Maj. Chas Kabanuck knows how it feels to be told to “pound sand.”
The flight instructor at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, recently completed the Marathon des Sables — a six-day, approximately 250-kilometer (155-mile) ultramarathon through the Sahara Desert in Morocco, known as one of the toughest footraces on Earth.
The race offered the longtime ultrarunner and former special operations pilot a chance to piece together skills gleaned from multiple deployments and more than 10 years as a long-distance athlete into one unique display of mettle and grit.
“They know exactly how to challenge you on every level of your being: physically, emotionally, spiritually,” he said of the race in a recent interview with Air Force Times. “It is a mental game from the beginning to the end.”
The Marathon des Sables, now in its 37th year, is split into five competitive stages over five days. If that’s not enough, a much shorter charity run is tacked on for the sixth day.
More than 1,100 people began the race on April 23; only 765 finished.
Kabanuck crossed the finish line in 43 hours, 18 minutes and 22 seconds, averaging 3.5 miles per hour to reach 183rd place, according to official race tracking. (The winner, Mohamed el Morabiti of Morocco, made the trek in just under 19 hours, 20 minutes, or nearly 8 miles per hour.)
The race wasn’t always on his to-do list.
Kabanuck began to enjoy running as a new enlistee at basic training in 2001, where he learned that “if you can run pretty well, you don’t get yelled at.”
The hobby bloomed once he joined the U.S. Air Force Academy and befriended other runners. After graduating in 2010, the new officer was diagnosed with testicular cancer and said the Air Force barred him from pilot training while he waited for a medical waiver.
“It made me really angry and frustrated that all my buddies are going to do this, and I wasn’t,” he said of flight school. “Running became this peaceful outlet.”
The delay gave him the time he needed to train for his first 100-mile race. He hasn’t looked back.
Kabanuck has competed in races from Arkansas to California, winning the Arkansas Traveller 100-miler in 2021 and 2022, according to statistics kept by Ultrarunning Magazine. He’s placed as high as sixth across multiple attempts at the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley — another that bills itself as the hardest run in the world.
A friend introduced him to the Marathon des Sables in 2015, but several more years passed before he began to seriously consider it as an option.
His usual 100-mile races were becoming monotonous, and he took a break from racing when the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020. By the end of the year, he had fallen into a funk.
On a trip to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in January 2021, he awoke in his hotel room to an overwhelming lack of motivation. He couldn’t muster any excitement about the sortie he had just flown, or an upcoming deployment the next month.
“It was like Groundhog Day,” he said.
Kabanuck turned to his computer and checked the Marathon des Sables website — registration for the 2022 race had opened.
“I decided immediately that I had to sign up,” he said. “All of a sudden, I found rejuvenation. … I was stoked about running again, and life. I had something cool to think about.”
Then the Air Force came calling: It needed more instructor pilots. So Kabanuck, looking for a change, left his job as a special operations pilot in the U-28 Draco reconnaissance plane at Cannon AFB, New Mexico, in November 2021 to become an instructor in the T-6 Texan II, a turboprop plane used to teach basic flight skills to new aviators. He arrived at Laughlin’s 85th Flying Training Squadron last July.
That training prevented him from running the 2022 Marathon des Sables, but he had made up his mind: He would go to Morocco this year instead.
The race appealed to him because it was less cookie-cutter than 100-milers had become, and because he missed having to fend for himself in unusual places after his 2021 deployment.
“I could do ultramarathoning things, but I also had to survive in the desert and do this austere living thing, which was similar to my deployment life,” he said. “I could bring these two things together, and then I could test all of my skills that I’ve garnered over all these years and see how I fare against the best in the world.”
Frequent racing in 2022 took its toll on his body, he said, for months making it too difficult to run double-digit distances. He began training for Morocco in earnest in February, two months before race week.
“I pretty much ran 50-mile weeks from the middle of February until the end of March, and then I got one 85-mile weekend,” he said. “I just decided, I’m going to do the best I can, with the best training that I’ve got.”
Kabanuck would fly training sorties for at least 12 hours a day, then log several miles after work, he said. He snuck in quick runs on days without an early morning flight, or in the afternoon between sorties.
“It was straight mental fortitude,” he said. “I’d go to my car, take my flight suit off, put my shoes on and go run from the parking lot before doing anything else.”
He was granted three weeks of leave for his trip to Africa. Racers stay in the desert for two days ahead of the starting gun; Kabanuck arrived on April 21 to sandstorms and a multitude of unknowns ahead.
