Maple Ridge high school student Jack Davison is going to be running the Marathon Des Sables – the impossible 251-km, six-day run through the African desert in southern Morocco.
It is called the “Marathon of the Sands,” and the “Sahara Marathon,” but the ultra marathon could really have a plural name, because it is six standard 42-km marathons in one race. Run in African heat which can reach 50 C, it is also billed the toughest footrace in the world.
“It’s a marathon a day, and then two marathons in one day,” explained Davison. “If I pull that off, I will be super happy.”
Davison is confident taking on this challenge, because he has completed two of the Des Sables half marathon events – each 120 km through a desert – in 2018.
Just 15 years old and in Grade 10 at Meadowridge School, he was the youngest runner to complete the runs, and one of few Canadians.
The first was the Fuerteventura Des Sables half marathon on the Canary Islands in September. Davison really didn’t know whether he could complete the 120 km ordeal on the Spanish archipelago, which is just off the African coast.
When he was 12 he did his first big 30-km run, and at 14 he completed a 50-km run up Frosty Mountain in Manning Park. But this was a completely new challenge.
“I went in with an open mind,” he said.
“It was an amazing accomplishment.”
It is believed to be a world record for the youngest ultra marathoner. If not, it is certainly a world-class accomplishment.
The terrain was rocky and hilly, “they love to make you run up hills,” and the temperatures were always high-30s hot.
The wind blew constantly. The organizers furnished them with tents, pitched on a sandy beach next to the ocean. The wind never stopped blowing time, and he remembers the sounds of the tents flapping the entire night.
When he got to the Ica Desert in Peru last month, he was more prepared for what lay ahead.
“I knew what to expect, but I always get pretty nervous before a run.”
There were no tourist buses where they were going, and military vehicles transported the runners for about 12 hours before they got to the starting line.
Running in a sandy desert presented its own challenges. Consider that professional athletes run on sand to make their training more challenging. The was one sandy hill, almost a kilometer long, that he won’t soon forget.
“It took me an hour to run up that sand dune,” he recalls.
He enjoyed the social side of running, meeting people from around the world out to conquer the same goal.
“People are super friendly, and it’s quite the United Nations.”
These events are also a race, with people timed on each stage, and winners taking cash prizes.
Davison wasn’t in the money, but he finished in the top one-quarter of the groups of runners – about 350 in Spain and 400-plus in Peru. He was satisfied with that.
“I went there each time just trying to complete it.”
Surprisingly, Davison doesn’t train with a lot of distance running. He is a provincial calibre tennis player, and his main fitness regimen is spending about 25 hours each week running around a court.
But he is no stranger to distance runs.
He lives in Fort Langley, and runs the Fort to Fort Trail and trails in Golden Ears park with his father Aaron, who is also an ultra marathoner. Aaron has completed the full Marathon Des Sables three times, and will attempt it this year at the age of 51. He ran it in 2008, 2014 and again in 2016.
Like his father, Jack finds an incredible sense of achievement in these feats of endurance.
“It’s really enjoyable. It’s not fun while you’re doing it. I thought about quitting so many times…”
He explains that he is all alone, in his own head for 13 or 14 hours, and that is where the real test takes place. He doesn’t think he can cover these massive distances because of a marathoning gene passed down from his dad, but rather a mindset he has acquired.
“It’s more in your head – if you believe you can do it, you’ll be fine.”
That said, he watched other runners drop out of the half marathons. In Peru, he was sitting down for a five minute break, and saw one literally drop.
“This guy comes in and collapses, and they took him away in an ambulance,” he said. “We ran 67 km that day.”
At his age, Jack is not even allowed to run in marathons in Canada, where the minimum age is 18. But he didn’t think it hurt him in any way. After the Canary Islands marathon he rested for about a week.
But last month when he got back from Peru, he found his mom had enrolled him in a tennis tournament, so he only had a few days of rest before he was back in action. He finished second in the tourney.
Davison’s most concrete athletic goals are in tennis. He finished eighth at the provincials last year as an under-16 competitor, and his goal is to get a tennis scholarship from a top U.S. university. His dream is to be a tennis pro.
His tennis coach isn’t crazy about his marathoning, but Davison also plans to complete that epic 251 km marathon across the Sahara in Morocco.
He is looking forward to the full Marathon Des Sables, coming on April 5.
“That will be the highlight of my life so far.”