Indurare: The 2010 Marathon des Sables

On May 15, 2010, in Racing, by Meghan

(A parenthetical hello from Meghan: This is not your typical race report. If you’ve come for pictures, you won’t find any. If you seek a race description and results in a neat little package, it’s not here, either. But, if you’ve arrived for the whole, word-y story about my running of the 2010 Marathon des Sables in all of its onion-like layers, grab a cup of tea and have a read.)

* * *

Rissani, a tiny village in the Sahara Desert and along the 2010 Marathon des Sables race route, is rendered by French artists Ceza and Vincent (image by Cimbaly).

* * *

I found a rope’s end while lying on the Berber rug of a medical tent during Stage 4 of the Marathon des Sables. When I climbed out of the tent and into the wee hours of a Sahara Desert night, I realized that it was my own. I let go of its frayed end while a million pinpricks of stars flickered in an African sky above me, and I felt so freaking free.

* * *

Sickness beset me on the Marathon des Sables course. I lay horizontal in a medical tent at Checkpoint 6 of Stage 4, near the end of the long stage, for 8 hours. I was also given 2 hours of penalties by the race administration for the medical treatment I chose to receive. While I don’t know with precision what I did to myself, I suspect it had to do with calories, or first eating too few, then eating the wrong kinds.

Recall that the Marathon des Sables is a race in which you live for a week out of the pack on your back. If you find yourself in the position in which you have no food left for a given day, you choose to either: 1. go hungry for the rest of the day, or 2. dig into another day’s food stash, thereby risking hunger on another day. When I came up short on racing food with a bit over ten miles to go in the long stage, I simply opened my pack and grabbed the first bag of food I found. I was belly-rumbling hungry, and I felt like I could eat anything.

I didn’t choose easy-to-digest-while-running-in-100-degree-Fahrenheit-weather food, and its sweet relief in my belly was soon replaced by rounds of good, old-fashioned vomiting. A medical professional greeted me about 50 meters out from Checkpoint 6; someone must have alerted the officials that there was a lady puking in the dunes. I told them I was okay, and they backed off to a concerned hover. I stood in the checkpoint for a few minutes, then I sat, then I lay. The next thing I knew I was in the medical tent and I didn’t remember how I got there.

* * *

If you ask me why I ran the Marathon des Sables in 2009 and 2010, I’ll give you some hokey answer about a love of exploring new places. I’ll probably also drivel on about pushing myself in challenging environments. I have a confession: these are the reasons why I want to be an ultrarunner, but they are only sometimes true. Other times, I’m simply, sadly an ultrarunner because I use experiences like these to run away from life. How’s that for biting truth?

The truth is that I took to trail and ultrarunning when my dad died. My dad died suddenly and swiftly, as a young man still, just over four years ago. During that time, while I lost my dad for good, I also lost my mom for several years. She disappeared into a cave of pain that was almost as far off and unreachable as my dad’s grave.

I had always been a runner, and in the months after my dad died in the spring of 2006, I began running the trails around my home. I was working in Yellowstone National Park, and its 1000 miles of trails became my grieving grounds. God, I couldn’t stand my life or even my own skin then, and dances along trails allowed me to escape artist them both long enough that I could return and survive another day. Perhaps only the Montana and Wyoming dirt under my feet that summer understood just how much it harbored my sanity.

In the intervening years since that summer, I’ve held tight to this coping mechanism. I have run away from life and nearly into the arms of Yellowstone grizzly bears, to humid Costa Rica, Canada, above 13,000 feet in several mountain ranges, through the root-y forests of Texas’ Hill Country, to the tops of the Sierra Nevada’s granitic peaks, and not just once, but twice, across the far reaches of the Sahara Desert!