“I’m semi-exhausted already,” he recalled of his arrival. “[It’s] a different state of mind, a different type of environment than you’d normally start any race. But you’ve got to go forward 22 miles through the desert (the first leg), with a course you don’t really understand, and somehow figure out a way to compete.”
In lieu of roads, Marathon Des Sables competitors follow a trail of rocks and sticks laid out to mark a point-to-point course through sand dunes, rocky hills and salt flats.
They are allowed to eat only the food they bring in their own pack, plus water provided by the race organizers. Temperatures can hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit before dropping into the 50s overnight, when runners camp together in Bedouin tents supplied by the race.
Their bags must weigh between 6.5 and 15 kilograms (14-33 pounds); participants are required to carry dozens of pieces of equipment, ranging from a compass and sunscreen to a distress-signaling mirror and a venom-removal pump.
Kabanuck aimed to finish in the top 100. He ran aggressively the first day, then eased back in the more difficult second phase. Each leg left him “zapped,” he said.
“I would run next to guys for long periods of time and we wouldn’t say a word to each other,” he said. “There’s no congratulations. Nobody asks you how you’re doing. You just go forward. … It makes you really realize what it takes to be a tough human.”
On the course, he said, his thoughts revolved around his own peak performance: “What’s my caloric situation? How are my feet? How is my body responding to the terrain? … Where can I beat somebody?”
He forgoes music to listen to the tapping of his own feet, or his occasional mumbling. And he forced himself to appreciate the vast, desolate Sahara, saying: “This terrain is psychotic, but beautiful, and you’ve got to take that in.”
He relied on a mix of high-fat foods for slow-burning calories and sugary treats for quick energy: Trail mix, stroopwafels, gummy bears, and “battery packs” — a mix of coconut oil and almond butter.
In the evenings, he would drink tea with runners who came in around the same time before returning to his tent with a fresh ration of water to wait for the daily sandstorm. Dinner consisted of 1,000-calorie freeze-dried meals, after which he superglued spots on his feet to prevent blisters, and conked out.
Stomach troubles hit on the third day, forcing him to scale back further; he finished each of the first three stages in around five hours. The fourth and longest stage at 90 kilometers lasted an “agonizing” 22 hours, on blistered feet over sand dunes in the dark, he said.
He grinded through the fifth and final competitive stage, followed by the charity leg of the race over six miles of dunes. (He’s supported the Special Operations Warrior Foundation in at least one race before, but said he wasn’t running for a charity in the Marathon des Sables.)
An exhausted Kabanuck had finished his stockpile of food ahead of the final day in a strategic move to replenish his energy and lighten his pack.
“You’re, at that point, happy to be done,” he said of the finish line. “Elation isn’t really available anymore. … Grateful is probably the most appropriate adjective, that we were able to finish and that we were not wounded.”
Their celebration was brief: Race organizers soon loaded the horde of unshowered runners onto a charter bus and out of the desert.
After a six-and-a-half-hour ride through the Atlas Mountains back to the official hotel, Kabanuck put down his bags, bought four beers from the hotel bar and polished them off in his room.
“I was just so freaking relieved that I was able to pull together a good race and end up in the top 200,” he said. “I was able to dig in and keep driving and not settle.”
Kabanuck credits his competitive professional environment with fueling that drive, and for teaching him how to be uncomfortable and survive in austere environments. He’s deployed nine times with Air Force Special Operations Command, including three times to Iraq, two to Afghanistan, two to Djibouti, one to Manda Bay in Kenya and another to Niger.
“I know how to ruck. I know how to go without food. I know how to live in a tent and get my butt kicked, and I know how to go from surviving to thriving,” he said. “The Air Force provided me with all those templates.”
Both pursuits have instilled calm under pressure, and taught him to focus on long-term accomplishments over instant gratification.
With the Marathon des Sables behind him, Kabanuck is turning to unfinished business: completing the “Grand Slam” of ultrarunning in the U.S.
That requires him to finish three of the four oldest 100-mile trail runs in the United States — the Old Dominion in Virginia, the Western States in California, the Vermont 100, and the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado — plus the Wasatch Front 100-miler in Utah within the same year.
He had a shot at a Grand Slam in 2015, but had to miss the Wasatch when he deployed to Iraq that summer.
Kabanuck also plans to run the Pinhoti 100 in Alabama in November.
While he said there’s no organized ultrarunning community in the Air Force, Kabanuck offered advice to anyone who wants to give running a shot: Start somewhere, and don’t compare yourself to others.
“Everybody can run,” he said. “If you have to walk, walk. It’s not a big deal. Just be kind to yourself and enjoy the process.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.