It’s the most gruelling race on earth but two Dubai-based ex­pats ran ap­prox­i­mately 250km across the Sa­ha­ran desert in tem­per­a­tures of up to 50 de­grees. They lost 6kg each but raised Dh51,400 for a spe­cial needs cen­tre in Shar­jah. Anthea Ay­ache finds out w

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give back to the com­mu­nity here.” For Irvine there was also an emo­tional at­tach­ment to the choice, “A friend of mine has a child with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties so it’s close to home.”

Not as sim­ple as getting from A to B

Their jour­ney be­gan in the idyl­lic sur­rounds of Ouarza­zate, a small Moroc­can town known as the Door of the Desert. Sit­ting in the mid­dle of a plateau, 1,160 me­tres above sea level, it was here that the con­tes­tants had a day to en­joy lux­u­ries such as the scents of lo­cal cook­ing, the feel of clean clothes and the taste of cold wa­ter. For soon th­ese am­a­teur run­ners and elite ath­letes would not waste their pre­cious ra­tioned wa­ter on wash­ing clothes, they would eat only freeze-dried food and they would be shel­tered in a rudi­men­tary tent – a coarse cloth on flimsy sticks. For the next seven days Keith and Irvine’s only pos­ses­sions were the bare es­sen­tials such as food, camp­ing equip­ment and med­i­cal sup­plies that they car­ried in their 12kg ruck­sacks, while the clos­est thing to lux­ury were the two bot­tles of am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture wa­ter handed out at check­points.

“The MdS is not just about getting from A to B,” says Keith. “There is so much more to it in all re­spects, than just a foot race.” Hus­band and fa­ther of two Irvine adds, “You don’t re­alise that you’re go­ing to be liv­ing with al­most noth­ing for the next week. The liv­ing con­di­tions are a real chal­lenge. You’re en­dur­ing the heat of the day and the freez­ing cold of the night.”

They got a glimpse of what lay ahead after an eight-hour coach jour­ney into the mid­dle of nowhere to the camp­site. The two were not greeted by a soft bed of sand on which to pitch their tents but rather some­thing Kevin says “more re­sem­bled moon rocks.”

Soon the grey stone area was thick with the eight-man black tents, un­der which red tra­di­tional rugs acted as a buf­fer against the harsh stones. The race had not yet be­gun but al­ready crea­ture com­forts were a thing of the past. Irvine and Keith weren’t the only two who barely man­age to sleep that night be­fore the race be­gan, their bod­ies not yet ac­cus­tomed to howl­ing cold winds or sleep­ing on rough ter­rain.

Watch­ing dawn bathe the desert dunes in hues of red and or­ange, the 1,000 or so run­ners care­fully packed their limited ruck­sacks, ap­plied sun­screen and chat­ted ex­cit­edly with new friends. “There was so much adren­a­line, such

a buoy­ant mood that morn­ing,” Keith says. “At the start line, all the peo­ple who had been train­ing and wait­ing for this mo­ment were all to­gether. There was a real buzz but also a def­i­nite un­der­ly­ing feel­ing of un­cer­tainty as no one knew what lay ahead.”

After a mo­ti­va­tional speech from the top of a Lan­drover by founder Pa­trick Bauer, sud­denly a be­fit­ting an­them for the race – AC/DC’s, High­way to Hell – blared out from the camp’s PA sys­tem and it was time to be­gin the race.

Day 1 was 37km this year, a dis­tance con­tes­tants were only told about on ar­rival in Morocco. On the coach to the back of be­yond they had re­ceived The Book, con­tain­ing the 2013 course de­tails. Ev­ery year daily routes are painstak­ingly cho­sen to pro­vide par­tic­i­pants with chal­leng­ing, un­charted ter­ri­tory and the course re­mains a care­fully guarded se­cret un­til the very last minute. The routes in The Book are hand-drawn, out­lin­ing the moun­tains and the dunes, and although each day cov­ers dif­fer­ent ter­rains and poses dif­fer­ent chal­lenges, they all have one as­pect in com­mon – difficulty.

“The enor­mity of the task is sud­denly ap­par­ent when you get The Book.” says Irvine “When you see the course de­scrip­tion and the mileage, you get a shock. It’s sud­denly real and you think, this looks hor­ren­dous but there’s no back­ing out now!”

