A few hours ago several buses left Ouarzazote, Morocco to take competitors into the Sahara for the 29th Marathon des Sables (MdS), and sadly, I was not among them. As I type this, I am home in my own bed nursing a bad kidney infection after leaving the airport and heading straight to the Emergency Room on Tuesday night. I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to rearrange flights and wrestling with the decision of whether or not I can push my already broken body through the MdS. Unfortunately, I have had to admit to myself that I am not super human and have chosen to sit this one out. It kills me to have to watch from the sidelines but my body never fails me when I push it so hard through races, so now when my body is hurting I must honor it. Even though I know I’ve made the right choice, I am still miserable about it.
It’s hard to believe that this little 22 liter pack holds all of my food and gear for a week of running in the Sahara at the Marathon des Sables (MdS). At the moment it weighs in at a little under 13 pounds, but the addition of some compulsory gear provided at the race site (flare, road book, salt..) will bring it up to 14.33 pounds (6.5 kg), which is the minimum weight requirement of food and equipment without water. Once I add water, the pack will total close to 17.5 pounds. Last year my pack weighed over 22 pounds on the first day, so I have dropped nearly 5 pounds of weight by leaving behind anything that could possibly be considered a luxury item and carrying only the minimum amount of calories required (14,000 for the week). I’m a little nervous about going bare bones on equipment and food, but I feel confident that after finishing the event with a minimum of skin on my feet last year that I can survive a week of deprivation.
To be honest, I am a little more concerned about my right knee which has been plagued by tendonitis for the last couple of months and forced me to stop running for the last 2.5 weeks. It feels pretty decent after a cortisone shot last week and I am hoping it holds up over the long mileage.
My plane leaves Miami in a few hours and lands in Paris tomorrow morning. After a night in Paris, I fly directly to Ouarzazote, Morocco on April 3 and then leave the next morning, April 4 for the as of yet unknown point where the race will begin this year. On Sunday, April 6, I will don race number 452 and attempt my second MdS.
You can check out the race every day with a live webcam at the finish line of each stage and results posted on the website- www.marathondessables.com. And if you have a few spare moments, please email me by clicking on the “write to competitors link” that will be active on the race website sometime this weekend- reference competitor #452.
My husband Rich will be posting on this website and on Facebook with updates from me. He will also be taking care of our four kids for the week…yes, he is awesome!
A special shout out to my last years’ tent mates who have sent me lots of encouraging and funny emails over the last couple of weeks- I will be thinking of you all when I hear “Highway to Hell” each morning and face that endless sand.
In the summer of 2013, my neurologist placed me on a grain free, high fat, low carbohydrate ketogenic diet and it has worked wonders to control my MS symptoms. I personally decided to take this a step further and have devoted the last several months to experimenting with a ketogenic diet to increase athletic performance. Even though I knew that expecting to run fast and far without carbohydrates defied basic science to the contrary, I still held out some irrational hope that I could race well using only fats for fuel. But the bottom line and conclusion to my failed experiment is this: carbohydrates are king when it comes to racing. Although a ketogenic diet works well to control my MS symptoms, it actually hinders my athletic performance.
At first the ketogenic diet seemed to work well for running, and in fact, it had worked during most of my training for the Marathon des Sables (MdS). It was liberating to be able to go on 3-4 hour long slow training runs with only water and electrolytes. As long as I kept my heart rate below 70% of max then my ketogenic diet worked fine and my body was happy to cruise along on fat for fuel. But the devil is in the details, and specifically the 70% max heart rate detail, because stressors like mountains, hills, sand, heat and carrying a heavy pack on your back all increase heart rate even when you are still cruising at the same slow, low gear type of speed. So there are two choices when faced with a race like the Marathon des Sables that combines all of these stressors- stay on a ketogenic diet and walk the whole race or add carbohydrates. I choose the later.
I do plan to keep using a ketogenic diet to control my MS, however I also plan to do some carb loading next week before I leave for Morocco and my MdS pack will be full of carbs. The one caveat is that I will continue to forego grains for allergy reasons, so my carbs over the week of the MdS will mainly be from fruit and vegetable sources, like dried cherries and potato chips. I will admit though that the other sugar sources I plan to use are not so healthy- Bit O Honey and Gummy Bears- but I love them and they work for me. If there is anything that I learned from the MdS last year, it is to pack your favorite treats because it becomes harder and harder to force down calories with each successive days’ efforts. I don’t think there is any circumstance under which I couldn’t force down a gummy bear
As I limped out of the Sahara last year, filthy and exhausted with several missing toenails and barely any skin left on my feet, I was making mental notes of what I would do differently the second time around. Even as I was insisting that I would never come back, I was already mentally planning my return. Honestly, there are not many things that I wouldn’t change about the way that I ran the Marathon des Sables (MdS) last year but when I scrutinize my list of changes, by far the factor that outweighs all others is the need to be lighter in every way.
