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Conquering the desert

1 July 2019

What does it mean to cross a land most consider uninhabitable? These days, the allure is less about conquering uncharted territory – and more about finding oneself

As a seven-year-old growing up outside of Venice, Max Calderan used to pore over a much-loved encyclopaedia. One day, he was stopped in his tracks by a page about the Arabian Peninsula’s Rub’ al Khali, known as the Empty Quarter – the largest sand desert in the world. He remembers the moment like it was yesterday. “A place where the Bedouin and camels are scared to move, that migratory birds avoid,” as he tells it, 45 years on.

“I drew a picture of it, went to my mother, and told her I would be the first man to cross it alone. And from that day, my last thought before sleeping, my first thought when I woke up, was to do this. In this moment, I became a desert explorer.” Calderan, whose achievements to date include running 360km in 75 hours across Oman’s deserts in summer, 100km in 24 hours across the UAE desert while fasting and following a 437km line of the Tropic of Cancer – also in the desert – is still preoccupied by the Empty Quarter. “The secret of life is precisely here,” he says.

Calderan is not the first to be captivated by the strange allure of the desert. When Bertram Thomas crossed the Empty Quarter in 1930 he did so with 15 camels and their keepers, and talked of being seduced by a forbidden land with its virgin silences and merciless heat; “the last considerable terra incognita”. But while Thomas was keen to discover the geology and anthropology of the terrain, Calderan and the thousands who sign up for gruelling events such as the Marathon Des Sables – the event in the Sahara described as “an extraordinary race for extraordinary people in an extraordinary place” – are arguably embarking on a different adventure these days: the journey to discover themselves.

“When I first went into the desert,” considers Calderan, “it was to try and find solutions to the problems in my life – and yes, to achieve something. But what you soon realise is that a sand dune can’t help you with that. It can kill you in five minutes. You have to keep silent, listen to the desert, let it become your teacher. And then something incredible happens; you see things you know nobody else has ever seen; you are thinking where nobody else has ever thought before. By the end, you’ve got what you needed out of the journey, not what you wanted. There’s a big difference.”

Calderan’s thoughtful, almost mystical approach to the desert might at first glance seem a long way removed from the attitude of champion professional trail runner Ragna Debats, who won the women’s Marathon Des Sables in her own range of Merrell running shoes. And yet the pull of the desert is the same.

“There’s this great feeling of loneliness, of only seeing sand around you in these wide open spaces,” says the 40-year-old Dutch runner. “You do genuinely connect with nature and yourself in those moments, when you’re out there with your own food, with everything you need to survive. You focus on the puzzle – of running, resting, recovering – and nothing else. It is the ultimate challenge.”

The Marathon Des Sables is certainly that. Dubbed the toughest footrace on earth, competitors set off on a six-day, 250km stage race through the dunes, jebels and salt plains of the Sahara. Temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees centigrade, runners have to carry their own food, water is rationed and communal Berber tents are pitched each night.

“There were many things which made it into an interesting experience, shall we say,” laughs Debats. “Normally I get to a hotel for a one-day race and everything is optimal. But sharing a tent with eight others, carrying a backpack, dealing with the heat in the day and the cold at night, was as challenging as the actual running – and I really wanted to prove a woman could cope with this as well.”

In fact, by the end of the second day, Debats knew she was probably going to win the women’s race, so set herself a new target of finishing as high as possible overall: impressively, she was already close to the Top 10. But increasing pain caused by her backpack meant Debats ended up in such severe discomfort, she was fighting just to put one foot in front of the other a day later. “I went through some pretty bad moments,” she admits.

Most people would have quit. In fact, amateur runner Jonathan Jenkins, who completed Marathon Des Sables last year to raise money for London Air Ambulance, did just that in 2016. “The reasons were justifiable – I wasn’t fit enough – but it was my head which got in a negative spin,” he explains. “As I ran I found myself putting together a narrative about how I would pull out, how I could tell myself this was a glorious failure,” he remembers.

“When I did stop half-way through day four, I was relieved for about 15 minutes… and then spent the next two years regretting it.”

So when Jenkins returned to the desert last year he made sure he was as mentally ready as he could be. Such psychological preparation, agrees Debats, is key. She’s sure that the work she did with Spanish sports psychologist Maritxell Bellatriu helped her overcome her own dark moments and see a difficulty as a challenge rather than a catastrophe.

“Knowing how to redirect negative thoughts is a powerful strategy for difficult times where motivation fails,” says Bellatriu. “Mental preparation is as important as physical preparation, and developing skills such as trust, motivation and concentration allow us to optimise performance and maybe even enjoy the activity.”

Even in the searing heat of the desert? “Well, the desert does have an added toughness,” she agrees. “The adverse conditions, the monotony in the landscape, the extreme climate… mentally it does need special preparation and you do need to anticipate helpful solutions and strategies.”

But why take on this mental and physical trauma in the first place? The common consensus is that it takes a ‘special kind of person’ to venture into the desert, up a mountain, or through a jungle. Bellatriu thinks the idea of testing yourself is actually more universal than that.

“People need challenges,” she says. “We need to fix goals that give meaning to our lives and help us to disconnect from everyday stress. We need to overcome ourselves.”

And while for an athlete like Debats the desert was another challenge to tick off, for someone like Jenkins, it was a life-changing experience.

“You feel very, very small when you’re in the desert,” he says. “You’re going not very far for what seems like an eternity. So one time I just stopped with another guy and we looked up at the stars. It really was a magical moment, so far away from all the tiny things that annoy you in your daily life.

“And there were a lot of people doing a lot of thinking and talking about what was important to them. Pretty much everyone apart from the elite athletes is doing it for someone else, and it’s their stories which keep you going when it hurts, when you’re hanging on to your running shorts at 3am during a sandstorm…”

So crossing the finish line – which both Debats and Jenkins say seemed to be agonisingly close forever, thanks to a cruel heat haze – is a genuinely emotional experience, particularly as everyone gets the same medal. As a solo explorer, Calderan doesn’t have that communal feeling of achievement. But the long-lasting emotions are similar.

“Because the desert gives you the right balance and alignment, once I leave I can transfer what I have experienced to the people around me,” he says. “So being in the desert also means I can be a good father, a good friend, a good person in my community.

“If you can survive the desert, you can survive anything.”

Words: Ben East
Photo: Alexis Berg