Competitors have just set off on the third stage of the challenging 32nd edition of the Marathon Des Sables (MDS) in which they will have to complete 31.6km across the hot Sahara desert in Morocco in less than 10 hours and 30 minutes.
Braving these tough conditions is South Africa’s Moerieda Mackay, who is among the 1 198 competitors.
— MARATHON DES SABLES (@marathonDsables) April 11, 2017
MDS is a 250km race through the Sahara desert in Morocco, comprising six stages, and is taking place from 8 to 17 April this year. On the official Marathon Des Sables website for all UK and Ireland entries, it is stated that the race is “the stuff of legends” and reportedly labelled the “toughest footrace on earth” by the Discovery Channel.
The website further describes the Sahara desert as “one of the world’s most inhospitable environments”, with temperatures reaching 120 degrees fahrenheit (48.8°C).
The Marathon Des Sables Facebook page posted this video earlier on Tuesday of the runners setting off on the third leg:
For Mackay, this is a challenge she has been itching to take on since she became aware of it. “All I can think of is: me verse MDS,” she told The Citizen ahead of taking part in MDS.
The Johannesburg resident continued: “Every day I run, I think about running in the desert. It is the craziest feeling. I’ve never even been to a desert. The closest I came to 43°C was in the Karoo. I am not sure why I have this burning desire to run in the desert, for now… let’s just say, the desert is calling my name!”
The Marathon Des Sables Facebook page posted these photos of the terrain before the first checkpoint on the third day:
However, Mackay is not only tackling this challenge for herself: she is running in support of Hope For Children, as she said she liked to support organisations that cared for vulnerable children.
“This is a personal challenge I have set for myself since I started running in 2011. Surviving this challenge is going to test my limits both phyically and mentally – yet it won’t be anything that could ever compare to the hardship felt by a young child left vulnerable,” explained Mackay.
“I have been inspired by the incredible work Hope For Children is doing to empower these children, and their families to improve their lives and that of their community. I want to support them by raising money as part of my participation in Marathon des Sables 2017.”
Mackay is a mother to three children, and she said she knew what children most need was a safe environment, where they were loved and cared for. “Hope for Children does that,” said Mackay.
Mackay’s running journey started in 2010 after she decided it was the year that she would “stop looking for that all elusive work-life balance and start living it” and began with “trying to lose a few kilos”.
“My husband started running and buying the Runner’s World magazine and me opting for gym and the Shape magazine, but he was having so much fun with races on the weekend, I was jealous! I started reading ‘his’ Runner’s World magazine and, damn, very interesting articles and stories on how running has transformed people’s lives,” explained Mackay.
“I could not wait for the next issues, read it front to back each time, and soon we were fighting for the magazine.”
Putting her takkies to the elliptical trainer in 2010, and watching her diet, saw Mackay shed 22kg. She began “to push the boundaries” and signed up for the 2011 Two Oceans Half Marathon in Cape Town, which she now looks back at as a “life-changing experience”.
Now, she had lost count of the half-marathons and marathons she has successfully tackled, including three Comrades Marathons.
Mackay’s intrigue in MDS was first aroused when she came across a photograph of a man running while carrying a backpack in Runner’s World magazine, and she was baffled by the intricacies of all the man’s gear and mandatory equipment that he had to carry, including an antivenom kit.
“I think it was the antivenom kit that scared me, what was he doing? Well, he was running the Marathon Des Sables, a 250km self-sufficient, multi-stage race in the Moroccan Sahara Desert. I knew then already that it was something I would love to take on,” she exclaimed.
Her preparation for MDS began in the middle of 2015, but in October last year she suffered an unfortunate fall, injuring her ankle, at a training camp for the Skyrun 100. She said her recovery was slow, and her training over the past six months had been “frustrating”.
Speaking on building her physical strength for MDS, Mackay said a structured programme where she could build up her milage slowly had worked for her in the past. “MDS is not just a race, it’s an adventure in the desert, and you need to be prepared for whatever will be thrown at you so finding opportunities in training races and training to test gear, nutrition, hydration, recovery, sleeping on the floor and off course, taking care of my feet becomes the challenge,” she exclaimed.
In terms of being mentally prepared for the race, Mackay said: “The key to becoming a mentally tough runner is not to think but to do! I build confidence by knowing that I have done the hard work. Hundreds of kilometres in training, and when race day comes, I trust the process.”
Ahead of the race, Mackay described day three, which she is currently tackling, as starting with a climb and followed by “rollercoaster terrain”. Dunes form part of the landscape too.