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The long and winding road: ultra-marathon runner Andrew Murray loves extreme environments--the Arctic, the Sahara, Mongolia, the Himalaya--the harsher, the better. In 2010, he undertook his biggest challenge yet: to run from John O'Groats to Merzouga in Morocco, the equivalent of 101 marathons in 85 consecutive days.

I was 30 days and 600 kilometres into my run. The temperature was -9[degrees]C. Snow caked the ground and obscured the road signs. My map was no use. I was well and truly lost. I was in France but it looked--and felt-like Russia.

Suddenly, I laughed out loud as I remembered the reaction of my friend and training partner Donnie Campbell when I had first told him about my plans to run 4,281 kilometres from John O'Groats to Merzouga, a desert outpost in the Moroccan Sahara. 'Your navigational skills are shocking,' he had said with a laugh as we jogged along the South Glen Shiel Ridge in the Scottish Highlands. 'You'll probably end up in Russia.'

I followed a road that my compass told me travelled vaguely south. To my relief, it wasn't long before I entered a small hamlet. I bounded up to a man clearing snow and asked him where we were I was sufficiently off course to be on the wrong map, but my new friend gestured patiently until the BBC crew that was covering this section of my journey turned up. My dreadful French produced guffaws from everyone.


The idea for this journey had come during a run across Mongolia that followed in Genghis Khan's hoof prints. The Gobi Challenge is a 250-kilometre, six-day race. It offers stunning scenery and tile opportunity to camp with local nomads at the end of each day. Ice gorges gave way to vast plains before Asia's highest sand dunes eventually came into view. But it's the generosity of the Mongolian people that has remained my strongest memory.

As with many multi-stage races, the Gobi Challenge requires self-sufficiency. Each competitor is expected to carry all clothes, food and equipment, and having to turn down the hospitality of the locals was difficult.

During the race, I saw at first hand the work being conducted by the Yamaa Trust, a charity that aims to reduce poverty in the region. 'Why not combine a huge challenge with raising money for the Yamaa Trust?' I thought. Ultimately, I decided to combine my love of Scotland with my love of running in the Sahara.

I've been fortunate to run in some of the world's most incredible environments, including the Himalaya, the North Pole and Patagonia. But I feel most at home in the desert. I'm content to watch the light shifting over the sand all day long, Running to the Sahara from Scotland seemed like a natural way to link the two places.

Preparing for the Scotland to Sahara run turned out to be as difficult as the journey itself. I would be travelling in winter, so I needed to source equipment to deal with a variety of conditions. My footwear, for example, included snowshoes, sand gaiters and miniature crampons. I was accompanied most of the time by a campervan, in which I usually slept. Everything had to fit inside the vehicle.

I also had to study for a sports medical exam that I was due to sit in Edinburgh ten days into the trip. As if that wasn't enough, I was marrying my fiancee, Jennie, one week after the planned finish date. I had to get my skates on.


There was a severe-weather warning in the far north of Scotland as I took my first steps towards the Sahara. Waves crashed over the harbour wall at John O'Groats and hailstones clattered on the ground. During a race in Indonesia the previous week, I had picked up a tummy bug, so I set the next public toilet as my first stop.

I had chosen a route based upon places I wanted to visit. I also wanted to bring attention to the health benefits of keeping active, so I arranged three fun runs en route. Running is one of the simplest forms of transportation: all that is required is the inclination to do it. We're among the best performers in the animal kingdom over long distances. This skill enables us to chase animals to exhaustion.

Twelve hundred people joined me on the fun runs, 75 of whom opted for a hilly section of the West Highland Way between Kinlochleven and Tyndrum. Many runners decided fancy dress was in order; I won't forget the spectacle of the A-Team marauding past Buachaille Etive Mor for a long time.

England brought with it the coldest winter in recent memory. No trains were running and Gatwick was closed when I passed the airport. There was something satisfying about chugging through the snow on deserted trunk roads while the country lay beneath a white cloak. A pair of waterproof and breathable socks kept my feet dry for a while. When these became soaked, plastic bags over fresh socks worked just as well.

