“Think of everything in advance and in detail, but don’t dream empty dreams. One always forgets something and something very important. And then, don’t take measures beforehand. Reality will have fun thwarting your plans. Before all foresee the unforeseeable, the great master for all of us is the desert.” — Theodore Monod
Planning and packing for the 30th edition of the Marathon des Sables (MDS) – a seven-day, 156-mile self-sufficiency running race through the Sahara Desert – is always stressful for me, even with it being my third time doing one of the toughest footraces on the planet.
I’m the type of person who travels with a little bit more stuff than I need. But the key strategy among the top MDS racers is to cut off every unnecessary ounce of weight from their ultralight packs to be fast. Not me.
On day one of the race, my pack weighed 22 pounds. I was carrying about five pounds more than the top runners, and that’s a huge difference in terms of efficiency and speed. In my mind, I didn’t want to forget something very important. I was unnecessarily overprepared but determined to make the best out of my ultra adventure.
I trained a very long 22 weeks in the dark, cold winter for this race, and I wanted to make sure I was prepared to master my next MDS experience.
Previously, I encountered challenges, or what I call my desert demons. Specifically, things like nutrition, hydration and mental focus hindered my performance in the 2011 and 2013 races.
In 2015, I turned 50 years old, so it was my quest to return to the Sahara one more time to conquer my desert demons.
Desert demon: Nutrition
Remembering to eat and fuel up before, during and after the race each day is vital. Over the course of seven days – each day seemingly hotter than the previous one – I noticed my appetite would decrease. This year I tested meals during my training for the race to find food I wanted to eat, which was healthy and actually tasted good.
Breaking it all down, each day I needed about 2,000 calories. My daily nutrition routine would begin each morning with breakfast (500 calories), followed later by food I would eat on the run (500 calories), then a postrace recovery drink and snack (400 calories) before dinner (600 calories). That was my goal.
Mary Jane’s Farm organic dehydrated meals were my choice for breakfast and dinner. On the run I used Clif Bars, gels, Shot Bloks, and electrolyte drinks. I also had an assortment of salty snacks like chips, pretzels, corn, chicken bouillon cubes, and a few nonorganic comfort foods. To top it off, Samir Akhdar, a seven-time finisher from Morocco, provided me his magic energy mix of nuts and dates.
I first met Samir – he finished fourth overall this year – in 2011 during my first MDS. Over the last couple of years, I have learned a lot about ultrarunning in the desert from Samir, which has helped me improve my own ability.
Desert demon: Hydration
During my first two MDS experiences, by the end of the week I found myself dealing with dehydration issues, including puffy fingers and discolored urine.
My strategy was simple: stay hydrated! Over the course of the seven days, each participant gets a rough total of about 23 gallons of water – for the entire 156 miles.
All runners also took salt tablets throughout the race – about one salt tablet every half hour or hour, depending on temperature and water consumption.) This was the basic recommendation that worked for me, but everyone had to figure out the salt intake that worked best for them.
Adding electrolytes to the water was a must, too, as temperatures during the day ranged from 80 to 120 degrees. I saw a number of people fall from heat exhaustion, and I knew I didn’t want to fall victim to the heat like they had.
In my previous MDS races, I ran out of water a couple times between checkpoints and then struggled with thirst. So this year my strategy for successful hydration was at each ‘checkpoint’ throughout the race – about seven miles apart – I would fill my two water bottles and then carry the remaining water ration with me in hand. This time I always had enough water and forced myself to keep drinking on a regular basis. A good routine for my eating and hydration allowed me to be a strong finisher.
Desert demon: Mental focus
The courage to push on comes from determination to reach the end. “It’s not about speed, it’s willpower,” I would tell myself. “Remember to keep moving!” That was my MDS philosophy.
With 22 weeks of winter training in me, the first three days of 23 miles, 19 miles and another 23 miles would be my first test of how well I was prepared mentally and physically. One advantage I had this year was that the course was very similar to the course I ran in 2013. Knowing the terrain may have helped as I ran very well the first three days. My only complaint was that my pack was way too heavy. During training I never ran with a full pack of nearly 22 pounds before, fearing prerace injury. So my back strength might not have been as strong as it needed to be for the journey.
My biggest concern for the week was how to run the long stage on day four – 56.5 miles, the longest stage in MDS history. I’d never run that far before in a single day.
I knew this was the day I wanted to have my sleeping bag inside my pack. But as I got ready for the start, for some reason I still couldn’t fit it in, so I hung it off the backpack.
Unfortunately, the long stage began with incredible headwinds, and the straps holding my sleeping bag came undone. I had to stop and fix it, costing me at least five minutes and my daily pace group. Mentally this was draining.
After about a half marathon in distance, I was able to get back into the position I wanted to be in. But by then the course was playing mental tricks on me – long straights, a huge climb, and then dunes and soft sand until the end. I managed to run well for 47 miles. By then it was 8:00pm and it was dark, cold and windy. At that point I walked because of the fatigue.
My headlamp was my guide. I could see a long stream of lights ahead of me – runners ahead that looked like a constant thread of uphill ascents for miles and miles. With just 10 more miles to go, I was completely out of energy. This was my toughest MDS race moment.
I reached checkpoint six and thought to myself, ‘Do I keep going with the risk of doing something stupid? Or do I stop, rest, and sleep?’ In racing ultras, there is always a nagging fear of something going wrong and not being able to finish.
I knew if I stopped, my good race placement would fall. After meditating over my situation, I decided that I was here in the desert on my own will for an important personal journey and a charity campaign to raise funds for the Sustainable Food Trust. The many people counting on me to finish MDS were more important than running for my own competitive ego. So I went with safety first.
I’m sure if I was just running one race of more than 50 miles, I would have continued to the end without a second thought. But MDS is a different beast. Six races in one week! I also knew I had to run a full marathon a day later, so I needed to be ready. The marathon day was where I also had been challenged in the past by all three of my desert demons at once: nutrition, hydration, and mental focus.
So by 8:30pm, I crawled into my sleeping bag and slept for nine hours to get up at 5:30am and finish the last 10 miles. That day, we all suffered. The course was unforgiving.
By marathon day, we already ran 121.3 miles. I was mentally and physically tired but ready to take on my final, toughest day, knowing that at the end of this stage we would be getting our MDS finisher’s medals.
So my strategy was to keep running, checkpoint to checkpoint. I also threw on my headphones with music to encourage a constant rhythm—and it worked!
The most popular song on my playlist was the Rolling Stones song, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’ I actually ran a great race and finished well for myself. Happily sprinting and screaming with joy at the finish my third Marathon des Sables.
Day seven, the charity stage for UNICEF, my legs just kept running up and over the dunes. Many people walked that stage, but I ran and finished 40th overall. It helped that I had conquered my desert demons already, and the joy of doing that spurred me on to finishing MDS 2015 strong.
Headline photograph: Mark Gillet
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