Ultramarathon In The Sahara A Six-Day Race Over Extreme Terrain

Melissa Block talks to marathon runner Lisa Batchen about a six day ultramarathon taking place in the Saharan desert in Morocco.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNERS)

BLOCK: The sound of runners trekking over dunes, steep mountain trails and dried-out river beds, all while carrying six days of provisions on their backs. It's all part of the Marathon des Sables - known as MDS - a grueling six-day, 156-mile journey through the sands of the Moroccan Sahara; the equivalent of six marathons.

Lisa Smith-Batchen was the first American to win the women's race, back in 1999, and her husband just finished his 10th Marathon des Sables today. She joins me from Victor, Idaho, to talk about the race. Lisa, how did your husband do?

LISA SMITH-BATCHEN: Hi, Melissa. He did extremely well. He was in the top 300 out of over 1,000 participants this year.

BLOCK: So a thousand people have decided this is a great idea to run 156 miles across the Sahara. What's that like? What's the terrain?

SMITH-BATCHEN: You know, the terrain varies every day between possibly the largest sand dunes in North America - you know, thinking of a huge mountain that's just made of sand. So every day, the terrain changes. And it's quite impressive when you see what goes on out in the Sahara Desert; wake up one morning, and the wind has changed the sand dunes, the way they look. There's no road running out there. It's all really - pretty technical running.

BLOCK: And what are the temperatures, typically?

SMITH-BATCHEN: The typical temperatures - I know that the high this year out there got to be 120 degrees.

BLOCK: Oh my goodness.

SMITH-BATCHEN: Yeah, pretty hot. So I would say anywhere between 100 degrees to 120 degrees. And in the nighttime, it actually gets pretty cold in the Sahara Desert.

BLOCK: Well, how do you cope with the temperature, and how do you stay hydrated?

SMITH-BATCHEN: They give you 9 liters of water a day, which is enough for most people. And you just learn to - you know, sip water and keep yourself hydrated, wearing the right clothing so that you're able to keep your skin covered up. So a lot of it comes with just taking care of yourself, to be able to cope with it.

BLOCK: And how are you carrying the water?

SMITH-BATCHEN: A lot of people carry two water bottles on the front of their backpack. And every 10K, which is 6.2 miles, you run through an aid station; and they give you more water, to refill your water bottles.

BLOCK: And what else do you have in that backpack?

SMITH-BATCHEN: In the backpack, they have mandatory gear such as a sleeping bag, a compass, a snakebite kit - which we never needed.

BLOCK: Thankfully.

SMITH-BATCHEN: Headlamp, and you have to have 2,500 calories per day. So you're kind of carrying everything on your back for six to seven days. And if you don't have what you need, you're kind of out of luck.

BLOCK: Yikes. And then at the end of the day, you're sleeping in a tent with a bunch of other people, right?

SMITH-BATCHEN: You're sleeping in a tent with probably eight to nine other people, but it's not an enclosed tent. These are called Berber tents. It's kind of just like having a cloth over your head. And they're held up by sticks and on very, very small carpets and over rocks, a lot of times. So, you know, when a sandstorm hits, you are pretty much sleeping out in the middle of the Sahara Desert, in the sand.

BLOCK: Well, what's the feeling like, at the end of this marathon - these six marathons, back to back, 156 miles across the desert. What does it feel like?

SMITH-BATCHEN: I have raced a lot, and it's my favorite race because of the journey. There's so much to learn about yourself. It's really hard to describe what goes on with people, when you're only left with what's on your back for seven days. You really learn that - the simplicity of life, and that you can carry on with very little.

BLOCK: Have you had a chance to talk to your husband since he finished the race, Lisa?

SMITH-BATCHEN: We haven't. We are very excited to talk to him. Hopefully, you know - they have to take a bus maybe six, seven hours back to the hotels. So tomorrow, there's a 10K kind of fun run that's not a part of the race...

BLOCK: Wait - a fun run; 10 extra K just in case you haven't had enough after 156 miles?

SMITH-BATCHEN: Ten extra K. You know, people want to go home but then again, people don't want to go home, back to cellphones and computers. And, you know, they've got their backpack that's close to empty now, and they're probably liking it.

BLOCK: Well, Lisa, thanks for talking to us about the Marathon des Sables, in Morocco.

SMITH-BATCHEN: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's Lisa Smith-Batchen. She was the first American to win the women's race in the Marathon des Sables, back in 1999; 156 miles across the Sahara Desert, in Morocco. This year's race ended today.

CORNISH: Tomorrow will mark the end of another long run on WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY. The program has left its old home, and will come to you for the first time from NPR's new headquarters. Susan Stamberg has been through three of these moves, and she'll share some memories tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION.

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