The women’s favorites at the 2014 Marathon des Sables (MdS) are France’s Laurence Klein, the U.S.’s Nikki Kimball, and Julie Bryan, also from the U.S. In these interviews, learn about how Laurence has bounced back from her DNF at the race’s 2013 edition and her subsequent injury, how Nikki got an Ultra-Trail World Tour (UTWT) spot for this race as well as the strengths and weaknesses she brings to it, and some of Julie’s hyper-specific race training, including her self-constructed heat chamber. Jump to our interview with Laurence Klein, Nikki Kimball, or Julie Bryan.
For more on the race, check out our full race preview. Make sure to read our interviews with top male entrants Mohamad Ahansal, Salameh Al Aqra, and Danny Kendall.
iRunFar: This will be your fifth participation in the MdS. You have three wins. What keeps you coming back to this race year after year?
Laurence Klein: In 2007 and after marathons and 100k races, I started in the trail [running.] I discovered the Marathon des Sables and especially the desert sands! Open spaces, tranquility, diversity of landscapes, different colors, a true sense of freedom. Yes it will the fifth time, but it is still so fun to go! The love of the desert is my first motivation.
iRunFar: You had problems with dehydration and overheating that ultimately caused you to withdraw from the race during the long stage last year. What exactly happened out there? Can you talk about where you were feeling good, where you started feeling bad, where you sought medical attention, and where you withdrew? How did that all happen?
Klein: It was a bitter experience last year, always difficult to give up! How to explain all this? Shortly before MdS, I did Eco-Trail de Paris 80k. Then I arrived very late in Morocco. Then there was considerable delay with the bus to arrive at the bivouac. I had little time to acclimatize! On Stage 4, it happened suddenly [on the way] to Checkpoint 3. I was in trouble [but I was] with Vincent Delebarre and Benoit Laval. I had 4k without water you know especially with the heat here on that stage, it does not forgive! I tried to [get back into the race], but I was too weak and I had to abandon.
iRunFar: After the MdS, you had an Achilles injury. I believe the injury happened during a race. What race was it? What happened? What was the diagnosis? And what was treatment and rehabilitation like? How long have you been healthy?
Klein: In May last year, I ran Le Trail des Gendarmes et des Voleurs 68k. I was preparing for the [IAU] Trail World Championships. While running I felt a violent shock! The result was a partial Achilles tendon rupture. I think I hadn’t recovered from my dehydration at MdS. My body was still fragile! I had seven months of complete rest, no exercise.
iRunFar: How does your training for the 2014 MdS compare with previous years? What are some workouts that have made you feel confident in your fitness going into the race?
Klein: This year my preparation was the same as at other times, but with my injury, I have many kilometers less! I did my training in Morocco, many long-distance runs, blocks of three days, a normal preparation except for less kilometers.
iRunFar: It seems like your strategy has always been to go off the line quickly to the first checkpoint, and then to ease into a more sustainable pace for the rest of each stage. Do you think you will employ this strategy this year?
Klein: I don’t really have a strategy. I do not calculate. I run on instincts and sensations.
iRunFar: Food is always of interest. What kinds of food do you have in your rucksack for eating during and after each stage?
Klein: Nothing too original. Pasta and rice [for camp] and bars during the event.
[Editor’s Note: Thank you to Philippe Richet for his translation assistance with Laurence’s interview.]
iRunFar: You got a UTWT spot to race MdS. Aside from getting the entry to do it, what made you want to do this race? What’s the appeal for you?
Nikki Kimball: I’ve heard about it for a long time and never thought I would do it because it’s cost-prohibitive. So it’s nice that it wasn’t cost-prohibitive for me to do this year. It’s probably the only opportunity I’ll have to do it. Secondly, I think it’s really good training for Western States. I know that I’m not really prepared for the race in terms of training or heat training or any of that. I’ve been super busy at work. But it still will be a really great, good sort of kick-off for my higher-intensity training for Western.
iRunFar: So you’re looking at it as serious base training.
Kimball: Base training, yeah. It’s interesting because thinking about MdS, March is just always a bad month for me in life. Once again, work got more complicated because of another employee quitting. I usually like to ski all of March. In doing this, I’ve figured out that I’m never going to apply to do a big race in April again because I just can’t be ready.
iRunFar: People say about you, and you say about yourself, that you thrive the more difficult the racing conditions get. MdS is a week of severity: heat, water rations, not being able to eat enough food, primitive camping. What of those do you think will be easiest for you?
Kimball: I think the food rationing isn’t a huge deal because I’ve been through that with Jungle Marathon. I did Western States last year on zero heat training and didn’t seem to be horribly affected by it. It’s not like I actually like heat. I actually don’t like it. I just tend to do well during adverse conditions, and I don’t know why. I have some theories, but I don’t know why.
iRunFar: So you have stage-racing experience at the Jungle Marathon. Tell me about that.
