Parkite Meghan Hicks conquers Morocco ultramarathon
May 7, 2013
The Park Record
Last winter, while most other local residents were anticipating the next snowfall, Meghan Hicks was getting ready for the Sahara.
No, that didn’t mean going to the tanning salon. It meant preparing herself, mind and body, to compete in the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day, 150-mile footrace in April in southern Morocco where the temperatures sometimes exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
As if those conditions aren’t demanding enough, the rules call for you to carry on your back enough food and clothing to last the whole race. It’s the kind of race that – no surprise here – has prompted some observers to create a special category for it.
"Some media outlets have called this race the toughest footrace on Earth, but I’m not sure I’d go quite that far," Hicks said in typical understatement in an article posted on runnersworld.com. The article was a first-person account of the race entitled "How I Won the Marathon des Sables."
Yep. Hicks not only survived the race but, in a field of more than a thousand runners, was the fastest woman and the 17th fastest overall finisher. In her fourth appearance in the race, it was her first win but her third top-five finish.
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The word Sahara may conjure up images of nothing but blowing sand, but Hicks said the annual race (this was the 28th year) is held in varied terrain near the Atlas Mountains.
"Where this race takes place, there’s everything," she said in an interview with The Park Record. "There are rocks, there are little mountains, there are dried-up lake beds, there are big sand dunes, little sand dunes, dried up washes. In this part of the Sahara there’s everything."
So Park City in winter is the place to train for these conditions?
"I just run, basically," she said with a smile. "I run through whatever weather. And believe or not, running on snow actually feels a lot like running on sand."
To mimic the conditions in Morocco, she also rented a cabin in Moab to train for six weeks last winter. But some conditions were hard to simulate.
"There’s a lot more rock in Moab than there is in Morocco, and obviously it was cold down there. It was not warm when I was training."
Getting ready for the heat, she said, included visits to the sauna at the health club, taking hot-yoga classes, and going to Morocco two weeks before the race.
"In honesty, nothing can prepare you for 126 degrees," she said. "That is just hot."
That was the reported temperature during the fourth stage of the race, a 47-mile slog which the elite runners didn’t start until 11:30 a.m. Hicks said she ran for eight hours and 45 minutes that day, finishing an hour after dark.
"Actually, it worked out really nicely for me," she said. "Early in that very long day you could kind of go easy. And then, once it got cool, you could run hard. You could take advantage of that for speeding up at the end."
Besides drinking "tons of water," Hicks said she was constantly monitoring her body for signs of trouble.
"One of the signs that some of your bodily processes are shutting down is that, when you try to eat food, it doesn’t taste right. It just sits in your stomach."
Race officials also carefully monitor the athletes, she said. "During the hottest parts of the day, when you come into a water checkpoint, there’s a dozen medical personnel there." She said they engage athletes in conversation to see if they are coherent.
A veteran of many ultramarathon races, Hicks described the Marathon des Sables as "unequivocally the best setup I’ve seen in terms of keeping people safe. It’s amazing. It’s probably the only reason why my mom lets me go every year."
When reminded that she’s 34 years old, Hicks laughed. "Moms keep power over their kids for a long, long time."
A native of upstate New York, Hicks grew up mostly in Minnesota. She earned a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s in resource interpretation (non-traditional education practiced in natural places), a field that led to jobs at several national parks including Big Bend, Yellowstone and Yosemite.
While she was working in California, she said, her boyfriend, Bryon Powell, was developing a website, iRunFar.com, which publishes articles for and about trail runners and ultramarathon runners. As the site’s popularity grew, Hicks quit her national parks job to work as its senior editor, writing and editing articles and doing freelance jobs on the side. One of the articles she wrote was a feature on Utah cyclist Evan Hyde.
"That (job) left us basically location independent. We could live anywhere."
Powell, who is also an accomplished distance runner, had lived in Park City for a couple of summers, she said, so in 2010 they pulled up stakes and moved here.
If you’re up early some morning, you might find her running on the Wasatch Crest Trail ("That’s probably my favorite place to be around Park City") or on the Pinecone Trail, the new link between the Armstrong and Wasatch Crest trails.
"I live right here in Old Town, and so all the trails around Old Town are kind of like my home trails," she said. "They’re all great in their own ways and especially because you can literally go out your door and in five minutes be on a trail."