To most, the Sahara Desert is a distant place shown occasionally in movies. But to Dallas native Liz Byron, it was a place where the 29-year-old teacher tested her limits — and exceeded them.
It’s been nearly a month since Liz Byron ran 155 miles through the Moroccan Sahara Desert, but she can vividly recall every hour she spent there. She described the most challenging moments as being most rewarding.
“What was magnificent about those moments was pushing the human spirit just a little bit farther,” Byron said.
To kick off a fundraiser for the Gardner Pilot Academy in Boston, Byron, a teacher at the school, ran the Marathon des Sables. From the French, it means “marathon of the sands.” Some say it is the most challenging race in the world.
The six-day race that began April 7 led runners over sand dunes and steep rock formations under scorching temperatures. Byron said the unofficially recorded high temperature on the fourth day, the day with the longest run, was 131 degrees Fahrenheit. She said it was unofficial because there aren’t too many people walking around the Sahara with thermometers.
To build her strength for the long haul, Byron, a Bishop Hoban High School graduate, said she ran six marathons and often trained in full desert gear. Marathon des Sables runners have to carry their own food and survival gear, and Byron said she wanted to be comfortable with a perpetual load on her back.
“I ran with a backpack full of rocks a lot,” she said.
Her two-year self-motivated training took her around the world to high altitudes and long beaches, but the climate she could never anticipate.
“Heat was a variable I did not know how I was going to work through,” Byron said.
Running 155 miles takes a toll on the toes no matter if it’s on sand or asphalt, and Byron said she wanted to be sure she took all the right precautions.
“I never realized there was a 300-page book about blisters,” Byron said. “But I read the whole thing.”
She wears men’s shoes because they offer more room around the toes and bought a pair of Brooks Cascadia running shoes one size too large to make room for the swelling she knew was bound to happen.
She wore separated-toe socks to keep out the sand and knee-high compression socks over the first pair for more sand protection and to ease blood flow in her legs.
Despite the dizzying heat, she wore a long-sleeved shirt for protection from the sun and a ball cap with a flap behind covering her neck.
Only a portion of her legs and face were exposed to the sun, but she said those areas hardly tanned.
“You don’t shower for nine days,” Byron said. “After a day in the desert, you’re so covered in dirt that … I didn’t even get tan.”
Byron saw those who did not prepare so well. She described medic tents with runners who had lost most of the soles of their feet to blisters and race medical staff tending to collapsed runners stricken with heat stroke.
When Tom Byron and his wife picked up their daughter at the airport at the end of the week, she entered the terminal looking fresh and whole, certainly not like she just spent six days running through one of Earth’s most unforgiving terrains, Tom Byron said.
Liz Byron said she made it to the finish line with only a few tiny blisters on her feet and accredited it all to time spent planning.
“I think it was to her credit that she didn’t decompensate either physiologically or mentally,” her father said. “We’re extraordinarily proud of her.”
Sahara to school
A few years ago, after having conquered a long list of physical challenges, Byron said she searched the Internet for the “hardest race in the world.”
She found Marathon des Sables and began to prepare. When she saw the great need her students had for up-to-date technology at her school, she started a fund and coupled her quest for the Sahara with the cause.
A Boston School District pilot academy is similar to a charter school in Pennsylvania. The schools receive some government funding, but educators in these schools have more flexibility to teach as they see fit. Likewise, they have to secure a lot of their own funding.
About 90 percent of the students at her school live below federal poverty limits and, as a full-inclusion school, Gardner Pilot keeps students with learning disabilities in the regular classroom.
With more than 100 well-attended after-school programs, Byron said getting students comfortable around technology is going to help them become competent, valuable members of society.
“There’s a technology deficit in the school. I think access to technology in 2013 is absolutely necessary,” Byron said. “That was partly the purpose for doing such an extreme race, because it’s an extreme cause.”
A marathon in the sand
Clouds covered the sky only on arrival day — a day the competitors didn’t do any running. After that, it was clear and sunny, pushing temperatures above 120 every day.
Nearly 1,000 runners took off in a group each morning in the point-to-point race. This type of racing has participants running a determined distance each day to reach camp. They eat and sleep for a few hours, then start again first thing in the morning.
Byron said it did not take long for some to succumb to heat exhaustion. While others vomited on the side of the road, Byron kept moving, running through a physical checklist every few minutes, mentally noting if she felt dizzy or thirsty. She would adjust her pace, or pop a salt tablet accordingly.
The race keeps a full medical staff following the runners in vehicles and aircraft. Byron said they want to keep you in the race, but officials charge you for support.
If runners need nutrients intravenously, they accept a two-hour penalty on their final time score.
Byron described the camps each night where she reunited with her tent mates.
“It was like going home to your Saharan family,” Byron said, explaining that they would sit around the camp fire swapping stories while cooking dehydrated camp food.
On the fourth day, the hottest day, runners had to complete 5o miles. Byron ran into the night and denied a break all day, determined to pass the test with flying colors.
She said that near the end of that day, it took two hours to complete the final 10 kilometers. She was running a 20-minute mile.
“I was moving so incredibly slowly because I had just hit a wall. … My shoulders were in excruciating pain,” Byron said.
When she crossed the fourth-stage finish line, she said it was one of the most magnificent moments as she realized just how far she can push the human will.
Back in Boston
Michelle Sanchez, the Gardner Pilot media teacher, kept the school up to date with daily emails from Byron.
Runners could send one 1,000-character email each day, and Byron updated her school as often as she could.
Sanchez said she formed a bond with Byron during the race as she received her emails and posted them to a blog for faculty and students to read.
“I said, ‘Liz, I feel so much closer to you,’ ” Sanchez said.
Sanchez watched as students in grades one through six got involved with Byron’s trek. With Google’s Earth-mapping software, students could follow her progress interactively.
“We have Google Earth on our computers … ,” Sanchez said. “So the first-graders eat it up. They just love Google Earth.”
Sanchez let students contribute when writing emails to Byron. She was often approached by students wondering just how their inspiring teacher was making it through the desert.
“They really do respect her for what she’s done,” Sanchez said. “The little ones think she’s a superhero.”
Byron took video of herself running and sent messages to the students to encourage them.
She put in the work and training, Sanchez said, and inspired the students to do greater things.
“She would say during the videos, ‘Anything is possible,’ ” Sanchez said.