I know I’m well-accompanied in the way I use running to cope. I’ve seen trail-bound buddies who run away from one addictive tendency and right into one of the ultrarunning kind. We’ve all witnessed examples of those with food issues, folks who eat too little or too much, who endeavor to leave their food frenzies far away on some distant road or trail. And, what about the shining examples of social misfit-tery who funnel into endurance athletics because running for 4 or 24 hours requires little human interaction? As a coping mechanism, I’m certain that running has delivered many through times of duress. In the end, though, I can’t imagine it healthy to forever, or a for a lifetime, at least, bind endurance sport with the ghosts of problems present and past.

* * *

Stage 4 began with a 14 or so kilometer crossing of a wide expanse of dry earth and a bit of sand. A competitor’s thermometer read 80 degrees Fahrenheit as we crossed that sandy swath of planet Earth, and a fired-up breeze made it feel positively cool.

The day stretched long and hot; the day’s running distance was an even 50 miles, and the day’s maximum temperature reached 51 degrees Celcius. In the heat of the afternoon, I found myself running across a “reg,” which is Arabic for “rock field” or something similar. The ground was brown, and scattered everywhere were black rocks about the size of baseballs, softballs, and occasionally footballs. The rocks were a few inches apart from each other, so every footfall brought you atop, at least in part, a rock. As common terrain in the Sahara Desert, this reg was probably the twentieth that we had so far crossed.

Smatterings of camelgrass, a thigh-high shrub made of very skinny, waxy “leaves” and a favorite camel snack, dotted the reg. April in the Sahara means spring, so sparse yellow and pink flowers waved in a super-heated afternoon breeze. When I turned towards the horizon, I saw water in every direction at ground level. Mirages and the refraction of light invaded my thoughts, and I giggled at my inner science dork. Beyond and above the mirages lay ranges of high country, called “jebels,” made of fun colors like orange and red. The mountains seemed close, but any elevational deviation from this flat expanse was at least 10 kilometers away in every direction.

Explorers taught us a few hundred years ago that the Earth is almost round. Still, that rock field felt like the near-end of our great big planet. I was filled with inexplicable emotions as I ran, both joy and pain, and I told a couple of complete strangers with whom I’d been sharing the route as much. “It’s just so hard!” one replied. The other said, “We all have our bad patches.” They were both right, but they didn’t hit my nail on the head. I was not having a bad patch, and most days, even the Marathon des Sables running days, I think running is easy as compared to the rest of life. I caught sight of the next water checkpoint, the 50 kilometer mark, a few miles off in the distance. To distract myself from these unknown emotions, I fixated on it and ran.

* * *

I recall that, as a sophomore on my high school track team, I spent my days trying to become a sprinter and seeking acceptance from the upperclassmen girls. I succeeded at both when I bested everyone in a 400 meter race at a junior varsity meet so small that the boys and girls raced together. I gained a nickname from the older girls and a spot in every girl’s 400 meter varsity race for the rest of the season.

Within a year and for reasons I didn’t understand, I developed a a love-hate relationship with that distance. In this, I invented an odd pre-race ritual that involved my father. No matter the meet’s location, weather, or his work commitments, I always found my dad leaning on the fence at the track’s 300 meter mark. I would approach him with chattering teeth, a physiologic sign of unease. My dad would say, “You’re nervous, aren’t you?” I always replied, “I don’t want do this.” Without hesitation, my father answered, “You’ll come around.” and I would return to my race.

I derived deep comfort in this ritual-ed exchange, but I didn’t really know why. I now understand that the relief came from the unspoken emotions between the words. When my dad asked me if I was nervous, he was really saying, You’re doubting yourself, I can see. The emotion behind my response was akin to, Oh yeah, I pretty much think I suck right now. What he really meant with his send-off statement was, You are strong, and you’ll find that this will make you even stronger. In this exchange, my dad wasn’t giving me strength, he was reminding me of that which I already possessed.

