All photos courtesy of Emily Miller

What better way to start off the New Year than to have a chat with a woman, with possibly the greatest sense of what it means to be fit, about a race that is likely the most motivational challenge I’ve ever heard of? Emily Miller, a native Coloradoan, is about to compete in the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles for the fourth time. It’s a nine-day race that’s been around for twenty-one years, completely off-road, through southern Morocco, across the Sahara Desert. No GPS or support crews are allowed, just the driver, navigator, a compass, a ruler and a few outdated maps. Oh, yeah. It’s all women, too.

Emily used to be a trainer for athletes, until one day she was asked to be a race car driver for General Motors. While racing for the team, she was told about international races and she got the bug for these cross-culture adventures.  A family member who lived in Africa told Emily about the rally. With the combination of the all-women aspect, the Heart of Gazelles caravan (I’ll get to that in a minute) and the fact that the race is for navigational accuracy as opposed to speed, Emily knew that this was what she needed for her first taste of international experience. Now all she needed was a navigator, a woman who was up for anything. She talked to Wendy Fisher, a skier from Crested Butte, who is always up for anything. Team Miller Fisher was ready.

The team wasted no time in beginning training. Emily trained with the Coast Guard and did map and compass training through REI. Emily also had to practice driving in sand dunes.

“Driving in sand like skiing or snowboarding,” says Emily. “You pick up a line and find an edge. Instead of a three-minute ride, though, you stick to it for hour after hour.”

Both women were very much in shape, what with Wendy being a pro skier and Emily being a trainer as well as a self-proclaimed fanatical mountain biker, but they also did a lot of cardio for stamina, weight and core training, as well as Pilates and yoga. The team found that the level of flexibility achieved through yoga is crucial in being efficient physically, while the quietness of the mind helps mentally and spiritually.

Throughout the rally, you don’t get help from a support crew while you’re driving.

“When you drive through sand,” Emily says with a laugh, “you get stuck.”

You and your teammate are the only support you’ve got, so any physical work that needs to be taken care of is done by, that’s right, you and your teammate. Not only would this take its toll physically, but mentally as well.

“In yoga, it’s hard to let your mind wander. In the race, you have to have that mental stamina. Don’t let your mind wander, don’t think about other things. Be present and focused. One bad decision can be super costly.”

And there is plenty of potential for bad decisions. The Gazelles wake up every morning at four and drive over all types of terrain. Sometimes the driving is really fast and other times really slow. There’s constant map-reading and calculations, plus the fifty checkpoints, where points are rewarded or deducted, if forbidden help was solicited.

“If you get lost, you’re in real trouble because you don’t know how to be found,” says Emily.

There is hope, however, in other teams. That seems unlikely in a competition, after however many seasons of The Amazing Race with teams backstabbing each other left and right, but these women will support each other. Emily learned how to siphon fuel into her CamelBak from another team in exchange for digging out their vehicle. The teams resort to ye olde payment plan of bartering. When the main goal is survival, our primal instincts will kick in, thus allowing the Gazelles to solve a problem without the help of the technology we’ve grown so used to today.

“People have become so dependent on their iPhones that they don’t look around anymore.”

The race is built on this basic principle of survival, to stop depending on everything but your own gut instincts and your own strength. Wendy ran miles in deep sand to the tops of dunes to confirm directions so that the team didn’t add unnecessary kilometers to their vehicle. Because of the strenuous physical aspect to the rally, it was very important for the team to stay hydrated and keep up with their vitamins and supplements.

“There are days where you’re only getting two hours of sleep,” says Emily, “and your brain crashes. When you’re trying to find your last checkpoint of the day, you can’t bonk. Wendy did on her first race. She bonked so hard, she didn’t know where she was on the planet.”

While the teams make their way across the desert, the Heart of Gazelles caravan follows in their dusty wake. The caravan provides assistance to the locals, be it in the form of medical help, digging wells or working toward education.

“Sometimes you’ll be driving,” remembers Emily, “and a nomad comes out of nowhere. He’s been watching you, driving across the desert for an hour, and he’ll come intercept you. He doesn’t ask for money, he asks for water and a pencil, because that means an education, an end of poverty.”

It’s become a much respected rally, especially as it’s the only sporting event with a global distinction for environmental commitment. Not too shabby, for an automotive event.

Come March, Emily will set off with teams of the eleven to fourteen other countries represented, as well as four other American teams for their nine-day journey. Should she win in her class while driving for Volkswagen, the company promises to donate ten thousand Euros to the charity of her choice. Emily has already decided (knock on wood) on giving half to Heart of Gazelles and half to Kiva, which specializes in microloans. Emily chooses to work with women’s businesses.

“The physical, mental and spiritual endurance, the amazing exotic landscape,” Emily sighs, “and the people of Morocco are so special. It’s almost like I’ve become addicted to this race.”

How will you start the year, Denver? If you want to get involved, click here.