Smashing the Sand Barrier...4,000 Kilometers of Desert Competition.
So how did travelling to deserts become so intertwined with running? There are easier ways of enjoying the desert other than running hundreds of miles through it in unrelenting heat. Why torture oneself with the thirst, the blisters, the sickness and the throbbing, aching muscles? There is something that happened to me through the first few years of running deserts... it changed my mind and soul in ways I could never have imagined. The pain brought it out in me...and I have needed this release ever since. I would like to explain the psychological and physiological effects I get when grappling with pain that puts me on another spiritual plain....another dimension. And it only happens while running.
I run to feed the rat inside me. My rat always wants to be fed. The rat needs to believe that it can achieve perfection. There is always a way to be better...and I have spent my entire life trying to be better. I feel tortured at times by trying to constantly feed the rat.
When I was a reporter the pressure was always there to be better. Find a story, break the story, have the best story, write a fair and balanced story. There was no pleasing anyone in that business...including myself.
I have always loved to run to try and reduce my stress. I did it when I was younger to feel good. That was it. But as I got older, I felt the need to prove myself. Not so much to other people...but prove to myself that I was good enough. So running became my outlet to try and prove I was tough enough and strong enough and good enough to do anything I put my mind to.
My first race was a marathon. I didn't start with a 5k or a 10km or a 1/2 Marathon. No, I picked up a book and coached myself to run a marathon. My first marathon wasn't a local one in my area. No, I wanted it to be the best marathon I could find. I did the New York City marathon as my first race...and loved it! I was hooked. I was hooked on the training...and I was hooked on the racing. My time wasn't that great. And so the goal became to get better and faster with each race.
I ended up qualifying for Boston a few times...which seems to be the primary goal of everyone who runs marathons. I never really had the desire to go do Boston to tell you the truth. It was always held at the same time of year as the Marathon des Sables...and I was usually in Morocco when Boston was being held.
As you know...the qualifying times for Boston are different for men and women. The men's times are more stringent than the women's times. As a woman, when you tell people you have done Boston...I will frequently get the comment from men that it is much harder for them to qualify because they have tougher times to meet. I always have to say that my qualifying time for Boston was actually good enough to meet the men's time requirements. That usually ends the conversation. Not only did I have to be good enough to meet the women's times...but the men's times too for my age group.
Pretty soon...marathons started to lose their appeal. It seemed that just as I was getting warmed up...the race was over. I read about the Marathon des Sables in Africa and I decided this was going to be my next event. I had never run an ultramarathon before. Just how hard could it be? Well, very difficult as I was to find out. You get out what you put in. If you are going to give the race everything you have...the race will take all you've got and more. I loved it!
Many people will ask me..."But don't you get bored?" Yes, you can get bored. But something has happened to me over the years of racing in deserts that makes this extreme sport more about overcoming the mind than about pushing the body. Yes, it takes extreme strength and a great deal of training in order to run so many miles. But more importantly it takes razor sharp intensity, unrelenting focus... and an ability to overcome pain and misery with determination and discipline. Not an easy task.
So how is this accomplished. I don't know how other runners do it... I can only speak from my own experience. The first few miles of an ultramarathon for me are always tough. It usually takes me about an hour to get warmed up. The second hour I am starting to shake out the legs and feel pretty good. In the third hour I am really starting to feel like I am getting into a rhythm. In the fourth hour I am starting to feel pain. So soon?! Yes. I start to push myself and my body is starting to go into overdrive. Over 5 hours and the mind knows that the body is being pushed. The brain starts to send signals to the body that this is becoming a long run! The mind starts telling the body that maybe it is being pushed too hard and that maybe it is time to rest.
And then it happens. I start to drift into the zone. I usually get myself there by reciting mantras over the hours. Sometimes I just count. I think my favorite count is from 1 to 12...and then I start over...and count the same sequence over and over again. Sometimes I repeat different sayings.
"It's never over till it's over...It's never over till it's over...It's never over till it's over."
"The faster you run...the sooner you're done...The faster you run...the sooner you're done"
Through running I have basically taught myself how to meditate. I have learned that I practice open eye meditation, which is described as being the most powerful form of meditation on the planet. It is a particularly ambitious form of meditation which aims at effortlessly sustained single-pointed concentration that enables you to enjoy an indestructible sense of well-being while engaging in any activity.
