Toughest Footrace on Earth


Navy Pilots James Birchall and André Milne have completed a spectacular charitable effort by competing in the gruelling Marathon Des Sables race across the Sahara Desert. Described as ‘the toughest foot-race on Earth,’ the two 37 year old Lt Cdrs, from CHF, have exceeded their initial target of £12,000 and raised nearly £20,000 for the Children’s Trust, a national charity providing care, education and therapy to children with multiple disabilities and complex health needs across the UK.

During the 154 mile, six stage running race, temperatures frequently exceeded 45°C and saw them treasure every drop of the nine litre daily water ration particularly during the long stage of 51 miles. The water ration saw no washing for six days and self-sufficiency demanded the pair carry specialist lightweight food and equipment, and only one set of clothes. Luckily the camel walking at the back of the field did not catch them either, this would have meant disqualification and fortunately they didn’t need any emergency intravenous drips, also leading to withdrawal from the race.

The searing heat and self sufficiency were challenges alone but add in the terrain and you see why so few people take on this race. Around 860 competitors from 43 nations competed this year and ran across the massively diverse Moroccan Sahara touching the edge of the Atlas Mountains. James and André crossed vast expanses of ‘beach-like’ plains, volcanic rock fields, dried river beds, powdery sand dunes and huge rocky hills or ‘Jebels.’ After the epic race and despite the high of finishing André said, “…the low was the unimaginable number of dunes covered, I managed to empty half a dune from my left shoe on the final day and have kept some as my own unique reminder to not do the race again!”

James said, “It was spectacular but we had little time to enjoy it, we were pushing hard, running together to keep our speed as high as possible. You had to keep focused and your mind was constantly busy evaluating your body to identify problems as soon as they developed. In parallel we frequently drew strength from the huge support we were receiving and for this we can’t thank people enough.”

Both runners have been overwhelmed by the huge support towards their efforts and as a result never doubted their own physical resolve as André says, “No doubt it was tough, but we have been blown away by the public’s generosity and are amazed we only have a few more steps to reach our revised target of £20,000.”

With the race behind them the two runners are recovering well although seem strangely non-committal on whether they would do the race again!

The Marathon Des Sables
• Annual running race in the Sahara Desert, start and finish in Morocco
• The event origin is brain child of Patrick Bauer, a French concert promoter who whilst completing his own 200 mile unsupported desert ‘walk-about’ came up with the idea.
• Only 860 competitors this year, this was 27th year.
• 154 miles (250km) in 6 stages, 1 stage per day (stages of 21, 24, 22, 51, 26 and 10 miles).
• The winner completed in a cumulative time of 20 hours (we finished in 37 hours and were 216/217th out of 790 finishers). Approximately 30% of competitors do not normally finish the event.
• Final stage included 6 miles of pure sand dunes and a further stage completed at night!
• Completely unsupported apart from emergency medical cover and provision of 9 litres of water per day.
• You have to carry all your own equipment and food for 7 days… whilst running!
• If you need an intravenous drip you receive a time penalty, if you need 2 or more you are removed from the event.
• If the camel at the back of the field over takes you, you are pulled from the event! The camel was well behind us!

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