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In the waning light of Tuesday’s dusk, a race official visited Tent 100 with news that Wednesday’s long stage would be 91 kilometers, 56 or so miles. It’s a part of Marathon des Sables (MdS) tradition to have a long stage, and this one would be a bit longer than usual.

Tradition also dictates that, during the long stage, the fastest men and women start 3 hours after the main pack of runners. Some say that delaying the zippiest folks gives race organizers more time to assemble the finish line and bivouac. Others say it toughens the stage for the top runners. Either way, the idea of being in the late starting group inspired in me feelings of trepidation and, well, just plain terror. As such, at 9am on Wednesday morning, MdS’s third stage began, and I watched in moderate horror from the sidelines, wishing I were one of those 800 or so people beginning a long journey through the Sahara Desert.

At high noon, MdS’s 50 fastest men and 5 fastest women stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a single line across a dusty stretch of desert. The starting line, bivouac, and gaggles of people were long, long gone. The day was windy, and small walls of sand and dust blowing across the desert hit us in warm waves as we stood on our imaginary starting line. With the sun near the sky’s apex, the terrain appeared overexposed and bleached. Absolute Sahara Desert wilderness enveloped us, pressing into our small group from every direction. As I stood there, I experienced a remarkable transition: true fear and intimidation evolved into, “Hell yeah, let’s run.” I was suddenly so ready to run that the race director’s simple countdown from 10 in French seemed to extend millennia. Alas, it ended, and our race began.

From the start, Morocco Didi took the women’s lead, and Spain Luz was shortly behind her. I started at an easy pace, what felt like an infant’s crawl in this group of very fast people, and vowed to keep it for the whole day. I knew that I should be able to run all of those 56 miles at this pace or better, and that I would later make my way through the field of runners. It was disheartening, though, to see all the runners disappearing into the distance; Belgium Sarah, Great Britain Jennifer, and I were the slowest 3 runners of those 55 late starters for many miles.

Sarah, Jennifer, and I ran in a mini-peloton, working together against a fierce headwind. This headwind was strong, and it would continue to be for over 30 miles. Throughout this unceasing turbulence, I channeled memories of running so many miles through Montana’s ever-windy Paradise Valley, and the mental toughness I surely derived from it. Our mini-peloton broke apart by about mile 15 when first Sarah and then Jennifer fell off the back (I would later learn when I saw her hobbling through the bivouac on crutches that Sarah DNF’ed the stage and race due to severe blisters. So sad!).

About this same time, I began to overtake the 9am starters and I was quickly amongst throngs of happy, cheering, awesome MdS runners (Thank you to the hundreds of you who cheered for me during this day!). One of my favorite greetings was my red-hot reception into the second checkpoint by my new Canadian friends, Dan, Darren, Leo, and Andy. They hooted, hollered, and made the desert a rocking place to be!

Just after the second checkpoint, I spotted Spain Luz ahead, coming back to me. An unchecked adrenaline surge led me straight to her, and my arrival initiated an amusing cat-and-mouse game that would occupy our time for the next 10 miles. Together, Luz and I eased into the fourth checkpoint, the 50-kilometer mark, at about 6:20pm. Shadows were long; the wind was beginning to abate; and sunset was on the literal horizon. I noticed that Luz was pausing at the checkpoint to eat some solid food and to do a little nighttime gear preparation. In an effort to put some distance between us, I took my gear preps to the road and powerhiked while I changed glasses, added arm sleeves, put on my headlamp, and attached the required glow stick to my pack.

Once I was running again, I felt amazing. I glided over dunes, navigated a rocky reg smoothly, and moved at a far increased pace. I had decided to acknowledge how good I was feeling by running strong until dark, covering as much ground in daylight as possible. This decision proved wise because it allowed me to cross the stage’s hardest terrain, a 500-ish foot tall jebel, before night’s witching hour. I was feeling so strong that ran up the trail-less gully to the jebel’s crest, receiving many encouraging cheers along the way.

