Morning comes much too soon and I awake hearing the Berbers quickly call instructions out to each other and then walk straight through our tent, taking it right off of us as we try to hide in our sleeping bags comfortable in our dreams of sleeping in a real bed and of hurting a bit less. My knee throbs the moment I roll over to avoid being stepped on by a Berber who seems to be in a great race himself (to pull down as many tents as possible while people are trying to grab their last moments of rest!).
Soon I’m sitting in the sand, eating my favorite Swiss Muesli out of a small plastic bag and contemplating how in the world I’ll be able to run a marathon today — on legs that ache with every movement and feet so swollen that they barely fit in my shoes. After breakfast, I go for a walk to loosen up and make a couple audio recordings. [Just click the play button on each image below to hear the audio.]
Recording 1: describes night after long stage, food situation on rest day, evening of rest day, feeling going into marathon day
Recording 2: Feet, feet, feet and other observations going into the marathon stage
Following a nice long walk and time to make the recordings, I complete my final preparations for the day and place a very small amount of food in my front pack. I’m going into the marathon with about 450 calories to consume over the next 4-6 hours knowing that my body will require that much for the first hour alone. Time seems to compress and soon we’re at the start line listening to the daily briefing and Happy Birthday singing.
The race is off and the first steps (well, the first hour’s worth of steps) feel, let’s just say, “very uncomfortable”. I know that I need all the mental help I can get today. Drawing on the power of visualization and dedication that proved so effective on the long stage, I decide to dedicate the first three sections of today’s stage to my grandmothers. In turn, each section brings its own gift — which I felt were gifts from my grandmothers. My dad’s mother brought me surprise winds at my back during the first hour (which served to lighten my heavy legs); my mom’s mother brought me inner strength and a palm-tree laden oasis during the second half of the race when the heat was at its maximum and terrain was very challenging; and my wife’s grandmother brought me a special experience that I’ll share in a bit more detail below. In short though, it was a special time spent thinking about each of these important, warm, and loving women in my life and this helped me in many, many ways to make it through today’s stage.
During the segment I dedicated to my late grandmother-in-law, I exit a particularly lonely stretch of desert and approach a village. The heat, lack of sufficient calories, and general state of my body (wrecked) is causing me to struggle. I’m having to will myself to make every step. As the village comes into view, two little girls run out from under the shade of a tree. They grab my hands and start running with me. They’re not wearing shoes and we’re now on a surface with rocks scattered about. This causes them no problem. No more than seven years old, these girls pull me through the sand for nearly a kilometer. They beam with huge smiles and continue to look up at me and giggle — all the while running fast enough to actually pull me across the undulating terrain. They finally let go of my hands and turn for their village. I am touched and elated and decide that this was clearly positive energy from my grandmother-in-law. Divine, coincidence, imagination? Doesn’t matter. These little girls helped me through a tough spot at a time I was focusing my thoughts on someone special in my life. It’s a wonderful connection and elevates my spirits in a huge way.
As I enter the final 11K, I feel utterly exhausted and still mentally tapped-out from the long stage. The strength of my grandmothers has powered me through most of today’s stage. During this last stretch, the winds pickup — headwinds. I need help – I need support. Suddenly I begin to envision my cyclist friends from the U.S. appear across the desert. They are riding in two large packs, coming from both sides. They swoop in front and beside me, forming a peleton to shield me from the wind. They take turns pulling and each drops back to ride right in front of me — offering an encouraging word along the way. I see their faces and hear them shout “stay on my wheel Jeff, stay on my wheel!”. They are working hard and taking this very seriously – sacrificing themselves to take the wind for me. All kitted out in cycling gear, they are putting in a maximum effort to pull me through the most challenging of moments. I can see them suffering — riding at their limits and working as a team to aid me at what’s nearly my breaking point. The strength I feel from this visualization is surreal. Whenever my mind starts to wander and starts to think about the pain, the lack of a visible finish line in the distance, the headwind, the heat, the hills — I refocus on my peleton of friends and my energy level surges.
An hour passes and the finish line finally comes into view. The peleton quietly peels off to the side and disappears into the desert, leaving me to finish alone. I launch myself across the last kilometer of the desert sand to finish in under 4 1/2 hours. I break down in tears — the more taxed the body becomes and the greater the mental challenge, the more emotional this event gets and it hits me hard today. Today’s performance wasn’t epic — well, perhaps it was. Aside from survival, my goal was to maintain position in the overall standings — goal accomplished. More importantly, I experienced the desert’s magic and shared some wonderful mental energy and heart-warming thoughts with friends, family, and even Moroccan children.
For an audio description of the day (recorded right after finishing), click the play button below. I’ve included a couple of video clips as well.
After a little recovery time in my tent, I decide to walk a few kilometers out into the desert to cheer people on at a lonely stretch of the finishing straight. I spend nearly two hours in the desert, cheering for Brits, Americans, Aussies, etc. I am particularly happy to see my North American group mates enter their final push to the finish. It gives me a huge smile to see my fellow runners react to a lone cheerer in the desert. Most smile back or at least utter a “thanks mate”. Some shift from walking to running. This is yet another wonderful example of the MDS camaraderie. I knew few of the people I cheered, but we were all connected and helped each other whether we knew it or not.
In true MDS fashion, the organizers planned a bit of a spectacle on the final evening – they flew in the Paris Opera, complete with singers and a chamber orchestra all set up on a stage in the middle of the desert. I watched the concert and then quickly found my way back to the tent, into my sleeping bag, and into dream land for my last night in the desert.
Stay tuned for the final chapter: “Crossing the hallowed MDS Finish Line”!
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.