For a little history Marathon Des Sables is in it’s 33rd year. It is one of, if not the oldest stage race in the world. Started by a man named Patrick Bauer that in 1984 took his own adventure across the Sahara for 350k totally self supported with a rucksack weighing 35kg with water and food for 12 days. For reference, we all had an average of 11 liters of water a day during our race! MDS is known as the grand daddy / The big kahuna / or the UTMB of stage racing and the race of desert champions. It is the one that establishes your worth in the stage running community. As a Queen of the 4 Deserts Stage races and the most decorated athlete within that race system, I came in with experience. I also came in with intimidation, and a mix of confidence. I came in with the knowledge that this was my entrance to the “big leagues” of stage racing and it had a bit of emotional weight on it for me as to how my performance could go.
Entering MDS my training was sub par. In the sense that I had a solid 8 week program and missed the other 8 due to bronchitis and strep throat and prior was a long off season. Although that entrance with a lack of many font weeks of consistent training, it was different still because I somehow had more confidence than expected. That I owe to David Roche. A coach who is currently pushing the minds and confidence of so many of the best runners in the country and showing them what they didn’t think was possible for their training, is in fact possible. And most importantly, thinking about the long term vs. these 8 weeks. His positivity shines strong through his athletes and I can already see that effect swinging through in my training and this is merely the starting blocks for us. So to see such an astonishing result in performance on such a small segment of training is extremely exciting.
Here is my 2018 MDS story ..
Before we arrived at MDS, there was the journey to get there. Delta is a stellar airline that I am so valued to fly very often. But when it comes to Morocco, the trip was transferred to Royal Air Morac which has a monopoly for flights into Morocco. Thus, it is known to be a bit shaky on arrivals, cancelled flights etc. My flight to Morocco had changed 5 times before even boarding. The current itinerary was to go from Paris-Tangier- Ouarzazate. Mid-flight we sat on the tarmac in Tangier and picked up 7 passengers including my buddy Mike Sheesley (who’s flight had changed a few times also and now joined mine). After a 2 hour wait on the tarmac, we were informed that the flight was being re-routed to Casablanca for a technical fix and then to Ouarzazate. In Casablanca, the flight discontinued with no solution. A full B737 of passengers fuming to understand how they will get the rest of the way and our time window shortening by the hour to turn and get on buses to the desert. In the end, Hassan, the bus driver rescued 16 of us and we squeezed into his van and took an overnight drive for 8 hours to OZZ. Cell phone data plans exploding lead to turning off my phone and we arrived at 7:20am with 40 minutes to turn around and hop on the race bus out to the desert. Lack of sleep and already restless, these 16 members became our first family of friends out there in the desert. We had a core team already to call out to at camp that in the end served to be a very nice addition in such a huge race.
So MDS... 1077 registrants, with just under a thousand towing the line on race day. Many of that difference due to airline strikes in France leaving some withdrawing before they even could start. 51 countries. 147 tents (basically a sheet that is a cover held up by sticks and a blanket on the sand). 53 doctors. Somewhere over 100k liters of water and logistics that blow my mind. From spot tracking to every element they organize for media and press with helicopters and trucks was astonishing. Shuffling just under a thousand runners along the Sahara desert in Morocco in organized fashion was really something else. I didn’t really understand the reason to get bused out in 18 charter buses 2 days early until I saw how huge this event is. Massive set ups of a mini city of runners and support staff x 7 camp set ups in 9 days.
Our bus ride out had USA atheltes and a few other countries. For 6 hours, you watched restless runners with busy minds in crisp clean clothing thinking about the 250k ahead. Some back for more and others like me on their first MDS. Mike and I sat in our little bubble of comfort randomly speaking to others but mostly just handling our nerves within each other’s friendship grateful we even made the bus. Plan B was to just stay off the grid and have a Holiday in Paris for two die hard entrepreneurs that needed to take a break from it all. In a messed up way, out in the desert life becomes a lot more simple. My life goes from having to juggle 3 businesses, a professional athlete career, raising a puppy, and making a good effort with friends and family to just run, sleep, eat, repeat. Mike’s is similar. The bus stopped about 2 hours in and everyone on various buses rushed out to pee. Immediately I wondered, where are my ladies at to squat and where is that taking place? Right then, I realized the next 10 days were a free for all and you pee wherever and it just is what it is. Modesty...gone. Just drop you pants and go. A few hours later we were given a sac lunch and by this point it is all the food we had enjoyed in two long bus segments besides a tin of pringles and we quickly ate everything in the bag because our points of lack of food seemed to come sooner than planned. We arrived at camp 7 hours later and I had a moment of shock of how big this race was. At my other stage races, there were around 12 athlete tents and now I was looking at 147 versions of a tent in an organized system that would be home to a thousand runners. I dragged my suitcase in the sand to our tent and just flopped over to rest.
