It’s the last day and I awake on fumes, feeling completely exhausted before even trying to squirm out of my sleeping bag. For the fifth day in a row, pain erupts from my knee the moment I make even the slightest movement. I laugh at the insanity, the sheer madness of this race. The Berbers leave our tent in tact this morning, as the final stage starts with a ceremonial run straight the Bivouac. I take some final photos of our home for the past week – feeling a bit sad that Tent 77 comes down for the last time as we cart off only our memories of wonderful camaraderie.
My breakfast consists of half a stale energy bar and a few sand-covered Cliff Blocks. I’ve eaten so much dirt and sand this week that I hardly notice the gritty texture on the Cliff Blocks. I’m super hungry – the effect of a lack of calories starting to show. Today is about survival — about making it to the finish line in one piece. The stage isn’t exactly short (an hour run to the finish line would have been nice – looks more like 2 hours of running today), but it isn’t long enough to draw on my specialty. This means that I can’t draw on endurance reserves (my strong suit) and will have to go head-to-head on speed (which isn’t my strong suit!).
The final stage is about 18km/11 miles. As anxious as I am to cross the Finish Line of the Marathon des Sables (I’ve dreamed about this for over 10 years), I’m not in a big hurry for this to end. I went into this thing just trying to earn a coveted MDS finish. On the last day though, I want to survive – and survive with a top-50 finish. I know who the guys are that could bump me out of the Top-50. My plan is to line up near them at the start and just keep them in my sights. The closest competitor is 10 minutes behind me in the General Classification. If we finish together, I’ll maintain my spot. Any separation (with him in front, of course) eats into my lead. If he runs out of my sight, I can lose 10 minutes easy. The next guy is 15 minutes back. The finish I want is mine to lose, but my body has to cooperate one more day to make it possible.
I decide to dedicate today’s stage to my wife and family. The power of visualization (and feeling virtual support) was a huge asset in the long stage – I need that power again today. The energy is incredible as the final stage starts. The helicopters make their final series of low passes over us and hundreds of runners beam with enthusiasm that we’ll soon see the 2008 MDS Finish Line. We run straight through the Bivouac, cheered on by the wonderful race support staff. I struggle for 10 minutes to hold the pace of those I’ve marked. It’s a desperate attempt. My heart rate is 90% of its max within moments. During these pain-filled minutes, my brain is fast at work trying to calculate the pace and what will happen if they continue the fast pace and I can’t hold on. Indeed, I can’t hold the pace. I ease off and let two of my marked runners go. My pace is still faster than any other day, but not fast enough to keep them in sight. After 20 minutes of worrying about losing my race position, I wise up and decide to focus on the scenery and on absorbing the final hour of running. I eat my last sand-covered Cliff Block and soldier on.
I’m running in a trance, feeling super-weak, but somehow continuing forward momentum. My feet are throbbing as my shoes are now much too small for the swelling that has occurred throughout the week. Today’s course has lots of softball-sized rocks. My feet find these rocks often and kick them hard – jamming my blistered toes further into the fronts of my shoes. I often curse as my once agile feet can’t seem to avoid kicking rocks today. I’m convinced that one of my toes is broken and wince each time that foot hits the ground.
I draw on the strength of visualization – I see my parents running beside me, my wife cheering for me to push it to the end, my sister shouting “GO!”. This pushes me through some tough moments in a lonely stretch of desert. In the distance I finally spot the village that holds the finish line. In a state of fatigue like I’ve never experienced, I will myself to move legs that are ready to revolt. Suddenly I’m falling. It feels like I’ve been tackled or hit by a truck. My shoulder and face hit the dirt and I roll and finally skid to a stop. I jump up immediately – my adrenaline is surging. I have no idea why I fell – there is no truck around, no rogue rugby player launching surprise attacks on exhausted runners — just six days of hard desert running in insane conditions, a lack of food, and little rest. Seeing blood on my arm and leg fires me up. I’m a warrior and the MDS is throwing the last of its fight at me.I’m dusty, dirty, battered, and bloody, but I’m going to finish this damn race even if I have to crawl the rest of the way. You got more fight MDS? Well, bring it on.
I hit pavement for the first in the race and reach the final stretch. I want to sprint, but my legs simply will not turn over. I push and push and push and finally see the finish line. This is it – this is the hallowed finish line of the Marathon des Sables. This is what I’ve dreamed about. I want to just stop and stare at it to absorb the magnitude and the moment, but suddenly I’m standing under the finish line banner, completely losing myself in a monsoon of emotion. Patrick Bauer, the race director, gives me my MDS medal and a hug. I take five steps and fall down in tears. A Spanish runner gives me a shoulder hug, pulls me up, and wishes me congratulations. There is an unspoken brotherhood amongst the finishers. I watch the incredible joy and emotion from fellow runners crossing the finish line. It’s utterly surreal. It’s overwhelming and such a special, heart-warming experience.
I finally gather myself and then notice my tentmate Brendan and moments later Michele. We celebrate with a soft drink and then are whisked away to buses that will take us back to Ouarzazate.
On the bus, we tear into our food bags (distributed at the finish) and within an hour consume more calories than on any of the last 7 days. I have a hard time pulling my feet out of my shoes – the swelling and pain seems to have intensified since crossing the finish line. As my brain transforms from survival mode to recovery mode, I start to feel aches and pains that had been masked for the past week.
A few hours later we arrive back in town and I take one of the best showers of my life.Later in the evening, the Australians, Americans, and Canadians celebrate by drinking the bar out of their supply of beer (and I give the Aussies most of the credit here!). I hit the mattress in great appreciation for a soft bed, but with a lingering desire to still be in the desert – in Tent 77, cooking my dinner in the sun, tending to hydration and damaged feet, reliving the day’s challenges with my tentmates, reading emails sent from friends and family to the Bivouac, and enjoying simplicity, occasional discomfort, natural beauty, challenge, and camaraderie of the Marathon des Sables.
I learn in the morning that I finished 48th overall, the second ranked American. I checked and re-checked the results board, thinking that this was somehow a mistake — finding it hard to believe that a long-time middle-of-the packer could somehow produce such a high finish in the world’s toughest footrace. I touched my name on the results board one last time and said to myself “Anything is possible — never forget — anything is possible.”
Jeff Grant is the author of Flow State Runner: Activate a Powerful Inner Coach’s Voice, Hill Running: Survive & Thrive, Run Faster: Unlock Your Speed in 8 Weeks, Running Heavy, and UltraRunning: Coach’s Handbook. Based in Switzerland, Jeff is a coach and writer who specializes in mental coaching, peak performance, and transformation. Jeff’s popular newsletter is a digest containing inspirational and instructional resources, including his latest content. See recent issues and subscribe for free here. Refer to Jeff’s bio for more information, and please check out Jeff’s Coach & Author page on Facebook.