The first day was a multi-ter­rain marathon and gave par­tic­i­pants the op­por­tu­nity to get their bear­ings while nav­i­gat­ing across rocks, camel grass, sand and boul­ders. “We were run­ning 10km on what looked like it was go­ing to be a flat river bed in The Book,” says Irvine. “But ac­tu­ally when we got there it was the hottest part of the day and the sun was re­flect­ing off the sur­face, mak­ing it un­bear­able. Not only that, the riverbed was ac­tu­ally lit­tered with sharp rocks and boul­ders and you’d keep bash­ing your feet or nearly twist­ing your an­kle.” Adds Keith, “It was also quite men­tally drain­ing. You lit­er­ally had to fo­cus on watch­ing ev­ery sin­gle step.”

Prepa­ra­tion was key for all and Day 1 al­lowed par­tic­i­pants the op­por­tu­nity to find out whether their equip­ment was up for the task ahead. Many con­tes­tants had prac­tised in colder cli­mates and en­tirely dif­fer­ent ter­rains, con­se­quently find­ing out late in the game that their kit was sim­ply not ef­fi­cient enough to keep sand at bay. “Imag­ine run­ning with sand­pa­per in­stead of in­soles in your shoes,” ex­plains Keith. “That’s what it’s like if your gaiters don’t work prop­erly. Your feet are your sin­gle most im­por­tant tool in the MdS.”

“We were lucky,” adds Irvine. “Liv­ing in Dubai meant we could trial all our kit in desert con­di­tions. Many of the guys who trained in dif­fer­ent con­di­tions re­ally suf­fered and ev­ery night at camp there was a huge queue of peo­ple out­side the med­i­cal tent suf­fer­ing from blis­ters and dam­aged feet.”

Keep­ing in touch

De­spite short­com­ings, spir­its re­mained high amongst par­tic­i­pants back at base camp. Among those with smiles on their faces when they crossed the fin­ish line were a con­tes­tant with one leg, a pros­thetic blade and adapted hospi­tal crutches; a blind con­tes­tant run­ning with his guide; and fire­men car­ry­ing dis­abled chil­dren in adapted char­i­ots. “It be­came quite a thing cheer­ing those guys on ev­ery night. It would be the end of the day and you’d hear the sound of ap­plause spread across the camp as they made their way to their tents,” says Keith.

Ev­ery evening the par­tic­i­pants would wait pa­tiently in line out­side the white tent that housed com­put­ers. Here they were al­lowed to send one email each to a loved one. In re­turn or­gan­is­ers of the race would du­ti­fully hand out printed emails at the tents later in the night. “It was back to the good old days of re­ceiv­ing let­ters,” says Keith. “We were lucky to have a huge amount of sup­port and would re­ceive sev­eral emails each ev­ery night. Hav­ing that sup­port, not only from close friends and fam­ily but peo­ple who had heard what we were un­der­tak­ing and wanted to wish us well was a huge boost.”

Fam­i­lies back home were also able to track the run­ner’s progress thanks to an elec­tronic tag­ging de­vice at­tached to an­kles that would mon­i­tor each per­son’s progress live on the MdS web­site. Each stage of the day was bro­ken into 9-12km stretches with a check­point where wa­ter ra­tions would be dis­trib­uted and par­tic­i­pants’ times would be elec­tron­i­cally

checked. “Know­ing your fam­ily could see how you were do­ing in real time was fan­tas­tic,” says Keith. Some­thing that was go­ing to be much needed to get con­tes­tants through the six days and six marathons across moun­tain­ous dunes and craggy ridges in 50 de­gree heat.

Dashed dreams, dan­ger and the Long Day

De­spite the vast dif­fer­ences in fin­ish­ing times, each day had an allocated pe­riod in which the race had to be com­pleted with those who failed to qual­ify re­moved from the race. “On Day 2 one of the con­tes­tants was lit­er­ally phys­i­cally re­moved be­fore the race started be­cause he got a lit­tle lost and missed the cut-off point the day be­fore,” re­mem­bers Keith. “It was pretty hard to watch peo­ple be­ing re­moved when you know how much train­ing and ef­fort they’ve put in to be there.”

