After completing Ironman Austria, the next race on my bucket List was the Marathon De Sable. I found the MDS via a google search of the world's most epic races with the following description on Wikipedia:
Known simply as the MdS, the race is a grueling multi-stage adventure through a formidable landscape in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates - the Sahara desert. The rules require you to be self-sufficient, to carry with you on your back everything except water that you need to survive. You are given a place in a tent to sleep at night, but any other equipment and food must be carried. As an example of what lies beyond the starting line, the longest single stage in 2012 was 51 miles (81.5km). Typical distances are 156 miles (251 km) broken down as follows:
Day 1 - 33.8 km
Day 2 - 38.5 km
Day 3 - 35 km
Day 4 - 81.5 km
Day 5 - 42.2 km
Day 6 - 15.5 km
A quick search resulted in a phone number. I immediately called and spoke to Jay Batchen. He told me that I was lucky and there was a spot left. He had completed the race and his wife had actually won the women's division.
“Awesome!” I said.
“Just send through the deposit, and we will take it from there.”
I had a quick chat with Areeg and agreed that this would be my next race. By quick chat, that meant me planting the seed and then moping around the house until she said yes, which she eventually did.
That night I sent through the deposit and he sent me a slew of documents I had to fill out. These included documents that stated that I might die in this event and they have no liability, etc.
I don’t usually read this stuff, but Areeg does. She started looking more into the race and she found a deluge of crazy tales on the web.
“Do you know that a police officer got lost one year and tried to commit suicide by slitting his wrists, but was so dehydrated that his blood didn’t flow out enough to kill him. The Bedouins found him and sewed him up and brought him back to the MDS camp.” She told me, reading from the web.
“Wow, what happened to him?” I responded.
“It seems that he came back the following year and finished it”, she continued reading.
“What a legend.” I smiled.
“I’m going to tell your mother about this.” She threatened. As funny as that might sound, the threat can end the race for me. My mother is a "worst case scenario" type person. Her imagination of what "could" happen would put Stephen King to shame.
The more Areeg read the more nervous she became. The truth was, I became nervous hearing the stories. One of the key ingredients to my success is that I don't really do a lot of research into my races. I fire and forget. Whereas other competitors pour over course maps and descriptions, I choose not too. Partly because I'm lazy but mostly because I don't want to give the negative part of my brain any more ammo.
The next thing I found out was just how expensive this whole thing was. Whereas an ironman costs about 800 dollars, the MDS would cost over 5,000. I was incredulous. I measure the financial cost of things by equating them with other things. For example, if I take out the family to a nice dinner, as I'm paying the bill, I'd be thinking we just ate half an iPhone. In this case, I was spending a used Volkswagen golf. This didn't sit well with me.
Embarrassed at how much money I was spending for an entirely self-centered pursuit, I decided to raise money for a worthy cause, the Wafa house. Doing so would alleviate my guilt at spending so much money but also make my mother a cheerleader rather than a blocker. The Wafa house helps the victims of domestic violence in the Northern New Jersey area. It’s a thankless task that was started by a couple of amazing grandmothers.
For the first time, one of my physical pursuits become public. It made me deeply uncomfortable but in the end, it raised 25,000 for a very important organization. Some tried to frame the narrative that I ran for the Wafa house and I did some sort of heroic thing. The truth was I was running for myself but happy to help out a good cause along the way.
During this time, I read a book that would have a deep impact on me and almost cost me the race: Born to Run by Scott McDougal.
Born to Run tells the tale of the seemingly mythical Tara Humara Indians. They would run 100’s of miles wearing sandals made out of discarded tires and eating a paste of Chia seeds. McDougal's story telling combined with his assault on the sneaker industry convinced me and a whole host of runners to throw out our beloved sneakers and going barefoot. No one actually ran barefoot, what we did was buy barefoot running sneakers, like Vibram 5 fingers, Vivo barefoot and even the sandals made by one of the characters in the book. Perhaps we are not only born to run but born to spend as well.
I decided to go all in on barefoot running and my logic was : My parents are Egyptian -> Egypt is in Africa -> Africans are known distance runners -> Ergo, I too was born to run and I would do it barefoot.
I did away with my Brooks and replaced them with Vibram 5 fingers.
With 8 months to prepare for the race, I decided to self-coach as I did with Ironman Austria. I don’t think I’ve ever been so meticulous in my life. I had spreadsheets that tracked my training, the marathon food, the gear. All with weights and calories.
