The Marathon des Sables: Running across the Sahara – by Ben Rolfe

“Dad, I had such a good time, I want to go back next year and do the three week course.”

“And I want to do the Marathon Des Sables.”

I gave a wry smile, and asked “What brought that on?”

“Well, the instructor asked us to give goals for the next three years and I loved the expedition, well, I loved everything really, and I thought I could do the Marathon Des Sables as it would be fun and like a big expedition and would look really good on my CV and be a massive achievement and….” she finally paused for breath.

It was 2014, Emily was just 14, and had literally just got off a plane from the UK, having done a one-week Outward Bound course in the Lake District. Outward Bound is a provider of outdoor-based experience and leadership courses in various countryside locations in the UK. It takes kids and young adults, puts them together in teams and then challenges them with team-building exercises like raft building, rock climbing, and an expedition where they camp outside, put up their own tents, cook their own food and so on. As her parents, we’d thought it would be a great idea to take Emily out of her comfort zone, throw her into a completely different climate with a load of kids she didn’t know and wouldn’t necessarily meet in her daily life, and we’d signed her up for the course back in January. Emily had uttered nothing but anguished tears at the thought of us sending her off to “suffer”. Hence my surprise and relief when I met her at the airport in August, to have her gushing so enthusiastically about going back the following year to do the three-week course, which incorporated a five-day self-sufficiency expedition.

I tried not to get my hopes up about the Marathon Des Sables (MdS). Ever since my own MdS experience in 2011 I had longed for an excuse to go back. I had loved it – the self-sufficiency, with everything I needed for the week carried on my back; sport every day; no phones, emails, bills, chores. On top of that, the camaraderie. And seeing the amazing desert landscape, as well as sleeping “rough” every night. It taught me a lot about myself at the same time. In time I thought it would be a great challenge for Emily to undertake – seven days in the Sahara Desert carrying everything you need for the week on your back, aside from water and a tent. And the small matter of the 250km run at the same time. I didn’t want to pressure her into it.

Her decision had finally been made during the No Finish Line: a gruelling 8 day / 24 hour per day race on a circuit in Monaco, in November 2014. Emily had set her mind to win her category for the second year running, and was targeting over 100km in the week, whilst fitting in school and homework. I had targeted 350km in the week, egged on by my mentor, online trainer and friend Mike “Mad Dog” Schreiber. Emily and I, and a number of others, had been lapping the track since 7pm on the Friday evening and were going through the night with the aim of spending 24 hours on circuit, to help us reach our goals. At around 5am that Saturday morning I got the news that Mad Dog Mike had died unexpectedly. Emily’s mind was made up – not only would she continue to take on the No Finish Line, but she would target the MdS as soon as she was old enough – in 2017. She wanted to do something massive to mark Mad Dog’s passing.

We entered half expecting the organisers to say she would be too young and inexperienced at 16, and of course the heart issues that I had suffered from since 2015 might provide an excuse for them to say no. To my surprise my cardiologist was extremely supportive of my challenge, even going so far as to communicate with the MdS’s own Doc Trotters, to make sure there was no impediment to my entry. Emily too had managed to win her age group four years running at the No Finish Line, whilst fitting in school as well. Last year, in 2016, she managed 250km in the eight days.

Our places for the MdS were confirmed on Christmas Day 2016.

We decided to raise money for Diabetes UK, as Emily’s younger sister, my middle daughter Alice, is Type 1 diabetic and Diabetes UK had been great in helping us through that particular challenge. Emily wanted to adopt a specific tangible project rather than just for the funds to go into a pot as to her this was somehow more real. We therefore adopted the combined transmitted light and fluorescent microscope and imaging computer in order to help Diabetes UK research scientists study kidney disease so that it can be more effectively treated.

One can only imagine the politics of a household with two teenage daughters, and a third apprentice teenager as well. It is rare, but it does happen, that the amount of perceived attention #2 daughter receives from parents and friends which is due to diabetes, puts #1 and #3’s noses out of joint. The decision to raise money for Diabetes UK was therefore not always an obvious choice as Emily wanted to separate herself from doing something purely for Alice. The fact that we could adopt a project in isolation made the decision easier – something tangible, where the money will go directly into something specific that you can actually see and touch. As did the fact that research into kidney disease – something which can affect 30 per cent of Type 1 diabetics, and 40 per cent of Type 2 diabetics – will also help those suffering from the illness that may not have diabetes at all.

We are now training hard for the race itself, even running to various places whilst the rest of the family go by car. We are accumulating the necessary dried space food, sleeping bags, medical kit as well as chafing and blisters in preparation for the desert where the temperature can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the day and fall to 5 or 6 at night (a few weeks ago it was -7 at the bivouac). Emily is finding the training tough going, especially combined with her second-last year of study for the OI Science Baccalaureate (A levels), but all credit to her, at no point has she mentioned she might be having second thoughts. You can track our progress through the desert from 9–15 April at the Marathon des Sables website. I am bib 544 and Emily is bib 545. You can even email us during our race, something which I found to be a huge morale boost in 2011.

Our fundraising page can be found here:

I am blogging tales of our progress here:

You might also like