Days that got up to 50 degrees celsius, nights that cooled down to about five degrees with a harsh wind. 251 kilometres over seven days (six days and a day of rest) in the Sahara Desert, with one 16 hour day calling for 80 clicks on the desert sand, it’s no wonder many call the Marathon des Sables the toughest foot race on the planet.
But for Dawneen Ryan, the toughest part was the weight that you carry.
You have to wear a backpack with all of your supplies — sleeping bag, shelter tent, compass, scorpion venom kit, food to name a few items — and it couldn’t weigh less than 15 lbs, but practically speaking you aren’t getting it below 20 lbs.
Even the food eaten — rice krispies for breakfast, fruit bars, liquid calories for water, and dehydrated potatoes for supper — really came down to the weight it took up.
“That was the hardest part for me,” she says, now back home in Dawson Creek from Morocco, where she was one of nine Canadians in the 34th edition of the famous race earlier this month.
“It’s been on my bucket list for a long time,” she says. “It’s a bit like the Boston Marathon of ultra running.”
The substitute teacher from Dawson is no stranger to international races. She’s made a goal of running a race on every continent, since starting her quest in 2009 in Istanbul, Turkey. She’s done races in Mexico, Scotland, Slovenia, and Italy to name a few.
With the Marathon des Sables under her belt, she’s only missing two continents from her list — South America and Australia. And yes, we’re counting Antarctica — she ran a race there on King George Island. (“We run in colder weather here than I experienced there, it was probably about minus 25 there. We run even to minus 40,” she notes).
The Marathon des Sables certainly lived up to its reputation.
People were airlifted out due to the heat, and with the daytime temperatures regularly in the 40’s, and topping out at about 50 degrees, the runners had to make sure they took breaks.
“It sucks your energy, we’re not used to it. I was probably coming from the worst place out of anybody coming from here going to there,” she admits.
In a stage race, the runners do about a marathon each day, with one long day of about 80 kilometres — a 16 hour day, Ryan says, finishing at midnight in the dark — followed by a day of rest, and then one last day to do the rest of the kilometres remaining.
“Every day you’re getting up and repeating it. It’s not like a one day thing, you go home and you rest — it becomes a bit of a grind, because every day you’re getting up, you’ve got to spend an hour just on your feet, bandaging your feet, getting them ready for the day, because you have to protect them from the sand, the rocks,” Ryan shares.
“The sand is a little bit like the snow, you know how you have different types of sand and different types of snow. So you look for those ripples, you kind of look for them, because you know it’s harder , so if you find that you walk on that, because other you’re just sinking down.
“Running in the sand for a long time really strains your calves, you’re sort of trudging, baring down, especially with the backpack, it was a lot more hillier than you would think, I imagine the desert to be flat somehow, it’s not, there’s a lot of big hills, we climbed one hill and they actually have a rope that you have to pull yourself up on.”
And nighttime was no easier chore either. With the aforementioned low temperatures, the wind is always blowing — a tough nights sleep with shelter tents open to the wind and sand.
“You’re always getting covered in sand, you’d wake up in the night and be covered in sand. The sand was in everything,” she says.
But she was prepared for the feat. Before the race in Dawson, training three to four hours a day in the lead-up to the race, including running with a weighted vest. And while she couldn’t replicate the temperature here — snowshoeing every day up the hill was one of her exercise — she did heat-training in a sauna, getting herself used to enduring heat for long periods of time.
It all paid off, with Ryan finishing the race.
“I didn’t seem to be suffering as much as some people did. I don’t know, maybe it’s just you get so focused on your tas that you just sort of bare through it,” she says.
And it was worth it.
Ryan notes the Erg Chebbi, the sand dunes like those in Lawrence of Arabia or any other movie in a desert.
“That was the most amazing thing, all you can see are dunes, it’s sort of what you see in the movies,” she says. “You realize how vulnerable you are.”
Camels were a common sight, with Ryan even noticing a herd of about 500 at one point during the race.
And once the race was finished, it was hard to come back down.
“You almost feel like you have a fever when you’re done, everybody gets that, weird dreams. Just as your body’s sort of coming down because you’ve been on this high intensity for seven days,” she says.
The support from back home was tremendous, she says.
She’s part of the “Heartstrings and Shoelaces” running group in Dawson Creek, who meet four times a week at the Tim Hortons on 8th St — Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 6 am, and 8 am on Saturdays. (They’re open to anyone, with any degree of skill level running, and no commitment is needed — just show up at Timmies when you feel like going for a run).
“I couldn’t have done it without all the support and encouragement, especially my running group friends, just about every day someone came with me to do at least part of my training,” she says.
“Then when I was there, everybody was emailing me and sending messages of encouragement.”
They followed the race online, keeping track of her live as she finished the various stages and crossed the finish line. When she got home, they presented her with a cake.
And of course, her family has been a great help.
“My husband was my equipment manager,” she laughs.
“But he was in charge of all my stuff, how to arrange my backpack and how to make sure it was all going to work, and took all my food, and wrapped it so it would all fit, and that’s a big burden.”
While the Marathon des Sables is a big one off the list, she’s not finished yet. Ryan’s hoping to tick off South America and Australia next spring.
“I still have lots on the list.”