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The sand stormer

The Times
It’s one of Earth’s toughest races: a six-day slog through the Sahara. Meet the City girl who went in search of her ultimate goal

http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/body_and_soul/article536654.ece

In any corporate team-building exercise Annette Fraser inevitably emerges as a completer-finisher. No surprise then that the City-based fund manager managed to run the equivalent of nearly six marathons in as many days through the heat of the daytime Sahara.

For a woman who once scoffed at the zeal of marathon runners, this endurance test was a reason for her to return to racing. In the late 1990s she completed three consecutive marathons (London twice and New York), but five years on, and aged 38, she felt that she had gone soft and was after a new goal. “It’s easier to focus on achieving something if you set yourself a deadline — this was it,” she says.

The people who organise the Marathon des Sables claim that it is the hardest race on Earth, and they have a point. If it didn’t already exist, it would sound like a bad joke. Imagine racing 150 miles (240km) in daytime temperatures above 120F (49C), carrying a week’s worth of supplies on your back, sleeping in an open-sided tent in temperatures close to freezing, nose-to-nose with seven or eight unwashed male runners. Clean pants are a luxury too far (you can’t carry everything). And yet it seems little short of madness when you learn that some of the competitors have never run a marathon before.

At some point you will inevitably run through the desert in the dark. The French race organisers set distances for each day: the shortest at 22km; and the longest the equivalent of a “double day” of 82km. The competitors — about 600 from around the world — are obliged to carry flares, an anti-venom pump for spider bites and a mirror for distress signalling.

Fraser finished as the fastest British woman and raised £15,000 for the British overseas charity, Health Unlimited. But she’s proudest of having done so without suffering the grisly blisters or injuries that afflict most runners sooner or later. She puts this down to her meticulous preparation: “You have to be a particular kind of person. I need a goal. Although in a moment of crisis I did say to my tent mates, ‘Remind me never to do this again!’” When Fraser resolved to run the annual race, which takes place between the end of March and beginning of April, she found a dearth of training information. “There was no advice. I had a book on marathon running but I didn’t know how to train for an event like this.” Six or seven months before the race, she began a relentless schedule. At its peak she was running 85 miles a week, with a pack of weights on her back. That, combined with regular gym sessions recommended by a physiotherapist for strength and flexibility, amounted to three hours of training, six days a week.

“From Christmas to March I did very little but work and run; willpower has never been an issue. I know from my marathon days that every run you don’t do, every training session you shirk, makes the race that little bit harder.” And she did this despite a strenuous working week. Her office hours began at 8am and had to finish by 10pm; after that it became too late to run home. “My colleagues did think I was crackers.” A naturally competitive person, Fraser was piqued when runners overtook her on their way back from the office. “I’d look at the pack on their backs and know full well there’d be a dirty shirt and a mobile inside. I had iron weights in mine.”

She devoted the same dedication towards her practical planning. In the world of running, everyone knows someone who knows someone who has done this race before and can tell you what you need to survive a week in the Sahara. Weight, they said, would be critical. Fraser would be carrying the same gear as stronger male runners. She spent her evenings weighing flip-flops (“my luxury”) and mirrors to find the lightest items. Her food — freeze-dried and vegetarian — came from America. She studied supermarket labels to find the highest calories per gram and ended up with a diet of Bombay mix, dried macaroni cheese and energy bars. She glued gaiters made from parachute silk to her shoes to keep out the sand. She ran a race from Reading to London and changed her choice of shoes after she got blisters.

But nothing prepared her for the first day. All through the build-up, when competitors are flown out to a remote Moroccan hotel and given a pep talk before spending their first night in a tent before the start, Fraser remained calm and slept well alongside her nine tent companions. She doesn’t suffer from nerves. “I changed into my kit, thought ‘This is all I am for a week’ and set off in the middle of nowhere. But it was just so hot. My bag was heavy. I was running through treacle.

“There were steep hills, people kept passing me; it was just horrid, really ghastly.” Hard sand was easy to run on; soft sand was bad; dried lakes were all right; and rocks and dunes were hell. Day 1 was the worst.

After that, Fraser rallied where others floundered and competitors settled into a “middle of nowhere” camaraderie. “We weren’t so much competing against each other as against ourselves just to finish,” she says.

In the less than rarefied atmosphere of a mostly male environment, Fraser was something of an oddity. “Guys were revelling in having shaven heads and being dirty; clearly they weren’t going to wash.” She, on the other hand, took some of her nine-litres-a-day water ration behind the dunes for a freshen-up. “They did think I was a bit peculiar, a blonde middle-class woman in flip-flops and a sarong.”

Days began at around 5.30am when tents — coffee sacks sewn together for a roof — were dismantled. The running started at 9.30am and finished any time between 1pm and 11pm, which could mean running in the dark as nightfall was at 6pm. The participants, who were issued with a map of the course, carried lights on their backpacks for nighttime running. The also cooked their own meals.

The “double-day” heralded another low point for Fraser, who got through the hours “by counting to 300 and then starting again”. When she couldn’t run any more, she walked. “Some people said it was all about the scenery. I didn’t see anything — I had to zone out.”

Sunburn and blisters were the greatest enemies. Fraser wore long sleeves, a legionnaire’s cap, sunglasses and a buff, a sort of face scarf for protection against headwinds. Blisters dominated everything: talking about them and dealing with them. “Doctors literally cut the skin away and covered them with iodine,” says Fraser, whose only blister during the whole race was on her little toe.

Fittingly for a race that never seemed to end, the last 4km — and finally a Tarmac road into a village, the first that they’d seen for a week — seemed the longest. “But I felt that I was flying,” Fraser says. “This was the only part that was fun. And then, quite suddenly after finishing, it seemed like a huge anticlimax. We showered and had dinner in a hotel, and I suddenly didn’t recognise all these people washed and shaved . . . although we still looked like an army in retreat.”

Fraser was the ninth woman to finish and the first British female runner. And two years since the marathon she’s still seeking the same kind of near-impossible challenges, be they ultrarunning or climbing. “It’s liberating. It’s put me in a can-do mood to find a goal and make it happen. I feel that I can run any distance. It’s not a question of how far, but how fast.”

Fancy it?

Begin serious training six or seven months before the race, running about 30 miles a week, building up to 50, and gradually increasing the weight of a pack on your back. Marathon runners are obviously at an advantage; mental stamina is half the battle, say race veterans.

Essential Kit

Silk gaiters, Gore-Tex socks, lightweight flip-flops, tape for wrapping chafing toes and shoulders, sand goggles and a face scarf, camping cooker, painkillers, sleeping bag, warm top. Luxury item: inflatable pillow.

Reading

Survival of the Fittest (Vintage, £7.99), by Dr Mike Stroud, OBE, a doctor specialising in human endurance. Stroud competed in the Marathon des Sables in 1994 and has devoted a chapter to the experience, with good medical advice.

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