Last year I spent hours researching ultralite gear, weighing things on my kitchen scale and creating spread sheets of weight ratios. The method behind this madness was my attempt to balance my needs against the weight of my pack. After 7 days of self-sufficiency in the Sahara though, you realize that what you actually need is much more basic than you think. Most of the things that I thought I could not live without were really just extra burdens that I carried on my back day after day.
The first place to start was logically my pack itself. Last year I chose the Aarn Marathon Magic 22 liter pack because of its unique design that allows the majority of the pack weight to be carried on the hips rather than the shoulders.
The downside to this type of pack is that it relies on an internal frame to accomplish shifting the weight to the hips so it is pretty heavy at close to 2.5 pounds empty. I reasoned that the extra weight was worth it because it would prevent my back from becoming sore (I have some spinal compression in L1 and L2 from a bike accident a few years ago). The reality was that my pack felt so heavy during Stage 1 and I was so sore anyway that those extra 2 pounds were not worth it. This year I chose the Terra Nova Laser Elite 20 liter pack which weighed a mere
7.4 ounces when I received it and with some slight modifications (cutting some straps and adding water bottle holders and a couple of small front pouches) now weighs 10.2 ounces. I absolutely love this pack. It feels so light and compact compared to the Aarn. It definitely puts more stress on my shoulders and back and I’ve had to use loads of liquid bandage to heal up chafing and toughen my skin but for me this discomfort is totally worth it as I can run much faster with the Laser on my back than with the Aarn.
For the most part my pack last year was filled with the lightest versions of the gear that I was required to have in my pack. My mistake was packing too many things beyond the required gear that I thought I would need. Here’s a list of the items that I will not be taking back to the MdS: Titanium Cup, Titanium Stove, Alcohol Cooking Tablets, Titanium Spork, USB Solar Charger, Ipod, Iphone, Garmin GPS watch and deodorant. Most of these items either malfunctioned in the desert, weren’t worth their weight or in the case of the deodorant, didn’t matter anyway.
The only thing that will not be lighter in my pack this year will be my headlamp. Last year I used the Petzl Zipka Plus 2 because it is one of the lightest available at 2.5 ounces. However, the elastic became so tight and uncomfortable after a few hours of running during the 50 mile night stage that all I could think of was ripping it off and smashing it to bits. This year I will be wearing the Princeton Tec Fuel which is slightly heavier at 2.8 ounces but is much more comfortable on me.
The food that I am going to be carrying this year, which will be mostly fats, is very different from last year’s pack full of carbohydrates. If you have been reading my blog, you probably know that I have been following a ketogenic diet for multiple sclerosis on the recommendation of my neurologist. About 75% of my diet is fat, which is much more calorically dense than carbohydrates. So if I am carrying mostly fats, like coconut oil, macadamia nuts, and hemp seeds in my pack it will be much lighter. In fact, I will admit to creating a few spreadsheets already (I will share these closer to the race) and even though I will be carrying more calories than last year, my total food weight will be close to 2 pounds lighter.
The biggest question mark for me is really how few carbohydrates I can get away with while I am putting in long efforts for 7 consecutive days. After 6 months of following a ketogenic diet, I know that my body is fat adapted and I can go out and run for around 3.5 hours at about 70% of max heart rate with nothing but water and electrolytes. However, when I run longer than 3.5 hours or increase the intensity, I can’t get around the need to add some carbohydrates for fuel. I’ve been experimenting with ingesting slow release carbohydrates during long runs and the jury is still out. I used Ucan Superstarch during a hilly, trail race over 6 hours, about 34 miles, last weekend. The Ucan worked well for the first four hours but I had trouble taking in more of it during the race. I had serious stomach issues for the last two hours of the race and through the next day. So at the moment, I plan to drink Ucan each morning of the MdS but I still haven’t figured out what additional carbohydrate source I will use to start fueling around the 3 hour mark each day. I am going to try dried apricots and dates during a 50 mile race in a couple of weeks.
I’ve also been experimenting with VESPA, all-natural amino acid complex derived from the Asian Mandarin Wasp, which is supposed to conserve glycogen (the fuel of stored carbohydrate) and encourage your body to burn fat. It is pretty expensive and tastes horrendous but I do feel that it is giving me a bit of extra energy but I’m just not sure that it is really worth the expense.
I intentionally gained a little bit of weight before leaving for the MdS last year in an attempt to load up my carbohydrate stores. This strategy totally backfired and I felt fat and sluggish on the first two stages of the race. One of the greatest unintentional benefits that a ketogenic diet has had is that I am lighter and leaner than I have ever been in my adult life. At the start of the MdS last year I was 123 pounds and my body fat was 16.5%. Right now, I am 113 pounds and my body fat has dropped to 15%. The difference that I feel when running long distances at 10 pounds lighter is nothing short of incredible!
One of my friends who is an amazing ultra runner sent me an email asking for suggestions on adopting a ketogenic diet. After a half hour of typing, I realized that what I had written was entirely too long for an email response, but actually would make a pretty good blog. So here are my suggestions for endurance athletes attempting to adopt a ketogenic diet:
1) Read the book “The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance” by Volek and Phinney- it is one of the only resources out there. If anyone knows of other resources, I would love to hear about them!