Despite averaging 56 kilometres a day, I managed to put on weight while in France. The pain in my Achilles tendons and knees was constant, but pains au chocolat and crepes provided gastronomic compensation for my injuries. Ultra runners embrace pain retrospectively and almost treasure it, but at the time, I found it difficult to deal with.

Knowing that three countries and 2,900 kilometres separated me from my goal was dispiriting, especially on days when the scenery was nondescript and the weather filthy. Breaking each day down into ten-kilometre chunks and ticking them off was an effective trick I learned on the road.

Paracetamol was helpful, but fresh views were the best painkillers. The Pyrenees loomed as an impenetrable barrier, white and daunting. High ground brought perspective, and I appreciated the numerous and seemingly unending mountain ranges that Spain offered.

Jennie joined me for three weeks over Christmas, which gave us the opportunity to finalise wedding plans and spend some time together. Nevertheless, there was no let up. Christmas Day involved a 61 kilometre run, albeit punctuated by pit stops for chocolate Santas, and we shared a festive dinner of sausages and mashed potato in the sierra.

The amount of food I had to eat in order to maintain energy levels, repair damaged muscles and replace nutrients was colossal. I ate enough for three men and tried to load regularly on carbohydrates, the body's preferred source of energy while running.

My parents joined me for a week as Africa approached. Dad accompanied me for a few kilometres in the hills that led down to the port of Algeciras. The sun set on Spain and a new land awaited. We ran in silence but I appreciated having one of my biggest role models beside me as I headed towards the continent in which I had grown up.


As I entered Morocco, two options lay ahead of me. The quickest route was to follow the coastline from Ceuta to Al Hoceima. Far more attractive was the idea of venturing into the Rif, Mid Atlas and High Atlas mountains. Eventually, the lure of more high-altitude scenery proved irresistible. However, it wasn't long before I began to wonder whether I had bitten off more than I could chew.

During the course of the run, I had become anaemic. This meant that running at moderate altitude was more taxing than it should be. Every step felt like I was wading through treacle, and at times it was difficult to keep the spirits up, not least when a fully laden donkey cantered past and appeared to snort at me with derision. Unlike that beast of burden, I only carried essential kit: P20 sunscreen, maps, water, food and an inexpensive camera.

The imperial city of Meknes guards the Mid Atlas. Negotiating the narrow streets of its souk involved dodging all manner of vehicles and animals, giving me the impression of being in a video game. The peace of the mountains was a different world altogether. Curious children frequently joined me for a kilometre or so before returning to their games of football.

Donnie joined me for the last nine days--presumably wanting to ensure I didn't get lost so close to the finish line. And as we left the High Atlas, we followed the River Ziz as it created a rare green ribbon of life along its course and eventually vanished into the desert below.

By the time I reached the Sahara, I had eaten more than half a million calories, as well as a kilogram of sand. I had worn out five pairs of shoes and 20 pairs of socks running more than 100 consecutive marathons.

Finishing gave me a chance to reflect. Each day had been a microcosm of the whole challenge, bringing both elation and despair but always something new. I had made friends, captured lasting memories and nursed sore feet.

As I sipped a glass of mint tea with Berber tribesmen. I watched camels glide across the desert. 'Maybe,' I thought to myself, 'I could ride one to our wedding.' After all, I still had a week to get home.

Extreme measures

In 1994, the Italian endurance athlete and police officer Mauro Prosperi lost his way during a race in the Moroccan Sahara. When he was eventually found, nine days later, he had wandered 200 kilometres off course into Algeria and had lost about 18 kilograms He told reporters that he had survived by drinking his urine and eating bats that he found in an abandoned mosque

Prosperi's tale goes to show that desert running shouldn't be taken lightly. Being properly prepared is essential. The temperature often exceeds 40[degrees]C, so loose-fitting and fast-wicking clothing is important.

The sand is difficult to run on and gets everywhere. Although blisters are almost inevitable, they're certain to be worse if sand gets into your shoes. Experienced racers use a variety of weird and wonderful devices to prevent this happening.

