Six inspirational individuals from the North East are pushing their bodies to the limit in the toughest footrace on Earth across the Sahara Desert, raising tens of thousands of pounds in the process.
To help prepare for the gruelling challenge, the six have been training at the University of Sunderland in a heat chamber to help acclimatise to potential temperatures of up to 54 degrees Celsius, they are expected to face during the Marathon des Sables.
The runners have been preparing for these conditions in the University’s £8.5 million Sciences Complex. Sports scientists and students have been collating vital data to help them prepare for the run, including measuring their sweat and drink rates, heart rates, body temperature and breathing rates to help gauge how they are adapting.
Running in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates – the Sahara Desert, will be a challenge for anyone, but covering more than 251 kilometres in five days is just the start of it. The rules require the participants to be self-sufficient, so they have to carry all their equipment on their back, including sleeping bags and food, roughly weighing 10kg.
One runner has lost six stone during his training, one has completely turned his life around after becoming a personal trainer and a further participant is running in memory of her sister who died of cancer after giving birth to her son, Charlie Short, who has just turned 18.
Dr David Archer, Senior Lecturer in Exercise Physiology at Sunderland University, said: “Students, academic and technical staff have been delivering heat acclimatisation strategies to help prepare all six for the harsh environment ahead.
“The students will be using the data collected for their university work and it offers them real life experience working as a sports scientist while they study. The students can get accredited by the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences and this will offer a perfect case study for their application, boosting their employability.”
The athletes are all raising money for charities in the area including the Children’s Heart Unit at the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, Tiny Lives, Mencap, and the Neonatal Unit at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, in Newcastle and have each raised around £10,000.
David Armstrong, 41, said: “It is known as the toughest footrace in the world and that’s exactly why I’m doing it. I’ve done various challenges before but this takes you well out of your comfort zone – the thought of it scares you. The preparation takes so long and gives you a long time to think and worry about it!”
Lee Maddison, 35, from Shotley Bridge, said: “Coming to the Sunderland University has been extremely beneficial as it’s taught me what I can and can’t do due to the heat. It’s enabled me to see what pace to go and when to be at my optimum level because I don’t want my heart rate to be at certain levels at certain points during the race. Knowing your limits is the most important part, once you’re in the Sahara.”
Even though the water is supplied to the runners, they are limited to seven litres per day. The race takes place between Sunday, April 6, and finishes on Saturday, April 12, with one rest day, if the competitors finish the “long stage” of 50 miles in one day. It is estimated that 900 people will be entering the race this year with 50 different nationalities taking part.
Iain Aberdeen, 42, from Washington, a fencing coach in the North East, is carrying a sword on his back while running through the desert to promote the charities he is raising money for. He said: “I was surfing the internet one day and on the spur of the moment entered the toughest footrace on Earth. I decided I wanted to lose weight and that anyone could do a marathon therefore making them easy to do, so I decided this was the challenge for me.
“I’m the fittest I’ve ever been, I’ve lost six stone throughout my training. The heat chamber at the University has been the most important part of my training. I’ve learnt more about hydration, my equipment and nutrition while spending time in there with all the data on the screen than I have in months of running up and down the beach.”
Petra, 40, from Low Fell, is taking out more than 50 football shirts that have been donated from football fans throughout the North East. She is going to give them all to volunteers who help with the Marathon des Sables. She said: “I promised myself when I turned 40 that I would compete in an ultra-race. In 1998 I met some friends who were doing it and I claimed 2014 would be the year I would do it, so I’ve stuck to my word. I’m also running in memory of my sister who died having had cancer while she was pregnant with my nephew, Charlie Short, who is now 18.
“Coming to the University has helped me massively, before this I was going to the gym in a sauna suit and I thought I was doing well – now I’ve been in the heat chamber I know I have to change my pace or I’ll fail when I run in the Sahara Desert. There’s so many things you need to be aware of such as when to drink water and how much, make sure you take enough salt on board and avoid blisters on your feet.”
Alice Fisher Edwards, a sports science technician intern at the Sunderland University, said: “Being given the opportunity to help out with this project has been massively rewarding in more than one way. I have been able to pass on knowledge to the athletes but also to interact with different people and learn about their individual reasons for doing such a hard gruelling challenge. I have found doing this project inspiring and I will be following all their progress online. It is great for my CV and it has been a great experience.”
All six individuals taking part from the North East are Lee Maddison, from Shotley Bridge, Iain Aberdeen, from Washington, David Armstrong, from Newcastle, Simon Gould, from Whitley Bay, Petra Moffatt, from Low Fell, Gateshead and Bruce Smith, from Consett in County Durham.