I found a couple of Serpie members that had completed the Marathon de Sable. The all told me two things: do the Druid and Pilgrim challenges in the U.K. and practice walking fast with poles.
I took the first advice and ignored the second. I’m not a 70-year-old pensioner in Richmond park. Why would I ever walk with poles? I’m born to RUN, not walk.
I started ramping up my running very quickly. This was done deliberately due to my love of running slow and the fact that I had many marathons under my belt.
I followed a similar plan to my marathon training plan with one major exception. I started including back to back runs on the weekend. Rather than a long run on Saturday I would do the same distance both Saturday and Sunday. The theory being that my body needs to get used to the recovering quickly.
Being naturally flat footed, my soleus and Achilles tendons were extremely sore after the run. I took this as positive signs.
I didn’t have the good sense to slowly transition to barefoot running. I later learned that thousands of runners made the same mistake.
My tendons would ache constantly. I just ignored it and dismissed it as muscle soreness.
My training plan was anchored around the Druids and Pilgrim challenge. The Druids challenge is a 3-day event where you run an ultra marathon each day.
To prepare for the Druids challenge, I decided to run back to back marathons in Richmond park. Having not purchased any of the gear yet, I put a large bag of basmati rice and bags of beans into a book bag and went for a run.
During this time, I discovered the hardest part of the Marathon De Sable; the "kit". For me, buying stuff is painful. Buying MDS kit is far worse than shopping for your first baby's "stuff." Choosing the rug sack (a.k.a. book bag) alone was harder than deciding if I should get married. Everyone has an opinion. The list of stuff you have to buy is endless including things like poison suction kit. There is one unifying principle; it's all expensive. They say the two most expensive events in your life are marriage and your first child. "They" obviously didn't attempt the MDS.
After the kit, the food becomes the next obsession. You basically want the maximum amount of calories with the least amount of weight.
I knew the weight of everything down to grams. I went to the extreme of driving to some random guy's house an hour from my house to buy a particular flavor or freeze dried food because it was sold out everywhere else. Being that you have to carry everything you need for the 250km, you obsess over weight. You know the weight to calorie ratio of every food. After spending hours researching and shopping and hundreds of pounds I was ready to try all this kit.
The day of the druid’s challenge came.
Having never bothered getting my license in London, Areeg agreed to drive me to the start line.
On our way, Google maps failed us and we got lost and missed my wave. After we arrived, the race organizer told me that I would have to start with the elite runners who would start an hour later.
“No problem, it will force me run faster,” I replied.
The druids challenge is a multistage race along the oldest roadway in the UK, dating back to 3000 BC and follows the ancient ridgeway trail. It covers nearly 90 miles in three days, What makes it challenging is not the distance but how miserable the conditions are. The English countryside in the fall is cold and wet. The closest thing I can compare it too is one of those cold, wet, and miserable battle scenes from the movie Braveheart.
Just 2 miles into the start of day 1, I found myself completely alone. They are elite for a reason. The druids challenge follows a marked path called the ridgeway. All you have to do is follow the acorns. It sounds so simple. It’s not.
I was used to years of well-marked marathon and Ironman courses where I could get lost in my own thoughts and music. I never really needed to be “present.”
Ultra Courses are usually off road, not well sign posted, and with infrequent aid stations. Whereas you can have a full course meal in a traditional “road” race, you need to carry much of your own provisions in an ultra.
Within 30 minutes I was lost.
“Do you know where I can find the Ridgeway?”, I would ask. "It’s back that way." would always be the response.
I was alone and lost most of day 1. I'd run over 30 miles and was still miles away from the finish. I eventually came to a large field and pointed my head torch up. I saw fluorescent eyes staring back at me. They were cows, hundred of cows. They started to crowd around me as they saw the light.
I stopped in my tracks, terrified, cold, and tired. I didn't know what to do, so I did the first thing that came to mind. Call Areeg.
“Hey, I’m in the middle of a field of cows, and I’m scared,” I whispered.
“Turn right and run around then.” she said matter of factly
“Ok, that’ a great idea. that’s exactly what I will do.”
I assume that my stupidity had something to do with not enough sugar to my brain and exhaustion.
I made my way back to the path and to the final checkpoint. I was cold and miserable. I hated all the extra miles I had done.
“I’m done", I told the checkpoint marshal. "I’m done for the day,” I said.
