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Runner seeks to be first woman to complete gruelling desert races

She calls it project running. Every hour she takes a salt tablet. At an hour and fifteen minutes she eats from her trail mix, her own blend that includes coconut shavings and a few Swedish fish she might rummage in the bag to find as a treat. If it’s hot, she reapplies sunscreen every hour and a half. If it’s humid, she takes nausea medication every two-and-a-half hours. “It’s like a metronome,” said Jax Mariash Koudele, 36, of Wilson.

And it’s how she survives desert stage races that require her to run marathon lengths multiple days in a row.

Koudele finished the Four Deserts Sahara Race in Namibia on May 7. She placed sixth overall and first for females, and finished the seven-day 155-mile course in 29 hours and 10 minutes. It is the second race of 2016 of a five-race series, which when completed in a single year is called the Grand Slam Plus. Only three people have accomplished the feat, and this year Koudele is attempting to be the first woman.

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Koudele discovered she was a runner at 8 years old when her mom signed her up for a 5K in their home-state Colorado. Koudele won her age group, finishing in about 24 minutes. She loved the feel of the wind on her face, the sense of freedom and the hardware she started quickly acquiring when running.

By the end of high school she was burned out on that style of competition and started professionally racing triathlons for variety. But eventually running called her back. “It is so simple,” she said. “You can do it anywhere.”

She ran to explore the trails near her then-home Hood River, Oregon. She gravitated to longer distances as a way to explore more terrain.

On a whim she signed up for a 50K. She finished second in the women’s division. “I thought, ‘Holy shit, I’m kinda good at this stuff,’” she said.

So Koudele started training in earnest.

Repeated application of sunscreen and regular nutrient intake are two if the requisite tactics for survival at the Four Deserts Sahara Race. (Photo Courtesy of www.4deserts.com / Zandy Mangold)

Repeated application of sunscreen and regular nutrient intake are two of the requisite tactics for survival at the Four Deserts Sahara Race. (Photo Courtesy of www.4deserts.com / Zandy Mangold)

She was trying to qualify last year for a 105-mile race in Chamonix, France, around Mont Blanc, when she fell in a race. She finished the event, but had to forgo the next point-collecting race she’d planned to enter. She was frantically searching for races left in the year that could help her qualify, when she came across a stage-race in Chile. The race, one of five in the Grand Slam Plus series, required a marathon each day, with a 50 mile run on the fifth day, a rest day on the sixth and a 10K on the final day to finish.

Koudele had never done a stage race, but she figured it wouldn’t be that hard, especially if she got a rest day. She hadn’t realized she had to carry all her equipment, from clothes to a sleeping bag to food.

It felt like running on coral reefs. There were water crossings and it was 119 degrees. She thought her head might explode from the heat.

“It’s like Zion on steroids,” she said. “There was a lot of technical running I wasn’t ready for.”
She abandoned items from her pack at camp. She whittled it down to about 28 pounds; it was still double the weight of the winning woman’s pack. Koudele placed second, crawling and crying from exhaustion up the final sand dune of one stage.

She thought it would be the only stage race she ran, but a few months later she signed up for the race again, along with the four other races that complete the Grand Slam Plus.

Each race of the series is distinctive. In February she ran the Roving Race, which changes locations each year. This year it was in Sri Lanka and 99 degrees with 99 percent humidity.

“My body never adapted,” she said. “I spent the first day vomiting.” The course traversed jungle terrain and tea farms. She finished in about 33 hours.

The Sahara Race in Namibia is the hottest race of the series. The terrain is mixture of beach sand, gravel and sand dunes. She finished in about 29 hours.

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The Gobi March, held in China in June, is the windiest desert in the race series. The race is also known for the most variable weather. Temperatures can range from freezing to 110 degrees and last year racers ran in snow. It also has the hardest vertical climb with a 7,000-foot push up a mountain.

The Atacama Crossing in Chile, which she ran last year and will tackle again in October, crosses the driest desert in the world. Everything is hard and brittle, making the terrain extremely technical as it rips apart shoes and gaiters.

The final race is in Antarctica, classified as a desert because of its lack of rain. It is the coldest desert in the world and the entire course is on snow and ice. It takes place in November.

While attempting the Grand Slam Koudele has only weeks to recover between each 250k race.
“You just have to pray your body is going to hold up,” she said.

She runs about 85 miles a week in and around Jackson Hole. Her life is scheduled. Every day accounted for, everything measured, her heart rate, her pace, her pack weight.

Sometimes she wonders why she’s doing it.

After her first race she received an outpouring of support and people telling her she inspired them to run their first 5K or their first marathon. She likes to inspire others. She also likes the idea of making history and becoming the first woman to complete the series.

“It’s also a craving to just push your body to the limit,” she said. “You have to push so far into mental grit and stamina. You have to dig so deep in your soul.”

Koudele digging deep across 155 miles of the the Sahara en route to a 29 hours 10 minutes finish — sixth overall and first among the women. (Photo courtesy of www.4deserts.com / Zandy Mangold)

Koudele digging deep across 155 miles of the the Sahara en route to a 29 hours 10 minutes finish — sixth overall and first among the women. (Photo courtesy of www.4deserts.com / Zandy Mangold)

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story, published May 20 2016, misidentified the five part Grand Slam Plus race series as the Grand Slam of Four Desert racing and the fifth stage of the Atacama Crossing race as a 50K.

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About the Author

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Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star-Tribune. Contact Kelsey at [email protected] Follow Kelsey on Twitter at @Kelsey_Dayton

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