2) Expect to feel like absolute hell for about a week. If you can take the full week off of training I think it is easier for your body to adapt and carb temptation will be easier to resist.
3) When you do start training again- expect to bonk a few miles into a run. This is the most frustrating thing- to just start your run and suddenly you feel like you are at mile 25. There were some days that I just said forget it and walked home. Then there were days when I seriously slowed my heart rate/pace and stuck it out. I’m not going to lie- it took about two months to be able to run for over 2 hours. I have not gone over 3.5 hours yet- but I have done these back to back in a carb depleted/fasted state. Next week I will run a 6 hour race- I am still working on my strategy for this, specifically whether I will be able to use Ucan Superstarch and still stay in ketosis.
4) For the first couple of weeks, try to stay below 25 grams of carbs to get your body fully into fat burning mode. You can use the keto strips that you test in your urine but if you want to be totally hardcore you can order a blood ketone monitor on Amazon and test the precise level of ketones in your blood. After two months of getting positive ketone results by urine, I got the blood monitor and realized I was on the very edge of ketosis so had to lower my carb intake (I had been at 50 carbs a day). Ketosis is very individual- some people can achieve it with 75 grams of carbs and others, like me, have to be much more restrictive.
5) Make sure that you eat enough fat- 70-75% of calories should come solely from fats- grassfed organic butter, coconut oil, even bacon fat. I usually have coffee with 1 Tbsp of coconut oil and 2 tsp butter for breakfast and not much else- maybe a handful of roasted, salted macadamia nuts before I head out for a run. The coffee is a great way to fill up on fats and if you google ketogenic coffee you will find a ton of different recipes for adding fats from ketogenic endurance athletes. Some add 90% chocolate, vanilla Stevia, coconut milk…
6) Be very careful with carbs- they are hiding everywhere, even in protein, so too much protein can even throw you out of ketosis. The carbs in nuts and seeds can add up pretty quickly too- macadamia nuts, flax seeds and hemp seeds are the best with the lowest carb, highest fat content. Cashews are the worst and have the highest carb content.
7) Avoid most fruit, except fruits with a low sugar content like berries. I might have a few after a long run a couple of times a week. I’ve noticed though that even a few berries kind of turns on my craving for sugar again, so that is a bummer.
8) Realize that this is all one huge experiment because everyone’s body is different and there are no long term studies out there that have attempted to determine how a ketogenic diet affects athletic performance. Of course, that’s also what makes this all so fun- it is cutting edge, full of potential and no one has all the answers
I’ve been searching for a clam chowder that I can actually eat, but every recipe I came across had way too many carbohydrates and too little fat. I played around with two of my favorite things- bacon and nuts- and came up with this high fat low carb chowder. It was perfect after a long run in the cold rain- salty and full of fat. But the real seal of approval came from my kids who devoured the entire pot.
5 ounce jar dry roasted macadamia nuts with sea salt
1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk
12 ounce package of bacon, roughly chopped
1 small onion, diced
2 cups celery, chopped
16 ounces bottled clam juice
3 cups water
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
4 cans of minced clams (6.5 ounces each), rinsed and drained
Sea salt to taste
1. Combine macadamia nuts and almond milk in a high speed blender until smooth and creamy. Set aside.
2. Place bacon in a large pot and cook over medium high heat until it starts to brown.
3. Add onion and celery to the pot and sauté until veggies are tender, about 5 minutes.
4. Add the clam juice, water, thyme and bay leaf to the pot. Bring the soup to a boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.
5. Skim 3 cups of the liquid from the pot and add to the macadamia and almond milk mixture in the blender. Blend until frothy and add mixture back to the pot.
6. Add the clams to the pot and continue to cook on low heat for a few minutes while stirring.
7. Add salt to taste. Remove bay leaf and serve soup hot.
Yields 6 generous servings. Each serving contains less than 10 grams of carbs and over 32 grams of fat.
My New Year’s resolution is to get back to blogging!! I have sorely neglected my blog for the past few months to really focus on my new ketogenic diet recommended by Dr. David Perlmutter. Read Dr. Perlmutter’s latest Facebook post and my testimonial for his new book Grain Brain which is a game changer for everyone, not just those suffering with an autoimmune disease.
I have made updates to all of the pages on my site, so be sure to check out the links on the top menu if you get a chance, including some funny race photos from Thanksgiving. Look for a new blog regarding my MdS 2014 training later this week….
HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO EVERYONE!!!
APRIL 5, 2013 THE BIVOUAC: At 8 am this morning we board buses to bring us on the long trip south from Ouarzazote to the race site. The hours pass quickly as I chat with the few Americans sitting around me- Glenn and Carlos, whom I met in the Casablanca airport during my long layover and Stephanie, Jim and Bobby, who will be in the same tent as Glenn. During the bus ride we are given the Road Book in which the map of the race course for this year is finally revealed.
