Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Full Story

Thanks so much to all who have visited my site and shared your support for this great adventure -- before, during, and after the journey! Through video, audio, and writing, this blog site captured what it was like to prepare for and compete in what many call the world's toughest footrace, the Marathon des Sables. It also captured a wonderful charity initiative for ING Chances for Children. For future site visitors, I've organized a Road Book to help you find what you may be interested in learning about. Please enjoy sharing in my experience and may you have extraordinary success and fulfillment in your pursuits!

First, the race report (in stages, just like the race):
Some interesting posts on preparation:
The charity:Stage Updates from the Race:
Again, my sincere thanks for both long-time and new visitors to this blog and supporters of this journey!

All the best from a summer afternoon in Zurich,
Jeff

Crossing the hallowed MDS Finish Line

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.
Pictured above (from left to right): me, Michele, Andrea, Karen, Ted, and Brendan.

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.

Above: Brendan and Jeff resting after finishing

Above: A very happy Michele with a shiny new MDS medal and a Pepsi

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."

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Relentless, Arduous Push to the Finish - Part 2

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"!

Cheers,
Jeff

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Relentless, Arduous Push to the Finish - Part 1

I awake the morning of the rest day after a particularly rough night of sleep. I'm feeling very dehydrated, extremely hungry, and hung-over. Pain shoots through my knee every time I move my body. On all the other mornings I've felt tired, but not awful. This morning, my mind is happy, but my body is feeling awful. I need water and food to speed up today's recovery. I'm still a bit shell-shocked over yesterday's epic experience. My body tells me that it was real, but I still can't comprehend it.

Every few minutes cheers erupt around the bivouac as comrades finish the long stage in what is now 24+ hours after it started yesterday morning. Camaraderie is actually the theme of this day, as the sister/brother-hood that has been developing throughout the week really takes its form. Despite the many languages spoken throughout the field of 800+ athletes, we all have a unity of compassion and support for our comrades. You can see and hear this time and time again, in French, Spanish, English, German, etc. as the ubiquitous battered-looking runner walks into camp and his or her tentmates jump up, offer hugs and high-fives, grab the runner's backpack, offer water, etc. It gives me warm feelings to see this and really crystalizes the MDS experience. The most salient example is the moment of the last finisher of the long stage -- 30+ hours after the start - more on that later.

Speaking of tentmates, Brendan and Ted both had great long stages and get a decent (a relative term) night's sleep. I'm proud that Michele made it in just after midnight and thrilled to see Andrea and Karen arrive in the morning. Their epic journey took them through the night, in cold conditions, with little sleep, and through a hot morning to finish the stage. Seeing them walk to the tent full of smiles, I'm impressed and humbled. Our team is together, exhausted, and happy.

Aside from talking with everyone about their experience on the long stage, I pass most of the rest day cutting my gear apart to save weight. This is partly due to boredom, partly to the challenge of finding new ways to lighten the load, and mostly to absolutely maximize my chances of securing a top-50 finish. My tentmates laugh as I cut half of my backpack apart, removing every extraneous piece of webbing, mesh, strap, pocket, etc. I even cut the edges off a photo I was carrying of my wife! (No need to carry a photo of a gravel parking lot in Alaska all the way to the finish of MDS). My hunger is insatiable - by noon I've eaten all of the food I had planned for the full day. I'm way behind on calories at this point and without a stage to race today, all I can think about is food and how I don't have enough of it. The race officials invite us to the center of the bivouac for a special treat -- a cold Pepsi. This is special in many ways: as I've run out of food, for me this means a couple hundred unexpected calories today -- a godsend!

The sight of people walking to get their Pepsi is reminiscent of a post-battle scene in a movie. People are hobbling around, limping and shuffling -- feet are bandaged, faces are sunken, and we're all dirty beyond imagination.

In the afternoon, we hear an announcement that the last finishers are arriving. The entire Bivouac empties, as we make a slightly painful shuffle to the finish line. Emotions are on full display as the athletes who have been out on this stage for more than 30 hours approach the finish line. With hundreds of fellow MDSers there to welcome them home after a lonely overnight march through the desert, they beam as they approach the finish line. The crowd cheers loudly out of respect and pure joy for our mates who have braved the long stage and finished.


Following the last runner of the stage are the camels and Berbers, who sweep the course and add a bit of drama when crossing the finish line of each stage.

Evening finally arrives and I find myself more nervous going into the marathon stage than the long stage. For the long stage, it was about pushing myself into the unknown to discover any hidden potential. I found something that surprised me and suddenly placed me in a quasi-competitive situation. Now I desperately want a Top-50 finish and I'm willing to put it all on the line to get there. I look over the General Classification before going to bed, my tired mind trying to work the math to determine how fast I'll need to run the marathon stage based on those who have a chance to overtake me in the rankings. I figure that I'll need to a sub-5 hour stage to have the slightest chance of maintaining position. Considering how terrible my knee feels, the fact that I'm running way low on food, and five days of cumulative fatigue, I'm not feeling very good about this. It's hard enough to even walk for 5 minutes now -- I just don't get how we can tackle a marathon tomorrow. I find solace in the fact that everyone hurts, everyone is fatigued, everyone is battling the same mental and physical challenges. We're in this together. Tomorrow is tomorrow -- time to rest and see how far my mind and body are willing to take me in the morning. A beautiful sunset closes the evening, its glow exemplifying the new bond I have with this hostile, yet gorgeous desert.

Stay tuned for the Marathon Stage write-up ...

