By Carmen Madrid
As in an airplane cockpit, each team of Gazelles is made up of a pilot and a navigator. Unlike the friendly skies, these teams don't have the luxury of modern technology to get them out of a jam. Saturday's Leg Three required skilled map reading to cross a vast plateau with no recognizable landmarks. The only sign of life, other than the 220 competitors, were a few native dromedaries.
Day Three of the 2011 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles again started with the now familiar four o'clock wake-up. Despite the early hour of departure, many of the women recognized Malika Ménard, Miss France 2010, who waved the flag for the start of the rally's third leg.
The rally has become something of a rite of passage for winners of the Miss France pageant. Cindy Fabre and Valérie Bègue (Team 149) were Miss France title holders in 2005 and 2008, respectively.
When asked if she too would become a Gazelle, Ménard said, "I don't know if I would be able to do what they are doing, but never say never!"
And just what is it "they are doing"? Competing in the 21st edition of the all-women off-road rally across Morocco. Saturday was Day Three of this nine-day test of strategy and stamina.
The day's route was a big 201-kilometer loop (125 miles) from the bivouac in Neijakh and back. It took the competitors through mountainous twists and turns that required leaving speed behind to avoid serious damage to vehicles.
While a dozen teams decided to end their day after CP4, many continued on. Twelve of the women in the rally, though, spent the night away from the comfort of the bivouac, but under a lovely canopy of stars.
Team 182, among the Gazelles who camped out Friday night after Leg Two, almost made it two nights in a row out in the desert. They miscalculated and were nearly at the Algerian border when they realized their mistake and turned around. Whew!
Day Three was pure navigation and a whole lot of meticulously thought-out strategy.
Keeping her eye glued to the compass, Team 109's navigator, Armelle Medard of France, was on task. A former Gazelle Rally winner, Medard kept her teammate and pilot American Emily Miller on track. Negotiating their Hummer H3 expertly over the rocky terrain, the champion off-road driver must have felt like it was just another day at the office. A top member of the Rod Hall Racing Team, Miller is well-prepared to handle the rigors of the Sahara Desert.
After nailing each of the seven checkpoints, the U.S.-French partners were confident of their day's results. When the organizers abruptly cancelled the final checkpoint, CP7, the team was concerned. (More on this decision later.)
"Our strategy was to hit every CP and take a few extra kilometers because of it," Miller says. "The race is a strategy race, and we planned our leg for seven checkpoints."
It's too bad the officials didn't make the decision before the Gazelles left the start line in the morning. Despite this glitch in the plan, Miller and Medard still hold a comfortable third place in the overall rankings.
The only other Americans in the competition, Team 107, are doing an admirable job of keeping pace not only with their fellow rookies in the First Time Participation category, but with the seasoned Gazelles as well. At the end of Day Three, the team of Amy Lerner and Tricia Reina sat solidly in 12th place in their division.
"The features were similar to the southwest of the U.S., which made the terrain easier to navigate," says Reina.
After hitting all seven checkpoints, too, Team Lerner Reina jumped eight points in the rankings up to 30th place overall. And they did it while still able to stop and help others along the way (and despite needing a hand once themselves). It was another great day for Lerner, a mom from New Jersey, and her design business owner sister from San Diego.
Way to go, gals!
The finish for Day Three was similar to Day Two: Team 124 (Caroline Montillet of France and Syndiely Wade of Senegal) in first place; Team 129 (Jeanette James of Great Britain and Anne Marie Borg of France) coming in second, with Team Miller Medard, #109, following third. The number of points separating the three leading teams is not enough to say anyone is pulling ahead.
As the women of this one-of-a-kind Moroccan adventure set their sites on the mesmerizing sand cathedrals of Erg Chebbi with peaked dunes up to 500 feet high, Day Four could bring drastic changes to the standings.