The Marathon des Sables opens a new finisher category—dog—after a local canine became the marathon’s unexpected mascot and an internet sensation.
Rabat – His paw prints tracking for hundreds of miles across the Sahara Desert, the local runner slept, drank, raced and was petted during each stage of the world’s longest desert race.
The dog, nicknamed Cactus, found his way to the starting line of the second stage of the 34th Marathon des Sables (MDS)—a week-long, 200-kilometer staged race through some of the world’s most difficult conditions.
Side-by-side with competitors from more than fifty nations, Cactus ran through southern Morocco’s desert heat, winds, sand dunes, rocks, stony plateaus, and valleys. More grueling than the environment of the race were the distances Cactus and other competitors ran.
The fourth stage of the MDS, nicknamed “the long stage,” is 76.3 kilometers in distance—the length of two marathons. While some human runners needed up to 32 hours to complete this stage, Cactus only needed a third of that time. A small sandstorm may have slowed him down, but his four legs crossed the finish line in 11 hours and 15 minutes—placing him 76th in the overall stage results and first in the dog category.
After the big win, Cactus celebrated by wagging off the sand coating his white-and-black fur and running another few kilometers to cool down.
From desert dog to internet sensation
Online coverage of Cactus’ exploits made him the unofficial mascot of the marathon the moment he trotted past the finish line.
The MDS’ first furry-faced Facebook post had more than two thousand likes, 500 comments, and 480 shares. As he kept putting one paw in front of the other, his fame only grew.
The post announcing Cactus’ first-place finish among dogs has more than five thousand likes, 600 comments and a thousand shares on Facebook. His online popularity and engagement dwarfs that of any of the human finishers.
Buried among the abundance of comments was one from Karen Hadfield, the founder and director of Cafe Tissardmine, where Cactus, actually named “Diggedy,” spends his nights in between adventures.
The two first met last year during Hadfield’s annual birthday camping trip. Cactus stumbled upon her tent and decided she needed a guardian—he never left.
Diggedy is named after the dog of famous Australian writer and explorer Robyn Davidson. After spending more than 30 years in Australia, Hadfield was inspired by Davidson’s nearly 3,000-kilometer trek through the Western Australian desert.
In keeping with his namesake, after runners completing the second stage of the marathon passed the village, Diggedy bounded off to keep up.
At first, Hadfield tried keeping up with him, but he had soon left her and the village’s roughly 100 inhabitants behind.
“I was worried when he didn’t come back and a few people online thought I was terrible for letting him go, but he was having fun and he had a job to do,” Hadfield said. “He is a herder. Here in the village, he is always herding other animals, I think when he saw the runners come by he decided this group needed looking after too.”
As Diggedy was given his new nickname, Cactus, and his popularity among the runners and online fans grew, MDS organizers decided he needed some looking after as well.
They made him an official participant of the race by giving the dogged four-legged runner an official bib number “000” and his own personalized tracking device so Hadfield, along with his hundreds of followers, could follow his progress.
Organizers even created his own hashtag, #CactusTheMDSDog.
“I’ve been very proud of him and following him online. My internet connection here isn’t consistent, but I’ve done more social media in the last week than in the last nine years of being here,” Hadfield said. “I’ve been keeping in touch with organizers to make sure he was okay, but I couldn’t bring him back, he was just so inspiring to the runners. I would have been everyone’s worse enemy.”
American runner Jay Batchen, a 13-time finisher of the MDS, couldn’t believe how much of an effect Cactus had at the bivouacs each night.
“The smiles he brought to people’s faces by just walking around was incredible,” Batchen told Morocco World News. “He would walk up to people roll over on his side and ask for a belly rub and everyone loved it—it added a little more happiness to the race.”
A finisher’s homecoming
Cactus’ love for roaming the desert wasn’t a surprise. According to Hadfield, he can sometimes travel up to 40 kilometers while exploring the area around Tissardmine.
“When he does go off for a couple of days, like he just did, I miss him, but I know he’ll always come back,” Hadfield said.
Through communicating with race organizers, Hadfield arranged a pick-up time to finally bring Cactus home—but not until he finished the MDS last stage on Saturday.
While Hadfield will be bringing home his finisher’s medal, she won’t be keeping the nickname.
“It is lovely everyone game him a nickname, but I’m sorry, I can’t go with Cactus. At home he is Diggedy,” Hadfield said, later explaining that cactuses don’t grow in the Sahara Desert and that, in Australia, cactus is a colloquial term used if something goes wrong.
Now, safely at home, Diggedy will be spending the next few days resting. But Hadfield knows he’ll be back exploring the desert soon enough.
Whenever Hadfield or Diggedy goes near the fridge, they’ll see his finisher’s medal hanging next to it. Whether or not another one will be added next year during the 35th MDS is completely up to the dog.
“I won’t volunteer him for the race, but if it so happens that he starts following all the runners again, that is Diggedy’s choice,” Hadfield said. “It is important for him to have that freedom.”