While some failed to com­plete the race in time, oth­ers were forced drop out due to med­i­cal ail­ments and in­juries, demon­strat­ing that the desert, al­beit mag­nif­i­cent, is also mer­ci­less. Much the same can be said for its rocky moun­tains which run­ners, elite or am­a­teur, would find them­selves as­cend­ing and de­scend­ing over Day 2’s 31km course.

“We were lit­er­ally climb­ing, hav­ing to grip with our hands and use a rope. Some peo­ple got stuck ahead of us and had to be rescued. They were air­lifted then dropped off at the base of the moun­tain and had to start again,” says Keith. “At the top the path­way was only about a foot wide with sheer drops ei­ther side. With the weight of your ruck­sack… we lit­er­ally had to take baby steps,” adds Irvine.

De­spite the dan­gers and the difficulty, both men agree that the views made the ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain of climb­ing sharp rocky moun­tains un­der the sear­ing sun, worth­while.

“Getting to the top of those moun­tains was in­cred­i­bly de­mand­ing phys­i­cally, but once you’re up there you can see for miles and miles, with ex­tra­or­di­nary views of the desert,” says Irvine. Keith nods. “The MdS is so tough, but or­gan­is­ers have made it so you get vis­ual re­wards at par­tic­u­lar points with amaz­ing vis­tas and panora­mas,” he says.

The most mag­nif­i­cent views were seen on Day 4, the un­for­giv­ing and aptly named Long Day. Here con­tes­tants found them­selves hav­ing to cover 76km across all sorts of in­hos­pitable ter­rain vary­ing from moun­tains and dunes to end­less rocky trails in swel­ter­ing desert heat, that at one point clocked a blis­ter­ing 54C. “The Long Day was my big­gest chal­lenge,” says Keith. “I didn’t know how I was go­ing to keep my body go­ing for that long. I had never trained for longer than five hours be­fore and sud­denly I was go­ing to have to com­plete 76km in the Sa­hara desert.”

One re­ward for the non-pro­fes­sional con­tes­tants was to see the elite top 50 male and five fe­male par­tic­i­pants run past them at cer­tain points of the day, hav­ing been held back for three hours be­fore the other con­tes­tants at the start line. The star ath­letes in­cluded four-time MdS win­ner Moroc­can Mo­ham­mad Ahansal, who picked up the prize again this year com­plet­ing the course in just 18 hours and 59 min­utes. “It was great to watch them,” says Keith. “It gave us all a re­newed lease of life when they ran past.”

That en­cour­age­ment was much needed in a race that saw many peo­ple affected by de­hy­dra­tion. “Irvine and I were used to prac­tis­ing in hot weather,” says Keith. “Oth­ers weren’t, so they would re­ally suf­fer if they got their tim­ing wrong. Wa­ter was re­ally a hard thing to man­age. We saw peo­ple so de­hy­drated when they got to the check­point they would guz­zle all their ra­tioned wa­ter at once then throw up be­cause they had drunk it too quickly.”

The two men man­aged to fin­ish the Long Day race in the re­quired time. They kept them­selves mo­ti­vated through en­tirely dif­fer­ent ap­proaches, with Keith choos­ing to run alone, find­ing strength in soli­tude, and Irvine com­plet­ing the gruelling course with other con­tes­tants. Keith, spurred on by the glow of the camp in the dis­tance, pushed him­self for the last few kilo­me­tres, ar­riv­ing in 12 hours and 45 min­utes, fol­lowed just un­der two hours later by Irvine.

Keith says, “That last part was flat rolling plains with soft sand that was re­lent­less, pun­ish­ing, en­ergy sap­ping. My mantra along there was just ‘don’t stop, don’t stop, the sand will get harder soon’. Then I would think I had

done 5km and re­alise I had just done 1km. The re­lent­less plod­ding in the pitch black un­der a beau­ti­ful sky of stars after see­ing a breath­tak­ing sun­set was for me the best and the worst of ev­ery­thing in one.”

Push­ing bound­aries

The next day was a rest day for those con­tes­tants who had com­pleted the dou­ble marathon and it was spent writ­ing di­aries, re­flect­ing, queu­ing for the ‘wash­room’, and shar­ing anec­dotes. Time moved fairly slowly. “I ac­tu­ally re­mem­ber feel­ing a lit­tle bored,” says Keith. “There’s not much to do in a bivouac camp­site in the mid­dle of the desert when you’ve only got bare es­sen­tials in your ruck­sack.”

