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Note: In April, I competed in the 2012 Marathon des Sables, a seven-day, 150-mile stage race in southern Morocco. You run this race with a backpack of self-sufficiency containing everything you need for the race’s duration (except for water, which is provided by the race administration). I also ran the Marathon des Sables in 2009 (My reports are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) and 2010 (my report). This year, I finished as the 5th place woman and the 47th person overall out of the 854 runners who began the race. The following is my 2012 report.

This is what it’s like.

You stand over the entirety of your racing kit–the tiny backpack; the 17,000 calories of food; the microscopic toothbrush; the required safety supplies; the jacket that packs down to the size of a lime; and the sleeping bag–in your living room and you think, this can’t be everything.

My 2012 Marathon des Sables gear (Meghan M. Hicks photo credit)

You call your mom on Google Chat to smile, wave, and say, “I’m off to the Sahara Desert to run 150 miles.” She tries to be brave, to not cry. She hates that you go to this race, and you wish for a moment that you did, too. Tormenting your mother is the worst feeling on Earth, but you know that you were made to do adventures like these and that you’d wither without them. You tell your mom this and she smiles. She wants you to be happy. It’s just that she saw your dad dead on a South American beach and she wants everyone else she loves to stay alive. “Be careful,” she says, stressing the “be” like she always does so that the phrase becomes an admonishment. When she disappears from your computer screen, you cry.

You receive a message from a little man called Thunderclap. You’re in a Moroccan hotel on molasses-slow wi-fi, so it takes the YouTube video minutes to buffer. When Thunderclap comes alive, he has blue marker on his chin as he tells you to be fast like a spider. You watch the video over and over, committing it to memory so that you can remember his words all the way across the Sahara Desert.

You journey to the race’s starting line with the other 850 runners and 400 volunteers. You meet people, so many people. No one who goes to the Marathon des Sables is normal, but some people are nuttier than others. Everyone has a story and today you learn many.

Several runners from all over the world pose during the journey to the race’s starting line (photo courtesy of Rachid El Morabity)

You lay to sleep the first night, your head separated from orange Sahara dirt by a Berber rug. You lay next to six relative strangers, the rest of Tent #56 among the 100-plus tents containing runners out here. This is now your tribe, your people, your familiar faces in an unfamiliar land. You begin the race with them, so clean, eager, and nervous.

Tent #56 (Greg York photo credit)

You grow dirtier. Your skin and your hair and your shirt and your underpants become the same color as the Sahara. The color of a salmon, you think. At some unnoticeable point, the dirt no longer bothers you. It is just dirt.

All week, your throat hurts, just a little, from the dry air. You love the feel of water slinking down your throat and soothing the rough skin. When your tentmate says, “water is gold,” you agree.

You and the other runners are isolated from the world. All you know is what’s here, what’s Sahara. You do not know what’s happened in Greece, Guatemala, or even the first town at the edge of the desert. But, you don’t need to know. You are content with the now and here.

You get mad, twice in those eight days. Every day it is windy, so windy that you have to hold onto all of your possessions or they will blow away, so windy that your belly button and dinner are always full of sand. For most hours of most days, you accept this. One afternoon, when it’s just you and Chris in Tent #56, you are pelted by painful sand sheets. You fire off a string of curse words and Chris raises his eyebrows. You laugh and say, “I suppose the wind will blow no matter what name I call it.”

On the last day of the race, you tell one of your tentmates that you are upset with him. All week he’s been doing something intrusive to the other folks in Tent #56. He shrugs his shoulders each time someone says as much, seeming to care not about his ill-effect on others. When you ask him if he cares, he looks at you like you are an alien who has spoken a just-invented tongue. He doesn’t understand that a place like this–and life in general–is about taking care of people.

Me at the 2012 Marathon des Sables (Greg York photo credit)

You starve. Not really, but kind of. You’re constantly hungry and you ration your food, dosing it every 30 minutes when you’re running and every couple hours when you’re not. You don’t think about the food you’ll have after the race is over, you can’t. You think about those dehydrated green beans that you’re going to eat next and pretend they will be the best food you’ve ever consumed. And, when it’s time to eat them, they are. You will, of course, not be able to eat dehydrated green beans ever again back at home. But here and now, they are heaven.

You run. You run like it’s your job, your business, your all. You eat for running, drink for running, sleep for running, talk for running, be for running. This is a lot of running in a short period of time and it hurts. You do not mind the hurt. You glide over rocks and dirt, past other runners who seem to stink less than you do, by oases of green trees, through walls of wind-blown sand.

