Liza Howard

Liza Howard

Liza Howard is a national champion runner with multiple records in distances ranging from marathons to 100 mile trail races.

April 2015
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Marathon des Sables 2015 Report!

LizaLiza

Apparently Sir Ranulph Feinnes told the Express News that this year’s Marathon des Sables was “more hellish than hell.” This from the man who once dragged a 400+ pound sledge across Antarctica and circumnavigated the globe on its polar axis. Granted, Sir Ranulph’s 71-years old now, almost 30 years my senior, but the sentiment rings true. MdS challenges everyone.   It was my first stage race and it was both my best and worst performance in an ultra.

 

MdS is a difficult beast to describe. You’re in the Sahara Desert in Morocco for six days running 20 to 26 miles a day– except on Day 4 when you run longer, and Day 5 when you rest (/lay in your tent like a car-struck possum). This year we ran 56 miles on the Long Day. They also throw in a mandatory charity stage after the racing days are done, but it doesn’t count towards your overall time, which is cumulative for the first 6 days.

 

The stages looked like this this year:

 

Day 1: 36.2 km (22.5 miles)

Day 2: 31.1 km (19.3 miles)

Day 3: 36.7 km (22.8 miles)

Day 4: 91.7 km (57 miles)

Day 5: Rest Day

Day 6: 42 km (26.2 miles)

Day 7 11.4 km (7 miles)

Total: 249.1 km (154.8 miles)

 

But wait, there’s more. You also carry all your gear for the entire trip on your back while you race. Food, water, sleeping bag, toiletries, and mandatory emergency gear.

 

I carried:

A sleeping bag

7 days of food (You’re required to carry at least 2000 calories per day.)

A plastic spoon

An extra pair of Drymax socks

A pretty wind breaker

Compression sleeves

Trail Toes tape

Trail Toes gel

Two water bottles

10 baby wipes (Beauty and hygiene.)

6 tiny disposable toothbrushes with toothpaste

2 iPods and headphones (I actually only charged one of these before the race. I have only just recovered from that mental anguish.)

An emergency blanket — mandatory

An antivenin device — mandatory (and utterly useless)

10 safety pins – mandatory

A compass — mandatory

Sunscreen — mandatory

A signal mirror — mandatory

A whistle — mandatory

A lighter

200 Euros — mandatory

My passport — mandatory

A small pink Swiss Army knife — mandatory (just the knife,

not the pink Swiss part)

A Spot tracker — mandatory

A course road book — mandatory

A very fine pack by UltrASpire

 

I wore:

A sun hat

Sunglasses

A Buff around my neck

A white long-sleeved shirt

Black spandex shorts

Drymax socks

New Balance shoes with built in gaiters (Many runners coveted these shoes.)

 

The pack can’t weigh less than 6.5 kg without water on the first day. Mine weighed 6.8 kg. So you’re self-sufficient for the week except for water and shelter. Berbers set up 8-person tents to sleep under at night, and water is doled out in 1.5 L bottles at the checkpoints along the course. Water is also resupplied in set amounts in camp.

 

But wait, there’s still more.

It’s April so the desert temperatures range from the 50s to up into the 100s. They may have spiked up to 115-120 degrees a few times. And the area got a lot of rain in March, so it wasn’t an entirely pleasant dry heat kind of 115-120 degrees.

 

And one more thing:

There are sand dunes to run through, mountains to go up and over, dry lake beds to run across, hills, rocks, churned-up sand, moonscapes, sandy headwinds…

 

Still, that’s just the black-and-white MdS. It’s the logistical juggernaut of the mobile camp scene (1200+ runners and hundreds of volunteers camp in a different location each night save one), the international make-up of the 1200+ runners, the unique social mores and loose camp dress code that arise, the water distribution system, the laundry list of penalties that you can accrue, the Berbers pulling the black burlap tents down around you in the morning, the khaki-vest clad volunteers, the lack of anywhere private to pee, the recorded Happy Birthday music before each start, the helicopter film crew, the hunger — all wrapped in a French administrative system — that push the beast into technicolor glory and heightens the challenge.

 

There was a pale flabby fellow who walked by my tent everyday wearing small maroon underwear, white slippers, and two square pieces of shiny tape over his nipples. That’s it. I came to look forward to seeing him go by. I can’t say why exactly. It was reassuring somehow. “See, everything’s fine. Maroon-underwear guy is still here worried about nipple rash. We’re all going to get through this.”

 

The tent city was set up in concentric horseshoes, and everyday people stood a little closer to the tents to pee. My crew’s tent (177!) was in the outermost ring, so we had front row seats to the encroaching urine line. Actually, the 200+ women continued to make futile efforts to find cover throughout the race. Most adopted a head down quickstep past the urinating men and their exposed parts until they’d gone exactly As-Far-As-Their-Mother-Would-Expect-Them-To-Walk-Divided-By-Overall-Kilometers-Run-&-Feminism. At that point, they resigned themselves to a few inadvertent sightings of their bottoms, squatted behind some scraggly 7-inch desert shrub, and tried not to pee on their shoes. Not urinating on your shoes is challenging on a good day. It can be particularly challenging on a windy day.

