The sand marathon

Marathon des Sables

For those of you who don’t know this epic and historical race, I would tell you that it’s one of the toughest races in the world. Nothing but 250 km split into 6 stages, distributed in 7 days in the Sahara desert, in Morocco. My friend Juan Antonio, a.k.a LocoJuan -Mad Juan in English-, a partner during so many years in karate and also my kickboxing trainer, who has become a triathlete since a decade or so, has made his childhood dream come true a couple of weeks ago: running such a mythical race in the desert.

This edition wasn’t a normal one since it was the 33rd. And this figure, besides being a magical number, it’s my current age -Christ’s age-, and it’s also the number shown on Pat Ewing’s back in the avatar picture that I chose to illustrate this blog, that historic NBA action.

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Juan Antonio has supported me since the very beginning of my illness. Since that night where we accidentally meet in that restaurant and he was puzzled because I didn’t get up to greet him, his sister Ani, and Román. It wasn’t surprising: I had spent that afternoon and evening at the E.R. of Bellvitge hospital cause I couldn’t bear the pain anymore. We’ve been hardened during years at karate training, especially in self-control and pain management -who doesn’t remember the shinai strikes on the shinbones-, but that thing was well above my limits. We met by pure chance, after having spent about 5 hours in the E.R., in that Japanese restaurant. The crutches on the floor made them think that I was injured, but when I revealed what was really going on, their facial expression suddenly changed. I hardly managed to hold back my tears.

Since I wrote the first post on this blog, there hasn’t been any other person posting as many supportive comments as him: stats don’t lie, hahaha. In the shadow but always there, as he usually says: “I’m simple but I always have a smile on my face”. As good friends do 😊

Some time ago Juan told me he was going to run in this year’s edition of Marathon des Sables, and that he wanted to honor me. He was going to take with him a sign with the message #TODOSOMOSDANI -in English #WEAREALLDANI- and show it to the camera on every stage finish line. You can see the signs he prepared for the race below these lines.

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Besides that, he told me that he had something to give me, therefore we arranged a dinner together with Román, Emilio, and his brother Manolo. We laughed recalling the good old times and also the current ones, and LocoJuan gave me a gift that meant a lot to me: a pair of shorts like the ones he was going to wear in the desert, with the same inscription I’ve just told you about.

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Juan Antonio has traversed 250 km in the Sahara, bearing extremely high daytime temperatures and very low nighttime ones (huge thermal contrast), carrying food for 7 days (self-sufficiency), sleeping bag, floor mat, etc… A total weight of 8 kg that may seem not that much, but it becomes significant when you must carry it for 7 days. The runners are only given water at the checkpoints and at the finish line, and a jaima -a Berber tent- where they can rest and sleep in. I would like to honor him with this feature. Many thanks to Chus del Río Gabas for his texts, that had been very inspiring. I would like you to take a relaxing moment to read it through and to watch all the videos. This way you will be able to dive into this great adventure.

#ELLOCOENSABLES2018
#BEHAPPY
#MAKEHAPPY

08/04/2018, Stage 1, 30.3 km

The first contact with the desert one

TIMGALINE – WEST AGUENOUN N’OUMERHIOUT

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After a couple of days of acclimatization and passing all the controls and certificates required by the race organization, it was time to start the epic race with a 30.3 km stage. Some of the 1014 registered participants didn’t manage to get to the technical controls for different reasons: due to injuries, illnesses, professional commitments, etc. Even a Swiss competitor had to be hospitalized due to indisposition the night before, although fortunately, he recovered in time to take the start. Loco Juan completed the stage at 03:32:51, placing himself in commendable position 159th, 65th of his category (veteran men of 40-49 y.o.), of the 977 participants who took the start at 9 A.M. The route included a bit of everything: cord of dunes, flat and sandy ground, later stony and with more dunes, with some rock accumulation. He ended with some minor annoyances that have haunted him throughout the preparation, but it is also true that he learned to live with them, 🙂

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The participants of this race are characterized as being grown-up kids who have fun, who enjoy the pleasure of crossing these desert areas, fed by the desire to know what is hidden behind the dunes, but also coping with their fatigue, exhaustion, and limits of their own body. These limits are reached very soon in extreme desert conditions. A French runner said upon his arrival:

I have blisters on both feet, on the arches. I was forced to walk 15 km. For now I’m going to rest and then I’ll go see the doctors.

In the men’s category, the Moroccan brothers Rachid and Mohamed EL MORABITY imposed their rhythm and Rachid allowed his little brother to take the stage victory with a time of 02:11:30. In the women’s category, it was the Russian Natalia SEDYKH who took the stage with a time of 02:38:47.

