Tuesday, 3 May 2005

Kristiansand, 3rd May 2005

Kristiansand, 3rd May 2005
Exactly one month has lapsed since our last report in Venezuela. I am now writing from our old house in Vigeveien, Kristiansand. It is nearly 2 years since we rented the house to a pair of colourful ex-Brazilians, Eliana and Marcelo and teenage daughter Louisa. They have not quite yet managed the massive job of moving their equally colourful and numerous belongings to another house. Then there is the job of cleaning and replacing our own furniture, so Diana and I still feel a little like we’re camping and living out of backpacks and suitcases. But no cause to complain, everything has gone as planned this last month; we have seen lots of friends and family in UK and Norway and we completed the Marathon des Sable (MdS) as planned And have in fact had one of the most interesting, exhausting and social months of our entire lives!

Querzazate, Morocco

The trip from White Admiral to London, with a taxi to Caracas and flight via Miami, went without any hitches this time. Diana now has a passport even Mr Bush accepts… In London we had 2 days with our daughter Elisabeth and son-in-low Hugh before the charter-flight to Quarzazate, in SW Morocco, April 7th. We got the last items of equipment and food gathered and packed and did a trial run in Holland Park among the blossoming tulips and budding trees. Diana’s pack weighed 7,2 kg, mine 12,5 kg. So with the added gas cooker and emergency flare to be handed out by the organizers in Morocco, and the recommended minimum of 2 l of water, we expected to carry about 10 and 15 kg respectively at the beginning of the race.
At Gatwick Airport we met up with about 200 equally mad, slightly anxious and mostly lean participants. We soon found our friends, the Welshman Chris Morgan and the Londoner John Peck, both trans-Atlantic rowers that we first met in La Gomera in January last year. John is the one to be thanked or blamed for our own participation. Chris had a dislocated collar bone after celebrating Wales beating England in rugby 2 weeks earlier and was more anxious then most about the event.
The town of Querzazate is just south of the snow-peaked Atlas Mountains. Sahara appeared brown and forbidding on three sides as we landed, but the town was surprisingly green with a number of parks and beautiful hotels. A group of children chanted a loud and cheerful welcome as we walked from the plane. Tourism is important to Quarzazate and the nearby desert, and MdS especially so.
The Imperial Berber Palace Hotel, where most of the UK entrants stayed, is a large, luxury five stars hotel. The food was beautiful and the pool stunning, a marked contrast to the next few days…

Installed in the desert

Next morning a caravan of buses drove us five hours east of Querzazate. Lunch packets and water was provided en route. At the main camp there was a hive of activity. Lots of white tents were erected for the organizers, helpers, medics (known as Doc Trotters), and journalists. In the periphery were a couple of colourful tents with nomadic Berbers accompanied by camels. For us competitors were 107 black Berber tents. These tents are really bivouacs; they have no integrated floor but carpets on the ground, and are usually open on two sides. They can be closed in a bit more when it blows, but usually we found that the wind, sand and dust blew right through.
Most tents, like ours, were the nightly home for 8 people. We were in tent nr 81 and were very happy to share it with John, Hugh, Justin, Chris, Alex and Gerry. John is, like I, soon 60, the other four were in their 40’s. Alex and Gerry are also medics. For the occasion of the anniversary the black tents were positioned as a giant figure of 20, a great sight from the nearby sand-dunes and small mountain. When we climbed the latter, we also discovered that it was an ancient, elevated seabed full of pretty fossils.
For nearly two days the organizers fed us during race information, individual checks and other final arrangements. With nearly 800 participants and scores of helpers and guests, they somehow provided tasty and filling food for 1200 people from a big truck and temporary kitchen out there in Back-of-Beyond, in itself quite a feat. And being French, they provided cheese and a choice of wine or beer for the meals. And being French, they were not too worried about primitive toilet facilities and lack of privacy – something one just had to get used to. We soon decided that when nature calls in the cold of night or in the middle of a sand storm, legs stiff and sore, privacy is a very minor problem, indeed!
Patrick Bauer is the French photographer who has organized all the Sahara marathons since the first start in 1986. He got the idea in 1984 when as a young man he did a 300 km lonely trek through the area, and was so impressed by the scenery and the desert’s many challenges that he wanted to share this grand experience with others. He managed to get the Moroccan authorities to back him from the start; King Mohammed VI himself agreeing to be the main patron of the event. From the feeble start with 23 French at the start in 1986, in 2005 there are 777 men and women from 36 nations. And for the first time, Norway is also represented!

