Running the hilly trails in Marin County didn't seem enough of a sporting challenge for Kory Helean, 28, who once was a competitive gymnast and is now a sales and marketing associate at Clif Bar, so she signed up for the ne plus ultra of ultras-the six-day, 150-mile Marathon des Sables in Morocco. Instead of dodging mountain bikes, hikers, dogs, and horses, Helean experienced running in an entirely new and other-wordly dimension: sleeping in a Berber tent with fellow runners, carrying all her food and gear, and battling sandstorms and monstrous sand dunes. Out of nearly 600 runners who started, Helan finished in 448 place, and 35th out of 54 women. RailRiders recently chatted with the well-rested Helean who lives in Mill Valley, California.
Q. What made you take up adventure sports?
Kory Helean: I blame the competitive environment Clif Bar for my current addiction to adventure sports. In college I joined the University of Montana Silvertip Skydivers and focused on jumping out of airplanes. Once I moved to the Bay Area, I started running almost every day training for my first marathon, the Big Sur International Marathon. Needless to say, I was hooked.
Q. What was the most difficult part of the 2002 Marathon des Sables?
KH: Mentally, that race breaks you down. You not only have to endure the physical pain, but everything else, whether it's the relentless sandstorms, your heavy backpack chafing your shoulders, sand dunes as far as the eye can see, freeze-dried meals, sleeping on rocks, blisters tearing open on your feet as you run, being so dirty that you can hardly stand yourself, and knowing you have to get up the next morning and do it all again. That becomes hard to take.
Q. What's it like to run in a sandstorm?
KH: Interestingly enough, the heat wasn't our worst enemy, On the long day (70 kilometers), we had to cross almost 35 kilometers of large sand dunes. Running in sand is difficult at best, in daylight, but I entered the 20-kilometer stretch of the largest dunes just as the sun was setting. This made it impossible for me to navigate my way along the ridge lines of the dunes, which is a far more desirable option than trudging up and down the sides of monster dunes. The visibility was so poor due to blowing sand and the approaching darkness that I was forced to take a compass heading and follow it as I traversed up and down the huge sand dunes. I remember vividly crawling up the sides of hundreds of dunes that were so steep you had to use your hands to help you over the top crest of the dune, all the while closing your eyes as tightly as possible because the sand blows harder than normal as you reach the crest. At one point, as I was reaching the top of what felt like a huge sand dune, my water bottle fell out of my pack and rolled to the bottom. That was a low point for me. I wanted to cry.
Q. So, how was it living in a Berber tent with a bunch of sweaty, dirty male runners?
KH: Quite hilarious actually. Adversity seems to bring people together. You bond so quickly and make quality friendships. I can't really complain about how dirty and gross they were considering I was in no better condition. The snoring, on the other hand, I could have lived without.
Q. What do your family and friends think of you running in the desert?
KH: 'Oh God! That sound's horrible. Why would you choose to do that to yourself?' That's what my mother said when I first told her about the race. I've found that people either completely understand what motivates me to do these things or they just can't comprehend what could be so alluring about torturing yourself for a week in the desert.
Q.What did you eat during the race?
KH:Well, the food that I brought with me covered the basics. Freeze-dried meals, oatmeal, Clif Shot, Skittles, macadamia nuts, salt tablets and electrolyte replacement drink. The best food choice I made was to bring an entire summer sausage. At the time, it seemed like the tastiest thing I had ever eaten in my life. Unfortunately, it was gone after day three. I recall many nights during the race discussing with my tent mates what we were planning on eating once the race was over. We were all so hungry and had lost so much weight that we were completely fixated on food.
Q. What are some other athletic challenges on your to-do list?
KH: I have fallen in love with the sport of mountain biking and want to participate in the 2003 La Ruta de los Conquistadores, a three-day stage race across Costa Rica. (www.adventurerace.com
Q. Finally, how did your RailRiders clothing hold up in the desert?
KH:I wore my RailRiders Eco-Mesh Shirt almost every day of the Marathon des Sables. It is the most functional piece of outdoor clothing that I've ever purchased. It was extremely light, perfectly ventilated, no buttons or snaps that could potentially chafe my skin, kept the sun off of my back and arms, and to top it all off it was quite stylish. You know, great style is of the utmost importance when you are in the middle of the desert with over 500 men. Only kidding.