La route du sel

By Alicja. Barahona

 I came back from another extreme race in the Sahara Desert This one was 610 km non-stop of endless expanses of sand with not even an indication of vegetation and chains of dunes rising several meters in height.  It is called Tenere (part of the Sahara Desert, Niger).  The direction (as there is no road) was from a salt-mining community of Bilma to a large city of Agadez To Agadez, the planes are flying on a weekly or a bi-weekly schedule from September to April and during the other months it is too hot for anyone to visit.  The city is almost cut off from the world.  It can be reached by a long bus ride from the capital of Niamey .  The remote desert town of Bilma has a small airport but doesn’t have scheduled flights and there are no roads, just a direction. 

Upon arriving in Agadez, we loaded our luggage on 4x4 jeeps and for two and half days we were transported to the start line in Bilma.  Between the dunes, we stopped for lunches and dinners that were prepared by Tuareg.  We slept in the tents.  This was a pleasurable time.  Seems nobody was thinking about the upcoming race. We were a group of vacationers and this was our holiday.   All 29 runners were professional people (doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, business owners, tourist guide, etc).  

After leaving Agadez our ‘jeep’s caravan’ made an obligatory stop at the Police Checkpoints.  We obtained a special permit and we were on the way to the biggest sand playground!  The next stop was to release air from the tires to get better traction in the soft sand.  A few caravans passed and nothing else could be seen just vast areas of sand and dunes scattered all over the seemingly never-ending desert. 

Before the race started, we camped for two more nights on the outskirts of Bilma.  Here we had a mandatory medical examination and had time to prepare our drop out bags.  There were 26 checkpoints, commonly named CPs, and the 27th was the finish line.  The CPs were about 13 miles apart.  At CPs, we could get shelter, water and food.  What we can or cannot get at a CP is always a big surprise.  Two years ago (1st edition of this race), we didn’t get any shelter and food was minimal.  However, this year we got the luxury treatment (the Sahara standard) and we had a tent (some not a good quality and the sand was blowing through like through a strainer), and we had cans of food, and water.  

I always count on myself and prepared drop-out bags with food for each CP.  I carried so much food that I paid 100Euro for overweight luggage at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris . My approach is: better safe than hungry or have Chicken Soup on each CP like during the Trans 333 in Egypt . One year later and I still can’t look at an instant chicken soup package!

The race started at about 9:00AM with the presence of the local military official that promised us this is a safe area to run.   It was a self-navigating course by use of a Global Navigational System (GPS).  The organizer provided the waypoints.  I was using two different GPSs just in case one did not work.  Thank you to Robert Krasowski from AnchorSat, LLC, Asheboro, NC, who gave me a satellite phone (free of charge) that I carried during the race in case of an unusual situation (e.g two years ago I was out of water for 8 hours or another scary moment when the finish line was changed and nobody updated us with the new waypoints). 

From the beginning of this race, I was in the lead.  There were three French teams that were running together to make sure that I will not win the race.  As some of you know, I won this race overall two years ago and, for the French runners, it was a sour note.  They wanted to make sure that this will not happen again.  For me, there was no difference.  I like the challenge of the environment and the runners are part of the competition. 

The challenge was enormous.  The sun soaring up was bringing temperatures of 100F and the wind was just stopping for the afternoon siesta.  With night falling the temperature was falling down also to 40F and the wind was picking up steadily.   At night, I was wearing a wool hat, gloves, jacket, long pants, Tyvek coverall and sometimes I needed to wrap myself in the emergency blanket as the temperature plunged down and the wind was out of control. 

I didn’t sleep for the first two nights of the race but I took time at each CP.  The sand was very powdery and deep.  In some places even walking was impossible.  It was necessary to regain energy at each checkpoint.  I was running with the Italian runner (Pasqual Brandi) as he wanted to keep up with me as much as he could.  Before CP8 he couldn’t even walk due to his knee problem.  Please read attached testimony regarding this runner and his conduct.

Pasquale was out of race as he took a jeep ride before CP8.  However, despite the rules that if a competitor takes a jeep/camel he/she is automatically disqualified, he continued running and injecting some medication as well as taking some extra tablets.   After these injections he could run as if he just started the race.

In Each CP, the Tuareg were very friendly and with many of them I developed a friendship.  At one CP I asked a young man if he is married and he replied:  “No, so far no girl has asked him to marry”.  Niger is a matriarchal Muslim society and often in the tribes women ask men to marry and not vice versa.  I still feel sorry for this young man as I got the impression that being unmarried made him unhappy.  I think perhaps he didn’t have enough money to get married. 

