How We Won One Of The World's Toughest Rally Races

THE WORDS ECHO in my memory, cutting through the quiet darkness of 4 a.m. like a French-accented razor blade: "Bonjour, Gazelles! Il est quatre heures!"

"Hello, Gazelles! It is 4 a.m.!"

For nine days in April, the voice of Rallye Aicha des Gazelles founder Dominique Serra was the alarm that started my day. Each morning, her gravelly singsong woke the rally's 300-plus competitors as we clawed and clung to one more minute of sleep.

Three, four, maybe five hours of sleep never felt like enough as I unzipped from my sleeping bag, pulled a wool beanie over my hair and switched on the headlamp hanging from the roof of the tiny red tent I shared with my teammate, Chrissie Beavis.

Every morning in Morocco was identical, yet each lives vibrantly independent in my mind. I was exhausted, but filled with anticipation for the day ahead. "Just get vertical," I would say to myself. "Once you're up, it's on."

THE GAZELLE RALLY, a nine-day, all-women, off-road rally across the Sahara Desert, celebrated its 25th anniversary this year and, thanks to Chrissie, I had the incredible opportunity to participate not as a journalist, but as a competitor. Since first learning of the Gazelle four years ago, I've been intrigued by its unique format and claim to be the toughest all-women sporting event in the world.

I followed closely when Chrissie competed with professional surfer Bethany Hamilton in 2013 and became determined to make my way to Morocco to cover the event one day. Then, in November, Chrissie called and asked what I was doing in April. "I'm writing a proposal to compete next year," she said. "Do you want to be my driver?"

Of course, I said yes.

And for good reason. In her day-to-day, Chrissie is an architect, architectural fabricator and inventor. On the weekends, she is one of the most respected women in rally racing. She won an X Games gold medal co-driving for Tanner Foust, is Travis Pastrana's current navigator in the Rally America series and recently won day two of the Prescott Rally in the California Rally Series from the driver's seat.

In the Gazelle Rally, which is more navigation and driving competition than race, a great navigator like Chrissie is a team's key to success. So Chrissie's invitation was like Serena Williams calling to ask if I wanted to play doubles with her at the Rio Olympics. You don't turn down an invitation like that, especially when it comes from a like-minded friend with whom you know you'll have a heck of a lot of fun.

On a personal level, I was thrilled by the opportunity to step outside of my sphere of experience and compete beyond my comfort zone. When I heard that cell phones, computers and any devices capable of conjuring GPS coordinates are not permitted during the rally -- organizers confiscate them at the start and return them, nine days later, at the finish -- I was excited to have such a valid excuse to disconnect. "Sorry I didn't answer your call. I was racing a Sprinter van through the Sahara Desert."

The format of the race is as beautifully simplistic as it is mind-numbingly tough: Teams of two (a navigator and a driver) navigate through a series of checkpoints spread across hundreds of miles of brutal off-road desert terrain, using only topographic maps of southern Morocco drawn in the 1950s, a compass, a minute ruler and a course plotter -- foreign pieces of plastic to most of us in the age of GPS and Waze.

The team that drives the shortest distance and accrues the fewest penalty points over nine days (and about 60 checkpoints) wins. Penalties are assessed for missed checkpoints, following another team, asking for outside help or requiring mechanical assistance.

When teams get into mechanical trouble, flat a tire, or find themselves stuck in the sand or lost, they are permitted to ask for help from other competitors but are assessed penalty points for seeking help from locals, members of the media or race organizers. "Only Gazelles may help Gazelles," Serra said. And they do. She calls this openness and generosity "the Gazelle spirit." It was a term I would hear and an act I would experience over and over throughout the rally.

The more I learned about the Gazelle, the more I believed this was an event that not only fit my personality, but one for which I was prepared to compete. The days are long and teammates spend nearly 24 hours together, so a collaborative spirit, great communication skills, a good sense of humor, an ability to trust your gut and the knack to perform well in stressful situations with little to no sleep are keys to doing well in the Gazelle. That list reads a lot like the requirements for successfully covering the Olympics as a journalist.

But first, I needed to train. In the months leading up to the rally, Chrissie and I participated in the required navigation and off-road courses. I practiced using a compass in any free time I had, and used the maps and checkpoint coordinates from previous years to plot points on the maps. I felt like I was fit enough physically, but I knew there would be a lot of running and digging, so I moved my runs to the beach near my home, and added more pull-ups to my regular workout regimen. Because I knew the Gazelle would be more grueling mentally than physically, I upped my meditation minutes. And I spent more time packing, unpacking and repacking than I had for any other trip in my life.

To be worthy of being Chrissie's teammate, I had to be good. But the first time I climbed behind the wheel of the vehicle I would drive -- a 4x4 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van -- I felt completely uncomfortable. If you've ever taken a shuttle from the Denver airport, you know the type of vehicle I'm talking about. Not exactly the image I conjured when Chrissie asked if I wanted to rally through the Sahara.

That first day, as I practiced in the desert outside of San Diego, in an area that closely mimics the terrain we would see in Morocco, the van felt too tall, too long, and my feet too far from the pedals. I thought I would cause it to roll by driving over the smallest rock or bush. I had no idea how to keep it afloat in the sand, what tire pressure was best for each condition or how on earth to navigate the sand dunes.

But I practiced. No matter how nearly impossible a situation felt or how steep a descent appeared to my novice brain, I shut my mouth, listened to my instructors and drove, to varying degrees of success. I had three days to become as good as I could before Chrissie and I flew to Germany to meet our Mercedes-Benz teammates and mechanics and pick up the van we would eventually race in Morocco. I took advantage of every moment and hoped it would translate in the rally.