Jeff

Monday, May 19, 2008

Stretching of Limits --The Surreal Long Stage: How is this possible?: Part 2

Within moments of the start I find myself in a small cluster of a dozen or so runners at the front of the race. Several runners are taking "flyers", where they push the pace hard for a couple minutes to enjoy being at the head of the race, but then quickly fade as showtime ends and their un-warmed up and fatigued bodies revolt at the idea of running hard for more than a few minutes. It's hard not to want to follow the series of micro-surges, but I'm concerned about blowing up before the big climb. I try to ignore what's going on around me and just run. I lock into a pace that feels a bit quick, but also feels manageable for the first 5K. Soon, I realize that I am alone at the front. It is quiet -- very, very quiet.

Am I dreaming? Have I gone off-course? Where is everyone? I quickly look back just to make sure that the field of 750 runners is really behind me. Behind me -- unreal. What an odd site -- the entire race behind me and a huge, sandy, and desolate climb ahead. Suddenly, the silence is interrupted by the sound of a helicopter ripping through the sky. It's flying low and sideways to capture video footage of this long line of runners snaking across the desert. I struggle to control my emotions as my mind begins to process what is happening. Keep it together Jeff -- keep it together.
We hit the base of the climb and two runners pass me. I decide not to chase, although I feel a slight sense of panic that after these two pass me, the rest of the field will follow -- swallowing me up like a cycling peloton reels in the breakaway cyclist moments before reaching the finish line. Am I falling apart -- self-destructing at the start of this climb? A third runner passes -- a Moroccan with a low number (top 10). He looks elite - almost certainly a professional distance runner. I decide that I'm OK with him passing me - he's in a different league. He speaks to me in French and then broken English. He's telling me to follow him. I stay on his heels through the steep climb, first up rock, then soft sand. The pace is brutal for such a steep slope. His running looks effortless. I'm hurting and struggled to hold his pace. When it's too steep to run, we speed-hike and scramble. I trip on a rocky section that feels more like mountaineering than trail running. My hand makes contact with a sharp rock edge, tearing the flesh between my fingers. A bleeding hand and max heart rate takes its toll and I lose my drive to stay with the Moroccan. He drops me. The final stretch of the climb is so steep and exposed that a fixed rope is installed. I grab the rope and scramble the final meters, yelling in a primal tone when I reach the top. I've somehow met the first challenge of the day in the top-5. This isn't possible.
With my Moroccan friend now out-of-sight on the downhill side, I sprint over the pass and start threading my way down a fairly technical descent. It's time to take some chances to gain time on those less comfortable in the mountains (or perhaps more sensible than I am!). After months of training in the Alps to go hard on the downhills and years of loving my play-time in the mountains, I'm feeling pretty comfortable going for it on the descent. In a special zone, I take in the beauty and energy of the mountains around me and my feet seem to land in all the right spots. I enter a narrow gorge -- boulders are all around and the terrain alternatives between rocky steps and sandy patches. I nearly lose my balance on a loose rock. This scares me -- had I fallen, chances are that the surrounding rocks would have won out over my skull.

I'm soon out of the gorge and onto the flats, having passed one runner on the descent. I feel great -- knee pain is mostly gone and the heat is OK. I turn on my iPod at this point, hoping that I'll have enough battery power to keep high energy tunes pumping for another 9-10 hours. I reach the first check point, unscrewing my water bottle caps while still running to save time. The officials punch my water ration card - I quickly re-fill my bottles and take off -- not wanting to waste any time. For the first time in my life I feel like I'm really racing.

Run 9 minutes - walk 1 minutes: Terrain-permitting, I stick to this routine. During each walk break, I stay very busy. It's all about self-care. At the walk breaks I alternate between taking salt tablets, mixing energy drink or Nuun in my water bottles, and eating. When the minute expires, it's back to running. A few guys pass me during my walk breaks -- it kills me. I want to abandon my walk breaks and give chase, but patience and great coaching prevail. I stick to my race plan.

For the next several hours I run alone, only seeing a few runners in front and a few behind. The field is quite spread out at this point, as the opening climb served to shatter many a body and psyche. Plus, it's starting to get warm -- very, very warm.

I enter a dunes section and pull out my compass to navigate. I see three sets of footprints in the sand in one direction and three in another. I'm apparently in 7th position now. I'm careful with how I place my feet on the surface of the dunes. (If you land with a flat foot, you often can get away with a quasi-normal stride and prevent the energy-draining and dreaded sinking of your foot when you break through the surface.) Suddenly, I lose the footprints in front as well as any sense of other runners near me. I briefly consider backtracking, but decide that I don't want to risk the time loss. I push through, following a rough compass heading. Ten minutes later I exit the dunes into a vast expanse. I've reached a wide valley and I have no idea which way to go. I consider pulling out my roadbook to look up the heading, but decide to take one minute to breathe deep (don't panic Jeff) and look for clues.

There -- a reflection. Several kilometers away I see the sunlight glimmer off of a support vehicle. Within another 10 minutes I'm back on course. This little mistake cost me some time, but I can't worry about this now. I'm just happy that I didn't get myself really lost out here.

My legs are feeling fine and the heat is bearable. I'm not running fast, but I'm staying consistent and somehow fending off the field of runners that I've been expecting would swallow me up for half a day now. Following the third checkpoint I reach another significant climb. I power-walk it and reach one of the most beautiful ridge lines I've ever seen. I regret not having my camera handy, but not enough to take the time to retrieve it from my pack. The route follows the ridge line to a scenic perch and then drops down a steep sandy section. I'm feeling really slow on this stretch, but perhaps the others are as well, because no one seems to be gaining on me. The sandy descent ends in a very long off-camber traverse through soft sand. It becomes extremely uncomfortable to run with my feet at such an odd angle. Only occasionally do I get decent purchase on the sand. My ankles are flexed and compressed at their extremes. Dig deep, find inner strength.

