Beyond Limits’ Editor-in-Chief, Bill Murphy, is competing in the Marathon Des Sables (MDS) this year, 2011. The Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands) is a six-day, 254 km (156 mile) ultramarathon, which is the equivalent to five and 1/2 regular marathons. The longest single stage is 84 km (52 miles) long. It is held in the dessert of Southern Morocco and began in 1986.
We’ve found endurance athlete Jason Sissel, also running the MDS this year for the first time, and he wrote some answers to common questions about the MDS. Jason’s grandfather asked him, from his deathbed created by late-stage bone marrow cancer, to carry on his spirit in my life, and Jason said “Huh? That’s it? Ok, simple enough, Grandpa. Consider it done.”.
Jason did not realise it would lead him to give up a 9 year successful career on Wall Street and use his love of athletics to raise money for Endure To Cure; an organisation which supports paediatric cancer patients.
Over to Jason:
“I have received many great questions from people regarding my quest to run the 2011 Marathon des Sables – an ultramarathon in the Sahara Desert. I appreciate your interest in what our Team Endure to Cure members and I are doing to help the fight against pediatric cancer. That being said, I figured this would be a great opportunity to write a quick post answering a cross-section of questions I have received over the last few weeks.
I know nothing about this event other than it is in the Sahara Desert. Can you describe how this event works?
The Marathon des Sables (trans: “Marathon of the Sands”) is a 150-mile ultramarathon in the Moroccan Sahara Desert consisting of six stages over seven days.
The first three daily stages are about 20 miles each, the fourth stage is around 50 miles with a 40hr time limit, the fifth stage is always a full marathon of 26.2 miles, and the sixth and final stage is usually somewhere between 9-12 miles. The reason I use approximations is because the course changes every year and we will not know the course details until we arrive in Morocco. In fact, at this point we do not even know where we start the race. We simply have a “rendezvous point” in Ourazazate, Morocco and then we take a bus trip possibly up to 8hrs from Ourazazate to the start location.
How does your gear get transported throughout the run?
This event is virtually self-supported. Each competitor is required to carry all of their essential gear, food, sleeping bag, and clothing for the week. The event organizers provide only two things: water rations, and a traditional, two-sided Berber tent each night for groups of 8 people to sleep in between stages. Keep in mind these are not tents like you think of for camping, but tents that better resemble the medical tents at a marathon, that provide “general shelter.”
What will the weather be like when you run in the Sahara Desert?
Temperatures will be rather extreme and so too are the temperature ranges. Day-time highs could reach around 125°F/51C (with sand temperature being even hotter) while night-time lows could dip down below 40°F/4C. Additionally, there could be some sandstorms thrown into the mix. We simply have to be prepared for anything.
What is the terrain of the course; is it just sand dunes?
Surprisingly, the terrain at the Marathon des Sables is not endless waves of gargantuan, micro-fine sand dunes. In fact, over the event’s 25-year history, only about 15-20% of the course is run on sand and sand dunes. The remaining 80-85% of the course is run over salt flats, dried up river beds, rocky desert plains, and ancient, dried up lakes. It is also common for the course to pass through a remote desert village or two. Again, we won’t know the course until we get there, but this has been the historical tendency. Here is a cool shot of one of the dunes on last year’s course:
What will you eat and drink out there in the desert and where do you get water?
Race organizers provide us with about 10L (the actual amount is completely dependent on the length of the stage) of water per day which gets rationed throughout the day at various checkpoints. I will have 2 water bottles and mix an electrolyte powder into the water in one and have straight water in another. I am sure I also will consume a fair share of electrolyte and salt tables. As for food, I probably will use the freeze-dried meals to which you just add water.
I am still experimenting with and fine tuning my food, but one thing that I believe is highly imperative is to select food that is the most calorie-dense per unit of weight. In other words, the smaller and lighter the food, the better it I should be because my pack will be lighter.
How much will your pack weight?
At our pre-race check-in, our pack is required to weigh between 6.5kg (14.3lbs) and and 15kg (33lbs). I expect my pack to weigh somewhere between 20-23lbs at the start and as my food supply gets depleted over the week, the pack should get down to no more than 4-5lbs by the 7th day. My pack itself (INOV-8 Race Elite 25L) weighs only 12.8oz and my sleeping bag (Western Mountaineering HiLite, rated to 30°F) weighs in at only 1lb. I think it may be the lightest bag made for that low of temperature rating. In other words, once supplies are depleted, I won’t have much weight left in the bag.
What type of shoes will you wear and how will you keep the sand out?
Mizuno has been one of my sponsors and as of now, I plan to use the same shoes I always run: the Mizuno Wave Ronin—a durable racing flat weighing 7.5oz. I realize this seems counter-intuitive given the rough terrain, but I have experimented with traditional running and trail running shoes and they still beat up my body too much. Racing flats and minimal shoes always seem to work the best for me. Moreover, I think the Ronin’s will allow my feet to breathe better in the hot temps than they would in the heavier trail shoes–this also should help to reduce risk for blisters or emaciated feet. As for keeping out the sand, I will have gaitors covering my shoes. These gaiters are attached by velcro that goes around the bottom edge of the shoes and extends up to the high ankle. Here is a peek at what they generally look like:
Are there any dangerous critters to contend with out there?
