Machismo . . . or masochism?

Sat, Mar 22, 2008, 00:00

Running a marathon in the desert is all about finding your mental and physical limits - and completing 80 miles a week of training - one Dubliner tells Brian Keane

EXCESSIVE HEAT, water rations, mental fatigue and potential physical injury are not usually part of an ideal itinerary when travelling abroad. But for Dubliner Mark O'Kelly, these will be the challenges he faces at the Marathon des Sables (MdS) in the Sahara Desert at the end of this month.

Entrants for the toughest foot race on Earth are required to complete the course over six days and be self-sufficient in every way; this means carrying a sleeping bag, food, clothing and medical kit at all times. The exact course is not revealed until the day before the start and this year's race, the 23rd since the event started in 1986, is officially the longest ever at 152 miles. That's the equivalent of almost six regular marathons. For the majority of the 850 entrants, however, this is about pride over prizes, a race to finish, not a race to even contemplate winning.

"You always hear people saying that they were at their limit," O'Kelly explains. "I thought that by completing this event I would get the opportunity to see what my mental and physical limits actually are." The seed was planted in his mind four years ago after watching a TV documentary about the race. A rugby injury put the 27-year-old out of action for three months and when he was able to start training again he decided a new challenge was needed. Since his training towards the MdS started 18 months ago, O'Kelly has been building up from an initial weekly target of running 20 miles to more than 80 miles now.

He has visited Brittas Bay on a few occasions to train on the sand, but most of his running takes place in the Dublin Mountains. At weekends O'Kelly will cover about 20 miles each morning. One of the perks of working as a tax accountant in PricewaterhouseCoopers is the use of a company gym. During the week he'll combine runs with non-impact training as well as a high-reps weights programme.

According to O'Kelly, the two greatest challenges of the race will be "heat and feet". Midday temperatures in southern Morocco can reach 50 degrees and the only way to try and replicate the conditions is to wear four layers of clothing while running and spend up to four hours in a sauna per week. During training water consumption is vital; nine litres of water a day will be required in the desert.

O'Kelly has also used the opportunity to raise funds for two causes: Focus Ireland and Temple Street Children's Hospital. As well as the £2,550 (€3,320) entry fee, there is a host of additional expenses. Getting through a pair of runners every six weeks at €150 a pop has added up. Due to the swelling he will endure, O'Kelly will be wearing extra-size running shoes. Even so, cleaning blisters, applying antiseptic and taping up cuts will be a nightly chore.

A backpack and equilibrium pack (front pack) suitable for endurance running will hold the 12kg of belongings O'Kelly will bring for the race; the maximum permitted is 15kg. This will include freeze-dried food, clothes, compass, whistle, tropical disinfectant, an anti-venom pump and a survival kit including a distress flare and salt tablets.

Preparation hasn't been without its problems. A litany of injuries occurred in the most mundane circumstances. While working in his garden last November, O'Kelly pulled his right hamstring, which prompted further setbacks. The toll from his rigorous schedule led to damage in the joint of his right knee, and O'Kelly came close to throwing in the towel.

"I visited a physio who asked me had I ever thought that I mightn't be able to do it. He explained to me that there could potentially be long-term damage to the knee. Apart from the initial concern of my family and girlfriend, that was the first negative viewpoint someone had given me. But I felt I had come too far and trained too hard to give up now." Instead, O'Kelly opted for cortisone injections, and although the injury still bothers him, there is no turning back. "If I don't do it I know I'll look back in a couple of years and wonder what if? It would constantly niggle at me. That's the way I've always been."

With the start of the race only days away, there is time to reflect on the experience so far: "It's all I've thought about for the past six months. I just want to get over there in the best shape I can. Bar me losing a leg, nothing's going to stop me from finishing it. I visualise the finish line and that keeps me motivated."

When he returns home there is a new job to start, a recently purchased house to work on and family and friends to catch up with, but surely there will soon be another challenge to face? "I've a few things in my mind that I might do in the future, but when I get back I'm looking forward to chilling out, catching up with my mates and enjoying a few beers." Would his girlfriend be happy if this extreme form of exercise became a habit? "Definitely not! She'd have my guts for garters if I entered another one!"

Entry forms for the 2010 MdS (there are no spaces left for 2009) can be found at www.saharamarathon.co.uk. To make a donation to Mark O'Kelly's chosen charities, visit tinyurl.com/3ydbb8 for Focus Ireland and www.templestreet.ie