Running Stage 3 (Marc d’Haenen photo credit)

You run like hell the last day, it’s just 10 miles and almost all tall, salmon-colored sand dunes. You arrive to the finish line of the race and into the arms of race director Patrick Bauer. You are sweaty and he is, too, when he hugs you and hangs a medal around your neck.

In the hotel that night, right after you drop your racing backpack and right before you shower, you turn on your cell phone to call your mom from Morocco. She answers, yelling your name. You say, “Mom, I finished.” She says, “I know! I’ve been watching you online.” She describes what she knows–evidence that she’s not only been Internet stalking you, but also that she’s genuinely excited about your race–and you use a dirty fingernail to scratch at the dirt on your thigh as you listen. You think, she couldn’t be happier, I couldn’t be happier.

You go home and people ask in polite passing, “what was the Marathon des Sables like?” They ask a complex question, but seek a one-sentence answer. It’s akin to inquiring, “In seven words or less, describe your relationship with God.” So you say, “The race was wonderful.” and “I loved it.” and “It’s an experience I hope I don’t forget.” These statements are true but they toss a fuzzy, feel-good blanket over the whole Sahara Desert. There is no short answer for that question.

Running Stage 5 (Carolyn Schaefer photo credit)

The Marathon des Sables ingrains into you so hard that just the dirt takes an hour in the shower to scrub off and you can’t, for the life of you, get enough perspective on the experience to blog about it for two-and-a-half months. It swallows you whole. You live, breathe, and become for a week nothing but the race and the dirt and the wind and the people and your backpack and the pain and the stink and the dehydrated green beans and the joy. And, when you go home, the race goes, too. It becomes a part of you, for good. The Marathon des Sables is animalian and primal and like a tattoo for your soul and a way to stay grounded to this life and a church and the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my 33 years on this massive blue-and-green planet.

So, that is what it’s like.

36 Responses to “2012 Marathon Des Sables: This Is What It’s Like”

  1. Ewa says:

    Meghan, now I need to sit and think to find words. If I said that what I just read was beautiful, it would not be enough.
    For now I’ll just say that I am thankful I e-know you.

  2. Karen says:

    I want to echo what Ewa said. You, my dear, rock. I hope you got my messages while you were out there, I thought of you a bunch that week and e-stalked you like your mom did. Every time I felt whiny, I thought of how you probably had much more challenging encounters on your run and I should too. Way to go at being awesome πŸ™‚

  3. Jessica Erickson says:

    Thank you for the window in πŸ˜‰

  4. Danni says:

    Very cool. The sand sounds ouchy though.

  5. Sara says:

    Cool read. Thanks, Meghan.

  6. Irene hale says:

    Love your experiences… Thanks so much for sharing what it’s like. One day I’d like to turn the color of salmon and enjoy dehydrated green beans. I love the runs that are forever tattooed on your soul. Thanks Meghan, it was worth the wait!

  7. Meghan says:

    Thanks to each of you for the comments and the sweet thoughts. Yay!

  8. Bill Gentry says:

    This is the best piece I have read in a long, long time, Meghan. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  9. Aaron Harrell says:

    Hmm, that last picture makes me want to run the whole thing. Interesting, considering I haven’t run more than 13.1 miles at a time. Your description is captivating and I hope that you use the experience as fuel for the rest of your life.

    • Meghan says:

      Aaron, your comment hits the absolute core of why I do races and adventures like this: I hope/pray/wish with all my heart for them to positively influence the rest of my life, especially its non-running parts. Thank you for your note!

  10. Hi Meghan,

    Some friends forwarded me your blog post via Twitter. It was completely captivating, thank you so much for writing it.

    Your quote of “You run. You run like it’s your job, your business, your all.” will stay with me forever.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Kevin

  11. Jim Skaggs says:

    Meghan,
    What a great writeup. It’s interesting how certain races like that just get under your skin almost to the point of obsession. Now I want to go run it.

  12. Helen says:

    I love love love this post. I am so sorry I didn’t realize in Italy that you had just run this – would have loved to talk about it – though I guess you weren’t ready then πŸ™‚

    Our mums worry about us but they wouldn’t have it any other way. They gave us our independence and a little bit of the them crosses the finish line with us each time.

  13. Gretchen says:

    Amazing. So, so wonderful, Meghan! Thank you for sharing this. I feel the same way when people ask “What was it like?” about big things (like, right now, Hardrock, for example). It is a question far more complex than people realize. But that’s the cool part about writing. It gives a chance to try for the full answer. Thanks for giving us a peek into what MdS was like!

    I am also forwarding this to my mom. She will SO get the parts about your mom!

  14. the runner says:

    Awesome run and nice write up on the experience.

