It’s the world’s toughest race

There are some ultra-fit athletes in Cayman who can boast of completing Ironman contests, multiple marathons and conquering the highest peaks but few have the Marathon des Sables on their sporting resume.

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Lillywhite trains on Seven Mile Beach to simulate desert conditions. Photo: Submitted

It is one of the world’s most arduous foot racing events – a six-day, 156-mile run through the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco.

Who would be crazy enough to sign up for this torture test? Evidently, lots of people. Around 800 brave men and women from roughly 30 countries have stepped up to the challenge.

Competitors in the Marathon des Sables have ranged in age from 14 to 76 and have included former gold medal Olympians, polar explorers, executives, scientists, high school students, housewives and a yogi.

Cayman has two entrants this year; Rebecca Lillywhite and Kenneth Krys.

Participants are required to be totally self-sufficient during the Marathon. They must carry a lightweight backpack with all the clothing, food and supplies they need for the week.

Marathon organisers supply the runners with a measly nine litre ration of water for each day. At night, participants sleep on the ground in communal Berber tents.

The actual course of the race remains a secret until the day before the Marathon begins. Typically, it takes place in the stunningly-beautiful desert to the east or south of the town of Ouarzazate.

This arid terrain offers an ankle-wrenching variety of landscapes, including rocky hills, palm groves, dried mud flats and sand dunes. Daytime temperatures have been known to climb to a scorching 125 degrees (51degC) and sandstorms are common.

Each day of the Marathon is an adventure, as each of the six stages ranges from 12 to 50 miles which is the fourth day.

Everyone will be keeping his eyes on Mohamed and Lachen Ahansal, the Moroccan brothers from the nearby desert outpost of Zagora. Lachen has won it 10 times and Mohamed twice. When the race is over, all participants head back to Ouarzazate for an elaborate dinner and awards ceremony.

The Marathon was founded in 1986 by a Frenchman, Patrick Bauer, an ultra-distance enthusiast.

It costs at least US$4,000 to participate in the Marathon des Sables (the winner receives about $5,000) so it’s not for the prize money.

Entrants need a medical certificate from their physician and results from a full medical test. During the race, if anyone becomea severely dehydrated and requires an IV more than once, they’re disqualified.

Krys was featured in this paper last month and is off island right now but will be ready for his assault on Marathon des Sables which starts on Sunday until April 4.

Lillywhite, a fund accountant, was born in Kent, England and grew up in Wales. She lived in London for six years working in the banking industry and came here almost two years ago.

‘I work for a really small company, PRS Group, based in Miami,’ she says. ‘I’m the only PRS employee in Cayman. They’re actually owned by EFG bank and I sit in their office so they’ve had to put with all my training woes. They’ve been very supportive but I think some of them think I am a little bit mental.’ No, really?

‘I’ve been keen on running for quite a long time and I prefer endurance events, ones that are partly mental as well as physical where you have to just keep going. I read about this a few years ago and looked into it and saw there was a two-year waiting list.’

So after much consideration she signed up and eventually got selected. Out of the blue, she got an offer last October in a phone call. ‘I said yes, straight away before I had a chance to change my mind and paid the deposit.

‘It’s a pretty expensive event mainly because of all the logistical support to it, like doctors, helicopters and back up crews. The entry fee also covers our flights from the UK, but I did have to pay my own way to London.

‘I’ve done a lot of training. I’m quite lucky, I’ve got friends who have done it before, including one girl I was at university with. They’ve given me tons of advice on training and kit and what to expect. Here, I’ve met with Ken a couple of times so we can compare notes.’

Lillywhite, 30, has always had an adventurous spirit. She was in the Territorial Army (Reserves) in England.

She hurt her back doing a 20-mile run around East End and has had to curb training. But that has been a blessing because all the hard work was already done.

The most arduous sessions meant running for 12-16 miles in blazing heat then walking the length of Seven Mile Beach and back which is another 11 miles.

Often a mini-back pack was taken to simulate the real thing and weight sessions in the gym have complemented all the running to help negotiate the murderous sand dunes.

Swimming has helped stretch out the muscles, plus interval training with the likes of Scott Brittain, Jasper Mikkelsen, Russell Coleman and Beth Schreader on a Tuesday morning has helped.

‘I’m feeling pretty confident now. The things people worry about most are the state of their feet and getting too dehydrated. You just have to be really well prepared.

‘We get a litre-and-a-half at each check point which is about 10k apart and if you get a particularly long stretch you get a couple of bottles of water.

‘But I’ve heard of people running out and struggling the last couple of kilometres. You actually get some extra rations when you get to the night camp so you can do some cooking with that.’

Food has to be carried in their backpacks for the whole week, plus sleeping bag, clothing and medical kit. Her day will start off with muesli and porridge and meals will be energy bars, noodles or dehydrated expedition food which you just add water to.

‘So I think it will be a week of culinary delight!’

But still, why? Why? Why? She chuckles. ‘I think I’m always in search of an adventure and this will be a great one and I’ll meet some really interesting people.

‘Obviously, the scenery is going to be amazing and hopefully, I’ll be able to enjoy it and appreciate it when I’m shuffling along with my pack on.

‘I’m sure this won’t be the last. I’ve heard of some other events which could be on the agenda.’

Lillywhite’s done the Cayman triathlon twice and all the support events. They are relatively easy for her because there are three disciplines to break up the monotony.

She’s run the London Marathon twice and done some trail runs in Wales.

‘I think the toughest thing I ever did was my recruit’s training exercise for the Territorial Army which was a week in the Breacon Beacons (a mountainous part of Wales) with a heavy backpack.

‘That was quite physical and there was a lot of sleep deprivation going up and down mountains day and night. I’m thinking that background will be good enough for this.

‘Another difficult thing about this is the heat. It gets up to 40 or 50degrees C in the day with no shade at all. Obviously, we’ll wear caps and sun block.

‘So that’s why I’ve been doing a lot of my training here during the day. So I’m one of those people you see running at one in the afternoon with a pack on and I’m sure motorists are thinking: ‘What is that girl doing?”

Canadian Krys is meeting up with the British contingent in London. ‘It will be good to see a familiar face,’ she says. ‘Even though there’s about 800 people doing it, I’m sure that quite quickly you get spread out.

‘The elite people are phenomenal, they run it so fast as if they’re on a road race – and without anything on their back. I know there are a lot of people who just walk it.

‘They have a couple of local nomads on camel who are part of the organisation. They bring up the rear on the camels and are the slowest pace you’re allowed to go. So if the camels catch up with you, you’re out!’

Lillywhite is running for charity. ‘I’d like to raise over $1,000 which I think is achievable and I’m also raising money for a charity in the UK.

‘I want to thank all the staff at Cayman Physio and Cayman Clinic who’ve been great at getting my back and knee injuries sorted so I could get to the start line in a good shape – and also my friends for putting up with me being quite unsociable for the last couple of months. I’m looking forward to coming back and going out for some beers.’

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