by Pete Mazzaccaro
Sarah Aloise, a pediatric nurse practitioner at St. Christopher’s hospital, decided to start running after the birth of her second daughter in 2000. She was in her mid-30s and hoping to lose weight and get in shape.
“I convinced a friend to sign up for a triathlon at the time,” she said. “After a couple races, my friend said, ‘OK, I’m good,’ but I was hooked.”
Fast forward to Lake Placid in 2008 and that region’s annual Iron Man competition – a race that begins with a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bicycle race that’s topped off with a full, 26.2-mile marathon. It was there that Aloise met Chris Tidmore, of Wayne, and Russ Clopine, of Bryn Mawr. The three became friends and would race and train together regularly.
Then, a few years ago, Tidmore, who Aloise says is the more extreme runner of the trio, got the idea to join a race called the Marathon Des Sables. It’s a seven-day-long, 158-mile run through the Sahara Desert. It’s a run over sand dunes and through dried, rocky riverbeds in temperatures that can climb to 120 degrees during the day. It’s considered the toughest foot race in the world.
“When you’re running competitive races, you’re always meeting someone who says you should try something that sounds even crazier,” Aloise said. “There’s always more.”
It’s hard to imagine anything more difficult than the MDS. Particularly for runners who are all older than 40. Aloise and Clopine are 49. Tidmore is 45.
The trio of friends registered for the race and learned in April of 2014 that they would run the race in 2015. The race would begin a seven-hour bus-ride into the Sahara Desert from the Moroccan town of Ouarzazate. From the race’s beginning, all runners were expected to take everything they would need for the week: food, medical supplies, clothes, sleeping bags, etc. The race would supply water and shelter.
We started training in August last year,” Aloise said. “We were all doing stuff – I did an Iron Man in June and a 500-mile bike ride in July. We really started getting serious with long races in the fall. We signed up for a 50 mile run on Halloween in Virginia. It didn’t go that well for me. It was really hilly and pouring rain and freezing cold in the Shenandoahs. I didn’t finish.”
But training continued. As fall ended and winter began, the trio started doing hot yoga and indoor cycle training to try and get used to enduring distance in the heat. And they ran.
“We ran and ran,” Aloise said. We ran like Forrest Gump. Every Wednesday, we’d meet at like 5:30 in the morning and run a hill workout. And we’d meet every Friday, Saturday and Sunday to run. From January to March, we ran 70 miles a week. Increasingly wearing packs – we’d run with books, anything for weight. We ran everywhere. One day from Philly University down to the Wissahickon Trail, up the trail across Fort Washington State Park, to North Wales and back. Or we’d run to Valley Forge Park and back. What most people would do on a bike, we were running.”
Soon, the trip was on them and the trio flew to Marrakesh in Morocco to begin the trek to the bivouac where the race would begin. 1,300 runners from around the world – about 40 from the U.S. – would join them.
“Morocco was fantastic. It was beautiful, “ Aloise said. “I had traveled a lot, but I’ve never been to Norther Africa.”
The race changes every year, and the course was not revealed to all the participants on the ride to the race start. The course that Aloise ran was divided as follows: Runners would run 22 miles the first day, 19 the second day and 23 on the third. The fourth day is always the longest. This time the course was 58 miles long. Day five was for resting, though Aloise noted the amount of rest you got was determined by how soon you completed the 58 miles.
Aloise said she finished the 58-mile course at 11 in the morning of day five. On day six there was a full marathon. And to finish on day seven there was a short eight-mile charity run for Unicef.
Aloise said that the group’s main goal was to finish. And she was able to do that, though she said she became plagued with foot problems – a pretty common occurrence in long runs. Foot problems got the better of Clopine who was forced to drop out after about 90 miles.
In addition to running on tough terrain in extreme heat, there were also scorpions and camel spiders to contend with. There were sandstorms at night and it was difficult to sleep.
The key to finishing, though, Aloise said, was keeping your head in the race.
“It’s definitely a mental game, which is what all distance runs are,” Aloise said. “You have to keep going. You can’t sit there and think about all the miles you have left.”
Aloise is still recovering from the race at home with her husband Frank Aloise and their two daughters, one of which is a freshman at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and the other, a freshman at college.
Still, she’s already planned her next race. She’s signed up for the Steamtown Marathon, a Scanton-area race that also serves as a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. She may even go back to MDS with Clopine, who has said he wants another shot at finishing the race.
But this first run of the MDS will be with her for some time.
“It was a great experience,” she said. “The nice thing about the race, was there was so much camaraderie. There was a feeling that everyone suffered together. Many of the people we ran with, we’re all Facebook friends now.”