To al­le­vi­ate bore­dom run­ners were told there would be a sur­prise at 4pm that af­ter­noon and it came in the shape of an ice cold can of cola. “If you ask me what my most mem­o­rable mo­ment from the event was, it would have to be that. After drink­ing noth­ing but tepid wa­ter and one sug­ary tea a day I couldn’t have been hap­pier to see any­thing. It was so pre­cious I wanted to make sure I didn’t drop it or gulp it down in one go. I think it took me about 40 min­utes to fin­ish the can,” Irvine smiles.

The run­ners took more long-term sat­is­fac­tion from know­ing bound­aries had been pushed wide open. “It re­ally changed my per­cep­tion of en­durance events,” says Irvine. “Sud­denly we only had one marathon left to do the next day and we were think­ing ‘this will all be over in about five or six hours, it’s just a marathon’ as op­posed to think­ing about a marathon be­ing a huge event in it­self”.

Com­plet­ing the event, along­side the other 968 con­tes­tants who made it through the fi­nal stage, was some­thing both men had ques­tioned at least once but the two col­leagues, friends and marathon bud­dies fin­ished in re­spectable po­si­tions. Of the 1,040 con­tes­tants, long-time marathon run­ner and iron man par­tic­i­pant Irvine fin­ished 397th, while Keith, a novice to long-dis­tance run­ning, breezed in at 180th.

“I couldn’t ex­plain my emo­tions when I made it passed the fin­ish­ing line,” says Keith. “I re­ally pushed my­self on that last day and I just kept telling my­self, ‘this is it, it’s the last stretch’. I was run­ning alone and sud­denly I had this re­al­i­sa­tion of what we had achieved, and all the peo­ple at home who had been think­ing of me, the kind of thoughts I had un­con­sciously blocked out to get through the MdS. My wife will tell you I don’t ever cry, so it re­ally sur­prised me when I found my­self over­whelmed, cry­ing in a de­serted camp just hold­ing my wa­ter bot­tle.” Irvine in­ter­jects say­ing, “Getting that medal was one of the best mo­ments of my life, it was the tough­est, hard­est most fun chal­lenge I’ve ever done by miles. But I was also

‘I was also dis­ap­pointed be­cause the fan­tas­tic ad­ven­ture where you’re to­tally de­tached from life was over’

dis­ap­pointed be­cause the fan­tas­tic ad­ven­ture where you’re to­tally de­tached from life was over, it was done.” De­spite the nos­tal­gia, nei­ther man feels they would do it again.

“I got all that I could have wanted and more out of it,” says Keith. Irvine adds, “I had so much fun, I can’t imag­ine it would ever be as good again,” adding, “but I’ve al­ready signed up for my next one, which is the Com­rades Marathon in South Africa. It’s 89km in one go.”

The event it­self not only brought sat­is­fac­tion to the two con­tes­tants, but it raised enough do­na­tions from friends, fam­ily, col­leagues and even strangers to raise Dh51,400 for Manzil. The two men chose to do­nate 30 iPads to be used as ed­u­ca­tional and de­vel­op­men­tal tools for the stu­dents and the rest of the money was spent on pro­vid­ing class­room and ad­min­is­tra­tive equip­ment. “It was great to go down there and hand over the iPads,” says Irvine. “The kids seemed to be very pleased.”

The MdS takes a year of prepa­ra­tion, but it’s some­thing that can be com­pleted by run­ners of all abil­i­ties and both men are keen to urge oth­ers to un­der­take the chal­lenge. As Keith – who com­pleted the tough­est foot race on earth hav­ing never be­fore run a marathon – says, “If you’re pre­pared bet­ter, you do bet­ter.”

Most days in­cluded a gruelling trek up the Sa­hara’s rocky


Run­ners sur­vived with just the bare es­sen­tials, and base camp at the end of the day was a course black cloth flung over sticks

French­man Pa­trick Bauer (above left), who founded tthe event, spurs com­peti­tors on at the start each year. Keith (left and above right) and Irvine (above) fin­ished along­side 968 con­tes­tants to have made it all the way tthrough the chal­lenge

While some run­ners, like Keith, find strength in soli­tude, oth­ers thrive on the ca­ma­raderie of run­ning as a group

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