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What would you consider the most challenging survival environment on Earth? There are many potential candidates, ranging from the windswept Antarctic to the vast Amazon rainforest. No matter how you rank these regions, the Sahara desert is sure to be near the top of your list.
This 3.6-million square mile desert is nearly as large as the entire United States (including Alaska), and is known for its intense heat. The surface temperature of the Sahara's dunes has been measured at more than 180°F. Rainfall and vegetation growth is minimal, and the odds of encountering another person are extremely low. It's about as close as you can get to a barren wasteland without traveling to the polar ice caps or the Moon.
However, humans love a challenge, and we're no strangers to overcoming nature. Adventurers have climbed the highest peaks and dove to the pitch-black depths of the ocean. For these bold individuals, the Sahara is just another obstacle to conquer.
Also known as the Marathon of the Sands or the Sahara Marathon, the Marathon des Sables has been called the toughest foot race on Earth. This six-day annual ultramarathon covers 156 miles — roughly the same as six regular marathons. It takes place in the Sahara desert, specifically southern Morocco. The marathon's website describes it as follows:
“MdS is a truly grueling multi-stage adventure through a mythical landscape in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments – the Sahara desert. You have to be self-sufficient and carry all your own food and equipment for the week on your back. Communal goat’s-hair Berber tents are pitched every night but, apart from that you have to take it with you. Water is rationed and if you exceed the ration, you get a time penalty.”
The following promotional video shows the sights of the 33rd annual Marathon des Sables, which will commence this month.
In 1994, Italian police officer and former Olympic pentathlete Mauro Prosperi was looking to push his physical limits. At the time, he was 39 years old and married with three young children.
Prosperi recalled his reaction to learning about the infamously-difficult ultramarathon:
“I love a challenge so I started training immediately, running 40km (25 miles) a day, reducing the amount of water I was drinking to get used to dehydration. I was never home. My wife, Cinzia, thought I was insane – the race is so risky that you have to sign a form to say where you want your body to be sent in case you die.”
After intense preparation, he flew to Morocco to begin the race. Although it now draws roughly 1,300 participants each year, providing a heightened sense of safety in numbers, the 1994 event reportedly had only 134 competitors. As a result, Prosperi says he was on his own for most of the six-day journey.
The fourth day of the Marathon des Sables constitutes its longest single stage, with a 57-mile trek through the desert between campsites. On April 14th, 1994, blistering sun elevated temperatures to 115°F as Prosperi passed the third checkpoint, 20 miles into the day's journey. Per regulations, he picked up his allotted 2 liter ration of water and continued running.
Shortly after 1:00, high winds brought on an unexpected sandstorm that caused organizers to pause the race for the day. Other competitors waited out the storm and eventually made it to the fourth checkpoint by nightfall, but Mauro Prosperi had disappeared. The following morning, ground and air search parties were sent out to look for him. The Moroccan military and Bedouin trackers aided in the search. However, they found no trace of Prosperi.
In a 1998 interview with Men's Journal, Prosperi recounted what happened that day:
“When the sandstorm started to blow, I lost sight of everybody else. I kept running, though, because I thought I could see the trail. I was in seventh place and didn’t want to lose my standing. It was nearly dark before the winds relented. I started running again, but after a few minutes it occurred to me that I had lost the trail.”
Prosperi says he backtracked for hours, but it soon became too dark to continue searching for the trail markers. He made camp and resumed the search at dawn, only to find his surroundings completely unfamiliar. He had little food and almost no water left.
Following race guidelines to remain stationary and wait for rescue, Prosperi sat on the sand dune all day. In the afternoon, he says a rescue helicopter flew almost directly above his position, but failed to notice him. The next day, he decided to begin walking again. He later told the BBC, “I had a compass and a map so I thought I could navigate perfectly well, but without points of reference it's a lot more complicated.”
In the distance, Prosperi noticed what appeared to be a solitary structure. As he approached, he recognized it as a marabout shrine — an abandoned tomb for a Muslim religious leader. Although there was no rescue to be found here, the shrine provided shade and other resources.
