MDS #3...Kicked Out Of The Race
2003 Marathon des Sables
Josh Miller/December 2022
With his third and final trip back to Morocco for the Marathon des Sables, author Josh Miller returned not as a participant, but escorting the US contingent of athletes. It would end up being a story worth retelling!
After my two finishes of the MDS, 2000 & 2002, I became affiliated with a group that served as the US representative for American participants in the Marathon des Sables. All major countries had this role. One of the perks was that a rep from each respective country received a complementary pass to attend, watch, follow or participate in the race at no charge, complete with the hotel and dinners. The other US rep was unable to make this year's race and asked me to go instead. I was reluctant as it entailed a great deal of logistical preparation to ensure our US runners arrived safely, checked in correctly to one of the two event hotels, checked into the race, had the right gear, and then, completed the race. I had roster after roster, each runner's flight itinerary, hotel check in procedures, gear lists, race timeline, and fielded hundreds of inquiries about the race, gear, food, packing and training from the runners leading up to the event.
I met all of them at JFK International airport the day of departure and our travels and arrival were uneventful. It was a great group of athletes and their spirits were very high. On arrival in Ouarzazate, Morocco our crew checked into the Hotel Berber and spent the evening eating and drinking more wine than we should have. The next day was met with slight hangovers but all of us were excited to get going. My role was simply as an observer over the course of the seven day event. We could talk to the runners but could not provide any outside food, beverage, gear, or any physical assistance. The rules were stringent and non-athletes had to sign in when entering the runner's area. I learned that morning I would be assigned to a US-based TV production crew of three guys with the lead driving our assigned vehicle. So far, so good.
The next day runners loaded onto buses to be transported to the Sahara Desert staging area while we packed our gear and piled in to make our drive. The anticipatory nature thus far soured as we drove through several small villages where US flags were burning as well as flaming posters with the photo of President Bush. It seems this moderate Muslim country did not like that he had just invaded Iraq. We wrapped our heads in large scarves with only our eyes peering out in hopes of not sticking out as much.
We arrived at the staging area in a remote western corner of the Sahara Desert in the early afternoon and as in 2000 and 2002, it is a small city. There are tents (if you call them that) for the runners, and much nicer tents for observers like myself, workers, others following the race, and the French organizers. The event had a strange air about it considering the global political turmoil unveiling itself. You see, France was vehemently opposed to the US invasion of Iraq and being a race organized by a French organization, there was an air of anti-Americanism, and as a truly international event you could feel a slight tension in the air.
As in years past that first night in the desert is a catered event and the last solid meal the runners will eat for seven days. The organizers do a great job and food and wine flowed for everyone. Stage one began at 0900 sharp the next morning and after the start we loaded our truck and myself and the film crew headed out. They immediately got busy positioning themselves along the course for photos, video, and sound. The first stage is generally short, usually 12-16 miles, so only a handful of runners ran into the later afternoon. Most were finished by 1-2pm and spent the rest of the afternoon resting, recovering, and preparing for the next day's stage. We arrived early afternoon, received our tent assignment and unloaded. After getting settled I went with the guys into the runner's area where the head of the crew signed us in. As they were busy conducting interviews and doing their jobs, I made my way to the tent housing the US runners. We talked about their day, preparations, food, and just about any other topic that came up. It was great connecting with them.
As the runners prepared their makeshift meals that night we enjoyed another catered dinner and, beat from the travel and heat, retired early. Stage Two was a repeat of the day before except a bit longer day of running. Again, we arrived at the next staging area, got settled, and checked into the runner's area to see how everyone was doing. After an hour or two I made my way back to our assigned tent to relax. And here's where things got weird.
Around 9pm an English-speaking French organizer came into the tent and told me the race director needed to speak with me. This was odd but I followed her into another tent which was empty, and after a few minutes the RD followed by his entourage entered. Over the next hour the accusations flew about two rules I had broken, unbeknownst to me. The first was that I had discussed and promoted another running event and second, I had entered the runner's area without signing in. I was aghast. I had many discussions with our American contingent as well as other English speaking runners from other countries about lots of endurance running events I had either participated in or, was going to participate in. I excitedly discussed with some my next event in a few months, the Badwater 135, that I was running in three months and encouraged others to give it a try, but promote? I had zero financial investment in any of these races. The accusation about failing to sign in had me stunned. I entered with the film crew after the lead signed us in. None of the others had signed in so it was odd that I was singled out.
My arguments flew into never, never land and tensions ran high. Regardless, I was told I would be removed from the race. Wait...huh? "You're kidding me?" I said with a chuckle. To make matters worse, I wouldn't be driven back to Ouarzazate, but instead driven to the closest village three hours away and dropped off. And yes, one of the same villages where they were burning US flags and effigies of President Bush two days before. I asked loudly if this was a political statement which fell on deaf ears as they walked out of the tent.
My mind went into overdrive as I walked back to the tent. I had quite a bit of international travel experience but never had I needed to go into such self-preservation mode. It was almost 11pm when I opened my tent flap and walked inside. The film crew guys were there and I simply said, "The race kicked me out." Their jaws dropped. I slowly packed all the while trying to figure out how in the hell I was going to get back to Ouarzazate from this remote Moroccan village I would be left at. I did not want to wake up in that place being stared at by a guy holding a burning US flag.