After almost 7 hours, we arrive at some anonymous and desolate place in the Moroccan Sahara close to the town of Rissani (I think). From the caravan of buses, we are shuttled with our packs and luggage into the back of flat bed army trucks for the final few miles of off road driving to the bivouac. The sky is darkening and the wind is picking up as a sandstorm rolls in, so we can barely see the bivouac in the distance as the trucks lurch forward over the sand. When the trucks stop, we scramble to heave luggage and packs over the side of the truck, jump 3 feet to the ground and fight the winds to find our assigned tents.
The tents are arranged by country in three rings. I have been assigned to Tent 56 within the North American section. I use the word “tent” loosely here, as it is a two sided berber tent with a couple of sticks holding up the middle on top of a woven rug placed on the rocky desert ground. There are supposed to be 8 of us in the tent, but over the next hour only 7 of us arrive (2 women and 5 men).
The sandstorm has picked up force and it is barely possible to see as we scour the desert for large rocks in the last few minutes of daylight in an effort to anchor down the two open sides of the tent and shelter from the storm. As the sun sets it turns bitter cold and we are all happy to have the extra clothing in our luggage for that first night. Tomorrow we will have to give up our luggage and will have only our pack until we finish the race.
The first night is spent getting to know these virtual strangers who will share a very small living space for the next 9 nights. Thankfully my tent mates are fantastic and we are all joking and howling with laughter within minutes of meeting each other. There is Pat, a nurse from Vancouver and my only other female cohort in the tent; Jim, a doctor from California; Ryan, a firefighter from Texas; Arthur, a software developer from New Jersey; Martin, a construction company owner from Ontario who is racing the MdS for the 4th time; and Patrick, a legend among the competitors, who is here to tackle his 13th MdS.
I finally meet my online MdS friend Juan Pablo who very sweetly brings me a bag of coffee from his home of El Salvador and makes me feel like I have an old friend here. Thanks JP!!
APRIL 6, 2013 THE BIVOUAC: I thankfully slept about 5 hours last night despite waking to freezing winds and a layer of sand covering everything including my face. Today we will undergo all of the administrative procedures necessary to start the race, but first we are gathered together for a meeting of the over 1,000 competitors where we are greeted by Patrick Bauer, the race director. As each country competing is announced, there are cheers from that country’s runners, the British the loudest, as they far outnumber everyone else. From the USA there are only 29 of us but we total 60 under the umbrella of North America and Jay, from Dreamchasers, is our awesome leader. The mood is boisterous and it is evident that everyone is excited to finally be here after the long months of training. Helicopters are circling and taking photographs as some runners wave flags and others signs.
The check-in process begins shortly after the assembly with assigned times by tent and our tent is one of the last to check in around 2 pm. After showing our passports, we are issued race numbers to be worn on our front and back, a punch card for each allotment of water that we will receive during the race and a timing chip to be worn around our ankle to track us. We are also given certain mandatory items that we must carry in our pack, among them a packet of 120 salt tablets to prevent dehydration and a flare to be set off in case of emergencies on the course. The flare is huge and even though it supposedly weighs a little less than a pound, it feels like it weighs 10 pounds when added to my already stuffed pack. We each sit with a medical team as they look over the medical forms we have filled out with a certification and EKG report issued by our personal physicians before arriving in Morocco. One of the race doctors zeroes in on my Achilles repair surgery and tells me it is possible to get a cortizone shot if I need it, which I find pretty funny since my own doctor would not even give me one and no one even mentions the fact that I have MS. Finally, we hand over the extra luggage that we have brought with us and are now left with only the items in our pack for survival. I’ve decided to ditch my stove, titanium cooking cup and alcohol tablets to save on weight and will rely on only lukewarm water to rehydrate my dinners. I’m a little nervous about this decision.
When check-in is finished it is time to line up for dinner, the last meal we will eat before self-sufficiency starts. The catered food is fantastic and we are given our choice of a can of Coke, beer or small bottle of wine. I err on the side of caution and choose a Coke. I sit with all of my tent mates for this last supper of sorts and we are all hysterical over Jim being issued a race number during check-in identifying him as part of the Japanese team even though he is actually an American of Chinese descent.
When we finish dinner, night has already descended on the desert and we must use our headlamps to find our way back to the tent. The night here is pitch black. With no ambient lights and only strategically placed glow sticks around the bivouac, I quickly learn to sleep with my headlamp wrapped around my wrist for any night time bathroom issues.
“Bathroom” is another word that I use very loosely here, as there really is no bathroom. Peeing consists of finding a place to squat as a woman. Number 2 is a little more complicated and is required to be done in a special bag that is stretched over a plastic seat. The plastic seats are grouped in threes around camp and each is surrounded by a shower curtain of sorts. In Tent 56 we refer to these makeshift toilets the “poo palace”, the nickname Pat has given them. We have each been given 8 “sh*t bags” as they are commonly referred to for this purpose.
Back at the tent, we climb into our sleeping bags early. The first stage is tomorrow!
APRIL 7, 2013 STAGE 1: It is the same drill every morning. Around 6 am we are woken by the sound of the Berbers speaking loudly in Arabic and taking down the tents around us.