Although, I didn’t count Pasqual as a competitor, he was still running with me.  After CP 16, I witnessed him injecting some medicine to his knee and shortly after he started running like a bullet to the next CP.  I couldn’t keep up with his extra medical help! 

The dunes gradually diminished after CP16 and we were on sand stone hamada (plateau) as we ran on the outskirts of a very impressive natural wonder of Air Mountains with Mt. Bagazane (6,000’).  The nights got colder as the wind was getting much stronger.  I found myself unintentionally between rocky hills.   Each step was a challenge.  I used a second headlamp to help navigate my feet through the rocks.  Some rocks were so big that I had to use my hands to lift myself and my butt to go down!    I was afraid to twist for fear I would break my leg in this remote area.   Always seeing a checkpoint was a happy moment.  This one exceptional so, as the sun was getting up and the entire east was just purple!  

This CP was not giving much protection as the wind was strong and it was the beginning of a sand storm.  I left the tent in the middle of the sand storm.  The visibility was minimal.  The sand was in my ears, eyes and mouth!  The hydration-tube was covered with sand and cleaning it before drinking water was useless.  I focused on the GPS arrow pointing to the next CP when I noticed a caravan emerging from the sandy blizzard and approaching my way.  I moved to the right giving the camels lots of room to pass me.   When my heart beat slowed down, another caravan appeared.  This time two Tuareg men on the camels aimed toward me.  I had no idea what would happen next.  So, just as a precaution I hid my GPSs in my pack and ran as fast as I could.   Gosh, they looked gigantic.  The camels were tall and the two men sitting in the saddles on top of them looked humongous!    I felt hopeless.  Her I was a lonely female runner in the middle of a sand storm.  Out of the blue I stopped…… I smiled and waved to them.  They stopped and looked at me and, without any sign, they turned the camels and rode away.   I was so relieved!   

A few miles later, I met Alain Gestin (the Race Director) in the jeep and he handed me one of the encouragement notes that some of you were sending me during the race.  What a treat!  Suddenly, in this surreal scenario, I realized that I am not alone.  There are friends who are thinking about me and with this lovely thought the sand storm and the caravans were not threats to me anymore.  

I got to CP 19 near lunch time.  It was very hot and I was exhausted.  I ate some food from a can and fell asleep for one hour.  When I woke up I was very weak…I realized that I didn’t drink for the entire time I entered this CP.   Instead of moving to next CP, I decided to drink one bottle of water and clean myself as much as I could.   Sure, I wasn’t happy that I forgot to drink and I had to waste the time to stay longer in the checkpoint.

Meantime, my feet were collecting all kinds of blisters.  The Nike Pegasuz are the worst running shoes that were ever produced.  I was very happy with the old style.  Since, they are water resistant, they therefore don’t have mesh and the sand doesn’t penetrate inside but the new style is very stiff and the insole is so uncomfortable that I voted them # 1 the worst shoes on the market.  Please don’t wear them even if Nike were to give you them for free. 

Near the CP 20, I saw for the first time a snake!  It was moving side-ways on the sand and I was on the verge of a heart attack!    I bet, the snake never saw a creature like me (woman in shorts who smelled like a camel) and to my gratification it moved away.

Between CP 20 and 21, I had to pass through a little village where the smugglers have a rest area.  These are big overloaded trucks with illegal goods and illegal people who tried to cross the Sahara Desert to Libya and then to Europe.   Two years ago, I was struggling with one man who tried to pull me inside a shack but this year only one truck was there and its occupants were sleeping. 

To the next CP I had to move through sand which was very powdery and very deep.  My feet sank in this grey powder.  So the next CP appeared like a Christmas gift.  When I saw a little light, I thought it is a caravan resting but it wasn’t.  It was CP 22.  I didn’t stay here for long as the weather became very cold and I didn’t want my muscles to become stiff.   I was glad to have with me two emergency blankets and I wrapped one around my waist and one on my head and shoulders….the wind was awfully cold. 

After CP 23 there was another village where at least a dozen children gathered around me and asked for a gift.  I carried in my backpack ultra light gifts for such occasions.  The sun was setting when I lost the jeep track.   With a little light that I was getting from my head lamp I was navigating through another Tuareg village with hut houses and resting camels whose eyes reflected in my headlamp.   I literally  entered one of the huts as I didn’t realize I had crossed the opening in the fence…..and here it was….a family gathered around a small fire inside the hut and having an evening meal.  I said: ‘Sorry seems I can’t find my path’ but they didn’t respond.  It was like they didn’t see me.   This is very typical of Tuareg that they never say anything to a stranger.  


