I’ll run six marathons under 50C desert sun

MAEVE O’KEEFFE talks to a Cork woman who will run six marathons through the searing heat of the Sahara next month to raise money for a charity close to her heart
I’ll run six marathons under 50C desert sun

FITNESS CHALLENGE: Jane O’Keeffe at the finishing line of the Ironman triathlon in Maastricht 2016

MANY of us will be pounding the streets and footpaths now that the lighter evenings are ahead of us — training for Cork’s mini marathon, or perhaps even the full version coming up on the June Bank Holiday.

One Cork woman, however, is currently finalising her training for an even more arduous undertaking.

Whatever about racing 26 miles through our city streets, imagine having to contend with 50C heat and Saharan sand — and a distance many times further.

That’s what Cork school teacher Jane O’Keeffe will face when she tackles the Marathon des Sables in Morocco next month.

The Marathon of the Sands, or Sahara Marathon, is known as the toughest race on earth. It’s a six-day, 251km-long (156 miles) course — the equivalent of six regular marathons.

And with the exception of the tent they sleep in, competitors must carry their own belongings — food, clothes, sleeping bag, etc) — on their back as they race each day in blistering heat from one stage to the next.

So why is Jane putting herself through this daunting ordeal on April 7?

You could say it runs in the family, as her brother, David, competed in 2015.

David was then followed by his dad, Jimmy, who took up the challenge in last year’s race.

“Mum and dad went out to support David to cheer him on,” says Jane, “Then dad decided he would do it and fair play to him, he did!

“Last August they roped me into it, with dad, especially, encouraging me to give it a go.

“It’s an amazing thing to do and an opportunity to fundraise for a worthwhile cause.”

David raised money for Marymount Hospice, while Jimmy ran for Bumbleance.

Jane will compete to raise funds for the charity Anam Cara, which offers bereavement support to parents and families, in honour of her friend, Colin Hedderman, who tragically died in 2006.

“Colin was a very talented swimmer, part of a great group of friends in Sundays Well Swimming Club, where he is remembered to this day,” says Jane.

“To kick-start her campaign, she organised a table quiz in Douglas GAA club early in March and she has been fund-raising hard ever since.

Meanwhile, in addition to teaching full-time, she has had a busy training regime which involves running 20km on Mondays, a 40km marathon on Wednesdays, training with the pupils after school on Thursdays, a strength and conditioning class and run on Fridays — followed by another long run on Saturdays. Phew!

Jane must also plan what to bring with her, given that she must carry all her food, clothing and general supplies for six days and nights in the desert, as she runs these daily marathons.

Water is provided at checkpoints, or ‘bivouacs’, along the route.

However, it is rationed and if you exceed the ration, you get a time penalty.

“After the day’s run,” Jane explains, “you go to an allocated communal tent, take out your bag of freeze-dried food, add water, leave it for ten minutes, and hope that its baby-mush consistency is edible!

“The labels on your food packaging can be spot-checked to ensure competitors eat 2,000 calories a day. That’s essential for the body to survive the extreme conditions of savage heat by day and bitter cold at night.

FITNESS CHALLENGE: Jane O’Keeffe at the finishing line of the Ironman triathlon in Maastricht 2016
FITNESS CHALLENGE: Jane O’Keeffe at the finishing line of the Ironman triathlon in Maastricht 2016

Interestingly, a camel is let off with all the runners at the start of the race. If the camel catches up with you, you’re out! The reason being that if the camel can go at a faster pace than a participant, then that person doesn’t have the stamina to survive this punishing event.

Forget make-up or toiletries — they are too heavy to add to the weight of her backpack. Besides the packaged food and sleeping bag, all Jane can literally bring is some form of long-sleeved top and leggings to survive the cold nights in the big open-flap Berber tent made of communal goat’s-hair, and shared with nine other athletes.

A hat for the sun and good footwear is also essential, given the rocky, stony terrain and hilly sand dunes.

No showers either, as the marathon ‘village’ must be packed up and moved to the next stage of the route each day.

The build-up of sweat and smelly feet will surely generate interesting odours?

“I’m not even thinking of that part — as long as I survive on the food and get enough sleep to complete the race, I’ll put up with anything!” laughs Jane, who took part in the Ironman triathlon in Maastricht in 2016.

The fourth day is the hardest as athletes must run 80-90km (50-56 miles) in one stage. Those who can, try to finish in daylight, but most continue into the night.

Some plan a strategy and get a little sleep at one of the checkpoints, finishing that stage the next day.

David completed his part at midnight but Jimmy continued through the darkness, finishing at 10am next day.

It’s not known as the ’Toughest race’ for nothing and takes its toll on competitors with its physical, emotional and mental stress.

The support of colleagues in the tent is very important, where a helping hand with badly cut and bruised feet can be welcome.

Regardless of who people are or what they have achieved, everyone is treated the same. David, for example, got chatting to famous English explorer and author Sir Ranulph Fiennes in the medical queue during his run.

On the final day, the competitors raise money for UNICEF, to support local health and education initiatives for children and women. It’s a fitting end to an amazing feat of human endurance.

As Jane embarks on her fund-raising for Anam Cara in memory of Colin, by literally following in the footsteps of her father and brother, let’s wish her well in making it three in a row for the Rebel County.


In 1984, Patrick Bauer, a French concert promoter, decided to set out on an epic walk. He chose one of the harshest environments on the planet — the Sahara desert — and to walk 200 miles with all he would need on his back.

Under the relentless Saharan sun, Patrick had a grand idea: to create a similar experience for others.

It took him two years to organise and fund the event, but in 1986 the first ‘Marathon of the Sands’ was run with 186 competitors.

Thirty years later, the race attracts more than 1,000 runners, 200 members of the press and a support management team of 400-plus.

The King of Morocco welcomes the event and the most successful competitor in history is a local legend. Lahcen Ahansal is a Moroccan runner who has won 10 titles. His brother Mohammed Ahansal has also won three titles.

The brothers usually complete the race in around 19-20 hours and are a joy to watch as they spring like gazelles through the course.

Bauer is passionate about individuals fulfilling their dreams and developing their potential. He sees all runners off at the start and moves around the checkpoints offering encouragement and advice.

He is equally passionate about the multinational, multicultural nature — there are no human barriers to entering or completing the Marathon Des Sables.

The event carves a positive swathe through the environment it covers. No rubbish is ever left at overnight camps or along the race course. In fact other than tracks, it is impossible to see where the camps have been set up. Competitors are penalised on points if they discard so much as a bottle top.

Villages along the path of the race are helped and supported in many ways, with regular donations of books, wells, water purification and agricultural tools.

“After the day’s run, you go to an allocated communal tent, take out your bag of freeze-dried food, add water, leave it for ten minutes, and hope that its baby-mush consistency is edible!

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