Moroccan Marathon

Wednesday, 01 December 2010
Carl Gair Was Never Going To Give Up On The Marathon Des Sables

I started running again in the summer of 2008. I had run in my youth but work commitments and family had put paid to that. But after watching a documentary about the 2008 Marathon des Sables I thought it was time to get my fitness levels up again and so I applied for a place in the 2010 event. The Marathon des Sables, a six-day race across the Sahara in Morocco taking in 150 miles of desert, has been described as the toughest foot race on earth and I was to discover that it lived up to its reputation.

MENCAP have an extreme team who take part in challenges all over the world and they were able to offer me a place on the team to run the Marathon. It is easier to train to get fit if there is something to aim for and I trained hard for eighteen months. Training had to fit in with my work and family commitments: I am a biomedical scientist at Wansbeck General Hospital; I work shifts and so there are occasions where I may have three of four days off and so can do some long runs, otherwise it is the evenings and occasionally weekends. My children are young so I try to train when they are at school or in bed.
     Raising the money was a huge challenge. While much came from sponsorship, my wife and I were also involved in a lot of fundraising activities. We organised a race night, several pub quizzes, street collections and car-boot sales. Two local schools were an enormous support: my daughter’s first school organised a mini Marathon des Sables. Every child in school ra n around a course laid out in the grounds for half an hour at a time and were sponsored to take part. I ran continuously with every class and with the staff during their lunch time so I was running for six hours nonstop.
     This raised an amazing £2,100. The local high school I attended as a child also became involved: I ran a marathon around the school running track and again pupils were sponsored to join in. This also raised an amazing amount, £2,300.
     Friends contributed through their own events and donated the money to MENCAP on my behalf: one ran the Edinburgh Marathon, my brother-in-law completed a sponsored cycle ride and a colleague was inspired to run from Paris to Versailles. I also had some donations from the Northumberland County Council, local masonic lodges and a generous £500 from the Provincial Grand Lodge. All in all it was a huge family and community effort which raised £11,500 for MENCAP.

Preparation

We flew to Ouarzazate, east of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and were transported into the desert; the final journey being on the back of army lorries. We then spent two nights at a camp before our luggage was taken back to a hotel and we were left with only our rucksacks. The organisation was spot on: a team of Moroccans took the tents down at 6.30 am and packed everything away for transporting to the following nights camp. Then each day’s race began between 8.30 and 9.00 am.
     But what makes the Marathon des Sables such a tough event is that we had to carry everything that we needed for the duration of the event on our backs in rucksacks. This included food, clothes, our sleeping bag and medical equipment.
     There was no food supplied during the race; we were completely self-sufficient and had to carry and cook all our own food. My diet mainly consisted of energy bars, pepperami sticks and dried meals: one for breakfast and one for each evening.
     The race organisers made sure that you were carrying enough to provide you with at least 2,000 calories per day to eat.
     Water was supplied at checkpoints throughout the day. You were given approximately three litres of water at the start line each morning and then at checkpoints throughout the day. The amount of checkpoints depended on the length of each stage of the race. When you reached the camp in the evening you were also given about four and a half litres of water to use to drink, cook or clean as you wished.
     There were medics available on route and a medical tent at the camp each night. One of the biggest problems being treated was blisters; some people’s feet were in a terrible state. Others had dehydration, exhaustion or heat stroke. I tried to avoid visiting the medics at all costs as I did not want them to pull me out of the race therefore I treated my own blisters from my medical kit.
     There was one member of my tent who was withdrawn from the race because the medics did not think he was fit to complete it; they could pull you up at any stage if they thought it necessary. In fact, of the 1013 who began the race, including 135 women, 923 finished. Although this number of non-finishers may seem small most people would have trained extremely hard for the event so very few of those who started were not fully prepared.
     Whilst there are other extremely tough organised races, lots of them require you to have a support crew who will meet you at various places with food and supplies. This is not the case with the Marathon des Sables: If you can’t carry it, you don’t have it!

The Race

I was there to finish the race. In hindsight I wish that I had pushed a bit harder but at the time I was worried that I would either suffer from exhaustion or I would injure myself and not be able to complete the race. I found it very tough. There was one point in particular where I thought I might not carry on and that was in the middle of the night during the longest stage of the race - stage four which was just over eighty-two kilometers.
     I took a couple of hours to sit down, compose myself and have a good rest, then I got up and carried on; this was hard. Running more than fifty miles over an extremely difficult terrain of dunes and mountains in temperatures soaring up to forty degrees centigrade at points without stopping was, of course, supremely difficult but I was never going to give up.
     There are some serious competitors who take part in the race year after year, male and female. The winner this year was a Moroccan named Mohamad Ahansal who has won it many times before. In fact, as a child he would run barefoot in the desert alongside competitors. He completed the race in a cumulative time of nineteen hours and fifty-six minutes. I completed it with a cumulative time of forty-eight hours and forty-eight minutes. I was right in the middle of the field at the 499th place.
     To help I listened to an MP3 player which I had filled with motivational music and messages from my children before I left for Morocco. I thought of my family a lot while I was away as they were my main inspiration. I wanted my two young children to be proud of me and hopefully inspire them in the future to take on challenges of their own. I also met some fantastic people and spent a lot of time talking to them. It was great spending some time with like-minded people from all over Europe as well as the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and of course Africa.

Freemasonry

It was my father who inspired me to become a Freemason. I have always had a great deal of respect for the man he is and the moral values that he holds dear. I joined Freemasonry in 1998, I was twenty-five; in 2002 I was probably the youngest master in my lodge at the age of twenty-nine.
     Unfortunately, Freemasonry has had to take a bit of a back seat at the moment but charity is always in my heart and because I cannot give the commitment to Freemasonry as I have in the past, by raising money for charity I feel I can support one of its strongest values.
     Freemasonry is an organisation that I am immensely proud to be part of and one that I hope, in the future, my son will also be proud to join.

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