My Race Reports

Marathon des Sables 2016

Years ago, as I got interested and began running ultras, I heard about the Badwater Ultra, which crosses Death Valley. I was very intrigued, and watched a documentary from one of the years. Seeing the amount of support needed by crew, and cars driving along the course, as well as shoes melting on the pavement, I lost interest. “If I’m going to run across a desert, I want to run across the Sahara desert!” I had no idea at the time, that the Marathon des Sables even existed. But once I learned about it, it was something I wanted to do, and thanks to opportunities provided through the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT) I was awarded a spot in the race as well as the travel involved. I eagerly accepted the offer and began doing my homework and training in the winter months leading up to the April race.

I arrived in Ouarzazate, Morocco April 6th, with several other Marathon des Sables entrants from the US, France and Great Britain. Elaine, whom I had met on the last flight, and I checked into our hotel, then walked the streets nearby, looking for my friend and would be roommate/tent mate/comrade for the next week, Team Red White and Blue (RWB) Camp director, Liza Howard. What I hoped was that by walking around I would hear here voice out of the blue “Meghan! Meghan! Over here!” That is exactly what happened. She was with Ricky Haro, another Team RWB mentor. They were enjoying the shady front patio of a cafe that had traditional Moroccan dishes as well as pizza. We greeted each other excitedly, and I had my first tagine since my half day visit to Tangiers 6 years ago. We caught up with each other and then proceeded to talk about our plans for the next day, last minute items to get or how to repack our backpacks that we needed to lug across the desert, when Jay Batchen, organizer of most of the Americans who were on the trip, and ready to start his 12th MDS, showed up and I was able to finally meet him in person.

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First dinner with Liza and Ricky. Yummy tagine!

After our meal, I did a little gift shopping in the small shops, preferring the little old toothless man and his non-persuasive tactics over the man who tried to sell me more than I wanted, but I was pleased with my purchases.

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Shop Keeper in Ouarzazate

Back at the hotel Liza and I rested and talked about life at home, and again about what was ahead of us. Ricky and Liza had both run the race last year, Liza having a very difficult long stage involving vomiting and sleeping for 8 hours to recover and then walking the last 25 miles. This year was hopefully going to be different. Her experiences helped me tremendously in the packing of my gear, my meals, and most of all what to expect at the bivouac. We headed out to dinner again with Ricky and Jay, where I decided to have a large salad with duck on it, believing it to be my last supper of anything remotely fresh and green for the next several days.

The next morning we had our last hot breakfast, then waited patiently for the charter busses that would transport us to the start of the race. It was a large fleet, that over the course of the day and into the night would bring in over 1000 runners. When we finally departed, we were clean and rested and full of hope for things to come. The bus ride was 6 hours long, broken up by a bathroom stop – and when I say bathroom I only mean we stopped to relieve ourselves by the side of the road – girls on the left, boys on the right – and then box lunches which we ate out in the dirt and rocks that made up the majority of the landscape. There were no “rest areas” that we are so familiar with in the US, just lots of empty space that anyone could pull over and take a break for awhile.

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“Rest Stop”

We traveled through a few small towns, red clay buildings going up and some crumbling down, askew angles to the earth. Small shops of grocery items, narrow worn out streets, honking cars, men in turbans, women in scarves. What we might consider flea market displays, apparently the way of life for some here. Palm trees and dirt. Between the few towns were occasional herds of goats, and now and then a donkey or two burdened with a load of what man had tied to his back. I missed my own little animals.

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Typical town architecture

Five hours into the bus ride, the dunes came into view. Bright yellow, standing high, reminiscent of seeing a mountain range from afar, there was a definite excitement amongst the runners. We turned off the paved highway onto a dirt road and soon came to our bivouac – we were finally here! We unloaded our bags, went through a little checkpoint, and headed to tent number 166 which was to be my home with 6 others – Liza, Ricky, Jay, Wes, Christian, and Ridouane, for the next 8 long days.

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First Bivouac – with large dunes in the background

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Tent City – Photo by Christian

The tents were arranged in an almost complete circle, 3 rings deep. We were the last tent in the line, which was the closest to all the other non-runner tents – medical, reception/control, media, internet and satellite phone, and for the next two nights and day, an arrangement of tables and tents for the meals we would be served until our race began in two days. The tent itself was a rectangular black heavy cloth, supported by a number of large sticks. The highest point was in the middle, and the short ends came to the ground. The long sides were open, for entering and exiting. The floor was a very long Berber rug, with the ends folded over in order to fit it all in the tent. The first order of business was to roll the rugs back and remove as many rocks as we could, then lay it back out. We each chose a spot, sardine style, and sat down with our bags, and began to get our bearings. I got to know Christian and Ridouane a bit, and Wes, who was arriving much later, I knew from some races in the States. Christian was from Florida, a tall man who looked more like a rugby player than a runner, was quite new to running, as was our other camper, Ridouane “Reed”, who was Moroccan by birth, moved to France at the age of 2, and now at 40, lived in Boston. He was our entertaining, interesting, newbie and Johnie Depp look alike that would keep us all in stitches for the entirety. With his multi nationality he had several tents to choose from, but in his words – “I can stay weeth zee French or I can stay weeth the Americaanz, but zee French complain too much, so I stay weeth zee Americans. I can say that becoz I am French.”

