The Marathon des Sables is one of the most famous endurance running events in the world. If you are not familiar with it, then it involves a 156 mile, 6 stage, 7 day run through temperatures in excess of 50°c, through one of the most inhospitable places on Earth: the Sahara Desert. While being completely self-sufficient and carrying everything you need on you, except for water supplies and tents.
Now, while some of us could never comprehend actually wanting to put yourself through such an ordeal, some people want the chance to prove that they can get through anything.
Mauro Prosperi was one such ultra-runner who wanted to take on the race, and so in 1994, the then 39 year old Italian policeman started the race in Morocco. It seemed that he started well, until the fourth day, when a heavy sandstorm arrived. After 8 hours sheltering from the storm, Mauro found that the landscape had dramatically changed around him so despite having a compass and map, he had lost all points of reference.
Not realising he was lost at first, he kept pushing on to continue the race. In fact, he was running in the wrong direction, into Algeria. As it dawned on him that he was lost and had run out of water, he urinated into his water bottle, knowing that it was only of use while he was still reasonably well hydrated. His reasoning was that he would be found soon.
Pressing on, he came across a marabout, an uninhabited Muslim shrine to a deceased holy man. He decided to wait there to be rescued, finishing his food rations and bottled urine. Finding bats roosting inside the tower, he ate them and drank their blood to stay alive.
But no rescue came. According to Mauro’s 2014 interview with the BBC, a helicopter and an aeroplane both flew past the marabout, but despite his best efforts, neither saw him. This was the point that his spirits sank and began to believe he was going to die there. Knowing that his dead body would need to be found in order for his wife and 3 young children to claim his pension back home, he wrote a note to his wife in charcoal, slit his own wrists and lay down to wait for death.
Only death wasn’t ready for him. Between being dehydrated and the extreme heat, his blood thickened and clotted. He woke up the next morning, still very much alive. He decided to take it as a sign that he should continue trying and decided to follow the advice given to the competitors at the start of the race by the Tuareg (nomadic indigenous people). Their wise words? ‘’If you’re lost, head for the clouds you can see on the horizon at dawn, that’s where you will find life. During the day they will disappear but set your compass and carry on in that direction.’’
Mauro continued walking for days, eating snakes, lizards and cacti that he found along the way. On the eighth day, he found a little oasis with fresh water. While resting and rehydrating, he saw footprints in the sand and realised that people must be fairly close. Picking up his journey again on the following day, he noticed goats in the distance. On getting closer to the goats, he scared a young girl who ran off to a Berber tent and brought out the older women. Although they would not allow him inside as the men were away for the day, they gave him goat’s milk to drink and made him comfortable in the shade outside their tent while another ran to fetch the police from the nearby military base. Taken to the military base and then transported on to hospital, Mauro discovered that he had ended up 181 miles off course.
Weighing only 45kg, with damage to his eyes and liver and only able to eat liquid foods, it was around two years before he fully recovered. Did he take life a bit easier after this epic feat of survival? No. Once recovered, he went back to desert running, entering several other races and trying another two times for the Marathon des Sables; in 1998, when he was unable to complete it due to a toe injury, before finally conquering the race in 2012. We believe he is still running today and could probably teach some people a thing or two about persistence.