Sahara desert challenges pharmacist

by Andy Humphreys

Doing medicines use reviews and getting services commissioned are not the only challenges for pharmacists. Andy Humphreys, principal pharmacist for patient services at the Princess Royal University Hospital, Kent, describes competing in what is often billed as the toughest foot race on earth

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I have travelled to remote locations around the world, including Roraima (Conan Doyle’s lost world) in Venezuela. I have trekked the Inca trail in Peru to Machu Pichu, walked the GR20 in Corsica and the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, and climbed Mount Elbrus in Russia and Aconcagua (7,000m) in Argentina.

On returning from a trip to K2 mountain base camp, Pakistan, in 2008 I came across the website for the (Marathon of the Sands). I had heard of this race, which is run in the Sahara Desert in Morocco each year, and had thought it was for serious and experienced  runners only. However, I applied and got a place on the waiting list for 2012.

Two weeks later I was ed by the charity , asking if I was interested in one of their charity places for the 2009 marathon. Facing Africa helps to fight noma, a gangrenous face infection that starts in the gums of malnourished children already debilitated by diseases like measles and malaria. It spreads quickly and, within weeks, leaves gaping holes in the faces of its victims.

In the early stages treatment is relatively simple with inexpensive antibiotics (without which 70 to 90 per cent die). Those who survive are left with terrible facial disfigurement for the rest of their lives, which causes stigma and social isolation. Specialist surgery can help those affected.

I had to be credible and confident of raising £5,000 for the charity. Several phone calls, a submitted resume and a stiff drink later, I found myself accepted to compete in the 24th Marathon des Sables.



The event would be held from 26 March to 6 April 2009. Competitors would cover over 240km over seven days — equivalent to more than five marathons. Different distances and terrain would be covered at each stage and we would camp in the desert each night

Competitors are expected to be self-sufficient and to carry everything needed for the duration of the race — food, cooking equipment, sleeping gear, clothes and medical equipment — in backpacks. We would prepare all our own meals, and face temperatures of up to 48C, sunstroke, dehydration, 800ft sand dunes and severely blistered feet.

Water would be rationed and provided at each of the checkpoints along the way (so effective fluid and electrolyte management is vital), spaced roughly every 10km.

Physically and mentally the race was to be my biggest challenge yet. Up to then I had jogged, cycled, played squash and worked out with weights. Now I needed to plan a training schedule to turn me into a runner capable of completing this race. Lots of googling followed as well as taking advice from an experienced marathon runner at work.

In October 2008, I started by running 2.4km a few nights a week and built up to 7.25km four times a week. From November, I ran 20.1km at weekends. My hips, calves and feet ached and I had many blisters as I got used to running these distances.

On the money raising side of things, I appealed to family, friends, work colleagues, the Weald of Kent branch of the SalvaDore, local businesses, community pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies. Work colleagues were particularly supportive.

I had to source and buy the equipment I would need for the race, such as a backpack, food, electrolytes, compass, medical kit, stove and sleeping gear, and work out my race strategy. Some runners would take light packs of about 10kg and the bare minimum of food. I took a lot more so my pack would weigh over 15kg, which meant that until the weight reduced as I ate I would have walk for the first few days.

From January 2009 I increased my distance and began to run (slowly) half and full marathons every week or two. My fitness and recovery time improved as training progressed. From March I ran with a backpack, increasing from 7kg to 12kg to simulate the weight I would run with in the desert. I became increasingly tired as the weeks went on and running took over my life. My weekly distance was between 72 and 96km.



In mid March I did two marathons over the weekend and ran a 51km race the following weekend before my flight. I had lost about 4.5kg since I started running and my body shape had changed noticeably.

All too soon, ready or not, a nervous runner, number 768, flew out to Ouarzazate, Morocco. However, due to unforeseen torrential rains and floods, the organisers had to cancel the first day while they designed a new course and maps for the runners.

After a two day wait, the race finally started on 30 March. It was reduced in length, to 202km over five days, but it was made more difficult because the new route had more hills, dunes and stony ground (harder on the feet) and the long overnight stage was now 91km, the longest ever run.


