Sweating blood over sand

A torture chamber is helping to prepare Ciaran Horgan for an experience far worse than he imagined; Stephen Brenkley meets the madcap runner planning meticulously for his date with the desert
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The Independent Online
IN a chamber, which on the outside resembled a butcher's fridge and on the inside felt more like a blacksmith's forge, a man was running on a treadmill for mile after mile. Beads of perspiration formed within seconds and after a minute they became pools. The temperature was 40 degrees centigrade, or more than 100 in old money, and it did not take much to work out that it was a chamber of horrors.

The man doing the running and sweating in roughly equal measure - though the sweating might just have had the edge - was Ciaran Horgan. The small, sealed room in which he was voluntarily suffering was an environmental cubicle in the physiology laboratory at Alsager College in Staffordshire. For a fortnight Horgan is running in there for an hour a day by way of his meticulous preparations for the Marathon des Sables, the 13th running of which starts as usual in the eerie, tranquil setting of the Sahara Desert later this month. It is the toughest, and probably most romantic, foot race on the planet.

Considering the discomfort - perhaps pain, though he would never show that - he was enduring for his art, Horgan might not exactly have thrilled to these words: "He's wasting his time. The event demands physical fitness, of course, but it is 50 per cent a mental thing. You simply can't reproduce the conditions. You can't know what to expect until you get there and half-way through the first day I can guarantee that they will all feel shit."

The speaker failing to provide music for Ciaran Horgan's ears was Chris Lawrence, organiser and co- ordinator for the British participation in the race. Lawrence has never competed but he has seen it all at close quarters and is convinced that nothing on earth can prepare a runner for the beauty, isolation and harshness other than the event itself.

The Marathon Des Sables was invented 13 years ago by a Frenchman, Patrick Bauer. It takes place around Ouarzazate in the depths of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Translated, it means the Marathon of the Sands and the riddle of the sands to the rest of us is why anybody should wish to put their body - let alone their mind - through it.

Over six days, participants must run 150 miles over sand, over dunes, over rock in extremely hot temperatures. They must do this carrying a backpack consisting of their meals (freeze dried), their bedding, their cooking gear and perform their own navigating all with an allocation of nine litres of water a day. They must prepare their own food and sleep in Bedouin tents at night when the temperature drops as suddenly as it rose a few hours earlier.

"I am doing it because it's another challenge," said the 42-year-old Horgan. "You can sit around all your life doing very little or you can do something. Most people, I like to think, want to do something. This happens to be my challenge but all of us have something to offer, something to give. It's just finding it."

But it has not been enough for this independent financial consultant and one-time regular soldier simply to take part. He wants to be in Morocco at the end of this month not to complete but to compete. For years a fell runner and an assiduous daily accumulator of road miles, he was probably persuaded by the old soldier in him to enlist the expert support about which Chris Lawrence is so sceptical.

He approached the sports science unit at University College, Chester, close to where he lives in North Wales. Impressed with his fitness and dedication three of their postgraduate students took on Horgan's case. Nick Grantham established his training regime, Jimmi Ryder is overseeing his diet, and Gareth Jones looked after injuries, a field of expertise in which so far, thankfully, prevention has triumphed over the need for cure.

The trio have monitored Horgan's progress with the tenderness and care a mother gives a new-born baby. They have told him what he should eat, they have instructed him when to run and how far. They are anxious that he puts on a few pounds before embarking for Morocco and they are desperately trying to persuade him to eat 3,000 calories a day during the race, not the 2,500 he had originally earmarked. Horgan is open to suggestion but he is also profoundly single-minded.

"These guys are the experts," he said. "That's why I had the cheek to come to them. It's not that I'm questioning them, I'm questioning them so I can understand why I should do a certain thing. For instance I would not have run more than 50 miles in any one week in all probability but at the peak under their programme it was 150. Actually, I think I did 190."

The environmental chamber, which they have borrowed at Alsager (its custodians wish to make clear it is available for athletes competing in the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur), is meant to acclimatise him to the temperatures he can expect to encounter in the Sahara.

Horgan was born and educated in Cork before coming to England at 17 to begin a job in a bank. He lasted three months. He lasted some 12 years in the army where he became a sergeant and by his admission was difficult to work for because he was demanding. Not that he demanded more of others than he did of himself. "I found that running made the other things you had to do in the army that much easier. In the 13 years since I left I would say I've definitely mellowed."

It is his ambition in the Marathon des Sables to finish as the top Briton and in the top 25 overall and he estimates that something under a total of 25 hours might help him to achieve that. Thousands of admirable part- time runners are putting the finishing touches to their training for the London Marathon and will raise millions for charity. But it is truly a park stroll compared to what Horgan, who will raise money for the Royal National Institute for the Blind, and 399 others will undergo.

"I never fancied the London Marathon," he said. "The eight minutes waiting round before you get to the start has never appealed to me."

Loony Dunes: Rundown on a race apart

The ROUTE

The precise route is only revealed to the runners the night before and differs each year. It will be a total of 220km (143 miles) in six stages, starting on 26 March.

The ROOTS

The race was started by Patrick Bauer after he did a lone run in the desert and it is said that at some point during his ordeal that "the desert communicated with him and a sand storm transported him to a dream world".

The COMPETITORS

Numbers will always be restricted because of security problems in the area, but they went up dramatically last year as more and more people became aware of the event, and they will probably increase again next year. There will be 400 runners this time round. The cost of entry is pounds 1,900.

The BRITONS

Chris Lawrence, the organiser of the British participation, had no problems filling his allocation of 80 places for this year's race and is asking organisers for 150 next year. "I think we're getting crazier," he said. "But I don't need to market the race at all. I could fill it six times over."

The runner of runners

The only person to have competed in all 12 previous races - and he will be back again this year - is Brahim El Jaoual, a 64-year-old butcher and father of 10 children from Fez. "There is a suspicion he does it for a rest from the family for a week," quipped one observer.

The daily GRIND

Each day's stage starts at 9am. The first stage is a relatively gentle warm-up of 27km, but the longest stage is a gruelling day-night run of 78km.

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