Not Too Shabby Times Three

On January 9, 2009, in Running, by Meghan

My Catholic school roots still infuse enough guilt into my otherwise agnostic existence that I feel obliged to tell this tale as a confession. Bless me, judicious runners, for I have committed with intention a grave sin of our sport: I ran in a manner for which I was untrained. And, I did it three times. I beseech your absolution; I hope you don’t do what I did; and, I aspire that you are entertained.

I am training for a certain race, the Marathon des Sables (MdS). I hear that it is an outrageous week-long race where you run many miles every day in the blistering heat of Morocco whilst carrying all of your own eating, sleeping, and just plain living supplies. I have also learned that planning and training for the MdS is possibly as intense as the race itself.

Here are some of the critical constituents of planning and training for MdS:

  • saving up lots of money
  • preparing for international travel to Africa
  • creating a cache of lightweight race gear
  • training for racing long distances day after day
  • heat training for that Moroccan sun
  • preparing for running on Sahara Desert sand
  • training for racing with a weighted pack

While there are a few things on the aforementioned list that I have been working on, I haven’t yet tackled most of them with the rigor they deserve, in particular training for racing with a weighted pack.

Inov-8 Rave Pro 22 pack, my racing back for this year's Marathon des Sables (from

I donned a MdS weight pack (14 pounds by the scale in my bathroom) for the first time on an almost 15 mile, 2500 foot elevation gain run three weekends ago. Had I exercised a modicum of common sense or good training principles, I would have over time increased both my pack weight and distance traveled, instead of jumping right into the proverbial deep end. However, my Dad once told me that I had been blessed in life with more than enough academic intelligence and much too little common sense, and I still believe his statement to be true. True to my own form, I cast logic and reason aside and ran a long way with a heavy pack, mostly because I was curious about whether I was strong enough for the endeavor.

By the way, I’ve taken substantial liberty with the use of the word “run” in the previous paragraph, since shuffling is probably the more accurate descriptor of what occurred during those 3 hours and 20 minutes. What I learned is that I can move with the approximate expediency of a tortoise with an overloaded shell. All self-depreciation aside, I was elated to discover that I can fairly shuffle with a MdS weight pack over some onerous terrain.

Since I didn’t die, didn’t become injured, and since running with a pack wasn’t prohibitive of any other training days, I took to the trails again for another pack run two weekends ago. Circumstances were a little odd because of a logistical challenge, but I carried a 16 pound pack over 18 miles with about 1200 feet of elevation gain in 3:05 (To accurately report, I had a 15-ish minute break at the 1:35, 9 mile mark to change running venues.). The first 9-ish miles were over rolling single track, and the second 9-ish miles were on superduper flat double track.

After two weeks of apparent pack running success, I did it all again last weekend. I ran several times over the course of the weekend with a 13 pound pack for a few more miles than I care to admit here, simply because you will all sigh and think, “stupid girl.”

Running with a bunch of weight on one’s back is an exceptional enterprise, and I have some observations from my first several experiences:

  • It changes my center of gravity, which changes the way I behave on technical trail.
  • Running with a pack pounds on the joints. It’s a great way to tangibly see how weight gain (whether it be on the body or by putting on a pack) could be injurious.
  • It requires a very strong core and upper back.
  • The additional weight causes my gait to change as it keeps me closer to the ground. I find that the pack shuffle works the fronts of my shins and hip flexors a lot more than pack-free running.
  • It’s all about momentum. The hardest part is finding the strength to get the weight headed in the right direction; once moving, I can kind of let momentum carry me forward.
  • Arm strength is good for pack running. The harder I can swing my arms, the faster I will travel.
  • Running with a pack requires more mental focus, mostly to keep the lolly gagging to a minimum.

It’s abundantly clear to me that my upper back and arms need much more strength, and my leg muscles need to adapt to the modified running gait. I need to practice moving along technical terrain in order to develop a new kind of coordination and confidence. And, I think I just plain need more leg muscle to do this very hard kind of running for a week.

However, I was really happy with my core strength over both of these runs. I’m elated, also, that, on the second pack run, I ran the second 9 miles in 1:25, which included stopping twice to chat with other hikers for a minute or two, and 3 very brief stops for Junebug the Border Collie to drink out of creeks (This was hard work, though!). And, last week, I ran the entirety of a 58 minute sustained climb up a jeep road (Not very challenging, actually, and the downhill pounding produced more physical discomfort.). In conclusion, I can report that my first several MdS weight pack runs weren’t too shabby at all, and I’m still hoping that y’all will forgive me.

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10 Responses to “Not Too Shabby Times Three”

  1. SteveQ says:

    There’s a bunch of guys (and so far, one gal) who do the Arrowhead 135 pulling sleds with their gear; I know a bunch of them, if you want advice on how they do it – though they do it in temps 150 degrees colder than MdS.

    You’ll need lots of vaccinations before the trip. Get them early! They’ll make you sick for about a week.

  2. Bob - says:

    what up Shabby… umm I think u owe me a return call 🙂

    way to get the back pack training in already, you will be so ready…keep that focus!!

    Happy 09′

    wait is that u calling…..

    nope 🙁

    lets catch uppppppppp!

  3. Backofpack says:

    Ah, Meghan…you’ve stumbled on to the secret that many of us won’t admit…that we go out and commit these same grave sins on a regular basis. Not running with a heavy pack, but in many other ways too numerous to count. You are forgiven, my dear, you are forgiven.

    And, your Dad put it much more nicely than mine. Mine told me “although you are book-smart, you don’t have the sense God gave a goose!”.

  4. Danni says:

    Hey, at least you are preparing!

  5. Trail Goat says:

    What us excuse seeking ultrarunners cal your type of training is specificity training. In training you ran what you were not prepared to run, just like you will be doing during the race itself. I mean, who are we kidding if we think we will be “prepared” for MdS? Ha! Not likely. All we can do is attempt to put ourselves in a position of being familiar with being ridiculously unprepared for the task at hand.

    To wit, I will be MdS training when we attempt to snowshoe across Yellowstone next weekend. The “run” will be nothing like the Marathon des Sables in that it will be cold and we’ll be running on snow, rather than over sand in blazing heat. However, I will be ridiculously unprepared for the Yellowstone adventure. How could I possibly be prepared to snowshoe 50 miles in three days ….. when I’ve never SEEN someone snowshoe. Perfect MdS training indeed! 🙂

  6. Journey to a Centum says:

    Sounds like a great adventure that should certainly provide a great deal of motivation for proper training. Except for the fact that one of your goals is to save buckets of money it sounds like a CrossFit gym membership would fit nicely in the plan.

    I can’t wait to follow your progress at the MdS.

  7. Sunshine Girl says:

    Just wear your pack to work, at work, after work and it’ll all be good. Oh, and maybe some sessions in front of the mirror dancing and singing to Mama Mia, whilst wearing your pack. That’ll be sweet. Please take photos.

  8. saschasdad says:

    Perfect training…that’s what I say, dear Meghan. I mean really – what self-respecting ultrarunner wants to spend time gradually building up the pack weight. That would border on blasphemy.

  9. JeffO says:

    Wait… Running with a heavy pack is sinful? I am truly evil, for sure! A regular unrepentant trail-whore, I am.
    It’s too late for me, but save yourself!
    I absolve thee from thy sins, past and future, in the name of your father, your dog, and the holy shoe. (Wow, funny how spell-check changed that last word.)

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