* * *

I don’t intend to denigrate others’ Marathon des Sables experiences, but I’ve found it pretty easy to run twice across the Sahara Desert. I, of course, acquire sore and tired muscles. My feet grow hardy blisters. Living in the same set of clothes for seven days is disgusting. Running around with a heavy backpack feels, well, heavy. Living on a bit of dehydrated backpacking food and twenty squares of toilet paper per day are true challenges. I know the discomforts, but I feel few of them.

Which is why I was surprised to become aware of myself lying on the floor of a medical tent, crying in heaving, soul-shaking gasps, begging to “abandon,” or drop from the race. “There, there,” Helene, a middle-aged French nurse who was caring for me, said through a thick accent and in a mother-like tone, “you are sick now, but you will be well soon. You do not need to abandon.” I begged and cried some more, and she called another nurse, Sabrine, in as her back-up. Sabrine, a no-nonsense, twenty-something woman dangling an unlit cigarette in her fingers as she headed out of the medical tent for a break, had no words of support. She smirked and rolled her eyes at me as she left the tent.

Her demeanor stopped my emotional upheaving in its tracks. I felt distinct embarrassment, wanting to rewind time just enough to take those words back. Coward, I thought, as I watched Sabrine comb her hair in the side-view mirror of a Land Rover while taking a long pull on that cigarette, I have no reason quit.

* * *

Most people call running, well, all except for that silly sprinting stuff, an endurance sport. The word “endurance” has roots in the Latin word “indurare.” In Latin, “dura” is a verb that means “to harden.” In literal translation, then, to endure is to harden. I think this probably means to grow strong, to adapt, to not feel the effects of. That is, perhaps the more hardened, more adapted we are to the effects of running, the better we will run. And, the better we run, the more we will harden, adapt. To a person who loves to put foot sole to ground, that sounds like a fine positive feedback loop.

Few will argue the straight fact that life requires endurance as much as it makes endurance, too. Life can sometimes be rough, but getting through one bad patch makes the next one easier. It is also my opinion that the endurance acquired from running is translatable without mutation to other challenging aspects of life. That is, being a tough runner can help us through a problematic life event.

Then, there is the unhealthy way of using running to not deal with life that I had been using for several years. You can try to run away from life with running, oh yes you can! This works for a while, a long while, I learned. I found that you can run all the way to the figurative end of the Earth on some rock field in the Sahara Desert. I found that you can run yourself literally into the ground of a sandy Berber rug inside a Marathon des Sables medical tent. And, just when you think you’ve outrun your life, it’ll be staring you back through the beady little eyes of a French nurse.

* * *

My 2010 Marathon des Sables finisher’s medal now hangs on my bedroom mirror with last year’s. I might have run faster and smarter in 2009, but I’m much prouder of my 2010 finish.

On the last day of racing, the final bit of course passed through a pile of red sand dunes called Erg Merzouga. From the dunes, I could see the ridiculous, silver, fifty foot tall inflatable tea kettles of the race’s sponsor straddling the finish line a few kilometers off. The runners around me sped up.

I slowed to a walk so that I would remember the details. Wave upon wave of red sand rose towards a robin’s egg blue sky. A race photographer sat perched on a dune crest. For him, I jumped the dune crest and cartwheeled over the other side. He laughed wildly, but said he missed the shot. I turned around and went back over the dune to do it all again. I could hear him still laughing as I trotted off, kid-like. I gave away my remaining food, some to a local child in a purple sweater and some to another American runner who was in the middle of a weaving, stumbling, caloric bonk.

I ran the last few dunes through a line of spectators. They shouted “Bravo, madame! Bravo!” and rang cattle bells with vigor. The giant silver tea kettles dipped and bobbed in the Sahara Desert’s hot breeze. Patrick Bauer, the race director who gives every one of the nearly 1000 finishers their medals, hung a medal around my neck and added a traditional 3-cheek kiss. I hugged lots of people, including people I didn’t know or recognize, simply because that’s what you do when you complete a life journey.

