Saturday, May 3, 2008

Sand, sand, and more sand

I guess we scooped The Guardian when we wrote on April 11th about Captain Adwin Gallant running the Sand Marathon. Today The Guardian has a story:

Sand, sand, and more sand
Islander Adwin Gallant battled the extreme conditions
of the Sahara desert while competing in the
Marathon des Sables in Morocco

The Guardian

Two weeks of sand, sun and 45-degree Celsius days in exotic Morocco sounds like a great vacation, doesn’t it?

Well, throw in killer sandstorms, snakes bites, scorpions in your boots and complete exhaustion, thanks to trekking 240-kilometres over six days in the vicious Saharan desert, and it’s not so sexy.

Except to 44-year-old Adwin Gallant. The Souris native and his cohort Meagan McGrath, 29, recently completed the epic 23rd annual Marathon des Sables through the Moroccan outback. Luckily, they survived with nary a raging sandstorm or scorpion in sight. Their tent collapsing one night because of a strong wind proved the worst problem.

But there was a camel load of mental and physical exhaustion. It started on day one. Organizers keep the maps and routes secret from the 801 international entrants until race day. And there was that pesky desert thing with its relentless 50 degrees Celsius heat to face, too.

“It was sort of daunting once you got there because the first day we had 30 kilometres and most of it was gigantic sand dunes. That was our introduction to the event. Once you got through the first day, we’re thinking ‘well, this is going to be a lot harder than we thought it was going to be’,” said Gallant from Ottawa, where he works as an aerospace engineer with the Canadian military. “One hill on the fourth day was a kilometre long. It was up a giant mountain. We had to use a rope at the top to get up it.”

Despite what might appear as madness to some and dangerous to others, Gallant insisted he and McGrath (she’s a captain in the Armed Forces and climbed Mount Everest last May) aren’t adrenaline junkies.

“Me? No. Megan and I have a philosophy that we’re just two ordinary people who like to do different things. I’m not an elite athlete, I’m just sort of an above-average runner,” said Gallant.

Gallant’s journey to Morocco began when he left the Island at six-years-old with his family. They returned for his Grade 11 year at Souris High School. After graduating from Bluefield High School, the then 17-year-old Gallant joined the Canadian Armed Forces. Along the way to becoming a captain and an aerospace engineer, he earned degrees from Acadia, Dalhousie and England’s Cranfield University.

In 27 years as a runner, he’s competed in marathons while stationed in Germany, the Sudan and in Canada. Gallant also has nine long-walk events in Holland (the annual Nijmegen marches span four days and 160-kilometres) and a desert stroll in New Mexico in 2000 under his belt. But Morocco was an entirely different beast.

It took about a year to train, gather sponsors (Gregory, an outdoor gear maker in the United States, supplied the backpack while the shoe company Teva offered up a prototype boot with high ankles, built-in gaiters and breathable uppers) and raise the $3,500 entry fee. Overall, Gallant calculated about $7,000, including equipment, went into the adventure.

Stages were roughly divided into 25-, 34-, 38-, 82-, 42- and 22-kilometre sections for the respective days. Runners competed individually, in teams, or both. At night, they slept in traditional Berber tents made of cloth tarps covering a framework of poles. About 100 people were divided into several tents in designated campsites.

Each night, Gallant and McGrath bunked with an American, two Australians and several Canadians. On the trail, water and medics were available at rest stops spaced about 10 kilometres apart. An airlift service was also handy for injured runners.

Gallant and McGrath carried food (typically power bars or dried stuff), survival gear (yes, that included a snake bite kit), a sleeping bag and personal items. Gallant’s pack weighed about 14 kilograms, nearly half food. Race organizers mandated a minimum of 2,000 calories per day for racers. Gallant alloted about 3,000 calories each day for him.

And if that doesn’t seem difficult enough, consider Gallant trained on Ottawa’s snow-covered sidewalks and trails.

It was a terrible strategy to get in shape for the Sahara’s brutal heat, but it’s the only one Gallant had.

“For us coming from Canada it goes from minus-20 to plus-40 and it’s quite a big jump. Normally, you have a couple of weeks of climatization . . . we don’t have that luxury. There’s no way to prepare.”

Given all those factors, Gallant chose a more subdued goal than usual for a marathoner, meaning watching the clock was for time of day only.

“I wanted to walk the whole thing and sort of be standing at the end and not be completely destroyed. That was the objective I had way back, six months ago,” said Gallant. “I wanted to prove that not an extreme athlete could do this. If they wanted to walk it, they could do it.”

McGrath ran the course so they split each morning and met at the evening’s campsite, although by day four he was jogging too — just to get the longest day over with.

