Mauro’s Story – How to thrive when your mind is stuck in the desert

Photo by Wilson Szeto on Unsplash

The Story of Mauro Prosperi, the policeman from Sicily

Mauro opened the door to the old building, which seemed very out of place in the huge desert he had already been lost in for almost four days. He was severely dehydrated and had already started drinking his own urine at that stage. His survival had depended on it. 

As he stepped into the darkness, he realised that the air was quite a bit cooler than the pressing heat outside. The immediate bit of relief was refreshing. As the light streamed in and his eyes became accustomed to the contrasting darkness he noticed the grave in the middle of the building.

He had stumbled into a marabout (the burial shrine of an Islamic holy man).

The irony of him having wandered into a house for the dead in the middle of a desert wasn’t lost on him.

He made himself as comfortable as he could under the circumstances. This did, after all, feel a bit like a home for the moment, seeing as it had walls and a roof. 

He climbed up to the tower to hang the flag he had kept for the finish line, a hopeful sign to remind any search parties that the lost Italian runner had moved into the area.

Suddenly he noticed noises in the roof above him. Perched in a colony in the ceiling were dozens of bats, which explained the smell he had earlier attributed to rats. He had, for the meantime, solved the problem of food and hydration. Some animals gain their food and water from other animals because they eat them raw. Mauro was able to also capitalise on this dual purpose that the uncooked insides of the bats offered him.

On his third day at the Marabout he heard the noise of a motorised propeller. He ran outside and saw the small plane overhead and realised he would need to build a fire if he had any chance of revealing his whereabouts.

He quickly dug a pit and set alight the only flammable items he had: his sleeping bag, backpack and fleece shirt. 

As if the desert had a sick sense of humour, it brought forth another massive sandstorm just as the smoke started rising from the polyester fire. The last sandstorm had been the one that got him lost on day four of his race, nearly seven days ago.

The aeroplane continued on its path undeterred by the signal smoke fading in the storm.

Mauro cowered back into the marabout through the pounding sand. In a final feeling of deep desperation, caught in the realisation that he had just burnt up all his warm kit whilst watching his last hope fly away, he decided to speed up the inevitable. After all, he wanted to avoid the fear of suffering, which he believed to be much stronger than the fear of dying.

He picked up a piece of charcoal and scratched a parting message on the wall, asking forgiveness of his wife for coming on the trip she never consented to. He tossed his writing instrument to the side, took out his pocket knife, cut into the veins on his wrist and slowly went to sleep.

A trailer for the 30th Marathon des Sables, which was held in 2015 (From MDS channel on YouTube)

The 1994 Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands)

Mauro Prosperi was a former Olympic Pentathlete who never shied away from a challenge. When he was invited by his friend, Giovanni Manzo, to join him on a six-day, 155 mile foot race through the Sahara desert, he hardly hesitated.

The race would take place in one of the hottest and most desolate places known to man and was considered arguably the toughest footrace on the planet. The indemnity form included a section where entrants had to indicate what race organisers should do with their body ‘should they not make it’. This enticed Prosperi even more.

Four days into the race Mauro got caught in a terrible sandstorm. He was placed in 4th position at that stage, which made him determined to fight through the wind and sand.

After venturing through the pounding storm for some time, he realised it was in vain and decided to find some shelter. After all, the threat of the small dunes swallowing him up as they shifted with the wind became all too real. 

The storm lasted for nearly eight hours.

When he woke up to the sun shining on his face, he also awoke to a landscape which had changed completely in the strong storm. The landmarks which had previously gave him direction were gone and replaced with new ones.

He started running again in which he believed was the right direction, all the while believing he would catch up to the walkers and other back markers at any time.

After several hours and no sign of other runners he realised he was lost. He began to walk, as there was no further use of running.

“I had crows following me for some time. They thought I was going to die. They were waiting for it. I was slowly getting weaker, I could feel it. My willpower was the only thing that gave me the strength not to succumb.

Mauro Prosperi

Day 1 became the first night of being lost. And then day 2 and the second night. He had started preparing himself for what would be an unknown amount of time alone in the desert: he was rationing his food and peed into his bottle. The earlier he peed the better, as the urine later turns dark and totally undrinkable when dehydration becomes severe.

He also forced race organisers to equip future runners with heavier, more effective flares in following races, as the small lipstick-sized one he carried was useless in signalling the rescue helicopter that was sent out to find him on day 2 of being lost. It seemed he would remain lost.

On day 4, he stumbled onto the marabout…

The situation was very serious because four days had passed and we were getting closer to that fateful fifth day. In the desert, that’s enough for a person to be considered dead. So they started talking about stopping the search [for Mauro].”

Giovanni Manzi (Mauro’s friend and MDS 1994 race partner)

We all get lost

Everyone has problems. Sometimes they are small and slightly uncomfortable, like a flat tyre. Other times they are much more severe and derail our whole mental and emotional capacity, like a divorce, losing your job or the death of a loved one.

My current philosophy is not to venture into creating too much Covid-content, purely because I’m trying to not think about it too much anymore. But the fact is that this article is being created exactly two months after we were locked in in South Africa, which means the mental fatigue is real.

A lot of people across the globe are really deep in trouble physically and financially. And even worse is the trouble it is causing to us all mentally. It’s really tough. For those without work it’s an uncertainty over where next month’s money will come from.