My imagination is one of my best friends. When I learned we would have 2 nights and a day at the start line, I envisioned grassy lawns with white tables and umbrellas and large catering tents. Reality was, of course, nothing green. Just sand and dirt. The catering tents were right, and we had white tables, but they were about a foot high, and the ground was our chair. Dinner the first night was at 7:00, but we were in line by 6:30 as that is when folks begin to get a little anxious for food. Years past, dinner was catered by a French company, complete with wine, beer, and chocolate mousse – but alas, this year, good or bad, the company was Moroccan, with excellent food, but no alcohol, much to the disappointment of many. I will say that the food was amazing, and the oranges for dessert were some of the finest I have eaten.

Darkness settled shortly after 7:00, and it was time for my first night in the tent. I was the only one without a pad, not realizing ahead of time that for at least 2 nights I could be with one before sending it back with all of the rest of our superfluous gear before the self-sufficiency began. It was also the first time I had actually crawled inside of my sleeping bag, and realized that it was a bit short, as I had borrowed it from my generous friend Kim is a good 6 inches shorter than me. Well, who needs to cover their shoulders anyway, right?  This first bivouac was fairly soft though, and I slept reasonably well between Liza and Ricky.

Sunrise was around 6:00, and Liza was sitting up in her sleeping bag, using a Wet One to wipe her face. Every morning a race controller (volunteer) would come by each tent with instructions for the day – and today we were told that the time of day was actually one hour early – AKA Patrick time – and would remain on that time zone throughout the race. This was not an unusual of Patrick, but we had to wait and extra hour for breakfast, and at 7:00 headed over. Coffee, pastries, jams and honey. Then the morning was spent getting ready for check in. I spent a good hour filling my gel flasks with Gu – Sea Salt Chocolate and Strawberry banana. Each flask held about 5-6 packets, and would be much easier to access than individual packets. All my other food – breakfast, recovery drinks, freeze dried meals, nuts, dates – I had packaged before leaving home. When all was packed in, I went in line, plus took my bag of everything that would not accompany me on my trek for the race organization to return to me back in Ouarzazate at the end of the race.

The minimum weight of a runner’s pack was to be 6.5 kg – a little over 14 lbs. Mine weighed in at 7.3 kg, around 15 lbs, which was good in my mind. I had trained plenty with that amount. A GPS Spot checker was zip tied and taped to our packs, so if we got lost, we WOULD be found. Back at the tent, there was little to do but rearrange items with the pack. Ridouane’s pack was quite heavy, so Liza and Ricky went through the whole thing with him, eliminating many unnecessary and redundant items, making him very delighted with the change the couple of pounds made. Watching them made me take everything from my pack and cut out some extra weight by removing all excess pockets.

Now with only what I needed for the next 7 days, I pulled out my TyVek suit to wear over my race outfit. It was white and billowy, and quite cozy, keeping the wind out. We had our last supper, and at 9:00 or so, the camp became quiet as we nestled down for the last night before the run.

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Sporting my Tyvek suit! Photo by Ridouane.

Stage 1  23 Miles

Awake again at day break, huddled in our bags, our tent gradually awoke. I ate a ProBar, and mixed my powdered coffee and chocolate recovery drink, took my vitamins, and at 6:30 went to pick up my two bottles of water. Every bottle of water for each racer was pre-determined in amount, and we each had a punch card that kept accurate account of what we had picked up – and if you didn’t pick up your water, a time penalty was incurred. Most mornings were 3 liters, and each checkpoint along the way had either 1.5 liters or 3 liters, and at the end of each stage, 4.5 liters, that would see us through the night. We all put our sleeping bags into our packs, as well as any extra clothing, pulled on shoes and gators, and made our way to the start line.

Patrick climbed on top of the vehicle he would ride in, and playing music that would either inspire or strike fear in our hearts, danced happily until the 1000+ plus of us had gathered. Then through an interpreter, he reviewed the day’s stage, recognized some of the special runners (an 83 year old man, and a double amputee), and finally we were off across the desert!

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Patrick getting ready for the morning announcements, with Marie ready to translate.

The first mile or so was flat, hard sand, with some gravel and then we hit the beautiful sandy dunes. I watched Liza slowly and gracefully put space between us, and I kept relaxed, testing the surface for sinking and sliding. There were times we ran single file along the crest of a dune, then spread out over some steep surfaces, either stepping into previous prints if the sand allowed, or on unbroken sand if it withheld one’s weight. There was little talking, just forward motion. I kept going easy, thinking about the next few days, and keeping my blinders on so as not to get caught up in a competitive mode. We came out of the dunes to check point 1, I got my water, refilled my bottles, and was greeted by RD Patrick, who kissed me and exclaimed “Meghan!” While I was somewhat flattered, I’m thinking that he thought I was Meghan Hicks, who is quite popular here from her 5 previous finishes.

