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First Filipina world marathoner conquers the Sahara Desert

By Ana Villanueva-Lykes Published Apr 24, 2024 7:49 pm

Under the merciless sun, Julie Uychiat ran for six days across rugged, unfamiliar terrain to conquer the Sahara Desert. Even with a 22.5-pound load on her chafed back, her feet blistering from covering miles of steep rocky ascents and seemingly endless dunes, she completed the toughest footrace on Earth.

This is almost a year after she placed first in four countries in the World Marathon Challenge. As the first Filipina to finish the World Marathon, she now holds another personal record of running over 250 kilometers to finish sixth out of 70 in her category (women age 50-59) and 283rd out of over 800 participants, surpassing hundreds of male runners in the Marathon de Sables–The Legendary.

Uychiat with her hard-earned MDS medal

Gift of a challenge

The Negrense native only started competing in races at the age of 44. Although she has always been athletic even as a child, she did not enjoy running. Her sister, who was not particularly athletic and yet completed a half marathon, dared Uychiat to run. “It came at a perfect time when I needed some sort of a lift towards a new chapter in life,” Julie told PhilSTAR L!fe. She, back then, was the director of clinical services for a healthcare center in Arizona, traveling regularly to three different states in a week. “It became my great escape and refuge.”

Her 50th birthday present to herself was to run the World Marathon Challenge in 2023. “I didn’t believe this was something I could do as It was such a monumental challenge,” she confessed. “Ironically, that was precisely what drew me to it.” After seven days of running and flying around the globe, Julie finished first in Dubai, Asia; Madrid, Europe; Fortaleza, South America; and Miami, North America. She placed second, third, and fourth in Australia, Africa, and Antarctica, respectively.

Uychiat was honored by the Senate in March last year for being the first Filipina to finish the 2023 World Marathon Challenge. Here, she poses for a photo with Sen. Joel Villanueva, who sponsored Senate Resolution No. 471 that recognizes her feat.

Training for tough trails

Running gives Julie a natural high, but she also found a new sense of purpose in the many months of training. With the guidance of a coach, she made a complete lifestyle change. Laser-focused on her goal, she maintained a strict diet and socialized less. “I fell in love with the whole process of training, discovering the discipline to work out that I didn't know I had. Spending hours alone on the road gave me the chance to rediscover myself and realize what matters most in life.”

Even when she was traveling constantly for work, she remained dedicated to her training. Some days she had to be up at three in the morning to catch a flight and get ready for work. Battling with her exhausted self, the fighter in her would eventually win and she’d find herself doing laps around the parking lot till dark just to get some miles in.

Preparing for the Marathon de Sables (MDS) was a different challenge altogether. Aside from the rigorous training, Julie had to prepare for the extreme elements. Heat training included sauna sessions, hot yoga, and Hot Intensity Interval Training combined with muscle training and cardio in a room that’s about 37 degrees Celsius hot.

Uychiat braves the Sahara Desert during the recently concluded Marathon de Sables–The Legendary.

Weeks before the MDS, she joined the ultramarathon at the Antelope Canyon to train on rough terrain, navigating a 50-mile course of desert sand and slick rock. After 13.5 hours of running on the Arizona desert landscape with a 25-pound backpack, she sustained some chafing and soreness but gained a great sense of self-confidence for her most challenging race yet.

Cheered on by children

A veteran of endurance races, it’s perhaps not surprising why she is drawn to children who have also endured so much, although not of their own choosing. While conquering the continents, she helped organize Run for Kalipay, a fundraiser for the Kalipay Negrense Foundation, raising over four million pesos to help disadvantaged and mistreated kids.

Uychiat gets treatment for her chafed back during the race.

During the race, she met two other runners, Dr. Mona Lisa Coley Pinkney and Danielle Witkowski, to form Desert Sisters for the MDS to raise funds and awareness for children like Anabelle, afflicted by Crouzon’s Syndrome. Anabelle was rescued off the streets where she was exploited by her guardian to beg for money. Then there’s Levi who fled from an abusive mother. Through the help of Kalipay Negrense, he is set for surgery to correct a neural tube defect. The thought of these children and their fighting spirit gave the race more meaning for Julie. “I needed an inspiration to push me through the difficult months ahead.”

A song and a prayer

The Marathon de Sables–The Legendary is the 38th edition of the much-touted ultramarathon participated by 60 nationalities on one of the toughest and most breathtaking landscapes of the Southern Morrocan Sahara. The six-day marathon runs a total of 252.8 km, the longest one yet in the history of the MDS.

Uychiat at the Marathon de Sables–The Legendary

Julie traversed the desert through stifling heat, navigating rocky slopes and almost vertical dunes with over a thousand meters of elevation gain. Her pack would often pull her down, but she pushed forward with the heat going all the way up to 32 degrees Celsius. At night, she had to be self-sufficient, sharing a tent with seven other participants and subsisting on freeze-dried meals and bouillon soup from cubes heated in a portable burner.

Out in the Sahara, the silence is deafening, and in a vast desert away from loved ones, it can be isolating. Julie took advantage of the quiet. While music keeps many runners going, Julie’s song is silence. “Running is the opportunity I take to get to know myself more. I clear my thoughts and listen to my body,” explained the world marathoner. Another favorite power song in her playlist is prayer. When running, utterances of gratitude become her way of connecting with a higher power.

Renewed and reborn

At the age of 51, Julie overcame heat exhaustion, fatigue, blisters, and burns, running steady at an average of 5.7 km/hr, to complete a total of 41 hours and 57 minutes of running. She placed sixth among women aged 50-59 and 45th overall in the women’s category. Leaving hundreds in the dust, she ranked 283rd out of 867 competitors.

Uychiat tries to stay cool while racing in hot conditions.

Before the race, Julie said that she was excited to become the person she needed to be to complete the challenge. After a long shower, shampooing her hair three times to remove nine days' worth of sand and grime, she looks forward to bringing home not just the medal but a self renewed and reborn.

Julie has developed a newfound respect for nature and a renewed sense of appreciation for her countless blessings. After several nights in the desert, she is reminded never again to take for granted the comforts of the modern world like running water, a freshly cooked meal, and just being able to eat without hearing the crunch of the sand in the mouth. She also learned just how resilient the human spirit can be after sleeping through nights of sandstorms in an open tent and pushing forward toward the finish line even through the pain and discomfort.

Despite the exhaustion and the monumental feat that she had just accomplished, she could only talk about the beauty of the whole experience and the promise to deepen her practice of gratitude. “It is incredibly beautiful. So lucky to be here. My heart is full,” she told L!fe.

The MDS ran for a total of six days.