And if your mind is elsewhere, it keeps the voices telling you you’re crazy, coaxing you to abandon this ridiculousness, at bay.

“When you run it makes it easier because you’re not thinking. You’re thinking of the running, of falling over. When you’re walking you have all that extra time to think ‘why am I here? why am I here? I don’t need to be here’,” said Gallant.

On day three, the desert almost won as he became dehydrated and seriously considered quitting, but medical help and a long break at a rest stop restored his health and will.

A much-needed thing for day four, the longest day and the day dreaded by all at the start line. The killer section stretched over 70 kilometres through loose sand, high dunes and rock. He started at 9 a.m. and finished at 12:30 a.m. that night, more than 15 hours.

“From the moment we started everybody was thinking about the big day on day four, the 75 kilometres. You could do it in two days or you could do it in one day. A lot of us chose to go the full one day and just keep going until you’re done.”

Some finished the stretch in 10 hours, some finished well into the early morning, some stopped and finished the next day. And some, like Gallant, found another gear as the day and the event wore on.

“Eventually, I started to running because it was just taking too long. At the end of it, I actually sprinted,” he said. “After 243 kilometres I decided to sprint the last two kilometres and I wasn’t even tired which I was quite surprised (at).”

Near the finish line, local children cajoled the racers to the end with cheers of “bon courage”, although more than once Gallant wondered how the bicycle-riding children got to such a barren place as he slogged the last 17 kilometres.

And at the end?

“Relief. And it’s the first time I ever kissed a medal. I was hanging out there on the edge pretty far and I was thinking ‘man, I’ve got to get this thing over with’. Near the end, I’m thinking ‘OK, OK it’s over. Just a few more kilometres and we’re finished’.”

Officially, Gallant placed 504th and McGrath was 287th of the 747 who completed the race. He returned with just a few blisters on his heels, McGrath with a dotting of blisters between her big toes — Gallant chalked it up to a two-sock system and the Tevas. Others weren’t so lucky. Some had their skin sloughed off from the terrain and heat.

“I know one Australian had to, after the event, go to Europe and get a skin graft,” said Gallant.

After decompressing in Morocco, he returned to Canada with another goal — a plain one — in mind as he waited for a connecting flight from Montreal to Ottawa.

“The thing I went looking for was a Tim Hortons. You appreciate the simple things in life. That’s what I was looking, a little Tim Hortons in the Montreal airport. My coffee and doughnut and a little soup.”

He followed that with a reunion with his wife, Ruth, and children, Nicky, 11, and Lauren, seven. And no walking or running.

“I went home. I took about a week or so off. The kids were happy. I showed them the medal. The kids had a lot of questions. They were happy I wasn’t beat up,” he said.

Ruth followed the race on-line through live updates and pictures. After 26 years of marriage. Ruth said she’s used to his adventures, but Morocco’s extreme conditions, remoteness and dehydration were different — despite nightly e-mails from the desert.

“I worried about him more this time,” she said, “(but) I always support him in the things he does.”

And it goes the other way too as she’s prepping for her turn — a two-week vacation partly in Dartmouth, N.S., her hometown, and partly in Las Vegas, maybe.

Used to Adwin’s restless spirit, Ruth said Nicky and Lauren were almost nonchalant in their support, knowing he spent six months in Sudan, with its desert barrens, attached to a United Nations force.

“They said, ‘it’s no big deal. Dad, you did it for six months. What’s two weeks?’”

And Gallant’s appreciative for their backing.

“The kids see my doing these odd things. The wife just thinks I’m crazy, anyway. There always has to be a challenge somewhere, right? If it’s not this thing, it would be something else.”

Ultimately Gallant has no intention of returning to Morocco. With that in mind, did the marathon fulfill his hopes?

“Yes, I did. When you look for your limits, I think this is it. We were out there on the edge of human endurance for a long time and it could go bad or you could have a good race.”


What the heck is the Marathon des Sables?

* What is it?

An annual 240-kilometre, six-day marathon in late March and early April through the Sahara desert in Morocco in northern Africa. Loosely translated as Marathon of Sands.

* Who can enter?

Anyone, provided they have the $3,500 entry fee and don’t mind being on a waiting list.

* What will runners encounter?

Loose sand and mountainous rock, nine to 15-hour days on the trail, possible sandstorms and scorpion bites, mental and physical exhaustion.

* Why do it?

The challenge, says Adwin Gallant, Souris native and captain in the Canadian armed forces who recently completed the event: “A lot of people they think about the marathon being the ultimate challenge. Well, you go do that and then you’re done after one day. The thing about this event is that you have to pace yourself the whole way through. And deal with the elements, plus-40 plus-50 degrees Celsius, severe sandstorms and then you get cold at nighttime, you’re out in the middle of nowhere.”

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