Kimball: The Jungle Marathon was just silly and fun. I think it’s a better race for me than MdS because it’s actually technical. The one thing that scares me most about MdS is that it doesn’t look technical in the least. You have a couple rocky sections and it’s otherwise super flat. My weakest part is running on flats and running on stuff that’s not technical. So Jungle Marathon was hilly and it was quite technical. That was a great race for me.
That’s the whole thing about Marathon des Sables is it’s going to be training my weakness. I’m decent in adversity, but I really don’t have very good leg speed. So I think that’s the challenge of MdS and the fun of Jungle Marathon. The jungle is muddy and root-y and you fall down and I just deal with that stuff really well. It’s definitely my strength. So I didn’t really have any issues at Jungle Marathon.
iRunFar: What year was that?
iRunFar: Since MdS is a self-sufficiency race where you have to carry your stuff in your own backpack, I have to know how your pack is coming together.
Kimball: It’s not. Honestly, I haven’t even gotten my taxes done. I’m so unprepared. You know, it’s just like there are things in my life that are a lot more important than racing, and those are the things I’m focused on. I know I can kind of pull stuff together at the end, sort of, and I’ll do the best I can with what I have.
iRunFar: But you have your pack?
Kimball: I have my backpack. I don’t have my sleeping bag yet.
iRunFar: From watching you race over the years, your style is a patient style. You’re always the person that I think to myself that if you were behind me, I’d be really scared in the last 20 miles of whatever rae. I presume that will be your style at MdS, to be patient?
Kimball: Yes. That will be my style, I think, largely because I can’t go fast off the start line. I used to be able to several thousand miles ago, maybe 20,000 miles ago, I could actually move off the start line. Now I just can’t. It’s not that I’m trying to go slow off the starting line; that’s my terminal velocity, but I can keep it up for awhile.
iRunFar: That’s great, Nikki’s terminal velocity. Do you think you’ll employ patience on a daily basis, like from the beginning of a stage to the end, or patience during the whole week where you’ll try to be stronger in the last stages?
Kimball: Yeah, my guess is that the first stage—I’ve done this to myself and kind of put myself behind in the first stage, like I’ve done TransRockies a bunch—I’m always behind in the first stage. I’m not going to worry about that. I’m going to use that to kind of get an idea of what’s happening and not try to kill myself and have the confidence that I can do a lot in the long stage if things are… relative to where my fitness is. That I won’t know until I’m there. I’ve been running more than I ever do at this time of year because of this race. We’ll just have to see how things go when I’m there. I think MdS might be one of those races where experience means a ton—way more than any 100 miler you’ve ever run. So it’s hard for me to put expectations on myself.
iRunFar: Last question for you, is this your first visit to Morocco?
Kimball: Yes, it is.
iRunFar: Have you been thinking about a couple of neat things you’d like to do or see or learn about while you’re there?
Kimball: I would love to. This is the part that bums me out is that I had to do the French shuttle [the chartered flight from Paris] because that’s what UTWT wanted me to do. One of the things that really bums me out about this trip is when I usually travel internationally to a race, I try to do something cultural. This one, I’m on someone else’s schedule, so I don’t have that opportunity. That’s actually sad to travel to another country and not try to absorb any of the culture. I feel guilty about that, but I’m not in control of it.
iRunFar: I guess you’ll be seeing a lot of the Sahara.
Kimball: Exactly. I’ll know what the sand looks like.
iRunFar: Best of luck, Nikki.
iRunFar: When you went to the MdS last year, you were carrying a leftover Achilles injury. As you know, everything about the MdS is extreme. There’s the cost of getting there, the travel to get there, the week-long racing format, the unique nature of training for it—you have to be hungry to go back.
Julie Bryan: Last year was a humbling experience. I was injured about two and a half months before the race. I was in really good shape before that, but I had never really entered into the ultrarunning world. When I tore my Achilles, there was still a lot of training time before the race. I was limping on it, hiking uphill. I took the last couple of weeks off and had therapy on it going into the race. I thought my base before that two-and-a-half-month period maybe would be good enough. I underestimated how critical that last few months is.
I think the combination of not being able to prepare in the manner by which I would have had I not had the injury and the combination of it yanking told me [during last year’s MdS] that this is something I need to pay attention to or I’m not going to be racing and this is going to become chronic. I made that decision [through DNFing] to not further decline in my running career.
So I am this year definitely very hungry. I wouldn’t be getting up at the wee hours that I am in order to train if I wasn’t. It’s been a whole different training and I’ve been injury-free. I also learned a lot last year. I dialed down my pack and everything is just so much more comfortable. I really worked on my food and my intake and what I feel would be the proper intake of calories and electrolytes. I built a tent around my treadmill, and I have a huge heater in there. I just point it right at me, and I can get it to over 100 degrees.
