Once a Rafter, Always a Rafter: Iliana Hernandez Runs for Her Life

Once a Rafter, Always a Rafter: Iliana Hernandez Runs for Her Life
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Iliana Hernandez

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, 1 August 2014 - A Cuban balsera, a rafter, has set herself a new challenge. This time it's not about escaping Cuban on a fragile craft, but rather crossing the Sahara desert. Iliana Hernandez will cross 144 miles of sand dunes, luging food, water and a sleeping bag, over seven long days.

The Marathon des Sables will hold its next event from April 3-12, 2015. This intrepid Guantanameran will be the only Cuban put to the test, although before her another compatriot tried it in 2008. To overcome exhaustion and physical pain, Iliana is counting on her will, an impressive physical preparation and the experience of having been a Cuban rafter.

In the midst of her hard training the young woman took a few minutes to share the challenge that awaits her with the readers of 14ymedio.

Question: The Marathon des Sables has a long tradition and is considered one of the toughest races in the world. Can you tell us more about your organization, requirements and concept?

Answer: It started in 1985 and is indeed one of the most demanding races in the world. It constitutes a great challenge for many elite athletes as well as for others who, without possessing excellent physical form, want to prove themselves in a fight where the most important thing is not the legs but the will.

The contest lasts for seven days during which there are six stages. It takes place in the Moroccan Sahara. Each runner must be self-sufficient in terms of their own food and everything they need along the 144 miles. Backpack, sleeping bag and other things for survival become your inseparable allies for one week. The contest is divided into six stages that range from 12 to 48 miles. The terrain is desert with many stones, areas of ancient dry lakes and sand dunes. And if that's not enough, the runners must suffer temperatures that reach 120°F.

Patrick Bauer is the godfather of the event, its creator and director. He crossed the Sahara desert solo 30 years ago. His experience is reflected in an organization that dedicates the funds it raises to the villages located in the vicinity of the race.

Atlantide Organisation Internationale is like a small traveling town with 400 people who spread out to work each day. Fifty physicians supervise and care for runners, two helicopters fly over the route, 120 of the organization's vehicles stay close to the participants, one team is in charge of assembling and dismantling the camp and there is even an incinerator garbage truck following along the competition to ensure that the desert is back to normal after the marathon is over.

Among the inescapable requirements each participant must have are the desire the willingness to perform this challenge, besides the money to pay the fee.

Q: Running along the desert with a backpack in tow requires intense physical training and also requires a strong will. What motivations and thoughts will it evoke when the heat, thirst and exhaustion make you feel your strength is giving out?

A: I'll think about that girl who tried to leave Cuba once via the Guantanamo Naval Base. That was a very hard time and I spent more than three days without water, food, drifting, without doctors. Considering that, I can cross the desert, at least this time I will have water, food and medical attention. I will go back to that time when I craved liberty above all and, substituting the finish line for those dreams, I will be able to reach it.

We Cubans have tremendous willpower, having been born in the country where survival is constant, it is harder to withstand the strategies of 55 year dictatorship than six days in the desert. I will take with me, in my heart, the true desire of all Cubans. Of those of us who fought for the freedom of our country and those who--although fear holds them back--also desire it.

Q: So from rafter to a marathoner! Can you tell me more details of that frustrated escape?

A: It was a lot like the experience of the desert. I left the city of Guantánamo with 16 people, we went with a guide who knew the area. We arrived near the sea and waited for nightfall to launch ourselves into the water. We were a few miles from our final destination which was the Guantanamo Naval Base. We knew we were risking our lives but our dream was stronger than that.

When the sun fell we stripped away everything we had and slipped into the sea to get to the base. Together we headed for the barrier. The waves were high and at one point a very strong wave knocked me over. I banged my head and I thought it was all over, but I managed to come to the surface and see that I was alive.

Some of us decided to go out to see to avoid the dangers of the rocks but it was worse, we were swimming against the current. We spent the whole night swimming, but when we stopped to rest the current took us back to the starting point. It was a losing battle. At dawn, a friend and I made it to shore but it wasn't the base.

I was willing to wait for nightfall to launch ourselves again, but he didn't want to and we decided to go back and try another time. The return was without water or food, barefoot and half naked. We returned under a blazing sun in a semi-desert terrain full of thorns. We spent two days and night, walking, exhausted, resting only when exhaustion wouldn't let us take another step.

We arrive in the vicinity of the town of Guantanamo, and as almost always happens, a snitch gave the alarm and the police arrested us. The first thing we did was ask for water. I was in jail for 37 days.

Fortunately, the penalties for illegal departure weren't as strict then and I was sentenced to three years probation. Seven of us managed to make it, those who continued along the rocks. Some Spanish friends felt sorry for my failed attempts and helped me to leave Cuba. The third time was a charm and I boarded a plane direct to Madrid.

Q: Do you think we should expect the Cuban flag to wave on the podium of the winners of the Marathon des Sables ?

A: I'm training to win and make it to the podium. I am putting all my effort into it, but to reach it it would be ideal to be able to undertake the specific training this competition requires. That is, training on sandy soils, similar to those that will occur in the race. Right now I still don't have sponsorships and I need to pay the fees out of my own pocket. This limits me a lot and I can't travel to specific areas. My great desire now is to train on desert-like sites.

If I resolve my economic situation and I can dedicate myself fully to proper training, I can ensure that the Cuban flag will fly on the Marathon des Sables podium, and I dare say at the top.

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