In an attempt to stay hydrated, Prosperi sucked on wet wipes from his pack, licked morning dew off rocks, and drank his own urine while it remained relatively clear. He also used urine to rehydrate and cook the freeze-dried food in his pack, since no other water was available. (Editor's Note: Although Prosperi did what he thought was best at the time, it is not advisable to drink urine, since it may lead to further dehydration and/or organ failure.)
When his food stockpiles ran out, Prosperi says he ate bird eggs and beetles; he also says he killed and consumed raw bats and lizards he found near the shrine, hoping to absorb any moisture that might be removed by cooking the flesh. Anti-diarrhea medicine in his pack helped him avoid losing more water despite this extreme diet.
Yet again, an airplane passed near Prosperi's location. He says he tried to signal by lighting a small fire and writing “SOS” in the sand, but the plane continued towards the horizon. Distraught and suicidal, Prosperi took his pocket knife and cut his wrist — in a cruel twist of fate, his dehydrated blood coagulated and prevented his death.
In a final attempt to reach safety, Prosperi set out from the shrine and began walking towards mountains in the distance, traveling in the early morning and late evening to avoid the heat of the day. He left pieces of his gear behind to form a trail of breadcrumbs. Although he believed the mountains to be in the direction of the marathon's trail, this route would actually take him even further into the Sahara.
As he passed dry riverbeds, he squeezed liquid from plant roots. Then, after eight days in the desert, Prosperi found a desert oasis. He told the BBC, “Really it was only a large puddle, a mirror of water in a wadi. I threw myself upon it and gulped with abandon, but I could hardly swallow. I managed to force a mouthful of it down, and almost immediately I vomited. I couldn’t hold anything. I found I had to take tiny sips, one every 10 minutes.”
With his thirst finally quenched, Prosperi filled his water container and kept walking. Eventually, he found some dried-up goat droppings, and continued searching for more. The droppings led him to human footprints. He recalls, “I crested a hill and beheld an incredible sight. There was a nomad girl, maybe 8 years old, tending a flock in the sparse greenery of a wash. I ran toward her and begged for help.”
The girl was part of a caravan of nomadic Tuareg, who immediately gave Prosperi goat's milk, then took him via camel to the nearest village. Despite starting in Morocco, Prosperi had traveled 180 miles from where he disappeared, unknowingly wandering into Algeria. Local military police initially confronted him due to tensions between the two countries, but after finding out who he was, they took him to a hospital.
Prosperi reportedly lost 35 pounds, weighing in at just 99 pounds when he was rescued. Doctors said his liver had almost completely failed, and hospital staff gave him 16 liters of intravenous fluids. He was reunited with his family and received a warm welcome back to Italy, although he was unable to eat solid food for several months after the ordeal, and he says that he didn't recover for almost two years.
In the following short film, Prosperi discusses the experience:
A few adventurers and journalists have doubted the accuracy of Prosperi's story, considering the near-superhuman feats it entailed. Some claimed he staged or exaggerated the ordeal for money and fame. Marathon des Sables founder Patrick Bauer told Men's Journal that the story is “a fabrication” and “physiologically impossible” — these statements caused Prosperi to consider a lawsuit against Bauer, but he eventually dropped it, stating that the dispute was personal rather than legal.
However, the well-documented physical damage Prosperi endured would have been excruciating, and it left lasting effects on his body. The Men's Journal interviewer said he had a visible scar on his wrist, allegedly from his suicide attempt in the desert. Documentary teams have also revisited the marabout shrine, identifying bat skeletons and discarded personal belongings that corroborated his account.
The survival story of Mauro Prosperi may be hard for some to believe; even by his own account, he made choices that would have reduced his chances of survival. But after nine days in one of the harshest environments on Earth, Prosperi narrowly made it to safety, and that is undeniably an impressive feat. In the book Surviving the Extremes, author Kenneth Kamler, M.D., writes:
“Mauro Prosperi was a world-class endurance runner, acclimated to the heat, inured to physical hardships through years of training and discipline. Mauro didn't lie… [his] body provides compelling testimony to the kind of damage the desert can inflict and, at the same time, evidence of what the body can sustain when pushed to its extremes. He competed against the desert as a decided underdog, but he won, turning in the performance of his life.”