Skydivers speak of a phenomenon they call “ground rush,” when one gets to within a certain proximity to landing that the ground rushes up in a single, disorienting flash. As I sit here, recovering from a stomach flu that has left me bed-ridden for two days, the proximity of the MDS is rushing forward just like that inescapable moment of impact. It is to the point that I cannot tell whether my difficulty in drawing breath is due to the virus or the crushing weight of all that is still undone. Pack the race gear. Prepare the feet. Complete the shoe modifications. Change currency. Pay bills. Count calories. Get EKG. Prepare foods. With these and so many more errands left to do, the single greatest thing leaving me underprepared is the miserable training since my injury in January.
That is when, at mile 65 of a 100 mile race, I severely strained a hip flexor. It took a month to fully recover from that strain. During that time I logged little to no miles. This was the final “specificity phase” of my training where I should be running every day with a pack; gradually increasing the weight from 10 pounds to 30 pounds. After the hip healed, I was anxious to ‘catch up’. So I foolhardily threw on a pack with 20 pounds and ran to work. This resulted in a case of Plantar Fasciitis (or maybe a fracture) which I continue to suffer from as I type this post. This second injury had made me accept that the “specificity” phase would need to be jettisoned for Plan B: Maintenance. It was all I could do in the last several weeks to simply maintain what fitness I had or to minimize loss. As a result, the best I can hope for is to show up undertrained, but uninjured. And now, contracting this bug, I have missed my final opportunity for a pre-taper long run. This adventure, which already promised to test my mettle in every way, is sure to be even harder now. Still, I must not focus on the problems and instead, only occupy my time with the solutions.
Ultrarunners have a saying; “Ultrarunning is 90% mental and rest is in your head.” Any coach will tell you that your body will carry you for about three hours. Training beyond this three-hour threshold is where the physical benefits of the session begin to have diminishing returns. You increase injury risk and begin doing damage to your body. You also cause yourself to need more rest to recover from the workout. Since this only damages your body, there is no real point in running beyond three hours in training…except for one: Mental Toughness. Distance runners must learn to suffer. When they get to that three-hour threshold, their race hasn’t even begun. They are not even 10% complete with their journey. So the solution then, is in mental preparation.
The first step in mental preparation is to “embrace the suck.” So let’s take a quick survey of the landscape of suck that awaits. I realize now that the only thing most people know about The Marathon Des Sables is the official advertising put out by the race organizers which makes it seem like a fun vacation, or a cute little challenge. This is funny since materials given to racers explain things like the route changes year-to-year due to “political instability or regional conflicts;” or that racers must carry a passport at all times in case of “an emergency that requires an early departure from the bivouac.” I do not care to prove my masculinity, but the reality of what awaits is far more complex. Cultivating the proper mental attitude requires that one visualize, with the full extent of imagination, the potential “suck.” Forget propaganda and move beyond limited assumptions based merely on one’s current cache of experience. Here are a few things I have meditated on over the last year and a half.
Few elite runners train much more than 100 miles in a week. My decidedly non-elite body rarely absobs more than 65-75 miles per week without injury. The most I’ve run – nonstop — within a 24 hour window is 75 miles. Just the mileage in and of itself is going to be a new level of abuse for my body. I must recover from day to day, but without proper nutrition or supplies needed for optimal recovery.
I am required to carry my own food and running fuels for the week. As a result, my nutrition will consist of freeze-dried meals and very little of the vital nutrients an athlete requires to repair the tissue damage distance running inflicts upon the body. Perhaps more important is the fact that I will be hungry most of the time. I will be unable to make up the caloric deficit from the running and I cannot possibly carry enough food to satiate my body. This means I will be running much of the day in a “bonked” state. (Marathoners who fuel poorly refer to “hitting the wall”. This is the point when they have depleted their onboard fuel and their body locks itself down. This painfully deficient state is known as a “bonk.”) As a bonus, in hot weather, bonks often bring nasty wretched and debilitating stomach issues.
I will start the race with a pack that will weigh between 25 and 30 pounds. This is 25 – 30% of my body weight. Not only will this impede fluid or quick running; it will add even further to fatigue and the muscular damage my body sustains. This cumulative fatigue and muscle damage can be dangerous into the Long Stage (50-mile stage) and Dunes Day (climbing day). Because of the physical stress, it increases the nutrition requirements that I will be unable to fulfill. Running only 8 miles with a 20 pound pack during training resulted in a month-long case of plantar fasciitis.
The flats are usually strewn with rocks and Mars-like debris. Veterans say it becomes quite painful. The dunes are comprised of sand so soft it can hardly be kept out of the shoes causing blisters that, combined with the heat and dehydration, can rip away the soles of the feet. Severe blistering is the cause of the majority of drop-outs from the event. We will cross the highest dunes in the Sahara. They are not dunes, they are mountains. Even the small ones, where feet sink to the shin in sand, are as tall as skyscrapers. Racers speak of getting burn marks on their hands as they sink into the steep embankments in a clumsy scramble to the summit.
