The Sahara Marathon des Sables

Mauro ProsperiThe first survival story I want to feature is set in Morocco during the Sahara Marathon des Sables and is a demonstration of just what the human body can endure should you have the Will to Survive. This story features a 39 year old Italian Policeman, Mauro Prosperi. He is an endurance runner who became lost in the Sahara Desert in 1994 for nearly 10 days with no food or water.

Mauro was no stranger to pushing his body to the extremes, he was a former Olympic Pentathlete and had been involved with endurance sports for decades. After his retirement from Pentathlete he never gave up his love of competing and after a chance conversation with a friend he signed up for the legendary Marathon des Sables, The Marathon of the Sands.

This is an extreme Ultra-marathon that covers 155 miles in 6 days! If that isn’t tough enough, it is in  the Sahara Desert where temperatures are regularly around 120ºF (50ºC). The race is run over sand dunes which sap every last ounce of energy from a runner’s body. To even walk in these conditions for any length of time is potentially life threatening, never mind running more than a marathon a day.

“The worst thing that can happen is sunburn…”

Mauro signed up straight away and started to train by running 25 miles a day and reducing the amount of water he was drinking to get used to dehydration. This one factor alone may have saved his life. His wife Cinzia, although used to him pushing his body to extremes, was worried about the Marathon des Sables as it was so extreme; Mauro quipped back at her “the worst that can happen is I get sunburned.”

Now for those who may have seen footage of the Marathon des Sables it is important to understand that it has changed a lot since 1994. When Mauro ran the marathon is had around 80 competitors and you were normally running on your own for long periods with relatively little support should things go wrong.

Today’s marathon has around 1,300 participants which means there is normally a long trail of people in the desert so competitors are rarely alone for any length of time, if at all. Once the race was under way Mauro made good time and completed each stage ahead of the other Italian competitors. He felt in his groove and was on course to finish the race without having too many issues; then on day 4 things changed very dramatically.

Sunshine and clear skies no more

dust storm marathon des sablesDay 4 is the most extreme of the stages and as this stage is around 55 miles long and there were sections that would have to be run at night. Mauro set off and was going strong until he passed the 4th checkpoint, this is when he entered an area of sand dunes with nobody else in sight.

That morning there was a stronger than normal wind, which got stronger as the day went on, eventually this resulted in a sudden and violent sandstorm.

Now for those of you who have not been caught in a sandstorm then please let me head off on a slight tangent to explain. Sandstorms can be huge, really huge! Some sandstorms have been observed as high as 20,000 ft and up to a couple of hundred miles wide. If you are caught in one then life becomes pretty unpleasant; I know from first hand experience, they suck BIG TIME!

The first thing you will see is a huge wall of dust fast approaching. Winds within the storm can be as high as 40 mph and will cause you to be battered, sand and dust continually blasts you; you will feel the sting of this on any exposed skin.

You will breath in the dust, your lips and nasal passage will become very dry and your hair will feel like you washed it with sand! The last thing, and this is crucial in understanding this story, the visibility drops dramatically due to HUGE volumes of sand and dust that are picked up and moved. Visibility can be just a few feet in the most extreme cases.

Hiding in the eye of the storm

Now back to Mauro, he found himself in the middle of an unexpected sandstorm in his running gear. The sand being blown at high speed into his face felt like needles. He eventually had to stop running and wait it out. After around 8 hours the storm subsided, but as it was now dark Mauro decided to rest and have a sleep in the dunes as he knew the 4th place he had prior to the storm was long gone. A sensible decision and I would have probably done the same.

When it was first light he got up and was ready to set off to try and make up for lost time. What he didn’t expect or plan for was just how much a sandstorm can change the physical terrain due to the huge volume of sand that had been deposited. The terrain was completely different to how it had been just hours before. Although Mauro had a map and compass he had no point of reference with which to start from. Mauro probably made the worst decision possible, he set off not knowing exactly where he was or where he was heading to.

Compass use in the desertFor a further 4 hours he ran in what he thought might be the right direction. Eventually when he crested a dune and still couldn’t see anything, reality struck and he knew he was lost. His next action was to urinate into his spare water bottle, an action that very probably contributed to him surviving against the odds. This is something that is normally a HUGE no-no for survival (more on this in a bit.) He made peace with the fact his race was over but reasoned that he would soon be found by the organisers.

Ration Sweat, not water!

If there is one piece of this story that had to be singled out as to why he survived it would be that Mauro decided to ration his sweat and not water. He only walked in the cooler parts of the day and tried to stay in the shade as much as he could during the hottest part of the day.

On the second day of being lost Mauro thought that rescuers were coming to get him so fired one of his rescue flares that he was mandated to carry at a passing helicopter. Somehow it did not see him and flew right past. Despite this Mauro kept calm and again reasoned that he would be rescued soon; once again keeping a Will to Survive.