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Big Dune Day – Photo by MDS

The checkpoints are worth describing, as they were incredibly predictable, and very different from the aid stations we are accustomed to, and dare I say spoiled by, in more traditional ultras. There were usually 4 or 5 stations, all organized by bib numbers. Each runner ran to their designated chute, while one volunteer punched our card for how many liters we took, another volunteer checked off our number, and another volunteer wrote our bib number on the bottle and on the bottle cap. There were penalties for littering, and if you bottle cap was found on the ground you could be docked with some time penalties. Once we got our bottles we could fill our own water bottles, drink some, douse with any extra, and carry any if there was some left. When the extra bottles were empty, you were still required to carry the empty until there was a trash receptacle to place it.

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Jeeps getting ready to drive to check points. Each Jeep provided the water according to the runner’s bib number. Photo by Christian.

The next section was flat, which was welcome, but there was an incredible head wind, and the ground was still soft. I tucked in and just moved slowly for the next few miles, to the next checkpoint, muttering “terra firma” over and over to myself. I passed Sophie, a French gal with rather wild tights and pink socks, and fashionable sunglasses. I caught up with a couple of Brit men and we went back and forth as they broke up their running with some walking. Finally, the course went through a small valley, then more dunes, until finally the finish line arch was ahead, and stage one was done. We were given 4.5 liters of water, and I was told I came in top 10 female. The bivouac looked just the same as where we left. I was somehow hoping that perhaps there would be an oasis, or at least a tree. I made my way to the tent, where Liza was curled up in a ball. I was able to get my recovery drink down, and get my dehydrated meal “cooking” in the hot sun. We spent the next few hours greeting our tent mates, sending an email (which was the only time we had access to chairs), and getting some food down. Jay concurred that it was indeed a very difficult stage one, which made us all feel better.  Some sleep was had, and after a long night it was time to get ready for stage 2.

Stage 2 26 Miles

Feeling pretty stoked about my 7th place finish, I was looking forward to perhaps moving up in the field today. After all, I had been conservative the day before, and I had all the confidence in the world in my fitness. The months leading up to this race culminated in a 195 miles in 8 days carrying a pack that weighed between 12-17 lbs. We had the same morning routine – picking up our water, repacking our packs, and getting to the start line for any last minute instructions, plus the obligatory recording of “Happy Birthday” for those who were celebrating another orbit of the planet. At go time, I trotted out, and again watched Liza gracefully pull ahead.

Fairly quickly we were facing a stiff wind again. This time I was lucky enough to be behind a few men and was able to tuck in behind. It was amazingly easy to run behind them, and I hung with them all the way to checkpoint 1. After getting my water, I started off again, this time with a tail wind. I felt amazing! We passed near a village where young children and mothers were out to observe our madness. I caught up to Sophie again, passed her, and hung onto the coattails of an Italian runner, as we hit the headwind once again. The ground was terribly uneven and I was putting in a lot of effort to find good footing. I didn’t want to lose my  windshield, and so I stayed close. A few other men joined in, and the pace quickened. Ahead, I spied that Moroccan girl, Azizi, and thought “I’ll wait until I pass her before I check my watch for distance.” Closer and closer we got, and the pace was stiff. Suddenly, BAM! I was cooked. I fell off the wagon, jogged slowly, and tried to regroup. The heat was now full bore, and I was faced with several “dunettes” – small sand dunes, but taxing none-the-less. I watched as the group fell apart and I tried to keep the final stragglers in view. It was very slow going to the next checkpoint. I refilled my water and ambled out onto the flat rocky windy terrain. I kept nibbling at my Gu, sipping water, dousing occasionally. At some point, I tripped and fell, sat on the ground for a moment, and a French runner came up to inquire if I was okay “Ca va?” “Ca va” I answered, with the added remark – “It’s what I do.” I got up, walked and jogged, and finally could run again toward what looked like an oasis – palm trees and other greenery. I thought maybe the next checkpoint was there, but alas, it was further on. There were native Moroccans in the area, including some very excited young boys, who encouraged me to run, and ran with me a bit. Slogging on, I finally made it to the final check point, where another woman competitor caught me. I had no desire to try and  stay with her over the very steep dune coming out. My legs actually felt okay, but my respiration and heat management were limiting me.

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Just keep moving forward. Photo by MDS.

Over that big dune and then down into a dry, loose, sandy river bed we went. I had to use the bushes once, then kept on moving. I could hear the voice of another woman behind me, which inspired me to jog when I could. I meandered from one side of the river bed to the other, trying to find solid ground, but  mainly wasted energy in the process. Rosemary finally caught me with about a mile to go, and then Selena did right near the finish, so we finished together, and she asked me to hold one end  of her banner up which was a Solidarity for Women organization. I was honored to be able to help her out. I was a full hour slower than day 1, and 10th place.