I DIDN'T KNOW the word oued before I learned to hate it. It's an Arabic word, pronounced "wed," and loosely translates as "riverbed." Oueds are typically littered with rocks, small dunes and vegetation -- and are slow-moving mazes from hell that race organizers make sure to place in competitors' paths multiple times per day. They are both a driving and a navigation nightmare.

On day one, Chrissie and I encountered a oued with particularly steep, rocky walls. Driving down into or climbing out of it looked impossible for the Sprinter. So Chrissie deftly navigated us around. And then we noticed a few teams crawling their way down into and through and out. Slowly, our perception of possible began to shift.

On day two, the competition stretched over 220 endless, incredibly slow kilometers. That day, we encountered sand, silt, marble-sized rocks, cabbage-sized rocks, razor-like rock fields and new growth brought about by an unusual amount of rainfall. Multiple times per day, we stopped the van to run the course on foot and find a pathway through a oued or around a cliff. On a typical day, Chrissie might run three to five miles or more; I might run half of that.

When we finally dropped down the backside of a hill and spotted the seventh and final checkpoint, Chrissie and I were ecstatic. We'd finished second in our class the day before to German teammates Andrea Spielvogel and Julia Salamon and we believed we outperformed day one. Then, shortly after sundown and less than an hour from the bivouac -- a traveling tent city that served as our final checkpoint each night -- I bent a rim crossing a oued and we listened as our front right tire went flat.

When we realized our jack was too tall to fit under the frame, a 10-minute fix became an hour-long ordeal. Andrea and Julia were the first to drive by and they stopped to help. A second team stopped to provide us with light. All in all, three teams stopped to lend a hand or a jack and an hour later, we were back on the road. It was a frustrating end to the day, but that hour provided an incredible window into the spirit of the rally.

Although I wasn't in Morocco as a journalist, I couldn't help but observe as one. Over and over, the assistance rule provided my favorite twist to the game. I watched teams sacrifice kilometers in order to tow a competitor out of a river crossing and stop for an hour or more to help another team dig, change a flat, fix a broken steering component or point out where they were on the map. Each night, no matter how tired she was or how much work we had to do, Chrissie spent time with anyone who asked for navigation help. She was an incredible driving instructor to me. I was proud of how well we were competing, but those were the moments when I was most proud to be her teammate.

There is arguably more at play in these situations than simple altruism, but I don't believe the why to be nearly as important as the assistance itself. Help another team, and that team will likely return the favor. Pass up an opportunity to help, and your reputation might come back to bite you in your broken rear axle the next day. If Chrissie and I saw another team in need, it was never a debate. Spend the kilometers driving to help them and then push ourselves to make up the lost distance somewhere else.

The women we met in Morocco were collaborative and supportive, resilient and creative, tough and brave. I could write a story about every team I met, and I will make sure they all remain in my life. Rhonda Cahill and Rachelle Croft, dubbed the "Moms from Minnesota," are best friends who race together under the team name X Elles. They are beautiful and funny and hard-ass competitors. Last year, they raced to raise awareness for an organization called Voice Today and their "one-in-four" campaign.

"One in four women and one in six men is a victim of sexual abuse by their 18th birthday," Rhonda told me. Both Rhonda and Rachelle are one-in-four, a fact they discovered about each other less than a month into their friendship. They say the rally helped them to find their voices and empower other women to do the same. This year, they raced under a new hashtag campaign: #youareloved. "The rally is so hard and toward the end, everyone is tired and broken down," Rachelle said. "We thought that women would see our truck and those words and it would bring a smile and encouragement to them, just like they are doing for us."

Sara Price, a 22-year-old motocross racer and X Games medalist from San Diego, competed with her friend Erica Sacks, the first U.S. competitors to enter the Gazelle in a side-by-side quad. (Picture a tough-looking off-road golf cart and you'll get the idea of what they were racing.) On day one, they were unable to participate in the prologue because a snowstorm in the Atlas Mountains held up the arrival of their quad. They missed the refueling checkpoint on day two, ran out of gas and slept in the desert, scared and alone. On day three, Price's tent and sleeping bag flew off the quad unnoticed until that evening. Murphy and his law ruled their rally. But every day when we saw those girls, they were smiling. And in the end, they finished as the top first-time competitors in their class.

Our biggest competitors -- Andrea and Julia of team 316 -- also became our closest friends. They challenged us to be better every day while making us laugh until our abs hurt. On day eight, in the midst of three particularly grueling hours of driving and hiking and towing and digging our way through sand dunes the size of city buildings, Andrea walked toward me with a smile on her face as wide as the largest dune. "Isn't this the best adventure?" she asked, her face covered in sweat and sand. I couldn't help but match her smile. "The best adventure," I said.

AT THE START of the final day, Chrissie and I led our class by 52 kilometers over Andrea and Julia, who were sitting safely in second place. Provided we hit all of our checkpoints, we would be the first U.S. team to win the Gazelle. We had enough of a cushion that we could have taken it easy. But this was our final chance to drive a Sprinter van up and over and through the Sahara Desert. The next day, we would return to the roads.

So we pushed that van to its limits and ground out our last day. At checkpoint three, we stopped to rest and eat lunch with Andrea and Julia and enjoy our final moments together as competitors.

Four checkpoints later, as we approached the bivouac, we noticed their van parked 20 meters before the finish line.

"What are you doing?" we asked as we pulled up beside them.

"We're waiting. We wanted to cross the finish together," Andrea said. "With you."

Gazelle spirit.

The words echo in my memory.