Running in the Sahara

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Have you ever daydreamed of ice cubes? The idea sounded absurd until I undertook the Marathon des Sables, a 156-mile adventure through the Sahara’s scorching 130-degree temperatures, towering sand dunes and steep mountain passes. When I crossed the finish line on April 14, the race had shown me the joy of suffering and how to appreciate life’s simple pleasures.

The Marathon des Sables is the brainchild of Patrick Baeur, a garrulous Frenchman in his early 60s who loves rock ’n’ roll (each day’s running starts with AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”), brims with positive energy, and possesses a keen business sense. He hatched the idea for the race in 1986 after completing his own soul-expanding romp around the Sahara. Since then, he has built the Marathon des Sables into one of the world’s most iconic races. The Discovery Channel dubbed it the toughest footrace on earth.

Why run the Marathon des Sables? There are as many reasons as the 1,167 competitors from 52 nations who started this year’s race. Americans Matt and Calvin McKinley thought it would make a great father-son bonding experience. Duncan Slater, a former British platoon sergeant and double amputee, ran on his artificial legs to raise awareness for the Walking With the Wounded organization. (Rumors had circulated that Duncan’s friend, Prince Harry, who has championed the benefits of healthfully confronting personal struggles, would join him. Maybe next year.)

Others, such as Daisy and Patrick de Waardt from the Netherlands, tackled the Marathon des Sables to spend time together and inspire their kids. “I’m a mom and I’m strong,” Daisy said.

I took on the Marathon des Sables because experiences that challenge my notion of comfort expand my sense of meaning. The opposite is also true: The more I seek comfort, the more unfulfilled I feel. Extreme endurance adventures offer me a tool to self-discovery, narrowing the gulf between self-imposed limits and actual potential. My goal this year was to complete the two toughest footraces on the planet: the Marathon des Sables in April and the Badwater 135 in July.

Unlike many American ultramarathons, the Marathon des Sables takes place as a series of five competitive stages over roughly five days. (There is also a sixth, noncompetitive stage that benefits charity.) The race organizers provide rationed water at checkpoints throughout each stage.

The daily stages can take anywhere from two to 12 hours to complete, with one notable exception. The fourth day is the longest, and can take runners from eight hours to 35 hours to finish. (You don’t have to qualify for the Sahara run, but organizers will cut you off after 35 hours on the fourth stage.)

Another twist is that competitors must carry a backpack filled with their calories for the entire race, a sleeping bag and numerous other pieces of required gear. My favorite was the venom pump I would use in case I spooked a snake or a scorpion.

We also lived like nomads. Local Berbers built traditional tents that housed up to eight competitors between stages. There weren’t any toilets. We used plastic bags and peed in plain sight of one another.

How do runners prepare for the Marathon des Sables? I ran a lot, including the Badwater Cape Fear 51.4-mile race to get comfortable with sand running. I tested and retested my gear. I read race reports. I sweated in the sauna. And I trained my gut to become accustomed to dehydrated food: Every day for three months, I ate instant mashed potatoes after I ran.

It took almost no time to realize how ineffectively I had prepared for the Marathon des Sables.

I could feel the Sahara laughing at me. The mesh in my shoes let in fine sand, causing me to shake out large amounts every few miles. At the end of the first day, I begged at the medical tent for tape to cover the tops of my shoes. Before turning me away, one French doctor peered into my eyes and said, “I treat people, not shoes.” I noticed that people who complained of sore shoulders were receiving lots of tape. And so began my daily ritual of feigning shoulder pain to solve my shoe problem.

The first stage acclimated us to the desert and our living conditions. We also learned the race’s grave risks. To start the race, you have to show a race doctor an EKG that was taken within 30 days of the start of the race, and jeeps and helicopters were on standby to take people to nearby hospitals if needed. One man experienced cardiac arrest at a water checkpoint. His training partner howled in horror. The doctors revived him with CPR. His race was over, but he left with his life.

The next two days involved dozens of miles of climbing and descending sand dunes and mountains. When I reached the top of a rocky climb, I celebrated by giving one of my tent mates a high five. Ian Corless, a British photographer and founder of the Talk Ultra podcast, shot me a grin and said, “Get ready for the fun part.”

As I peered down a 40 percent gradient, a little voice whispered in my head, “You’re going to die on this mountain.”

I ignored it and followed the herd of other runners, grasping an affixed rope. When the rope ended, I used my feet as skis to plow through hundreds of feet of thick, soft sand. I glissandoed down the mountain, a speck of a person having a larger-than-life moment, freed from the fear that had paralyzed me a few minutes before. It was magic.

The final two competitive stages covered 53 and 26.2 miles, respectively. I buddied up with one of my tent mates, Tim Hunnewell, which made the miles fly by. We learned a lot about each other, including our mutual fondness for the band Dokken, our unending love for our families, and our strategies to avoid sleeping while we ran. When things got rough, I repeated a mantra that Lisa Smith-Batchen, an American ultrarunning legend who won the Marathon des Sables in 1999, shared with me repeatedly: “Suck it up, cupcake.”

The best part of the Marathon des Sables occurred between the stages. We wolfed down as many calories as our bodies could handle. The saltiest foods made up my personal menu every night, such as nuts, beef jerky and dehydrated camping meals. Dried fruit always tasted delicious. We laughed, regaled one another with our adventures and struggles, hobbled around the tent camp, and fantasized about the food and cold drinks we would consume when we returned to civilization. My tent mates and I started the race as strangers; we ended the race as brothers.

When I crossed the finish line, I shook the hand of Mr. Bauer (the race founder), received my finisher’s medal, and felt a mixture of accomplishment and relief. But as the hours passed, I sensed something lingering beneath the surface, letting me know I could draw strength from my Sahara adventure whenever I felt unsure, unable or unwilling. I was ready to go home.

As my homeward flight glided away, the attendant asked if I wanted ice cubes in my soda. I counted as she scooped out each one. One, two, three, four, five. I took a sip, sighed and smiled.