As I bounded down through the sand at the bottom of the jebel, I suddenly felt a wave of nausea followed by an immediate vomiting bout, Sean Meissner-style. I continued to run amidst the heaving, fairly scaring a man I passed right then, and feeling confused about why I was sick (I can’t say for certain why I threw up, but I suspect that my body needed a system reset after ingesting too much salt.). My race suffered some during the next 20 kilometers or so, from the base of the jebel, through the fifth checkpoint, and into the sixth checkpoint. I wasn’t nauseous anymore, but I couldn’t yet eat anything. Also, my headlamp was too dim; I had scrimped on light brightness to carry the smallest, most lightweight headlamp that exists, and, for me, this was a mistake. I still ran, but my pace was decreased.

I rolled into the sixth and final checkpoint at the 79-kilometer mark astonished that Luz hadn’t yet caught me, believing that it was inevitable. Just as I left the checkpoint, heading back into the dark night, I heard Luz announcing her arrival there. Luz’s nearby presence lit in me a brand-new and bright fire. In those moments, another evolution occurred: I switched from survival mode to fighting mode. I forced myself to eat a package of Clif Shot Bloks; I put my iPod away to focus hard; I picked up my pace until it felt uncomfortable, and willed myself to hold it. And, finally, I strategized a response to her possible passage: I would hang on her shoulder, fighting, to the finish. And, so, I ran damn hard.

Then, a funny thing happened about 5 kilometers from the finish. Luz didn’t pass me; in fact, she never did. Instead, I came upon a male Spanish runner, Luz’s country-mate. In an unlikely tag-team, we pushed each other, turning over what felt like a triplet of sub-8-minute miles (An 8-minute mile out there is speedy, please believe.). I crossed the finish line a few minutes after midnight, after just over 12 hours of racing.

The finish line was dark, quiet, and just plain eerie in the middle of the night. I immediately felt like crap, and began the overworked runner’s hobble to Tent 100. The long day, my vomiting and subsequent undernourishment, and my last 12-kilometer effort left me feeling terrible. I lay around in pain for a few hours, forcing in liquids and food. In retrospect, Tent 100 was a humorous place to be, as a bunch of us were whimpering and writhing in discomforts of various sorts. Finally, around 2 or 3am, my condition stabilized, and I was comfortable enough to fall into a deep sleep.

In the morning, I felt a million times better! I was stiff, tired, and I had developed a few toe blisters, but the low-level discomfort I felt seemed to fit in the realm of normal for what had just occurred. All systems were go for a day of recovery. This long stage had a 34-hour cutoff, which meant a day-ish of rest for those who finished within 24 or so hours. Boy was I excited about this day of recovery!

A tent mate brought outstanding news on Thursday late morning: I had finished 8 minutes behind Didi, and 12 minutes ahead of Luz. I remained second in the overall race rankings, 45 minutes behind Didi, and 22 minutes ahead of Luz. I placed 34th in Stage 3. All of those results were phenomenal, but what made me whoop and holler were those 12 minutes gained on Luz in the final 12 kilometers of the stage. I fought hard out there, and the numbers showed it.

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6 Responses to “MdS Stage 3: Sun, Wind, Sand, And The Thoughtful Appearance Of Sean Meissner In The Desert”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanx for renaming this blog ! Have a s peaceful and happy sunday as you can W/ 10,000 low landers in YOUR valley
    LPH
    OTG

  2. Sunshine Girl says:

    With the great title of this posting, I thought you were going to have some good ol’ fashioned heat-fatigue-race-induced hallucinations. Like where Meissner comes running up to you and SHOUTS: ATTA’ GIRL!
    (but no, you puked.)

    Meghan, I looooove this story! And it’s all yours. What a great run you had out there in the desert night. You’ve written it up beautifully.

  3. JeffO says:

    Ditto. You don’t just blog – you write a very nice prose.

  4. Backofpack says:

    Wow Meghan, this is great. You’ve got a book in the making here. Thanks for answering my food question. I have to admit that I can’t quite imagine it – how you carried enough food and water. I think of the endless eating that we do following a race and wonder how you could have possibly carried enough to get you through.

    A race in the desert – amazing.
    The logistics to race in the desert – stunning.
    The gear and food prep to run in the desert – overwhelming.
    The training to run in the desert – staggering.

    Wow, you are something Meghan!

  5. saschasdad says:

    okay, I didn’t even read the post, but just the title was enough to get a response out of me. I’ll read it with great anticipation now!

  6. E-Speed says:

    God you are inspiring girl! What an amazing race and experience!

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