Once the tent is down we have about another hour before they come back for the carpet, so we scramble to get ready and get to the start line for our pre-stage speech from the race director. Everyone is excited to get started and it is almost torturous to stand in the hot sun with a heavy pack and listen to a long speech, the announcement of today’s birthdays and then the singing of “Happy Birthday”. Finally, ACDC’s “Highway to Hell” is sent blaring over the sound system, the countdown is shouted and the race begins.
The 37.2 kilometers today is the longest first stage distance in the history of the MdS. The ground is treacherous- sand, rocks, crevasses, hills, mountains and sand dunes.
It is impossible to look up for even a second without stumbling. Each step must be calculated to avoid twisting an ankle or worse, falling. It takes close to three times as long to traverse a kilometer as I am used to. Wearing my Garmin and tracking the distance passing so slowly is demoralizing and my pack feels so much heavier than it ever did at home. The checkpoints where water is distributed are spaced about every 9 to 12 kilometers throughout each stage. Each checkpoint has a timing mat, so it feels like a small accomplishment hearing the beep of my timing chip as each checkpoint is passed. My back and neck hurt and my feet are sore by the time I cross the finish of Stage 1, but once back in the tent I discover that I have only two small blisters so I am pretty happy about that.
Tent 56 feels like home now and my tent mates like old friends, as we swap Stage 1 stories and jokes. Ryan has named our missing 8th tent mate Cindy Hampton and she becomes the butt of all jokes and blamed for anything and everything that has gone wrong during the race. Over the next few days everyone in our tent receives some hilarious double entendre emails from Cindy, which we found out later were being sent from Ryan’s sister in Texas.
APRIL 8, 2013 STAGE 2:
I am excited to see that the distance of the second stage is a little over 30 kilometers, a full 7 kilometers shorter than yesterday. I should have known that nothing in this race could be that easy…the majority of today’s distance being vertical climbs and descents. We must traverse two mountain passes, each a few kilometers high with steeper than 25% gradients.
I am completely unprepared for the rigorous and technical climbing which requires me to haul myself and my pack over steep rocks using upper body strength. I am not alone in being ill prepared for a technical climb, as runners are sprawled out and clinging to rocks on the side of the steep mountains trying to catch their breath and avoid looking down at the perilous and deadly distance to the ground. Still other runners on the summit of the second mountain are laid out receiving emergency IVs from race doctors who have reached the summit on helicopter. On the summit of each mountain, the views are amazing, but almost impossible to enjoy as the winds are quick, gusting around 30 mph, threatening to sweep runners over the edge. The descents are equally as technical and dangerous as runners inch slowly down using quad strength and hands to steel against a forward tumble with our center of gravity changed by the pack on our backs.
At the finish of Stage 2 I am physically and emotionally wrecked. At some point my Garmin even though it has a 50% charge has completely stopped working and I give it to a Berber at the second checkpoint. My supposedly indestructible gaiters have been torn on the rocks and are now being held together by some duct tape I had in my pack. My feet are shredded- a bloody mess. For the first time doubt creeps into my mind about whether I can finish this race. I feel a little better when both Patrick and Martin, as MdS veterans, say that it is the toughest day of climbing that they have ever had during this race.
APRIL 9, 2013 STAGE 3: I have cleaned and bandaged my feet the best that I can but every step hurts and when I hear “Highway to Hell” this morning it is with dread and not excitement that I start the over 38 kilometer run of mostly sand dunes today.
Actually the word run does not apply to me much, as I am forced to traverse almost the entire distance of Stage 3 walking step by painful step. Luckily a couple of my tent mates are also among the walking wounded and I have Arthur to keep me company to the first checkpoint and Ryan for the rest of the race. Walking slowly through the dunes a few kilometers from the finish we are hit by a small sandstorm, adding insult to injury for the day. After I cross the finish line of Stage 3, I call home and tell Rich that I don’t think there is any way I can cover over 75 kilometers on the long stage tomorrow. He gives me a pep talk and tells me that I CAN finish this race and I WILL finish this race. I know he has the utmost faith in me but I know he is also thinking that he doesn’t want to deal with the hell of living with me over the next year as I lament quitting something for the first time in my life
Back in my tent, I joke with my tent mates and try to forget that my feet are in agony, that I am filthy dirty, that I’ve eaten nothing but gels, nuts, dried fruit and cold dehydrated food for the last three days and that my Ipod which must have gotten turned on accidentally inside my pack is completely dead so I won’t have the few precious hours of music that I intended to use during the long stage tomorrow.