Dinner and a full set of meals were served at camp the next day. Imagine Game Of Thrones where you walk into a massive tent with carpets, beautiful walls and an abundant amount of food. Folks were stacking up the calories knowing what was going to happen in 1.5 days. Each night we even had a beer or coke to enjoy. Athletes constantly would look each other up and down and you could feel the extreme caliber of athletic potential and the competitive side of the race. You knew that on race day, it was game on and serious shit out there. This was intimidating but Mike was a constant sigh of relief to distract me from even focusing on the high caliber list of ladies present. Not to say that he wouldn't point out each time I started looking my own competition up and down.
Day 2 at camp I was able to get in my 3 mile shake out run by running circles around the barrier of camp making sure I was adhering to always be within eye sight of the security guards on the perimeter. It felt good, easy, and it was nice to slip my feet into the desert sand again and see the camels roaming and grounds crew working so hard to make us all happy. The morning was a hustle to separate out our luggage from our race bag and cut any last bit of weight and by 10am we were lugging our suitcases back through the sand and over to bag check to give them away for the next week. Now down to my race gear we began the long que to check in. 1000 runners took an entire day to check in and it was a very organized system. At MDS, your bag is required to be a minimum of 6.5kg to start or your a penalized. There is a full page full of penalties at this race by time or $200 euros, so I was a bit nervous. I went in to this race cutting every bit of weight possible. The weight was 6.35 and the lady just kept saying "no no no" and things in French while shaking her head and I didn’t know what to do. Then she said in English, "take off your pants and long sleeve shirt" and it came in at 6.62. Phew! Next was spot tracking and then I arrived at the last point of getting my bib number and a huge discussion went on for minutes between 3 staff members in French and I kept hearing "control" and my bib number over and over. Doping control on the spot for the top 10 ranked ladies. After waiting for an escort for 40 or so minutes, I was taken to a control tent and a doctor immediately took two viles of blood and some of my urine. I was very glad to see that they are taking it so seriously. Especially after the ITRA just called a test 2 weeks ago at home. I am such a huge advocate of a clean sport. And all I could think was, holy shit this race is serious!
Then we ate, chugged water, and slept and did that on repeat until race day.
Race day came so quickly and then camp just hummed with nervous energy and athletes trying to dial their gear in. I was already having a moment of fear because my glue job was already starting to show signs of weakness in a race with an insurmountable amount of dunes in it. Note to self: always have a cobbler sew and glue your Velcro on your shoes for your gators. Roughly 1000 athletes scurried their way to the start, and we helped to gain heli photos of us all in a 33 symbol and then we towed the line to listen to the first round of Highway To Hell which played daily to set us off into the desert. Immediately, towing the line folks were nudging you around for a good position and I was nervous as all get out. Two Spanish ladies looked me up and down and pushed me to move back in the line. Competitive! I could feel the seriousness and the caliber of athletes surrounding me was insane. I just sat and hummed to my music and tried to stay cool while staring down the two Spaniards that I immediately passed … daily. And then BAM! We were off. A mass start of ancy athletes raging and clicking off an insane pace with 6.5 kilos in tow on slippery sand, rocks etc. Rolling over tiny tunes and just raging. After about 3 miles I said to myself "WTF are you doing?" and I settled down my pace and got myself into control. I was blown away by folks passing me left and right and I was having an internal struggle with my ego. Bouncing from thoughts of “don’t worry JAX, these folks are going to blow up” or “WTF! do I really suck at this shit?” And then back to “Yo JAX, you are a master at this, so the answer is NO and that you are being smart” to “Holy shit, can I even get top 20 female at a race of this caliber?" to “Jax, you are a magical unicorn doing epic shit to make people want to do epic shit all over the world. You are empowering women, minds, men, children and athletes with every fu$%^G step in this desert so stay with your magical unicorn and let’s go.” Sorry that is a lot of “shit”. But wow my mind was on a ballistic yo yo and I needed to settle it down. So that is how it went for 3:20 and slipping into 7th female and top 100 on day 1. I shuffled back to my tent and dumped sand out of my shoes and saw the total blow of my gator glue job before me. As with everything at a stage race, you must immediately go into GO mode and figure your shit out or bow out. So I went tent to tent and asked for advice and luckily I was able to re-glue the shoes… DAILY... to solve this problem. Thanks to the Britt’s and the information tent that has it on hand and makes you wonder how often this might be a problem... I talked shop with Mike for a bit, scored a solution to broken head phones, and then we just ate dinner and focused on life and anything but the race to keep our cool. We were blown away by the size of the race. Everything was just bigger. Camp wasn’t the scene of huddling around camp fires with all others at this gig. Well we had to make our own fire any way but you get the point. The water check points were massive here, heli’s flying over slinging photographers out for shots etc. etc.
