Marathon Des Sables always has a long stage that will be at least a double marathon distance. The long stage has become a legend in itself. Runners will take off in the morning of Day 4, into the dusk and then the dark, many not finishing the 80+km till well into the next day. This is way longer than any of my longest runs - a marathon distance. And the backpack I will have to carry, and the heat, and the sand...
The more I think about, the more I was concerned - who would not? However I do not want to start a race with the fear of unknown so I decided to try the best I can to mimic the race condition so that I could be more prepared than a mere road marathoner. Two months before the race, I increased my training mileage significantly and did back to back long runs on both Saturdays and Sundays during the weekends. But that kind of distances could only be considered long runs (15 to 20 miles each day) for marathon training, and merely serve as a warm up for the 50+ mile long stage during MDS. In March, I felt that I should have at least one weekend running in the ultra range so that I know how my mind and body would response to this monster distance.
The weekend of March 11th and 12th, I pulled out a 60-mile weekend beach run carrying a 15 LB pack: 40 miles on Saturday and 20 miles on Sunday on a diet simulating the MDS race: energy bars and freezer dried food.
Starting from Encinitas at 9 am, I ran along the beach all the way to Torrey Pine State Reserve. I kept an easy pace and felt pretty good for the first 10~11 miles. Marathon Des Sables will have some Jebels (meaning mountain in Arabic) along the way, so I chose to go up Torrey Pine instead of continuing on the beach to reach La Jolla. The 400 ft elevation gain was too much for a run with the 15 lb pack. Climbing up the hill, I found out that the most efficient way to go up was to lower the gravity center by putting the hands on knees. Does not look good in pictures, but it works. Once over Torrey Pine, it was a long stretch of concrete side walk passing USCD and the glider port before a sharp decline towards Birch Aquarium at Scripps. The road levels off at La Jolla Shore and goes up again before reaching La Jolla Cove. The Children's Pool was at the 20 mile mark, and I turned around.
Things started to get hard once I passed the La Jolla Shores on the way back. It was pass lunch time, no more marine layer to keep the air cool, and the shoulders started to hurt. I took a 5 min break in front of Birch Aquarium and unloaded the pack to give my shoulders a break. So far I had timed the energy intake pretty good and did not have the "hit the wall" feeling. That break was a good mood lifter before heading up the long climb to Estancia Hotel. It was the last uphill of the day and I "only" had 15 more miles to go from there.
Unlike the previous runs, this was the first long run without listening to any music or Podcast. I won't be listening to anything during MDS due to the weight concern, so I might as well get a taste of running with my mind only. It turned out to be a very pleasant experience that I got to spend time with myself. There were random thoughts popping up in the brain, and if there was one that excited me, I would “grab” it and follow its direction into memory lane or into imagination game or whatever it leads me. And converting between metric and imperial systems (MDS uses metric system) must have killed many miles – the mental math did not work that well after I passed Mile 10.
When I entered Torrey Pine again, I was really tired. The good news was that there was a downhill to give me a little momentum. Once the legs started to pick up the pace a little bit with the help of the gravity, I tried to keep that pace all the way till downtown Del Mar. Over there, so many signs along the side walk advertising Happy Hour Special and the aroma of food was a torture. It was then that I remembered to call my husband to finish dinner before my arrival - I do NOT want to smell their dinner while eating my freezer dried food on the side!
By now the body got really fatigued, and the mind was too slow to have much activity. It is almost like in a trance state – and I started to understand why hallucinations are common among ultrarunners. The mind went numb, and all I had in my head could be one sentence or one scripture repeating infinitely. I still had a good 8 miles to go with no idea how I covered that distance. It was my normal running route so I was able to predict exactly where the next mile would end. I was not counting how many miles I had run so far, and I was not counting how many miles I had left. My brain zoomed into the next mile marker and that was all I could focus on. It started to get dark, and when there was 1 mile left, I had to pull out the head torch to illuminate the path. That was when I started to look at the GPS watch - bad idea! That only made the last mile to be such longer in my mind. When the GPS watch finally turned to 40 miles, I was standing under the Encinitas city sign and panting. It was 7pm - even my teeth were tired. I walked two blocks to my car and sat for a good 10 min before I could drive.
Day 1 under the belt!