Sand gaiters are worn over shoes. It's important to arrange for a cobbler to stitch the gaiters on because glue melts in desert conditions. I learned this through painful experience during my first desert run in the Marathon des Sables.

Adequate quantities of sun protection and water goes without saying; I drink up to ten litres of water a day in the desert. And the dire consequences of getting lost in the unremitting dunes mean that a reliable map and compass--as well as the ability to use them--are also essential. Unless, that is, you're happy to repeat Prosperi's experience.


Although running may seem a fairly straightforward way to get around, covering long distances--particularly those such as Andrew Murray's Scotland to Sahara run which involve moving between widely differing environments--means that you'll need all the right gear with you to keep you fit, healthy and free from injury

1. Gaiters

Sandbaggers Sand Gaiters 35/30 [pounds sterling] grams

The biggest discomfort in desert running is sand in the shoes. The most popular sand gaiters are made from parachute silk. It's important to stitch them onto your running shoes if you want them to be effective

2. Mini crampons

Kahtoola Microspikes 45 [pounds sterling]/from 280 grams

Running on snow and ice is safe, easy and enjoyable with Kahtoola Microspikes. They provide excellent traction in places where there's a risk of ice. They're available in four sizes to fit on any shoe

3. Waterproof running jacket

OMM Kamleika 125/300 [pounds sterling] grams

The perfect combination of waterproofing, windproofing and comfort in a single garment. The Kamleika is made from a lightweight stretch fabric and is fitted with a hood and pockets. Reflective tabs improve the chance of drivers seeing you in low light conditions. Trousers are also available

4. Compass Silva Expedition 4

25/41 [pounds sterling] grams

A full-size compass with luminous markings for use in the dark. The base plate has different map scales and the integrated magnifier helps you to identify specific features on a map

5. Watch

Nite MX10209 200/98 [pounds sterling] grams

The Nite MX10 209's stainless-steel case is fitted with a self illumination system, a comfortable polymer strap and a durable face. This design has proven its worth in some of the harshest conditions on Earth. Note that the 209 is based on its NATO-approved brother, the 201

6. Recovery drink

Science in Sport Rego Recover 7.50/500 [pounds sterling] grams

Formulated to improve recovery from exercise, Rego combines protein for muscle repair, carbohydrate to replenish glycogen stocks and key micronutrients. Best taken immediately after prolonged exercise, Rego can improve performance and is available in several flavours

7. Head torch

Petzl Zipka Plus 2 40/71 [pounds sterling] grams

The Petzl Zipka Plus is compact, light and comfortable. It comes with a retractable cord so you can wear it on your head or wrist. It will illuminate a distance of up to 35 metres and has a burn time of up to 140 hours

8. Socks

Hilly Mono Skin Marathon Fresh 9/90 [pounds sterling] grams (pair)

A mid weight, cushioned sock with excellent stretch and recovery properties. This comfortable and durable sock is the best I've used, although Injinji toe socks are also great in the desert. The flat toe seam helps to prevent toe blisters

9. Stove

MSR Pocket Rocket 30/85 [pounds sterling] grams

Compact, efficient and affordable, the Pocket Rocket provides sufficient heat to brew up in a hurry. Make sure resealable gas canisters are available in the country to which you're travelling. MSR also produces extremely light, good quality titanium cookware

10. Running shoes

UK Gear PT-1000 95/350 [pounds sterling] grams

The PT-1000 is the world's first running shoe built to survive 1,000 miles. Extensive structured cushioning protects from lower limb injuries caused by overuse. A grippy sole provides sufficient traction on a trail, but it's also an ideal road shoe. Each pair comes with a 21-day guarantee regardless of the condition they're in

Andrew Murray works for the Scottish government to promote exercise for health. As a sports and exercise doctor, he has worked with some of the world's top athletes. He is the author of Running Beyond Limits.
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Title Annotation:ESSENTIAL GEAR
Comment:The long and winding road: ultra-marathon runner Andrew Murray loves extreme environments--the Arctic, the Sahara, Mongolia, the Himalaya--the harsher, the better.
Author:Murray, Andrew
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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