Day two came very quickly and I was back towing the line again. The night before was freezing which made me wonder if I had messed up with my ultra light layers but I just got by and dealt with it and try to get more sleep this night. My foot pads were already on fire at the end of day 1, but I had high hopes that the sand running would just become norm and my feet would chill out. Full confidence is how you must start every day and knowing that everyone is already dealing with their own pile of shit out there. So just go run! The day was steady and controlled and felt like it would go smooth and then things quickly started to plummet. A day I wanted to start creeping up in rankings I was dealing with so much sand running and feet burning in agony and on fire in pain. I was deflated, defeated, and mentally stewing in the red zone. Moments of asking myself what was I thinking showing up here on 8 weeks of training and trying to tow up with ladies that are on a year worth or months worth and this is their big week. Then I was like, it’s never about the results for me as a priority so don’t get caught up in that mental fog. And then I was like flip your mind girl, your are killing it for how it is going on just starting up the season after a long long long off season. I couldn’t wait to get this day over and move forward and re-set. Back at camp I used friendship, your messages, my dad’s meditation, a doctor visit to drain fluids from under my feet, and Mike’s constant positive support to bust through and re-vitalize my mind. Camp was the normal system of recovery with one small hiccup. Around 1am I felt huge whips of wind and looked forward and the tents were all collapsing as sticks flopped down and collapsed from a huge sand storm. It was blowing like crazy. Sand just raging everywhere and all over your stuff. Just imagine a sand tornado out of nowhere and you are stuck in it for a while. People quickly catching items that were flying away and taking cover. We took our tent top and created a cave for the rest of the night as the storm raged and the top smacked our faces and sleeping bags and sand blew everywhere. I grabbed Mike and we just created our own little cocoon of shelter. We woke the next morning to a thick layer of sand on everything. Wiping away the sand to uncover your socks, shoes, and not forget any required items upon a random spot check. It was day 3 of running and we were already sick of the sand.
Day three came with a shock of how fast you have moments peeing under the stars with hours more to rest and then BOOM 💥 you are at the start line again and it is go time. Flip flopping back and forth so quick with race, rest, recover, eat food rations, drink loads of water, send 1 email, repair wounds, roll on a ball, stretch, and re-do it again. By now your shoulders hurt from the pack, you are chaffing in weird places, and developing heat rash in others. Sun burnt and sand everywhere. Out there it just blows and blows and blows all over everything. The day was noted as much more difficult and that would start to weed out the roadies that raged for the first two days. The doc taught me a trick with my La Sportiva lace set up to make my feet cause less friction and I was also set up for any fluid to just ooze out during the day. I started and just clicked off the miles to the first jebel (Moroccan Mountain) in 5th position. At the jebel, Anna Marie caught me and we worked together along the ridge line to push it. It was so fun dancing along a narrow ridge and getting in some vert. At a couple points a helicopter was hovering over with a camera crew slinging out. Feels natural eh? haha. On the steep decline we blew past Gemma and I was feeling re-born and like I was finally out of my mind war and having my normal mindset of positive racing. The next jebel we had to use a rope to climb up the last dune portion and it was so fun. You forgot it was scorching hot out and you felt like a kid playing again on Moroccan mountains. I felt free and wild and back in my normal skin. On the last straight away Gemma caught me and I had a solid day in 6th position. I was stoked and shocked and realized that I CAN compete with these ladies and that I am doing amazing for just jumping back into serious training after an “off" year in 2017. I was re-charged and ready with full confidence for day 4’s long stage.
