Two Dubai-based ex­pats com­pleted the most gru­elling race on Earth to raise money for char­ity

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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

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