Desert Days
By David Seys

It’s a blistering hot furnace of a day in the Mauritanian Sahara, and I am sitting in a stuffy, scruffy and dirty tent with no food and no money feeling very sorry for myself. I have just been pulled by the Doc Trotter medical team from the Trans 333 race. My downfall was isotonic mismanagement and in the space of half an hour my body had collapsed, the body salts were so out of balance that I was told there would be no hope of my completing the course — and all the hopes of those months and miles of training had just turned to desert dust.

Suddenly there was a commotion in the next tent when the leader of the race came into the control point and there were gasps of Gallic amazement that ‘he’ was a ‘she’ who had led the race from 25 kilometres. This was Alicja Barahona, not one of the race favourites in spite of her previous track record. It was always thought that the winner of the race would come from one of the five usual suspects (all male) and I could hear people muttering that there was no doubt that one of these respected runners would catch her at some point.

It was then that my luck changed. A French organiser came rushing into my tent in a panic to ask whether I could act as an interpreter as Alicja was having trouble communicating with them in French — and they spoke hardly any English. The problem was simple. Alicja wanted to know how far behind her the second person was. It turned out that Christian Ginter was at least two hours behind her. It was time for Alicja to take a short rest.

This was now early afternoon on Thursday and Alicja had been running constantly since 5 p.m. on Tuesday. She had reached Control Point 12 of the 333 kilometre Trans 333 race, run from 11th to 12th December 2001 and with each control point being placed every 20 kilometres she had now covered 240 kilometres. During this time she had run non-stop across fierce and harsh terrain, which included 100 kilometres of massive soft-sand dunes that sapped the energy as she went into wheel spin. Along the way she had stopped for no longer than 2 hours and between control points 11 and 12 had to overcome a severe stomach upset which forced her to a temporary halt 5 times. At first glance, I had to agree with the organisers that it looked unlikely that Alicja would maintain her lead.

Whilst Alicja was resting, I asked the race director whether he would consider it useful for me to follow Alicja so that I could continue to act as interpreter during her stops at the future check points. My offer was gratefully accepted and furthermore I was asked if I could stay with her during the coming night as Alicja was so far ahead of the field that they did not have enough personnel to supply her with her own safety support and the course had not yet been lit with lights to show her the route. I was assigned a Jeep with a Mauritanian driver who hardly spoke French, certainly no English and definitely no Polish, and who constantly smoked a peculiar substance, which made him totally incoherent. But I was happy again. Suddenly I had a purpose and a responsibility — and so began one of the most astonishing nights of my life. Watching Alicja’s courage and determination was a humbling experience that I was privileged to observe.

The route to control point 13 was in daylight and on a rough dirt road and I went on ahead to wait for her. She arrived in the beautiful twilight of the Sahara exactly when she predicted at about 7p.m., tired and wobbling a bit but covering the ground in 10-minute miles as she had from the start of the race. A 15-minute pause, a request to try and find her a Coca Cola for the next control point, no food, and she was off again.

Alicja was concerned. It was now dark and she asked for the car not to go out of her sight, as she was scared of being alone in the desert. One small mistake and losing her way could quickly cost her the race. I took the Jeep half a mile ahead of her and then stopped and waited. She could be alone and concentrating, but she would have the reassurance of seeing the lights in front of her. I could see her head torch. Sometimes the light was so still because of the economy of her running style that I thought that she had stopped, but she soon came closer and you could hear the constant light footfall of her feet before I moved on ahead again.

Control point 14 and Alicja started to ask everyone details of the distance of the field behind her, receiving contradictory information. This now brought her ‘worry level’ up to crisis point! She kept saying that she could not find out what was going on behind her in the race, but her chasers knew her every move, how far ahead she was, and how long she had stopped at every checkpoint. I had fortunately asked the right person and knew the answer that Alicja still had a two hour lead, but nothing would reassure her and after 10 minutes, again with no food, but clasping the can of Coke that had been found for her, she was off into the night.

