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August 19th, 2004
Sahara Marathon
Personal Narrative: Running Your First Sahara Marathon

George C. Wortley, MD

George C. Wortley, MD, is a family physician with added qualifications in sports medicine. He is a faculty member for the Lynchburg Family Medicine Residency in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and a member of the Wilderness Medical Society. In addition to his volunteer work with the Sahara Marathon, he is involved with medical work with the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico.

In February of 2002 I completed my first Sahara Marathon. While the event is fresh in my mind, I want to write down my thoughts and suggestions for those considering this event in the future. Let me start by saying that I am not a competitive runner. I am a recreational trail runner but have finished two JFK 50 Milers and several of David Horton’s 50K trail runs. Twice a month I will do a 20 to 25 mile-long slow run on the Appalachian Trail. Most trail runners have the physical capacity to finish the Sahara Marathon.

Why run the Sahara Marathon?

Everyone has his or her own reasons for doing this race. Some are purely focused on the race and the competition. Others come for the opportunity to experience the Great Sahara Desert. Others go to experience the culture of the Sahrawi people who have been living in the refugee camps for the past 26 years after Morocco invaded and occupied Western Sahara. I went to experience the Sahara and its people.

Where and when is the race?

The race is held in the Western Sahara refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria. This is located in western Algeria near Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania. The starting line is in the Semara Camp, and the finish is in Laayoune. It is held in late February. This year was the second running for the event. Approximately 320 runners from around the world traveled to the camps for this year’s Sahara Marathon. For those not up for a marathon there is a half marathon, 10K, and 5K races. All finish at Laayoune (though the direction of the race was reversed in 2003.)

How do I get there?

There are Sahara Marathon race organizations in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, and the United States. These groups each charter a flight to and from Tindouf, Algeria. Due to the very small number of U.S.A. runners, our group met in Lisbon, Portugal, and traveled with the Portuguese group. Tindouf, Algeria, is a military airfield with limited commercial air service. At the airport we were met by trucks and buses and driven to the Western Sahara refugee camps approximately one hour away.

What about accommodations in the refugee camps?

Runners stay with the refugee families. They take groups of three to six runners into their homes, which consist of a tent or mud hut. We were provided a foam pad and blanket. You do not need to bring a tent or sleeping bag. The family provides breakfast (bread, jam, butter, coffee, and tea) each morning. The National Union of Sahrawi Women provides group meals for lunch and dinner in the community hall, which seats up to 500 people. Vegetables, fruit, bread, and meat (goat and camel) were the usual fare. Pasta was served the night before the marathon. I was pleasantly surprised by the food but those nervous about eating camel may want to bring some something else to eat. Bring your own snacks and supplements.

Race organizers purchased a large amount of bottled water for the runners to use in the camps and during the race. Bathrooms consist of latrines with a small hole in the floor. There are no showers. You can pour a cup of water over your head if you need to bathe. There are no hotels, no restaurants, no electricity, and no running water. This is a refugee camp, not a resort. But the people are very friendly and welcoming. None of us will forget the daily “tea rituals” with our host family. I must say that staying with the families was the most interesting and rewarding part of the trip. Look at it as an adventure rather than a hardship. We get to fly back to Europe after the race. The Sahrawi do not have that option.

A few words on language. Arabic is the native language but most also speak Spanish. Western Sahara was a Spanish colony for hundreds of years. A few speak some English. I spoke only English and had no problems but I want to learn some basic Spanish for my return.

As a part of the travel costs, each runner is charged $100 for the accommodations in the camps. This covers the cost of food, water, and transportation in the camps. Some of this goes directly to the host family. Where else can you get room and board for four days for only $100? What a bargain! Once you get to the camps you do not need any money. We were told not to give any extra money to our host family. Do bring a small gift for your host family however. I brought several Mini Mag flashlights with extra batteries. Others brought candle lanterns, household items, and candy for the children. Bulk loose tea would also be nice because they drink a lot of tea. Do not bring any alcohol to the camps. Women should dress modestly while in the camps. Please respect their religion and traditions. There is a small shop, which sold local crafts so bring some money if you want souvenirs.

Do things run on time?

While there is a printed timetable, I would consider it as approximate times for meals, tours, press conferences, etc. The race did start exactly at 9:00 a.m. as planned. The sun rises at 8:00 a.m. I would have liked an earlier start to the run but now I realize that nothing happens before sunrise in a city without lights or electricity. Do not focus on your watch. Enjoy the adventure!

What is the weather like?

Nights are cool in the desert. Down to the 30 degree Fahrenheit range. Usual daytime highs in February are the mid 70s. But we were in a hot spell during race week. Race day the midday temperature was in the low 90s. The sun, and its reflection off the sand, is very intense. Bring lots of sunscreen and use it. Wrap around sunglasses are needed to keep the sun and sand out of your eyes. This year there was little wind. The year prior it was very windy.

What is the race course like?

The course is a measured 26.2-mile marathon. Most of the race is on sand. There are about 5K of pavement. The sand is hard packed in places and very loose in other places with gently rolling hills. Following the course as a little difficult at times. Rock cairns or bags of sand with plastic streamers tied to them marked the course. There were several places where no markers were visible. Usually I just followed the footprints in the sand and I never got off course. While there were water stations every 2.5K, several of these aid stations had run out of water by the time those of us in the back of the pack arrived. I carried a three-liter CamelBak and filled it when I could. Those running without a water bottle or CamelBak could get into trouble. I drank more than 11 liters race day. I would highly recommend you bring your CamelBak unless you plan to run this race very fast at the front of the pack. Also bring some carbohydrates. None are provided at the aid stations.

Remember that the Sahrawi put on this race. Their expectations for course marking and aid stations are different than most Western road marathons you may have participated in. Look upon this as an adventure run and plan accordingly.

As you cross the finish line they put the medal around your neck. There was food at the finish line but little was left by the time I arrived. They do transport your “runners bag” to the finish. Have a towel, change of clothes, and some food in it. After the race we boarded trucks for a very rough 90-minute ride back to Semara camp. Do not attempt this ride with a full bladder.

What was your overall impression of the event?

The expanse and solitude of the great Sahara Desert is truly inspiring. This is a wilderness trail run! Even more memorable was the hospitality and spirit of the Sahrawi host families. I now have an understanding and appreciation for their culture. How these people have endured 26 years of exile in the Sahara Desert with such spirit and dignity is beyond my comprehension.

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