The night before the start of the Marathon Des Sables, I had to go through a long process of checking in at the bivouac, where we would camp for the night. I had to surrender all of my excess belongings, have my pack checked for all of the mandatory items, submit medical forms, weigh in, and finally, receive my race bib and tracking device. Then I rejoined my fellow racers for our last real meal for the week and tucked in to sleep our first night out in the open. Our shared “tents” were nothing more than a heavy wool blanket held up by two sticks. Fortunately, it was warm enough at night that we didn’t need much more.
At 6:30 a.m. the next day, a crew of Moroccan Berbers rolled up to our tent in a clunky truck. Without so much as a warning, they knocked down our sleeping quarters. I could understand their rush, as they had less than a day to move the bivouac to the next location. Meanwhile, over 1,000 people from all around the world would make the same journey on foot, on ATVs, in helicopters, and even on camelback. In addition to the 900 runners, there were doctors, photographers, aid station volunteers, and race officials who all had to make the journey.
The race didn’t start until 9 a.m., so I killed a few hours putting the final touches on my pack. I threw out everything I possibly could, which included a few squeezes of sunscreen and some M&Ms from my trail mix to whittle my pack down to 20 pounds. At the start line, people were jumping up and down and patting each other on the back while Kate Ryan’s “Ella Elle L’a” was playing. Helicopters were chopping overhead to capture the event on film.
AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” began to play. This meant that the countdown would start at any moment. Everyone inched closer to the start. “Five, four, three, two, one . . .” I bolted from the start line, not even considering my pace. Between the adrenaline and all the other sprinting runners around me, I felt a surge of energy and appreciation as I set off.
The first eight miles were towards Erg Chebbi, the highest dunes in Morocco. I could see them in the distance the whole way. Fortunately, much of that segment was packed gravel, so I relaxed into the run and took it all in. So many dreams were flowing through the Sahara at that moment. It was magical to be a part of it. My only worry – besides the blazing hot sun – was that my pack was rubbing a spot on my lower back. I knew this spelled trouble, but there wasn’t anything to do about it. I tried making an adjustment or two, but could only change so much. So instead of focusing on the aggravation, I focused on the runners and the stunning terrain. The bright reds, yellows, blues, and greens of all the runners’ gear contrasted vibrantly with the dull, but somehow shimmering, sand.
After a couple of hours, I approached the base of the dunes and caught sight of the first checkpoint. When I reached it, I was loaded down with three liters of water and sent off again to tackle an eight-mile crossing of Erg Chebbi. I’d planned to walk the uphills of the sand dunes and run the downhills, but somehow it seemed to be all uphill. The sun was beating down so hard that my sweat evaporated instantly into dry salt. At over 130 degrees Fahrenheit, each ray of sunshine felt like a prickling flame. I ended up walking practically the whole eight miles, which made me worry that the MDS would turn into a pilgrimage rather than an ultramarathon for me.
At least I was in good company. All but the most seasoned MDS runners were walking. Near the end of Erg Chebbi, I was so overtaken by the sense of freedom that I veered from the train of racers and headed straight for an untouched sand dune, just for fun. As I climbed the dune, sand started cascading down. It felt like I was climbing up an escalator the wrong way. I made it to the top and loped back down the other side to rejoin the pack. I’d have loved to have a day just playing in the dunes, but I had ground to cover. By day’s end, I was wondering how I’d ever get through the week. It was relentlessly hot, and my legs were already starting to feel a burn. I’d need to fix the rubbing on my back somehow, as it had already rubbed a spot raw and I had a long way to go.
That evening, I was surprised at the number of chores I had. First, I had to eat, which was more of a chore than it sounds. My nutrition plan called for me to end each run with a half-liter of Hammer Nutrition’s recovery drink and a half-liter of water mixed with dried soup powder. It wouldn’t have been bad if the recovery drink had been cold and the soup hot, but both were disgustingly warm. Then I had to “cook” my actual dinner, which was freeze-dried pasta that I’d crushed to fit into my pack. I cut open an empty water bottle and poured in the powdered noodles and enough water to soak them. I left the concoction in the sun for a while, which softened the noodles a bit. But it was still semi-crunchy and hard to choke down.
