Zandy Mangold / 4deserts.com
Think running a marathon is tough? Try logging upwards of 150 miles across some of the toughest terrain on the planet. That’s the type of challenge professional ultra-runner Jax Mariash likes to embrace. Last year, she became the first woman (and the fourth runner of all time) to complete the Grand Slam Plus, part of the grueling 4 Deserts Race Series. The races cross some of the hottest, windiest, driest, and coldest deserts in the world, including Africa’s Sahara Desert, China’s Gobi Desert, Chile’s Atacama Desert, and Antarctica; plus a “roving race” in the extremely humid climate of Sri Lanka. Mariash placed first among women in all the desert races and second in the Sri Lankan race.
Each race of the Grand Slam Plus stretches 155 miles and takes a week to run, with distances ranging from six to 50 miles a day, with one rest day. Support is limited: Runners must carry everything they need to survive in the elements, including food (about 2,000 calories per day), sleeping supplies, clothing, and safety equipment like blister kits, bandages, sunscreen, a utility knife, and head lamps. Race organizers will provide medical aid only in extreme cases, as well as a tent (shared with up to nine other runners each night), plus hot and cold water.
Zandy Mangold / 4deserts.com
In addition to the five Grand Slam Plus races, Mariash also took part in eight other smaller races last year, including the Jackson Hole Half Marathon, Huntsville Marathon, and Antelope Island 50K. Each ultra-race brings its own set of challenges. “On Day 1, Stage 1, Race 1 of the entire year in Sri Lanka I puked four times, twisted my knee between two logs, went off-course for 3 kilometers, and wasn’t sure I could get to the first checkpoint,” she says. “Two days later, I sprained my ankle and ran the rest of the race hobbling.” In the Gobi Desert, temperatures climbed to 130°F on a day when the racers had to complete 50 miles. “My shoes melted, and I had an extreme case of blisters,” recalls Mariash. By the time she got home from the race, the skin along the bottom of both feet had peeled away.
The ultra-runner community is a tight-knit one, with only about 100 to 200 racers taking part in the most extreme events, about 35% of them women. The dropout rate typically ranges from 7–19%. Mariash considers most of her fellow competitors family. “We’ve gone through rock bottom together and have picked one another up.”
Myke Hermsmeyer / 4deserts.com
Mariash’s training is relentless. “When you are running in some of the harshest terrain in the world with 15 to 20 pounds of equipment on your back, you have to pay attention to your strength along with your endurance. You can’t just do the minimum and expect to succeed.” From her home base in Park City, UT, Mariash works out six to seven days a week, no matter the conditions. Once or twice a week she runs with a pack that weighs up to 20 pounds, to help develop her muscular endurance. She’ll add in one or two interval workouts a week to build speed. Most weeks find her logging anywhere from 45 to 100 miles. She’ll also add in four to five days of strength training, including a full-core series.
With so much stress on her body, Mariash says her recovery days are just as important as her training. “Without both, performance suffers,” she notes. Her recovery routine includes weekly 90-minute massages, daily naps, and at least 20 minutes on the BEMER mat, a physical therapy device that helps increase blood flow through capillaries.
Thiago Diz / 4deserts.com
Mariash sticks to healthy whole foods, “the simpler, the better,” she says. Staples include bison, avocado, feta cheese, Greek yogurt, and dark chocolate. She stays away from bread and pasta, but a daily beer provides some well-deserved carbs.
To power her through her grueling workouts and races, Mariash relies on a mix of supplements and whole foods, including Beet Performer beet juice, Honey Stinger waffles, and energy gels and chews. She’ll also have coconut shavings and nuts on hand for sustained energy.
“Because you have to carry all of your food in a backpack, you need to stick to the bare minimum,” says Mariash, who estimates she loses at least 10 to 12 pounds each race. Hydration is critical. Mariash drinks a gallon of water a day, increasing to 2.5 gallons when racing, spiked with a rehydration powder called Drip Drop.
But all the training, fluids, and fuel in the world aren’t enough to get you to the finish line if you aren’t mentally prepared. “You have to develop a serious level of mental grit,” says Mariash. “You cannot even think of giving up, or all hope is lost. There are some really low and dark moments out there—you just have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.”
Onni Cao / 4deserts.com
MONDAY: Off or 3-mile run + strength training
TUESDAY: a.m. speed run (12 miles), p.m. easy run (3 miles slow) + strength training
WEDNESDAY: medium-long run (11 to 14 miles) + strength training
THURSDAY: a.m. speed run (12 miles), p.m. easy run (3 miles) + strength training
FRIDAY: easy run (3 miles)
SATURDAY: very long run in the a.m. (26.2 to 31 miles)
SUNDAY: long run (20 miles with a 20-pound pack)