APRIL 10 and 11, 2013 STAGE 4: I wake with a renewed sense of purpose and determination and an arsenal of Paracetamol acquired from the medical tent to mask the pain of my injured feet. It is the hottest day so far today topping 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
At the start line everyone is discussing where they will stop over the more than 75 kilometer distance that we have the next 34 hours to complete- 20 minutes at this checkpoint to rest, 30 minutes at another checkpoint to make a dehydrated meal for dinner, possibly sleeping the night at one of the later checkpoints. In my head I tell myself I will not stop at all, except for the few minutes required to refill my water at each checkpoint and this is exactly what I do. I DO NOT STOP. For over 17 hours I DO NOT STOP. I run, I walk, I jog, but I DO NOT STOP. Darkness descends upon me as I reach the top of some steep dunes where it looks like I will fall off the edge of the Earth and I strap on my headlamp, but I DO NOT STOP.
I pass checkpoints where runners are sprawled out on the ground in sleeping bags but I DO NOT STOP. I DO NOT STOP until I reach the finish line of Stage 4 at after 1 am in the morning. I know I am mentally tough but this is the truest test of that toughness that I have ever undergone. For 17 hours I am alone. For 17 hours I am in my own head willing myself to keep moving forward. It is absolute pure elation that I feel when I cross the finish line of Stage 4. This is the feeling that I have come here for. This is what I have trained tirelessly for over the last nine months. This is the feeling of accomplishment that is truly all mine and I will never forget this feeling as long as a I live.
Having finished Stage 4 in half the allotted time, I have earned the rest of the night to sleep and a day off tomorrow. All of my tent mates are finished by early morning and we spend the day laying around our tent trying to shade ourselves from the burning sun which is again forcing the temperature up past 120.
The bivouac looks like a post apocalyptic survivor camp with people in varying states of undress hobbling around on walking poles and sticks as makeshift canes with white medical tape and gauze covering their feet and other injured body parts. Our tent by this point has become as raucous as a locker room and we amuse ourselves by snapping pics of guys in speedo-like underwear and girls with see-through tights for a jokingly proposed “people of MdS” website modeled after the “people of Walmart” website. I feel as if I’ve lost all sense of decorum- cleaning my spork with a dirty sock and hand sanitizer, and throwing out my hairbrush because I’m too darn tired to drag it through my knotted rats’ nest of hair. I visit the medical tent for some iodine and bandages to retape my feet and it is like a horror scene from the old tv show M*A*S*H- runners lying on the sandy carpet, injured, bloody and hooked to IV poles. It is actually comical to think that we all still have to run a marathon tomorrow, yet even as injured as we all are, I keep hearing the same sentence “just a marathon tomorrow and we’re done.” Clearly we are all mental to have signed up for this race in the first place or as my Aussie race friend Gedaliah said when I met him at check-in “we are all a little touched”- it sounds a lot nicer than mental.
APRIL 12, 2013 STAGE 5: Only 42.2 kilometers to the finish line! I don’t think I’ve ever felt this depleted and injured at the start of a marathon, yet I am psyched when I hear “Highway to Hell” this morning signaling the start of the stage. Every kilometer that
passes is one step closer to the finish line. It is another swelteringly hot day, but the course is pretty flat and rocky today with a small section of sand dunes. It is amazing in a race this big, but you tend to see the same runners around you day after day because they are the ones generally running a similar pace. It is such a boost when you come across a familiar face. I see Morten from Denmark, and both Carl and Mary from Canada who give a cheerful hello. I am running near the 4 girls from Senegal today who have absolutely rocked this race, dressed in purple, looking gorgeous every day and running together in a pace line they are a force to be reckoned with and their energy is contagious. We run through an old abandoned village and a group of tourists watches us pass perplexed.
With less than 6 kilometers left, we come to the top of a ridge and the finish line comes into view. An Italian runner in front of me falls to the ground with 5 kilometers left and I am there when a group of British runners pulls his flare from his pack and sets it off. It is heartbreaking to think that he made it all this way and dropped with the finish line in sight. I pass another runner down with 2 kilometers left. With half a kilometer left, a Brazilian woman comes up behind me whooping it up and spurring the few runners around us to sprint to the finish. I take off at a breakneck speed and push my body across the finish line with every ounce of energy that I have left. Martin and Arthur are at the finish line to see me cross. Patrick Bauer puts a medal on my neck and kisses me on both cheeks. Yes! MdS done! Check the box!
APRIL 13, 2013 THE CHARITY STAGE AND TRIP HOME: All I want to do is shower, yet we are required to put on a blue 100% hot as heck cotton Unicef shirt and march across 8km of the dunes of Merzouga, the largest in Morocco before another 7 hour bus ride back to Ouarzazate.
At the charity finish line we are surrounded by local children asking for our buffs and water bottles. I hand my water bottles to a couple of teenage boys and walk toward the buses that are waiting to take us back to Ouarzazate. Out of the corner of my eye I see a little boy of about 5 standing quietly watching the other children asking for things. I pull out my sleeping bag, hand it to the little boy and am rewarded with the biggest smile that just makes my day. These people truly have nothing and living a life similar to theirs in the desert for even a few days makes you appreciate the abundant and easy lives we lead. I have been changed by this experience in more ways than I ever imagined. I will never again sit in a hot bath, set a table full of fresh food in front of my children or sink into a warm comfortable bed at night without being thankful. Thankful for everything that I have been given in this life.