86.2k on deck. The 2nd longest single stage distance of my running career sandwiched in a stage race with a pack on my back. I had a lot of confidence going in to this day because my track record for long days in stage races has been 100% of creeping up in position and having very solid days. The distance of 53+ miles was blowing my mind but I was able to just keep manipulating the math as I went to make it not seem so bad. A trick my little Hannah “gazelle” and I use very often. I kept thinking how often when distance seems intimidating that I tell her “it’s no big deal, right?” And she always responds, “yep”. I was also lucky to get to start early. They started the first five women and 50 overall 3 hours later and I was sitting in 6th. On the flip side, it is hard because you don’t have them to work with during the day, but I was overall stoked and being in 56th overall the day before, I knew I could be a leader of this pack which would gain confidence too. The day was rad! Miles just clicked off jockeying top 5 positions in my group most of the day. I had some epic lows when the heat was at the high of 51deg Celsius (124F), but I just told me self that a few more hours and the sun will set. And around that corner, or on top of that hill, maybe there is a gust of wind. I kept saying, in a few more hours, many miles will have gone by too. I had one big issue with food and was too hungry early so I had to fix that problem. I was already over the zone and bonky and had to fix that quick or I would be royally f’d and on a heli ride I didn’t want to be on to evacuate. It is part of the balance out there. You are already dealing with a starved body and now you are trying to set up a regular eating pattern for a 53+ mile day that makes you feel constantly energized. A very meticulous process. Salt tabs were increased to every 30 minutes. 2 Drip Drop's per check point. (That is 16 x 10g sticks of Drip Drop in one day). But that system conquered heat. I used my Avalon 7 handkerchief that has been at every stage race to do my trick to keep my core temperature down and an extra flask to tow some water to either drink or wet my skin. Then checkpoint 5-6 Emily Kratz passed and I had a moment of discomfort and then realized she was having an epic day too. She looked so strong and solid and just scooted over the sand dunes. So many sand dunes this day it was nuts. I kept trying to remember when I was a kid and in my mid 20’s and visited the dunes and they were so cool. Heck, I was even proposed to on top of one. Flipping the monotonous negative to a positive to get through. Check point 6 came and so did the beginning of a sand storm blowing a raging headwind in our face. I wished so bad I could catch Emily as her and a buddy left the checkpoint together and she was able to draft off of him. I recalled Ludy's quote he sent in a message "Fuck it, if that's the way it has to be, then that's the way it is." Solo and steady, I took on the wind for the next 20 miles. Mixed terrain of sand, rocks, flat track and just told myself to never stop running. iPod dead, watches dead and just myself running in the sand and I just kept trucking. The sky went dark and then I ran along noticing little desert beetles and just keeping a very quiet mind. In fact, the whole day I just thought of nothing besides the small mentions here. I spent it being mindful of the space and energy I was in and just being calm as I can with how many miles I had to tick off after 62 or so we’re already in the bank from the days prior. Aches, and pains absolutely everywhere. Shoulders hurt, chaffing, feet burning, sand in my shoes, you name it. Adversity overload to the point that you just forget all that shit and just run. I thought randomly about my love and appreciation for my friends, family, sponsors and how friken' lucky I was to be in this body moving across space and able to use it as a vehicle to move the masses to push them to explore and find ways to visit their higher self. I felt alive and free. I felt full of robust energy that resulted in crossing the finish line and feeling fresh and looking at a camp that looked abandoned. Due to two starts, there were only around 10 of us back. Camp was destroyed. Tents collapsed and blown over and the sand storm nuking. I told myself that if I got to my tent and it was collapsed I was just laying my sleeping bag on top and passing out for a while. Luckily it was full of sand but standing with sturdy sticks and stakes so I just flopped down on the thick layer of sand and fell sleep with sand blasting my face from every direction. Around 1:30 am Mike arrived and then I saw that Adrian was back too. Only one tent mate left to arrive who would come the next morning. It was a night full of seeing folks arrive and bodies throbbing and trying to get some sleep and ignore the hunger that was at a maximum threshold now.
The next day was a rest day. Roughly 34 hours total to re-boot for the final marathon. I enjoyed rationed bites of food, coffee, re-gluing velcro, re-taping feet, fixing blisters, stretching, rolling, laughing, reading so many amazing messages from everyone back home, and enjoying my tents company and telling fun stories all day with Mike. We watched friends arrive and at the end of the day we enjoyed a surprise can of Coca Cola! Best coke ever. At this point, I then found that I was now in 7th by 32 seconds yet all of the top 7 times were closer due to hard days among other ladies. So in the back of my head, I was also busy strategizing how to have a very strong last stage to finish up in a solid 6th place or 5th if I was super lucky. Strategies to mentally click off every mile, and every checkpoint with positive stride. Setting myself up for throwing out every last bit of energy in my body. This race has been one where you must push it non stop. Running almost the entire time and if you let up, you are quickly caught. So I asked myself, how bad do you want your goal? How bad do you want to fight for it? How far to you want to dig to get it?
