The Marathon des Sables, the toughest footrace on earth, features six marathons in six days in the baking heat of the Sahara desert. With temperatures reaching 50C in the heat of the day and vast golden dunes and flat salt plains it’s a challenge that only the toughest take on. Grant McTaggart, one such hardy soul, managed to complete the race, a feat made all the more remarkable by his recent recovery from bowel cancer.
Grant, who’s a Sergeant at Durham Constabulary’s training centre in Meadowfield, is what you might refer to as a ‘marathon junkie’. Before this latest challenge he’d already completed 13 marathons, four ultramarathons and three Ironman events. The Marathon des Sables however was on a whole different level to anything he had attempted before.
Training initially went well through the spring of 2015, but that summer Grant was dealt an unforeseen and devastating blow. ‘I went on holiday to France in August and was training most days,’ he explains. ‘On the last day of the holiday I had some internal bleeding. I rushed to hospital, where they told me that they’d found a tumour on my colon and it needed to come out. I stayed in France and two days later I had the operation.
‘At that point I withdrew from the race. I didn’t think it would be possible to recover and then start training again. But my recovery was very quick, two months later I started running again. I re-applied, got the place back and had four months of hard training. I was of the school of thought that every day counts.’
As well as putting in a lot of miles in the Cleveland Hills, he also needed to prepare for the heat. ‘The last week before we went over to Morocco the three of us had sessions at the heat chamber at Teesside University,’ he explains. He also ran to work every morning for seven weeks, a distance of over 20 miles. ‘It was brutal really,’ he laughs. ‘I used to get up at 3am. It was the only time I could get the long miles in. I didn’t run home, I got the train back!’
The event isn’t to be taken lightly. Among the rules one in particular catches the eye: ‘Necessary fees required for transport in case of death: 1,525 euros.’ It’s a sombre warning, one which is testament to the extreme nature of the race and the unimaginable conditions. In 1994 former Olympic pentathlete Mauro Prosperi famously became lost on the route as a sandstorm enveloped him. He managed to survive for 10 days by drinking bats’ blood and urine (his own). Given Grant’s recent ill health and the extreme nature of the challenge, he could be forgiven for approaching the event with a degree of trepidation.
‘I did a lot of research – safety measures are much better now,’ he explains. ‘You get a tracker so they can monitor where you are. If you start going off the beaten track they’ll send a Land Rover out. My family were more worried than I was. It’s going into the unknown a little bit, I did get to some points where it was really tough. I always knew I was going to finish providing my body could hold out. Mentally I was strong – there was no way I was coming back without a medal.’
The first three days are marathons, followed by a double marathon on the fourth and fifth days and a final 26 miles on the sixth day. ‘It’s as mentally difficult as it is physically,’ Grant explains. ‘You’re carrying all your kit which is physically demanding, but mentally you’re finishing the race, having something to eat and sorting your feet out. Then you’re going to sleep and getting up the next day. It does take its toll.’ Grant found the double marathon of 52 miles particularly tough. ‘You start off at eight in the morning and I didn’t get back in until midday on the following day,’ he tells me. ‘I was out for 29 hours. There were people coming in six hours after I’d finished.’
The conditions, as expected, were extremely challenging. Sandstorms were rife on day one and the fierce heat on day two led to the highest number of drop outs in the 31-year history of the race. ‘I lost two of my tent-mates on day two,’ Grant tells me. ‘They had to call it a day due to injury and exhaustion. On day one there were going to be 71 people who wouldn’t reach the check point in time because of the sandstorms. They extended the time allowed to accommodate them. It was a really tough first day.’
In such energy sapping conditions, spirits can easily wilt, but Grant explains that his motivation came from the galvanising presence of his tent-mates. ‘When you go back to the tent the camaraderie’s absolutely fantastic. You’re always laughing and joking, it’s the best medicine out there. People go there to compete, but most people actually go just to complete it, they’re not bothered about where they come, they just want to get that medal and enjoy the whole experience. That was always my goal.’
Grant explains that it’s very much a run-walk event, with terrain and the enervating heat dictating the pace. ‘There are a lot of mountains and big sand dunes,’ he tells me. ‘If you’re pushing yourself you’re going to be wasting energy and drinking more water. The terrain’s so difficult, there are times you climb up mountains using rope. When I came home people said, “How quickly were you doing your marathons?” It’s not like that at all, each day’s different. It’s the terrain that dictates the time. The first day I did it in six hours and 45 minutes and then gradually got slower.’
Despite the blistering heat and the punishing slog, Grant was able to appreciate the beauty of the landscape. ‘It’s a strange place, there were young kids walking goats in the middle of nowhere. It was very barren, at times there was nothing, there were a lot of salt plains which just go on forever. On the long day, day four when it goes into day five, I was still out when the sun came up and it was amazing. At night the stars are so bright, there’s no pollution at all. That’s one of my fondest memories, lying back on my sleeping bag looking up at the stars – it was special.’
The rules stipulate that competitors must carry their own food, venom pump, compass, flare and sleeping bag. Competitors go to unusual lengths to shed weight, including cutting toothbrushes in half. Grant didn’t partake in anything quite so radical, but he certainly stripped his pack right down. ‘My backpack without water was 10.5kg, with water it was 11.5kg,’ he says. ‘The number one priority though was managing my water and looking after my feet. Over time everyone’s feet were badly blistered, mine included. They’re still recovering now!’
As well as his tent-mates, Grant also reserves a great deal of praise for the marshals, doctors and general spirit of solidarity that bound the competitors together. ‘The marshals were fantastic, the people in the medical tents were great. They have a thing called Dr Trotters out there and they look after your feet. The camaraderie in all the tents, that’s what makes it so special, that’s what makes people go back year after year. You meet people who you’d never normally meet and spend eight days out in the desert with them. It’s the toughest footrace in the world – it builds a special bond.’
As well as the bond, Grant also built up a lot of money for St Teresa’s Hospice, a charity that has close ties to his own sporting interests. Darlington Triathlon Club raise funds for the organisation with a number of events throughout the year, and, as a member, Grant was keen to support a charity which is just around the corner from where he lives. ‘One of the lads who works there said to me, “Come down and get a mental image of the staff and the place itself, so when you’re at a really low point you can get this mental image in your head.” It really did perk me up a bit on those bad points. It’s a small charity, they do a fantastic job. When you go down there it’s a humbling experience.’
To help Grant raise funds for St Teresa’s Hospice visit his fundraising page www.justgiving.com/Grant-McTaggart