On Monday, April 17, Ben and Emily Rolfe returned to Monaco from Morocco, and were greeted with a hero’s welcome with banners and well-deserved fanfare.
The father and daughter running duo successfully completed the Marathon des Sables (MdS) – what the Discovery Channel calls “The Toughest Footrace on Earth” – which takes place every year in southern Morocco, in the Sahara Desert. The equivalent of six regular marathons, it’s 237 kilometres over seven days. The two Monaco runners battled stomach issues, fatigue and blisters “the size of golf balls” all to raise money and awareness for Diabetes UK.
Taking on an endurance race – not to mention one that is multi-stage and with no beds, showers, toilets or solid food – by yourself is mentally tough, but tackling it with a family member can add another dimension to the game, particularly when you look at the stage distances that Ben and Emily Rolfe covered the week of April 8.
Day 1: 31k, 6.3 hours
Day 2: 40k, 10 hours
Day 3: 31k, 9 hours
Day 4: 86k, 27 hours
Day 5: 0 (finish day four)
Day 6: 42.2k, 10.5 hours
Day 7: 7.7k, 2 hours
In this year’s 32nd edition of MdS, 1250 people signed up but only 1170 started. Some 100 did not finish.
The terrain in the Sahara varies, from what Mr Rolfe described as “dunes as big as houses, flat plains with unforgiving slate rocks, mountains – or “jebels” – and the relentless sand that sucked your feet in up to the ankles”.
The highest temperature recorded by the race organisers was 51°C, yet it wasn’t just the heat they had to manage. “We saw snakes, small rodents and scary looking bugs, but, fortunately, no spiders or scorpions so our anti-venom pumps remain unused.”
Add to these conditions the fact that runners have to carry on their backs all the food they need for the week. “Our packs without water weighed 10.5 kg at the beginning of the week,” Mr Rolfe explained, adding they even cut the handles of their toothbrushes to reduce weight.
Then there’s the issue of recovery. “We had to sleep in open-sided tents,” Mr Rolfe said, “but we were fortunate to only have a few windy nights. I will say that waking up at 2 am with a mouthful of sand is not something I want to repeat in a hurry.”
They also both suffered from stomach issues at various points. “I was up all night after the first day with illness and subsequently felt awful on Day Two. Emily made sure I was hydrated, made me eat and cajoled me through the dunes and over the last mountain, using ropes, to the finish of that day. We made a great team.”
Mr Rolfe painted a picture of Day Four, when they completed 86 km. “We managed our hydration well during Day Four, and made the decision not to rest more than 30 minutes at a time. We had ‘Tasty Beef Stroganoff” at around 10: 30 pm around a campfire with Duncan, a double amputee, who was eating Chicken Korma. We powered through the night, treating blisters when we could using a lighter, needle, antiseptic and ‘Second Skin’ paint on Elastoplast.
“This worked quite well until two of my blisters popped and started to fill with sand, and then Emily’s became so big it was the size of a golf ball and I couldn’t pop it as the cap was too hard. We carried on as the sun came up, enjoying a power bar breakfast in the dunes at around 8 am just before CheckPoint 7, where Patrick Bauer gave us both a much-needed cuddle as our tear streaked faces showed our suffering.
“The last 10km were interminable, but our tentmates were there to greet us at the finish around 11:30 am. We then tried to eat, but the heat and exhaustion made it hard. We queued for two hours to get our blisters treated by the doctor, who basically took all the skin off my toes and strapped them back up ready for the marathon the next day.
“I tried to eat some more while Em was interviewed a couple of times by the press. As the youngest equal female finisher she became a bit of a star in the camp.
“I collapsed on the floor of the tent at 7pm and we were up at 5am the next day to start the marathon at 7 am, probably the worst prepared I have ever been for a marathon – and no pasta party the night before!”
The Rolfes are incredibly thankful to everyone who supported their endeavour – from the words of encouragement in the build up to the extremely generous sponsorship to and the emails received while in the desert, which after a hard day of running and hiking were “a tonic to our weary bodies”.
“We have managed to raise an amazing £21,648 for Diabetes UK, and the number is going up all the time. Thanks to everyone that has donated to this great cause.”
The justgiving site will stay open for a month, and although the family has exceeded their goal to pay for a microscope to enable the study of kidney disease, which one in three diabetics suffer from, the additional money will be put to good use by Diabetes UK.
“To have shared this experience with my 16-year-old daughter was truly amazing,” Mr Rolfe shared. “It was hard with a capital H but we both made it. The emotions and sense of achievement when we finished, together, is something that is going to be hard if not impossible to repeat.”
Article first published April 24, 2017.