Jean Paul Desrosiers’ Unfathomable Moroccan Marathons

This is getting ridiculous.

First, “06880” reported on David Friezo’s attempt to raise $500,000 for cancer victims by running a marathon at the North Pole.

Then it was Yaacov Mutnikas, who rowed across the Atlantic Ocean  — and set a world record in the process.

I hope you are sitting down for this next one — though Jean Paul Desrosiers certainly was not.

The owner of Westport’s Sherpa Fitness Center has just returned from Morocco. He competed in the Marathon des Sables — only “the toughest footrace on earth,” according to the Discovery Channel.

Jean Paul Desrosiers marathon des sables

How tough?

Desrosiers ran — no, raced — 156 miles in 5 days. That’s the equivalent of 6 marathons.

He did it across 10-story-high sand dunes, in temperature reaching 130 degrees.

While carrying all his food and a sleeping bag on his back.

I’m exhausted just typing that.

“I’ve always been an outdoor enthusiast,” the 39-year-old Weston resident says. “I like to push boundaries. I believe life happens on the edges of your comfort zone.”

That philosophy has made Sherpa Fitness — on the Post Road, across from Athletic Shoe Factory — a very popular gym (among a certain type of clientele, to be sure). Its tagline is “Move Your Boundaries.”

Jean Paul Desrosiers looks like a normal human being.  But he is not.

Jean Paul Desrosiers looks like a normal human being. But he is not.

It’s also the philosophy that saw Desrosiers through 6 years in the Marine Corps, starting at age 19, and propelled him later into college as an exercise science major, a career as a semi-pro cyclist, and helped him run 4 marathons and 1 ultramarathon.

But the Marathon des Sables is an ultra-uber-unbelievable marathon.

Desrosiers did the entire race on just 17,000 calories. Carrying all his gear, every ounce was important. He used dehydrated food — and then repackaged it in vacuum bags. Shaving a few grams here and there could end up saving a full pound. Running 156 miles over sand, rocks and gravel — there were no asphalt roads — every ounce counts.

Desrosiers did bring 100 salt tablets. They were key to keeping his electrolytes up.  Race organizers provided water — but not a lot. And it wasn’t even quenching. “Hot and dry,” Desrosiers calls it.

He began training in October. But when winter came, the Polar Vortex hit. Not exactly the best way to prepare for a desert that’s 110 in the shade.

So Desrosiers stuffed a backpack with 28 pounds of rock salt, and hit the treadmill. As he got stronger, he ran with the pack on roads.

When the race drew nearer, he turned the heat in a Sherpa room up to 90, added a space heater, and rode a stationary bike for 90 minutes. “It helped, but it wasn’t perfect,” he says.

He also ran on Sherwood Island. The snow helped him practice his footing on difficult terrain.

Jean Paul Desrosiers, pausing very briefly in Morocco.

Jean Paul Desrosiers, pausing very briefly in Morocco.

Once in Africa, reality hit quickly. There was brutal heat, dry air, strong wind, and the biggest dunes Desrosiers had ever seen. And, with 1100 runners in such soft sand, it took a long time to get through.

As difficult as the physical race was — and boy, does it sound daunting — the emotional part was equally tough.

“You can’t prepare fully for the reality of knowing you have to survive with just what you’ve got,” he notes.

Still, he adds, “If I’d never done anything before, I wouldn’t have believed I could do this. You can’t start 12th grade without having gone through 1st grade.”

Desrosiers trusted in his ability to adapt. The human body, he says, is “pretty dynamic.” But the overwhelmingness of new stimuli shattered even some hardened competitors. Day after day, many racers dropped out.

Day after day too, the pack got lighter — and Desorsiers lost weight. But the temperature did not drop. His feet blistered. Fatigue set in.

What kept him moving were emails from home. Each night, race organizers handed printouts to the racers. Knowing people in Westport were thinking of him “made more difference than any food or drink,” Desrosiers says.

He did not expect to win. But each day he finished in the top third. He was sick on Day 4 — the double marathon, or more than 50 miles — but the next day he clocked in at 5:20, good for the top 200.

A scene from the 2013 Marathon des Sables.

A scene from the 2013 Marathon des Sables.

Desrosiers completed the entire 156 miles at #303. “I was surprised,” he says, using the same tone I would to describe a movie that was better than I expected.

The end affected him, though. He’d expended enormous physical and emotional energy. He was exhausted, dehydrated, overheated and blistered. His back was marked, where his pack dug in.

Then Desrosiers crossed the finish line, and it was all over.

No one was there to congratulate him. He ended the race as he’d begun it: alone.

Desrosiers walked to his tent, dropped his gear off, and headed to the medical area to get his feet looked at. Then he returned to the finish line, to watch the others straggle in.

Jean Paul Desrosiers earned this -- the very hard way.

Jean Paul Desrosiers earned this — the very hard way.

When we talked earlier this week, he’d been home only a couple of days. Besides his girlfriend, he had not talked about the experience with anyone.

“You learn a lot about yourself when you’re uncomfortable,” Desrosiers says. “You persevere, you look forward, you’re happy you got through it.

“This is not a carnival. It’s hell.”

Back in Westport, he’s not sure what his next challenge is. Right now, he’s happy to focus on Sherpa.

But, he notes, “I’m fitter, I’m stronger, I’m lighter. Hopefully, I can inspire people to do things they didn’t think they could do.”

Even if they’re not things you or I would have believed were humanly possible.





6 responses to “Jean Paul Desrosiers’ Unfathomable Moroccan Marathons

  1. Michelle Benner

    Jean Paul, congratulations! I completed the Marathon des Sables in 1999 when I was 29. I live in Westport (just moved here with my family last June) and would love to meet. The experience of the Marathon Des Sables changed my life and is a source of strength for me which I have consistently referred to and will always be greatful for. And oh, the blisters!! 😉

  2. Ann Marie Flynn

    Many congratulations to you both. Pushing beyond limits builds one beyond belief in mind, body and soul. It would be wonderful if you both, together, would offer a session at our library on your experiences. It would stretch our imagination on what is possible through dreams, pain, determination and guts. Again, Big Congratulations.

  3. Michelle Benner

    Ann, I would be happy to as well. I gave a presentation for my son’s second grade class last year and would love to collaborate for another. Jean, I agree, the MDS was far more mental than physical for everyone involved – from the most elite athletes to the ultra marathon dabblers. So much of it is about attitude, perspective, and tapping into those deep reserves of strength that we don’t know we have until faced with extreme challenges of all kinds. The self reflection alone is mind blowing. BTW, I was sick on day 4 too! The morning of the 50 mile leg, after spending a few hours the night before in the medical tent rehydrating and trying to ignore an infected blister on my left heel, I remember thinking that if it were any other day I’d be home in bed…haha. Trying to regain my appetite with a green apple jolly rancher and a tent-mate’s bag of potato chip crumbs. Speaking of food, there was one guy who only ate dried figs for the entire race! And then there was the always lively group of Italians who somehow managed to celebrate a teammate’s birthday one evening, complete with candles and cocktails. Amazing. Will contact you next week after spring break and Easter – looking forward to connecting and sharing our experiences.

    Congratulations again, Jean. I am so happy for you, your tremendous accomplishment, and the positive effects that will last you a lifetime.

    Cheers, Michelle

  4. WOW just WOW.