Recently many of my friends have taken to running as a hobby. But there are marathons, and there are marathons. The Marathon des Sables falls into a category of its own, as David Oberman can testify.
David, a childhood friend, participated in the weeklong event in the Saharan desert in April, and when I note that he “lived to tell the tale,” I do so with awe rather than irony.
I interviewed David, a 53-year-old married father of two, in January, toward the end of three years of training for the run that would take him across 252 kilometers of the Moroccan desert (putting his best foot forward to raise money for the Zichron Menachem charity that helps children with cancer and their families).
That it took a while to catch up with him on his return is even more to his credit. As soon as the race was over, David went back to being a more-than-full-time sales director for Mobileye, a Jerusalem-based hi-tech company, with a demanding schedule of overseas business trips.
But by then, the phrase “demanding” had taken on a different dimension.
“It really was something quite alien to my whole lifestyle,” he admits.
We met last week in Jerusalem, nearly two months after the race; however, at some point in the conversation David noted that just that morning one of his toenails had fallen off. I’ll spare you the photos, but he also jokes that on Day 2 of the marathon, his blisters were so big, the doctor invited the French TV crew to “take some footage.”
The 853 participants came from 30 countries. Two other Israelis joined up, but one had to be evacuated early on after suffering severe heatstroke. In all, some 60 people dropped out through injury, illness or exhaustion.
The terrain consists of sand dunes, hills and mountains, stones and rocks, and mud plains. Each participant carries a pack weighing around 12 kilograms to 15 kg., as well as water for each section.
At the end of the first day, David arrived hours after the others in his tent, and “everything was hurting.”
Although he didn’t know it at the time, his British tent-mates were sure he wouldn’t finish the course.
During the race, he didn’t have the musculo-skeletal problems he had anticipated but this was not a painless journey. “Some nights it was so freezing cold I hardly slept, and just rested.”
One of his strongest impressions is the whole camp – “some 800 super-duper athletes” – limping around every night. “Everyone went to the doctor; everyone had bandages on. Literally everybody.
“You learn to live with pain,” he adds.
London-born David, who served as a paratrooper in the IDF “a long time ago!” became friendly with several British officers, many of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan: They told him, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
With daytime temperatures going up to 52ºC, you might have thought the biggest problem would have been the heat, but it was something quite unexpected that nearly defeated (or de-feeted) David.
On the fifth day, on an open plain, with 90 minutes left to get to the camp, the heavens opened.
“Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did,” he recalls. “There was lightning and the rain turned into vicious hail, and temperatures dropped to around zero.”
Visibility was nil. Even the emergency flare would not have worked, “so I just had to carry on. I had two thoughts: Keep warm by moving, and keep warm by eating.
“After about 40 minutes, I came across a group of seven very miserable Japanese participants who had their emergency blankets on and were trying desperately to light a fire. They asked me if I wasn’t cold.”
David, who studied and taught Japanese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, quoted an ancient Japanese poem – in the original: “Never give in to the rain; never give in to the snow.”
“They were not amused. I left them there and pushed on to the bivouac.”
When he finally reached the (relative) safety of the tent, he notes, he was laughing – whether in the face of danger, out of relief or at the experience, I’m not sure that he himself could say.
“It was the funniest thing, really: This totally unexpected event after they had thrown everything they had at you.”
Listening to David describe his experiences, it occurs to me that much of the event actually counts as torture: lack of sleep; severe physical pain; and the denial of water and food, which was rationed.
A European team was penalized, for example, for accepting food from journalists, because the point of the Marathon des Sables is to test self-sufficiency and survival skills.
Participants are also penalized for asking for extra water (and for littering the route if they drop their water bottles or caps).
The challenges, like the marathon, seemed never-ending.
“On the last day, we came to the tallest dunes you have ever seen in your life,” David recalls.
And the giant dunes were not just part of the scenery, they were part of the obstacles on the course – participants had to cross them.
“My feet were killing me... but I had a burst of renewed energy. I ran up and skied down them like a small child, passing about 150 runners as I rushed for the very welcoming finishing line, a hug from the race director, a finisher’s medal, and a bottle of warm water.”
Overall, he placed very close to the end, but at least he can say with pride that he has been there, done that and literally got the T-shirt. David notes that in places like England, the T-shirt can be worn at a pub as a badge of honor, but in Israel, very few people recognize the suffering behind the shirt.
He also notes that Israelis do not have much of a concept of sponsored events like runs or swims.
“It hasn’t caught on yet, and I found it hard to explain that I wanted people to donate to Zichron Menachem, the charity of my choice, because I was doing something hard.”
Still, there is no pain without gain.
“I’m pleased I did it because I thought it would be a challenge – and it was – but I thought it was doable. Every day, I’d get up and think: ‘How on earth are you going to finish this?’ But looking back, it wasn’t something that was super-human and pushed me beyond my limits.”
On the other hand, everybody (or every body) has different capabilities. David readily admits he’s not the type to tackle Mount Everest.
So what next? “Learning to play piano?” he quips. “Or maybe something like an Arctic run.”
After the Marathon des Sables, anything is possible in the long run.