Not sure why, but I somehow expected something different at the bivouac. Not sure what, but something. But, no, same old flat expanse, same tent, same curled up Liza on the tent floor. We managed our recovery drink, and offered encouragement to the finishers that stumbled by. We added water to our dehydrated meals, ever so conscious that spilling it meant no dinner, no going to the store for backup, no begging a meal off of another hungry runner. Then the much anticipated emails from home – an amazing buoy to the spirit. Eventually our tent mates finished up, shaking their heads at the ridiculous difficulty the wind and heat had added.

Stage 3 23 Miles

Day 3, Groundhog day 3. Sitting in my sleeping bag, eating a ProBar, drinking my Starbucks via Iced Coffee mixed with Gu chocolate recovery drink. It was unbelievable to me how long it took to get ready for the run – dressing and packing my pack, when there were no decisions to make, nothing to leave behind. My goal for this run was to run very conservatively, more than ever, to save my strength and recover from the previous day’s mistake, so I could potentially rally for the long day of 50 miles that we were facing for the next day. We had the usual picking up of 3 liters of water, then ambling to the blow up arch start line to hear Patrick and his translator, Marie, give us the pre-race instructions, then the requisite “Happy Birthday” song, followed by “Highway to Hell”, and finally, we were off for another 23 mile adventure through the Sahara. Keeping my head down, I just took it one step at a time, disregarding the females in the field.

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Start and finish line, transported from one location to the next.

Looking ahead, I realized we were heading toward a more substantial land mass than the typical large dunes – the exact range I had stared at earlier, pointing out to a tent mate “At least Patrick hasn’t made us run over one of those.” Famous last words. We headed out on the flat, relatively hard surface, again, Liza pulling away, and me, focusing on recovering from yesterday, and deciding to NOT pass anyone all day. After a couple of miles, we were heading up a Jebel – a mountain range – and I eased off even more, as I felt tired and was having heart palpitations – nothing to really be too concerned about, as I knew they were caused by any one of 3 issues – fatigue, caffeine, and dehydration – all of which I was experiencing. Ricky caught and passed me, and fairly soon, Wes did as well. He showed concern for me, and I assured him I was fine, just needed to go slow. I was passed by a myriad of runners, but eventually peaked, only to look down on the vast valley floor below, of, wait for it…. more desert.

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The occasional running companion. Photo by MDS.

I wasn’t eating much, as the Gu just didn’t sound good in the heat. We hit some more dunes, and passed a group of young Moroccans sitting on the top of one, surely wondering what on earth were we doing out here, running across the desert – were we completely out of our minds? The day and route continued to drag on.  I was getting passed by more and more runners, some of them pretty soft and heavy, causing me to wonder what was wrong with me – and at the same time not letting myself do something stupid. At the final checkpoint, 3 miles out from the finish, I met up with Ricky. I asked him if he wanted to just walk it in. And that’s what we did. It was one of those nice hour long hikes of getting to know each other better, while allowing others to keep passing.

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Morrocans watching the crazy runners

When we finally crossed the finish, yet another hour slower than the day before, we had the opportunity to “shower” off in a makeshift frame of pipes and spritzers. The water felt glorious. And back at the tent, we learned that our own Ridouane had decided to run a bit quicker that day, coming in ahead of all of us, and also ahead of last year’s female winner Elisabet Barnes. Jay and Christian finished shortly thereafter, and we all sent another email, ate another freeze dried meal, read the incoming emails. Reality was setting in. This was the most “living in the moment” I had every experienced. I felt so far removed from my normal reality, but I felt very alive at the same time. I had no normal distractions – cooking, cleaning, coaching, animals, family – just heat, sand, warm water, zombie like runners, and the feeling that I was trapped here forever, however irrational that was. I still remember seeing Jay staring out of the tent, tears rolling down his face, and thinking that if anyone knew what was ahead, it was him, and it was causing him just a bit of despair. I was giving more thought to all of the reasons I was struggling – and I realized that in that kind of heat, electrolytes were likely affected, and I hadn’t taken any other than in the Gu, which I was barely consuming. Christian had extra Salt Stick tabs, and I happily accepted them, even putting some in my dinner.

While hanging out waiting for night to arrive, one of the jeeps came speeding up to one of the tents with US runners. Two Doc Trotters (race doctors) jumped out and soon emerged from the tent, carrying a very limp woman, Kim, a normally scrappy, lively 50+ year old,  plopped her into the jeep and sped away. Holy Crap! I thought that looked pretty serious. It turned out she had some complication due to some medications, and they were able to sort her out, and by next day, she was recovered and ready to go. She had come to this run for the second time, this time with her 20-something year old son, Wyatt.