“Ok. you will have to wait here until the van sweeps up the other people on the course that quit.” He said.
This whole thing was an epic fail.
The druids challenge has overnight accommodations between the three stages. That night I met some awe-inspiring people. I met a man, James Adams who ran across America fueling himself on McDonald’s.
Going from the Ironman world to the "Ultra" world is a culture shock. Ironman is dominated by alpha people: Lots of lycra, compression gear, 4000 dollars wheels, etc. It’s very individualistic.
The ultra world, on the other hand, has a very different spirit. It's not as clean and tidy as Ironman; it’s full of mud, actual food, chips, sandwiches, cookies, candy, and above all community. Once I got a taste of this community, I was hooked. Don't get me wrong, gear is still a factor, even in the Ultra community. One year it was: "Are those the Vibrams? Yeah, they are great. Got them after I read Born to Run. I could never go back." could be heard on a race course. The following year, it was: "Hey are those the Hokas? What do you think of them? Yeah, they are great, it's like running on a cloud. I could never go back."
The learned a lot about ultra-running that night:
- Ultra running is an eating competition with some running in the middle
- Nutrition is the key to a successful race
- Walk the hills
- When you start the race, start with you slower pace and run slower still
- Pain medication is your friend
- If you have a problem, stop and fix it
- Don’t be an a-hole
- Help others
Having done over 30 miles in Vibram 5 fingers, my tendons were on fire. I was in a lot of pain. I used my newly acquired knowledge and asked for pain medication. Seems everyone had some.
I was finally able to sleep.
The next morning, I took more pain medication and started the race with my pace group. The pain medication was not wise in the end.
I finished the 28 miles with my pace group. Although the weather was miserable, running in the company of many people who had done the MDS in the past made the day go by much quicker. I finished the day but I knew that something was seriously wrong with my left Achilles and right soleus tendon. The smart thing was to stop at that point.
I chose not to do the smart thing.
I didn’t make it past 5 miles of day 3 before I called for the rescue van. I sat on a dirt path unable to walk.
I had done some serious damage and I would be in the Sahara in less that 5 months.
I was working for Merrill Lynch at the time in Canary Wharf and was lucky enough to have a Physiotherapist in the building. I made an appointment with him that following Monday morning.
“I have good news and bad news.”
“Your tendons are severely inflamed and there may be a slight tear in one, and you have two other tendons with similar issues.”, he said
“That is the bad news, the good news is that they are not torn. You are incredibly lucky”
“I have the Marathon de Sable in 4 months,” I told him
“You will not be able to run for at least a month, if not more.” He said.
“That’s not possible," I said, "this is the key part of my training.”
“You will need to find another way or drop the race”
“How did this happen exactly?” he asked.
“Well, I read this book called Born to Run....” I started.
I am a classic neophile:
"Neophile or Neophiliac is a term used by counterculture cult writer Robert Anton Wilson to describe a particular type of personality. A neophile or neophiliac can be defined as a personality type characterized by a strong affinity for novelty.
“Say no more,” he said
“There are two things physiotherapists love more than anything, CrossFit and barefoot running.” He said laughing.
I did not find it funny.
Over the next couple of weeks, he nursed my tendons with a combination of ultrasound, stretching, deep tissue massage and muscle strengthening. During this time, I learned about tendons, which of my muscles had been over developed which were under developed. I learned about flexibility. I even learned why I had chronic back pain.
As it turns out, I have these things called hip flexors, and sitting down all day made them short.
I did two things, I started using a standing desk and started yoga.
Yoga was not something I thought I would ever do. Yoga, as it turns out, is very hard, will make you look like an idiot, and is vital for the longevity of an endurance athlete. I was finally starting to understand why everyone kept telling me to do Bikram yoga.
I started practicing yoga at home every night, by watching youtube clips. Sulafa loved seeing me in contorted positions. By the second night, everyone was doing yoga.
Having spent a lot of money and raising money for the Wafa house, I decided to experiment with nordic walking. The very thing I had chosen to ignore.
I bought the lightest carbon walking poles I could find and started to walk as fast as I could in the trails of Richmond park.
To my surprise, my bad genetics came in handy. I have unnaturally long legs and a short torso. Once I learned the technique I could go quite fast. I was averaging 8km per hour walking.
The ultimate test was an 80 km walk from London to Oxford. I needed to do this walk in the full MDS gear.
I chose a cold rainy day to maximize the suffering.
