By Carmen Madrid
The final marathon of the 21st edition of the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles took the 220 female participants through what is probably the most difficult leg of this year's often grueling contest.
It was challenging enough for the team's navigators, who had few landmarks to work with and paths blocked by mounds of sand. The Gazelles had limited ways around these mogul-like heaps of desert dirt. It was a dance of twisting, turning vehicles maneuvering around the bends of the Draa Oued--a once-dynamic source of flowing water, now a dry riverbed. The old waterless waterway, still presented a menace to the 110 teams trying to complete the nine-day rally.
Although the dunes in the Draa Oued only hit heights of two or three meters, they are situated so close together over a long distance, it is as if the sand creates waves. The drivers of each team had to ride the crest of the dunes to keep from getting stuck in between the knolls. Over them was the quickest way, and for this leg, time was the key--not distance.
The only greater impediment would have been a sandstorm... So, of course, that's what the Gazelles woke up to the first morning of this second marathon leg. The sand pelted the teams as they packed tents and readied themselves to face the final kilometers of the 2011 rally. Ski masks and cheichs were the order of the day.
Undaunted by hurtling sand, these adventurous lasses headed for the Chegaga Dunes.
After spending their last night under the stars, away from the luxuries of the bivouac, the Gazelles woke to finish what was left of the 241 kilometers (about 150 miles) of their last two-day marathon.
It looks like American Emily Miller and her French teammate Armelle Medard (pictured on previous page) will podium at the closing ceremonies in Essaouira. They never faltered from their top-three ranking from the outset. After arriving back at the bivouac on the last day of competition, the only U.S.-French team among this year's Gazelles has secured a second-place finish. Bravo, Team 109!
The other Americans, Amy Lerner and Tricia Reina of Team 107, made a great rookie showing, placing 12th in the First-Time Participation category after just two days into the competition. The two sisters from New Jersey and California certainly epitomized the Gazelle Spirit. Plagued by vehicle difficulties, even illness, Team 107 never quit. They never even slowed down--except to grab their shovels and help dig out fellow Gazelles.
When their Hummer H3 fell on hard times with the loss of both traction control and the use of four-wheel-drive low, these two determined participants looked for workarounds. Even a non-working ABS braking system didn't deter these two Long Island natives.
Before heading to Morocco last month, Reina set a goal to "hit as many checkpoints each day." She and her sister also wanted to have fun. Objectives met. Team 107 ended up in 55th place in the overall rankings.
After the Gazelles returned to the bivouac and crossed the finish line in Foum-Zguid, the celebration began. The wine flowed freely, as African music filled the air. Fireworks exploded across the sky, competing with the brightness of the Moroccan starscape.
For the organizers and tireless staff, a collective sigh of relief for another successful rally. For the Gazelles, a bit of melancholy as the intensity of the past days winds down, and they return to the realities of everyday life.
The official finish and closing ceremonies in Essaouira will cement the conclusion of this awesome event, but the camaraderie of the competition and the friendships formed during the sand-blown, heat-infused days in the Sahara will go on. Perhaps for some, they'll pick up where they left off next year. Will Team Lerner Reina be among them? Who knows?
I have no doubt, though, that Rod Hall champion driver Emily Miller will be back.
For now, on to the party... and then the final drive to Essaouira!