Stage 1 recap video

And the first LocoJuan’s arrival!!!

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09/04/2018 Stage 2, 39 km

The one of accumulating km and climbing a Jebel

WEST AGUENOUN N’OUMERHIOUT – RICH MBIRIKA
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The second stage was much harder than the previous one and put the runners in the true hell of the desert: tons of sand, climbing and descending the mythical and huge jebel El Oftal and a stifling heat due to high humidity… such a stage was considerably complicated! There were also the first dropouts: 9 runners said goodbye to the desert. LocoJuan arrived at 05:48:25, in position 218th (94th of his category). In the general ranking, he had lost 34 positions and was ranked 193rd (80th of his category), with a total time of 09:21:16. The first blisters appeared on Juan’s feet, but that wasn’t a problem to continue this endeavor.
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The more experienced runners threw themselves down the impressive slope of the jebel as the sand scattered from their feet, while the most cautious runners took dozens of minutes to descend the 250 m step, under a blazing hot sun.

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In the Marathon des Sables (MDS), competitors accustomed to camping found themselves at home, but those who normally stay in 5-star hotels may feel somewhat disoriented… Facing life on the bivouac is key to success in the MDS, either in sportive aspects (recovery, food, etc.) as in personal enjoyment (friendship, environment …). In a Berber tent open to the four winds, a British runner stated:

The camaraderie in the tent is fantastic… we are really a family.

In the bivouac, the bonfires – a symbol of human encounter and gathering – usually cracked in front of each tent, but the previous night, in the heart of the triple ring of tents, a huge collective fire warmed the souls of the 977 competitors who had completed the first stage – a tremendous moment of communion under thousands of stars.

Concerning food, there is a lot of variety: from those who prefer to eat cold, or hot, to those who prefer freeze-dried foods or mueslis… During the stage, it is essential to eat something: cereal bars, nuts… Fast-absorbing carbs (for immediate energy) and slow-absorbing carbs (for long-term energy) work side by side to allow participants to finish the stage without losing shape.

In the second stage, Rachid EL MORABITY unleashed all his power ending with a gap of more than 10 minutes with his brother Mohamed (03:04:01). In the women’s category, the Russian Natalia SEDYKH, also won the second stage (03:56:08) but received a penalty of one hour for not carrying a whistle on her gear (mandatory material). The classification was now led by the American Magdalena BOULET.

Stage 2 recap video

And LocoJuan’s second arrival!!!

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10/04/2018 Stage 3, 31.6 km

The one of the double climb without sleeping

RICH MBIRIKA – NORTH EL MAHARCH
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The third stage was a bit shorter than the previous one, but very tough, with the ascent to two mountains… Besides that, a sandstorm was unleashed during the previous night and that kept everyone on pins and needles. El Loco kept a constant pace and ended at 04:36:58 (position 211th and 87th of his category). Despite the inflammation of a tendon, he only lost 4 positions in the general classification (ranked 197th and 82nd in its category) with a cumulative time of 13:58:14. Keep in mind that those who finished the stage had already traversed more than 100 km of pure desert, that is, 40% of the total of the Marathon des Sables. 7 participants could not continue, which, together with the 9 that had already quit, was a quite ridiculous percentage of dropouts (1.64%).

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As for the pros, EL MORABITY brothers continued advancing steadily, Rachid arriving with a time of 02:36:20. The first female was the Russian Natalia SEDYKH (03:28:27), who managed to cut back some time, although the penalty seemed too much. The race was still led by the American Magdalena BOULET.
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In this type of extreme races, there are always people arriving from anywhere in the world that stand out for their clothing (and for their freakiness). I wanted to tell you about a Japanese runner named Yuya SHIMIZU, who, wearing his geta, the traditional Japanese wooden sandals, embarked on this adventure through the desert.
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He completed this stage walking along with his colleague “the eggplant”, arriving after 08:50:57, that is, almost twice the time of LocoJuan and more than 6 hours than Rachid EL MORABITY. But he showed a true determination to finish the race: Bravo for you!

Stage 3 recap video

And another Loco’s arrival!!!

In the message I had sent him the previous afternoon (I remind you that, at the stage arrival, runners are delivered a printout of all the messages received through the MDS website) I had asked him to make me some Kyokushinkai stance in front of the camera… And here you have it, a fantastic moroashi dachi !!! You are one-of-a-kind, Juan!

