Two Woodside friends brave six-day race in Moroccan Desert

Joel Butler in the Erg Chebbi dune fields during the second stage of the Marathon des Sables. Photo courtesy of Garrett Smith

"Brutal." That's how Joel Butler describes one of the toughest races in the world – a six-day footrace roughly equivalent to running six marathons through the Southern Moroccan Sahara Desert that he and his buddy, Garrett Smith, recently finished.

The friends recall standing on the sidelines of their kids' soccer game at Woodside Elementary, joking about competing in the 34th annual Marathon des Sables. Then it became a real goal to train for and complete the grueling challenge of covering more than 140 miles in extreme temperatures and conditions, carrying 25 or more pounds on their backs.

And goal became reality. The Woodside men arrived on April 5 after flying to New York, Casablanca and Marrakech, and then busing eight hours to the race's start in Ouarzazate. They were among 783 competitors ranging in age from 16 to 83, from 51 countries. Instructions were given in French, and then English, since most of the racers were European.

Most were also first-timers like Butler and Smith, including two standouts: American Amy Winters, the first woman to compete with a prosthetic leg, and Cactus, the dog who became a social media darling when he wandered off from an inn along the racecourse on stage 2 and kept following the pack. He received loads of attention and a medal for covering about 110 miles, before being reunited with his owner at the finish.

The race started on April 7 and covered 20 miles on stage 1; 20.2 miles on stage 2; 23.1 miles on stage 3; 47.4 miles on stage 4; 26.2 miles on stage 5; and 3.8 miles on stage 6.

Butler and Smith describe nights dipping down to the 40s, and then climbing up to 120 degrees during the day. Sand storms swept through almost constantly, creating shifting dunes, but sometimes the terrain was rocky, steep and crawling with scorpions.

In the past some competitors have died. This year, according to organizers, 4% of the racers dropped out and didn't finish, but there were no serious casualties.

Racers refilled their water bottles at checkpoints spaced at every 10 to 12 kilometers, but each runner had to carry a week's worth of food to provide 2,000 calories per day, as well as other supplies such as salt tablets, electrolyte powder, clothing, sunscreen, safety and sleeping gear.

Staff set up Berber tents for groups of eight to sleep in each night. Butler and Smith were in the same tent and found they soon formed a mutual support group.

Smith ran mostly by himself at a 4 to 5 mph clip, so Butler was glad to find a running buddy within his tent group who kept a slower 3 mph pace.

Butler, a 41 year-old construction manager, says he had never done anything like this race before, so he spent a lot of time preparing.

He overdid it when he pulled something and hobbled around for a while, and blew it when he went to Palm Desert to train and found himself surrounded by snow.

Toward the end he logged many miles running in this area carrying a pack filled with rocks and water to mimic running six marathons.

Butler says the hardest part of the race was being on his feet for 19 hours during the long stage of more than 47 miles. Competitors had 31 hours to finish that section.

"When the sun goes down you're so happy to be in a cooler place, but the distance seems to extend out in the darkness," he says.

A checkpoint would appear to loom ahead, but turn out, disappointingly, to be only a truck's headlights rather than a place to rest for five minutes.

In the dark they carried glow sticks on their packs, and looked for rocks spray-painted with neon colors. They wore GPS trackers and were electronically monitored at each checkpoint.

Yet Smith still got lost on the long stage at night.

"I was following someone, a night stick on a guy in front, and after about a mile realized I was off course, checked the map and compass," he explains.

He ended up running 50 miles in that stage.

Smith, 36, a tech entrepreneur, has done a handful of 50-mile races and marathons before. He's used to training; now a major in the U.S. Marines Reserves, he served in Afghanistan and Colombia.

For this race he practiced running on sand at Pismo Beach in California and on a beach in North Carolina.

In the desert both men wore sand gaiters around their feet and ankles to keep grit from getting into their shoes. Smith relied on superglue to keep his shoes functioning, and moleskin to prevent blisters.

Butler wore compression socks until he developed heat rash, and toe socks. He developed a bunch of blisters and was grateful to receive help from the race's medical team.

Both competitors wore long-sleeved shirts, shorts, sunglasses and hats with flaps, and used trekking poles for part of the time.

Smith completed the race in less than 38 hours. Butler's official race time was just over 48 hours.

At the finish line Smith was already thinking, what's next?

Both agree, "not this" again, but in November they plan to enter the North Face 50, an endurance trail race in Marin that will feel like a bargain after spending so much in traveling expenses to bring their families over to see more of Morocco after the Marathon des Sables.

Competitors paid about $3,100 to enter the desert race. Some of the funds go to charity. This year the organization was involved in opening the Solidarity Center to provide sports, literacy and handicraft opportunities for children and women in the Ouarzazate area.

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Like this comment
Posted by Stu Soffer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jul 5, 2019 at 1:18 pm

Wow! What an adventure. Well done.

The Moroccan deserts are used for many filming locations.

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