I will need to synchronize my pacing with my water usage or it will end me. In other words, I must run fast enough that I do not run out of water before I make it to the next checkpoint, yet slow enough that I do not overheat and thereby require more water. Even in the best case scenario, I will not have enough water to drink to my needs. This means I will be running slightly dehydrated, causing problems such as headaches, nausea, blisters, and cramping. My biggest fear is running out of water before reaching the next checkpoint. I once ran out of water several miles from my car on a training run in 100 degree heat. The consequences of this ordeal are trivial in the context of what would happen in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
There is data showing that a person running an 8 minute mile pace in 50 degrees would run a 9:31 minute mile in 85 degree heat. I will be running in 120 degree heat. The ongoing shock of extreme temperatures combined with every component mentioned above will be the biggest challenge. I am coming out of a long winter and my acclimation protocol must be successful or I will not last a day before my body requires an intravenous drip. Racers incur a hefty time penalty for such a luxury – making subsequent time cut-offs even more difficult, causing the dehydrated runner to work even harder, threatening a need for the dreaded second infusion resulting in an automatic disqualification. Veterans describe the sun in the open desert as relentless, denying even momentary shelter. Cooling down during the run is a cartoonish fantasy.
While I have been assured not to worry about this, the fact remains that getting lost in the desert and not making a checkpoint would mean death within a day or two. Navigating by compass is not as essential when runners have left tracks before you. Nevertheless, a brief sandstorm will wipe away those tracks leaving you to rely only on your compass. Sandstorms usually last hours, but can last days. Trying to make progress during zero visibility is suicidal. One runner disappeared this way and was lucky to have found ruins where he subsisted on bat blood until nomadic Tuaregs discovered him. The organizers will supply each of us with a flare and we are required to have a signaling mirror. Searchers must find us within a day or we will collapse and the drifting sands will quickly bury our bodies.
Of course it is silly to expect any sort of comfort. We will live in clothes accumulating a week’s worth of sweaty, sandy filth. Our communal bivouac means body care needs and even relieving oneself – must proceed without the expectation of privacy. Deadly, nocturnal scorpions, sandstorms, sleep deprivation, physical pain, etc… One must relish the idea of “rouging it.” This should be part of the charm and adventure of the event.
This has been a sample of what I have tried to internalize for a year and a half in an effort to embrace it rather than dread it. If I am able to visualize these things and their cumulative effect on me or my morale on the day, then I can better visualize what I will do. I must remember to focus on the solution, not the problem. Mantras like, “think positive” might work well for some people. But for me, such slogans are vague euphemisms that smack of motivational-speaker con artists peddling a sort of self-imposed naiveté. The practical secret would be the specific action that reliably produces positive thought. This secret, I believe, is thinking of what I can do, rather than what is being done to me.
As we pass our days in relative security and comfort, we are often under the illusion that we are in control. We must accept that we are not in control, then – as things happen to us or despite us — we must channel our thoughts only on solutions. This results in being positive. You start to bonk, you have no more water, and you must simply focus on getting to the next checkpoint. Then you must zero-in on putting one foot in front of the next. Focus there and there alone upon the solution. This is what I hope to be able to do when the time comes.
I am fully aware that it is my own decision to put myself through all of this. But in some ways, it is a mandate beyond my authority. It is something I must do. There is never one reason to undertake something so large that requires years of commitment by not just me, but my family as well. This is not about racing. It is not even about running. It is about many things all at once.
I want to see clearly. I do know what I hope to see, but I think this will make it visible. Some call this a “Vision Quest” or a “Walk About.” I just want to strip away the excesses of life and be amidst all that’s left in the hope that what remains will reveal that which is important. Next, I need to earn my existence. Our first breath is a gift that most of the time we take it for granted. In a cosmic sense, I feel like Private Ryan when the dying Capt. Miller looks to him and whispers, “Earn this….earn this.” I want to earn my life. I am not sure how this will achieve that, but when faced with the MDS, I knew that I had to attempt it and that if I did not, I was turning my back on The Gift. This long delayed expression of gratitude is inexplicably beyond my control.
There is another reason: I am Theo’s dad. While my reasons to this point were purely selfish, the one that has sustained me through hours and hours and more than 18 months of committed training: is my son. My son’s disability not only keeps him outside the mainstream with his peers, but it disenfranchises him even in the disabilities community. Too many kids like my son never develop the strong self-esteem necessary to combat the consistent barrages of being told what they can or cannot do because of their condition. His life has been — and will forever be filled — with people who insist on directing his life in a manner that they feel is “best” for him. In so doing, they keep him in a box, misjudge his abilities, and assume he has no potential. One day I will not be here to run interference for him.
I hope that his experience of witnessing this commitment, both from me and those who love me, will serve him as a reference point when he needs it. If I am successful, he will hopefully have a measuring stick with which to judge what is possible. And if I am not, then I hope at least to impart an example that we must never turn away from things that are impossible. But instead, we must increase exponentially our level of commitment in the face of the impossible. He must know that no one, not even his own mind, is entitled to tell him what he cannot do. He must endeavor, in spite of the odds.
When things get more difficult than I have been able to imagine, I will have these hopes as my fallback “solution” along with the mantra, “I am Theo’s dad.”
We cannot be entirely unprepared or counted out, as long as we remain relentless.