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Having to deal with insane heat, temperature swings of nearly 100 degrees, hard-to-navigate terrain and more didn’t seem to faze Garth Reader one bit.
In fact, it couldn’t have worked out a lot better.
Reader, 50, a local ultra-runner, finished in the top three among United States competitors and No. 9 in his age group at this month’s Marathon Des Sables, held in the western Sahara Desert in the country of Morocco.
Reader finished the race in 30 hours, 55 minutes, 57 seconds to finish 110th overall in the competition which featured more than 1,000 competitors.
“I exceeded all expectations going in,” said Reader of the nearly weeklong competition in northwestern Africa. “I thought I ran a pretty smart race. I ran a little conservative, not knowing what to expect.”
The race cuts right through the desert and is separated into five stages of varying length. Despite the race being run in one of the harshest environments in the world, it is well organized with volunteers and medical staff and the course is well marked so competitors don’t take a wrong turn somewhere.
In the race, along with having to deal with temperatures which peaked at 125 degrees and dropped down into the 30s, competitors are responsible for bringing along their own food and carry it with them.
The race stages varied from 30 kilometers to the very demanding 75 kilometer stage four.
The long stage actually proved to be a pivotal one for Reader, who moved up about 30 spots in the overall rankings, finishing in 11 hours, 35 minutes.
“I was pacing myself for this,” Reader said. “In the first stage, I probably went out too hard, but I was caught up in the excitement.”
At night, the competitors slept in makeshift tents.
Reader thought one of his tentmates, a Chicago resident, might not be able to make it the entire way through the race.
Reader was surprised to learn, however, that this man actually swam the English Channel in 2001.
Reader said it was an interesting mix of people who competed at Marathon Des Sables. There were some elite runners, people like him who do a lot of racing but aren’t professionals, and then a lot of competitors who seemed out of place in such a demanding race.
Interestingly, less than 60 ended up dropping out, one of them being a woman from France who was considered a legitimate contender for a Marathon Des Sables victory.
One of the things Reader was surprised about was that, despite the length of the course and the wide open terrain, there were usually runners within a short distance of himself.
‘There were so many people in this race, I was rarely running by myself,” he said. “There were always people within a few feet, or somebody right out there in the middle of nowhere. That was different for me.”
The experience was something Reader said will stay with him for a long time and he said he would likely try the marathon again if he had the chance.
“I’m extremely satisfied,” he said. “It sounds sort of odd, but I’m satisfied that I got through the race, I’m satisfied I was able to participate and I was satisfied I met or exceeded my goals. It was a unique experience. Coming back is totally refreshing after being immersed in that environment.”