The traverse spills out into a long, relatively flat section heading into the salt flats. Through the occasional sandy section, I can find only 6 sets of foot prints as I lay down the seventh. In the distance I finally spot two runners and soon gain on them. They are walking, presumably on a quick walk break. I expect them to re-pass me any moment, but refuse to turn my head to check on their progress.

I enter checkpoint 5 in 5th place. It's getting really hot. I fill my bottles and then douse my face with part of my second 1.5L bottle. I see a photographer jump in front of me to snap some shots.

Within seconds I'm running again. I feel that I'm running on borrowed time -- that any minute reality will return and I'll find myself in 400th place -- comfy in the middle of the pack where I've always been. I see a runner ahead walking off to the side of the road, apparently with stomach problems. It's my elite Moroccan friend from the first climb. He loses his lunch, but restarts his progress soon after I pass. His gazelle-like stride is gone and now he's walking for the finish line. I motor on, wondering if a stomach ailment will hit me as well before the day is over.

I soon enter a special Zen-like zone. I put all of my thoughts and energy into thinking about my dedication for this stage -- to all who have supported my charity drive for ING Chances for Children and UNICEF. I envision the face of each person who has donated and each person who has sent me notes of encouragement to the Bivouac. I think of the children in Brazil, India, and Ethiopia who will receive the fruits of such generosity. I feel an enormous surge of strength from these thoughts. An hour passes to my surprise and suddenly I'm arriving at another checkpoint. At this moment I realize that I may be able to finish within 10 hours. This just isn't logical.

I return to my focus zone and try to ignore the heat which the last checkpoint reported had topped 50C/122F. I enter another section with soft sand and an uneven surface. I feel like an underdog boxer in a late round just trying to hold on for survival. I stumble often, but manage each time to catch my balance before hitting the ground. Regardless of what's happening with my feet and balance, I keep pushing through -- driving my legs forward like a diesel engine. I see another runner ahead and soon pass him on a short uphill section.

Snapshot:
  • I'm now in third place with 10K to go.
  • I left the start line 8 hours ago.
  • It's still daylight, but the sun is starting its fall, right over where I think the starting line rests.
  • This is not real - this doesn't happen to a regular guy.
I reach into my front pack for one last gel, but sadly there is nothing there. I could use some nutrition to get me through this last hour - oh well! My thoughts of food are interrupted when I see another runner ahead -- he's walking. I reach him and notice he's another member of the Moroccan contingent. He's mixing an energy drink. I pass him thinking that the moment he finishes his 'dinner', he'll speed past me.

The sun is low in the sky and burning straight into my eyes. My knee is hurting again and I'm slightly dizzy. The hours of running alone and the intense heat are getting to me. I need strength -- I need support. I begin a series of visualizations -- not quite hallucinations, but not far off either! I see my friend Sean directly in front of me, turning around to look me in the eye every 30 seconds to tell me to stay strong and stay with him. I then see my family off to one side and my friends off to the other. They form a long line, reaching the way out into the desert. They take turns running by my side, telling me to keep pushing hard for the finish line. My wife, my parents and in-laws, my grandmothers, my sister --my coach, my colleagues, my friends, my boss -- they all have a moment to share a cheer or a look of encouragement. My late granddad appears to tell me to "stay tough, boy - stay tough". My body is spent and my mind is at its limit. Everything hurts, but I'm filled with an enormous energy and waves of emotion that are surging me to the finish.

The finish line finally comes into view. I'm running on fumes. This is not how I envisioned finishing this stage. It's not dark. There aren't hundreds of runners ahead of me. With only one set of footprints between me and the finish line, from a mystery runner that I never saw, I push and push and push myself to run as hard as possible to the end of the stage. Tears fill my eyes when I see a fairly large crowd gathered at the finish. I make once last glance back, as if expecting 500 runners to suddenly pass me, and see only an empty desert. I launch myself across the finish line to the sounds of cheers. As I'm gasping for air and trying to make sense of what has just happened, a camera crew jumps in front of me, asking in French and then English how I feel and what it was like out there. I can't speak - my emotions are stretched to their limits along with the rest of me. I manage to state that it was the hardest thing I've ever done and that it was a surreal and beautiful experience. This is the most glorious moment of my sporting life. I'm dazed. My eyes are still filled with tears as I'm handed my evening ration of 4.5L of water and walk off on my own.

I'm suddenly pulled aside as I'm walking to my tent. It's a race official and she's instructing me to go to a special tent, where my equipment will be inspected. I'm confused by this request. I ask her why. She says that they have to ensure that the top runners have all required equipment, including the minimum food levels per day. As we walk to the tent I try to explain that I'm not a top runner. I explain that I was in the main field, not the elite 50 that started later. She says "I know, but you came in second in the main field and your time was fast overall. Now, let's make sure that you have your compulsory gear." Once in the tent, I drop to the ground and start unpacking my backpack. I'm able to quickly find my compass, anti-venom pump, signal mirror, etc., but have a moment of panic when I can't find my lighter -- not being able to show it would have cost me a time penalty, which could have easily wiped out my hard work in the stage today. I find the lighter finally and prove that I have the minimum food levels for the remaining stages. With this unexpected inspection passed, I stumble toward my tent and make the following audio recording that I believe captures the emotions and experience of the day very well.



Later I send an update to Becky and she posts to the blog. (It may be interesting to read it again after knowing the full story.)

With my endorphin high starting to wane, I begin to feel the pain in my feet, knee, and well .. everywhere else. Within moments of collapsing in my tent, I'm shivering, so I cover up in my sleeping bag and try to make a recovery drink. Darkness arrives and my tentmate (who had exited the race, but will be back in 09!) shows up in shock that I've finished already. She helps sort out a tent snafu with the race officials that involved me having to move tents during this tough recovery window and then helps me prepare a cold freeze-dried meal - yum. I manage to eat this not so great meal, desperate to get the calories in my body, and soon enter one of my worst nights of so-called sleep ever. My legs alternate between shaking and aching all night as I go through periods of shivering in the cold and sweating as if it were still mid-day.

