INTERVIEW BY CATHERINE FAYE
For over a quarter of a century, this man has had business people, artists, and citizens from every continent running through the desert in the kingdom he looks upon as his homeland – Morocco. 250 kilometres in six stages take the self-sufficient runners over dunes, stones and djebels. His Marathon des Sables* is one of the hardest on the planet.
An unusual organizer shares his experiences
> I was brought up with the idea that no effort means no satisfaction. I remember reading about the adventures of Alexandra David-Neel, an incredibly courageous woman, and Roger Frison-Roche and Théodore Monod. As a child, I had the impression that life wasn’t all I could see around me and that I needed to go off and find out about it myself.
> Africa literally changed my life. I travelled across Morocco by bus when I was 14, followed by a Citroën 2 CV at 20. Then I started travelling in Togo, Benin and Niger, initially as a press photographer. I went on to became cultural representative for an educational book publisher targeting bush schools. But the idea of bringing science to Africans through culture was an illusion. It didn’t make sense to me, so I stopped.
> The desert has always brought me the answers. Back in France, I was looking for something else, but everything seemed so dull and I still had a head full of stars. There was only one thing that interested me, and that was going back to Africa. It went round and round my head, even at night. One morning I told my brother, “I’m going to cross Sahara on foot, I’ve done it five times by car but this time I want to leave the road.” It took me three weeks to find an old Peugeot 504 and then we were off. It was 1984 and it was my first true expedition, from Troyes to Tamanrasset.
> Live your dreams to the full, that’s the secret. When I decided to do the journey, I wanted to break with daily routine and fulfil an internal quest. I took a sleeping bag, some figs and dates, 15 litres of water, adding up to almost 35 kilos on my back. My aim was to walk. In the evening I’d meet up with my brother and a friend in a bivouac. Little by little, I found myself. It was a voyage out of time and it opened up my mind. I covered 350 km in twelve days using a compass with no GPS. When I finished, we set off some flares to mark the end and I felt very sad.
> When your whole body is at work, you feel alive and in touch with primal sensations. The concept of self-sufficiency and autonomy is vital. You’re a fighter on a kind of spiritual quest. It’s the effort that brings you up against yourself. The Marathon des Sables started in 1986 so that other people could experience it.
> The marathon has an extraordinarily intense, tribal aspect. At some point, everyone reaches a particular level of consciousness that is impossible to reach in everyday life. It’s a profound sense of being that can move you to tears.
> When you are aware of your desire and you do all you can to make it a reality, then it happens. It’s about how you position yourself. To have a vision, you need to open up your horizons with the values of enterprise, positivism and honesty. You need to believe, to want and dare to do it.
> Good thoughts, feelings and actions; that’s what makes you happy. To make my dream come true, the first person to help me in Zagora was a Touareg. Then it was the minister of state, Moulay Ahmed Alaoui, who believed in me and gave me his moral support. Lastly, Mohamed VI, who sponsors the marathon, made me an officer of the Wissam Alaouite, a decoration that symbolizes his trust and benevolence and the kingdom’s recognition. I have an extraordinary relationship with Morocco, it’s my second homeland.
> You must never stop improving yourself. The book I keep by my bed is Kybahon, a study of the hermetic philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece, which centres on the art of changing and transforming your own mindset. I have been immersed in my story for years and I never stop being thankful. The unshakeable foundation is my nine-year-old son, the best present that life has ever given me, and my wife, Marie, who has been with me from the start. My thoughts feed my dreams, just as the desert magnifies the soul.