At midnight the same French female who called me earlier came to let me know there was a vehicle standing by with a driver. In my weakest French coupled with a Louisiana drawl, I replied, "Merci". She never looked up at me. I threw my gear into the vehicle and we left.
With three hours to kill I was immersed in what my next steps would be. I did not trust this driver to take me to the agreed upon location as I had no idea where his loyalties were; but, much to my surprise he spoke broken English and struck up a conversation. With lots of charades, maps and saying, "Ouarzazate" it evidently became clear to him I needed to get to the race hotel. After an hour or so he muttered, "Taxi", I replied, "Oui!!", and he said, "D'accord" (okay). We drove into this very small village about 0300 and with minimal ambient light and no street lights it was incredibly dark. He motioned for me to follow him down a very dark and narrow alley. I thought to myself, "Oh crap, here it comes...get ready", as he knocked on a door facing the alley. After a few minutes a local, older man groggily answered the door. I peered into the small home which was very basic and very similar to the homes I encountered in my later work in Iraq. Cinder block walls, exposed plumbing, mattresses on the floor, and a big box TV with antennae ears protruding from the top. The two were friends and as I stayed quiet they began a lengthy conversation in French as I tried not to look desperate. After a few minutes my driver turned to me and said, "$160 US dollars." He explained it was another 2-3 hour drive to Ouarzazate and the taxi driver must drive back as well. I shook my head knowing they were taking this American all the way to the bank. I commented that all I had was $140 but I had quite a few school supplies I'd give him as well. In addition to being beat, I figured this taxi driver needed the money more than me and bargaining at this juncture would not benefit me. He agreed, my driver kindly said goodbye, and the taxi dude backed his vehicle out of a very small garage. I loaded up and we were off. He spoke "zero" English so it was a very quiet, but starkly beautiful drive into Ouarzazate. I wasn't too sure about this guy either so napping was out of the question. At around 0600 I breathed a sigh of relief as we pulled in front of the hotel. I gave him the cash and his excitement was palatable. I'm pretty sure that's more money than he'd ever made. We unloaded my gear and I began digging in my big bag for the supplies of pens, pencils, calculators, paper, colors, stickers; I had a lot of stuff. I pointed to it and he excitedly shook his head. I helped him load it in the back of his vehicle and we said our goodbyes.
I stumbled to the front desk, asked about a room and was glad to learn they had one. I was still in a daze as to what I was going to do and for how many days. This was the morning of only Stage 3 of the race and with four more days until the finish; well, I needed a plan. Do I stay until the finish? Change my flight and leave when I can? What about the US athletes? It took a full day and night to to get a call out to the US office when I finally connected. We decided I would stay and, hopefully, if I could figure it out, meet the US runners at the finish, an even more remote community than where I was left. I thought to myself how interesting that would be.
The next several days were a blur. There's not a lot going on in this small town but it was neat nonetheless. I spent the days walking around town and exploring the large market area. I really wanted a genuine Moroccan rug and began looking in the storefronts and small alleys. After lots of negotiating over tagine and tea over a couple of days, I walked out with an incredible rug. The nights were spent with dinner in the hotel restaurant washed down with great wine. I got to know the bartender there, Rashid, quite well. He spoke solid English and was a great guy. After three nights of visiting with him it struck me that maybe he could help get me to the race finish! Hmmmm.............
The finish day of the race was fast-approaching. On the night before I asked Rashid if he knew where the finish was and said he did, adding it was about two hours away. I told him my idea and that I'd be happy to fill his car and pay him to drive me there and back. He jumped at the opportunity and picked me up at the hotel the next morning. As we headed down a remote, beat up two-lane asphalt road I knew why it would take two hours. We were going about 35mph! But hey, we were moving and I was going to surprise the hell out of our American athletes.
We arrived in this very small, dusty town around 11am. Rashid and I agreed to meet back at the vehicle in a few hours as he had friends here and I wanted to scope out the finish. The area was abuzz with activity. This was probably the biggest event in the history of this village. Busses were standing by to load runners as they finished, the finish line was being erected, news crews were everywhere, and the event helicopter was overhead. It was certainly exciting. I ran into the TV guys I was attached to prior to my departure and it was like they had seen a ghost. "How the hell did you get out here?" One shouted. I replied, "Wine and the US dollar." It was about this time I noticed others staring at me. It was several of the event staff and they too had a shocked look as I smiled and walked away.
I made my way down a wide dirt road in town following the course markings. The finish had them skirting a mud brick wall as they ran out of the desert and into town. It was very festive as the lead pack came in and other runners began trickling in. I found a place to sit and waited for the US contingent. After a bit I heard what was clearly recognizable voices yelling and screaming. I also kept hearing something very odd and it sounded like, "Où est Josh?" "What the hell?" I thought. This translates to, "Where is Josh?" and they were asking all of the spectators as they passed them. The closer they got I realized what they were saying. I was in simple awe. They were running together carrying a US flag on a staff and repeating, "Ou' est Josh?" When our eyes met we all started screaming and cheering with big hugs among the group. It was incredible. They all finished strong carrying the flag as were many other countries' runners carrying their respective flags. It was truly an international moment.