In 1994 at 39 years of age, Mauro Prosperi attended the Marathon des Sables – a race spanning across 155 miles (250-km) through the Sahara Desert and lasting for six days.
After a sandstorm had swept over the racing track, the ex-Olympic pentathlete got disorient and wandered the desert for 10 days before he reached safety.
This remarkable story shows just how far a man can push its limits. It teaches us about the importance of preparedness and willpower. Here’s how the story goes.
Charmed by the beauty of the various landscapes, the Italian runner had won plenty pentathlons before his retirement. The effort he put in all those races however, deprived Mauro of the joy of admiring and exploring these beautiful places in detail.
Due to this, a burning desire to do things differently had struck him.
Although he had a wife and three children to look after, Mauro couldn’t get a hold of himself when his friend told him of “…this amazing marathon in the desert.”
He knew that he must be a part of it in order to extinguish his burning desire of running once again across the vastness of the desert, along with his promising career as an athlete.
The challenge was just too tempting, and in spite of knowing that a form must be signed beforehand to declare where your body should be delivered after a worst case scenario, Mauro didn’t pull back from achieving his dream.
Ignoring his wife’s concerns, Mauro went on a training spree that will see him running 25 miles (40km) daily. He strategically reduced the water consumption during training to get accustomed to dehydration.
Before arriving in Morocco, he assured his wife that “the worst that can happen is that I get a bit sunburned,” unaware of what was about to come.
The first glimpse at the desert made Mauro shiver with joy. The athlete was instantly charmed by the beauty of the landscape.
The marathon des Sables was among the toughest (if not the toughest) in the world at that time, and it remains to this day. However, it’s worth mentioning that in 1994, no more than 80 participants were aligned for the race, compared to over 1,300 participants today.
It’s impossible to get lost at present, and easy to understand how Mauro lost his way back then.
Proudly representing his country, Mauro had beaten most challenges laid across the way. He was the first Italian to reach the checkpoints. On the fourth day however, things took a different turn…
Having a substantial head start over most of the participants, Mauro wanted to secure a spot on the platform. Starting early that morning, he reached an area of sand dunes prior to the 5th checkpoint where he was supposed to receive fresh water supplies.
Venturing on his own to gain more ground, Mauro was surprised by a terrible sandstorm. The grains of sand did real damage to his body and gear. After struggling for a while to get through it, he finally subdued to the storm and sheltered until it passed.
Eight hours had gone by until the end of the turmoil. Dark had settled in, and the athlete was feeling upset because he suspected he had lost fourth place. He thought “oh well, I can’t win now but I can still make a good time. Tomorrow morning I’ll get up really early and try to reach the finish.”
And so he did. With 36 hours left to finish the marathon before getting disqualified, Mauro had still high hopes.
Even though he had been trekking alone for a while, he didn’t worry thinking that “as soon as I see someone we can team up and get to the finish together.” But He couldn’t have imagined what life had prepared for him.
After a 4-hour run, Mauro realized he was lost. At this point he started walking instead. First thing he did was urinate in an empty bottle. His grandfather had told him that by doing so, when highly hydrated, will yield the clearest urine that’s closest to drinking he could get.
After assessing his inventory, Mauro knew on what to rely: a knife, sleeping bag, compass, map, dehydrated food, and a backpack. Everything looked fine, except he only had half a bottle of water left. He would receive more after crossing through the checkpoints.
Due to his tough training, the athlete grew resilient to heat. He would only travel after the sun had set and in the early morning. During the day he tried to find cover from the suffocating heat. His darker skin tone offered him additional protection against sunburns, while the two pair of hats would keep his body temperature stable.
The next day he had heard a helicopter and rushed to signal for help using the flare he had. Although flying at extremely low altitude, the pilot didn’t see the distress signal and Mauro rapidly sank into despair.
It was only one year later that bigger flares (the kind you use at sea) became mandatory for these competitions. Up until then, flares the size of a thumb were used, mainly due to their lightweight.
Thinking that help will eventually arrive, Mauro continued his endeavor for several days. After a time, he came across a Muslim shrine dubbed a “marabout.” It was a place used by Bedouins as shelter whenever crossing the desert.
No one aside from a holy man inside a coffin were found in the shrine. The shelter brought further hope to Mauro. That’s when he started evaluating his status and rations.
He was still sturdy and in good shape. He began cooking the food he had using fresh urine. The bottle stored beforehand he had consumed two days earlier.
The sand swept inside the marabout had brought the ceiling close to the floor, so Mauro climbed it to plant the Italian flag there, hoping that someone would spot it.
During his attempt he discovered that a pack of bats had found refuge there as well. After snatching a few, Mauro chopped their heads and cleared their intestines in order to drink their blood and fluids. He recalls eating at least 20 bats raw.
