Two Dubai-based expats completed the most gruelling race on Earth to raise money for charity
The small beam of torchlight sliced through the darkness illuminating nothing more than the endless sand ahead. It felt laboriously soft underfoot as Keith Hutchison pushed his aching muscles on, following the pace of his reverberating breath. Pausing in the silence and solitude, he turned his head torch off, plunging momentarily into a blackened abyss. As his eyes slowly started to readjust, the natural light from a clear night sky filled with stars revealed the flawless outline of the vast Saharan desert. For those few unforgettable moments the pain coursing through his limbs dulled, and the long, bleak miles of terrain ahead didn’t seem so uninviting. Standing alone in one of the remotest and most inhospitable places on earth, the husband and father of one simply basked in its ethereal beauty, a compensatory gift from nature he mused, for daring to cross swathes of the world’s largest hot desert by foot.
The Marathon des Sables (MdS), considered by many to be the toughest foot race on earth, was created in 1986 by Frenchman Patrick Bauer who, after completing a 200km solo walk through the Sahara desert, wanted to give others the same gruelling opportunity. The first race attracted 186 competitors; now in its 28th consecutive year, it is undertaken by around 1,000 enthusiasts.
Today, men and women over the age of 18 undertake to run the equivalent of several marathons across the desert in southern Morocco. Every April endurance aficionados push their physical capabilities to the very limits, running approximately 250km across giant sand dunes, salt flats, dried riverbeds and steep rocky desert trails. Daytime temperatures can linger around a torturous 50 degrees, plunging by night to biting lows of three degrees. Competitors by and large are self-sufficient, with organisers providing only water, shelter and emergency medical assistance. It’s up to each individual to carry all the necessary equipment required to survive the week.
The selection process for this ultramarathon is rigorous as the organisers are overwhelmed by entries, sometimes years in advance, for the coveted places. Dubai expat Keith, 34, and his colleague Irvine Marr, 43, were among the fortunate successful applicants this year. “I was delighted,” says Irvine. “I had already run a number of major marathons including the world championship triathlon in Hawaii so I really wanted to take on something more challenging that was going to be really tough and where I would be unsure whether I would be able to finish.”
Keith says, “I was inspired by a friend who had done it a couple of years previously. It was an undertaking that comes with a certain amount of trepidation, you wonder if you can physically do it, whether you have the time to commit to it and could I find someone mad enough to do it with me?”
The pair chose to raise funds for a special needs centre in the UAE called Manzil (www. manzil.ae). The Sharjah-based centre cares for and teaches individuals, covering a wide range of ages and special needs.
“Sometimes special needs are overlooked,” explains Keith. “Plus, we didn’t want to raise money for a charity abroad, we wanted to