day, 153-mile Marathon des Sables.

By Jacqueline Kantor

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Competitors take part in the 31st edition of the Marathon des Sables in the southern Moroccan Sahara desert on April 13, 2016. (Photo: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images)

Once a year, a roaming, international village made of bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and school teachers pops up in the middle of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Coming from places like China, Senegal, South Africa, and France, they bring with them cloth gaiters to cover running shoes, powered butter chicken meals in aluminum wrapping, dried lentils measured out into plastic bags, and shampoo bottles filled with iodine and sunscreen. For eight days, more than 1,000 strangers are united by a common thread: They’re paying a good amount of money to be absolutely miserable.

The Marathon des Sables is, objectively, an insane premise. It’s a six-stage, 153-mile ultramarathon through the Sahara Desert planned for the middle of April every year, when temperatures are guaranteed to stay around a reasonable 90–100 degrees. The shortest day is 21.2 miles, the longest is the length of two marathons. Competitors carry all of their food and supplies in a backpack. Race regulations ensure that the runners must meet a minimum calorie count daily, but cannot exceed a maximum weight for their bags. In 18 of the last 20 editions, including this year’s April 8-18 race, the men’s competition was won by a local Moroccan runner, someone more familiar with the terrain and oppressive desert heat.

It seems absolutely miserable, but it sells. Registration costs for the 31st edition in 2016 came out to a little more than $3,300, not including airfare or pre-race hotels. Sponsors might pay the entrance fee for full-time or semi-professional runners, and the top three finishers receive 5,000, 3,000, and 1,500 Euros, respectively. The race also counts toward standing in the Ultra Trail World Tour; for a competitive ultrarunner, it’s a solid race choice from a professional and financial standpoint.

But the majority of participants are not professionals, and a high number have never ran anything longer than a marathon. Why does the average, hobby runner — someone with nothing to gain financially, and everything to lose physically — commit to such an arduous, expensive event?

In Australian tradition, there exists a long history of solo, self-sustained walks, often through desolate desert landscapes, that function as a rite of passage among Aboriginal Australian males in their early to mid-teens. These journeys are popularly known as “walkabouts.” The practice has spread beyond the Australian brush, and is now romanticized by travelers and adventurers alike in traditional forms, or slightly skewed versions with different terrain and resources: people like Robyn Davidson, an Australian writer who trekked 1,700 miles across the western Australian desert by camels, or Chris McCandless, who set off on the Stampede Trail in Alaska, intending to live off the land.

In 1984, Patrick Bauer, then a concert promoter, had grown tired of the rock-and-roll lifestyle. He left France to hike the Sahara Desert alone in the style of the traditional Australian walkabout. He covered 214 miles in 12 days; two years later, he turned his personal journey into an organized race, and launched the Marathon des Sables. The first Marathon des Sables sent 23 runners along a similar, self-sufficient course.

“I wanted to see if I could find something that could break me, and it did. And then I see if I can pull myself back up again.”

Now the official race director, Bauer flits around the black tents of the runner’s village as ruler of a kingdom of his own design. He stands atop a Land Rover each morning and dances to “Highway to Hell” as it blares at every stage start. He returns to the finish each afternoon to dole out celebratory air kisses and hugs to finishers.

In the past three decades, Bauer has found that the desert walkabout, despite its difficulty, is appealing enough to a certain type of individual that it can be commercialized. In the 2007 book Sport and Spirituality, authors Jim Parry, Simon Robinson, Nick Watson, and Mark Nesti note that the popularity of extreme sports, like a desert ultramarathon, can be traced to “people’s urge to escape from the increasingly materialistic, paternalistic and utilitarian Western lifestyle. Implicit in this movement is the ‘anti-mainstream [sport]’ impulse.”

The lack of access to home and work and everyday technology is a draw. Some racers bring solar-powered batteries to charge iPod Shuffles or MP3 players, but, for the most part, the race is devoid of electronics. The course goes far enough into the desert that even Moroccan cell phone plans cease to work.

In an age where one can acquire nearly anything with enough money, it’s become exceedingly difficult to find a seemingly pure experience. There are few places in the world where one could hike through the desert for days, self-sufficient, but still have the guarantee of support staff if things go too downhill. This race offers the individual that is constantly looking for the next challenge, a way to shuck off the layers of life one doesn’t need in the Sahara.

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Competitors take part in the 31st edition of the Marathon des Sables in the southern Moroccan Sahara desert on April 13, 2016. (Photo: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images)

“The ultramarathon is the next step in a series of personal challenges that some individuals set for themselves,” says Jay Coakley, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. “The decision to do an ultramarathon is preceded by a long term line of decisions to take on increasingly difficult challenges. As this has occurred the person has become a part of an informal culture in which people support each other’s decisions and help each other prepare to meet the challenge, even though the challenge itself is often met in a relatively solitary manner as the ultramarathoner confronts and battles the self throughout the race.”

Every one of the “every man” runners gives a different reason for racing.

There are the two friends working in finance in the United Kingdom who choose a different challenge every year. One year they drove a rickshaw across India in rainy season. Another year, they got their skydiving license. This year’s challenge was the Marathon des Sables.

There’s the Algerian woman, now living in London, who grew up close to the Sahara and felt “she owed it to the desert,” and wanted to see if she could compete, a few years after giving birth to twins, in a male-dominated race.

The Australian woman who had spent five years struggling to manage her own business just wanted “something where she could see the end of it.” The CRM developer who has run just one half-marathon and one marathon and wants to push himself. The portfolio manager who wants the “simplicity of the race, the self-reliance for everything.” There are guys like Nick Cienski — the senior director of innovation at Under Armour — who is looking to get out of his comfort zone, draw attention to his anti-trafficking non-profit and test out new gear for the company. There runners have never had to spend a week thinking so consciously about their next bite of food, their next sip of water, their next step through shifting sand. That’s the biggest challenge, and the biggest draw.

There is a common thread here. There is a certain type of person who sees the highest mountain, the longest hike, or the hardest race, and wants to go for it, regardless of the financial, emotional or physical strain. The majority of competitors at the Marathon des Sables are not ultra runners building their career or looking for a cash prize. They’re looking for the type of challenge that’s becoming increasingly hard to find in a society that values convenience over all.

“Human motivation thrives on uncertainty,” writes Belden C. Lane in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. “The pleasure obtained from climbing a mountain ‘is not in reaching the summit but in carrying on the task in the face of doubt as to whether the summit will be reached or will prove unattainable.’ The human spirit delights in the exercise of uncertainty.”

Terrains like the Sahara make for a sense of “flow” to work across an inhospitable terrain, Lane continues. It leads to “a loss of ego, a diminished sense of control.”

As Luke Ingold, an Australian runner whose first ultra was the MdS, explains, “it’s all of the elements of this place that make it hard. It’s character building, you are stripped back down to your absolute core, you hit a point where everything is hurting.”

Ingold sat outside the basic, black Berber tent where he had slept the past five nights with seven other Australians. A stomach bug, likely helped by dehydration and exhaustion, had spread among the tent a few days earlier. Now, they had a night of rest in between the long stage, which had taken him just about 23 hours and 20 minutes, and the marathon stage the next day.

“But you finish the day, fix your feet, and ruck up and doing it again,” he said. “I wanted to see if I could find something that could break me, and it did. And then I see if I can pull myself back up again.”

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