On Believing: Meghan Hicks’s Marathon des Sables Race Report
The 2013 Marathon des Sables started about five miles ago. I’m surrounded by humans so charged by being in this moment, this place, this space that I can feel our collective energy buzz and zip among us. It feels a little like an electrical storm and even more like a circus and not at all like the Sahara Desert.
I am slightly concerned that so many people are around me. I estimate by the number of footprints in the sand that I am in about 125th place. While 125th place is not bad, I came this year ready to be among the top competitors. I’ve been memorizing the feel of different running-with-pack paces in training, so I also estimate that I am running a decent bit faster than what will become my average pace for the whole race. No matter who or what is in front of me, I shouldn’t go faster than this. There are still loads more miles ahead, far too many to do something stupid now. I tuck away my apprehension, put my head down, and run my pace.
But I do like a good hunt in the second half of any race, and this set-up proves to be perfect stalking grounds. Photographer Ian Corless runs next to me for a moment at the halfway point and says, “You’re the fifth woman.” Perfect, just perfect, I think. One-by-one, I pick folks off. I hunt my way to the finish line, and when I arrive I find that I’ve run a smart first day.
Stage 1 Women’s Rankings
- Laurence Klein, 3:39:21, 25th overall
- Joanna Meek, 3:45:57, 30th overall
- Meghan Hicks, 3:52:51 33rd overall
I have convinced myself that I suck.
But I’m atop the second jebel of the day and we’re about 1,200 vertical feet above the rest of the Sahara Desert on a knife-y ridgeline that requires the use of feet and hands and it’s possibly the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. Well, at least since about 90 minutes ago on the day’s first mountain passage.
Back to the sucking. While I’ve moved into the part of the day where I stalk my prey to the finish line, I haven’t seen a single woman since the first 10 minutes of the stage. I decide that they must be far ahead and that yesterday’s podium finish was a fluke.
The course drops from this ridgeline to the Sahara’s flat bottom via a chute, like a couloir but just sand. From there, we make a five-kilometer flat crossing of a dried lake bed. After spending so much time on technical terrain today, converting the legs to flat running again feels awkward and increases my trepidation.
At the final water checkpoint, a race volunteer shouts, “Deuxième femme! And Laurence is just ahead.” I have been living a different reality inside my head so I say, “No, il n’est pas possible!” The volunteer replies, “It is! And you must go!”
I look up the 1,400-foot climb I’m about to begin and spot Laurence’s yellow shirt. With this new knowledge, my paradigm shifts for the 37th time since yesterday. It’s a big climb over the race’s toughest terrain and I remind myself to run my own run. I pressure-breathe and power hike my way up first the rocks, then the sand, then the class 3 scramble, then the rope, until I am at the top. The finish line is now just a couple miles out via a technical descent off this mountain and a couple kilometers of dunes. My mind is as high as my body.
Stage 2 Women’s Rankings
- Laurence Klein, 3:38:40, 23rd overall
- Meghan Hicks, 3:42:33, 26th overall
- Joanna Meek, 3:53:05, 40th overall
Overall Women’s Rankings
- Laurence Klein
- Meghan Hicks, +18-ish minutes
- Joanna Meek, +21-ish minutes
I awake feeling different. Fresh. Confident. Strong.
The coming-and-going torrent of self-doubt from the first two days is gone. I had a come-to-heyzeus moment after yesterday’s stage, I feel good running. I recover swiftly. I have no blisters, and this alone is a miracle given my feet some years at this race. I am emotionally eager. I have no reason to doubt. A short time after that, my Moroccan friend Samir Akhdar put his hands on my shoulders—wrapped his fingers around the bones and muscles in a way I can still feel right now—and looked me in the eyes, “Meghan [pronouncing it may-gahn], you can win. But you have to believe.”
