(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.)
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.