When I learn of the final stage results in the morning, I'm in shock -- 2nd place in the main field and 24th overall when factoring in the elite group. I ran my heart out for 9 hours and 2 minutes, proving to every middle- and back-of-the-packer out there that anything is possible and that you should never, ever accept that your limits and your potential are fixed.

Thanks for reading, my friends. Stay tuned for "The Relentless, Arduous Push to the Finish".

Jeff

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Stretching of Limits --The Surreal Long Stage: How is this possible?: Part 1

Before I can tell the story of the Long Stage, I think we need to spend a few minutes revisiting my mindset when I signed up for this adventure a year ago, my expectations going into it, and my background (or lack thereof!) as a competitive athlete. Where to start ... how about backwards? For readers who may not know me well, I'll share a highly condensed version of my background:
  • 1995 and prior: overweight, sedentary, unhealthy, entirely nonathletic
  • 1996: Signed up for an Ironman as a motivator to lose weight; finished and experienced a major lifestyle change
  • 1997-2007: Finished several more Ironmans and lots of marathons, triathlons, and long-distance cycling events. Best finishes ever were toward the front of mid-pack.
  • Not slow - not fast. Marathon PR: 3:42 Ironman PR: 12:10 Not bad, but not exactly in the running for a high place!
  • No ultramarathons ever.
So now that you know where I was coming from when I signed up for MDS, you'll probably understand why my goal all along was just to finish. I remember Coach Lisa telling me a year ago that the time limits were generous enough that you could finish even if you walked most of it (although a walk like that is far from easy!). Knowing that I could walk if I had to, I signed up thinking that with a great coach, focused training, and perseverance that I could finish. Finish -- that's it .... Finish. It wasn't until a couple weeks before the race that Lisa broke the news to me that I had a "race plan" and that her race plan for me was built on her belief that I could earn a top 100 spot -- maybe top 75.

What did I think of this? Well, I thought that I had a wonderful coach, who much like a mother believed that one of her own was capable of anything, even if that "anything" was entirely unrealistic. I thought that she was overlooking the reality of my background, my lack of Olympian genes, my lack of ultramarathon experience, my lack of speed, etc. While astonished that she would think I was capable of being somewhat competitive at an international ultramarathon event, I was also inspired. She lit a fire inside me by believing in my drive, spirit, and potential.

The race plan was simple: run the first three days easy, except for the last hour -- race that hour. Then, on the long stage (78K/47 miles), race ALL OF IT - hard! I remember thinking: "This is nuts! RACE the long day??? I'll be lucky to survive it, much less race it."

She instilled in me the belief that an epic performance on the long day would make a huge difference in the final standings. So with all of this talk of racing, I experienced a major paradigm shift. I started to see myself as a competitive athlete -- not just a former fat-guy who was out to finish, but a gladiator entering the arena with victory as the only option. I became much more serious about the weight I would carry -- shaving grams wherever possible. I decided not to take the solar iPod charger, to take only the clothes I would run in, and to take less food. I still thought that I would have to be incredibly lucky to finish the week in the top 100, but I wanted to maximize my odds and leave it all on the line in pursuit of something that I really didn't think was possible, but that perhaps was if I really stretched my limits. This probably sounds quite bizarre, but it's reality: after 12 years of endurance racing, with Lisa's belief that I could finish in the top 100, I finally started to see myself as a real athlete.

I never would have imagined that I would be in a position to sacrifice time on the third stage as a tactic to get the start time and group that I wanted on the long day. That's exactly what happened though as I was suddenly moving toward the top-50 during Stage 3. (Again, this was very surprising because I had been battling intense knee pain since the start of Stage 2.) On all of the stages except for the long stage, all 800 athletes start together. On the long stage, the elite top 50 start 3 hours later -- right at noon. For many reasons I didn't want to start with this group -- mostly because I didn't see myself as worthy and thought that it would be embarrassing and lonely to get dropped 5 minutes into the stage -- left to run 12+ hours alone. My Stage 3 strategy worked perfectly, so I was all set to line up for the 9AM start with 750 runners in the main field.

My strategy was to run in the lead pack up to the first big climb (at 4km). The climb was so steep that a fixed line was installed near the top. It also contained loose rock and a narrow route, so the race organizers said to expect delays. I wanted to avoid waiting in a queue at all expense, so I knew that I needed to be in the top 10 or so when the climb started. I believed that once I was on steep mountainous terrain that my passion for hills would take over and that I'd get up the incline on pure adrenaline. Once over the big climb, I planned to run 9 minutes and walk 1 minute -- over and over until I reached the Finish line 12 or more hours later. I decided to pack my camera away, so I wouldn't lose any time taking photos during the stage. I repacked my front pack several times to ensure that I could locate everything quickly, by feel. My compass was the most handy - just in case I needed to navigate (assuming that I was in one of the leading groups). I also had quick access to anti-inflammatory meds, salt tablets, and food. I didn't plan to stop for any breaks, so all my nutrition would be on the run or during walk breaks. I would unscrew my water bottle taps on the final run in to each aid station and stop only long enough to fill the bottles with water. I would speed walk all the steep ups and run the downhills hard -- even if rocky or sandy. I would ignore the knee pain, and if that proved impossible, I'd focus on the pain and turn it into its own energy source. I didn't know how I could race a 50-mile stage with legs that were already trashed and a knee that hurt so much I had to limp whenever I walked, but I intended to do anything and everything possible to minimize the time it took to finish the stage. At the same time though, I wanted to enjoy the experience, to savor the sights, sounds, and even the feelings my body experienced -- good and bad.