He believes in me, so I vow to believe, too. I also vow to run today easy because tomorrow we’re racing 47 miles. Unlike yesterday’s course, which was riddled with technical terrain, today’s is almost all runnable. It is hard to hold back the leg turnover, but I repeat my mantra for today, “flowy,” over and over. Instead of speed, I focus on making each footfall as soft and smooth as possible. I imagine the tissues of my body recovering through this motion, readying themselves for tomorrow’s big day.
I know Laurence is some distance ahead, and I begin to catch sight of Jo somewhere around the halfway point. Her natural pace and mine take miles to intersect, maybe eight of them, just after the final water checkpoint and with about six kilometers to go.
She’s running with a French man who sees me and tells her than I’m here. Joanna lurches and takes off. I don’t want to run these miles too hard, so I don’t follow. Fortunately, she makes about 50 meters of progress before her pace levels off and we run like this for a couple miles. Our train has dropped the French dude and picked up an American, Steve Richard. Steve increases his pace, putting himself ahead of Jo by about 20 meters.
We’re now about a mile out from the visible finish line, and Steve takes a funny line not in the direction of it. Jo follows him. The pair right themselves, but their directional deviation has caused Jo and I to come even with each other again with probably 500 meters to go. I still don’t want to race because of tomorrow’s ultra-distance stage, so I ask her if she’d like to jog it in together. She indicates that she doesn’t so I run my ass off until I am beneath the banner.
When it’s over, I’m grateful that Jo made me push for that short time. My legs felt the strongest they have all week during that kick. I now understand that I have so much more to give. I become overwhelmed by a singular thought: I am right where I want to be.
Stage 3 Women’s Rankings
- Laurence Klein, 3:47:36, 20th overall
- Meghan Hicks, 3:54:23, 26th overall
- Joanna Meek, 3:54:48, 27th overall
Overall Women’s Rankings
- Laurence Klein
- Meghan Hicks, +24-ish minutes
- Joanna Meek, +28-ish minutes
The race administration starts the top 50 men and five women three hours after the rest of the field. After the mass start at 8:30, it’s a long wait to get our show on the road. I use the morning to tell, re-tell, and tell myself again my race plan. To be frank, I cannot wait for Stage 4 to begin. I have my plan. I feel physically perfect. I can’t even distract myself from my own focus. I am ready to roll.
The daily high temperatures have been progressively increasing all week, and by the time race director Patrick Bauer lines us up in a straight line on an empty stretch of desert, I understand that today will be the hottest day so far. He gives us a countdown that I can’t hear because of the helicopter hovering overhead, but I start to run when everyone else does.
Laurence and I run next to each other for just a moment, long enough to share smiles and “good lucks,” and then she motors ahead. Adrenaline flares. Easy, easy, I tell myself, and settle in. It’s 11 kilometers to the first checkpoint, and, by my watch, Laurence is more than three minutes ahead there. Jo and I have run this distance together, and we’ll remain close for the race’s first 35 kilometers.
From the first checkpoint, it’s a sandy climb to a jebel top, and then a rocky descent into some sand dunes. There, I catch a glimpse of a snake with a wide head and a short, fat body the color of the sand. I scream and leap but it’s probably gone before I hit the ground. I can’t say for certain because you couldn’t pay me to give it a second look. (Later, the Moroccans will confirm that I’ve seen a viper.)
Here in the sand dunes, I begin to feel the heat. And there is no wind to allay my hot flashes. I can’t see Laurence anymore — she’s absolutely taken off — but it doesn’t matter now. The only thing that does is finding a running pace that’s tolerable at this temperature.
I begin to overtake the runners from the mass start. A big smile from Sarah Grey, a hug with Samantha Harper, and, later, a “Go get ‘em, beautiful!” from James Marshall. It’s like this until the damn finish line. Even complete strangers use their limited supply of energy to cheer for me, say “Go USA!”, tell me they like my writing, and ask me to say hello to Bryon Powell from them. These people radiate more joy than the sun exudes heat, and their energy propels me through the heat of the day.
