Tracy contacted James and settled with him as “James had experience both getting someone through a multi day trail race and getting them through a desert marathon. I have a friend who I do a lot of running with. She got through three coaches, so I needed to know that I got it right.”
Although Tracy and James fit well together she notes that she did not necessarily benefit from the team structure that James offers, preferring a more individual approach, “ I didn’t really want to go in for the whole feelings part of a team that James offers, I wanted a program and someone to keep me honest and go to when things were not working out. Once we reached that understanding it worked really well”.
The Marathon des Sables is a melting pot of various cultures, however Tracy found herself in a tent with some distinctly antipodean flavours. Tracy shared a tent with elite Australasian runners Majell Backhausen and Vajin Armstrong. “It was interesting seeing how the elite’s go. It was interesting to see their reaction at us being out on the course for so long and they were just hungry the whole time because they were carrying the bare minimum. They had all our spare food and water as they were getting by on 2000 calories a day. All their kit was ultra light and the goal for Vajin and Majell was to perform well”. Far from being uptight, Tracy warmly recounts how friendly and down-to-earth both men were, as everyone would socialise in the evening.
In contrast to her two elite tent mates who were scraping by with the minimum calories per day, Tracy took almost 40000 calories on the longest stage of 86.2km which ended up taking 23 hours. Tracy said though she did end up with calories to spare, only consuming 2500 calories throughout that mammoth day. Tracy did not notice any change in digestion or nutritional uptake with the heat, instead snacking all day and then having a main meal in the evening, however notes that she didn’t often have an appetite to finish this meal. Tracy considers that if she was going to complete the race again she would definitely take a smaller evening meal and more snacks for the day.
Tracy’s fluid intake was approximately 8 litres over the course of the day. Usually 6 litres whilst out on course and a further 2 litres back at camp. This was again in contrast to her elite friends, who raced through the aid stations to save time, and benefitted at camp from the charity of the other runners, many of whom had spare water. Tracy craved salty snacks throughout the race, satisfying this craving with salted macadamia nuts, peanuts and crackers. For her evening meal Tracy ate dehydrated macaroni and cheese or cheesy mash. Tracy’s challenge with her dehydrated meals was increased as she does not eat meat. Tracy recommended trying out various different company’s products to make sure you have a variety of meals that you are able to enjoy throughout the race.
The fauna of the Marathon des Sables sounds difficult enough, having to deal with Camel Spiders, Scorpions and even Rattlesnakes! Above this, the distance, difficulty and multiple long days running, the most challenging aspect of the race for Tracy was dealing with the desert dust and grit. “It was hard being so filthy. We all talked about it how hard that was. It really messed with your mind just not being able to get clean. It’s not even about being smelly, the sweat evaporates instantly, but it was just so difficult being covered in sand and dirt the whole time”. Tracy sacrificed the extra heft of Wet Wipes for the comfort and relief from the being consistently dirty and sandy throughout the race.
In the Marathon des Sables, weight is everything. Tracy’s MDS pack was 11kg on Day one. “The pack was really comfortable but in retrospect I would save weight next time with a lighter sleeping bag and less food”. Vajin Armstrong, had an ultralight bag custom made for him in Christchurch. Tracy noted that this is an investment she would definitely make. “I’m 5 foot 4 so having a much smaller bag would be beneficial in size and weight”.
The desert could throw the odd curveball or two to ramp up the challenge, as Tracy stated “The sandstorms were really bad, we had to get up, collapse the tent and get back into it. The storms could last for four hours,”It was like being in a coffin”. Thankfully, sleep wasn’t too much of an issue for Tracy, as they would turn in around 1930 and be up at dawn. Tracy discussed that the routine at camp was “get in, eat, sort your stuff out for the next day, then sleep”. Rather than feel envy towards faster athletes like Maejll and Vajin, Tracy reckoned that having more time in camp made for a tougher time, as they had taken on less water so although they had more time at camp, they were thirsty and hungry whilst they were there.
Tracy benefited from it being “a cooler year” with the temperatures climbing to 50 degrees celsius in the day and falling to freezing at night. Tracy incorporated heat training into her build up to Marathon des Sables, having sauna, steam room and spa sessions in an attempt to stress her body with heat and allow her to acclimatise. Having only a short time in Morocco prior to racing, Tracy notes that this strategy worked well as she did not struggle with the temperature. Another strategy Tracy incorporated was wearing a size bigger shoe than usual to cope with any foot swelling, due to electrolyte changes and the effects of multiple days running in harsh conditions. “I’d worn a pair of sized up Inov8 Roclite 390s for a year prior to the MDS. I hadn’t had a single black toenail. I think wearing a bigger shoe for an ultra is definitely the way to go”.
Tracy trained between 16-20 hours a week, averaging 80-100 kilometres a week with additional swimming and strength work. “I did a lot of James’ famous 6-8 hour hikes. James did prescribe me some speed work but I pushed back on it as it exacerbated a couple of niggles that I had, but I was able to communicate this to James and we just scheduled more hill work, it was great”. Tracy is forthright in her beliefs that “I think that you just don’t blindly follow what a coach wants you to do, you’ve got to communicate what you need if it’s not working for you”.
Tracy has her sights set next on the 100 kilometre Great Ocean Walk in October and shared this final insight into preparation for the Marathon des Sables “I would encourage anyone to do the Marathon des Sables, it’s a great experience. Get a good coach and a great training plan. The thing that helped the most was carrying the weight (during training) and do a lot of walking. You will be walking a hell of a lot more than you think that you will”.