The medical team here was amazing. Everyday, the line of blistered victims sitting on chairs grew outside of the medical tent, and the number of battered and beaten down blistered runners limping around with protective booties grew as well. I counted my blessings – I was having virtually no feet issues, or any other physical issues. What was amazing was the drop rate was relatively low – the organization really wanted everyone to finish, and the cut off times were definitely designed so that one could walk the entire race.

Stage 4 50 Miles

Stage 4 was finally here – the long day, which I was banking on to hold my place or move up. Liza asked each of us “why are you running 50 miles today?” in her impish, playful way. My answer- “Because I want to go home and this is the only way to get there!” I didn’t feel that great, kinda funky, but once the race started, my legs actually felt pretty good. I caught up to Liza, and said I was going to run as long as I felt this good. At the first checkpoint, I took the water, filled my bottles, left the rest as it was not yet hot. I ran for awhile with a man from Belgium, talking about ultra running there, and then we hit the steep climb up another Jebel – a bit like the climb from Swinging Bridge to Devil’s Thumb in the Western States course, only not a lick of shade. Near the top, the pitch was steeper, so a rope was in place for the runners to pull themselves up and up and finally to the summit of the jebel. And as usual, the other side was more desolation. We did get to run through a slot canyon on the way down to the vast, flat valley floor, and the technical running kept  me engaged and was somewhat fun. When we finally dumped onto the valley floor, the temps were starting to rise, and my bowels were beginning to complain. That was unfortunate, as there was no place hide. I held on as long as possible, but finally found myself veering off the main course to squat and relieve myself. I faced the runners, averting eye contact, and was back up shortly, joining back in the few runners, and waiting for my stomach to feel better. Alas, it was not to be. I kept jogging and walking to the checkpoint, got my water, and headed back out. The two British women I had met in stage 2 joined me for a bit, but I was unable to run with my intestines cramping, so I walked until it stopped, then would jog until it cramped again. As the heat increased, the amount of jogging decreased.

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Decidedly over it. Photo by MDS.

The course had all kinds of elements. Big dunes. Little dunes. Jebels. Flat expanses with runners strung out like ants. Intensified heat kept me slowing. At the checkpoints I took my time, filling my bottles first, dousing with some, and then carrying the rest with me in the 1.5 liter bottle, and dousing my arms, head, neck, and belly, a little bit at a time, keeping my eye on my GPS, so I could space out the dousing to every mile. By the end of the bottle, it was like tepid tea, but it was still wet.

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Desolate landscape

At times there were interesting signs of human life out there. A single family home with a father and child standing on the stoop, with a bottle of orange soda and a bottle of cola at their feet, which they were apparently attempting to sell. I would have loved it, but wasn’t tempted as 1- it was against regulations, and 2 – it was not in alignment with the spirit of the race. But, oh my, it did look good!

Shortly down the way from there the road went through a fenced area, and we encountered a few European/British spectators, right outside of a real live oasis. I was confused by their presence, wondering how in the world did they get there, it seemed so out of place. Apparently this oasis was an auberge, which is basically French for Inn. We ran past the few buildings there, but what I really noticed was the plant life – greens, and red flowers, and I swear I could smell the chlorophyll.

At some point Wes caught up to me, and we trudged on together for a few miles. At the next checkpoint, I had to attend my complaining bowels once more, and he pulled ahead with Ridouane, who we had just caught. I left the checkpoint slowly, hoping to catch up to them so we could “run” together, but they had pulled out of sight. I eventually caught back up to Rid, just in time for the lead men to pass us. The top 5 women and the top 50 men had started 3 hours later than us. Ridouane was very excited, as they were his Moroccan friends, so he ran with them for a bit, pulling out his camera and selfie stick to catch some action. At some point, fellow Altra runners Jason Schlarb and Sondre Amdahl passed me as well.

On and on, up and down, with no rewarding view. I looked forward to 3:00 PM when I thought the temps should start to drop a little. Every turn of the course, was always a volunteer, keeping an eye on all the runners, keeping us safe. Finally I started to run again, legs feeling fresh, and I began to pull some runners back in. And then, as a cruel joke, I found myself squatting in the sand once more. I gave up eating miles ago, but stayed hydrated. Finally, the temps really did drop, and I picked up the pace more and more. Shadows were getting long, and I heard steps approaching. It was Natalie Mauclair from France, who was in 2nd overall for the women. I cheered her on, and very soon after, Natalia, who was in first,  from Russia came, nipping at her heels. It was amazing, knowing how much more heat they had been exposed to, and yet they made up 3 hours time, and I still had several miles to go. At the next checkpoint, I was ecstatic to see some lounge chairs set out. I grabbed my water and went for a sit. Riduoan had just arrived with his friend Mohammed, and the three of us relished the moments, toasting with our large, luke warm bottles of water. I didn’t stay long, as I wanted to see how many women I might reel in from here to the finish.

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Mohammed, Ridouane, and I, enjoying a sit in a chair and some warm water. Photo by Ridouane’s Phone.

