My name is Mauro Prosperi and… I ate bats & scorpions to survive the Sahara

The Marathon des Sables is widely recognised as the world’s toughest footrace. Its translation means ‘Marathon of the Sands’ and it’s both a name and reputation that is fully deserved.MR2-22-1Every March, runners from around the globe descend on Southern Morocco to attempt a course that covers 151 miles (234km) across some of the hardest, most inhospitable terrain on the planet – the Sahara Desert. Running the equivalent of a marathon a day, the race lasts six to seven days and the rules state that all competitors must complete the race ‘self-sufficient’, meaning that all food and equipment (apart from a tent) for the entire duration of the race must be carried in a rucksack while running.Water is rationed and handed out at checkpoints and competitors must prepare their own food.Throw in temperatures exceeding 120ºC, treacherous terrain, violent sandstorms and freezing nights, and you could be forgiven for questioning the sanity of those poor souls brave – or mad – enough to attempt such a race.Indeed, the short message that appears on the race website leaves you in no doubt: “Welcome to the world of lunatics and masochists.” Given that the race insurance policy also includes a corpse repatriation clause, its notorious reputation, it seems, is well deserved.None of which fazed Mauro Prosperi in the spring of 1994, when he found himself at the starting line alongside 133 other competitors preparing for the greatest challenge of his life. A Sicilian policeman and gifted pentathlete, who was a reserve member of the Italian Olympic team at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, the 39-year-old was also a keen amateur long-distance runner who had participated in many ultra-marathon events, but crucially none that involved desert terrain.Despite having no experience of the conditions, Prosperi began the race comfortably enough. In fact, heading out on the fourth day - the longest tortuous leg of the race at 50 miles - he was lying in seventh place.At a little after 1.00pm on day four, Prosperi reached the 20-mile checkpoint, taped up a blistered foot, grabbed a bottle of water and jogged off again. Only minutes later, the wind picked up in intensity and Prosperi found himself in the middle of a sandstorm. A desert storm is a Sahara runner’s worst nightmare. The ground and sky merge into one as sand is whipped into the air, like a tornado covering everything in its path; it becomes impossible to see. Particles of desert are like razor-sharp needles piercing the skin, as sand finds its way into the eyes, mouth and ears.The major rule of the race is that if a sandstorm sweeps up, runners are instructed to stop in their tracks and wait for assistance. Prosperi, however, wrapped a special sandstorm scarf around his face and stumbled on, trying unsuccessfully to maintain his position until he was forced to take shelter by a bush. “I needed to keep moving a bit to keep from getting buried,” he explained. “When the winds died down, I didn’t know I was lost.”MR2-22-2When the wind subsided six hours later, the marked trails were no longer visible. Prosperi fired an emergency flare gun into the air – the agreed SOS signal – but he had already strayed too far off the route. “I wasn’t panicked,” he said. “I just despaired. Fear is important. It forces you to think.”As the runners struggled into the fourth checkpoint, there was no sign of the seventh-place runner. Prosperi was lost in the heart of 9,100,000km of desert with only a slurp of water left in his bottle. A full-scale search had begun, but the Italian racer was nowhere to be found.On his second day alone in the desert wilderness, Prosperi saw a military helicopter overhead but the pilot failed to spot him. Alone and disorientated, he staggered on, sucking on wet wipes and urinating into his water bottle to drink if all else failed. “All I could think about was that I was going to die a horrible death,” Prosperi recalled later. “I had once heard that dying of thirst was the worst-possible fate.”Prosperi knew enough about desert survival to only walk in the morning and evening, and seek refuge in the shade during the midday heat. By the third morning, desperately weak from a lack of food and water, and spotting vultures circling overhead, he stumbled upon a small abandoned Muslim shrine. Draping his Italian flag on a tent pole, he went inside and caught two small bats, wrung their necks and drank their blood.By now, with all his energy expended from trying to stay alive, Prosperi was convinced the end was near. “I reasoned that if I died in that shrine, my body would eventually be found,” he explained. “I wanted my family to be able to recover my body so they could come to terms with my death.”So he wrote a note to his wife; took a penknife from his rucksack and slit his wrists. Then he lay down to die.But his dehydrated condition caused his blood to thicken and clot the wound. Prosperi woke up again the next morning and the realisation that he had come so close to death renewed his will to live. “It gave me more confidence,” he said. “I started to view the desert as a place where people could live. I started to think of myself as a man of the desert. I wanted to see my family again, I concentrated on that.” And so he set off again towards a mountain range 20 miles in the distance.
For the next five days, the remarkable runner kept on going, drinking almost nothing but urine and the dew off leaves in the morning, eating lizards and snakes, then burying his body in the sand on freezing nights.Finally, after a staggering nine days alone in the desert, Prosperi was given a lifeline. He came upon a group of Tuareg nomads. He had inadvertently walked to Algeria, over 130 miles west of where he had originally become lost. Bloodied, sickly and nearly three stone lighter than when he started out, Prosperi had also suffered near liver failure. But he was alive.Even then, however, his incredible ordeal was not yet over. The nomads delivered him to soldiers who drove him for two days through a military zone to a hospital in the town of Tindouf, and safety. On his return to Rome, the father of three was hailed a hero by the Italian press who named him ‘Robinson Crusoe of the Sahara.’“I don’t know how I could find the strength to resist such critical conditions,” Prosperi said afterwards. “I was out of water and had no more liquids inside my body, no more energy to sustain my legs and to help me remain conscious. I was sure I was getting closer and closer to death but the more difficult the situation became, the stronger I felt inside.”Although his liver was permanently damaged and it took a year to recover, Prosperi went back to long-distance running and incredibly applied to run the Marathon des Sables again two years later. He was turned down before eventually being allowed to compete again in 1997.To date, Prosperi has raced across the Sahara six more times, finishing 13th in 2002 with a time of 25hrs, 30mins, 37secs. Today, the 54-year-old fitness fanatic shows no signs of slowing down. A keen open water swimmer who organised a 5.5km race around Acicastello in Catania in May, he also hopes to compete in next year’s London Marathon.It is the Marathon des Sables, however, which seems to have a spiritual hold over Prosperi. He intends to race in the Sahara again next year. “I love the desert – it’s stronger than me,” he says. “I respect it. I think that’s the only reason why it saved me from certain death. “It was a terrible experience and yet it was a great one. I go back to the Marathon des Sables because despite my mishap, the Sahara has bewitched me.”

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