Skip links

Do Hard Things: 

Stephanie Tang

Strength + Self-Discovery During the Marathons des Sables

Have you embarked on an adventure that changes the perception of your reality and, in turn, the course of your life? Like a tectonic shift, running the Marathons des Sables moved the sand beneath my feet, allowing the heat from the Earth’s core to escape to the surface of the desert, making space for newness to emerge. At the seams where the tectonic plates come in contact, just as the sand and rocks rubbed against and split the seams of my gaiters, the crustal rocks cause earthquakes, build mountains and form oceans. These processes ebb and flow over time, but, when they occur, they alter our mindset and our existence. 

“If my mind can conceive it, my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it!”

Jesse Jackson

Marathons des Sables (MDS), a 6-stage, 252 km, self-supported ultramarathon across the Sahara desert, truly illustrated how the mind can overcome physical obstacles, and reaffirmed my belief in the power of a positive mindset. MDS was a spiritual journey - a moving meditation over technical climbs and “trudgy” sand in 130-degree heat - but also one filled with immense joy and deep gratitude. 

The MDS journey started long before the race. My neighbor Peter Boyd introduced Marathons des Sables to our fellow neighbor Luke McGuinness and myself over beers on Luke’s driveway one evening over a year ago. Pete had completed MDS 20 years prior, and planted the seed of returning into our heads. 

We committed to MDS over a handshake and a smile.

That was the easy part. 

Running Marathons des Sables in the Sahara

Training: Before Sunrise, Backpacks + Big Volume

Pete, Luke and I agreed that we would plan to run MDS together from start to finish. In order to do so, Pete, suggested that we also train together, so that we could not only learn how to communicate effectively as teammates and determine our race strategy, but we could remind each other to hydrate and fuel properly, and sense if one of us was having a hard time, so that the others could provide aid as needed. We had never run together prior to MDS training! While I had spent time with them separately over the course of the five years since we’d move to Westport, CT from NYC, it was usually, with Pete, during a soccer game for our daughters, or, with Luke, preparing for or celebrating the completion of an active endeavor with my husband Ray, his wife Jenny and sometimes our kids too, as Jenny and I are friends and teammates on the Westport Weston YMCA Triathlon Club.

MDS training began in December, 4.5 months before the race. Our first official long run as a team led us over Compo Beach, our local beach in town, and joined with a run with the Joggers Club, our Westport running club. It would become the first of countless runs over Compo and other beaches to mimic running in the desert.

Our first official long run together, 16 miles, over Compo Beach at Sunrise

Within weeks, I was logging more miles than I had ever, often starting before sunrise or during odd hours, and running with a weighted backpack. What was in my backpack? Whereas Pete and Luke threw in a motley collection of books and tools, including a hammer, in theirs, I found that such items dug into my back, and, thus, I filled mine with a weighted vest, water bottles and towels. The towels seemed to increase in weight as I sweat, an added challenge.

By the month before the race, I was consistently running with 22 pounds in my backpack, had completed two ultra distance long runs - 35 miles with Pete and Luke, and 39 solo miles - and got up to 72 miles in a week, the most weekly mileage ever. The dedicated training, nightly stretching and foam rolling, and biweekly visits to my chiropractor, Dr. Nathan King, to keep niggling injuries at bay provided the psychological and physical fulcrum required to feel poised. 

Solo sunrise run while a group of people plunged over the winter

Nutrition: Hydration + [De]hydrated Foods

Pete, Luke and I discussed and researched our nutrition plans even more than we did our training and race strategy. Long runs allowed us to explore our on-the-run nutrition plan. With the exception of the two JFK 50 I’d raced, I had only fueled with gels and limited water in the past. In fact, I showed up to our 35-mile team run, which would take us 6 hours to carry out, with a handful of Maurten gels and 16 oz. of water, the amount of water I am supposed to drink in one hour, as I learned a week later during my sodium sweat test! When I ran out of my water at mile 30, Luke introduced me to Tailwind Endurance Fuel, a powder that dissolved in water - it provided nutrition and electrolytes, and was tasty. With the fact that we would have to carry our nutrition (and everything else!) from the start to the finish of the race, and concerns over sodium loss in high temperatures, I concluded I would run with Tailwind Endurance Fuel in one bottle (as carrying powder is lighter than carrying whole foods), Precision Hydration for electrolytes in another, and both sweet and savory foods too (after I made a pit stop for a doughnut and Cubano sandwich during two long different runs).

