WE JOINED SVEN HENKES ON A VERY UNIQUE TRIP TO THE WESTERN SAHARA WHERE HE RAN THE SAHARA MARATHON AND EXPERIENCED LIFE WITH A LOCAL FAMILY IN A REFUGEE CAMP FOR A WEEK.
After a long day of traveling from Berlin to the airport of Tindouf, Algeria our journey to the Sahara Marathon was still not over. Escorted by military vehicles, we still had 2 hours by road in front of us until we reached the little town of Smara, which was to be our home for the next week. Totally exhausted from the long travel, we were picked up by our host families and guided to their home.
Hamdi, Noeniha and their five children between 2 and 15 years of age welcomed us with open arms, despite the obvious language barrier. It was a welcoming atmosphere and the kids were crazy about playing the Memory game we brought with us. But nevertheless there was a Marathon to prepare for, so Sven shortly decided to run his first training kilometers.
The next days were filled with race registration, race meetings and drinking tea with the family and their fiends. Drinking tea was their most important ritual to welcome guests and often lasted a few hours.
Only two days after our arrival the pressure was on - race day. Breakfast at 6:30 am and then a one-hour bus ride into another refugee camp where the race started. Sven now was in his element, fully focused and a bit curious about the marathon. After he crossed the finish line, we’ve had the chance to catch up with him again and talk to him about the run and his experiences in the Western Sahara.
Sven, you just finished the Sahara Marathon. How was it?
It was the greatest thing I‘ve ever done. At the start I got really inspired by the local runners, who started super fast. But after a while I thought, „Oh, a bit conservative would be better“. At kilometer 12 I realized, that this will be a hard day. The temperature was okay, but the surface was very difficult. Running on streets was okay, but we‘ve also had lots of sandy parts with dunes where you sank a bit into the sand and lost a lot of energy. Especially the part between kilometer 21 and 35 was hard because we had to climb the dunes and it was up and down all the time. That was really exhausting.
As I always say, the first half you run with your body and head and the second half you run with your heart and soul. And that‘s the way I did it. At kilometer 12 I was on 16th position and needed to reduce my speed a bit. Luckily all the other participants did the same, so I had the chance to catch one after the other. In the end I crossed the finish line after 3:24 hours in 5th position, which is a great achievement for me.
The temperature in the desert was around 30 degree celsius today. How did that affect your run?
The heat wasn‘t the biggest issue today. Actually it was quite okay because we had a light breeze, which made it acceptable to run. The bigger challenge was the surface. Most parts of the race were really sandy and especially the second part of the race was up and down all the time. In-between we had very stony parts, where I was happy to wear my trail running shoes.
How was the support during the race?
Well, we crossed two little towns where we had great support from local people. It was the local women particularly who sat beside the race track and cheered for us. That was a great support. At some point little kids started to run with me for a few hundred meters, which was very nice too. But in between there was just the desert and me.
What were you thinking when you entered the town?
It was a bit of a mixed feeling because you could see the town already 20 minutes before I crossed the finish line. Before actually entering the town I had to run a 5 kilometer loop around it, which demanded all my mental strength. But never the less it was a great feeling. Many people where cheering for me and to be honest all I wanted to do is finishing the race. (laughs)
How did you spend the time after the race?
After the marathon we had three more days to live with our family and learn something about their culture, their approach of living together and their daily challenges. We all slowly recognized that we have learned much more from these people, than they from us.
How do you feel after living 5 days in the Western Sahara?
Honestly I am a bit sad to leave right now. The last days have been so intense, so full of new impressions and great experiences. I am very proud of what I learned here, what I saw and what I did during the marathon, but sad at the same time because I met a lot of new friends and the family I lived with was so great.
How did you experience living with the Sahrauis?
When you live in a city like Berlin, or any other big city, it‘s a big change to come here. Back home your day is filled with meetings, emails, phone calls, etc.. Here it‘s the total opposite and you have a very basic life. When you‘re hungry at home, you go straight to the fridge, eat something, order food or go to a restaurant. Here not just food is basic, everything is basic. But at the end of the day it gives much more room for the important things in live - taking time for family and taking time for being together. When I came here, they offered me not only a place in there homes, they offered me a place in their hearts. After almost one week, we all grew together and are one family. That makes me very proud and definitely added some very special moments to this trip. I am also very impressed by their attitude. The people here now live in a refugee camp 35 years, many of them experienced war and they still are so open minded, friendly and have a great attitude towards peace and towards the equality of man and woman, which is not common sense in many arabic countries.
How does living in the Sahara Desert looks like?
As I said, when I arrived, it felt like a total shut-down - from always on to total off. At the beginning that was quite new to me and everything felt a bit like waiting. But very soon I understood that it‘s not waiting, it‘s just focusing on spending time together. Taking time for the family, taking time for friends and drinking tea together - and I drunk a lot of tea. (laughs) Besides that, life is very basic. Not every one has a hut and water is a very rare property. Also electricity is not for granted. There are not many jobs around here, but people always try to improve their living situations. Young people start to study in foreign countries and come back to teach the others. That impressed me a lot.
Looking on the sporty side of your journey, how would you summarize it?
It actually was a very unique trip from the beginning on. Normally you‘re either in your home or you spend the last days before a race in a hotel, where you have breakfast, buffet etc. and just focus on the race. Here, you first had to arrive, I mean not just literally by plane and bus, but also you had to get used to the conditions. For example the different toilet situation, to sleep on the floor and to share the room with five other people - two of them were snoring like hell. It has been the most special race preparation I‘ve ever experienced. Also the race itself was totally different, as I did not run in the desert before. During the race I had to face the heat, wind and sandy and stony underground for sure. All these aspects made the whole journey very special to me and I am very happy and proud that I was able to finish the race within 5th position.
At the end we all have been very taken by this journey and our welcoming hosts. Still deeply touched by these intense time we started our way back to Europe. Thanks to all participants and the SAHARA MARATHON org. the event brought lots of support into the refugee camp and also some humanitarian projects have been implemented.
Sven competed the Sahara Marathon wearing our running shorts MUSCLE FORCE VIS. Find out more about the product here.