MdS Stage 1: Erg Chebbi Meanderings

On May 1, 2009, in Racing, by Meghan

The starting line of Marathon des Sables (MdS), or even a single stage during the race, is a sight to behold. More than 800 runners from a few dozen countries adorned in “packs of self sufficiency,” or so our backpacks were called, are funneled into a circular set of corrals that sit behind some scaffolding, signs, and inflatable decorations that all serve as the starting line. Music and excited banter emanate from a loudspeaker in French and are followed by often-humorous English translation attempts. Media crews flash cameras from atop beefy SUVs and a helicopter hovers low and loud. This outrageous show exists in stark contrast to the wild, silent Saharan Desert backcountry a few hundred meters away.

The hoopla continues for at least 30 minutes, and I pass the time by surveying the assemblage of giddy runners. Race bibs, which harbor runners’ numbers, first names, and home countries, reveal that competitors come from China, Israel, Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, United States, Great Brittan, Belgium, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Australia, Spain, Italy, France, Sweden, Japan, Ireland, Luxembourg, Switzerland, South Africa, and probably many more. Our backpacks disclose our goals; those heaving large packs will expedition the distance over a long period of time, and runners lolling with packs smaller than their own narrow torsos will run as fast as they’re able. I study the patches, flags, and screen-printing on packs to see the names of sponsors, charities, family photos, and other mysteries that are supporting runners on this Saharan Desert odyssey. I scan for women in this sea of men; their athletic figures, ponytails tucked in hats, and faces covered by buffs and sand goggles make them a challenge to identify. We are a diverse population, many times more dissimilar than any group with whom I’ve starting lined before, but we possess the unifying goals of crossing that Marathon des Sables finish line and enduring the journey that will take us there.

Sometime after 9am on Monday, March 30th, on a windy, post-desert storm morning, the 2009 Marathon des Sables began in a mad, adrenaline-induced dash. The starting line stood a few wide-open kilometers away from an imposing set of dunes, famous in Morocco and called Erg Chebbi. I believe that erg is an Arabic word roughly translated to “big ass dune field.” Our route made a beeline for the dunes and, within minutes, we were running on red sand. I have learned that sand dune running is not as hard as I imagined it to be. I suppose this is largely due to the fact that I traveled to Death Valley National Park twice in my MdS preparations and did some sweet sand dune training there. I was elated to find that many of the dunes in this stage and others were run-able. I was a happy MdS runner in these dunes, and all 10 kilometers of them passed by in an eye-blink. In seeming no time, I had come and gone from the first checkpoint.

The next distance was across what I believe is called a reg, or a flat, stony expanse. On some reg‘s, the rocks were small and one could foot plant without detriment. While this was a small-rocked expanse, we would later stumble through reg‘s containing large rocks that mandated careful foot placement. On this expanse, I encountered Simone, a many-time MdS podium-finisher from Luxembourg who inspired my first mid-stage thoughts about racing. I tried not to consider the significance of pulling ahead of her, instead focusing on my own strategy of starting easy-ish and increasing my effort throughout each stage.

After the next checkpoint, we ran on single-track through some beautiful, rolling, grass-covered slopes. The running here was so smooth and the landscape seemed to belong more to a place like California than the Sahara Desert! Soon I entered another set of dunes. The map we received before the race indicated that the stage’s finish line and bivouac would be on the far side of this dune field, about 3 kilometers away. Knowing this, I started to push hard through the dunes. Within minutes, I came upon a Belgian woman named Sarah. Together we worked our way though the dunes, passing several people with our increasing pace. After a few minutes of gaming with her, I reminded myself that this was a multi-day race. I dropped behind her, she eased the pace, and we cruised off the dunes and through the finish line of the 19-ish mile Stage 1 about 10 seconds apart.

Upon our finish line arrival, we saw that Didi Touda, a Moroccan and the eventual female winner, was already there. Didi, Sarah, and myself rounded out the top 3 women for Stage 1. At the end of the day, about 6 women were within about 20 minutes of each other, including Simone from Luxembourg, Jennifer from Great Brittan, and Luz from Spain.

Tent 100 was my home for the race, and it contained a 7-person Dreamchasers contingent that included George Velasco, Bill Henderson, Bryon Powell, Tess Geddes, Michael Wardian, Ted Archer, and I. Post-stage afternoons in Tent 100 were occupied by equal parts rehashing each stage’s minute details (Funny and important!), eating food and gazing lusting after others’ food (It’s alright to lust in this way.), worrying about whether we had enough water in our ration to last until morning (We did.), discussions of the best place in the tent to sleep and minor battles over who would sleep there (Why did Ted always get to sleep in the middle?), and observations of runners’ bodily functions (Hey, if they are going to pee 12 feet away, you can’t miss the show!).

As each afternoon progressed and runners trickled into the bivouac, the huge encampment that included the finish line, 112 competitor tents, tons of race official and media tents, a medical area, outhouses, and etceteras, I traveled about to chat with fellow cohorts in crime outside of Tent 100. Life in the bivouac was so simple: recover from the day’s race, prepare for the next stage, and enjoy the company of other runners! At about 8:30pm that night, I shoved in earplugs and eased my buff over my eyes to shield myself from the bivouac’s din, and lapsed into a contented sleep.

The hand-drawn 2009 Marathon des Sables Stage 1 route map from the race Roadbook (from

3 Responses to “MdS Stage 1: Erg Chebbi Meanderings”

  1. Danni says:

    You make it sound so simple!

  2. Meghan says:

    Danni- Hah! Very funny!

  3. […] 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 place […]

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