By the next checkpoint it was dusk. I pulled out my headlamp, and actually felt like I was running hard across the rough terrain of sand and brush. There was no clear path, just occasional trail marks, and soon the glow sticks were making the way. The Moroccan Samir, a friend to all of us and a former winner of the race, passed me by, well off the pace of the front runners. We exchanged supportive words, and he disappeared into the engulfing darkness.

I was regretting my headlamp choice, which is a theme for me, tending to get the lightest and/or cheapest. While it was nice having something so light, it was not really that illuminating. I could see the glow sticks, so would head toward them, only to find that there was an empty and deep creek bed between me and them. I tried running parallel to the sticks on what felt like a road, and while trying to figure out the best place to run I totally biffed, sprawled out on the ground. I picked myself up and kept the glowsticks to my right and eventually I made my way onto some firm dunes that were easier to run on. I caught up and ran with Daniel from the Bay Area, trudging onward to the final checkpoint. The sky was immense with stars, truly amazing, but looking up too much made the risk of falling greater. Finally at the last aid station, I took my final bottle of water. The sand had infiltrated my meager headlamp, reducing the options to a strobe light. Great. How was I supposed to make it to the bivouac on that? I fussed and fidgeted with it, pouring water on it to rinse the sand, asked a volunteer to try and get it, and finally I gave up and started on the last 6 miles toward the finish. The bivouac was in sight, all lit up, and of course it seemed an eternity away. I kept fiddling with my light, and finally was able to override the sandiness and get a straight beam of light.

I had not consumed calories for miles, but now that it was cooler I tried once more to take just  a tiny nip of gel.  While it didn’t send me to the bushes, it did make my bowels cramp again. Seriously? Ugh. And in my lightheaded state, I took another digger. This time, a runner just ahead of me came back. “Are you okay?” Again, I said, “Yes, it’s what I do.” He replied “Well, let’s high five then!!” So we did, and he trotted off ahead. I wanted to walk, trying to convince myself that I didn’t care anymore, but found myself looking back, seeing headlamps, and broke into a jog to stay ahead. Low on calories, I was bobbing and weaving, and after staring at the bivouac lights for over 6 miles, I finally came across the finish line for the day. It was a bit after 9:00 PM – so 13+ hours on something I hoped I would cover in 10+.

I was given the 2 bottles of water, and made my way to my tent. Wes was the first finisher for tent #166, a few minutes ahead of me. He was trying to get the rocks out from under the Berber rug. We decided to go to the email tent and let our people at home know we were done and okay. Upon arriving, the email volunteer let us know that it was closing, but they were kind enough to let us get our message out quickly.

Back at the tent, I made a recovery drink and started sipping it cautiously. Perhaps because it was cool now, and I was so depleted, it went down okay. I got in my sleeping bag to rest while waiting for our tent mates. All day I had been waiting for Liza – my little Bandera runner – to catch and pass me, but it was not to be, so now I waited, worried, and hoped that she was safe and healthy.

I woke again at about 1:00 AM, as Ridouane came in. Then Jay.  Finally at 3:00, Ricky and Liza came in. I grabbed Liza in a big squeeze, so happy she was there, and okay. Last year she had such a difficult time with the heat, vomiting, and staying in tent along the way, that it was not a small victory for her to make it in without losing her cookies. Now only Christian was still out. I passed out once more, and awoke at 6:00 or so, to see that the entire tent #166 was present and accounted for. Later, Christian would state “I could have stopped and stayed in a crappy little tent at a check point, or I could keep moving and stay in a crappy little tent here.”

Now the day that I had been waiting for from the start – the rest day after the long day – was here! Two freeze dried meals! No running! We could nap if we wanted! Reality was different. Once that sun came up, it was intensely hot. Some of us “washed” our clothes in a cut off water bottle and spread them on the top of the tent to dry. I made my first meal, and let it sit in the sun. After eating it, there was little to do except try and stay cool. No matter where I was in the tent, it was hot. I could lay flat or sit up, didn’t matter. In the afternoon, Liza and I decided to “shower” by going to some imaginary boundary with some bottled water and strip down so we could rinse off and feel somewhat clean. Then back to the tent, as there was really nothing else to do. At some point Jason Schlarb dropped in and as we all started talking about food. He said they weren’t allowed to talk about food in his tent. We talked about chips and salsa, and about how the wives of some of the runners were amazing cooks. The foods that my tent mates had brought did not go unnoticed by me. Ricky pulled out several small meals he had created on his own. He would make one, eat it, then pull out another, and do it again. Meanwhile, Wes was eating smoked salmon from a tin foil pack. Ridouan was eating the meals his wife had prepared. Jay had some snacks that looked very good. Liza seemed to have and bottomless bag of mashed potatoes.

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Happy (?) tent mates  – me, Liza, Ridouane, Ricky, Jay, Christian, and poacher Sridhar. Photo by my camera.

