THE BLOG

Running Across the Sahara Desert

11/19/2010 11:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

marathon des sables

"But I know solitude. Three years in the desert have taught me its taste. What is frightening is not the consuming of youth out there in that mineral landscape, but the perception that far away from you the whole world is growing old. The trees have formed their fruit, the earth has brought forth its wheat, the women are already lovely. The season is moving on, you want to hurry home... The season is moving on, and you are trapped far away... And the good things of the earth are slipping between your fingers like the fine sand of the dunes."
- Antoine St. Exupery, 'Wind, Sand and Stars'

It was not the normal Moroccan travel experience. I drank no mint tea, enjoyed no Moroccan cuisine, and was not even invited to look around a carpet shop. For a week I ate only British food. Food that I had carried all the way from home to eat in Morocco.

Yet I still value that brief week in Morocco as one of the most rewarding travel experiences of my life. But what was this strange cultural vacuum I was in? What was I doing?

Well, mostly, I was running. Running through the Sahara desert. I had traveled to Morocco to take part in the grueling Marathon des Sables, the Marathon of the Sands. The MdS, as it is known, boasts that it is "the toughest race on Earth." I don't know if that is true. I do know that it felt pretty tough to me! Roughly speaking, it involves running six marathons, in six days, through the Sahara desert, carrying all your own kit.

So this madcap race across Morocco's Sahara desert was undoubtedly a physical challenge. But why do I remember it as such a vivid travel experience?

Travel is many things to many people. It can also be many different things to one person, too. There are journeys to unknown lands that help you learn to know yourself (the Eat, Pray, Love-type journey). There are journeys that teach you about different places and help you to see your own culture with fresh eyes (the End-To-Prejudice-And-Mistrust journey). And there are the forays into landscapes so staggeringly unlike anything you have ever known that you feel awestruck, humbled, and very, very privileged to be alive and in a position to travel.

The Sahara desert stoked this type of fire in belly. Reveling in the silence (for although it is a race I found myself mostly alone) I would sing loudly as I trotted across shimmering gravel wadis. I raised my arms aloft as I crested dunes and jebels and whooped at the gigantic, empty wonderfulness of it all. Steinbeck wrote,

"Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, at the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet."

Surely being filled with the glory of nature is a valid, worthwhile reason to travel as well.

Daybreak in the desert is a delight. Waking in a sleeping bag as the silhouettes of the sands slowly emerge from the blackness. Stretching your legs out over the soft sand and languidly watching a faint pink blush wash across the sky. Standing up, pulling on shorts, shirts and trainers, shoving your sleeping bag into the small backpack that doubled as your pillow, and being completely ready for the day. Simplicity, minimalism, reductionism, and a landscape so basic it could have been designed by a Zen master as a perfect clinic for de-toxing and de-stressing people from the mad, hurly burly of our modern lives.

I boiled tea in a small pan over a tiny fire of desert thorns and dry roots. I re-used last night's teabag (weight was so critical in this race that I had brought just seven tea bags for my seven days: quite a sacrifice for a tea-drinking Englishman).

And then we were off, running through the shimmering silence. It need not be running, of course. I just happened to be running. This piece is about the place, not the pace.

The midday temperature in the desert was cruel. It thumped my head, sucked every ounce of moisture and energy from my limbs, and it required every ounce of my stubbornness to keep on running. I was made very aware of how ill-suited humans are to the atavistic harshness of the desert.

This cruelness made the beauty of the desert all the more surprising. The crisp crest lines of the dunes were pristine. I loved the changing colors of the sand, so cold in the morning but untouchable -- furnace hot -- just a few hours later.

The setting sun burnished the dunes a beautiful molten color. As the heat ebbed from the day, so too the reds and oranges would seep from the sand. The sky darkened. The first stars began to shine.

Then quickly, much more quickly than at home, it would be night. Wander away from the tiny flames of the runners' tiny camping stoves and the night would envelop you in blackness.

Tired from running a marathon that day and inspired/daunted at the thought of ticking another one off tomorrow, I sat in the still-warm sand and stared up at the impossibly black sky. Gradually, as though rewarding patience and stillness, my eyes adjusted to take in more stars than you can imagine if you have never visited a place with no moisture, cloud or light pollution in the sky.

Occasional satellites marched steadily across the heavens, a reminder that somewhere, out there, far from the remote isolation of the desert, was the rest of the human race and the 21st Century.

As I gazed upwards, munching high-energy nuts and cereal bars carried with me from England, a shower of meteors burst above me. My legs ached, my feet hurt, and I was hungry and dirty. I made my wish upon those shooting stars and I realized how lucky I was to be out there in that desert.

Of course it would be nice to experience Moroccan culture, eat local food, maybe even meet a Moroccan person! But that is for a different trip. The desert was the slice of Morocco that I was experiencing right then. There is so much variety out there, so many new experiences. And all of them, once you have walked out your front door, count equally as 'Travel'.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

- Louis MacNeice

marathon des sables. Solitude