After dinner, I walked over to the computer tent to send an email to Dad. We were each allowed a single email of 200 characters per day, so Dad and I had set up a system where I’d email him a bare-bones abbreviated updates on the race and he would flesh out the story and post it on my blog so friends and family could keep up. We could also receive emails, but they would be printed out and delivered to us in hard copy. Even that first night, a few lucky runners had emails delivered to the tent and we all sat around and listened while some were read aloud. I was amazed by how quickly I began feeling detached from the world. The messages seemed to come from far away. Only after all of this did I finally tuck into bed, but not before catching a glimpse of a brilliantly starlit sky and saying a quick thanks for the opportunity to be out there.
I knew we’d be up early the next day, but I didn’t realize how early. The Berbers started deconstructing our tent at 5:30 a.m., again without a word of warning. It was a rough way to start the day, especially since we would soon be facing a vicious sandstorm that was just picking up. I hadn’t realized it, but the sandstorm was actually a big deal. People were canceling their trips to the Sahara, and we were about to run through it! When it was time to race, I pulled on my Buff, a stretchy piece of fabric that’s like a versatile bandana, donned my pack, and headed to the start line. The helicopters were already flying overhead and dance music was blasting. They were playing Darude’s “Sandstorm,” which seemed appropriate. Then AC/DC came on and I knew it was time to run.
The wind was whipping up the sand as we set off, hitting us from the side as if trying to blow us off course. The day was broken into four segments, each with a different mix of terrains. The first segment was mostly rocks packed into hard dirt, but there was a bit of dried and cracked mud, which is my favorite terrain. This section was a breeze, even with the sandstorm. The footing was perfect, like a dirt track, and my legs had recovered enough overnight that they weren’t sore. The next segment was mostly large dunes. Just before reaching them, I was lucky to meet up with the race manager for the US-Canada-Australia team, Jay Batchen, who had run the MDS at least eight times. Jay showed me how to navigate the dunes and choose lines efficiently. It was a blessing to learn he ins and outs of desert running from him early on. I learned that light-colored sand is firmer and easier to run in than dark-colored sand and that steering clear of well-trodden paths nets you more solid, runnable terrain. It was inspiring to see Jay blaze a trail through the dunes, passing dozens of other runners with no extra effort.
After cruising through the first two segments, I walked the third one, which was six miles of chunky gravel spread over packed mud. My knees were starting to hurt from the stress of the dunes and I didn’t want to jeopardize the rest of my race. But I also didn’t want to walk the whole time. So for the last segment, which was relatively flat sand interspersed with grassy plants that hold the sand in place, I picked up my pace. When I reached the finish, I headed straight for my tent, tucked into my sleeping bag, and let the sand beat into my head as I tried to rest. I knew I had to down my recovery drink and make dinner, but after a whole day of exposure, I wanted to feel a sense of comfort and shelter for a moment first.
For all that was challenging about life in the desert, I was extremely lucky that I didn’t have to deal with blisters. Many of my fellow runners already had horrible blisters from the nasty combination of sand and sweat. One of my tentmates, a banker from Australia, was in extremely bad shape. His gaiters had failed him on the first day, since he’d glued the Velcro on rather than sewing it. The glue had melted, shucking his gaiters right off. His feet were so badly blistered that he tried the second day’s course in socks and sandals. No one was surprised when he stumbled into the tent and announced that he was dropping out. He had thought the decision over carefully and was at peace, but we felt like we were losing a member of our tribe.
The third day, we had 24 miles to cover, consisting of dunes, rocky hills, and even a steep hillside of switchbacks. The dunes were more fun than tiring, as they were firm enough that I could run up and down them, instead of having to walk. With the packs, walking was actually more challenging than running. Whenever I’d slow to a walk, I’d lose the adrenaline and endorphins that were making my now 18-pound pack disappear from my mind. The pack would suddenly weigh on me, especially the spot on my back that had become raw. I had some tape on it, but it still hurt each time I paid any attention to it.
I was excited to cross the finish line that day, but realized the hardest part of the race was still ahead. I was only 12 hours away from the trial that would make or break me in terms of actually finishing the MDS: the 50-miler.
When I went to the email tent to update Dad on the day, I saw that the race results were up. After the third stage, I was 400th out of 859 runners. In the women’s rankings, I was 32nd of 128. I’d run and walked for a combined total of 19 hours and 33 minutes, covering nearly half of the 156-mile race. It felt surprisingly good to be in the top 50th percentile overall, though I tried not to put stock in the rankings.