Three members of a Colleyville family flew to Morocco this week for a vacation that could kill them.
“I’ll have nothing to fight off the scorpions, spiders and snakes,” said Sharon Chan. “All you can do is watch your step and shake out your shoes and sleeping bag, and don’t sit on any rocks.”
Sharon and Alfonso Chan and their daughter, Gabriella, will head out into the Sahara Friday for the 29th Sultan Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands) where — in addition to the venomous animals — they’ll face daytime temperatures hovering around 120 degrees and nighttime temps dropping to the 40s.
After camping for a couple of days to acclimate, they’ll start running the 150- to 156-mile route (roughly like hoofing Interstate 30 from downtown Fort Worth to Mount Pleasant in East Texas) that is being kept secret until race day. Support crews will give them water rations each morning, watch over them through the day and greet them each evening in camps with Spartan accommodations.
But the expected 1,064 racers who paid in the neighborhood of $6,500 each in fees and related costs will carry their own food, clothing and equipment to sustain themselves for seven days in the desert.
“The Chans are carrying 22 to 25 pounds,” said their coach, Lisa Smith-Batchen, a four-time Marathon of the Sands veteran who won the women’s division in 1999. “You have freeze-dried meals to add water to, powdered drinks that have calories and protein in them, beef jerky, nuts. You have to find out what your stomach can tolerate.”
‘A very hard course’
In addition to 2,000 to 2,500 calories of food per day, such items as flares, maps, compasses, signal mirrors, venom extractors, salt tablets, knives and whistles are mandatory for all runners’ packs, said Sharon Chan, 45.
“My extra couple of pounds are because I have snuck in three shirts instead of one, four shorts instead of one, and a separate set of sleeping clothes,” Sharon Chan said. “Also, I am obsessed with being somewhat clean out there.”
That obsession added baby wipes, a tiny bar of soap, shampoo and facial-cleansing pads to her pack, Sharon Chan said.
“My real luxury item, however, is my Bobby Brown lip gloss,” she said. “It’s just the right stickiness to stay put in 120-degree heat and will make me feel human at my lowest point.”
Alfonso Chan, 44, who’s finished the marathon twice, said he warned his wife and daughter about the conditions they’ll face and tried talking them out of it right up to the day before they left.
“I’ve told them this is a very hard course,” he said. “The temps go up to 130, you sink into the dunes, it’s very mountainous.”
Rather than being discouraged by the warnings, Gabriella Chan said she grew more eager to face the challenges. She said just training for the race has strengthened her will power.
“It will make me a stronger, better person in general,” Gabriella Chan said. “It would be great to accomplish something on this scale so I can look forward to bigger challenges.”
Getting special permission
To get ready for the challenges the Chans only had to step up their normal regimens. Alfonso Chan is a long-distance runner for whom races ranging from 100 to 135 miles are common. Gabriella Chan plays soccer. Sharon Chan is a stay-at-home mom who ran high school and college track and cross-country.
Starting with 6- to 9-mile runs with no backpacks, the trio worked up to longer distances and gradually heavier packs. At their peak, they were doing 30 miles with 18 pounds of rice in each pack.
Gabriella’s preparation taxed her brain as well as her body. Classes still are in session at the School for the Talented and Gifted, a magnet school in Dallas, so she had extra classwork.
“About two or three weeks ago I started to take classes ahead,” Gabriella Chan said. “I’ll have to make up some of the calculus afterward, but for the most part I’m going to be fine.”
At 15, Gabriella Chan had to get permission from race founder/coordinator Patrick Bauer, whose rules set the minimum age at 16, Sharon Chan said.
“They made her jump through hoops for that, too,” Sharon Chan said. “She needed letters from her pediatrician, her coach and her parents.”
Walk, don’t run
Where the Chans are concerned, however, there will be more walking than running, Alfonso Chan said.
“You train your body to fast walk at about 4 miles an hour,” he said. “You run downhill and walk fast on the flats and uphills.”
Whether running or walking, moving through the desert isn’t the race’s greatest challenge, said Smith-Batchen, who finished below the top 100 only once, and it has nothing to do with fatigue.
“One year I won, one I was second, one I was almost last place because I got bit by a scorpion,” she said. “The toughest part is trying to sleep at night and not being able to, then dealing with sleep deprivation.”
But because the Chans’ goal is merely to finish the race, the coach is sure of their success.
“I absolutely know that they can finish,” Smith-Batchen said. “If they can learn to accept conditions as they come, they just have to be willing to suffer a little bit.”
And on a vacation like this one, survival is victory.