April 18, 2022 — Each year, over 1,000 runners travel to Africa to try their hand (or foot) at a race in the middle of the desert.
At this year’s race Florence, the home of the largest expanse of sand dunes in North America, was represented by one of their own sand running experts.
On April 4, Lindsey Ulrich, Siuslaw Middle School P.E. teacher, overcame exhaustion, extreme heat, a sandstorm and obstacles unlike any found back at home, to not only compete but become the first American woman to finish the Marathon des Sables 2022.
The Marathon des Sables is a multiday, 156-mile ultramarathon held annually in the Sahara Desert in Morocco. This is the 36th running of the race that started in 1986.
For most runners, the marathon starts in the desert of North Africa. For Ulrich the journey began well before her feet hit sand in Morocco.
In 2012, Ulrich had a stroke. For most people this means their life is turned upside down and that a ton of work would be required just get back to “normal.”
“It’s been almost 10 years since I had my stroke,” Ulrich said. “That was kind of my driving force because I had to relearn many, many life skills again. I had to work really hard to get my brain back to the best it could be.”
Doctors weren’t sure what was next for Ulrich, but she decided nothing, not even a stroke, would take away something that brings her so much happiness.
“I was told that I might never be able to run again,” remembered Ulrich. “That was my joy. I have to run. So that kind of drove me to prove them wrong.”
One could understand her desire to continue one of her favorite activities, but it’s doubtful anyone, besides Ulrich herself, believed she would be able to do something like an ultramarathon.
“Of course, I go to the extreme,” said Ulrich. “I still have lasting effects [from the stroke], but I don't use it as a crutch for anything, though it is a little hard for me to talk about.”
Go to an extreme she certainly did, as Ulrich chose to compete in what Time magazine once called the “toughest foot race on earth.”
Ulrich had competed in marathons before. In fact, she had run ultralong distances before, but nothing like the challenge she would face this time.
“I ran across Oregon, and that was magical in its own way,” she said. “I got into ultra a little over four and a half years ago. I’ve ran distances up to 62 miles, but I decided I wanted to take a shot at something a little more challenging and different.”
Both the “challenging” and “difficult” boxes can be checked when it comes to this race in southern Morocco. Each runner is required to carry everything they need with them. Food, bedding, extra clothing, everything.
The only exception is water, of which each runner received daily rations.
“You only got so much water each day,” said Ulrich. “The water you received had to last you till the next day and then to the first check point of that day, which could be seven or eight miles from where you start.”
The approximately 1,000 racers start at the same time and have up to six days to complete the race. Though at times Ulrich said she ran alone, other times she would enjoy some company for a stretch of the race.
“I developed an amazing friendship with a Moroccan girl when we ran together for a while,” she said. “She didn’t speak English. I don’t speak Arabic. But we were trying to figure this race out together. That, along with our smiles, was enough to build a friendship that has lasted even to today.”
Local Berbers were hired to ride ahead of the runners and set up 180 tents and other accommodations so at the end of each stage Ulrich and her fellow competitors could find some small amount comfort.
Comfort didn’t always come easy, however, as Ulrich found sleeping a surprising challenge at the end of the grueling days. Though she was most definitely exhausted, it wasn’t until the third night of the race that Ulrich was able to truly fall into a deep slumber.
“The running, obviously, always has its challenges, but for me sleeping was really, really hard,” said Ulrich. “I made the mistake of not bringing a pad and the desert floor was rocky and very hard.”
In addition to local workers, a large team of mainly French volunteers did their best to provide the medical attention needed to keep participants in the race. Ulrich described their work as “magic” after she visited the medical tent with foot problems, though the magic did come with a bit of a burn.
“It was unreal,” said Ulrich. “She [the French doctor] took a needle, pulled all the blood from my blister and that wasn’t even the bad part. Next, she shot this red antiseptic into the blister to keep it from getting infected. The burn from that? It was a whole different kind of special.”
Finishing the race as quickly as possible was obviously a top priority for Ulrich, but this experience was one of those times in life where it was more about the journey along the way than the finish.
On her way to Morocco, Ulrich had a layover in Dubai and spent a night in a hotel there. She found herself a stranger in a strange land. Some might have stayed in their hotel room and counted the hours until the return to the airport to continue the trip. Not Ulrich.
“This trip really made me realize what a beautiful world we live in,” she said. “I’m in another country and I’m pretty much all by myself. I had to ask myself how to handle this. Is it safe to go out?”
Ulrich inquired with the staff at the hotel, and they told her not to worry, as the military made frequent trips up and down the main street through town.
This wasn’t very reassuring for Ulrich. She went for a run anyway.
“Everyone I met along the way was great,” said Ulrich. “The ladies were super friendly. The kids were just amazed by the simple fact I was an American. I’m sure these people are aware of a lot of the stuff going on in the world. They still welcome outsiders with open arms.”
More than a week after her return to Oregon, she admitted she was still transitioning back into her “normal” life.
“Coming back after seeing all the things I saw has been a bit overwhelming for me,” said Ulrich. “It’s hard to come back to America from a place where everything is so simple. Each day, those people there know exactly what they need to do and honestly, I’m a little envious. Coming back to this world we live in is hard when you compare the simplicity of their lives to our lives here. I would just love to have that simplicity.”
As hard as the race and the return home was, after a little time to reflect Ulrich says she would run the race again.
“If you asked me the day after the race, I would have said there is no way,” she said. “But after coming back and processing everything, I can really see why people do go back. It’s one of those experiences that you can only truly understand by experiencing it. There are truly no words.”
One big thing that would help bring Ulrich back for another Marathon des Sables is the people she met.
“The people who you share a tent with really have a lot to do with what is so special about the race,” said Ulrich. “One of the guys in my tent, Paul, was a river guide in Africa. He was from Zimbabwe but had been in America for a long time. During his time as a river guide, he lost an arm to a hippo. He really wasn’t supposed to survive.”
Meeting people like Paul made it difficult for Ulrich to feel like she had it too tough, no matter how bad things got along the way.
“I’d be out running and whenever I started to feel sorry for myself, I’d think to myself ‘No. Paul got his arm bit off by a hippo and he’s out here. I can keep going.’ You realize life isn’t really that bad. It’s actually pretty good.”
Keep going she did. Ulrich finished the race in 32:59.41 and placed 116th overall. She was the 11th woman to finish the 2022 race and was second place amongst all Americans.
The winner of this year’s edition of the Marathon des Sables was a local man, Moroccan Rachid El Morabity, who finished in 18:33.28. Top women finisher was Anna Comet Pascua (24:18.33) of Spain. Pascua won the race in her first time competing in the event.
For results and more information about the race, go to www.marathondessables.com/en.