A bit later, as I sat on my designated bus out of the desert, I saw Helene and Sabrine standing in front of my bus, talking with other race administrators. I ran down the aisle, jumped off the bus, and into the arms of Helene first. She didn’t know what stinky runner had hit her until I backed away from her a bit. She grabbed my medal and shook it hard, saying, “Meghan! I didn’t think you would do it!” Sabrine’s angst-y expression broke into a joyful smile and she said, “I knew you would.” I thanked them both for their medical help because I possessed not the French vocabulary to articulate the other kind of help they purveyed.

* * *

Helene cut me loose from my IV needle with a little squirt of blood that trickled its way down my arm. She smiled, a tired 4 a.m. smile, and said, “Oops.” One hand cleaned up the mess while the other rested on my shoulder. Through latex gloves and the cultural barrier between a French nurse and an American runner in the Moroccan wilderness, I sensed her encouragement. “Thank you,” I said and her hand tightened around my shoulder into a hug, “I think I’m going to go now.”

I sat up, then kneeled, then stood up, and, finally, walked around the checkpoint just a bit to make sure I was put back together again. I returned to the medical tent for my backpack and a final good-bye. I looked around for Sabrine, to thank her, and found her sleeping in the dark behind some boxes of medical supplies, snoring loudly. I left her alone and instead spoke with Helene. She said as I left, “Have endurance.” As I emerged from the checkpoint, into a silent, lonesome, Sahara night, I thought, I finally do.

People talk a lot about out-of-body experiences, but I can safely say that the 10 kilometer walk I took that early morning to the Stage 4 finish line was an extraordinary in-body experience. I recall feeling the muscles in my body, all of them, contract and relax in fluid motion. The sky was a midnight blue with a million, trillion, zillion stars that each seemed this-close to my face and a big, even bolder moon. Night soon gave way to morning, and I learned at the rocks around me were a muted, chalky white. I discovered a small, coiled, unmoving viper next to the trail.

I thought about the last four years of my life, and I wondered about how much of it I missed, couldn’t see, didn’t want to see, while I was out running. I thought about the piece of me that I left at Checkpoint 6, the part of me who wanted so badly to escape from that which was hard, in this case to abandon the race. Good grief, I escaped it, but not without stripping myself clean to the core, and then some. I had to find the end of the Earth, empty completely the physical capacity of my own body, and submit myself to the cattle-prod pushing of 2 French nurses during one very long day in the Sahara Desert. As I approached the huge, inflatable tea kettles of the Stage 4 finish line, I resolved to use the strength I’ve gained from this endurance sport that traces its way all the way back to those high school track meet conversations with my dad, to face life head on.

* * *

The requisite afterward: I now understand why people experience exquisite dreams and visions while they are at the Marathon des Sables. You leave behind all the trimmings of your usual life, you travel half way across the world into unfamiliar terrain, and you expose yourself to an array of physical and emotional challenges. If regular life is a swim in a big, ol’ muddy river, then experiences like the Marathon des Sables are akin to dunking one’s head under a clear, mountain stream.

In the desert, clarity became king. But then, with a slip-sliding belly flop, I dropped back into the muddy river of life with its suspended sediment, eddies, and debris dams. I’m ashamed to say that, with all of life’s distractions, I haven’t much applied the “indurare” I rediscovered in the Sahara Desert. I suppose these things take time, and I’m trying my damn-dest to keep the clear view.

29 Responses to “Indurare: The 2010 Marathon des Sables”

  1. chelle says:

    Like everything, it's a process. The fruits of Morocco are like the rarest of tea leaves that need to steep for a while in the big inflatable tea pot that is you. I suppose that everything we experience in life contributes to the flavour of the brew, but it sounds like you got a heaping dose of herb on this last outing.

