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The question Garth Reader gets asked more than any other is, “why?”
The question is in response to Reader’s goal of competing in the Marathon Des Sables, a multi-day scheduled footrace in the western Sahara Desert.
“Everyone asks that,” said Reader, a local ultra-runner who jumped at the chance this year when his name came up to compete in the Marathon Des Sables, which encompasses a 240-kilometer (approximately 149 mile) path through the burning southern Moroccan corner of the Sahara. “I found out about it more than a decade ago and it struck me as one of those things that you see and you say ‘that’s me.’ That would be so neat to do.”
The Marathon Des Sables, scheduled from April 5-15, is no ordinary ultramarathon — if there is such a thing — as competitors run set distances every day and camp in two-sided tents called bivouacs at night out in the desert. Daytime temperatures can reach in excess of 120 degrees, while nighttime temperatures can fall to near freezing. Throw in the random Saharan sandstorm and things can really get interesting for competitors.
All of these complications don’t seem to hurt interest in the race any. In its previous 27 runnings, the race has averaged about 500 competitors a year.
Reader said interest in the Marathon Des Sables is considerably higher in Europe and European competitors generally must enter into a lottery-type drawing to earn an invitation.
For North American runners, however, there is simply a waiting list for those interested in participating — a certain number of slots are set aside for North American participants. This fall, a spot opened up and Reader’s name came up.
For Reader, he sees this as a unique opportunity. The extreme conditions that he will see in Morocco are like almost nothing a runner can experience in the United States.
Because of the conditions, Reader said he’s spent plenty of time training and planning out what he’s going to need to finish the race.
“You can break down the preparation for this type of event into thirds,” he said. “One-third of it is equipment. You need to have that well thought out and broken down. Another third is physical conditioning. In the Marathon Des Sables, however, physical preparation is not as stringent as you might imagine.
“The third thing is the mental preparation,” Reader said. “Going into this, you have to be able to sustain a positive mental attitude…it’s not like a 100-yard dash or even a 10K. There will be situations you will have to overcome, to work through over the course of 7 days at Marathon Des Sables. You’ve going to have bad days and you’re going to have bad times.”
Among the things he’s packing is clothing for any and all weather situations and food for the run — all the food he’s going to need for the race he will have to have with him from the get-go.
Part of his challenge is picking out the right foods, not only ones that will keep well but ones he can actually stand to eat.
Water, however, will be supplied to the racers at the event. They are given 1.5 liters at the start of the race and up to 4.5 liters at checkpoints throughout the day’s course.
Officials monitor the courses very well and medical stations are set up on the daily courses in case of emergencies.
Reader said he’s going into the race with segmented goals: first, to finish, second, to finish in target times per leg and, finally, to finish among the top finishers in the race. If he accomplishes one of his goals, he will move on to the next, but he said having a good finish is hardly one of his big priorities.
Preparation-wise, Reader said he’s putting in lots of weekly mileage around the Los Alamos trails and recently started running with his pack filled with weights totaling about 25 pounds.
Even though he still has nearly two months of preparation time, Reader said he’s all set for the challenge.
“I’m feeling ready right now,” he said. “I believe I have a lot squared away. My mental attitude is good…I want to make sure I stay healthy to start. Overall, I’m feeling confident I’ve done my homework. I feel good.”