Aside from chanting the mantras in my head...I also focus my gaze. I will line up a point on the horizon with the middle of the brim on my ball cap. I will find the exact center and then I will focus on this point with razor-sharp precision. I will literally absorb the point into my brain and I become that point. And this is when everything else falls away. This is where you begin to merge with your environment. All the pain melts away. The mind doesn't need the mantras anymore to keep occupied, to keep from being bored or distracted. I feel like I am one with the desert that I am racing through. There is nothing else that exists except for me the sun and the sand. It is the most fantastic experience imaginable. You are at peace with yourself and the planet. You are one with the current of energy that surges within you and connects with the environment.
This technique enables you to experience pain release and it brings you to the next stage...
super-human consciousness. It is the point in open eye meditation that everyone strives for..because there is no limit to the power and truth you can receive.
And this leads to the final outcome for me... Out of Body Experience. Yup...you can call me crazy if you want. I'm just telling you like it is. I have nothing to hide...and lots to share. There comes a point where I am observing my physical being running. It is like I am floating along beside me ...enjoying the scenery from a different vantage point. Every few minutes though I am checking the vital signs of the body.
"Are you sipping water every few minutes? Did you take your salt? Have you eaten yet? Does anything hurt and need attention? Have you peed? What color was it? When is the next CP? Have you consumed the amount of water your body needs given the distance you have travelled?"
I'll check in and everything will be fine and I will drift again. It is the most amazing experience and I have only achieved it through long distance running. It is said that 1 in 10 people experience this phenomenon. Scientists still know little about it though. What is known, is that extreme physical effort like ultramarathon running can induce outer body experiences. It is almost like an altered state of consciousness.
There are times, of course, where you may experience pain so intense that you are jolted out of your meditation...and you have to tend to your injuries. Running in pain sucks...and I am talking serious pain here. Ultramarathon runners have very high pain thresholds and so when something is very painful...I am talking crippling pain... all you can do at this point is put one foot in front of the other.
I'm sorry...but for me...drugs help. Back in 2007 I was running in the Marathon des Sables. When I finished that race I would have completed 6 Desert Ultramarathons in less than a year...it would be a new World Record. On Day Four I severely sprained my ankle. I went to the Doctors and they said I had a third degree sprain, and they were worried I may have fractured my ankle as well. (Once I got back to Canada, x-rays confirmed there was a small piece of bone that had been chipped off my ankle.) The Doc Trotters did a terrific job taping me up so that I could continue on for two more stages to finish the race. And they gave me drugs. I wish I knew what is was they gave me. In broken English...one doctor did tell me it was like morphine.
I started the marathon stage that day in extreme pain. It was day 6 of the MDS. I had confiscated a tent pole to use as a crutch. Pretty soon I threw the crutch away and I was walking. And then I was running! The drugs had kicked in. I literally felt like I flew over the course that day. I crossed the finish line on Day 7 in the same condition. Your mind has to be harnessed in order to push the body. I have stopped at nothing to keep moving...whether it be through meditation or drugs. If the passion is there...your body has more strength than you know. And your mind is capable of going beyond infinity. The power of the mind is limitless and you just need to learn how to harness it. Everyone at one time or another runs through pain...and some have discovered the secret and have mastered how to do it.
I finished the Marathon des Sables that year in 18th place for women...top 20 on that ankle. And in finishing...I also was successful in setting a New Guinness World Record. To this day my left ankle is weak and "clicks" every time I move it...but I made a choice in continuing on it when I was injured...and I don't regret it.
This is a great quote I found in a sports psychology book. I write it down on a scrap of paper and bring it with me to every race...although I have it memorized.
"It's never over till it's over. Never stop fighting. Never give up. Never surrender. No matter how bad it gets, no matter how deep your pain; persistence, faith in yourself and an undauntable spirit will eventually break you free."
THE NEW TOUGHNESS TRAINING FOR SPORTS James E. Loehr
Once I cross the finish of an ultramarathon the outcome is usually the same. I smile, I'm happy that I finished...and then I immediately start to think of how I could have been better. It never fails. Even if I end up on the podium...I am still thinking of how I could have shaved a few minutes off here and a few off there. I will go over the race in my head and think about how I could do it better next time. It is a curse.
But...and this is important..... the rat knowing inside of me is briefly satiated. I am usually completely spent for about a week after a major event. My mind is at peace...and my body is exhausted. For a brief moment in time...I am happy and completely content. Even if I am not thrilled with the outcome of a race...I am still able to enjoy the complete sense of well-being that takes over my body. I have, in most cases, pushed myself to the very edge and have managed to hold on to complete the event. Pushing the envelope is exhilarating and addicting. One just has to learn where the edge is and not fall off and get sucked into the abyss.