 

I wanted to email Eliot about the hundreds of peeing men, but I was limited to a few hundred words per email, and I could never come up with any way summarize the bathroom experience that didn’t include the phrase “running a gauntlet of penises” – which I knew wouldn’t sound reassuring. I also left out naked-maroon-underwear guy.

 

And then there was the actual racing of the MdS:

 

Stage 1: 2nd female, 8 minutes behind the leader (all times are unofficial and just what I remember sitting here on the plane headed towards London)

 

Stage 2: 2nd female for the stage and 2nd female overall , 1 minute behind the leader for the stage, 9ish minutes back overall

 

Stage 3: 3rd female for the stage, 2nd female overall, 19ish minutes off the lead

 

And then came Stage 4.

The Long Day.

91.7km. (56 miles)

I wasn’t worried about this stage. In fact, I was a bit relieved all the short stuff was over. I figured this is where I’d actually do well. My pack was lighter, and I’d worked out my water system at the aid stations (Always replace the lids to the water bottles you’re carrying on your chest before bending over to do anything else.) I have a lot of experience running distances longer than 91 km. I’d run 91 km over all sorts of terrain and in all sorts of weather – as part of longer ultras. I didn’t expect any gut-wrenching adventures on Stage 4. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself curled up in a ball under the edge of a Berber tent nine hours after the start spooned by an unknown French couple. But that’s exactly what happened — right down to the French spooners. Waves of nausea laid me so low that by the time I hit Checkpoint 5, 63 km into the race, I hadn’t been able to eat or drink for hours. No gels, no drink mix, no diluted drink mix, no water. That’s right, I couldn’t keep lukewarm water down.

So it was either stop and wait until I felt better, or wobble out into the dark and possibly pass out alone in the desert. I like to do my suffering in a responsible manner, so I decided against the loneyly hypoglycemic desert wobbling. I gave myself 30 minutes to recover, laid down and pulled my buff over my eyes. Unsurprisingly, I was in the same state 30 minutes later — just across the line of acceptable risk. And the nausea wasn’t the familiar, vomit-a-bit-and-soldier-on kind of nausea I’ve come to expect in 100-milers. It was the kind of flu-like nausea that keeps you curled in a ball on the ground — like an ant sprayed by Raid. Another 30 minutes passed. I stood up at the edge of tent, desperate to try to get moving. Then I threw up my breakfast — my entire freeze dried apple cobbler breakfast. Apparently it had been sitting undigested in my stomach since that start. I stared grimly at the treacherous mess until my back muscles started to spasm. Excellent. I was still too queasy and lightheaded to leave, so I curled up on the ground again and pulled my sleeping bag over me. I lay there for about three hours before the nausea abated, and I felt certain I’d get to the next aid station without incident.

I gulped down one blessed sugary cup of tea from a surprise tea station, and walked as fast as I could into the darkness. I hit a pace approaching running after a while, and thought about looking for a tea sponsorship when the race was finally over. Sadly, my tea-fueled Performance of the Year ended abruptly, and I was reduced to a weak shuffle an hour from the next checkpoint. My stomach felt like it was in a vice grip, and I couldn’t swallow anything without gagging. I swished water around in my mouth and spit it out for the next hour – forgetting that I needed to mix the Tailwind into the water to get any swishing benefit. There was a moonlit sandstorm and lots of soft sand to hike through that helped muddle my thinking along with the 12-hour calorie deficit. By the time I hit the next checkpoint, only 17 km from the finish, I had to curl up under a Berber tent again. A French couple ducked under the tent shortly afterwards, and planted themselves on either side of me. I was sad and cold, and I was grateful for the lack of personal space. They whispered to each other in French for a long time across me. I don’t know whether they were talking about blisters and diarrhea, but it felt like a bedtime story and I closed my eyes. Four hours later, they were gone, and so was my nausea. I headed out – determined to overtake every 70 year-old cane-using runner in front of me. (I’m competitive like that.)

In any event, the 7 hours of napping took me out of podium contention.

Stage 5: First female in the 1000+ runners who leave before the Top 200 runners. I have no idea where that put me overall.

 

So there you go! MdS 2015. As Mr. Dickens says, “It was the best of times It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

 

I could not be more grateful to the Ultra Trail World Tour for giving me the opportunity to have this adventure. This race should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Thank you to Eliot and my parents for their constant love and for allowing me to have this grand adventure. My life is blessed.

Thank you to New Balance for their incredible support and for the most amazing shoes ever.

Thank you to Drymax for the socks. I had one blister during 156 miles of racing through the Sahara. It was a tiny blister that I below my toenail that I always get, and they almost threw me out of the blister care tent because it was so unimpressive.

Thank you to Tailwind. That is hands down the best drink mix I’ve used. It tasted great throughout the days of racing. And Bearded Brothers bars! Those are excellent!

Thank you to UltrAspire for the best pack ever!

Thank you to Trail Toes for the best blister kit.

Thank you to all the family and friends who wrote me in the desert. You can’t know how much it meant to hear from you.

Thank you to my British friends who took me under their wing as I was crumbling during Stage 4.