After several days spent inside the shrine, he once again heard the rattle of an airplane. He quickly lit up a fire with whatever he could find, including his backpack, but to no avail.
A sudden sandstorm had sparked, laying waste to his desperate signaling attempt. The storm disappeared after another 12 hours, together with his hopes of surviving.
Even more, his wife wouldn’t receive his police pension in Italy (Mauro worked for the Sicilian mounted police) because a missing person would only be deemed deceased after 10 years of unsuccessful search.
The athlete couldn’t bear the thought of leaving his family like this, so a desperate plan was put in motion: Mauro would cut his wrists to die in the Muslim shrine where his body would sooner or later be discovered and expatriated.
After setting his final words on a piece of paper using charcoal, Mauro laid his head awaiting his final sleep.
Instead of waking up on the other side, the next morning caught him alive and well. His wrists were sealed due to his blood becoming too thick after days without water. He immediately rejoiced, taking this as a divine sign from God.
With his children and wife on his mind, Mauro voyaged once more into the scorching desert. Being a former pentathlete had won him a thick skin and good resilience.
He made a plan before heading out based on the instructions received at the start of the marathon. He had the words still in his mind: “If you’re lost, head for the clouds that you can see on the horizon at dawn, that’s where you will find life. During the day they will disappear but set your compass and carry on in that direction.”
With his wits restored and a bunch of energy batons, Mauro endured the desert for several days more. During this time, he feasted on every lizard and snake he could set his eyes on, eating them raw. Their fluids were no longer sufficient to tend to his drinking needs.
As he carried on, Mauro could see his weight drop significantly. He soon stopped urinating, but luckily he carried a pack of anti-diarrhea pills to keep his stomach from falling ill. It was the last thing he would have wanted and needed.
The desert soon felt like his home, and the initial desire of admiring the surroundings finally came to fruition. Paying close attention to details, Mauro stumbled across dried riverbeds from which he sipped the succulents he had found.
For his tremendous feat of surviving in the desert for so long, a Tuareg prince penned a poem in his honor, recognizing him as a “chosen one.” – you will find an excerpt at the end of the article
Finally, on the eight day Mauro reached a small oasis. For a quarter of a day he laid down and drank slowly from the clean water. He also saw a footprint in the sand hinting at a nearby human presence.
With his strengths partially restored, the athlete went in search of a settlement. He soon came over a herd of goats. A little girl was nearby, but she scrammed on sight.
Mauro didn’t look so welcoming after spending so much time in the desert. Nonetheless, the shepherd girl alarmed her people of the man’s presence.
The Berbers greeted Mauro with fresh goat milk and offered him a spot in the shades until the police arrived.
In total, Mauro had gone 181 miles (291 km) off track. The Saharan Desert had led him from Morocco to Algeria.
The athlete had dropped 35 lb (16 kg) leaving him with only 99 lb (45 kg) of mass. Other minor injuries had occurred to his eyes and liver.
The recovery process took months, time during which Mauro drank only soups and various liquids. It didn’t matter one bit after all that he had been through.
Surprisingly, only four years later, Mouro had once again rose to the challenge of completing the marathon des Sables. He successfully completed it this time, earning the admiration of many.
During this time, the desert had bewitched him. Mauro returned for nine more successful marathons, offering his spirit the craved substance it desired.
Singing springs under the palms of the green oasis, listen to the call of the Tuareg in the night, in the calm/ At the pace of my pale camel I go, I travel without destination/ The desert is a world, a land of thirst and hunger/ The immense dunes stretch out, like an ocean of misfortune, from the waves of stirring sands.” – excerpt from the poem dedicated to Mauro Prosperi by the Tuareg Prince
Knowing this man’s story offers plenty of food for thought. It shows how constant training, motivation and rock-solid willpower can change a human being. It also teaches us how preparedness, both physical and mental, can get us through life’s toughest challenges.
Before closing the article, I want to leave you with a few essential tips for when crossing the desert or any arid and scorching area.
- If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, don’t consume any liquids for 24 hours. This way your body will enter survival mode.
- Death installs after about three days without water in the desert, while for a similar scenario at sea the span of time extends to six to seven days.
- Drinking urine should be your last resort due to its high content of salt and urea. Only urine collected while you are well hydrated might do the trick.
- Drinking blood on the other hand will benefit you because it conserves water and digests with ease.
- Ingesting proteins when water is scarce is a bad idea. The water used for digestion will sack you even further.
If you have enjoyed the story of Mauro Prosperi, don’t hesitate to spread the word about it. More such stories will follow if there’s enough interest to them.
Source: BBC magazine
Photo credits: Mauro Prosperi