By Gaël Couturier, 7-time finisher
There are only three kinds of people in this world. Those who will never come to the Moroccan Sahara for this event would be the first kind. The second would be made out of those who will come to Marathon Des Sables (MDS) once, reach their limits and fuel themselves with enough fear and adrenaline for the rest of their lives. The third kind are the strangest bunch of all. Not only do they agree to pay thousands of dollars to reach this dusty, grueling event, but they come back again and again every year. What makes those people tick? What is it they find at the Marathon Des Sables that not much else can give them? Are you possibly one of them?
Magdalena Boulet, 2018 female winner of the 33rd Marathon Des Sables.
“When I finished the race in 2018, I was thinking I would never return again. But soon after I had time to process the experience, I realized I understood why some people keep coming back to MDS. It’s because of how far away from everyday life all of it is, and how just for one week, it refocuses your attention on the things that are necessary for survival. It makes you appreciate the simple pleasures in life. Not only is MDS extremely beautiful, but it’s also so different than anything most of us have ever experienced before in our lives. It’s sort of a positive struggle, almost like an experience of raw survival. The minimum pack, the dehydrated food, the sand, the heat, the camaraderie, the potential sandstorms…there’s beauty in this struggle.”
Meghan M. Hicks, iRunFar.com Senior Editor and 6-time finisher of MDS who won the race in 2013.
“Why do I keep coming back? I tried to quit after my fifth time! That seemed like enough, like a lot, for all the reasons you mentioned. This was 2015 and I managed to stay away for four years. But when the 2019 race crept up and I realized it was my 10th anniversary of my first MDS in 2009, I started feeling like I wanted to do it again on that 10th year. A lot of things changed for me starting in 2009 and because of MDS–my husband’s, Bryon Powell, and my relationship advanced a lot there as we both ran the race and went from dating long distance to committing to a serious relationship and merging our lives together during that year’s MDS. So returning this year was a personal celebration of the really cool decade of life that resulted. Also for me MDS has been an escape. I have natural anti-technology tendencies by personal history, but my life is hyper-connected courtesy of my job operating a website. I have found that having a few days in a row at least once a year of absolute lack of connectivity is crucial for my mental health. MDS offers that, and I love the tech respite. Those of us who do MDS have a certain mindset and quirk, and this easily connects us. Finally, though it’s a strenuous week, it’s a total break from our usual lives, usual responsibilities, and usual stresses, which makes us feel invigorated and fresh.”
Michael Wardian has raced MDS in 2000, 2009 and 2010.
“I love the event and definitely would like to come back. The reason I haven’t is just timing. It is a long time to be away from family and work especially if you have done the race before. That said, I see the appeal. I love everything about the event. The extreme remoteness, the lack of amenities, the self-reliance, the distances, the dedication and discipline involved and of course the competition and especially the other athletes. MDS is a race that takes you away from normal life and puts you in a place that pushes your limits. You have to navigate a harsh environment with little support and it is long enough that your life takes on new meaning and everything else is stripped away. You can’t just half be there. You must fully engage or you will not make it and I love that. There is no try; you either do or you don’t.”
Frenchman Christian Ginter, 65 years old, has participated and finished MDS 32 times. Yes, 32. He’s by far the world record holder for participations and finishes.
“I finished them all and that’s what makes it amazing to me. I started in 1988, for the third edition. MDS is like a drug for me. It allows me to stay fit and motivated. That is how manage, I push myself, go beyond my limits. This is also how I fight aging. It’s my pilgrimage. Life can be hard, for all of us. And I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to go, run, walk, and be a finisher every single time. It must be a miracle. I think about MDS all year long. It’s like a drug to me. It’s the race of my life. I finished 10th in 1996. I made the top 20 ten times. Now I just finish in the top 300 and try to win my age category. It sure requires a lot of personal focus and family sacrifices. It’s my passion now. I saw it born. I grew with it. I’m getting old and so is the race. Next April, the race will celebrate its 35th anniversary. It will be my 33rd. I’ll be 66 years old and I’m already registered.”
Interview with MDS race director, Patrick Bauer
For those who don’t know, Patrick crossed the Sahara on his own in 1984 when he was 28 years old, carrying everything he needed to survive. His brother sometimes met him along the way with his beaten Renault car to resupply him with water. It took him 12 days to walk 350 km (217 miles) in the desert. He officially launched the Marathon Des Sables race in 1986. (The story of the race can be found here: https://www.marathondessables.com/en/marathon-des-sables/race-story.)
URM: Soon it will be the 35th MDS. You’ve had it every year without interruption since 1986. What’s the secret of this impressive longevity, Patrick? Is it your unconditional love for Morocco and its Sahara?
Patrick Bauer: I guess the most appealing stories for me are the ones who last. I’m fine with criticism. It helps me and it helps us all move forward. Of course, sometimes I’m physically and mentally tired, just like you guys out there. Setting up the MDS consumes a lot of my energy and once it starts, my nights and the ones of my staff, are short. I believe we’ve only been able to go on with it year after year because we’ve always stayed quite passionate, enthusiastic, happy and true to ourselves. As you know, my crew is tight. I remain close to some good friends I have had for many years in the setting of this race. We’re constantly working toward what’s vital to the MDS, checking our ethics, sharing our philosophy. The delight I have setting up this event has not grown old. The Moroccan Sahara is a magical place. Some of its people are my family. It’s as simple as that.
URM: After 35 years, one could imagine you’d be tired or at least jaded. But this is not what I see. What keeps you so emotional during the race every year?
Patrick Bauer: I’m a privileged guy. This is my job and I feel extremely fortunate to do what I do, year after year. Also, my team is a dream come true. A lot of people are envious of it. It’s a mix of competencies, devotion and friendship. Life has gifted me with MDS. How could I ever get bored? Every time I get to the desert and see the camp for the first time, I get very emotional. My heart beats stronger and I always cry when I leave, or when I hand over the finisher medals. I suppose that’s a sign. This is where I belong.
URM: After almost 35 years, what are you the proudest of?
Patrick Bauer: I suppose what I’m the most of proud of is having been able to gather and unite so many great people around me and write together this unique desert narrative for all those years. Being trusted by so many runners like you also makes it special to me, as well as having been able to develop local non-profits in this southern region of Morocco, like the sport center we helped build. 250 children a year will be able to attend. Some full-time jobs have also been created. Women are now being taught how to read and how to write. IT courses are being taught. Being successful at giving back to the local community and having Mohammed VI, the King of Morocco, giving us his blessing every year, makes me feel proud. Mohammed VI has been doing it for the past 24 years. Yes, I do feel proud about that.
See you at the start of the 35th edition of Marathon Des Sables.