Just before the third checkpoint at kilometer 35-ish, I overtake Laurence, who is walking, hot, nauseated, and who says she plans to recuperate herself at the checkpoint. She’s looking unwell, but she has another competitor walking with her. She urges me to race on, says that Jo’s just ahead.
The very nature of this race changes as we speak. Another shot of adrenaline produces stomach butterflies and hot tears in the corners of my eyes. Laurence says, “Go race.” I say, “I’m so sorry.” She says, “Go.” I turn and run. I can see the checkpoint from where we are though it’s still maybe two miles off. When I arrive, I ask the medical folks to drive a truck out to make sure Laurence is okay.
It’s going on 4 p.m. as Jo and I enter a section of dunes after the checkpoint. The heat of the day is beginning to wane, and I can feel my body and mind bouncing back from it and the emotional exchange with Laurence. I’m beginning to feel a desire to speed up but I tell myself, Not yet. There are a lot of miles left. Somewhere in here, Jo has dropped behind me, but I keep thinking she’ll reappear in the corner of my eye. It’s been like this all day.
Checkpoint 4 comes and Jo hasn’t made up the gap. I don’t look back, can’t look back. I’m now living only inside my own head and body. I make up my mind to push a little in the bigger sand dunes here. I run sand well and the temperature is cooling and I’m feeling on top of my food, water, and salt. If there’s any place to make a break, it is here.
Checkpoint 5 comes and sunset’s not far off. I fish around for my headlamp, attach the mandatory glow stick to my pack, and fiddle with my fuel to make sure I can access it in the dark. In the twilight, I can soon see the step/lunge, step/lunge gait of Jay Batchen. He’s been nursing a hockey injury through this whole-dang race, but he’s trucking along at a fantastic pace that’ll eventually put him in the top 200 for the day. When I pass him, he says, “Meghan. Oh, Meghan. Stay strong.” I tell myself, It’s okay to push a little more now.
Checkpoint 6 comes, and it’s now dark. I leave the checkpoint with Tobias Mews and Mohamed Faraj, but I quickly realize that I’m so far inside my own soul that I’m incapable of speaking with another human, so I drop 20 meters behind them. I ask my legs to turn over a little more, and they do. I try again, and they respond some more. My body is willing to do whatever I ask of it. I give myself permission to run like hell.
It’s now about 70 kilometers into the 75.7-kilometer stage, and I am running as fast as I can. Realistically, given that I’m carrying a backpack of self-sufficiency and that I have another 65 miles of racing in my legs from before today’s stage even started, I am probably running 8:00 minute/mile pace. It feels like the speed of light.
But there is no light here except for the glow of my headlamp, stars blinking out of a black-canvassed sky, and the faint suggestion of light emanating from the horizon ahead, which has to be the well-lit-by-generator bivouac and finish line out there somewhere.
I huff and puff audibly, my attempt to cull more oxygen out of the air to run faster. I carry a bag of Mountain Berry Clif Shot Bloks in my left hand, inhaling one of them every five minutes to fuel my rampage. Given that you can only eat the food that’s inside your pack for this week of racing, I am deep in caloric deficit now and energetically endowed to these Shot Bloks. Fortunately, all digestive systems are a go and I am riding a blissful simple-carbohydrate high.
Thoughts creep in, You’re winning this stage. You might be winning the race. You could win the whole Marathon des Sables. I shush them, want them to go away for a couple more miles. I want to focus more, push harder, stay in this moment.
A familiar figure enters into my headlamp beam. I am about to overtake the USA’s Liz Byron, another runner from the mass start. We’ve become acquaintances this week, so I pat her on the buns as I go by. “Go Liz,” I whisper and she full on freaks out.
“Oh my fu4king hell, you are doing it! You are doing it! You are winning this race! You go, you go, YOU GOOOOOOOOOO!”