We chose to make the weekend of it and explore Blenheim palace. The Birthplace of Winston Churchill.
The winters have very short days in London, so I planned to start the walk at 5am to maximize the sunlight. I ended up leaving at 9am after my standard routine of:
- “Areeeg where is my wallet”
- More coffee
- “Areeeeeg where is my iPod”
- Still more coffee
- “Areeeeeeeeg where is my wallet?” “It’s in your pocket” “Oh yeah. Sorry” “Just leave” “ok ok”
I had selected the story of Ernest Shackleton as my Audio book. Google walking directions would direct me in my ear. The food plan was dialed in.
I set off from Ealing and was a curious sight to see. I looked like a tall Oompa Loompa.
I made it out of the populated areas and was doing well. I was enthralled by the heroics of Ernest Shackleton. Ernest Shackleton was the great British explorer who leads a crew to Antarctica only to get stranded. He led his group of men back to safety in one the greatest acts of leadership every recorded by man.
Having nearly frozen in the Pilgrims challenge, I was ready for the cold. I was becoming a true Brit and learning how to layer. “There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.” I was ready for everything, I thought. What I was not ready for, it turns out, was google walking directions.
The walking direction algorithm was not yet perfected for the English countryside in 2012. I found myself in dark trails or even scarier roads with cars flying by and me walking on the shoulder with no street lamps.
Similar to my cycling on the motor way, walking on an "A" road can be just as terrifying.
I would not stop, however. If Ernest and his crew can survive on seal blubber and a conviction that they will make it, I could make it to Oxford.
The rain was coming down hard, it was dark, the cars were flying by, but I was happy. I was moving fast, eating well, and now I believed I could do the longest stage of the MDS. I was walking so well. It seems that after all, I was NOT born to run. I was born to walk...like an Egyptian.
I got a call from Areeg. They had already been at the bed and breakfast for hours waiting for me. It was nearly 10 pm and she was worried. She asked me to send her my GPS coordinates on Whatsapp.
“You are walking on the main road while it's raining in the dark! I drove that way it’s impossible to see anyone on the side of the road!” she yelled.
“I’m coming now, go to the nearest place you can get in and I’m coming.”
“No way!", I yelled, "I’m almost there!”
“Go to the nearest rest stop and wait for me.” she said in her don’t mess with me voice.
“Ok”. I sighed. I had let Ernest down.
As the weeks progressed, I continued to obsess about gear, while working with my physio on recovery. I found the entire physio experience enthralling. I had never learned about tendons and muscles until then.
Eventually, he allowed me to start running again. But before he did that, he studied my gate. Broadly speaking there are three types of pronation: Over pronator, Neutral, & Under pronator
I was an extreme over-pronator. He recorded me running in my Vibram 5 fingers, along with many other sneakers and was surprised that I had not snapped a tendon.
After trying many sneakers together we found that brooks were the sneaker for me.
At this point, I was cleared to run.
My protocol became:
Run 40 minutes & Nordic walk 20 minutes.
My training week consisted of:
- Recovery swims
- Bike rides
- Strength training
- 2 long run/walk
The weekend of the pilgrim's challenge came and I felt like a different person. I had failed a lot and learned a lot. I showed up with my full gear, nutrition plan and on time.
The pilgrim's challenge is a 2 day ultra in Surrey. It's incredibly challenging taking in some of the most challenging terrain and hills that the UK has to offer.
My protocol worked brilliantly. When my legs would slow down my arms would power on using the nordic polls.
That night, the snow fell very hard. I and a number of runners that were doing the MDS decided not to do the 2nd day so that we don't risk injury. As far as I was concerned the risk wasn't acceptable.
Once one of the MDS athletes said they were dropping out, the rest dropped like flies. I believe had that first decided to say, the peer pressure would have forced us all to stay.
We arrived at the train station relatively early and had an hour to spare. It was very cold and I had a bright idea.
“Does anyone want a cup of Starbucks?” I asked
“That would be great, but we are in the middle of nowhere.” my friend Sam replied.
“We have our stoves and Nesbit tablets. We haven't tried our stoves yet. Let's practice", I said
As I later learned, you only need 2 Nesbit tablets to heat water, I used 8. This caused quite the fireworks. It didn't occur to me that an Arab man with a beard lighting a fire outside a train station probably wasn't the wisest thing to do.
It wasn't really a good cup of coffee, but I was very proud of it. Man make fire, fire good.
I was ready for this race. At least I thought so.