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Marathon des Sables: From Old Welwyn to the Sahara desert

PUBLISHED: 14:07 24 July 2010 | UPDATED: 08:57 21 February 2013

It could be your worst nightmare or your ultimate test of endurance. For two friends from Old Welwyn it was both, as Marie Hardingham discovers

THE Marathon des Sables is the toughest foot race on earth. A six-day, 152-mile run across a section of the Sahara desert in southern Morocco with temperatures soaring over 50C. Who would be crazy enough to sign up for this torture test?

Enter project manager, Nick Summers, 29, and his good friend Ben Ragless who couldn't resist the challenge. On hearing about the race, the duo chose a charity and quickly got stuck into two years of training. Married Ben, 28, says, 'The two most important things when training for this event are someone to train with and a very understanding wife! Training was tough, but if I had to do it on my own it would have been 1,000 times tougher.'

The boys chose to run for NOMA - the disease that the charity Facing Africa fights. But having not run more than five miles when they started training, the two had to be dedicated to quickly build up their weekly mileage, entering every running event they could to keep up morale and interest.

In the Marathon des Sables, participants have to be totally self-sufficient and carry a backpack with all essential clothing, food and supplies. At night communal Berber tents provide much-needed shelter. Each day is an arduous quest; the six stages of this epic event range from 31km to 75.5km and racing is firmly monitored with participants required to check in at numerous checkpoints on route.

Ben and Nick relied on each other for morale and suffered extreme highs and lows throughout the race. As Ben explains, 'My most memorable low and high points were both at stage 4 - 75.5km. I'd had just a couple of hours sleep, the wind was whipping sand through the tent and causing the pegs to jump out of the ground, slowly collapsing it. In the morning, after dusting myself off and forcing down the sickly sweet porridge with strawberries, I was ready for the long stage ahead. My low point came at around 6pm when I realised we hadn't had much to eat during the day, we'd been struggling through the sand for hours and I began to feel frustrated as I couldn't get a good footing. I had blisters all over my feet and my shoe broke.

'But after stopping at check-point 4 for a proper meal we got our second wind and after almost 17 hours we crossed the finish line which was an amazing feeling.'

For Nick, the support between competitors was one of the highlights, along with personal achievements. He says, 'I had so many high points, but I'd have to say completing the longest day (75.5km) was the best. Ben and I had been focusing on that leg of the race for the past two years of training. We crossed the line in 16 hours 58 minutes and finished with our highest ranking of the week.

'And the close bond shared with our tent mates was fantastic; the support for each other and the camaraderie that echoed throughout the event was incredible, but completing day seven of this mammoth marathon was an extremely joyous occasion and one I will never forget.'

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