My friend Catherine Stillman and me during a sodium sweat test together in NYC

In addition to our on-the-run nutrition plan, we also had to arrange our meals and snacks for the 8 total days in the Sahara. Pete, Luke and I organized a food tasting at my front door using Pete’s camping stove so that we could determine how long it would take to boil a cup of water using the titanium cups we bought for the race, how many fuel cubes we needed for each meal, and which meals we preferred. Some meals were a hit among us and our kids too, and we had visceral reactions to immediately spit out others. Our kids were perplexed and inquired why we were sitting on my front steps and eating dehydrated food from resealable bags.

Sampling dehydrated food using Pete’s portable stove on my front door

Heat Acclimation: Sauna Suit, Sauna + Sweat

I loathe running in the heat. I wear shorts through most winter runs, fade in marathons over 55 degrees, and, if there were one, I would consider high temperatures my Achilles heel in running. Yet, this is exactly why I was curious about MDS.  Billed as the Toughest Footrace on Earth ,midday temps had been known to reach the 120s historically. In 2021, it got as hot as 132 degrees, and nearly 50% of competitors dropped out due to a combination of heat stroke and suspected food poisoning . While it may seem either overly optimistic or downright sadistic, I believed that, with proper heat acclimation, I could tackle and conquer my shortcomings.

Part of signing up for a race with such extreme conditions such as MDS requires understanding the race conditions. Not only is running in the heat hard, but hyperthermia and hyponatremia are potentially life-threatening concerns. According to the CDC, it takes seven to 14 days for the human body to acclimate to heat. When acclimated, the body actually starts to sweat sooner, which, in turn, cools the surface of the skin, lowers the core body temperature, and drops the heart rate. 

Two weeks before our departure, I donned a sauna suit, or a waterproof garment designed to trap heat and make the wearer sweat profusely, during my weekday training runs and then sat in a sauna for 20 to 30 minutes. I also started practicing hot yoga. As a former yoga studio owner of a studio with non-heated classes only, my newfound fondness for hot yoga was a big surprise!

Post-run sauna session

Kit List: Planning, Preparing + Packing [Mostly Food]

There was a mandatory list of items that we were required to carry with us during the entire duration of the race, which included food and survival equipment. Altogether, these items - and our personal belongings - had to weigh between 6.5 kgs and 15 kgs, excluding our daily water rations. We also needed to provide 14,000 kilocalories total, or 2,000 kilocalories per day at minimum, and were expected to label all of our food with its nutrition facts. I combed through every blog, Youtube video and podcast episode on MDS, Pete, Luke and I checked in regularly to weigh in with each other, and we paid so many visits to REI separately that we were familiar with some of their staff on a first-name basis! 

How many calories are you bringing for each day? Should we bring dried baby wipes or soap leaves in lieu of showering? How many rolls of toilet paper are you bringing? 

We scheduled an evening on Luke’s front porch to test our sleeping bags just days before our departure, as his sleeping bag arrived late. Thankfully, the sleeping bag experiment was a success, and did not require any changes to our respective kits.

Sleeping bag experiment on Luke’s porch

I spent weeks considering every calorie, gram and brand of an item. Here is my packing list. I repackaged my food into vacuum sealed bags as the dehydrated food packaging was heavy. I cut off excess straps from my backpack, trimmed down my required emergency blanket to the size of a large washcloth, and convinced myself I’d only need one roll of toilet paper for the week. 

Prepping our each of our teammates’ first aid kits meant weighing each item

I packed, repacked, and repacked my backpack again. 

My backpack finally weighed in at 17.9 lbs. I gave the final product a test run, and it felt surprisingly light!

