Saharan Rain

On April 12, 2009, in Racing, by Meghan

It’s my understanding that the Sahara Desert is one of the world’s most arid places. Didn’t we all learn that in middle school geography class? To be sure, it was a little confusing to feel sprinkles of rain as I ran through the streets of Ouarzazate, Morocco in the early morning of Friday, March 27th. About 2 hours later, from hotels scattered around this Saharan Desert outpost city, 850 runners boarded a few dozen buses in a light drizzle.

We were bound for some unknown location in the desert, the starting line of the 2009 Marathon des Sables (MdS). In the next few hours of driving, the drizzle turned to a torrent of rain. Our journey came to a screeching halt where a normally dry drainage, called a wadi in Arabic, flashed across the highway in a flood of water, mud, rock, and entire palm trees. We were sharing the bus with the Moroccan runners, the half a dozen or so women and men who habitually win MdS. These women and men are also locals from a small town perched in the middle of the Sahara Desert. They looked out the bus windows with wide eyes that revealed their thoughts: this storm was a big deal.

For about 4 hours, the caravan stood still at this river crossing. The floodwaters then retreated enough for someone to make the decision that the caravan was going to move on, crossing the still-flowing but now-small river. We ferried our luggage from the storage compartment under the bus into the passenger compartment with us, knowing that the bus was going to be wading through water. Nervous tension coursed through the bus as it approached the river. God bless the Moroccans because they began to sing and dance, easing the mood. Without much ado, our bus bumped its way through the receded floodwaters, and everyone shouted in joy after our safe passage.

Our caravan into the Sahara Desert was stopped by this flooded wadi for about 4 hours.

Our travels into the desert continued, and so did the storm. As we traveled, we tried to imagine what was going to happen next. Some people thought we were en route to a cold, wet, muddy night of camping. Others thought the race would be canceled and the buses turned around. A few folks were conjuring a race alternative, a 250 km pavement race from wherever we were back to Ouarzazate. The ideas were flowing like a flooded wadi.

Sometime after dark and about 12 hours of slow travel through the storm, the caravan pulled into a small town. In the midst of a desert flood, the town outside the bus windows pulsed with energy in the night. People came and went from every direction, splashing through the flooded streets; music from somewhere outside poured into the bus despite the rain falling in wild, loud sheets. Our bus shortly proceeded to a local hotel, and other buses also dispersed to other hotels around town. When we put heads on pillows that Friday night, we knew nothing more than the fact that we were in the middle of a grand Saharan rain.

The events of the next 48 hours, Saturday and Sunday, remain a bit of a blur to me. They consisted of about 36 more hours of rain, 12 cups of café au lait and several beers, 104 rumors about the race, 1 adorable kitten, way too much fabulous Moroccan food, 1 market full of vegetables, grains, spices, and freshly slaughtered meat, 74 children selling their wares, and 3 pieces of accurate information from MdS race officials. We learned that the race wouldn’t start on Sunday, as it was scheduled. Instead, all runners were directed to another local hotel on Sunday for race check-in and a meeting. There, we learned that the race would occur in a still unknown, modified form, beginning at 9am on Monday morning.

During this time, we also learned that we were holed up in the town of Erfoud, a desert oasis whose population probably doubled with this onslaught of MdS people. We had ample time to walk and run about town, exploring its main streets and market. As we traveled, we asked the locals about the rain. We all received energetic responses: no one alive in Erfoud had ever seen this kind of Saharan rain. We felt very lucky, the 2009 Marathon des Sables would still be raced and we were experiencing an exquisite desert rarity.

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12 Responses to “Saharan Rain”

  1. Backofpack says:

    And did the desert bloom after the rain? I’ve always heard that the desert after a rain is a sight to behold. I love reading your adventure in chapters Meghan!

  2. Sunshine Girl says:

    For some reason the words “flooded wadi” made me giggle. tee-hee.
    Great read, what an incredible way to start your adventure!

  3. Mike says:

    long time reader, first time writer here 🙂 I was so pumped following your adventure online (as well as Bryon’s), what an achievement! I must say, I was nervous as all heck reading about the conditions over there as the event unfolded…day by day. You made us all proud – can’t wait to see what’s in store next. On another note, I’m dropping in on the Chippewa 50k in a couple weeks b/c I have business in the area (believe it or not). I noticed you won that event last year. Hopefully we’ll have better conditions…

    Congrats on a fantastic run in the desert. Can’t wait to read more.

  4. Danni says:

    Wow. Good thing you’re a laid back chica! This could all be very stressful to someone without a sense of adventure.

  5. JeffO says:

    Sounds like, even though you got less racing than you thought, you still got more adventure than you bargained for. That would be awesome to experience such a rare evetn and come through unscathed.

  6. Leslie's Keith says:

    Life Giving Rain AND 1000 people with nothing to do but wander around and spend money…woohoo! say the townsfolk!

  7. Kimberly says:

    Hi Meghan! Have you ever ran the Chicago or Boston marathons? How long have you been running marathons? We are so proud of you! Way to go!

  8. A says:

    Back here in the high desert of Idaho, we were studying the MdS website and the rain photos going “what the…? with fascination and a wee bit of trepidation for you… So glad to hear your first hand account! What a crazy beginning to the race! Of course, it *does* make for a better adventure tale… 🙂

  9. Journey to a Centum says:

    Gortex certainly isn’t the first word that pops into one’s mind with thinking of the desert. Can’t wait to hear more!

  10. chelle says:

    And I feel a lot less naive now, since I was also looking at the website and thinking this was not how I imagined the Sahara AT ALL.

    Now, off to go run in the rain myself here. I can tromp through the Missouri mud and think, gee, this is just like Morocco. 🙂

  11. Tom says:

    Meghan; what a great read, i am looking forward to reading more about this adventure of yours.
    talk about the water intake.

  12. […] is provided by the race administration). I also ran the Marathon des Sables in 2009 (My reports are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) and 2010 (my report). This year, I finished as the 5th […]

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