Colleyville family comes up short on Marathon of the Sands

Posted Monday, Apr. 14, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Despite their best intentions when they set out to conquer a seven-day, 150-plus-mile race through a North African desert, a Colleyville trio dropped out after the 21-mile first leg.

The first stage of the 2014 Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands) was “the most difficult in recent history,” said Alfonso Chan, a veteran of the 2010 and 2012 races. “Stage 1 crossed two major fields of dunes, including the Merzouga Dunes, which are the tallest in the Moroccan Sahara.”

Gabriella Chan, 15, and her mother, Sharon, made a mistake right off the bat. They left Alfonso Chan in their dust when they started out with enthusiasm, Sharon Chan said.

“We shouldn’t have just taken off and left Alfonso behind,” Sharon Chan said.

Without the patriarch’s guidance, the women got sidetracked, followed a group of Finns, went more than an hour out of their way and reached the first checkpoint long after Alfonso Chan arrived. The enthusiasm had quickly waned.

The women had a rough time traversing dunes, each seeming to go higher and deeper than the last, Sharon Chan said.

“Before you know it you’re in this mountainous bowl and you can’t see where you’re going,” Sharon Chan said. “You’re an ant in a sandbox.”

On a 125-degree, cloudless day the hot, dry wind wicked moisture from their bodies without raising a sheen of perspiration on their skin, Sharon Chan said.

“I knew we were sweating because salt was collecting on our bodies,” Sharon Chan said. “But we never felt the sweat.”

By the time his wife and daughter caught up with him at checkpoint 1, they were overheated and dehydrated, Alfonso Chan said.

Gabriella showed signs of surrender then, prompting her dad “to play a couple of Jedi mind tricks on her to keep her going,” Alfonso Chan said. “I told my daughter ‘Just finish this stage and we’ll go to Versailles.’”

The promise worked, because the palace west of Paris has fascinated Gabriella for years. She got up and started walking again.

By the time the Chans reached the first overnight bivouac a little more than 10 hours after they started, the women knew that completing the 23-mile second leg wasn’t in the cards for them, much less finishing the race, Sharon Chan said.

“Everyone was so excited that Gabriella finished the first stage,” Sharon Chan said. “As we walked away from the finish line she said, ‘You know mom, I miss school.’ We knew right then that we needed to go home.”

True to his word, Alfonso Chan withdrew his family from the race the next morning. There were 20 others who dropped out, but they did it before even reaching the first-leg’s finish line. According to the MDS website, marathondessables.co.uk, one Italian, three Australians, four Japanese and 12 from Britain never made it through the first day. Before the last leg, another 100 runners had dropped out, Alfonso Chan said.

But dropping out didn’t finish the Chans’ adventure. From the bivouac, they crossed the desert in an SUV that got stuck in the sand even though it was a four-by-four. They took a 170-mile taxi ride to Ouarzazate, Morocco, and got stopped twice by police who demanded a fee.

“Upon our arrival, we spent the night at the Berbere Palace, where the cast and crew of Game of Thrones stays when filming,” Alfonso said.

A shower, a Moroccan buffet and overnight rest revived them. Then they drove themselves across the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech, where they caught a flight to Paris, and spent a day at Versailles.

Alfonso Chan estimates the vacation cost more than $10,000 each. But the value far exceeded that, they said.

“Gabriella is very pleased with what she accomplished,” Sharon Chan said. “I am grateful none of us were sore, riddled with blisters, or hurt, and I think that is an accomplishment.”

What’s next for the adventurers?

For Gabriella Chan, there’s a month in England studying at Oxford this summer, her mom said.

An ultramarathon lover, Alfonso Chan plans to tackle the Lakeland 100, in the British lakes district, and the Grand to Grand race around the Grand Canyon in September.

Sharon Chan has different plans.

“On the last night in the bivouac, I dreamed I was in a bed at the Four Seasons,” Sharon Chan said. “Then I woke up and I’m still in the Sahara, lying on a grass mat, choking on dust. Maybe my next big adventure will be at the Four Seasons. I wouldn’t mind that.”

Terry Evans, 817-390-7620

Twitter: @fwstevans

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