    Be gentle with yourself. I don't think you hide away from life as much as you claim. You've chosen a path that is a little less conventional and gives you more alone time than most, but who's to judge that a bad thing? If you decide at some point to shift gears and start interacting with the world in other, different ways, that's just as valid a choice and you can't know how that will turn out until you try it. Crooked trails everywhere we look…and what fun it is to tackle the new ones where we least expect them!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Holy crap Meghan. Awesome post – really awesome. I remember trying to figure out where the hell you were during the long stage, and definitely wondered about the heat and the conditions there… As I recall, you puked even during the "well strategized" 2009 race, so I can't imagine what this year was like. I'm glad I wasn't there, I would have died for sure.

    Beautiful exploration of why (sometimes)you run these events.

    Hope you're recovered by now

    Bill H

  3. Leslie's Keith says:

    Since I'm 'wordless'…(but never 'speechless')…my comments will have to wait a week or two…fantastic read…and can't wait to see you in June!!



  4. JeffO says:

    I guess lots of ultra runners are running away from something, but many are running towards something too. It's hard to imagine you actually running away from anything. You've been living, feeling, exploring. That's what it's all about, right?
    I don't know about you, but I think and feel better when I'm running. There are fewer distractions. I figure out more.
    Running has been my salvation. I'm sure it has been yours too, no matter how rough it has been.

  5. TonyP says:

    Great, great post Meghan!

  6. givmhale says:

    Well said and done. Positively the best blog you have written. Cheers to your endurance…

  7. Ewa says:

    What a beautiful and thoughtful person you are. I don't think you are running away from life. To the contrary, you are experiencing it to the fullest. It is the rest of us who are afraid of a challenge who are not really living.
    Happy trails Meghan. Thank you for this wonderful post.

  8. Corrick family says:

    Meghan, what a well written post! I agree with the tea analogy – give it time. Much love to you.

  9. Gretchen says:

    ThankyouThankyouThankyou for writing this Meghan! I know it probably wasn't easy. It wasn't that easy to read either, not through the tears that flowed continually from the very first sentence. So beautiful though.

    In some ways, yes, maybe running is an addiction, a coping mechanism. Do we need to make excuses for that? It doesn't appear that you're doing much "not dealing" with life at the moment. Of course, only you can judge that, not me, but that's my viewpoint. I see you as being richly involved with life.

    Some people might read a post like this and think, "this person is crazy." But to me, it says everything about why we run so far. Not because we're running away(!), but because the intensity of those moments, those "scraping the bottom of your soul and still getting back up" moments, are what remind us that we have a soul, that we are alive, and that we make our own choices, choose our own path.

    So you've fallen back into real life? That's not a bad thing, don't be so hard on yourself! We can't exist in the clarity of that desert view all the time, it would be too intense, like staring directly into the sun. You can take fleeting glimpses, but then you have to look away. But these lessons are still inside, and you'll carry them with you.

    Thanks again for writing this, Meghan. Truly, this is my most favorite blog post that I have ever read.(I don't just mean post by you, I mean period.) I will be coming back to this one, for sure.

  10. Iris says:

    Thanks for sharing this post Meghan. It left me thinking.

  11. Thomas says:

    Wow, that's possibly the best non-race report I've ever read.

    A lot of us runners are running away from something, that's not unusual. But to bring it to paper (or screen) as clearly as you just did, is rare.

    Thank you.

  12. Inca Princess says:

    Wonderful race report Meghan! I really enjoyed it!

    Congratulations on yet another fantastic accomplishment!!

    -Suzanne from Cuyahoga Falls

  13. Tom says:

    Meghan; I am so glad you did take the time and pound away at the keys. You gave us some of your soul and that could not be easy to do, thank you.

  14. jeff says:

    wow, meghan.

  15. Danni says:

    This was beautifully written. I love trail running because it does allow you to grieve, think, be joyful, zone out, or whatever else while surrouned by natural beauty. It's like why others might go sit in church and pray. It seems like the perfectly appropriate place to think about your dad and and leave regular life behind.

