Checking my email one morning, I saw a message from my friend Beverly, who’d run the Everest Marathon with me. “Congratulations,” she said, “I saw your name on the MDS entrants list. I got picked too. Can’t wait to see you in Morocco!”

The MDS meant the Marathon Des Sables: a 156-mile ultramarathon through the Sahara desert. I’d only heard about it during the Everest Marathon and couldn’t recall signing up for the lottery, but I thought I must have done it on a whim one night and forgotten about it. Double-checking, I found my name on the entrants list. The important question was what to do with the entry now that I had it. It was an opportunity not only to run through a place I’d longed to visit for years, but to do so in the company of almost 900 other runners as part of one of the toughest footraces in the world.

Since the race was a week after spring break, I’d have almost a month in Morocco if I skipped two weeks of class. I’d never run an ultramarathon, but Everest convinced me I could endure more than a typical marathon. It took over seven hours after all. How many times would I have an opportunity like this, where a dream race was so close within reach? Figuring not many, I put down the race deposit and started making plans. I might not be ready for an ultra now, but I could get there with a good bit of training.

All that week, I couldn’t get the MDS out of my head. I pictured myself blazing a trail through the desert, sun beating down on my back and nothing but sand dunes and sky in every direction. There are many reasons why people run such “crazy” races as the Marathon Des Sables, but mine was simple: I wanted to experience the sheer beauty of the Sahara sands by my own two feet.

I decided the best way to train would be to run a shorter ultramarathon before the main event. The Tahoe Midnight Express 72-Miler – a circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe – was a perfect fit, so I signed up with about two months to build my endurance.

The key to ultra training, I found, was back-to-back long runs. This way I could keep my mileage in any given run from getting too high. No matter how developed your muscles are, a 60-mile run is risky. Two 30-milers accomplish practically the same thing with reduced the risk of injury. I’d run 18 miles one day and 15 miles the next, 20 miles one day and 17 miles the next. I slowly built up the distance, careful not to increase it beyond what my legs could tolerate.

The first day I set out for a 26-mile training run was daunting, especially as I had to run another 20 miles the next day. I did the marathon in San Francisco and the 20-miler around the Dish, a three-mile loop around a satellite dish near Stanford that has several big hills. The undulating run reminded me of where I trained for my first marathon, Lake Johnson in North Carolina. Less than three years had passed since I ran a hilly 18-miler there, the peak of my training for the Disney Marathon, yet my whole life had changed since then. The long runs gave me time to reflect, in addition to helping me prepare for my upcoming adventure.

On race weekend, Dad surprised me by meeting me in Lake Tahoe, and thank goodness he did. I was more nervous than I expected to be, but I knew that nothing too terrible could happen with Dad there. He helped me place support bags around the course with my food, water, extra socks and shoes, batteries for my headlamp, and whatever else I might need. Unlike mainstream marathons, most ultras don’t have aid stations at close intervals. The Tahoe Midnight Express didn’t have any. All support had to be pre-planned and self-organized.

The race started at 10 p.m., so I brought my iPod along and turned on Gone with the Wind to escape the spookiness of running at night. It felt like only a few hours passed before sunrise, but really it had been seven. The first glimpse of amber and orange sunlight spilling across the water, shining through the trees along the shore, was my favorite moment of the race.

Forty miles in, I started to tire. I worried I might not have it in me to complete the distance, but then I changed shoes, put on some sunscreen, ate a PowerBar, and felt good as new. Around 8 a.m., I passed the 50-miler marker. Dad was there to cheer me on and he could tell that I was thrilled. I’d never run that far and it was the longest I’d have to run at once in the MDS. Whatever happened from here, my Sahara dreams were one step closer to reality!

Ten miles later, though, my ankle started feeling off. I ignored it for another couple of miles, but decided to dropout when it actually started hurting. I knew that every step I took injured would drag out my recovery time and the MDS was coming up fast. I reluctantly climbed in the backseat of Dad’s car and tried let sleep wash away the disappointment of not finishing. It was a hard choice to quit so close to the finish, especially in my first ultra, but it was the right choice to give me the best chance of finishing the MDS.

After a month of recovery, I was running again. I only had time for a few more long training runs before it was time to head to the desert, but I figured it would be enough. If I could complete 50 miles, as I’d done, I could surely handle the rest.

About Explore Unbound

Explore Unbound is a database of epic adventures. Think of it as a curated list of adventure ideas, ranging from the world’s hardest ultras to the most scenic ski touring regions. Depending on your style, you can explore by destination, time of year, or type of adventure. Poke around a discover the world’s top mountains, treks, ultra marathons, ski tours, and more!

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