Suffering in the tent heat, Liza pulled on her wet and freshly laundered shirt, stating that it made her feel much cooler. I finally gave in and followed suit, and had to agree with her! And as soon as that shirt was dry, it was HOT, so we got them wet again. As much as I wanted to start that second meal, I also didn’t want to eat it too many hours before bedtime, so I tried to eat a ProBar.  I really love ProBars. They are tasty. But I could only get 3/4 of the way through before I completely gave up, as it was making me sick. As the day become a bit cooler, I “cooked” my second meal, and then slowly and carefully savored every last bite.

Finally night had arrived and there was nothing to do but try and get some sleep on the cement like ground. Tomorrow was going to be only a marathon, a distance I know so well. After much tossing, turning, dreaming, it was finally morning. I couldn’t face another bar, or my morning drink. My lower intestines were actually sore from the cramping.

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Morning demolition by the Berber boys

Stage 5 26.2 Miles

This stage had an interesting element of having the top 100 runners starting an hour later than everyone else. Plus, this was a place were families could actually come out and see their runners. Wes and I wandered over to the start area, observing families reuniting. We simultaneously expressed that we would do anything to see our partners right then. The first wave started off, and it was rather inspiring to see everyone run off. Just one more hour in the hot sun, and we were off too. I was sure my stomach was all on board now, and I ran and chatted with Liza for the first few miles, and then feeling good, I began to pull away. Yes – I was going to have a good day, and then, No – my bowels were still unhappy. Off I went, into the wide open space to relieve myself. Ugh. I joined back into the conga line, Liza having passed me back. At the first checkpoint I was giddy when handed 2 bottles of COLD water! It was like heaven. I refilled my bottles, and doused with the rest. Feeling like I was better now, I picked up the pace, only to find myself off the trail squatting again. Oh for crying out loud, when would this end. Finally, I decided I need to find “The Pace At Which My Bowels Do Not Cramp” and thus began very slowly, with a gait that can only be described as running on eggshells with no vertical displacement. It felt somewhat contrived, but seemed to work, and as I got too exuberant, I again found myself seeking some sort of privacy.

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Please get me to the finish! Photo by MDS.

Each checkpoint offered warmer and warmer water. Finally with about 4 miles to go, we could see the finish.  I kept in control, up and over the many dunettes, and finally with out a quarter mile of very flat and hard ground, my bowels relaxed and let me RUN in. Done! Finally! The longest 6 days of my life had come to an end.

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One and Done! Photo by MDS.

As I picked up my 3 bottles of water, I was told I was needed over at the pack check tent. Apparently I had won my age group, as well as maintained 10th place, and with that comes the check to be sure I had all the mandatory equipment so I did not accrue any time penalties. I was checked by Marie, and she was very thorough and pleasant going through my things. Thankfully, it was all there. I made my way to the tent, where most of us were now, finished at last. Our friend Harvey, winner of Badwater last year, came to visit for awhile, and mentioned that there was a shower at the finish line. What? I decided it would be worth checking out, so I made my way over. There were several tents and canopies, and I did see something that might have been a shower, but the pipes were at least 7 ft up, and there was barely any mist coming out. I wandered around behind said tent, and found a man sitting in an SUV, next to a barrel of water with a hose. I asked him about the showers, in English, and he answered in French, then followed me around and pointed to the pipes with their pathetic mist, and went back to his car. I got it – there was no running water, and it was just a misting, and it would work if you were at least 6 feet tall. I went back to the tent and hung out – and at some point Ridouane asked if anyone wanted another meal. Wes and I answered at the same time “YES!” and agreed to share it. Both of us were fairly gaunt and very hungry, and completely devoid of pride. We added water and set it out in the heat to cook.

Now that the competitive sections were done, the times could be tallied, the places announced. There was an awards ceremony planned, with a stage and lights, and in the meanwhile we were entertained by a lovely French band and singer. Where did these people come from?? As dusk approached, the final runners came in, followed by the camel sweeps. Race employees were busy trying to erect a blow up screen to show video of some of the days preceding. Finally we had the awards ceremony, where I was one of the lucky recipients of a beautiful piece of art for my age group.

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Camel Sweeps

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Beautiful handcrafted award. Photo by MDS.

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Patrick said many, many words, that were translated by Marie in far fewer words, but the final words were “It’s time for a drink!” We had heard that we were going to be offered Coke and beer, but were given no further instructions. And so, like lemmings, we started moving about in the dark towards the middle of the bivouac. And then we moved back out. And then back in again. And finally a truck rolled into the darkness, and we were all offered nice cold Coke. It was heavenly, and I may have drank mine a bit fast. Back in our tent, we were able to see the movie from our “home.”

After the film, we tried to sleep. I had used ear plugs all week, but awoke in the middle of the night to some strange sounds. I pulled out the plugs and heard the wind whooshing through our tent. It was very loud and strong, and full of sand. It was only 2:00 am, and the sound was relentless. I tossed and turned with my tent mates. Finally, Jay got up to let one of the sides of the tent down to lessen the wind coming in. And after what seemed an eternity, morning finally arrived.