    And in case you thought so, I do not run to leave behind my overeating! I mean, yeah, I get to eat more after a long run. . .

  16. crowther says:

    Hi Meghan — Great, honest, thoughtful post. I see things a bit differently from some of the other commenters. To me, a certain amount of "escapist" running is healthy — a reprieve from life's struggles — but it is also quite possible to overdo it, as you are saying. Where is the line between healthy and unhealthy escapism? I don't know, and maybe you don't either, but if you keep looking for it, you'll get there.

  17. Paige says:

    🙂 Thank you for sharing that.

  18. sea legs girl says:

    Now you'll get glib short response to a beautiful and thoughtful bit of writing. Thanks, Meghan. I could not tear myself away from this post. You are good at searching inside of yourself. Running can mean anything to anyone. It does not HAVE to be running away, though it can be. It can also be something that carries us through tough times. Thanks so much for writing this.

  19. Meghan says:

    Hi to each of you,

    You've said such nice things about me and my writing. For that I'm so grateful!

    I admit that, when I hit the 'publish' button, I was frightened. It's hard to open one's heart to the world, especially when one's feelings are not necessarily all shiny and happy. Also, I dream of being a someday writer, so it's hard to toss out a piece of writing for critical acclaim (Or, more often, not. ;). So, many, many thanks for your support!

    We all have our reasons for running, yes. Demon-chasing, rainbow-chasing, heart-galavanting, just, JUST to get a damn-fine workout. Let us use our sport to, in the end, get and be healthy, though!

    I know that the way I've treated some parts of my life for several years isn't ideal. More importantly, I'm not entirely who I want to be. But, I'm my own maker, and nothing will change while I run away from it.

    In a clearing with two lovely runners the other day, we all likened this type of perspective layout to shite-ing or getting off the pot. You all may be happy to know that this post-run conversation spurred me to hit the 'publish' button on this blog post. And, this blog post has given me the courage to start down a few little paths of change. I'm really proud of these baby steps.

    I've got say that I seem to be painting my life as not good. Really, my life is freaking amazing. It's just that I want to be a better person for this rocking life of mine.

    Happy crooked trails to each of you. Thank you again for your love and support. I hope that I may reciprocate the same to each of you one day.


  20. Sunshine Girl says:

    You have Indurare in spades, Ms Meghan! Embrace it and run with it!

    It's hard to share – putting your emotions out there like that is scary stuff. Your talent is clearly shining through with this post: you have a brilliant voice and an ability to create an image in the in the mind of the reader. I love how you connected the whole story…

  21. brent says:

    Another amazing piece meghan. congrats on the experience, and thanks for sharing it with us.

  22. kelly says:

    Thank you for writing this wonderful report. You are an amazing writer and your story touched me. Definitely the best post I have ever read. Keep running and writing. You do both so well.

  23. […] what was amiss in my world. It was the day I finally decided to employ the courage I mustered at this year’s Marathon des Sables for the purpose of becoming a better person. On my birthday, I began the very hard work of […]

  24. Henrie says:

    Thanks to She voted this as the best blog post and I was able to read it.

    Awesome! I’ll be one of your followers from now on. You inspired me.

    Thank you,


  25. Janet Alexander says:

    Meghan… are a wonderful writer….loved this post…and to think that on the morning of the second day of Stage 4 you came to say hello to me at the medical tent where I was getting my feet dressed. You are a star…have much grace and I look forward to seeing you back running in the sand of Morocco.

    • Meghan says:

      Hi Janet,

      Thank you for the compliments and for your love.

      We all had our own journeys out there in the sand, didn’t we? Really hard stuff like that strips us right down (And, in your case, at least, skin and everything comes off. ;).

      I’m thankful to have shared that MdS experience with you, and for the friendship that we’re evolving in the the real life afterward. I have deep confidence that you’re gonna rock it out there in 2011.


  26. Ravi says:

    Sorry to hear about your Dad. I hope you’re doing well.


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