After a few kilometres more road the course came into the canyons, where even at night as we crept down a boulder strewn track that clung to the side of a precipice, we could sense the 800 foot sheer drop chasm that was to our right. One small trip, one small loss of concentration and there could have been a fatal accident. Alicja wanted us to go ahead as she felt that lighting her way with the headlights of the car would give her an advantage. But she had the disadvantage of the course not being marked, and when the Mauritanian driver came to his senses enough to tell me that this was “a very dangerous section”, it was time to tell Alicja that she should go in front for her own safety. Alicja ran on in the headlights of the jeep, never faltering on the near impossible terrain that wound down the cliff face. But naturally the pace was beginning to slow, and for Alicja the time taken to get to the next checkpoint seemed never-ending.

Check point 15 at the bottom of the canyon was reached as another African dawn spread a blush across the sky. Alicja was now so far ahead that the control point was not completely ready for her, but this did not matter as she picked up her water supply and left within 10 minutes.

Slowly the going became easier and the driver and I started to relax as the gentle light started to creep across the land. Our attention wandered for a second, but to our horror when we looked again at Alicja we saw her lying motionless on the ground in front of us. I jumped out of the car and ran to help her to find her conscious but with blood pouring from two massive gashes on her head and a severe cut just under her right eye. She had tripped and fallen on a mound of jagged rocks. Once again, I thought to myself that Alicja’s race was over as there was still 25 kilometres to go and it seemed almost certain that she could not continue at the same speed, so allowing her to be caught. I also thought she might suffer from shock. But wrong again! After cleaning her up with some sterile wipes she insisted on starting immediately. Within seven minutes of the fall she was on her way, walking for the first minute, and then back to the steady pit pat running. I stood in awe of her bravery. She kept saying that she must win the race now after having been in the lead for so long, she said quietly “legs don’t fail me now”—and then the film crew came along and wrongly informed her that the second man was only three quarters of an hour behind her and closing. I can only imagine the distress she must have felt on hearing those words.

Alicja’s last words as she went on were that she did not want to see a doctor at the last check point in case they pulled her from the race.

Checkpoint 16 and Alicja is 13 kilometres from winning the race outright. The word is out and she is met by a group of people including race director Alain Gestin. Her face is a congealed mess of blood, which attracts every fly in Mauritania. But she just won’t stop and once again departs in 10 minutes.

Alicja is now exhausted and her speed is down to about 5 kilometres an hour, but she continues to run, hunched over and determined. She catches a glimpse of her shadow and observes that with her backpack she now looks like a turtle. When the finish line eventually comes into sight I shoo the entourage away so that she can be alone to enjoy the pleasure of the last 10 minutes of being the deserved winner of the longest non-stop desert race in the world.

Alicja triumphantly crosses the line and collapses on a waiting mattress. Doc Trotter and organisers swarm around her, now outnumbering the flies, before she is led away to a tent for a sleep and to wait for the next person to cross the line three hours behind her.

Just for the record, Alicja won the race in 64 hours 30 minutes and came in under the Canadian flag. The second runner from France was Jean-Pierre Cirianni in 67 hours 20 minutes, who had overtaken a very tired Christian Ginter just before the last control point. There were nine ladies in the field of 75 and the next lady, Celia Hargrave from the UK, came in at 86 hours 05 minutes, just over 21.5 hours after Alicja. These facts certainly put Alicja’s win into perspective.

The significance of Alicja’s achievement has only now dawned on me. In my humble opinion I believe that her win is no different to a woman suddenly coming from nowhere and being able to beat the Number 1 tennis seed—something inconceivable. The Trans 333 is a man’s race with a ladies category. It was never in the plan that a lady could win the whole event.

Out of my own personal disaster, I was uplifted and my life was enriched to watch such a magnificent effort and I shall treasure the memory of Alicja Barahona’s blinding determination to be first past the finish line of the Trans 333.