Pics: Patrick Boyd Photography, Cyril Bussat
When Sue Warnock signed up to take part in the Marathon des Sables, she knew the task ahead would be challenging. Known as the toughest footrace on earth, it’s described as ‘a gruelling multi-stage adventure through a formidable landscape in one of the world’s most inhospital climates – the Sahara desert’.
With temperatures likely to exceed 50 degrees, participants are required to complete the equivalent of five-and-a-half marathons (approximately 251km/156 miles) in five or six days, be self-sufficient, and carry everything on their backs that they will need to survive (except for water). This is clearly a race with a difference.
“I knew the race would be the ultimate physical challenge,” says Sue, a 50-year-old educational psychologist from Leicestershire. “It’s seen as an iconic race and, although I’ve never been a fast runner, I can keep going for a long time without getting too tired. Distance and hills seem to suit me, and I thought doing this would add another element of fun to running.”
Sue started training almost two years prior to the race, and began doing ultra-marathons (races that are longer than a standard marathon). She completed seven of these in the year leading up to the Marathon des Sables – the longest being 100 miles – and also did ‘hot’ yoga to prepare her body for the heat. The preparation was exhausting and Sue now admits that at times she questioned her sanity in taking on such a huge challenge.
However, her main reason for doing it wasn’t simply to test herself – she wanted to raise money for the Brooke, a charity that helps working equines in the world’s poorest communities. Sue says: “Horses have always been a huge part of my life and as a horse owner, I feel very passionately about helping them. It has always saddened me when travelling in developing countries to see the state of some working horses, mules and donkeys. They don’t have a voice and often work until they die. I started supporting the Brooke because they help these poor animals. I know that a small amount of money can fund so much, so doing the Marathon des Sables seemed like a good way to raise money for them.”
‘On the final day in the desert a donkey crossed my path. We both looked at each other and I knew the race had been worth it’
Last April Sue flew to Southern Morocco ready to start the race, and on arrival spent a day preparing. This consisted of checks on her kit – which included a minimum of 14,000 calories of food, a compass, head torch, sleeping bag, salt tablets, anti-venom pump and clothing – an ECG, the checking of medical certificates and the weighing of bags. “I even had to produce a recent ECG printout to show that my heart was unlikely to give out!
“The first day was more challenging than anything I could have imagined. Miles of dunes stretched ahead covered in soft yellow sand – the highest in Morocco – and our backpacks were at their heaviest.”
Sue says her lowest point came when she temporarily ran out of water. “The temperature was close to 50 degrees, and the sand so soft that I could not get up a hill. I found myself flat on my face and scrabbling, like a hamster on a wheel. Another day I lost my sunglasses and also had to pass through a herd of wild camels who bellowed at me.”
Despite the hardships Sue completed the race in six days, using the Brooke as motivation. “I wore donkey ears and a Brooke badge throughout the race and told everyone about the charity,” she says. “I thought that if one person went on to save the life of a horse, donkey or mule because of my efforts, I would be happy.
“On the final day a donkey crossed my path. We looked at each other, and I knew then that everything had been worthwhile. Later I crossed the finish line in disbelief. It hardly seemed real that I had completed the Marathon des Sables. Knowing that I helped other living creatures is the best feeling of all. That’s my definition of happiness.”
Helping working animals to have better lives
The Brooke is an international animal welfare charity dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules. They believe that animal suffering is preventable and that good animal welfare protects human livelihoods.
There are more than 100 million working equines in the developing world, doing the hardest jobs under the toughest conditions to support the livelihoods of 600 million people.
The Brooke works together with local communities to bring about lasting improvements to the lives of their working animals. With 80 years of experience from 11 different countries, last year the Brooke reached almost 1.5 million working horses, donkeys and mules and is on target to reach two million working equines each year by 2016.
- If you’d like to find out more about the Brooke, or make a donation, call 0207 470 9393 or visit www.thebrooke.org
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