After a couple of days he came across a small Muslim shrine that he could use to stay out of the sun and keep him comfortable. Here Mauro ate some of his rations which he cooked in urine and he eventually had a drink of his original urine on the 4th day of being lost when he had nothing else.

Whilst in the shrine he ate around 20 of the resident bats and also drunk their blood; he cut their heads off and then suck out their innards. Whilst contemplating his next move he heard yet another aircraft, Mauro started a fire as quickly as he could and burnt everything he had to try and get its attention, but to no avail. Almost at the same time yet another sandstorm hit which hampered rescue efforts even further.

Sometimes the gods are with you

After the 2nd aircraft not spotting him is when Mauro hit his all time lowest point and tried to take his own life. This was mainly because he had reasoned that he would die anyway and that his wife would not get his pension if he was lost in the desert. His police pension would not be paid for 10 years after being reported missing and eventually registered as dead. He calmly wrote a note in charcoal on the wall of the shrine and then cut his wrists and waited to bleed to death… Fortunately for him his blood was so thick with dehydration that it kept clotting, he couldn’t get it to drain. A sign perhaps?

The next day he woke up deciding that although he had unsuccessfully tried suicide he thought oh well, “death didn’t want me yet.” This was the sign and encouragement he needed, he decided to start a competition with himself. His entire being and single-minded focus was on getting out alive. His main ‘hook’ that kept him going was thinking of his wife and children. He dug deep within and pulled on all of his old self that had been forgotten about years previously; Mauro the Olympian was back!

Listen to the guys who live it every day

Despite his situation he was surprising strong and was not feeling the effects of tiredness much. So off he went. He decided to follow the advice of the local Tuareg, “if you are lost head for the clouds on the horizon at dawn, there you will find life. They will disappear but set your compass and carry on in that direction.” So that is what he did for the next few days.

Along the way he caught and ate local wildlife, mainly snakes and lizards, which provided him food and more importantly fluids. He even managed to find small plants in dried up river beds to use for fluid replenishment. Despite this he knew he had lost a lot of weight as his watch was loose and he could no longer urinate due to dehydration.


On the eighth day Mauro stumbled upon an oasis, not surprisingly he stayed there for 6 or 7 hours and drank tiny sips of water until he was fully rehydrated. Whilst waiting there he noticed several footprints which lifted his spirits and gave him hope that he would meet someone soon and then ultimately rescue. The very next day he came across a small camp after 9 days in the desert alone. Thankfully the women that were at the camp understood just how ill he was so they fed him and gave him plenty of fluids. His ordeal ended the next day when the police collected him and took him to safety.

Don’t forget your passport

In total Mauro covered 181 miles in 9 days and had wandered South into Algeria which was well over 90 degrees off course from where he should have been in the East of Morocco. He lost 35 lbs and suffered damage to his liver and eyes. For months afterwards his body rejected solid foods and he had to make do with soup and purified foods just to get nourishment. Eventually he recovered but his full rehabilitation lasted nearly 2 years.

So what happened to Mauro after he got home?

Astonishingly, in 1998 he went back to the Marathon des Sables as he seen it as unfinished business, even more surprising, he has run a multitude of desert marathons since including the Marathon des Sables for a 3rd time in 2012! He puts this down to having ‘Desert Fever’ which keep drawing him back. Unfortunately due to the strain of him continually competing in ultra-marathons his marriage broke down. His new partner does seem to be a little more understanding though.

Now for my take on the lessons learned

No matter what way you look at this story, Mauro completed a superhuman feat of endurance. Albeit the situation was brought on by himself and it could, in hindsight, have been prevented. There are a lot of lessons that can be drawn from this but I will concentrate on the following

  • Listening to the local experts
  • Understanding your environment
  • Understand the rescue procedures
  • Knowledge weighs nothing

Listening to the experts

marathon des sables cloudsMauro was given advice by the local Tuareg; “if you are lost head for the clouds on the horizon at dawn, there you will find life. They will disappear but set your compass and carry on in that direction.” This advice was probably the key to his discovery and finding the oasis.

The locals that live in the desert as nomads know it like you and I would know our own street. Their advice of heading for the clouds is obviously how they find water for themselves and they no doubt found this out by a lot of people dying over the centuries.

However, by the time he decided to follow that advice he was too far off course for rescuers to realistically expect to find him at the shrine and in an area that had been searched by 2 aircraft already.

Understanding the environment you will be operating in

This is what caused Mauro to first become lost and disorientated. If he had done his research on the desert environment he would have known that sandstorms will completely change how the landscape looks. If he had also known how to use the sun as an aid to navigation he could have sent himself on the correct heading. Even big picture navigation would have helped him. If he was fully aware of the geography he would have known that heading South would not take him to where he needed to go and take him into another country.