Stage 6 Solidarity Run 11 Miles

The wind was still strong, but we gathered our morning water, and an added treat of a new, clean T-shirt for the solidarity run. We joked about being able to run more if we had to – I said “I have more miles in my legs, but I don’t think I have anymore nights” and Christian said “I would pay twice as much money to spend half the time out here”. I expected to see a good number of civilian runners coming to join us, for all the hoopla, but saw only a few yellow shirts designating them. We had 11 miles ahead of us, and Jay, Liza, Ricky, Wes, and I were planning on running together. Riduoan was still nursing the sore hamstring, and Christian was, I believe, the most determined of all of us to get the heck out of here and onto the bus. As we gathered for the start, “Highway to Hell” began blaring again, and I was reduced to tears. I was so, so, tired. I was over it at least 3 days ago. I did not want to run on one more inch of sand. But more than that, I wanted to go home to my boyfriend, my animals, my way of living, and I still felt so disconnected from that reality. The five of us grouped up, and at the signal, were off, nice and slow.

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Me, Wes, Liza, Jay, and Ricky, celebrating some real solidarity! Photo by MDS.

Thankfully, these 11 miles were pretty flat. We laughed and joked, puttering along, staring ahead. There were no checkpoints, which meant no water. As we finally approached some sort of community with some palm trees and buildings, our spirits were buoyed. And like all evil race endings, we had a bit of meandering to do before we finally saw the finish line. It was replete with race organizers, all holding medals to adorn us with. I ended up getting mine, plus the kisses, from Patrick.

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Liza and me

And just like that, it was over. Jay had arranged a private car ride back to Ouarzazate with a Moroccan friend whom had run the race before. As we climbed in, Jay asked if we could shortly stop for some food. A few villages later, we were in a town shop, buying beverages, loaves of bread, cheese, and potato chips, all for about $4. On through the desolate landscape, we drove for 4+ hours, until finally we were back at Ouarzatate. Our bags were there, and Liza and I checked into our room. It had beds and everything. We took showers, dried off and still made our towels dirty, looked at our emaciated bodies in the mirror and broke into hysterics. Soon we were at a cafe with Ricky and Jay, each of us eating an entire pizza, and then some. That was dinner number 1. Two hours later we were back at the hotel where a buffet awaited us. I dug right in. Liza, Wes, Jay, Rid, Schlarb, and Sondre, exchanged more stories all evening long.

One and done – my first race that I have had that sentiment. I gave myself some time to make that statement, but by the 3rd stage I was certain I would not do this event again. It was purgatory. It was the harshest environment I have run in. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. And I don’t regret it for a moment. I wanted to experience it, because I couldn’t have understood what it was like otherwise. Now I can draw on this experience when I’m running other events. And the friendships forged in our tent are absolutely priceless. We have a plan – first of all a hotline for anyone who is thinking about signing up for MDS again, and secondly, for a reunion in someplace lovely, like the Tetons.

I can’t necessarily recommend this experience for everyone. I can offer advice – extra toilet paper for bloody noses, less race food and more real food, a little bit of a sleeping pad, and a sense of humor. It might be good for someone who has some serious life issues to work through. Or someone who really wants to escape their daily routine in a big way. I can offer some good training tips – find some sand, lots of it, and never believe for one minute that you know how to run on it for days on it. Train with a heavy pack and lots of miles – which I did nail. I had lots of realizations – I really like some basic comforts, like a good mattress, a plate and utensils, technology, and the daily interactions with my boyfriend. I had no epiphanies or change of life moments, but some pretty incredible memories, and a whole lot of gratitude for all that is good in my life.

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The real souvenirs!

I owe a lot of thanks to the Ultra Trail World Tour and Marathon des Sables for financing this trip for me, to Altra for shoes that kept my feet healthy and comfortable, UVU Racing for an awesome shirt that kept me comfortable in the blaring sun and heat, Nathan Sports for working with me to come up with an incredible and well fitting pack that held my life for 8 days, Injinji socks for keeping my toes blister free, Gu Energy labs and Magda Boulet for supplying me with all the Gu I needed and then some, Meghan Hicks for answering my countless questions, to my tent mates for making the miserable more tolerable, to all of the folks who sent me emails, and most of all, to my boyfriend Mark for his daily encouragement, keeping other friends and family updated on my status, and for taking care of the goats and donkeys.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Hello from Pompeii and the Worst Hotel | Liza Howard

  2. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News, Mon, June 27 - UltrarunnerPodcast.com

  3. njoyearth

    Wow i really eny what you did thats amazing. I started my Training for 2018 mds. I have never ever ran on any races iam starting from scratch. I have run 1 time 28k for fun. Aß i found out about mds i knew this was Something i had to do. Any help i Would great appriciate.
    Many greetings David

    July 18, 2016 at 5:40 am

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