The night before the long stage, I went for a walk in the desert with the printouts of emails sent to me from friends, family, and supporters. I had four pages of emails. I was touched - my heart was warmed by such wonderful support from around the world. I decided at that moment to dedicate the long stage to everyone who had supported my charity initiative for UNICEF and ING Chances for Children. I stopped by the Internet tent before going to bed to send Becky the following note:

"I'm dedicating my run tomorrow to all who have supported the ING CfC/UNICEF charity initiative -- You are all running with me on Wednesday and I thank you immensely for the support you've offered. "

I didn't sleep well. Lots of tossing and turning on the hard ground -- and every time I turned, my knee would hurt enough to wake me up. I awoke at 6AM and nervously ate breakfast. Two hours later I found myself walking away from the start line for some solitary yoga time. I needed to get away from myriad conversations on heat, blisters, water, distance, and food -- I needed to enter a zone of peace and inner-strength. I entered Warrior II pose, with my fingertips pointing at the mountain we would climb early in the stage. My energy level increased as I connected with the desert. I closed my session with tree pose, where I found calmness to balance the pre-race nerves I was starting to feel. I focused on finding calmness through deep breathing. I bowed to the mountains and dunes, sharing a Namaste with an environment I hoped wouldn't punish me too much during my brief visit and better yet, would reward me with a scenic, safe, and quick passage.

At 8:50 I lined up on the front row -- another first. The helicopter buzzed the start line several times. Patrick Bauer (the race organizer) announced in French: "You have 34 hours to travel 78 kilometers. Good luck." I felt a huge rush of emotion and said to myself "This is your day Jeff. Make this the race of your life. This one is for everyone who supported you. No regrets. Race."

Cinq, Quatre, Trois, Deux, Un! We're off!

.... to be continued ....

Friday, May 2, 2008

Stages 1-3: How could we have underestimated this challenge?

To give you a seat right next to the action for the first few stages of the MDS, I've created a video with tunes, photos, and daily pre- and post-stage audio updates. The soundtrack has special meaning for MDS 2008 competitors as it's a tune we were treated to each morning in those final anxious moments before the stage started. The sights, sounds, emotion, and commentary in these videos captures what it's like to be there perhaps better than words alone ever will, so please sit back, relax and enjoy a sample of life at the Marathon des Sables!

Stages 1-2


Stage 3


Please feel free to share the link and videos.


Coming soon .... "Stretching of Limits --The Surreal Long Stage: How is this possible?"

Cheers,
Jeff

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Coverage on ABC

They aired the Marathon des Sables coverage on ABC in the U.S. on Wednesday night! We didn't hear about it until too late, but the info is on the ABC website:

The story:
A Marathon With a Difference

Video segments from ABC:



And some pictures from the ABC crew in the desert:
ABC News Joins the MdS

Cheers,
Becky

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Jittering away the pre-race days in Morocco

We arrive in Ouarzazate, Morocco several days before the race starts and immediately find ourselves trapped in a thick cloud of anxiety. There's no doubt that you need the extra time before the race to adjust to the heat, pack and repack your gear, receive and act on advice from MDS veterans, and transition your mind from work life on another continent to stage racing life in the desert. The downside is that time seems to pass much too slowly and while it's great to be making new friends, all the conversations add fuel to your recently-lit anxiety fire. The most discussed item during this time is calorie count. Never in your life will you hear so many people discussing the precise number of calories that they intend to carry and consume over the next 7 days.

"You see Jeff, I'm taking 17,280 calories in total. I'm starting with 2,118 calories on day 1, but 1,281 of those calories will come from my freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff dinner, which of course has the highest weight to calorie ratio. I'm also carrying progressively more Macadamia nuts per day -- starting with 3 on day 1."

These conversations send you back to your room to unpack all of your carefully-organized food bags and assess for hours on end the pros and cons of carrying a 177 calorie mini portion of beef jerky on day 3 and four chocolate covered espresso beans (totaling 63 calories) on day 5. In no time you discover that if you take some food out of its original packaging, you can save enough weight to add four more pretzels (28 calories) on Day 6. You view this as a huge achievement, thank goodness since it took an hour to make the decision and two hours to unpack and repack again!
Everyone seems to know their exact calorie count by day, the total for the week, and their backpack's weight. You also hear endless stories about the heat two years ago, the sandstorm last year, and the guy who's feet were so blistered in the race three years ago that they had to amputate his toes forcing him to crawl the final 90 miles of the race, where he got blisters on his kneecaps before being forced to slide on his stomach the final 20 miles. "Oh, you should have seen his stomach blisters - a dreadful sight. They had to airlift him from the Finish Line to a British Aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean where specialists saved his life -- I think he's doing the race again this year though, but he has artificial toes and kneecaps and the only way he can eat now is through a straw."

Ok, perhaps a slight exaggeration, but that's how the stories come across, leaving you to return to your room, unpack and repack, toss out a tiny bag of crushed potato chips (114 calories), 3 of the extra pretzels you added a few hours ago (21 calories), and cut a few more bristles off of your toothbrush to save weight. "I don't want to end up like crawling, stomach-blister guy -- forget that, I'm throwing out two Bandaids and cutting a zipper off of my backpack as well. I'll keep the tape though -- just in case I need to use it to prevent a bad case of belly blisters."