Finally out of Africa, I am laying in a hotel room in Paris nursing my sore body and swollen, blistered feet. I promise a full race recap and lots of pics but am just too mentally and physically exhausted at the moment and won’t actually have access to my computer until the end of the week- typing on my iPhone at the moment. Just wanted to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for cheering me on with your emails. That support was honestly what inspired me to get up every morning and soldier through each stage. Hugs and kisses to you all for helping me cross that finish line!!
Hello Danielle’s readers. Rich again.
If you had been walking by the Furey home last night just before 10pm, from the cheering and yelling inside you’d have thought we were having a party. That’s because Danielle crossed the finish line for Stage 4 of the MdS at 9:57pm (1:57am in the Sahara).
Despite being “demoralized” and suffering through a number of blisters on her “wrecked feet” after finishing the 24 mile Stage 3 the day before, Danielle pushed through the pain.
At 75km (46 miles), Stage 4 is the longest leg of the race and the competitors are allotted up to 30 hours to complete this Stage. Danielle completed it in 17-1/2 hours and was the 60th female competitor to the finish line. When I spoke to her this morning, she said she actually had a “decent day”.
Although some MdS competitors were still crossing the Stage 4 finish line late this afternoon, today (Thursday) was a rest day for Danielle. Whatever she does, hopefully she’ll be taking care of her feet.
The ‘only’ thing left for the MdS competitors is the Friday marathon, the last timed run.
Danielle is very grateful for all of the supportive emails she has been receiving; they really helped get her to the Stage 4 finish. By the way, although I have been filling in during the last few days, Danielle has written a lot during her down time and has taken a lot of pictures so after the race you can expect a first-hand account of her MdS experience with lots of photos.
Finally, Danielle appears in a video on the MdS website: under the Stage 4 tab, click on the Stage Journal and then Videos and look for “Stage Four by Night”. As our daughter Brynn so rightly observed: “How can she do all this and still look so beautiful.”
Hello again Danielle’s readers. Today was Stage 2 of the MdS.
Fans of the 1983 movie War Games will remember the line where General Beringer turns to Dabney Coleman’s character and says: “Mr. McKittrick, after very careful consideration, sir, I’ve come to the conclusion that your new system sucks”. I was reminded of that line today as we continue to work through technical difficulties with phone service and, especially, email (which is why you are reading a post from me at home rather than a post from Danielle in the desert).
Importantly, Danielle successfully completed Stage 2 of the MdS today. Several of you saw Danielle cross the finish line via the MdS’ Live Webcam. Our daughter, Kaelen, who was home sick from school, watched the computer for 2 hours to catch sight of her mom. Unfortunately, as I learned the hard way today, if you miss something on the Live Webcam there is no function on the website to “rewind”.
Danielle called me after the race by the MdS’ satellite phone although just like yesterday the connection was terrible. I was able to hear from Danielle that Stage 2 was very rocky: “it was more like mountain climbing than running”. I learned from the MdS website that Stage 2 was 30.7km which included: a two-kilometer climb with an average of a 25% incline; the “scaling” of a mountain that is “at times reminiscent of a fortified castle”; a “wall of sand”; and “rock face which stretches some 250 meters upwards”. Here are some pictures taken from the MdS website:
Danielle also said that she was able to access the MdS’ computer (after an hour wait) and was able to write a blog post. Unfortunately, the email with the post got lost in transmission. “Mr. McKittrick….”
But if she was able to access the MdS’ computer I assume she is receiving emails. So please keep sending her your love and support.
Again there is a lot of good information and photos from the Stage Journal of the MdS website.
Tuesday’s Stage 3 will be 38km long.
Hello to Danielle’s readers. I’m happy to report that Danielle successfully completed Stage 1 of the MdS today; unfortunately, due to technical difficulties she was not able to email me a summary of her day. So, at the risk of sounding like a substitute teacher, I am sitting in for Danielle today.
As you probably know from Danielle’s earlier postings, the plan had been that she would email me a summary of the day’s events which I would post to this blog. Unfortunately, Danielle has not been able to email out because, apparently, the keyboard at the camp’s computer station doesn’t work. Danielle was able to call me on a satellite phone; unfortunately, the phone connection was awful. I got only a few details about the race; but most importantly she sounded good. And although the MdS’s computer keyboard doesn’t work, the Live Webcam does. Our kids and I were able to see Danielle cross the Stage 1 finish line this afternoon.
Based on the information on the MdS website, Stage 1 was 37.2 km (23.1mi). There is a lot of other interesting information on the MdS site (http://www.marathondessables.com/en). If you click on the link for Stage Journal, you will see a link for “Roadbook” which shows the Stage 1 map as well as a link for “The Day’s Events”. There are also links to photos and a video from today.
Although I did not find out from my brief phone call with Danielle whether she is able to receive emails, I am hoping that the MdS’s email problems are limited to outgoing mail only. So, please keep sending those emails through the MdS website under the link “Write to a Competitor”.
According to the website, Stage 2 on Monday will be “the second longest leg spanning some 30.7km (19.1 mi) and marked by several very spectacular climbs”.