All the items in my backpack, including food, plus my race attire

Packing list

Food list

The Sahara: Arrival + Admin Day

Pete, Luke and I arrived in the Moroccan Sahara with a bus full of enthusiastic athletes after over 24 hours of total travel time! We were greeted by Moroccan musicians dressed in exquisite, white kaftans and playing percussion instruments, and made our way to our tent, Tent #58, which we shared with Brian Zehnder, John Verdon, Tom Mnich and two of Pete’s buddies, Ben Christensen and Theo Hooker.  Runners and staff alike slept in open-air Berber tents, constructed using camel or goat hair and held up by wooden sticks. We determined our sleeping order in the tent, which would remain the same throughout the week. This would be my first ever camping experience.

The next morning, we ate breakfast, my first meal using what would become the unwashed bag that I would rehydrate all my meals in for the next 7 days, changed into race clothes, repacked our backpacks, and waited our turn for admin checks, when we submitted our medical certificates and EKG print outs, and had our calories analyzed and our backpacks weighed. We spent the rest of the day taping our shoulders and backs to help prevent chafing, and deliberated on whether to tape our feet too (which I did not do, but perhaps should have).

I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag, as my body parts would go numb if I stayed in one position for too long, my teammates flanked to the left and right of me like sardines in a can. The 6 stages over 7 days across 252 km would start tomorrow.

Berber tent with a women’s changing room in the background at sunrise

Stage 1: 31.1 km (19.3 mi)

The nerves and excitement were palpable the morning of Stage 1 throughout the bivouac. I remained grounded, contemplating only the present moment, focusing my energy on my what would become my morning routine - drink instant coffee from soiled cup, eat overnight oats from used bag, stow away sleeping equipment, carry toilet paper, toothbrush and toothpaste, brush teeth while walking toward makeshift shift portapotties, try to velcro flimsy velcro in portapotty and hope it doesn’t blow open, attempt to secure poop bag to seat with hole and pray it doesn’t fly back up toward my bottom or spill beneath the seat, rush back to tent to change and repack before the start.

We sauntered over to the arch that denoted the start and finish line for each stage, and sang and danced to “Born to Be Alive” led by MDS translator Will Speak, and then ran and walked through the arch with “Highway to Hell” blaring loudly. These two songs would become the MDS anthems.

The start of Stage 1 of Marathon des Sables

Pete, Luke and I had intended to stick together. In fact, we never discussed any other plan. Our strategy was to walk the uphills and run the flats and downhills, which we had practiced back in Westport. We would move as fast as the slowest runner. Pete also recommended that we walk when the sand was soft, which depleted us of energy. He also suggested that we walk every few minutes to lower our heart rates and drink fluids. We were running with full backpacks, and had 156.5 miles ahead of us, after all.

The weather was cooler than expected and the course was stunning! We galloped along stony and sandy plateaus, hiked over the ridge of a jebel, or mountain, and shuffled through small dunes. The diversity of the desert terrain was remarkable!

With six miles to go, Luke, who had been injured before MDS, discussed slowing down to protect his left side, and we replied we’d see him at the finish. We were detracting from our plan already, but it made sense to do so, given Luke’s injury.

Pete and I were greeted by smiling faces, and grabbed a cup of the refreshing mint tea that was being served at the finish. We crossed the finish line joyfully!

Moroccan mint tea at the finish line

Stage 2: 40.8 km (25.4 mi)

Stage 2 started with the sunrise, 30 minutes earlier than Stage 1, and over more incredible views along jebels. Despite the earlier start, this day would be much more challenging than Stage 1.

It was hot. I faded in the sun, and did not speak to Pete for miles. 

The toughest portion of the day came as we ran over what felt like hours of dry lake beds. Whereas I would have thought they would be a reprieve from the sand, the bright beds reflected the sun back to us in the stale air.

We each unearthed a personal relationship with the wind that day: a lack of wind was often stifling, a gentle breeze could mean relief, and we braced ourselves when there were huge wind gusts, as, with it, followed sand in our faces.

Having cold water poured on my neck during a checkpoint to help cool down

Stage 3: 85.3 km (53 mi)

Stage 3, or “the long stage,” started at 6am, before sunrise, for almost all save the fastest 50 in the field, which included our tent mate John, who was also the fastest American male! The top 50 were to start 1.5 hours after the rest of us, our assumption to level the playing field as they’d run in higher temps.  