And thank you to my incredible tentmates. I went into this race feeling cynical about people and friendship. Thank you for walking me back over to the sunny side of the street and for all the lovely laughter. I cannot wait until our paths cross again.

And now my bloggy friends, I am ready to get back to it. Blog o’ Day for the rest of 2015. I’ll be sharing all the ugly details of my MdS to Comrades training progression because, unlike Sir Ranulph, I am unconcerned about the Norwegians.

 

 

Comments 17
  • Pommers
    Posted on

    Pommers Pommers

    Reply Author

    Oh Liza! Great story and so sorry that the long day didn’t come right for you – you were doing so well up to then; seriously impressed. Even more impressive was only one blister though 🙂 you’ll have to let your readers in on your secrets! Glad you enjoyed the experience though. Fancy Atacama next year 😉 Richard


  • Liza Howard
    Posted on

    Liza Howard Liza Howard

    Reply Author

    Hi there! Thanks for the kind words. Part of me wants to go back and run Day 4 well, and part of me never wants to run with a pack on my back again. There’s a good reason people don’t run with weighted packs all the time… I know I was lucky with the blisters. The one I got wasn’t MdS related either — I get it under my 2nd toenail every time I race. I was using Drymax socks — and Trail Toes thin tape over the toe. It was amazing how awful some people’s feet got. There was a girl in our group who had to be given morphine during the treatment. What about Trans Atlas? http://en.atlasmarathon.com


  • Rob M
    Posted on

    Rob M Rob M

    Reply Author

    I think it is fantastic you had such an adventure. No matter how your race turns out, I am always eager to see the write up and find out what went down. Your openness keeps me entertained and interested. I do hope you’ll have an opportunity to have another go at MdS. (Unless you can’t stand the thought of it anymore and are just thinking ‘eff that race!’) All the best!


    • Liza Howard
      Posted on

      Liza Howard Liza Howard

      Reply Author

      Thanks Rob! The silver lining of bad racing is always the more interesting blog post. 🙂 If I stumble upon a pot of gold, I will definitely sign up for MdS again. I just need to get stronger to deal with the pack. It’s always going to be at least 15% of my total body weight — which is fine. I just need to concentrate on getting my legs, back and core stronger.


  • Rob M
    Posted on

    Rob M Rob M

    Reply Author

    Oh, almost forgot! Did you get Ranulph’s autograph?


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Rob, I ended up getting Marco Olmo’s autograph. I carried Sir Ranulph’s book’s with me right up until they took our bags from us before the race started, but I chickened out. And I didn’t want to bug him after the day’s racing. Marco Olmo ended up being in the same hotel I was in after the race , and I ambushed him at dinner. I was running near him in the race a couple of days, and it was pretty surreal — since I’d been watching his movie on the treadmill during training. He ascended hills like he was speed skating with his hands behind his back. Beautiful.


  • Meghan
    Posted on

    Meghan Meghan

    Reply Author

    Well, I knew it was going to be an entertaining read. 😉 Congrats on making it to the finish line. As you saw, about .01% of the runners have a perfect (or even great?) MdS race. Something, if not multiple things, gets almost everyone. Most importantly, in my idiotic opinion, is the smile you kept on your face despite it all. Recover swiftly and give Comrades your best shot. I’m so, so, so glad to have peed at least five times, er, spent a nutty week in the desert with you.


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Same, Meghan. Same. (Anyone reading the comments, Meghan is one of the best people I know.)


  • Doug Ratliff
    Posted on

    Doug Ratliff Doug Ratliff

    Reply Author

    Well done. Happy you are home safe and sound. We couldnt sleep when you came in late on day 4.
    What sleeping bag did you carry and what was it’s temperature rating and weight?


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Hi Doug! You and Jazzy are the best. I carried a new XXS bag from Western Mountaineering. It weighed 15oz. There were lighter ones out there, but I was happy with its warmth.


  • David Nowaczewski
    Posted on

    David Nowaczewski David Nowaczewski

    Reply Author

    You are a wonderful writer! Thanks so much for taking the time to write this. I really did laugh out loud.


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Yeah! 🙂


  • Jennie
    Posted on

    Jennie Jennie

    Reply Author

    Congratulations, Liza! I loved reading about your race (I always love your race recaps)– MdS is undoubtedly an awesomely tough race, but clearly, you are even MORE awesomely tough 🙂 Hope you get some good rest and that your training for Comrades goes swimmingly!


  • Ben Peresson
    Posted on

    Ben Peresson Ben Peresson

    Reply Author

    hi Liza, it was a true pleasure meeting you at the MdS… keep well and wish you best of luck to your amazing ultra career! 🙂


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Same Ben!! I hope our paths cross again. 🙂


  • Lucy
    Posted on

    Lucy Lucy

    Reply Author

    You should worry about those Norwegians. They always cheat. Just ask Scott about Amundsen (as we were brought up to believe as small English oiks, anyway).

    Watched from a faraway disconnected online link and wondered and fretted about where you could be. Glad it was just pukey and not something worse.


    • Liza
      Posted on

      Liza Liza

      Reply Author

      Thanks Lucy! And thanks for the comment. 🙂