Facing the Impossible: The First Woman to Complete the 4 Deserts Grand Slam Plus

“The second I got to Sri Lanka – the first race of 2016, on the first day – I had fallen between two logs and twisted my knee, I had vomited four times, I’d gone off the course by 3k and I was crawling up the hill toward checkpoint one,” Jax said. “And I’m like, oh my God. How the hell am I going to do this? This is crazy.”

Jax Mariash was at the beginning of a quest to become the first woman in history to complete the 4 Deserts Grand Slam Plus. To achieve that dream she would need to complete five races longer than 250 kilometers across some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet that each took more than seven days to complete. The first was in the jungle of Sri Lanka. The other four races would challenge Jax to cross the Atacama Desert, the Sahara Desert, the Gobi Desert and the Last Desert: Antarctica.

Just Because It's Never Been Done Before...

Jax raced her first 4 Desert at the end of 2015 in the Atacama so that she could get points toward racing the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Going into that first race, she had no idea what to expect from the untraditional format. In addition to racing long distances over multiple days, competitors are required to carry their own supplies, including clothing, gear and food. Jax cruised through her first attempt at the race and finished second overall. And she was hooked.

“When I looked at this year and I realized no woman had ever done five of these, I decided that it was something I really wanted to do.”

"I’ve always wanted to inspire other people to push the envelope and to get outside to explore.”

When she committed to pushing her own limits, she also wanted to help others. She set a goal to raise $10,000 for the Lymelight Foundation through the awareness her attempt would create. The Lymelight Foundation provides grants to enable eligible children and young adults with Lyme disease to receive proper treatment and medication as well as raising awareness about the illness. Having their logo on her racing kit would keep her going when her will was tested, because she knew she was running for more than just herself.

Sri Lanka

And so, in February Jax found herself in the jungle, her quest off to a rough start, and the enormity of what she had committed to completing bearing down on her. Down but not out, Jax dug deep to finish that first stage 34 minutes behind the lead woman. Over the next six days of the race, she maintained second female overall, and even more importantly, completed one-fifth of her goal to be the first woman to ever finish the Grand Slam Plus.

The Sahara, Gobi and Atacama Deserts

4 Deserts Sahara Race – Stage 1

Gobi March - Stage 1

Atacama Crossing - Stage 3

After Sri Lanka, Jax finished first female at the Gobi and Sahara races and then managed to outdo her previous year’s performance by winning the Atacama Crossing. That left only one challenge between Jax and her dream. The last desert, the largest, most remote and coldest one on earth: Antarctica. Just getting there takes more than 30 hours of flying from the United States to Ushuaia, near the southernmost tip of South America, and then a 10-day boat trip through the notoriously rough Drake Passage.

The Last Desert

The Antarctic race presented a unique set of challenges. The race is run in laps on different Antarctic islands every day, with the course length ranging from 11.4km to as little as 1.4km. And instead of sleeping in a tent at night, racers would sleep on the boat that would move them to a different part of the continent where they’d race the next day. Unlike the other races, competitors wouldn’t be required to carry all of their food for the entire journey. In fact, they weren’t allowed to carry any food with them at all while racing.

“Technically you’re not allowed to bring food onto Antarctic land, you’re not allowed to go to the bathroom on Antarctic land.”

“No contamination whatsoever,” Jax said. Competitors were required to eat on a tarp at a checkpoint along the course. That meant that on the day with the longest loop, a racer might have to run an hour-and-a-half before they could eat or use the bathroom.

“In every event you’re embracing ridiculous adversity and ridiculous crisis.”

“And what’s interesting is what I used to call a crisis is like nothing now," Jax told us. "You develop this process where all of the sudden it’s like the crisis happens – like you realized you’ve got frostbite – and you have to just skip the panic or you’re out. You just have to go right to finding a solution. Because the second you turn your mindset to negativity, you’re screwed.”

On the first day, Jax ran 78.6 kilometers through the snow. She held the lead going into day two, but didn’t let up continuing to run as far as possible each day. After six days of racing, Jax hit 250 total kilometers (with over 7,000 meters of elevation gain) and made history, winning the Last Desert and becoming the first woman to ever complete the 4 Deserts Grand Slam Plus.

"It’s changed my life. It’s changed my work life,
it’s changed who I’m friends with,
it’s completely revolutionized my life."

"It took all of my grit and all of my might to get to the finish," she said. "It’s built a thick core where I really believe I can help other people to push through adversity and realize they can do things that they thought they couldn’t do.”

Not only did she become the first woman to complete the Grand Slam Plus, Jax also won all four of the 4 Deserts races and was crowned the 2016 4 Deserts World Champion. She was the fastest woman in a competition where even making it to the finish line would be a lifetime achievement. But the accomplishment she is most proud of is that she was able to raise over $15,000 for the Lymelight Foundation.

With her 4 Deserts adventure over and her feet barely back on solid ground, Jax is already thinking about what she wants to do next. “I want to work on Stoke Roasters, which is my whole entrepreneur life. I am going to sign up for UTMB and see what happens. If I can find out how, I want to sign up for the Barkley Marathon. No woman has ever finished that race, ever.”

Some might say that’s because it’s impossible for a woman to finish the Barkley. But impossible is Jax’s idea of a challenge.

Photography Credits
Sri Lanka Race: Myke Hermsmeyer
Sahara Race: Scotty Manthey of Molly B Studios and Zandy Mangold
Gobi Race: Onni Cao
Atacama Race: Scotty Manthey of Molly B Studios and Thiago Diz
Antarctica Race: Myke Hermsmeyer

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