Student stories - six back-to-back marathons in the Sahara
Ever fancied running the equivalent of six marathons back-to-back in 50 degree heat through the Sahara Desert? No? Well, one of our students – Louise Johnstone – is going to do just that, as she’s secured a place in the gruelling Marathon des Sables.
Known as ‘the toughest footrace on earth’, the Marathon des Sables started in 1986 and is now in its 28th consecutive year.
It continues to grow in popularity with every edition, and Louise will be running the race to raise money for the Dundee Association for Mental Health (DAMH), which provides support to people recovering from mental health difficulties, and campaigns to break down the stigma surrounding mental health.
Louise is carrying out her Masters by Research here at Abertay, alongside running her own personal training business – Louise’s PT 4 U – and has to fit her training for the event, which takes place eight weeks today, around a busy schedule. We caught up with her to find out how she’s getting on.
What made you want to run this race?
“In a runner’s world, well depending on what kind of runner you are, there are a number of iconic races that hit your 'once in a lifetime' list. The Marathon des Sables is one of them! I love the idea of a challenge, something that requires me to strive for new depths when it comes to my own abilities and reserves. This is it!”
What’s so special about the Marathon des Sables?
“The race itself involves covering 156 miles over six days in the Sahara Desert, self-sufficient. This means covering distances from 10 to 56 miles on back-to-back days carrying all your own kit. The distances depend on the course, which changes each year, but we’ve all had an email with the words 'on the longest route since 1986', which is when the race began!
“The support crew kindly transport tents or bivouacs to each daily final destination. They also have innumerable first aid kits and provide water at checkpoints.
“Runners from all over the world enter the race, with approximately 1000 competitors taking part. It can take years to get into this race, as so many people want to do it. You can run alone, with tent-mates or simply anyone who matches the pace you are able to sustain for that day. The heat can get up to approximately 50 degrees and I’m told April will also be sandstorm month.”
How are you feeling about the prospect of running such a long distance in such incredible heat?
“The heat is probably the part that worries me the most. That and the dry humidity. Being Scottish, it makes for a very difficult few months of training through winter when it’s just so wet. Last weekend I was running in the local hills through snow. When I get to Morocco in April I’ll be running on sand dunes. The key element will be our hydration and nutrition strategies within the race but also our ability to practice these prior to race week.”
Have you ever done an ultramarathon before?
“I began running in 2011 after a rugby injury left me with nerve damage to my lower leg. Since then I’ve completed a couple of marathons and some ultra events. It is these that I feel have prepared me the most for this event. They included The Pilgrims Way, which was 66 miles over two days, and the 100 Mile Run, which is the equivalent of four marathons in four days. They were also so much fun to complete and take part in. There is a real camaraderie amongst fellow runners and you really do make life-long friends on these events.”
What made you choose to raise money for the Dundee Association for Mental Health?
“I’ve raised money for DAMH previously in challenges, including the 100 Mile Run and Tough Guy, an event described by many as the original of obstacle races. I worked with the charity during a work experience module while completing my undergraduate degree here at Abertay. From there I have carried this on, becoming a volunteer and utilising my existing skills for the benefit of those who work with the charity.
“On a more personal level, so many of us must face challenges when it comes to our mental health, I really believe we need to work together to raise the profile of the fantastic work that mental health charities such as DAMH do.
“They run a number of activities and groups that support those with mental health and wellbeing issues and recovery. These include greenbuds projects, walking groups for varying abilities and a music group. But these are just a few of the many projects they have.”
How are you preparing physically and mentally for the Marathon des Sables?
“Physical preparation involves many back-to-back runs. These are not as long in nature as some may think though. The key focus for me in my training is in fact getting to the start line uninjured. As my place was only 100% confirmed in the first week of January 2016, it is not a lot of time until the race, but I did begin training mid-October.
“In addition to this, learning to run any distance with a minimum of 6.5kg on your back is no small task, I have to admit. The first time I did this my body really did not appreciate my decisions.
“To help me from a mental perspective I’ve booked my first heat chamber training session, which will give me an insight into the environment I’ll be facing when competing. I will then book a number of sessions immediately prior to leaving for Morocco.
“I already have an attitude toward challenges that involves putting no limits on myself – I hope this will hold me in good stead.”
You run your own business and offer personal training – are you creating your own training plan, or are you getting some outside help too?
“It would have been easy to think I could do it all myself, but with so many elements to consider, I have been lucky enough to have been sponsored by a fellow personal trainer, Stuart Aitken Fitness, a graduate of Abertay.
“This has given me adequate opportunities to discuss training and how to make the best adjustments around any injuries that have arisen. But there are so many people involved in supporting me to reach the start line. These include my existing clients providing motivation and support, my friends making me accountable, corporate sponsors keeping up-to-date and offering their services, for example to help prepare my feet for the conditions.”
Do the race organisers offer any advice to those taking part?
“The race organisers have a wealth of information on their website to help budding racers prepare but I have to admit most of my preparation has come from speaking with some of the previous participants.
“They have real life experience they can pass on, including many dos and don'ts. In addition, there is a wealth of blogs and informational pieces on the internet, including how one man got lost!”
Louise will be taking part in an open evening at DAMH on Monday 22 February at 6pm. As well as talks about the charity given by staff from the organisation, Louise will be speaking about her preparations for the event.
There will also be the chance to find out about the different activities the charity organises, before the evening finishes off with a mini auction to raise more funds for the charity on the night.
Everyone is welcome, and more details can be found on Eventbrite.
To help Louise reach her fundraising target please visit her JustGiving page.