Pete and I devised a plan to get out ahead of the walkers while it was cooler, flat and firm underfoot. We ran most of the first 5k of the leg at a brisker pace, and then commenced a steep, hours-long climb over the rocky side of the mythical El Otfal Jebel. A two-inch long thorn pierced the sole of Pete’s foot through the bottom of his shoe - I pulled it out intact, and we continued climbing. We ran up and down small dunes along the ridge, and cheered on the elite runners, who flew by us. This was the most technical, death-defying run of my life over the most breathtaking views, and I loved every moment! The descent, through knee-deep sand dunes, was even steeper than the ascent. It required that we grasp onto a rope at the top before flying down, barely able to turn our feet over quickly enough to keep up with the pace.

Descent over sand dunes at El Otfal Jebe

We ran across more dry lake beds, feeling a sense of success and preparedness in this stage. Each one that we ran past meant we could let it go into the past.

Checkpoints 4 (mile 26.7) through 6 (mile 39.1) proved to be the most mentally grueling segment of the entire week. Unlike the other days, we had to plod through the hottest hours of the day, when the temps climbed to 130 degrees. The sand softened as it got hotter, making it even more difficult to trudge through. My shoulders and back ached the past two days, but the pains worsened; I shoved my hands underneath the straps or lifted the back of the pack for relief, and noticed other runners doing the same too. My feet also ached, not because of the blisters I developed after Stage 1 or the blisters that developed on those blisters after Stage 2, but rather from all the walking, which I hadn’t trained to do. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I was able to quiet the “noise,” the physical discomfort, and focus on my breath. It was a moving meditation, and felt like a spiritual, out-of-body journey.


Delirium set in during the afternoon. I felt lightheaded, and thought I saw shade, to which Pete replied: “Where do you see shade? There’s no shade.” Pete helped talk me out of the hard miles just as he did two days prior. 

Relief came as the sun started to set, and just as we climbed our last dune. We picked up the pace, darting along rocky paths. We shut off our headlamps under the night sky and stars, and looked behind us at the beams of lights coming from headlamps moving toward us. 

Last dune of Stage 3 as the sun started to set

We finished just after 9pm, in 15 hours and 13 minutes. Pete had dedicated the stage to his daughter Lila, as it was her birthday - “Lila’s long stage” - and was delighted to have finished within the day to celebrate her!

Finish line of Stage 3 after 53 miles!

Runners had until 3:30pm the following day to complete Stage 3. We rejoiced when all of our tent mates finished by the morning, especially as some had hard moments emotionally the stage prior. It was perspective, I thought; we were not mentally prepared for Stage 2, but, with the Long Stage, we had become ready.

Stage 4: 43.1 km (26.8 mi)

Before Stage 4, Ben and Theo shared that the fastest 150 would start 1.5 hours later than everyone else, and that this included John, Ben, Theo, Pete and me! 

While we did not look forward to running into the afternoon, we were excited about the standings, and that 5 out of 8 of our tent mates would start together. Pete and I also enjoyed starting behind all the walkers, which meant we would spend much of the day surrounded by other participants, unlike the day prior, when we spent many miles by ourselves. An unexpected bonus was the fact that we ran into almost all of our tent mates along the course.

We spotted Tom just as we barrelled down a sand dune along the course!

As we trudged along soft sand in the heat, we spotted Ben and Theo under the only shaded area we’d seen in the Sahara, and we ran the last 6 miles together to the finish.

Stage 5: 31.4 km (19.5 mi)

We experienced our first sandstorm the night before Stage 5. Sand flew in our faces in the middle of the night, prompting me to leap up to pull my clothes that I had hung to dry during the day, hoping that they were all still there. 

Contrary to the night, it was a perfect race! The course was heart-shaped with milder temps and a breeze. I also realized the night before that I was the 2nd American female, only 10 minutes behind the 1st. My competitive spirit kicked in, as I considered changing my goal for MDS, and picking up the pace to finish 1st. When I mentioned my possible plans to Pete, he looked disappointed, and replied: “But Stephanie. That’s not what you’re here for.” I spent a few miles contemplating his response, and concluded that I would choose not to look at the standings again, as my only goal would be to finish with joy and together as a team. I gave him my word.