I just took my last shower for 9 days (yikes!) and am about to join the rest of our North American group for a 6 hour bus ride into the Sahara. It is still freezing here and so far I see no evidence of the dreaded 130 degree weather that I actually packed for! I have had very limited email off my phone from some spotty wifi service in my hotel but am about to leave even that small luxury behind. When the race begins on Sunday April 7 I will be allowed to send one text only email a day (not sure if we can send emails before that) which I will use to contact my family and send Rich my blog to post. I will not be able to post any pictures but will be taking a lot to post after the race. If you have called, texted, emailed, commented on my blog or sent me a FB post please understand that I have no access to these at the moment so can not yet respond. I do promise to respond to everything when I finish the race and I know that it is comforting to my family to see all of your messages and know that I have so many people rooting for me. Thank you all! Next post from the Sahara!
I’m finally in Ouarzazote! The journey here was an exhausting odyssey, although I did get some sleep on the plane from Atlanta to Paris thanks to an Ambien which I took right after takeoff and knocked me out until the pilot was announcing preparation for landing. I honestly feel like I lost 10 hours of my life and fear that I probably drooled on the poor old guy sitting next to me. Once in Paris I sprinted across Charles de Gaulle just in time to make my connection to the next flight, a three hour trek to Casablanca. Sometime during that flight the monthly curse came down upon me. The rules of the race literally say “women should rearrange their monthly cycles.” Since I didn’t go to any effort to rearrange mine, I was a little concerned about it somehow getting me disqualified. However any relief that I felt at not having to deal with this during the race was overshadowed by the fact that I was about to land in a Muslim country where female bodily functions are not exactly a conversation starter, nor good fodder for blogs. Sometimes it sucks to be a girl! :)
I had a 7 hour layover in Casablanca, which turns out is little more than a few coffee and pastry stands, despite being billed as an international airport. I was anxious to call my family since I had not spoken to them since I left home. Unfortunately the iPhone 4 does not work internationally so I went in search of a calling card and a pay phone. Two hours later and completely frustrated at several attempts to communicate in French and Arabic to identify the correct prefix to dial the US, I finally found a shop person who spoke English and bought a cheap phone and enough minutes to make a few calls home.
Sometime during the next five hours I met a couple of Americans. Bleary eyed and loaded down with packs, it was easy to figure out we were all running the MdS and waiting for the plane to Ouarzazate. The next few hours flew by as we shared race stories and compared gear. As it turned out, the majority of our plane was filled with runners from all ends of the Earth. After a bumpy flight we arrived in Ouarzazate at midnight to some ungodly cold weather and a lot of people rethinking some of their gear. I am thrilled to have brought a lightweight down jacket and I’ve gotten some envious looks since I haven’t taken it off since last night. Thank you Mandy for the best advice to bring that coat!! Off to dinner now and leaving early AM for the two days of admin and medical checks in the desert. As soon as I can send out an email from the race I will have Rich update my blog!
Nine months ago I began a journey. A journey of self-discovery as I learned to live with multiple sclerosis while training for the greatest physical challenge of my life. Tomorrow I begin another journey. A literal journey that will take me on 24 hours of flights to Africa, a 6 hour bus ride into the Sahara desert from Ouarzazote, Morocco and a 7 day race across some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. I could not have embarked on either of these journeys without the support of my family and friends, and I thank every one of you from the bottom of my heart for the inspiration that you have given me to keep moving forward.
I am planning to post a blog every day starting on April 3 and will hopefully be able to upload some photos from my Iphone in desert.
TRACK THE RACE: If you have any inclination to follow my progress during the race, I will be wearing a satellite tracker and the race website http://www.marathondessables.com/en/ should have a link to track competitors. The link is not yet up and functional, but should be on April 7 when the race begins. You should be able to track me by my name or my race number 1074. There should also be video footage of the finish every day, that will be uploaded in real time.
SEND ME EMAILS: Please send me emails! There should be a link on the race website http://www.marathondessables.com/en/ titled WRITE TO COMPETITORS where you will be able to click on my name and/or race number 1074 to send me an email. Please include my name and race number 1074 also in the subject line to make doubly sure that it gets to me. Also, the email should be text only- please do not include any attachments or pictures or the email will not make it through spam. Emails will be distributed to all competitors at night after the completion of each stage (Morocco is 5 hours ahead on the clock).
My thanks to everyone who has donated to the National MS Society, sent notes, read my blog, written on my website and my Facebook page, made music playlists for me, given me crazy gifts and even arranged to have me blessed by our parish priest, Father Ed (thanks for that Kammy ).
Thanks also to my daughter Kaelen for making me laugh in the midst of some last minute stressful preparations. I thought I would share this conversation with Kaelen this morning.
Kaelen: Mommy, you leave tomorrow. I’m worried.
Me: Don’t worry honey, I am going to be fine.
Kaelen: No, I am worried about us! Does Daddy even know how to cook?
The training was long and hard but now the fun begins!! Next post from Morocco!