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The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles: Women making trails through the Sahara Desert

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No, they can’t use GPS. Here’s what it’s like to train for the grueling race.

The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles, the largest all-female motorsport competition on the planet, is tough stuff. The nine-day route across southern Morocco’s most demanding deserts and mountains prohibits the use of GPS, cell phones, or support crews. The two-person teams—a driver and navigator—are allowed only four navigation tools: outdated maps, a compass, a ruler, and a plotter.

“I didn’t want to do this rally because of those bloody maps that have symbols in French. In the past I’ve always had navigational systems,” says Sue Mead, an automotive journalist and award-winning off-road racer.

Mead was first approached to do the rally about six years ago, when Emily Miller took second place overall in the rally in 2011 and became mentor for the U.S. Gazelles.

No newcomer to the sport, Mead already has legs on desert racing. She won for her vehicle class in the 2011 Dakar Rally, competed in the Baja 1000 six times, and was co-driver on the amended Paris-Dakar Rally in 2000 when she and other team members were airlifted out of Niger to Libya due to terrorists.

This year Mead says the timing was right to join the Gazelles. When Mercedes-Benz asked her to drive their all-new Sprinter 4×4 and signed on with Miller as her team coach, Mead says she knew she was ready to tackle the Sahara desert.

The rally, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, was created in 1990 by French entrepreneur Dominique Serra, in response to the traditionally male-dominated world of motorsports.

The first race had nine women’s teams; this year’s competition is scheduled to have 371 women from more than 20 countries. The women range from royalty to professional athletes, celebrities, lawyers, doctors, and mom and daughter teams, to outdoor enthusiasts.

For this year’s rally, Miller has trained 32 women from the US and Canada. “We have 10 teams from the U.S. this year, the greatest number ever,” she notes.

Miller, a self-described adventure junkie, has numerous racing finishes and wins including winning the 2009 Baja 1000. She also became the first woman to “ironman” the longest off-road race in the U.S. in 2008, taking third place. She went on to win the 2009 1000-mile three-day edition as a solo “ironman” racer.

Two years ago, Miller coached Bethany Hamilton, the world-famous pro surfer, who severed her left arm in a shark attack off the coast of Kauai in 2003 at the age of 13. Hamilton, who has tackled everything from taking top placements in surfing championships to writing several books (her autobiography, Soul Surfer, was made into a movie), competed in the 2013 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles.

Hamilton joined up with navigator and architect Chrissie Beavis, and trained with Miller. Out of 127 teams in their category, the duo came in at 8th place, a rare achievement for a team competing in their first event. “To be honest the thought of doing an off road rally race had never occurred to me, until a friend approached me to race in the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles in Morocco,” Hamilton tells Fortune. She recalls the crazy adventure, “I’ll always remember waking up freezing at about 4 in the morning and packing our camping gear up, loading it in our truck for a long day in the beautiful Morocco desert, being immersed in gigantic sand dunes and trying to navigate our way to the next red flag.”

You can understand how Miller can coach a team to winning when you see her in action.

I recently attended a navigating session via Skype with Miller, Mead, and her teammate Shennen Marschner, Mercedes regional commercial vehicles operation, and a couple of other students.

Standing over a map, Miller started off with, “There is no set race course. You choose your own path. The goal is to drive the shortest distance between the checkpoints. The outdated maps are from the 1940s through the 1970s and you are given latitude and longitude and have to map your coordinates.”

I was already daunted. The coach went on to explain the difference on the map between sand and vegetation—smaller dots for vegetation, water and palm trees are villages.

One of the biggest challenges is to clock in at between five and seven checkpoints daily. An 8-foot-tall red flag and a person that checks you in mark the spots.

“What’s the food like?” we asked. Miller laughed, “The French army rations are pretty good. Everything, including the biscuits, has pate in it and you get meals like duck with roasted vegetables.”

Miller stressed that with a typical 10- to 14-hour day starting at 6 a.m., and with a last checkpoint closing at 7:30 p.m., the two most dangerous factors are fatigue and poor communication.

She noted, “You have to have to learn how to communicate in a way that’s constructive. The only way you can do well is to support and respect each other. You want to be a strong teammate, to have a great attitude, and look for solutions.”

And the navigator is the ‘rockstar’ job. “The driver has to understand navigation. But someone is going to make a mistake and it is usually the navigator. You cannot be passive aggressive. The rally is shockingly hard!”

And one more thing. “It’s really good to laugh. The rally tests your weakest link as a person. The terrain gets harder and more desolate and the environment gets harsher. If you don’t have the mental stamina you are going to burn out.”

Mead concluded, “The way I approach all competitions is to have the desire to win, but what really matters is doing my best each day with the hope of finishing. In an off-road rally, you have to look ahead and look back…. Just like life!”

The Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles is acknowledged for its non-profit organization, Heart of Gazelles. The non-profit organization offers medical aid, support to orphanages and schools, sustainable development for villages, and job development for women in the region. The rally is the only global motorsport event with ISO 14001 Certification, with strict environmental and citizen-friendly directives. This year the race will take place from March 20th-April 4th. To learn more and track the teams live, log on to www.rallyeaichadesgazelles.com.

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