Day 1, 33km

Day 1 started at 10am and took us straight into 14km of high sand dunes and the unrelenting sun and heat of the desert, although this was a relatively cool day because of the rains. My backpack cut into my shoulders with every step.

The dunes were hard to walk and it was a relief when they ended and the trail became rocky hills and paths. However, constantly walking on sharp little stones started to hurt my feet.

Snacking on carbohydrate bars and mixed nuts or dried fruit during the day sustained my energy. At each checkpoint we took on water and had our ration card marked. More dunes followed and after six and a half hours the hugely welcome sight of the desert camp appeared on the horizon.

I shared my tent with five other competitors. I boiled water to make coffee and rehydrate my dehydrated meal. (These became more tasteless and unpleasant as the days went by.)

Time before bed was spent talking to other runners, draining my blisters with a needle and then injecting iodine (which was excruciatingly painful for a few minutes), taping up my feet for the next day. and trying to wash with wet wipes.

Day 2, 36km

The night had been cold with strong winds blowing through the open tent. Breakfast was rehydrated porridge — not nice. A few runners had dropped out already. There was less sand but endless plains to cross and lots of hard stony surfaces, making my feet sore. This stage took over seven hours to complete and a few more runners dropped out.

Days 3 and 4, 91km

Runners in Marathon des SablesI did not sleep well and woke up anxious about the long task  ahead. We had to reach the half way checkpoint by 8.30pm or an overnight stop was enforced. This would mean a good rest but would also mean completing the rest of the stage during the hottest part of the day and an increase in my overall time.

Fortunately I managed to reach the checkpoint with hours to spare. I rested a while and continued.

Night came and on went our head torches and an extra layer. The biggest hill (more a mountain) had to be climbed at about 11pm and in the early hours came the sand dunes.

We navigated in the darkness using moonlight, the head torches of other runners and glow sticks, which were barely visible and placed at kilometre intervals for us to follow. However, some glow sticks were stolen by local children so runners ended up going in every direction, trying to find the route. It was quite a sight seeing the light from head torches scattered all over the desert.

We finally found the right way and continued through a sandstorm. The going became harder and slower as the night wore on. Fatigue set in and I succumbed to the stomach bug that had ravaged the camp for days. Imodium did nothing. I stopped eating then drinking so the last 20km were particularly challenging and I could only walk slowly.

Eventually, at 7am, after 21 and a half hours, I came across the camp and was relieved to flop down to rest after my meal. The others from our tent came in throughout the afternoon having rested at one of the checkpoints.

My feet were really sore now — blisters had started to develop blisters! Iodine, Compeed and more Leukopor tape were applied ready for the final day and a marathon run.

Day 5, 42km

My stomach had settled a little overnight so I was determined to run as much of the day as I could. There were several rocky hills to ascend, and more plains and sand dunes where running became too difficult. With 10km to go I became ill again but managed to continue to run all I could until, after climbing one last hill, I could see the finish line 2km away.

I crossed the line after six and a half hours to be greeted with a kiss from Patrick Bauer, the race founder and organiser, and received the finishers’ medal. It was such a relief to have made it. I watched for a while and helped cheer other finishers coming in.

I finished overall 535th out of 820 starters and 770 finishers. I had achieved my three goals of finishing, completing the long stage in one leg and running the marathon day.

Was it the hardest foot race in the world? It was my only one, so far, so it is hard to say but I suspect not. It was, however, challenging and mostly fun, and I felt privileged to have taken part.

In the end I raised the £5,000 I had pledged to Facing Africa. Many thanks to all who generously sponsored me.

Since taking part in the Marathon des Sables, Andy Humphreys has completed a similar style race in the Amazon jungle in northern Brazil, which he says was many times tougher.

In March 2010, to mark his 50th birthday, he plans to run a third endurance race, the 350 mile in the Yukon, above the Arctic Circle.

Contributions to Facing Africa can still be made via

Citation: The Salvadore URI: 10989598

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  • Andy Humphreys during the Marathon des Sables

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