I’ve been coached by Lisa Smith-Batchen, and I’m grateful for her.
iRunFar: I would love the visual of your tent, your heater, and you just running along… with your pack, too!
Bryan: I often thought, Well, this is going to be good if I pass out here in my garage all by myself at 4:00 a.m.
iRunFar: It should be like when you go on a wilderness run and you leave a note or you let a friend know where you’re going. It should be the same. “I’m going into the heat tent.”
Bryan: I can’t take my phone in there because it is too hot. I have a satellite radio.
Bryan: The other difference this year is I took on a new job in Hunstman Springs. The Huntsman family owns the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. All the proceeds from my MdS fundraising go toward the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
I picked up a whole new philosophy about my life in the last year. Really it is a gift that many of us have to be able to run or to do a race like the Sahara and to also run for charity. This is the first time I’ve stopped and said, You know, I’m really lucky that I’m fit to have this great adventure and they can benefit people who are not able to run. No matter what I go through out there, that’s what I’m going to be thinking of.
I lost my mother [to cancer] at the age of 52 and I’ve spent my whole life a little upset that I’d lost her. It’s funny, 22 years later it’s all just coming full circle about how much I want to help others who have that disease. The Huntsman family is dedicated to that same cause. I’m very excited to be running for them.
iRunFar: I have to ask, you’re a pretty competitive woman. Are you also hungry to go back and showcase your ability?
Bryan: Absolutely. The fact that I work about 80 hours a week, I’m just going to say that maybe it’s my blessing. When I get up, I don’t have that time to not do a good run. Every run I’m just thankful for in the morning. That’s my space. So the commitment and dedication with each run has been really beyond what I’ve ever done before. My speed workouts are faster. I’m really serious about taking the proper food. I think last year, too, I just didn’t have that dialed in. I really want to do well. I want to do well for the Huntsman Cancer Institute, to help them, and for myself, of course, and for my family and friends. I’m going to give it all I’ve got.
iRunFar: Last year at MdS, when you were hemming and hawing about whether you should drop from the race or continue, you swore off long-distance racing and said, “I’m going back to my mountain-racing roots.” But you’re back. How did that evolution go?
Bryan: I started running longer because I needed that with my workload. I felt like I needed to get up and get out, so I just started to run a lot longer distance more often as a release from being in an office all day. So I started doing consistent three-hour runs back-to-back and I was like, Gosh, maybe I could actually run longer distances.
I started increasing my mileage to see if my body could handle it. After a few months of really trying to climb up that ladder slowly, I realized I wasn’t getting sore after 20 miles, and I felt fine to do it the next day. I felt fine after my 40-mile run. I could have gone back out and done another long run. So then I started working on distance and adding in the speed with it. Then I started having fun with it, and I got a little bit addicted to it. I understand what it’s all about now.
iRunFar: That’s great. The training for Marathon des Sables is really unique. Talk us through one of your big weeks of training before you started tapering.
Bryan: I did some of my training workouts in the heat tent so that I was actually in that heat for a long time. For example, I stayed in my heat tent one day for seven hours. That was to see how I was going to feel in the heat for seven hours and just really testing how my shoes felt and dialing in my gear and equipment.
I did some weeks where I hit several 25, 30, 40-mile runs back-to-back. Then I’d throw in a tempo run after all of that to make myself push my body to get the turnover and the speed after my legs were tired. Putting myself into a speed workout [after a 100-mile week] pushed me to a whole new level to try and keep up the speed when I was tired.
I guess a week would be, on a Monday, I might do 15 miles. Then on a Tuesday I would get up and run three or four miles and then my friend, Barb, would show up and we’d do our speed workout which is six miles as hard as we can go. When she’d leave, I’d turn on the heat and then I’d run again a slow three to five miles. The next day I might do a 25-mile run. Then maybe I’d do maybe a 15-mile run. Then I’d do a 30-mile run and a 30-mile run or a 30-mile and a 40-mile run. For those runs, I’d definitely start including some intervals or maybe just pick up the pace for 10 minutes and then slow it back down beyond the normal pace that I did the day before. I’m hoping it works.
iRunFar: Fingers crossed in the middle of a taper, right?
Bryan: Yeah. [laughs]
iRunFar: The Sahara Desert is a pretty special place. You saw it last year and you’re headed back. You saw a lot of sand. You saw the jebels. You saw the wild camels. What’s really exciting you about going back to the Sahara again?
Bryan: Last year I think I knew I had an issue with my Achilles and I didn’t have as much fun and didn’t appreciate the time as much thinking about that. To enjoy the journey a lot more is really important to me.
iRunFar: Cool. Really good luck to you, Julie.
Bryan: Thank you. That means a lot.