"Hurry up and wait" becomes your new mantra starting with the day of departure from Ouarzazate for the desert. We are instructed to meet outside of our hotel at 9:00 -- the buses finally arrive at 9:30. We board them and proceed to spend two hours parked in front of the hotel. Calorie count and foot taping discussions are soon replaced by quietness as the race organizers distribute the official "Road Book". The race course has been secret until this point - now we're getting our first look at the distance and terrain per stage. It's quiet for an hour as everyone ponders the book. "Day 1 looks tough -- 8 miles of dunes!" "Huge climbs on the long day." "How do you convert from kilometers to miles" "Aren't these maps great -- but ouch, look how many sections of dunes there are."
The buses finally depart and we enjoy a 5-hour drive through the desert with a bonus nausea-inducing twisty drive over a mountain range. The mantra stuck in my head: "I just want to run. I just want to run." I feel like a dog seeing his master get out the leash and pull on some running shoes only to get distracted by a phone call. The waiting and pre-race anxiety drives me crazy - I'm scratching at the door. The buses finally depart the highway and surprisingly drive off-road a few kilometers to the site of Bivouac 1. The song "Highway to Hell" suddenly appears in my mind. This is the moment where you have your first sense of the expedition nature of the MDS. The Bivouac is much larger than I expect and is situated within sight of an enormous section of sand dunes -- which we later learn represent the first part of Stage 1.

The competitors sleep in black tents, 100 of which are arranged in a giant three-tent deep oval. The staff tents are all large, white (and for all we know stocked with a full bar and jacuzzi). In between the collection of athlete and staff tents is a series of very large tents housing the medical clinic, telecommunications center, and other logistics centers. To the side of the staff tents is a large area with Land Rovers, two helicopters, and various other race vehicles. There is also a huge inflatable dome tent (like a mini circus tent) housing pre-race food distribution. (We arrive in the desert Friday evening and have a day and half before food self-sufficiency starts.) The first order of business: receive your water rations for the evening. We queued in the center of the competitor tent area and felt a bit like refugees as we were handed water and our water ration cards were checked. With a mild sandstorm brewing, we enjoy a nice dinner, complete with fresh bread and wine (gotta love the way the French handle desert catering!). After a restless night of sleep on hard, rocky ground, we endure our last full day in the desert before the race starts. The main objective for T-Minus 1 Day is to make it through the administrative checks. At prescribed times we each arrive at a large tent, where we hand over our pre/post-race luggage and receive our race numbers, emergency flare, and salt tables. Each competitor also goes through two interviews -- one for gear, the other for medical. The gear interview involves varying levels of scrutiny to ensure that you have mandatory items and the minimum of 2,000 calories per day. I am lucky to sail through this inspection with only a glance at my backpack and hardly a question. Others have their packs weighed and the contents inspected.

For the medical check, you hand over your mandatory ECG printout and medical clearance forms. A team of three medical personnel review your paperwork and walk you through a little Q&A to ensure that you are properly trained and have some sense of what you're getting yourself into. Again, my intervi
ew is very brief. I name-drop that I was coaching by Lisa Smith-Batchen (who has won this race) and mention a couple things about my training -- soon I was on my way out of the tent, cleared to race. This is actually a huge moment of relief - I worried for months that my paperwork would have an error or that my Swiss-performed ECG would be the wrong paperwork due to my poor German skills and would turn out to be a special holiday recipe for dark chocolate with a hint of Bailey's or a deciphering code for Swiss bank accounts -- either of which would have OK in hindsight!

We spend much of our afternoon with the media around -- ABC News (U.S.) trekked out to the desert to follow the North Americans, so we do some interviews, watch our new friends being interviewed, and grab some team video and photos. We hear and answer the question "Why are you doing this?" so many times that our answers start to seem surreal -- perfectly acceptable to us, but probably other-worldly to most viewers.
Our time together before the race starts represents the birth of many new friendships. Up to 8 people share the same open-air Berber tent for the week. It's close quarters and you all see each other at what some would say your worst (dirty, extremely exhausted, under extreme physical and mental duress, under-nourished, dehydrated, sore, sick, injured, etc.), but at what I think is your best -- your true self -- with all your highs and lows right there on display. The highs are amazing and wonderful to share and the lows are raw, honest, and real. When testing your limits by racing and living through the harsh conditions of the desert, identifiers such as careers, titles, clothing, possessions, class, education, or prior accomplishments have little meaning. The desert is a great equalizer. Everyone learns a lot about themselves and each other in this setting -- the compassion and selflessness is heart-warming and one of the best gifts of this event . We were extremely fortunate to have a great mix of guys and gals in our tent, Number 77. The bonding takes place quickly and we're happy to have a strong coed team with shared respect for one another.
That evening, the sands began to blow with even more intensity (securing our desert initiation and ensuring that we are all very dirty before crossing the start line). I unpack and pack my backpack yet again, ditch a couple extra items, and cut off more parts of my pack that I figure aren't that important. Dinner is nice, but my pre-race jitters want all the attention, so I hardly eat. We are all in our sleeping bags by 7:30, begging for this race to start.

Stay tuned for the next chapter ...

Jeff

Story time

I've been thinking for a couple weeks now about how I'd tell this story - the story of a surreal desert adventure, of rising above self-imposed caps we place on our potential, of treasured comradeship, and of an immersion into the stunningly beautiful Moroccan Sahara. My motivation for telling the story is simple: for your entertainment, to inspire others, to relive and share the positive energy of a magical moment in time, and also to help anyone who considers entering the MDS or other endurance events in the future. Most importantly, I want to share this with you because you were all there with me in spirit -- pushing me through the tough parts and motivating me during some very intense solo running through the desert. I don't think you'll ever know how much you helped without learning a bit more about those tough parts!

As this was an adventure to savor and one with unexpected variety, I'll take the same approach with telling the story. I'll split it into segments (segmentation is a huge mental technique for endurance racing!) and use a mix of writing and multimedia to make it fun (mixing it up and keeping it fun is the ultimate Jedi mind trick to apply to these challenges!).