Sahara showed us how she could blow in the afternoon of 9th April. Visibility was markedly reduced; the sand seemed to penetrate everywhere. But our hotel luggage was labelled and collected as scheduled, and emergency flares, salt tablets and individual medical advice were issued. Patrick Bauer postponed the planned communal gathering for a while, but eventually had to call the meeting, and gave his final instructions from the top of a jeep. We covered our faces as best we could. I started taking notes, but found that the MdS Road Book provided all the necessary information. Patrick is an enthusiastic speaker with long sentences in French, which his wife Marie translates, thank goodness, to much briefer, excellent English. Neither of the two seemed much affected by the flying dust and sand.
By a bonfire after dark the more energetic danced to African music, but in tent 81 we all crawled to bed to escape the flying dust and get as much sleep as possible before the morning start. Soon the whole camp was quiet except for the whistling wind.

The wind died during the night, and as the curtain of dust settled, a star-studded sky was revealed. No interference from man-made lights. The temperature fell to 8 centigrade, a marked contrast to the 30-40 during the day. I was grateful for my thermal underwear and hooded jacket. There were many restless bodies in black Berber bivouacs that night in Eastern Sahara. Months of practice and preparations were soon to be put to the test…

We’re off!

Conditions were perfect on Start Day. Patrick was in great form behind the microphone; very proud of several new nations represented on this the 20th Marathon des Sable. Those with birthdays got their cheers and songs, everyone issued more advice and good-lucks while photographers made themselves busy. As soon as the gun went and the 777 men and women got underway a helicopter roared above us repeatedly. The royal send-off made us all feel like celebrity. But it took 2 minutes before Diana and I crossed the starting line, by that time the fastest runners were already far ahead…

The whole event was 246 km divided in 6 stages of 29, 37½ , 41, 76, 42 and 20 km. After the 76 km event there was a rest day, at least for those who completed this stage in less than 24 hours.
A lot of people ran the first couple of days, then developed blisters and a variety of other foot problems and found themselves mainly walking with a lot of pain during the last stages. Some suffered from dehydration and the heat. The temperature peaked at 48 centigrade between the giant sand dunes on the 3rd day. The large team of Doc Trotters did a huge job to get at many to complete the event as possible, at the end, only 46, mostly men, had quit. The Docs were available at each camp, at each check point and sometimes in the most demanding parts of the course. The check points were spaced at about 10 km intervals. In addition to medical help and more water they provided a chance of sheltered rest. Mostly we stopped just to refill water and eat a snack bar, sometimes to check on feet and empty shoes. Diana and I never intended to run; we plodded on with our sticks from beginning to end. We were obviously well acclimatized from our training in Venezuela, and we suffered less than the average. Still we got our share of shoe problems and minor blisters. The tops of my expensive shoes developed fissures that let sand in between the layers; this compressed the toes, and the sand was difficult to remove. Diana found that the sole of one of her shoes fractured, and when removing the inner sole she could see right through! These problems developed the very first day… (Both shoes were bought in early February, but had, of course, been used a lot in Venezuela.) I also got an extensor tendonitis of my right ankle after the third day, probably due to tightening the sand-protecting gaters too much. This gave me quite a swollen and sore ankle and slowed me down for the rest of the event. All told, we still enjoyed the challenge very much; the amazing vistas, the steep mountain passes, the huge sand-dunes, the camaraderie and the whole experience. On checkpoint 4 (of 6) on the long day Diana caught up with me as I was cooking a hot meal at sunset, so we decided to complete that special stage together. Earlier in the day we had experienced a brief sand storm. Visibility was eventually so poor that one had to rely on compass bearings for about 30 min (found in the Road Book). By dark it was again clear and cool. So in spite of sore feet and shoulders we enjoyed chatting and singing old favourites under the starry sky as we picked up one lit-up sign-post after another. Each competitor also had chemical light sticks tied to the backpack, and to see the ground ahead most of us carried white diode lights. So ahead we had a row of faint, yellow lights bobbing up and down, and behind us we had slightly brighter, white lights bobbing up and down. Really quite magical.

