Eight days. Eight days of navigating the Sahara desert with nothing but a map and a compass. Eight days of enduring blinding sand storms and excruciating heat along the Moroccan-Algerian border. Eight days since leaving the ancient city of Meknes, Morocco.
Carole Montillet of France and Syndiely Wade of Senegal won the 2011 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles, the world's most prestigious all-women's off-road rally, which finished on Saturday. Montillet, 37, was an Olympic gold medalist in alpine skiing (she got downhill gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics). And Wade, 38, who has competed as a Gazelle six times, is the daughter of and counselor to Senegal's president Abdoulaye Wade.
As a team, Montille and Wade traded off as drivers and navigators throughout the race. "It makes it more interesting when you can do both," said Wade, who has also competed in the famous Dakar Rally four times.
Emily Miller made history with a second place finish, becoming the first American to stand on the podium. Only a handful of Americans have competed in the Rally in its 21-year history and none have won. Paired with French co-driver Armelle Medard and driving a stock Hummer H3, this is the third year Miller, who lives in San Diego, has trekked across the Atlantic to get behind the wheel. In 2009 and 2010, she raced with good friend and American ski star Wendy Fisher. The two got progressively better, finishing 21st in 2009 and 12th in 2010. When Fisher was unable to attend in 2011, Miller connected with Medard.
Responsible for the team's navigating, Medard had the kind of experience (she led former teammate Catherine Houles to victory in 2008) that Miller needed to reach the podium. The goal of the Gazelle is not to record the fastest speed, but to cover the shortest distance while hitting mandatory checkpoints.
"Armelle navigated a lot by the sun," said Miller. "When we were in the sand dunes, she would put a piece of tape on the windshield where the sun hit casting a shadow on the dashboard to guide us. These are the kind of things that really made the difference this year."
Miller describes the French-inspired Gazelle Rally as a list of "Nos." No GPS. No support crews. No cell phones. No radio communication. "It is like a moving chess game -- the ultimate 'Amazing Race,'" says Miller. "Think massive scavenger hunt in the Sahara desert meets the problem-solving scene in Apollo 13."
The first four days of the race Miller and Medard sat in third behind Montille and Wade and a team consisting of Jeanette James of Great Britain and Anne Marie Borge of France.
For Miller, who won the stock mini-class at both the Baja 1000 and the Vegas to Reno Rally in 2009, driving an ordinary consumer vehicle created limitations. "It would have cost about $10,000 to ship over my own truck, so we picked up a Hummer H3 in Paris right before the race," said Emily. "It was a bone stock truck, the kind I would use to go to the grocery store. We knew we were going to have to be really smart with the truck and not break anything."
This meant driving more cautiously through the dunes, terrain where Miller typically excels and makes up time. It wasn't until James and Borge rolled their truck in the Erg Chebbi Dunes that Miller and Medard moved into second, a place they held until the race ended in Foum-Zguid in southern Morocco.
Overall, the 2011 event attracted 110 teams from all over world including one former Miss Belguim (Tatiana Silva) and two former Miss Frances (Valérie Bègue and Cindy Fabre). While most teams hailed from France, the rest of the roster was filled with participants from Senegal, Slovakia, Morocco, Canada, Republic of Congo, Angola, Nigeria, Portugal, Great Britain, Gabon, Cameroon and Germany.
In addition to Miller, there was one other American team on the roster, sisters Amy Lerner and Tricia Reina from California. Competing in their first event, the team trained under Miller and her racing mentor Rod Hall before departing for Morocco. They went on to finish 52nd.
So will Miller return to Morocco to try for the win in 2012? "Well," she says, "no one usually remembers who was second, so I guess next year I will have to come back, but with my own truck."