If you have a loved one that is sick, it’s the uncertainty over whether you might see them again or if their health will return to normal. 

Ironically enough, this time is also forcing families to spend an incredible amount of time together, which might be pushing a lot of unsurfaced relational issues to the top. This is especially stressful for families where dad is at work most of the time, or where dropping kids at school is a great escape for mom. Now both parents are forced to school them every day. This is great if your family is in a healthy state, but for a lot of people it’s just scratching open deep scars.

Even if you aren’t reading this under lockdown circumstances, you know that you go through your own personal deserts sometimes. I can really hit them hard when I choose to venture to the darker side of my mind and start blaming my circumstances for my problems.

The fact is that when we get lost in our troubles, it is also our own responsibility to find a way out without having to choose the most drastic option. We have to work very hard to find the smallest areas of light that help us keep moving forward. We just might find salvation in the strangest places.

There is always salvation after the storm; if we choose it

Well, maybe it’s not my time yet…”

Mauro Prosperi

The next morning Mauro opened his eyes as if waking up from a normal night’s sleep. He looked to his wrists and saw that the wound had clotted. He had survived and his dehydration had saved him, making his blood too thick to flow from the cut.

He immediately seized his fortunes as a second chance. From then on he refused desperation and knew he would survive, there was just no other option anymore.

He packed what he still had and started walking again. He knew that moving was akin to surviving and perhaps even thriving. For the next couple of days he became a desert dweller, finding snakes, mice, lizards and desert plants to eat.

It was in this time where the desert became a source of inspiration that would always inspire him for the rest of his life. When he chose survival, the desert allowed him to thrive.

His resilience paid off when, on day 8 of being lost, he arrived at a small oasis. He slowly drank as much water as he needed while resting for the day.

Noticing the footprints of goats leading away from the oasis, he realised that they would only have been led there by people, so he started following the tracks.

On day 10 he was found. A girl wandering through the desert ran away frightened when he waved at her, leading him to a tent occupied by some women. They nursed him with shade, water and food and contacted a military base nearby for further help.

A couple of days later, back in Sicily, his wife received a phone call from an Algerian military hospital. ‘Did you already have my funeral?’ was the best greeting Mauro could muster under the circumstances. Fortunately for him she had believed in his resilience as much as he did.

Mauro has what I call ‘insane sanity’. Some call it resilience, but resiliency is getting knocked down but getting back up. But with insanity, when you get knocked down, you never land. Mauro never hits the ground.”

Cinzia Pagliari (Mauro’s ex-wife)
The desert that Mauro Prosperi had to survive in for 10 days – Photo by Andrzej Kryszpiniuk on Unsplash

We can go off-course and still make it

Mauro Prosperi was finally found 180 miles (290km) off course in Algeria, Morocco’s neighbour to the south-east. He had wandered and survived beyond the beliefs of most people and, even though he had lost 16kg and took two years to recover, he returned to compete in the same race four years later.

People have an incredible strength of will. We are made to fight for survival and to get out on the other side of a challenge with the power to thrive. All we need is the ability to switch our thinking to focus on how we are going to make it, rather than to allow our mind to only see the realities of our struggles.

We have everything we need. We live in a time where opportunity surpasses our obstacles. Reframe whatever problem you have and find something to either get over it, or change your focus to something completely new. Mauro Prosperi had to suck it up and do things he would never do in periods of comfort. His survival depended on trying new things.

This is as good a time as any to face up to the dark corners of your mind and to shift your focus to things that will, once the tough times are behind you for a while, make you strong enough to flourish when trouble strikes again.

Find a vision that pulls your mind into a better picture of your future, start planning the actions you need to do to get you there and then start doing them.

What struck me was [Mauro’s] positive attitude and the fact that he did everything with enthusiasm. It seemed everything was possible with him.

Cinzia Pagliari
The Revenant: I shouldn’t be alive featuring Mauro Prosperi (20th Century Studios – From YouTube)

Putting it together:

Think of how you can apply this to your own life:

  • You have to think better…of your circumstances and of yourself. This is always the toughest area as everything around us is out to get into our heads. Turn off the news feeds, unfollow the hashtags that remind you we are in crisis and give yourself some mental breaks. Find other sources of information that inspires you, whatever it is.
  • Restart your brain: Get some music that pumps you up on your player and go for a run or long walk. Take a cold shower when you get back and give yourself some really good quiet or meditation time in the mornings so you can reset your thought patterns.
  • Find something great to focus on: Get a project that excites you, such as a new business, a superior fitness level, a new skill you need to master or a field you want more knowledge on. I know this sounds like a cliche, but it really works.
  • Map your growth: Write down the activities that will collectively make the above a success. Write down what and where you will learn, implement or practice and what the best times are to do it. Use mental scripting, habit stacking or other behavioural tools to lay out a plan of action.
  • Start doing: Dive in and do what needs to be done. Start very small and pick it up as you get better. Progress is the best motivator, so try and keep track of everything you do as a scorecard. Link every action to the purpose of your plan – that which you want to get better at or achieve so you build a burning passion to complete every task you set yourself.
  • Take a break: You have to rest as well. Don’t mind doing nothing for a day, as long as you plan for it. Use it as a reward for achieving some of the above action goals on your scorecard. Your mind is fragile, so you have to be kind to it for it to be kind to you.

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