A marathon of mental and physical strength

By Andrea Bundon

“This is one tough way to take a tour of Morocco,” said Angus Cowan.

Cowan just completed the Marathon des Sables, a race affectionately known as the world’s toughest foot race. It’s 230km long, takes seven days and follows the Algerian border through the Sahara desert.

“The desert looks peaceful and serene but you have the wind howling and the sand pelting you,” reminisced Cowan at a public presentation hosted by the University of Calgary Fitness and Lifestyle Centre on Sept. 16. “It attacks every sense.”

Thirteen Canadians including four Albertans traveled to Morocco for this year’s competition. The race breaks down into six stages of varying distances. Stage 4 is by far the longest covering 71km, 23 of which are up and down 150m high unmarked sand dunes. Stage 5 is slightly shorter lasting a mere 42km.

“After the day you run the 71km stage it becomes totally perverse in the sense you are talking among your friends and saying ‘hey, today we only have to run a marathon,’” Cowan laughed. “I remember saying to myself this isn’t logical to be talking about a marathon this way.”

Although the distances are definitely challenging, the climate and terrain are what make the race famous.

The runners are required to sleep in tents made of sticks and burlap sacks and to carry all their own supplies.

“They’re nice enough to give you water,” said Cowan. “Oh yeah, they give you a flare in case you run into real trouble.”

Trouble is a very real possibility when running through wind sharpened rocks, shifting sand and regions so hostile Cowan actually saw a dead camel.

This year, sandstorms proved a major obstacle burying all the competitors as they slept, but nothing halts the Marathon des Sables. At least this year temperatures were only in the 30-40ºC range.

“It was a dry heat,” joked Cowan in true Canadian style. “I didn’t have to wear sunblock after the third day because I was just caked in mud.”

Most of the people in the crowd were runners and many are currently in training for a marathon, but even they had to ask what could possibly compel someone to enter the Marathon des Sables.

It certainly wasn’t the prize–

every racer received a modest medal as they crossed the line. Cowan claims he’s never been in it for the reward “but this is the only time I crossed the finish line and looked at the little medal and thought, this is all you’re going to give me?”

“My motivation for doing this race is no different than for anybody who is doing their first 5kmâ€| There is just something that draws you there.”

Cowan also used the race to raise funds for local diabetes research projects at the Julia MacFarlene Diabetes Research Centre in the Faculty of Medicine at the U of C.