  15. sarah says:

    Hi Meghan.
    I loved the recap.
    I am running the MDS 2013 I wanted to ask you some questions.
    If you have time please email me.
    Thank you
    sarah

  16. Miguel says:

    Amazing! Exquisitely written. I’ve been trying to imagine what running this race would be like. Meghan, you may have convinced me to finally do it. Inspirational.

    • Meghan says:

      Miguel, thanks for the sweet comment and for reading. Warning, the MdS will change your life, in the best kinds of ways. πŸ˜‰

  17. Terence McDonagh says:

    I would never be able to explain or write about what The Marathon Des Sables means to me. However you have captured what I felt and what I still feel.

    • Meghan says:

      Goodness, hello Terry! So nice to hear from you. Remember our bus ride out into the desert together? Ahhhhh, what an adventure. The MdS is a life game changer, isn’t it? I hope you’re doing well and thanks for the comment!

  18. Tom Sherman says:

    Hi Meghan,

    What an amazing piece of writing. I feel lost for words at the emotions and eloquence you’ve put into this blog, but felt i needed to say thank you for sharing your feelings.

    I have just signed up for the MDS 2014 and began planning the (no-doubt) arduous training schedule for the next 18 months. I will feel very lucky if i have one-tenth the experience that you explain above and promise to try and share my feelings in a similar way in the hope of enthusing others as you have done for me.

    As Sarah said above i would love the chance to ask you a few questions if you have time to e-mail me?

    You are a true inspiration.
    Tom

    • Meghan says:

      Tom, goodness, thank you for the compliment and congrats on committing to the MdS endeavor. As I and others say, it will change your life–for the better–so get ready! I will send you an email right now, too. Thanks again!

  19. Gemma Bragg says:

    Meghan

    wow i just read your blog on the MDS, this is amazing- such an inspirational piece of writting and certainly gets you thinking about the journey, the challenge and the adventure…
    you really are one of worlds great, inspiring, passionate people. if i see you next year at UTMB then we will have to talk more of your adventures…! brilliant, loved it x

    Gem B :0)

  20. Sophie Grant says:

    Hi Megan!

    Thank you!
    Every time I read this I get a little teary (there has been a few).
    I have been lucky enough to get a place on 2013 MDS and I am pants wettingly excited to be part of this.
    Your blog is inspiring and motivational it is wonderful to read. I am sure you already have loads of people asking you questions but if can spare a few moments I would love to pick your brains.
    You are incredible…..well done!

    Sophie

    • Meghan says:

      Sophie,

      Thank you, how sweet. I appreciate you reading. I can’t wait to hear how the Marathon des Sables changes you. I’m sending you an email right now.

  21. Phil Hanson says:

    Many thanks for your blog and the photos are fantastic, really found it useful, so inspiring and cemented my decision was right to move into ultra running. Enjoyed your review on the Inov8 race pro 22, which you wrote on the ‘irunfar’ website. Been considering dropping down from the 30 litre version I have been training with for the MdS in 5 weeks. Since, I don’t use about 20% of the space. so it pro 22 arrived today and look forward to testing it shortly.

    Best wishes & thanks for the blog, like the quote on the home page.

    • Meghan says:

      Phil,

      Thanks for your note and for reading my work. I’m glad you feel good about your foray into ultrarunning!

      Good luck with testing the 22-liter version. I think it’ll feel on your body about the exact same as the 30-liter pack. Now you just have to make everything fit inside of it. πŸ˜‰

      Best of luck to you at Marathon des Sables this year. I’ll be there, too. I hope we get to meet! Where are you from?

      • Phil Hanson says:

        Many thanks for the reply, should be interesting experience, especially the weather, not use to sunshine, as live in the North of England. So more use to running the wet marshes on the Pennines and Cumbrian Fells. Will let you know how I get on with the sack.

        Best regards and wishes

  22. Geert says:

    Dear Meghan

    strolling around on the internet I crossed your story of the your mdS adventure, I really am touched by it.
    My wife helped as a ” commissaire du bivouac” this year. The weeks after she returned from Marocco we only talked about her experience. She wants to help again next year but probably , as a relative of a competitor in 2014 , me, this won’t be possible
    We already had some dinners with the Belgium delegates of 2013. A group of strangers who became close friends during their week in the Sahara, I recognise the strong feelings you descripe.
    The event start already consuming my life

    best regards

    geert

    • Meghan says:

      Geert,

      Thank you for your note. I wonder if I met your wife at this year’s edition, surely I at least saw her! How great you will run this race in 2014. Fair warning, though I can see you already know this: it will change your life! I hope we run into each other in the Sahara someday!

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