Here's your Road Book of stories to expect ...
  • Jittering away the pre-race days in Morocco
  • Stages 1-3: How could we have underestimated this challenge?
  • Stretching of Limits --The Surreal Long Stage: How is this possible?
  • The Relentless, Arduous Push to the Finish
  • Crossing the hallowed MDS Finish Line
For the curious and those who are preparing for or considering a future MDS entry, I'll also include a Lessons Learned write-up, where I'll share more about gear and food selections, training, and modifications I'll consider for the future.


Stay tuned for each chapter!

Jeff

Friday, April 18, 2008

Media coverage, charity, and inspiration

Looks like MDS got bumped from ABC in the U.S. today, so plans are to air the special next week (and ESPN may pick up a segment as well). I'll update the blog when we have more details on the new airing date. My apologies for the false alarm today -- looks like something in the U.S. news cycle became more interesting (to some at least!) than a bunch of crazy people testing their mettle in the desert! Meanwhile, we're still receiving donations for UNICEF and ING Chances for Children (thank you!). ING is matching all donations, so your great support is now providing an education to nearly 350 children in India, Ethiopia, and Brazil. This is a wonderful level of support that makes a real difference in the world. We'll leave the donation site up for a few more weeks in an attempt to reach funding for 500 kids (that's nearly 2 for every kilometer I ran in the Sahara!). For your donations and spreading the word, I say thank you, thank you, thank you!

I'm hoping to ease out of my recovery phase this weekend. I seem to be having a much harder time being inactive for two weeks than completing 12-hour training weekends! I'm preparing to post more audio clips and stories (hopefully starting this weekend with a series of audio updates from each race stage). Also, new adventure projects are in the works, so stay tuned in the coming months to learn more.
For those of you who have written to say that I've inspired you in any way, I offer you my full support as you chase your dreams. I chased a dream 12 years ago that resulted in a major lifestyle transformation that's made an enormous difference in my daily happiness and the life I live today. I wish you the same happiness and only ask that you go for your dreams and aspirations in a way that helps you reach your own fulfillment and that also inspires others.

Cheers,
Jeff

Thursday, April 17, 2008

MDS on TV in the U.S.

For our week in the desert an ABC News crew followed our group of U.S., Canadian, and Australian athletes through the highs, lows, and overall adventure. The cameras were around so much that it started to feel like a reality show -- and you just knew that when you were feeling your worst, you'd see a camera nearby to capture the moment! We saw so much of the news crew during the race (including out on the race course) that they started to feel like part of our team.

Today (Thursday, April 17th) ABC will air MDS segments on Good Morning America, ABC World News, and Nightline. If you're in the U.S. and want to catch this, please check ABC's website for viewing times. Don't count on seeing me featured, but some of my very good friends from the race will be, plus they shot a lot of video of our champ and top U.S. finisher Ted Archer from the tent we shared. They filmed some great stories and race course footage throughout the week, so I'm anxious to see what made the final cut. Please post a comment if you happen to catch any of the footage today. For friends outside the U.S., if I can get a hold of any video segments of the broadcast, I'll post it on the blog.

Best,
Jeff

Sunday, April 13, 2008

R.I.C.E.

Believe it or not, I'm really itching to start running again -- actually, it's driving me nuts that my injuries aren't healing fast enough to allow me to return to the trail -- right now! I tried some very light running (as in about 10 steps!) this afternoon and my knee and ankle quickly protested, announcing their intention to stay on vacation a bit longer. Ok, fine -- I'll surrender and allow them to rest a bit longer. Actually, I recalled the R.I.C.E. method of dealing with injuries today while visiting friends in Lausanne, so I made sure to Rest while eating Ice Cream and enjoying the Elevation of the nearby mountains that tower over Lake Geneva. Hopefully this will do the trick and I'll be able to return to running very soon!

Meanwhile, I've uploaded lots of photos to my MDS photo gallery. Please feel free to have a look. I've also included a couple interesting photos below, as well as a video clip from the evening of the post-long day, marathon stage.

Our first taste of steep dunes on Day 1.

Fortunately, this guy never camped out in my shoes or sleeping bag overnight.



I have more audio clips for the first few stages that I'll share over the next week or two. I can't close without thanking you again for your great support before, during, and after the race!

Cheers,
Jeff

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Recovery Time!

I'm safely back home in Z├╝rich, working on my next challenge: recovering from the MDS! I've got a nice collection of blisters and overuse injuries to heal, plus I need to work through the all-common post-race blues that always seems to greet the end to a big event that is such a huge focus for months and months, yet has suddenly come and gone. What thrills me to no end (and shakes off "da bluz") is the awesome support offered by so many people around the world to my charity initiative. I'm also touched by the wonderful emails of support and congratulations I've received (during and after the race). I didn't run this thing alone -- I ran it with hundreds of you at my side and I sincerely thank you for this. That said, I'm sure that we're all glad that only one of us has to deal with the battered feet and legs picked up along the way! In the coming days and weeks I'll be sharing lots about the race with writing, photos, and audio clips. To give you a bit of a teaser, I've included in this message an audio clip that I recorded from the bivouac after the epic long day. Just make sure your speakers are on and click the play button below to hear the description and emotion of an unexpected high placement finish after a nearly 50-mile run through the desert.
By the way, major thanks to Becky, who did a marvelous job updating the blog during the race!!

More great stories coming soon ...

All the best from Zuri,
Jeff

Sunday, April 6, 2008

What a finish!

Jeff has completed the Marathon des Sables, placing in the Top 50 at #48!!! And second American!!!! Yahooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!We are so excited. Still celebrating here, more details to come...

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Stage 5 in the Desert

After a marathon-day (literally) with scorching heat, it looks like Jeff is still in the Top 50!

Here's an update directly from Jeff...


Rest day was great, although my knee hurts more at rest than in motion! A great thrill to cheer on the people finishing the long day in 30 hours -- brave people!