I couldn’t get on the right path and my bad luck continued.  I hit like a wall a resting caravan that I had to avoid, and more huts that I tried to stay away from as much as I could.   Finally, I got outside the Tuareg village but I found myself on rolling hills of egg-sized stones.   What a tragedy for my feet.  New blisters started to develop rapidly and the worst ones were building up under my feet!   I stopped and applied extra bandages and fresh socks but the hot spots were transforming into unwanted blisters.  The stony hills seem never ending.  I made extra miles as I couldn’t cross the big peak that appeared in the darkness.  Finally, when I reached CP 24 I realized that Didier Le Mauf Yves passed me.  He was from one of the two men teams running against me.  His partner pulled out from the race but passed me several times on the organizer’s jeep and informed Didier about my location all the time. 


At this checkpoint I ‘hit the wall’.  My feet were very sore and my entire body was giving up.   I told Didier that if he wants he can go ahead as I must rest.  I just collapsed.   I slept in the middle of the tent ‘like bag of potatoes’ shapeless and motionless for 1 and a half hours and still couldn’t move.  I added another half hour and I slowly regained my willingness to continue the race.  My feet were covered with blisters.  My hands were swollen and on my left hand the fingers didn’t bend anymore.  I left the tent together with Didier but I couldn’t run……I couldn’t even walk as the blisters pain was excruciating.   I walked for a long time and finally when my feet realized that I am not giving up, they started running again.

Didier was surprised when I caught up with him in CP 25.  But, inside of this tent was his friend and he was helping him with all the aid station stuff. My plan was to stop for a moment and continue.  Unfortunately, I took my running shoes off and that was it.  I had blisters on top of blisters.  It took me at least one hour to mend them in such a way so that I could wear running shoes again.  Thanks to ‘compeeds’ otherwise I would be forced from the race. In this CP there were five French runners who pulled out from the race and now were joking around.  Djdier left shortly after I arrived to this CP and I finally lost the lead over him.

When I left this CP, I wasn’t sure how long it will take me to finish this race as I was barely walking.  There was a beautiful fertile valley, dramatically contrasting with the endless vistas of the Sahara … oasis with herds of goats and camels chewing on the green leaves.  Very calm place.  Children and adults not in a hurry and walking between the green palms and bushes, almost heavenly area.  There were lots of huts indicating a large Tuareg community.  I passed the water well and near a few animals I had an afternoon nap.  I waved to the children riding donkeys and gave them some gifts.  For boys I had tiny SUV cars and for girls a colorful hair ornament.  Both items were hits!   Here, I took lots of photos.  It was a place that I didn’t want to leave.  After passing this ideal place, I started running again. 

Unfortunately, I stopped in CP 26 for too long.  Inside the tent it was very hot and instead of resting I became more exhausted.  My back was bleeding from the rubbing of the backpack.  I had to cover my back with some bandages but the ones I had were too small.   I asked one Tuareg man to put a paper tissue on the bleeding area and taped the area with duct tape!  In this checkpoint, I didn’t take my shoes off as I knew I would be unable to wear them again.  I joked with the Tuareg guys….they spoke a little English.  For example: I asked them to bring Agadez to me (the finish line).  They had so much fun with this idea that they went outside the tent and really they called” “Agadez come to Alicja, please come!”  When I was ready to leave one Tuareg man was giving me my backpack so I told him: “Lets work as a team, I will run and you will carry my backpack”, or when I was leaving, I stepped outside and returned to the tent.  They asked me: ‘What happed?’  I replied: “What happened?  You forgot to turn Off the Sun!”  They just laughed!

This was a very bad day.   It was after 1PM My mind was not working well.  My swollen hands were very bad and I was worrying whether the water retained inside my body was doing any harm to my internal organs.  I also felt the water in my running shoes from the new popping blisters and walking was certainly one big agony. 

I had no motivation to push myself.  I summoned all of my energy and enthusiasm and I overcame the desert elements.   I just couldn’t justify Pasqual’s cheating and additionally I felt betrayed by the Race Director for helping only the French runners.  Consequently, I decided to never do this race again.  So I thought: “let’s prolong my presence in the desert that for some reason I love so much”.  

When I crossed the finish line I didn’t have the joy of accomplishment.  I was just asking myself why?  Why do people cheat?  Why should I spend so much money, time on training, and my vacation time to participate in a competition if there is such dishonesty?  

This was my 10th anniversary of running and I am asking myself should I quit now or should I try my best again?  We will see………