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Sahara Marathon

In April/May 2013, I managed to reset the Belgian record 8000-meter climbing to five and I decided to give 8000-ers a break for a year. But that obviously didn’t mean I didn’t plan any adventurous challenges for 2014.

A few years before my friend and fellow-mountaineer had participated in the Sahara marathon in southern Algeria. This marathon is not only a sportive challenge, but through this event humanitarian aid is organized for the Saharawi people that have been stuck in refugee camps for 37 years.

At the independence of the Western Sahara in 1975, the Moroccan army invaded this country. That occupation is still going on 39 years later, despite numerous convictions by the United Nations and the international tribunal. 175.000 men, women and children crossed the border with Algeria and have been waiting for a solution in five refugee camps. The Sahara marathon doesn’t just provide humanitarian aid for these people, but also wants to raise awareness of the international community for this depressing situation.

Because I like to help other people with my activities, it seemed like a good idea to participate in this marathon. My preparations didn’t quite go as planned. In September, I injured the hamstrings of my right leg and because of this, I couldn’t run for a month.

In November, the same injury reappeared and I lost another month. On top of that, I was reluctant to train intensively in the last weeks before the marathon because I was concerned that a new injury would prevent me from participating altogether. Thanks to intensive treatment, I could prevent further damage. But when I left for Algeria, I was not as trained as I wanted to be.

My crowdfunding initiative however did run OK. With this initiative, I collected money for the marathon and hence for the Saharawi people. A part of the funding, I invested via Kiva in microfinancing. In total, I collected more than 600 euro of which I invested 120 euro in Kiva.

On 21st February, I boarded a plane in Zaventem heading for Madrid. There, I met up with Doug, a fellow adventurer that was going to participate in the marathon as well. Together with a bunch of Spanish runners, we got on a chartered flight that took us to Tindouf. From there busses brought us to the biggest of the five refugee camps where we were going to spend the week with a Saharawi family.

This family gave us accommodation, food and drinks. The kids of the family also acted as our local guides. Especially Ba, a five year old boy, took this job very seriously. Ba also had two nephews: Bala and Bamba. So the three of them together were Babalabamba.

Although we arrived on Friday night, the marathon didn’t take place until Monday. The first two days were filled with press conferences and lectures about the Saharawi people and with a reconnaissance of the camp. On Sunday night there was a joint pasta meal with all participants. A few oldtimers of the Sahara marathon also gaves us some valuable advice. Because of the heath and the terrain, the Sahara marathon is not your regular marathon. 30 degrees centigrade, not a millimeter of shadow and the sandy ground mean that runners need about 33 % more time to complete this marathon compared to a normal marathon.

On this evening I also bumped into the only other Belgian. Daniel Dekkers had already run the Sahara marathon four times, but this time he had chosen the run the half marathon. Understandably considering the man is 78 years old. Since then, he is my personal hero. I hope I can still run half a Sahara marathon when I’m 78.

On Monday morning, we all got together for breakfast and I got on the bus with another 138 athletes towards the starting point, 42 km from where we were. There, we were welcomed by enthusiastically singing women that were waving the national Saharawi flag to give us courage.

A few minutes later, I could start my 42 km in the heath. The first problem already occurred after 500 meter. My left calf started hurting. Fortunately, it was just a warming up problem because after a few kilometers the pain disappeared.

But after 8 km, my Achilles tendant started hurting. The pain wasn’t too bad in the beginning but gradually it got worse. After 18 km, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to finish the marathon like this. During a short break, I put some muscle relaxing cream on my calf, because that was all I had. Fortunately, it turned out to be the right solution because a little later the pain disappeared.

Despite these problems, the first part of the marathon actually went pretty well. I reached the 10 km mark after 1 hour 5′. That may not be very fast, but considering the heath and terrain, I was pretty satisfied. I had also chosen deliberately not to run too fast. After 2 hours 25′ I was halfway. My pace had dropped a little, but if I could keep up this pace I would still finish the marathon in less than 5 hours. At km 25 I was even pleasantly surprised that I had covered the last 4 km so quickly.

The race itself was pretty fantastic. Beautiful environment and all by myself in the desert. The support with food and drinks was also brilliant.

But the further I got, the more runners I saw walking. The Sahara was clearly very demanding. My running also became more difficult as of km 30. My passes got shorter, my legs were hurting, it got hotter and I started to slow down. I

n the Sahara, there are also no crowds to cheer for you. When it hurts, you’re on your own. In the end, I needed almost 2 hours for the last 12 km. After 6 hours 2′, I finally reached the finish line: not a great time but still the 81st result out of 139 runners, amongst whom quite a few routine marathon runners. The winner completed the marathon in 2 hours 50′, an incredible performance.

More important however than the timings of the marathon are the results of the solidarity project: 30.000 euro in aid was handed over to the local people. On top of that, several projects in schools and hospitals were supported. The Saharawi people also got a fair amount of attention from the press that had travelled along.

To me, the marathon and the hospitality of the Saharawi people was an enriching experience.

I would like to thank the following people for their support to this Sahara Marathon:

  • Michel Peeters

  • Ilse Supply

  • Garry Smeulders

  • Chantal Martin

  • Marc Van Heirle

  • Luc Frans

  • Sonja Michiels

  • Meta Vrijhoef

  • Dieter De Maeyer

  • Jan Willems

  • Stijn Gysen

  • Jo Van Gorp

  • Valerie Verheylsone

  • Ingrid Engelen

  • Kris Patteet

  • a few anonymous sponsors

With the support of:

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