“Marathon morning” was upon us. 26.2 miles to the finish line, medal and celebrating. This morning, the first 200 would start 1.5 hours later than the rest of the field. We woke to massive winds and so a few of us found shelter in my tent before the start. Then we hustled over and shivered in a sand storm that flung small drops of rain. Highway To Hell came on and fresh legs carried on a swift start through many dunes for the first few k’s and then relief on a flat section over small rocks and a dried up river bed. Miles were clicking off swiftly and I felt strong and excited with every one that passed. I was munching constantly on PRO BAR Bolt chews and even though it was blasting a headwind and colder, I was still sticking to my salt and Drip Drop regimen. Suddenly, Anna Marie caught up and we nodded at each other and realized how important it was today to work together through a 26.2 mile nuking head wind. So as we passed through the back of the early starters we worked in 3 minute shifts through the headwind for the next 20 miles. Jamming though checkpoints, we would help each other get through. At checkpoint 3 with 5 miles to go we caught up to Mike. He offered encouragement and some steps with us and we continued on. And then we saw camp in the distance and both hooted and hollered with joy. We were famished, cashed out, exhausted, and everything hurt. Every time either of us started to want to give up, we pushed each other on. We caught Natalia and pushed on past. Right before the finish she caught us back and encouraged us to push hard to the finish. We gave our own version of might and finished the last steps of MDS holding hands, hugging and with elated joy and relief that it was complete. It became my favorite day of the entire race. Female empowerment and energy to fuel to the finish line. Team work and pushing positive encouragement when we were falling. I thought so much of all of the notes folks wrote me out there and how much power that gave every step to get through. We gave it everything. Every last bit of our energy.
I walked to my tent and then back to the finish to see Mike. Then, I literally flopped on a sleeping pad and bonked for a few hours. I couldn’t muster energy to pee or do a single thing and I started to feel awful. My tent mates helped me to get in my sleeping bag and just pass out for a while. During that sleep my sleeping pad deflated and I was freezing from the wind and realized the last night was going to be a rough one...but it was the last night after 9 slept on the desert floor.
The last day of MDS is a separate timed stage about solidarity, friendship, reflection and is not a timed portion of the general classification. It is a charity stage that gives back locally and we all walk, jog and enjoy the 7.7k together over many sand dunes to the final finish line. I was excited to enjoy this journey with Mike after an epic and intimate 11 day adventure together. We started with a jog, and low and behold I had literally nothing left in the tank and had to walk. My feet were hurting so bad and my shoes kept filling with sand. I was starving and famished and seeing the effects of the difference of having to hold out 2k calories for the last charity stage out of the total 14k of the full 7 days was really messing with me. The other problem being you are so sick of your food that the night before I skipped my last mac and cheese and drank my 1 beer and my tent mates 1 beer we were given at the finish and fell asleep hungry. Your food starts to become monotonous and gross and you don’t even want to eat it even in a starved state. You are probably thinking, girlfriend, that's just crazy! Those last steps, my body felt week and depleted, but I just enjoyed the fun company of Mike by my side and forgot about it all for the 4 miles. Upon the finish, we were quickly placed on 18 charter buses and began the 6.5 hour journey back to Ozaurzazate. Twisty roads and counting down the hours until the lunch break where we had a sac of lunch. It was a long bus ride home arriving at 5:30pm. We enjoyed extremely long showers and a hotel dinner with many new friends.
The next day, we slept in until 8:30 and then I attempted to eat my first breakfast. I really struggle to get my system up and running from the food I have been eating in the desert and it takes me about a week to be at full function again. Celebratory beer is usually first. We saw new friends all over town and collected our finisher shirts. Slipped in some pizza and I headed to the airport to hopefully have smooth travels back to the states.
All in, this experience was one for the books. As many said, MDS is different in that it is extremely competitive and the highest mark for stage racing. It is where you make your name and being 6th position and by only 15 minutes off 5th is just icing on the cake on an epic week out in the desert. A friendship and bond with Mike I will never take for granted and so many moments of fighting adversity. This is the hardest I have had to push my mind in a stage race and it was supercharged with confidence by support from afar. I can’t even write all of the adversity that comes out up there on this note, but it comes and you just deal with it. And you always come back to the real world looking at crisis and adversity completely different. You have evolved. You are a beacon of inspiration and it is your duty to take that and project it to inspire others.
Now the process comes to heal, stay strong, eat up, and rest up. Entering society is quite hard after you take time off the grid in an experience like that. You see how addicted folks are to technology and phones and it is very hard. You see the vortex of this draw to social media and even requirements from so many to be on it and how it is taking folks away from quality time with their loved ones. You have so many moments out there reflecting on your deep core, and your life and how are you spending your hours and days. You always come back changed in one way or another. Perspectives, and what you will tolerate differ. It is a chance to re-boot and re-vitalize and you always come back possibly skinner (in my case 11lbs)..but another notch stronger. You core and roots are forever changed.
I can’t even dip into the gratitude for those in my life. Thank you for you confidence in me, rooting for me and all of the love and support.