Entertainment in the desert

During the race, Patrick Bauer and his team provided surprise entertainment on three occasions. At sunset the 2nd day of the race we heard the testing of microphones, but did not expect a string quartet, a solo trumpeter and an opera singer! Transplanted from concert-hall to desert, the six musicians obviously enjoyed a motley, but appreciative audience. They were professional and excellent, and the Japanese soprano was also good-looking. And this time no wind and flying sand: More magic below the stars.
On the other occasions the entertainment was more as expected in Morocco: Two supple belly-dancing ladies (especially popular with the Moroccan helpers, we noticed), and a team of expert riders performing tricks and saluting on horses and camels. These riders also gave us salute and a royal send-off at the start of the final stage, a mere 20 km. This took us through a small oasis, we recognized plots of barley shaded by date-palms, and ended up in the small town of Tazzarine. Local children were begging for sweets and money, and did not take no for an answer. The children did not seem poor; the begging appeared to be more due to tradition then to real need. But this nuisance was soon forgotten as we crossed the finish line and got our cheers, a big medal and a big hug and kiss from Patrick Bauer (he is French, of course). We were also given a lunch packet and allocated a bus, and less than an hour later we were on our way back to Quarzazate. As the bus left, almost everybody took shoes and socks off. No yellow, toxic vapour could be seen, but the smell that permeated the bus was most impressive!

Civilisation re-visited

Back at The Imperial Berber Palace Hotel we re-discovered the luxuries of modern living. In the shower we shed an incredible amount of brown dust from our bodies, and propped on white pillows in beds ridiculously soft and comfy we caught up on World news from BBC. And in clean clothes and roomy sandals the now good friends from tent 81 enjoyed a sumptuous dinner together. We all suffered a bit from sore feet, but from our tent, the one who staggered most among the buffet tables was Chris. He really suffered from being the fastest in our tent! That he managed to run on that last day was a credit to the Doc Trotters and a very high pain tolerance. But others were even worse. Amy had such terrible pain that she was given an injection of Morphine 24 hours earlier, and arrived at the dinner in a wheel-chair. But she was grinning from ear to ear, she had completed the event!

For the eighth time, the Moroccan brothers Ahansal were the two fastest runners. Only 8 minutes separated the brothers. They averaged an incredible speed of 12,8 km/hour for the 246 km of sand and rock, hills and flats. Among the females aged 60+ Diana got a 2nd place! The winner was the other entrant in her class, a small, French lady. There was only one male participant aged 70, but he was among the unfortunate 46 who did not complete.
At Querzazate Airport two days after the event the cheerful, British contingent was quite a sight as they walked, staggered or were wheeled to the plane. The impression was more of patients returning from a health farm than of competitors from a marathon! But nobody complained.
Those interested in more pictures and more details about the MdS 2005 can go to www.darbaroud.com And if any of you decide to take part and need training partners in two or three years, Diana and I may just be temped to do it again…

Back in Britain we had 10 days of seeing more of Elisabeth & Hugh, some friends in England and Scotland and another excellent Wagner opera at English National Opera (ENO); Twilight of the Gods (Gotterdemmerung).
April 28th Ryan Air flew us to Sandefjord were we met Robert and Eli, and in Oslo next day Martin and Camilla. Our grandchildren Hedda and Johan had grown and developed since we last saw them in February. Taking grandchildren for walks, feeding ducks and picking spring flowers together is also a very satisfying activity. And the beautiful, Norwegian summer is soon here… (Although it must be admitted that occasionally it deserves the better name of the Green Norwegian Winter!) And there is work to be done; Diana as a locum in private practice, I at our local hospital.
And in September we are off to White Admiral in Venezuela again.
10 May 2005 by Stein & Diana

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