The Marathon of the Sands is often referred to as an ultra-marathon when in fact it is the anti-marathon. Here in the sweeping Sahara desert of Southern Morocco, there are no crowds to cheer you on like there is when you shuffle through a Manhattan street in the New York marathon. No music blares from passing bars nor are there traffic police blocking side streets. Instead you join a long line of lonely runners snaked across high, orange dunes with the only sign of life the numbing pain in your blistered feet. Temperatures of 125°F (52°C) make it feel like you are running in a rather large hair dryer and the 30-pound rucksack on your back convinces you that somehow you have joined the French Foreign Legion by accident. This 6-day, 243km (151-mile) endurance run over sand and rock, through sand storms and freezing nights, is in fact six marathons in one. The prospect of competing in it is an adrenaline rush in and of itself. The actual competition is a fatiguing, yet gratifying exhilaration. Needless to say there is not a large woolly animal costume in sight.
Instead, competitors wrap their heads in hats, sunglasses, and scarves to protect themselves against the heatstroke that frequently downs some of the 800-plus participants. An Italian runner got lost one year and wandered this vast space south of the Atlas mountains for 9 days, surviving on boiled urine and dead bats. Runners burn up to 2,000 calories a day. They must carry food for the entire week along with clothes, a sleeping bag, and a survival kit. Organizers dispense 9 liters (over 2 gal.) of water a day for each participant, just enough to prevent dehydration and not enough to wash. The survival kit includes tropical disinfectant and an anti-venom pump to deal with bites from snakes and scorpions. There is also a distress flare and signalling mirror for those who need help.
Started in 1986 by Frenchman Patrick Bauer, the exact marathon route frequently changes. The starting line is usually a 5-hour drive from the kasbah town Ouarzazate, known as “the door to the desert.” It sometimes ends in Erfoud, a sand city that is the frequent location for Hollywood sandal epics such as The Mummy.
You feel like a mummy after Day 2. Day 4 is an 80km (50-mile) night dash and though the route is lit up with beacons, a sandstorm can wipe out all visibility and runners must rely on their compasses to get them through. The rest camps are anything but luxurious, with thin canvas tents holding exhausted runners. There is little or no privacy, with competitors having to get used to relieving themselves in the open for all to see. Despite such discomforts and a $3,000 registration fee, this gruelling race is always oversubscribed and places are sold out within 10 minutes of their release. Over 7,000 people have participated since it started, the youngest being 16 and the oldest 78. It has a strong international feel with lots of French and British, but the king of the race is a Moroccan called Lahcen Ahansal who has won it 10 times. Most people are just happy to finish it. As for the lack of large woolly animals, I lied. There is a herd of camels that follow behind to pick up stragglers. —CO’M
Tours: The Best of Morocco ( 44/1249-467-165; www.morocco-travel.com).
When to Go: Apr 1–12.
$$$ Le Berbere Palace, Quartier Mansour Eddahbi, Village Berbere, B.p 165, Ouarzazate 45000, Morocco ( 212/2488-3105; www.ouarzazate.com). $$ Dar Karma, Juan Antonio Munoz et Carmen Cabezas 45 Taourirt, Ouarzazate 45000, Morocco ( 212/5/2488-8733; www.darkamar.com).