Pete and I ran the entire stage with Ben and Theo. Our tent mates and I later returned to the finish line to cheer on the last 3 finishers, 2 of whom were married, hand-in-hand, and in their 70s. There were many tears and cheers.

Our tent mates and me at sunrise

Stage 6: 21.1 km (13.1 mi)

After another sleepless night due to another sandstorm, and feeling an overwhelming sense of disgust when I looked at how soiled my food bag and titanium cup were, I was grateful that the end of MDS was near.

It was an overcast day with a tailwind, ideal race conditions, but I was tired. I trailed behind Ben, Theo and Pete, asking them to slow a bit as we neared the finish. We grasped hands as we ran into the finish, intent on finishing arms spread across the finish line, but we were thwarted by two guys doing pushups at the finish line in front of us!

Holding hands into the finish

As we walked over to grab our much-beloved cups of mint tea, Pete disclosed that he had looked at the standings the night prior.  Unbeknownst to me, we had banked 15 minutes during Stage 5, and I finished MDS as top American female and 16th female overall! He shared that he was only fearful of disappointing me, that he could not pace me to the finish that I wanted. He was wrong. The MDS journey was all that I could’ve hoped for and more - team-oriented, joyful and spiritual. It tested our physical and mental limits, and could’ve left us depleted, but, instead, we would return home fulfilled. 

I believed that this was self-transcendence.

We cheered on all of our tent mates, apparently a first full tent at the finish for our US coordinator Jay, and we danced at the finish line in celebration of our journey at Marathons des Sables!

Westporters at the finish!

Team photo at the finish with our US coordinator Jay

Strength + Self-discovery 

When a friend asked me in the days leading up to MDS what I wanted to get out of this experience, I replied: “to find parts of myself that I had not yet discovered.” And discover parts of myself I certainly did.

10 things I discovered (or reaffirmed) during MDS Legendary:

  1. The human mind is stronger than we can even imagine; it can overcome physical obstacles (giant blisters, 2-inch thorns that pierce the sole of the shoe, heat, nausea), as well as psychological and emotional ones
  2. The group is more powerful than the individual. Pete pulled me out of the hole twice as I started seeing stars and imaginary shade, and the miles flew by when Ben and Theo joined our duo for the remaining 2.5 stages.
  3. Don’t be a “two Coke person,” as my tent mates would say; be a good human, and don’t take more than you should, as in, more than the one Coke that was gifted to us after the Long Stage
  4. Water is life; it’s hydration (and food since it rehydrated our food), helped to bring down our heart rate, and, for the Berbers, indigenous nomads of the Sahara desert, a rare natural resource, as one Berber shared that it had been 5 years since he had last witnessed it rain
  5. We require only a small fraction of the “things” we have - food, sleep, water - and don’t sweat the rest
  6. Let go of what no longer serves you (like those hot, dry lake beds we ran by that made me feel faint, but are in the rear)
  7. Self-discipline means to know when to push forward as well as when to pull back
  8. Savor every moment no matter how small (including the sweat that sprinkles onto you from the runner in front or the trace of fellow runner Amelie’s perfume as she runs by), and don’t forget to “look up” at your surroundings
  9. Celebrate every accomplishment, and lift up those around you
  10. Do hard things; accomplishing your goal is so worth it in the end

Heartfelt gratitude to: my family Ray, Keira and Quinn for your support; my Westport training partners, Luke and Pete; my coach, Tim Decker; Melida Barbosa and Pam Krepchin for gifting me with my NY Flyers shirts to wear at MDS a week before our departure; everyone who donated to our cause, High Atlas Foundation; all the race volunteers, especially Jay for his incredible energy and music at the checkpoints; and, most notably, Tent 58 - Ben Christensen, Brian Zehnder, Luke McGuinness, John Verdon, Peter Boyd, Theo Hooker and Thomas Mnich.

-Stephanie Tang