June | 250 km | Desert | △△△ | Mongolia
The night before the 50-miler stage in the Marathon des Sable, I walked a distance away from the bivouac to clear my head. I’d only run this distance once before, in the Tahoe Midnight Express 72-miler. That was with fresh legs on a road, and even then I’d wound up injured and had to drop 68 miles in. This time, I’d be running on sand with three tough days of desert running behind me. I needed to be in the right mindset or I wouldn’t have a chance.
I came across a flat bit of land that seemed to stretch on for miles. It looked like the salt flats of Uyuni, but it was dried mud, cracked as if someone had shattered a giant terracotta plate into a million pieces. The sun was setting, making the landscape glow in purples and pinks. As I was stretching, a helicopter came out of nowhere and landed right in front of me. Its rotating blades swooped up the sand and swirled it into the air. In a few minutes, it took off again in the evening light. Something about the mix of nature and technology, peacefulness and adrenaline, made me feel in unity with my strange environment.
The morning of the 50-miler started just like all the rest, but I knew it would be different. The tone at the start was more anxious and demoralized than excited. Many had painful blisters or sunburn, and our legs had been worn down over the past three days. When AC/DC started playing and the gun went off, though, we all started running like it was the first day all over again. We forgot our fears and pain and just ran, at least for a few miles. After that, people started falling back. I told myself to keep running while the terrain permitted it, planning to walk when I reached the second checkpoint. But when I made it there, I still felt like running. It was only upon reaching the third checkpoint that I slowed to a walk.
The next section was all uphill and I knew the 130 degree mid-afternoon heat would soon subside. Walking this part would save my energy for when it could be better utilized, in the cool evening air, on flat or downhill terrain. Sure enough, those five miles took me right up to sunset. With my legs rested, I came upon an endless dried mud flat that cracked and crunched under my feet as I ran. It was perfect running terrain, but almost everyone was walking. It seemed as if the race had collectively hit the wall. I kept passing runner after runner, but then someone passed me as if I was hardly moving.
It was the female winner from last year. She and the other elites had started three hours later than everyone else. It was an awe-inspiring moment, probably my favorite of the whole race, to see such a talented athlete glide right by me as the sun sank beneath the mountains in the far distance, leaving a fiery magenta sky in its wake.
Soon thereafter, I started to struggle. I took the last walking break I was allowing myself, but with the weight of my pack it didn’t feel like much like rest. I was literally stumbling along and another runner had to tell me: “Baby steps. Just keep going and take baby steps.” I tried to follow his instructions, but it was hard to even walk straight. Then I caught sight of the bright-green laser beam being projected from the finish line, so no one would get lost in the dark. I started to run again, discovering I had more in reserve than I’d thought.
Picking up speed, the finish line in sight, the next few miles passed like nothing. Then, a mile or so away from the finish, another runner started to pass me. My competitive nature kicked in and I ratcheted up the speed even more. The other runner did the same. We did this a few times, nudging each other faster and faster until we were all-out racing, knowing we had escalated to an unsustainable pace. If the finish had been any further, we would have been in trouble. We crossed over the line together, a long 15 hours and 8 minutes after starting out. Then we looked at each other and just laughed.
When I finally made it to my tent to lay down, my legs were burning so badly that I could hardly bear it. Luckily, they recovered some overnight and we had a whole day to rest before the marathon. Those still walking wouldn’t be so lucky. Some would have to roll almost straight from the 50-miler into the marathon.
By the marathon day, I’d settled into the lifestyle of the MDS: waking up to a tent collapsing on me, not bathing, eating crunchy, powdered pasta, and combing my ratted hair with a spork. I was used to carrying my now 15-pound pack and running long distances through the desert each day. There was a sort of comfort in the routine, much like there was on Everest. Nevertheless, a few hours before the race start that morning, I noticed myself feeling a bit nervous. I’d unwittingly become competitive and feared that I wouldn’t be able to put forth my best. There was also a deeper emotion bubbling up.
As I’d learn over time, I often feel nervousness when a wave of grief is coming on; and one came on shortly before the race start. I suddenly had to drop everything and walk away from the bivouac so the other runners wouldn’t hear me crying. Somehow the comfort and sense of family I’d found at the MDS made me miss having that in my day-to-day life. In losing my Mom a few years back, almost to the day, I’d lost my sense of home. There was nothing I could do but harness my negative emotions into energy. The race wasn’t going to wait for me, so I grabbed my pack and headed to the start line.
It was over 125 degrees Fahrenheit most of the day, but I felt surprisingly fresh, especially for having just run the second-furthest distance of my life. However, when the third of the day’s four segments rolled around, things changed for the worse. My thigh muscle started to feel as if it would rip at any moment. I only had 23 miles of the entire race to go: 13 that day and 10 the next. I desperately wanted to make the most of those miles. I did not want to walk.
Fortunately, of all the segments I could have been forced to walk, this one was ideal. It passed through a palm tree-lined oasis with cheering children watching the race pass by. There was so much to see, it wasn’t hard to push aside my increasing anxiety that I’d actually injured myself, at least for the moment. I checked out mentally and pretended that I was a trekker going on a short hike in the desert without the slightest thought to moving along quickly, as if taking a break from time. Then I caught sight of the next checkpoint on the horizon and the race came back into focus. My mind started running through all of the reasons that I should take it easy and walk. I collected my water at the checkpoint and was just getting ready to trudge on when something came over me. I became angry that I even had the injury at all. Despite what my body was telling me, I started hobbling.
Gaining momentum, my endorphins kicked in and the pain grew more and more distant from my mind. I told myself, just keep running to the finish. That’s all you have to do. Some of the route ran uphill over rocky terrain, but once I got going, nothing seemed difficult. I passed runner after struggling runner, having been one of them just an hour before. When I crossed the finish line, I broke into tears, overcome with joy for having pushed beyond my perceived boundaries. Feeling a tinge of grief again as well, I pushed it aside and reminded myself that it was okay to be happy. I should be happy in this moment. I’d practically completed the Marathon Des Sables! We still had ten miles to cover the next day, but that was a victory lap. My dream of finishing the MDS had all but become reality.
The next morning, we were all so excited that we beat the Berbers out of the tent. In the early sunlight, I walked away from the bivouac for one last moment alone in the desert. The din of 900 runners quickly gave way to the desert’s serenity. Once again, I felt the juxtaposition of adventure and timelessness, togetherness and solitude. I could almost hear my soul saying this is exactly how it wants to spend eternity.
After walking back to the bivouac and picking up my pack, I made my way to the start line. Highway to Hell played one last time and we set off running, finally freed from the responsibility of pacing ourselves. This was it. It was hot, but I’d grown to love the burn of the sun. Some miles were long, but I knew they would pass soon enough. The last two miles took us through a charming village with lots of children cheering us on. They would run beside us, tug at our hands, and say “Allez, allez!” I felt a rush when I crossed the final finish line, but it was fleeting. I’d had my glory after the marathon. Now I was just completing the journey.
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