Understand the rescue procedures

I will say straight away that I don’t actually know what the procedures were during the race, however there are some common sense things that could have helped Mauro. Having something as simple as a heliograph or signalling mirror would have been ideal in the desert as they can be seen from up to 50 miles away on a sunny day. This would have been an easy way to get rescued and certainly a lot quicker.

If he understood how they would be searching and what assets were available he would have been able to assist them more i.e. Have a signal fire ready, know what areas they were likely to search, search patterns, night time procedures etc.

His best option would probably have been to stop and wait as soon as he realised he was lost. The more he moved the further he was straying from his expected route. A 2 minute conversation with a rescuer before the event could have saved him a lot of pain and suffering.

Knowledge weighs nothing

use a compassHaving watched and read quite a bit of information on this story, several times Mauro has stated that he was happy in the use of a compass and map. In my mind I just can’t see a realistic reason why someone would manage to head over 90 degrees off course if they knew how to read a map and compass.

Even if there were very few references on the ground, a heading of South which is the rough heading that Mauro followed for 182 miles, should have set alarm bells ringing. The race for that year was all heading East and North and the Day 4 leg was all easterly.

Assuming that he knew how to read a compass but it was defective he should still have had clues to highlight he was heading roughly South. Every day the sun rises in the East. passes through South and sets in the West. It would have meant that during the hottest part of the day Mauro would have been facing into sun, which is South.Celestial navigationThe sun is a large clue that you are heading South and should always be used as a check when reading a compass.

At night time there are clues, the Pole or North Star, which as the name suggest, always points North and thereby giving you a reference. If Mauro had these concepts in his mind he would have been able to at least know he was heading way off his intended direction of travel.

And finally, Mauro said he was drinking blood, whilst not incorrect, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Mauro was eating the meat of the animals he caught as well and not JUST drinking blood. Doing so would have caused his irons levels to get dangerously high and dehydrate him more. His body would have tried to flush the toxins (iron and salt) out of the body and therefore making him more dehydrated. The amount of blood he consumed would not have been that high. This is also coupled with the juices he was extracting from several plants he found which would dilute the toxic components of the blood.

He also didn’t drink urine in the conventional sense, he consumed his over-hydrated urine which would have been the result of drinking a lot of water at the previous checkpoint. His urine would likely have been clear and not the normal yellow tinge most of us think of as urine. This would have had very little toxins and was mainly excess water being released from the body. So not ‘normal’ urine and therefore not as toxic to the body and this quick thinking as soon as he realised he was lost likely saved his life.

What was the single biggest aspect that helped Mauro survive?

There are 2 things that helped him, both of which apply to most survival situations, luck and a Will to Survive. Having these in equal measure will help in all but the most grim of situations. Only one of these you can affect by having a winning mindset and never giving up. Mauro pushed his body to its absolute limit when others would have given up and just waited for death. He used the ‘hook’ of seeing his wife and children to kept him motivated to push on despite his difficulties.

So that concludes this story and my thoughts on his whole ordeal and the survival aspects, please bear in mind that I am looking at things in the comfort of my house with a beer in my hand. Mauro did what he thought was right at the time based on his skills, experience and knowledge. Hindsight is always 20/20 vision…

I hope you enjoyed this post? I intend to write a series of posts on survival stories so please let me know what you think. While you are here, have a look at my other awesome posts.

Thanks for swinging by, please share if you liked this post. If you have your own thoughts or theories then please leave them in the comments below and I promise I will answer them.

Dave

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3 comments

  • Robin

    Mauro is an exceptional man and athlete this had to add to him surviving this situation. He must have had some survival skills to even have considered saving his urine on that first day being lost. What knowledge he did have and his training as an athlete is what pulled him through and makes him and inspiration to others. Digging deep into your own self to propel yourself forward in times of difficulty would be a good lesson to learn from Mauro.
    Very nice article. Very inspiring and motivational.

    • I agree, his fitness will have helped him and the fact he trained whilst dehydrated. That aside though, he still just got away with it and had long term health issues as a result.

  • What an amazing story! I think it’s interesting how he tried to commit suicide and failed, and – yes – how he got lost in the first place.

    I like how you point out his having ignored the local wisdom for days. When the survival pros go out (thinking people like Les Stroud, for example) even they lean on local experts for wisdom. Of course, Mauro doesn’t sound like he was necessarily a survival expert at the time.

    While I’m comfortable with a compass and map, I’m not sure I would think to consider the position of the sun. I like how you make it clear that it can be a useful tool. It makes me want to learn more about it, because – realistically – I am not in the habit of always carrying a compass. Then, I also don’t go running across the Sahara either 🙂

    Great story, Dave! Thanks for sharing!

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