My heart is outside of my body now, and I find energy to speed up more. I weave among the final, tiny sand dunes, hurdle stumps of camelgrass, and crest a 20-foot hill. Now there is a swath of lights stretching for perhaps 90 degrees of my 360-degree view. The bivouac, the finish line. Faster. Faster, still. Every second counts. Don’t let up until you hear your chip beep on the timing mat. Don’t let up. Don’t let up. Don’t let up. Don’t let up.
I cross the line, hear the beep, and let up. Just beyond the finish line are TV cameras, photographers, and people clapping. I bend over, putting my hands on my knees. Before I go talk to those people, I want to remember this. I don’t yet know what will happen with the overall standings, but I don’t want to forget how it feels to have run my own best race.
Stage 4 Women’s Rankings
- Meghan Hicks, 8:45:19, 12th overall
- Joanna Meek, 9:52:35, 24th overall
- Zoe Salt, 9:54:01, 28th overall
(Laurence Klein withdrew from the race at checkpoint 4.)
Overall Women’s Rankings
- Meghan Hicks
- Joanna Meek, +1 hour and 11-ish minutes
- Zoe Salt, +2 hours and 6-ish minutes
All I have to do is not die today and I will win the Marathon des Sables. This possibility has sat inside the “dream category” of my brain for so long that it can’t be shifted overnight into the “reality category.” I do not yet believe this could happen.
Many people congratulate me, and I even did a photo shoot at the request of the race administration for a magazine at sunset last night, the second day of the long stage and a day of rest for the faster runners. I worry about tempting fate.
Jo and I run the first couple miles together. We’re obscenely congratulatory with each other — as if the race is already over — which strikes me as hilarious given the fact that we’ve still got a marathon to run. The scale of distance and perspective become so warped by this race. Jo has said that she intends to run hard today because she’d love to lift herself into the top 20 overall. I decide to mark her until the second checkpoint, which is just after halfway, and then do my own thing.
My Kuwaiti acquaintance Mohammad Almatar and I fall into position next to each other. We run almost stride-for-stride for maybe 12 miles. He’s got a beautiful gait with gentle footfalls. I make a game of mimicking his motion.
My first and only negative physiological response to the heat occurs in the second half of this stage. I have the dehydration shivers. I know why; I didn’t drink enough water during yesterday’s recovery day. My side of the bivouac had nowhere for a woman to duck and pee. Just 30 or 40 meters from my tent was the entirety of the administration side of the bivouac. It was a long walk to any privacy. I didn’t want to waste energy in walking so far too often. The effect is small but noticeable, and I slow my pace to stay within myself. I feel relief that I don’t have to race through that mistake today.
About five kilometers from the finish, we pass through an old mining town. I turn a corner in the little village and see the finish line in the distance. It takes me 26 minutes to get there, and in that time the whole world melts away.
The last couple hundred meters go by in an even-faster blur. I think about my family who is no-doubt up early in the US and watching the webcam. I see photographers. News crews. Patrick Bauer, who is holding in his hands my finisher’s medal. My friend, Lhoucine Akdhar, he always plays it cool but even he has his hands in the air for me. Laurence, clapping off to the side. The inflatable teakettles. The red banner. Elation. Euphoria. I pump fists at the sun and cross the line.
A few minutes later, Samir grabs and shakes my medal, which is hanging from my neck. He has a huge smile on his face. He folds me into his long, skinny arms and says just one word, “Champion.” I almost lose it entirely, but then I don’t. I believed. I believe.
Stage 5 Women’s Rankings
- Joanna Meek, 4:14:34, 17th overall
- Meghan Hicks, 4:26:53, 30th overall
- Amelia Watts, 4:41:25, 44th overall
Overall Women’s Rankings
- Meghan Hicks, 24:42:01, 17th overall
- Joanna Meek, 25:41:01, 22nd overall
- Zoe Salt, 27:03:58, 28th overall
[A 7.7-kilometer Stage 6 took place the following day, but it was a non-competitive, charity stage to raise awareness for UNICEF. I walked the stage with my tentmates from Tent #58.]