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144-miles Across the Sahara for a Liter of Tang

By Karalyn Leavens, vice president, associate creative director, NeON
Last month I finished theMarathon des Sables, a race across the Sahara billed as “The toughest foot race in the world.” With a schedule of 23, 19, 24, 47 (phew!), 26, and 5 miles staged over 6 consecutive days, they weren’t kidding.

In the dunes and desert heat, this is what "running" looks like.
Over the months of preparation leading up to the race, I typically encountered a 3-stage response when telling people about my goal: the confused pause while they decided whether or not I was kidding, followed by the half-joking question ‘Are you insane?’ (jury’s still out), and finally, the question ‘Why?’
‘Why?’ What’s my motivation? Pre-race I had plenty of answers: ‘to see how far I can run’, ‘to experience the Sahara in an intimate way’, ‘a sad little ribbon for me to cherish that says I crossed the finish line’…
Fast forward over 6 months of training, 18 hours in an airport, 40 minutes in a Royal Moroccan Army truck, and I’m staring down at my toes on the starting-line. Our French host perched on top of a 4x4 yelled at us to start and so we did. The first few miles flew by on adrenaline alone. The next few also passed easily as we jockeyed for position.

The long line of competitors about to tackle a dune.
But, as the days wore on and the baking sun and sand began to show themselves in true Lawrence of Arabia style, the idea of “conquering 100 more miles” became as insurmountable as the next “Jebel”—an Arab word that apparently means: “hill where each step up slides you down an inch less than you just climbed.”
Once the going got tough, it turned out that my ‘Whys?’, the motivation from miles and days away, just didn’t help in the moment of decision. 
What inspired us all seemed to vary and shift as much as the unending rocks and sand that swallowed our sneakers whole. There was Canadian Rob who pushed himself to finish in 15 hours one day, just a few minutes before midnight so he could wish his girl back in Montreal a “Happy Birthday” at the finish line via satellite. There was Sarah from Sweden who would have missed a cut-off except for two Berbers on camels who kept coaxing her from behind for 5 hours. And me? At one point it was my own sense of competition that wouldn’t let me finish within 4 hours behind a man dressed in a cow costume. At another point, it was my thirst for Tang, which I knew I could have if I just pushed through another 3 miles.
What motivates you? Your team? Your audience? The tricky thing is that the motivation that pushes someone to take action in any given moment is a moving target, and while it’s the big one that puts you in the game to begin with, it’s the others that get you through it. Discovering the relevant motivation and tapping into it at the right moment is the key to success.
So the next time you’re searching for that big idea, it may just be a man in a cow costume that makes you dig a little deeper. 

Traditional Berber style tents. Also known as home, sweet home for the entire week.

Runners heading into an oasis.

Competitors were pulled off the course and disqualified if they couldn't move fast enough to stay ahead of the camels.

The top of a Jebel is a very happy place. Usually with an amazing view.