I squinted. My eyes were painfully dry, but the surreal backdrop came into focus. It was like something out of an animated movie. I blinked, but nothing changed. The great sand dunes of the Sahara were so spectacular they looked like a painted canvas.
I had traveled halfway across the planet and ridden my bike 300 miles across the ragged, snow-crusted peaks and cheerful yellow flowers of the Atlas Mountains to find them. Now here they were, and I was in the middle of this vast, empty, lifeless desert with 150 more miles to go.
The Titan Desert by Garmin, a seven-day, 450-mile mountain bike stage race in Northern Morocco, began when my flight landed in the modest Fez airport. It was my first experience in Africa. Bearded men in flowing robes meandered around the tiny airport along along with hundreds of wiry, buzzing bike racers. I dutifully boarded a bus that drove us to a remote part of this country. The disintegrating adobe buildings became more sparse as we approached our first race camp.
There would be no electricity except via generator, no plumbing, and no cell service. I’d be sleeping in haimas, shelters made of beautiful, heavy Moroccan blankets held together with large sticks, for the next week. I met my tent-mate, a Spanish girl who didn’t speak a word of English and we managed to communicate with my broken Spanish and wild hand gestures.
I did my best to keep my belongings in sealed plastic bags to keep sand out of the fabric weave of my clothing. Sandstorms could blow through our camp without even a moment’s notice. I even brought ski goggles in the event we had to race in one. Even without a storm, sand was already eeking its way into every crevice of the haima.
The first few days were not what I expected from a race that takes place in the planet’s largest desert—long, scenic climbs, mild days, and cold evenings. Donkeys loaded with firewood shared the jarring roads with us, but did not seem to enjoy our company. Their braying sounded more like a door swinging on rusty hinges than an animal whenever we approached.
The real excitement began with the bikepacking on Stage 2. We had to carry everything we needed for racing and sleeping for the next two days, and, thanks to my cumbersome load, I could commiserate with the donkeys. We were also not allowed to receive outside mechanical support or equipment of any kind during this period. Our sleeping arrangement was one large communal tent with carpets covering dirt. There were no showers or changing rooms. Modesty was an afterthought, particularly for my European friends who comprised most of the entrants in the event.
As I entered the tent to find a small plot of real estate for my sleeping bag, I tried to avert my eyes from all the dirty, naked men (80 percent of the race entrants are male) in various compromising positions. As Jerry Seinfeld jokes, there’s good naked and bad naked. I saw enough bad naked to last a lifetime. My personal challenge was finding a way to change my own clothes as a modest American woman.
After surviving two days and nearly 150 laborious miles with an extra 15 pounds on my back, the heat and wind arrived to taunt me. I had adjusted my expectations as I was cautioned that the Titan Desert was a road race on mountain bikes. Indeed, the starts were the scariest part of the day with hundreds of racers, mostly eager Spanish men vying for position, plunging down the sandy road at 25 m.p.h.
I also did not get the memo that I should have brought my own road team to work for me. Most days, I would be forced to brave the wind and desert alone. There was nowhere to hide or seek solace from that invisible force that always seemed to be pushing against me. I wished I had some bodies to sit behind, even for a minute.
I found myself in the middle of the pack, just off the pace of the lead pack of men but faster than everyone else, except one other woman. My inner frustration quietly simmered as I watched the first place female racer with her own personal team of men who carried water for her and shielded her from the wind. Racing for second place with no support demoralized me.
My chapped lips formed a desolate grimace and my sore legs dutifully turned the pedals. There was no shade or human soul to be found for hours at a time. Riding through the occasional village kept me sane. They were a blur of stimulation, and a welcome distraction. Once-intricate but now decomposing buildings and tall mosques lined the streets along with smiling, screaming children. After a few minutes of rowdy exhilaration, I’d exit the towns to the quiet sounds of my own breath, my tires crunching on the dirt road and that insulting wind in my ears.
I also rode through abandoned towns left in ruins. I guessed that the water source had dried up and people had to move to other locations. I pedaled on, lonely, too.
Near the end of Stage 5, I was spent. Every body part ached and the wind felt like standing in front of an open oven. I heard that we would be entering Erg Chebbi, the entrance to the sand dunes, but all I could see for hours in every direction was brown, flat desert with the occasional litter of black rocks. I was beginning to think this race might kill me.
I have Tailor bunions on the outsides of my feet. They are so big that podiatrists like taking photos of them. They are my own personal science fair project. Factor in extreme swelling and 115-degree heat and I was in the worst pain of my life. During the day, the purple bunions busted out of the holes I cut in the sides of my shoes and I would cry out loud when I had to push down on the pedals. I carried an extra water bottle to dump on my feet in an attempt to reduce the swelling.
I would cross the finish line each day and rip off my shoes as quickly as possible. My gait was reduced to a hobble. This was the longest edition of the Titan Desert and it was extreme, even for me, someone who searches for the hardest races in the world. Racers who had finished the race five times before were complaining about the ridiculous distance. I wasn’t sure how I would keep going.
Then it all changed. When the glowing orange dunes of Erg Chebbi finally came into view near the finish line of Stage 5, I was mesmerized. What stood before me looked like the desert from Aladdin—the dunes were 500-feet tall and some were miles wide. I have raced all over the planet, but I had never pedaled into a landscape like this.
After I finished riding, I collected myself, and made my way out of camp, wandering out by foot into the massive dunes. The extreme heat outside made our haimas intensely stuffy and suffocating. They were the last place we wanted to rest. The dunes felt open. Oddly enough, each time I thought I was alone in this vast expanse, Berber men would appear out of nowhere with goods they wanted to sell me. Later that evening, I could hear them singing in Arabic as I drifted off to sleep. The nights in the Sahara grew astonishingly cold with an ink black sky spattered with millions of twinkling stars. I could rest.
The next day, we prepared to traverse a section of the dunes on our bikes. With nothing but GPS waypoints and our own power, we were required to navigate our route based on what we deemed most efficient. There was no marked route. I was wearing a thin layer of spandex shoe covers with duct tape around my ankles to cover my feet and avoid adding sand chafing to my already insufferable foot issues. I was under the impression that the dune stage would require a lot of walking, but it only ended up being 45 minutes on foot.
As we headed out into the sea of sand, herds of sauntering camels slinked by the small groups of scuttling racers. The wind-crusted sand of the dunes was almost like snow. It looked like ripples on a frozen lake. If you walked gingerly, the sand crust would even support your body weight. It was beautiful but overwhelming. I was alone out here.
Later that day when I was back on the bike, I found some men riding at my pace and finally had people to take my mind off the lonely desert terrain. By the time we got to the finish line, my new friend Javier was screaming obscenities in Spanish. I joined in.
The last day would be short, “only” 50 miles. I don’t know if it was my ebbing resolve or my broken-down body, but this final short stage ended up being the most mentally taxing for me. I struggled to get to the finish line where a cool, blue pool and hotel supposedly awaited us. It was no mirage. After I crossed the finish line I headed straight to that pool. Cool water enveloped my tired body and I felt a strange feeling… relief.
That night, I lay in my bed in the air-conditioned hotel. My belly was full of salty, Iberian ham (courtesy of the Spaniards) and properly hydrated with Moroccan beer. It was hard for me to propely imagine the adventure I had just survived. Twenty-four hours ago I was in a pushing through sand dunes in the sweltering desert. And all of a sudden, I wanted to be back out there pushing myself on my bike. I have to confess that my definition of normal gets redefined after each race. The dunes had reminded me: Racing hard is my normal.
Sonya Looney is a contributing editor at Elevation Outdoors and a professional endurance mountain bike racer.