Yes. By most accounts, scorpions seem to be rather prevalent, but the race organizers claim they never have seen snakes. We are required to carry an anti-venom pump as one of the compulsory items on the gear list in the instance we get bit or stung by one of these guys.
What are the biggest limiters for this event?
From all of my research, it seems to me that care of the feet (e.g., minimizing/preventing acute blisters), improper hydration and/or nutrition, and lack of necessary mental toughness are the primary reasons most people get knocked out of this event.
How hard is Marathon des Sables?
Who am I to say; I have never done it, so I have no clue. What I can say is that it consistently appears in those “Top 10 Hardest Endurance Events in the World” type of lists. Whilst I generally find ordinal ranking systems to be biased and arbitrary, I do think more can be gleaned from the annual consistency at which something appears on such lists. I am about 100% confident that this will be the most physically and mentally challenging physical activity I have attempted in my life.
Although, surprisingly, my first year working at Morgan Stanley as a research analyst out of undergrad took its toll on my mind and body.
What concerns you most about doing this event?
Three things: wondering how my body will adjust to the 80-90 degree spread in day and night temperature, taking proper care of my feet, and the possibility of getting hit by a scorpion while sleeping at night in the “generally protected” tents.
How do you train to be ready for Marathon des Sables?
In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of training for an event like this is building up my body’s durability and to train it to recover quickly. If you fail to do so, then everything else will be more likely to fall apart at the seams after the first day or two.
And last but not least, I have received a handful of the critical sort of emails; most of which can best be summarized in a question like the one that follows:
I think you are _____ (insert here: insane, crazy, etc.) and I just don’t get it. You regularly claim your disdain towards running, yet you are going to run farther in a week than most people probably will run in their entire lives, and do so in inhospitable conditions. Why, what is the point?
With all due respect to these opinions, I would like to pose a question: what would you call me if I spent great lengths of time in a position in which I felt generally unfulfilled, yet failed to take the actions necessary to change my course to pursue what truly excites me in life? I think that would be insane! I wrote my first blog post titled “Why I Founded Endure to Cure” and it continues to be the answer to this question. I refuse to believe that carrying out my mission in life – doing what motivates and excites me, possibly inspiring others to reach for new heights in their own lives, or maybe even making a small contribution towards the discovery of cancer cures – is insane.
I will assure you that, for me, running the Sahara Desert is not about the running.”
If you have more questions or comments, please let them flow.
In October of 2006, while having what was to be my last private conversation with my Grandfather I was getting a lesson, via a request, on what it would mean to redefine limitations; a lesson that could be taught neither in the classroom of one of the most prestigious universities of the world, nor in a demanding career at leading Wall Street investment banks.
It was simply a lesson taught by a stoic man, humble to have lived the life he was able to live, who taught without directly teaching really anything at all. From his deathbed created by late-stage bone marrow cancer, all he asked of me is that I carry on his spirit in my life.
“Huh? That’s it? Ok, simple enough, Grandpa. Consider it done,” I confidently replied. I figured maybe I would just do some sort of endurance event and raise funds for a cancer organization, or volunteer for a cancer-related cause in his memory.
I made a lot money doing a job I liked but something always seemed to be missing. I could never put my finger on it. A year and a half later in March of 2008, on a short but much-needed escape from the stressful 14hr workdays, and four days into what turned out to be a life-altering, six-day climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, it hit me.
It was in the rocky Karanga Camp at 16,000ft high into the African heavens, when I understood what my grandfather’s words really meant to me. I heard his voice in my head, “Jason, you need to think less with your mind and more with your heart and all will fall into place.
When you find the courage to pursue what your heart tells you to do, then work hard, smart and fearless; and do it well. Now is the time. Use your resources and initiative to push your limitations outward each day. And then, selflessly use that experience to positively influence the lives of others. People may doubt you in the beginning, but if your heart is fully committed to what you choose to do, and you do the right things and give your best effort, I think it will succeed.” Hearing “the little voice” in your head and thinking it’s right is one thing, but acting on it is usually the hard part.
Less than a month later, I took the leap of faith and decided to resign from my job. In fact, the day I resigned I had not decided to do so when I went into the office that morning. But from here on out, I would be following what my heart says to do: help better the lives of kids who are battling cancer by founding Endure to Cure, and to inspire others by redefining my own limits and getting others to do the same.
So over the course of the next few years, I have committed to doing an unprecedented “endurance campaign” that forces me to constantly redefine my limitations to raise funds and awareness for the cause. Fundraising athletes on Team Endure to Cure who are based all around the world also do the same by competing in any event, anywhere in the world.
I not only hope that I am carrying on my grandfather’s spirit in my life, but I also hope that my efforts can inspire people and help find cures to make the lives of children better who are suffering from cancer.
So, by living with a higher purpose greater than yourself, you will unlock the courage and strength necessary to do what you might currently seem impossible to you. But find your higher purpose, follow your dreams, take a chance, and the rest falls into place.
Find more about Jason Sissel here
For those of you interested in joining Team Endure to Cure, please visit here to learn how you can be somebody’s hero today!
Jason is on Twitter: @jasonsissel