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11-12/04/2018 Stage 4, 86.2 km

The never ending one

NORTH EL MAHARCH – JEBEL EL MRAÏER

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The long stage… one only had to look at the distance to cover (86.2 km) and the route at the map… However, we can’t have a tiny idea of the effort and suffering of the runners to reach the goal before the 35 hours allowed by the race organization. The start was in reverse order of the general classification of the previous day: the “worst classified” started at 8:15 local time and the pros 3 hours later, at 11:15. Juan began in the first group and arrived at wee hours, at 1:06 on Thursday, with a time of 16:33:23 (293rd, 119th in his category). At dawn, one must take into account the distance left, the accumulated fatigue, the darkness -a simple headlamp to illuminate the vastness of the desert-, the thermal contrast, the devilish wind that usually rises this time of the day and the art of nightly orientation, not really a piece of cake. Anyway, LocoJuan had got it. After overcoming such huge obstacle, what was left were just peanuts. In the general ranking, Juan had lost 43 positions to be ranked 240th (102nd of his category) with a total time of 30:31:37. Now it was time to rest and regain strength throughout Thursday the 12th to face the last long stage.

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Not even the multiple blisters on his feet removed the permanent smile on his face. Yes, the messages we sent him every day made their purpose perfectly 🙂 The wind was so violent that even Juan lost the sign of #TODOSOMOSDANI during the endless stage. Imagine yourself running behind the sign with so many km still to be covered. It was pitiful, but first things first.

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Rachid EL MORABITY won the stage again, with a time of 08:12:05, less than half the time spent by LocoJuan. This man is superhuman: he left 3 hours later and overtook everybody, and around 19:33 he was already taking his couscous at the jaima, ‘lol. In the women’s category, the Russian Natalia SEDYKH paid the overexertion of the previous days and burst, so the stage victory was for the American and leader of the general classification Magdalena BOULET (10:29:58), which was a firm candidate for the final victory.

In the hardest stage of the MDS, the list of dropouts was enlarged by 25 new registers, for a total of 41 (4.2%). Those who, like Juan did, arrived “relatively early” could rest during the whole Thursday, but there were others who walked or ran more than a day and reached the finish line in a deplorable state. The stage closure time was 19:15 on Thursday. EVERYONE gathered around the finish line to cheer the last runner: the British Mahmut HILMI, 70, who took 34:08:39 to complete the 86.2 km. Exhausted and hunched to the right side, as soon as he crossed the finish line, Mr. HILMI melted into a hug with Patrick BAUER, the race director, and even Rachid EL MORABITY showed his admiration. It was a beautiful scene that made me send him a message of respect. People like Mr. HILMI are a source of inspiration for many others. Bravo!!

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13/04/2018 Stage 5, 42.2 km

The one with the last marathon

JEBEL EL MRAÏER – MERDANI

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On the penultimate day, since the last stage consists of 7 mandatory km of charity for all runners, LocoJuan managed to fulfill his dream of getting the finisher medal of the Marathon des Sables 2018. One of the toughest tests in the world was already in his track record. My most sincere congratulations to you, it is a pride and a pleasure to be your friend. For this marathon stage, Juan didn’t save any energy as backup. Despite the sandstorm  (you can check the almost-zero visibility they had under these lines), Juan gave it all, crossing the finish line with a time of 05:02:28 and in 143rd position (57th of his category). He rallied 17 places in the general classification until 223rd, with an excellent finish time of 35:34:05. In his first participation in the race, finishing among the best 250, despite the injuries, is an achievement to be very VERY proud of.

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The stage was won by the Moroccan Abdelkader EL MOUAZIZ with a time of 03:23:51. Rachid EL MORABITY crossed the finish line only 8 minutes later, thus securing the final victory (his sixth one, with a total time of 19:35:49): what an animal! In the female category, the stage victory and final victory was for Magdalena BOULET, with a time of 04:19:39 and a total of 25:11:19.

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Patrick BAUER, the race director, personally hanged each medal on the neck of the finishers and congratulated them, one by one. I was very sorry after knowing that among the 2 dropouts of the day there was the honorable Mr. Mahmut HILMI. However, it was quite normal because of the non-existent recovery time he had had before the stage.

14/04/2018 Stage 6, 7.7 km

The one for charity

MERDANI – MERZOUGA

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The sixth and final stage was the opportunity to unite the values of effort and solidarity, in this magical environment that is the desert. The charity stage was a moment of celebration. A final walk of 7.7 km. All runners in blue shirts to finish the adventure, say goodbye to the desert and return to civilization. Juan managed to take the picture I had asked for: together with Yuya SHIMIZU and his colleague “the Eggplant”. They are awesome!!

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I hope you enjoyed the chronicle as much as I liked doing it. Juan, you’re going to earn many more fans than the ones you already have! Thank you very much for making me happy, how lucky I am! As your motto says #MAKEHAPPY #BEHAPPY #TODOSOMOSDANI

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