A PhD student from Morecambe has completed the gruelling ‘toughest footrace on Earth’ to raise money for student charities
Anna Harper (nee Campbell) is a PhD student at Myerscough College in Agriculture and Countryside, having initially studied a Foundation Degree in Ecology & Conservation, before moving onto BSc Honours Degree in Rural Resource Management.
The Marathon des Sables is run over more than 250km over six days across the Sahara desert in Morocco, over sand dunes, dry river beds and mountain ranges, all against the clock.
Competitors face extreme temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius during the day and minus 1 at night, with a limited water supply and carrying their own food, cooking equipment and sleeping bag in a rucksack.
Anna, 32, finished in a time of 46 hours and four minutes, the 60th female out of 189.
Anna, who now lives in St Helens with her husband Ben, hopes to raise £5,000 for two charities that directly help Myerscough students – Papyrus, who carry out work on preventing suicide for young people, and Breathe, who offer ell-being and therapeutic care for people with eating disorders.
Here Anna tells us in her own words how the challenge went:
“It was completely a dream come true! I loved it – it was incredible. I think I was at my most hyperactive self as I was so ready to go every day.
I have been running since I was 16 and I have wanted to do this epic legendary race for almost as long.
I feel like I have been preparing for my whole running life for this race. Beautiful, gruellingly hard and exhaustingly relentless but absolutely incredible. I would not want it any other way.
It was 251 km over seven days carrying everything you need to survive. The race is very much a self-sufficient race. You are given a set amount of water which you must manage as no more will be given. The longest stage was 86.6km where you run part of it through the night.
I ran with Sandy Hoof, a British Holstein Friesian cow who was my Myerscough College mascot. She came back a lovely sandy colour having braved the elements.
The longest stretch of sand dunes was 20km up and down! We climbed jebels (mountains); the greatest was a 25 per cent incline.
There was a summit that was just sheer sand, therefore a small rope was in place and to get to the top you had to use all your upper body strength as there was no footing in the sand.
I am always better going up than down, therefore I ran up all the jebels, seven in total, but came down on all fours.
There were parts that you just thought were flat areas but ended up being what I describe as carpets of sand. This was tough on your ankles and knees and it was difficult to run in a straight line, zigzagging away.
My bag weight was 9.92kg on the first day. That was carrying seven days’ worth of food, sleeping bag, stove, all essential first aid equipment and a venom pump (in case of a snake bite!)
They were incredibly strict. If one piece of essential kit was missing you gained an hour penalty.
The hard gruelling bit where I had to dig really deep was on the fifth stage marathon day simply because I ran out of food (because I had eaten so much food on the long 86.6km day!)
My energy was going towards the end of the marathon and I had to slow down the pace to be able to concentrate not to go dizzy and fall over.
I had 19,000 calories for seven days but I could have done with so much more; energy just sapped out of you. It would have been hard to carry any more though. I’ve lost just under a stone.
We had two sandstorms; one in the middle of the night where the canvas structure (a typical Berber tent) fell down on us with a crack.
We slept like sardines, eight under the canvas. That was scary as you couldn’t see much in front of you and it was like a battering ram against you. Things were being blasted away.
I made sure Sandy Hoof was well tucked in, she was my priority along with my glasses! Nobody had much sleep from this.
The second sandstorm was when we were running, it took so much energy to run against it. Thankfully this one was in the daylight.
My best part was running the long day, stage four. This was by far the hottest at 49 degrees C. I ran for 19 hours 21 minutes slow and steady.
The stars were incredible. If you switched your head torch off it was pitch black apart from stars, stars filled every corner of the sky.
I felt so elated when I saw the finish line in the dark. I ran the last part with my wonderful tent mate Caz. We randomly bumped into each other on the dunes.
It was good to be with someone as when it was pitch dark only armed with a head torch it was incredibly easy to go off piste following only small glow sticks every now and again.
Hygiene and modesty quickly went out the window; there was no time to be bothered.
After crossing the finish line I did stretches and walked round camp to keep from cramping up, then tea before it suddenly went dark at 7.30pm (it was like someone switched the lights off).
We were then woken up at 5.30am to get packed up ready to go to the start line again by 7am. It was constant but epic.
Every gruelling ounce of training I did for two years for this run was worth it and totally made my dreams come true.
I think the training was somehow harder as you had to fit it in and keep it up.
Two years of running with a rucksack, peaking at 10kg, constantly increasing the miles every day in whatever weather could be thrown at you.
The thought of everybody that has given so much to fundraise and support me got me going in my hard training days. It seemed relentless at the time but worth every hard run.
Thank you to my wonderful friends and colleagues at Myerscough College across the board. You are all amazing!
Thank you to my wonderful tent mates out there, it was wonderful when we were all together under our little canvas squashed and laughing our socks off.
Thank you to my amazing friends, incredible mum and dad who have been waving at the end of so many runs and to my ace husband who arrived at the finish line wearing his iconic smiley face t-shirt and a sign.
My little size 4 feet are amazing – just one small blister and I can’t thank my legs enough. Staying positive was key too! Everyone can do whatever they want to!
* Anna’s Crowdfunding page is still open if anyone would like to donate. Each donation will be split in half for each charity. The page can be found here