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Man vs. Ultra Endurance Hardcore Mega Races

Jean of Sherpa Fit and Saul of Zion Physical Training Share Their Stories

Jean Paul Desrosiers, owner of Sherpa Fitness Training and Saul Zion, owner of Zion Physical Therapy, are endurance athletes. Between the two of them, they’ve tackled almost every conceivable race appealing to über-fit folk. And, with countless hours of hero training, come stories.

Here are two (three?) great ones.

Saul’s Story

They had to run in front of us, then run back. We all encouraged them.” They’d have snowshoe races to both “push their bodies to the extreme” and build mental strength.

The team helped in other ways, such as offering moral support and advice on overcoming hurdles.

But the race is ultimately “a solo pursuit.” Demanding exercises like the tire run are designed to “break you down” both physically and mentally. The taxing of the spirit is equal to that of the body and must be strengthened alongside it. Saul cites the “demons and challenges that come up” over the long course of exertion that “forces the athlete to deal with all kinds of limitations and breakdowns ahead of the race.”

Limitations and breakdowns such as slicing open his foot three weeks before the race. While visiting friends in Westport, he stepped onto a sharp object in Compo. The laceration required seven stitches.

The doctor required him to stay off his feet and advised him to not participate in the race even though the stitches had been removed a few days before the Ironman.

But few are more determined to succeed than one who has trained for ten months. So he taped up his foot, tugged on his swimsuit, and tore into the choppy waters, heralding his induction into the world as a bona fide endurance athlete.

Of the experience, Saul says, “the strength and fortitude built during training carried me through this experience and has also given me empathy for my patients who are endurance athletes, or athletes of any kind, that are desperate to return to their sport after injury.”

Since then, “I’ve gone back to the experience of training for and racing Ironman when I’ve been tested and challenged in other areas of my life. This experience also brings a unique perspective to my practice as a physical therapist, particularly treating athletes."

As for the race, both Saul and his wife completed within their goal time, under 14 hours.

“Being connected to the endurance world is amazing. We all support each other,” Saul smiles. “I’m glad I did it for that reason.”

Jean’s Story

The Marathon des Sables is seven marathons over six days (yes, that means two in one day), on 156 miles of the Sahara desert's relentlessly hot and unforgiving terrain. Sand storms, no shade, temperatures hitting 114 degrees, carrying everything they need for survival on their backs.

In April 2014 Jean flew to the Sahara to join 1,100 other mega runners at the starting line.

Every morning for six days (and twice on the fourth day) he covered 20+ mile runs on soft, blazing sand, with every bit of his luggage and sustenance strapped on his back: “7 pairs of socks, 22,000 calories [dehydrated food], sleeping bag, tin cup for cooking, 1 extra short, 1 extra shirt.”

Every night he slept in a “tent”; little more than a draped tarp to shield the sun.

Every day, runners dropped out.

Running became impossible at points and athletes were forced to slow down and hike.

A marine and veteran of numerous primal quests and ultra-marathons, Jean had endured some tough stuff. His years of training for elite endurance challenges involving almost every conceivable physicality helped prime him for the intensity of this desert quest.

The fall prior, Jean hit the treadmill wearing a backpack filled with 28 pounds of rock salt. During the winter he ran in the snow to simulate the Sahara’s tricky topography.

To simulate the desert during cold Westport months, he jacked up the heat to 90 degrees in a training room and sweated it out on a stationary bike.

As for the emotional toll, “You can’t prepare fully for the reality of knowing you have to survive with just what you’ve got.” But because he trains people for races and challenges, he  considered events like this a test “to relate to what a new experience is like again.”

His experience included extreme fatigue, weight loss, running while ill, and brutally blistered feet. Loads of ibuprofen helped, as did emails from home, which MDS officials printed and distributed in the evenings.

On the final day, Jean struggled through the finish line, and was delighted to learn he completed the race at #303.

The MDS went swimmingly, by all accounts. Not so with every challenge.

Two years later Jean arrived in South America for the Patagonia Expedition Race, a fully unsupported trek across remote, largely untouched regions of the country. The site warns athletes of a “hostile, and even sometimes unpredictable, climate, which complements the difficult, wild character of Patagonia’s extreme southern tip.”

Athletes compete in teams of four and finish together, with nothing but a map and a compass to guide them. The adventure begins with a marathon, then biking on 300K of gravel mountain, and 20K kayak in glacial waters.

The team started strong but unraveled given the reality of a harrowing challenge. By the third day, teammates voiced doubt and talk turned negative. As team captain, Jean spoke up, “I said to them, ‘This negative talk isn’t going to help anyone. The reason why you're here is why you signed up! If it was easy you wouldn’t be here.”

But the country had other plans. “Five days in, with only eight hours of sleep, we were halfway across Chile. We were hiking through land not touched by humans in 10,000 years.” A “50-year storm” hit, and it took his team 18 hours to hike only 10K. Two of his teammates had no dry clothes, another teammate had been limping for four days, and they had, collectively, only 2000 calories remaining.

Jean made the call to quit the race. The storm was so terrible it took the Chilean army 36 hours to rescue them.

They didn’t complete the race, but he’s fine with that. For him it’s about “being ultra-curious, testing something, chasing something - the next personal frontier.”

“The worst part about quitting is if it's because you didn’t prepare,” he adds. “Patagonia was beyond our control.”

 “It’s not a carnival. It’s hell.”

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