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Mention to anyone what John Hassell is planning and the reac-
tion is universal: is he (expletive) nuts?
After all, what sane person would aim to run more than
30km every day FOR AN ENTIRE WEEK?
And it s no ordinary course either; the Marathon des Sables (marathon of
the sands, or MDS) kicks off in Ouarzazate, Morocco and snakes through
250km of the Sahara, in six gruelling stages over seven days.
What s more, John, a Perth IT consultant who now lives in London, is no
ultra-distance running fanatic; he ran his first marathon in Perth just last year,
"as an experiment", to see how he d shape up.
"I did the Perth Marathon in 5hrs 9mins -- very slow -- but more importantly
did it with no training and no after-effects," he says. "I figured if I could do that,
then the MDS should be achievable with nine months of full-time training."
Which is exactly what the 42-year-old has done, taking time out from the
UK to return home to Perth and prepare in the WA heat.
Apart from the sheer titanic physical and mental effort it will take to reach
the finish line, MDS competitors must also face sandstorms, extreme tem-
peratures (up to 50C in the day and plummeting to an icy 1C at night) and
possible encounters with snakes, scorpions and -- uggh -- camel spiders.
Frenchman Patrick Bauer started the MDS in 1985 and the event has
become so popular (there s a rumour singer Madonna is lining up this year)
around 800 runners annually now pit themselves against the desert. There are
Think running a marathon is tough? Spare a
thought for John Hassell. He's getting ready to
run 250km in just seven days -- through the Sahara
no less -- as a competitor in the mind-bogglingly
challenging Marathon des Sables. text norman burns
« portrait Aaron Bunch MDS Images courtesy Cimbaly/Per©MDS2009
waiting lists of up to two years for entrants from some countries.
So what inspired John to take on what is billed as the world s toughest
"I heard of it originally through a friend, and then saw footage on TV (the
event is televised on Eurosport). It appealed to me on two levels really; firstly
as an incredible visual spectacle -- the landscapes encountered are something
you don t generally see on the well-trodden tourist routes -- and then as a
ridiculous physical and mental challenge, it seemed to be right up there with
the best of them.
"It s really quite an irresistible idea, and once it gets into your head it s
rather hard to let it go..."
John has no grand ambition to win; his aim is just to finish. And it s not
an event to enter on the spur of the moment; the entry fee is around $5000 and
competitors must pass rigorous health checks, including an ECG, even before
they line up at the start. So how do you train for such a challenge?
"Training consists primarily of running, naturally, and I am currently
doing about 100km a week road work as well as trail hiking and sand dune
running," says John, who slots in competitive tennis at the weekends just to
stay sharp. "Anything that keeps me constantly on my feet really is hopefully
Competitors must carry their own food, camping gear, venom pump
(gulp!), a flare in case of emergencies and be able to read a mechanical com-
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