I went into the marathon today in awe at what the body can handle. I hobbled to the start line but my legs came alive and I was stunned to run just under a 4:30 in these conditions after the week and my epic run on the long day.

I dedicated my run today to my grandmothers and wife's grandmother and my family -- I certainly felt their strength push me through the long distance and extreme heat - it topped 46C!

Toward the end of the stage I saw my best friend Sean, Becky, and other friends and family beside and in front of me pulling me through the most grueling part. My Atl cycling friends then pace-lined me through the headwind during the final two miles... A bit crazy, but I felt this and it really helped.

One stage to go... The Paris opera will perform a concert in the desert for us tonite - no kidding!

My sincere thanks to all!!!
Jeff

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Stage 4 results are in!

Unbelievable! The Stage 4 results are finally in, and Jeff placed 24th!!
That brings him up to 45th overall, wow.


He didn't just survive the longest-distance day, he led it! Here's the account from Jeff himself:


I am writing you tonight in utter amazement with the MdS, the severity of the challenge of the course and conditions, and the perseverance of those who tackle this epic event.

I approached today's stage (the long one - 47 miles) with the special dedication that I mentioned last night -- to my supporters, and with the mindset that I would race the stage hard (based on my coach's advice -- advice that I thought was crazy when I first heard it two weeks ago).

With the elite 50 males and 5 females starting (later) at noon, I found myself alone at the front of a pack of the 750 non-elite runners within minutes of the start, with the helicopter making passes overhead. I've never led a race of any distance, much less at the MdS. I held on within half a mile (one km) of the top five runners and finished a stunning second place.

The course was brutal, with three climbs that would nearly qualify as mountain climbing, dunes, very rocky sections, off-pitch sand, and scorching salt flats. It was very lonely at the front -- something I have never ever experienced in a race. It made route finding much more challenging and added a new level of mental challenge. In one particularly hallucinogenic moment I saw all of you running with me in one wide line, pushing me forward... A bit crazy, but that's how strongly I felt your support.

I passed the second place runner with 12k to go and pushed myself harder than I ever had to finish a strong second (of the main field). I beat the elite runners in so I had the true experience of being very early to cross the line (at just over 9 hours of a stage with a 32 hour cutoff).

I'm very sore, but healthy and immensely happy at how today went. This should help me move up a bit in the overall standings; moreover, it was a joyous day in a spectacular setting and a small way for me to thank you for your awesome support! And now I get a rest day!

To Coach Lisa: Thanks for pushing me!

Jeff



Stage 4... still going...

...and going and going and going...

This stage is the 47-miler, and they have two days to complete it, so there are no (full) results available yet, and no personal message from Jeff...

But we do have a picture!:

You can view the larger version on the Darbaroud site - It's the 13th picture (at least right now).

He must have something caught in his eye - Why else would he need to pour water on his face like that??! Maybe he just missed his mouth ;-)

More updates to be posted as soon as I get 'em... Run, Jeff, Run!!!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Stage 3 in the Desert

Another day completed! So that's 68 miles down, "only" 84 to go...

I've received some questions about the daily distances so here they are listed for the whole week:


Day 1 (Sunday): 31.6k (19.6 miles)
Day 2 (Monday): 38k (23.6 miles)
Day 3 (Tuesday): 40.5k (25.2 miles)
Day 4 (Wednesday & into Thursday): 75.5k (46.9 miles)
Day 5 (Thursday) - rest day or completion of Day 4 distance
Day 6 (Friday): 42.2k (26.2 miles)
Day 7 (Saturday): 17.5k (10.9 miles)

Total distance = 245.3k (152.4 miles)

The 46.9-miler they start today can be completed over two days. Luckily the strategy of avoiding placing in the top 50 as of today worked - he is now 74th overall - so Jeff will not be forced to start later in the heat of the day today.

Photo from 2006, borrowed from here


Here's the latest update from Jeff himself!:

Great run today, despite some intense heat! Battled knee pain for the first two hours and then came alive and had a fantastic closing three hours.

I picked up so much speed that I got really concerned about moving into the top 50 so I walked most of the last 5k to sacrifice time today for the cooler start time on the long day tomorrow. Hoping to make up the difference then.


My feet are a bit blistered, but otherwise everything is going great and exactly on plan, although still way ahead of my expectations overall position-wise.


Speaking of, I'm dedicating my run tomorrow to all who have supported the ING CfC/UNICEF charity initiative -- You are all running with me on Wednesday and I thank you immensely for the support you've offered.


Thanks also for the great messages sent to the bivouac, this helps more than you can imagine. My best to you all.


Jeff

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Stage 2 in the Desert

Another update from Becky... It seems that Jeff is getting stronger with each day so far! He moved up from 81st place to 63rd from Day 1 to Day 2 - You can see the results page with his name here. Wow, and that's after a day of 120-degree heat? Hard to believe. I really didn't expect him to be racing and placing so well like this (and I don't think he did either!)
www.mencap.org.uk


I received an email message from him on Monday, which I will share here (the non-personal parts :)) ...

Doing great! Two very tough days have left me in awe of this race! Beautiful dunes yesterday, but one of the hardest opening stages of MdS ever. Today was even tougher and with brutal heat -- over 40C/110F. Huge mental challenge across rocky and undulating terrain, salt flats, and mini dunes. I've followed Lisa's plan exactly and I am shocked at how high I am ranked, vastly exceeding my expectations.

Don't want top 50 by tomorrow else I have to start mid-day on the long day. Will take it easy tomorrow and plan to push the long day.

Thanks so much for your donations and emails to the bivouac; this is highly appreciated and it warmed my heart and powered me through a tough day today.


Feeling fine except for a little knee pain. Taking care of myself though. Again thanks so much for your support!

Jeff