By Karen B. Eldridge
MC Director of News and Public Information
Maryville College senior Andrew Hackett, an outdoor recreation major, has enrolled in the Marathon De Sables, or Marathon of the Sands, that will take place in Morocco March 29-April 5. The race, covering approximately 150 miles through the Sahara Desert, takes place over seven days and is the equivalent of five and one-half regular marathons.
Hackett, 21, who calls Crossville home, is an Eagle Scout but has never been a member of any cross country or track team and has never participated in an organized sport. He learned of the race through a special on the Discovery Channel about a year and a half ago and has been in training since.
“(The show) was on the abilities of the human body and how they are stretched in different environments,” Hackett said. “After watching the section on desert environments with them using clips of the race, I went online and did some research on the marathon. The stories I read from previous runners made me feel like this was something I could do.
“In addition to this being relevant to my major, this was an opportunity to take part in something that not many people have done before, and I wanted to do something crazy before graduation. This fulfills that and gets me healthy at the same time.”
The Marathon De Sables has taken place each spring since 1986, when it was conceived and organized by Frenchman Patrick Bauer. During the event, competitors run on foot through some of the most beautiful, remote sections of the Moroccan Sahara while carrying a backpack with essential gear, food, sleeping bag and clothing for the week.
Race organizers provide water, generally nine liters per day, and a traditional, two-sided Berber tent each night for sleeping.
Competitors, ranging in age from 16 to 78, are tasked with managing their limited water and maintaining a competitive running speed. There are six stages over the seven days, with the first three daily stages set around 20 miles each. The fourth stage is around 50 miles, with competitors running the full day and well into the night.
Hackett said he can currently cover 12 miles in two hours with a full pack, 35 at an easy walk.
“When I first started, I was running the campus loop with no gear, trying to get into better shape. I had no endurance whatsoever,” he said. “After slowly building up speed and distance over a period of months, I began running with an empty pack to get used to the change.
“As of right now, I am running with full gear weighing in at around 20 pounds.”
The well-marked racecourse takes competitors over giant sand dunes, salt flats, dried riverbeds, rocky desert plains and ancient, dried up lakes. At the start, competitors receive a “Road Book” that provides an official course description for each stage.
Temperatures in the Sahara can be extreme, with possible daytime highs reaching 125 degrees, falling off to 38 at night. The occasional sandstorm can add to the mix.
Training for a desert race has proved challenging for someone who lives and studies in the humid, subtropical climate of East Tennessee. Hackett has tried to address the challenge creatively. For instance, to get his body adjusted to the heat expected, he has been exercising in a sauna at a local health club.
Hackett has also tried to prepare himself, mentally, for the race.
“Running for an hour or two a day is a healthy experience. But running 10-plus hours a day with minimal human interaction, conversation or even company can be exhausting,” he said. “One piece of equipment I am carrying is an iPod and a solar charger. (Rock bands) Black Sabbath and Guns ’n Roses are remarkably helpful in getting your concentration and focus back.”
Hackett can also analyze the training and race from a scholarly viewpoint. His senior study, a requirement for graduation from Maryville, has focused on the related topics of extreme, risk-taking sports. For the last two semesters, Hackett has been researching the motivations of “thrill seekers” who engage in sports like snowboarding, skydiving and bungee jumping.
Hackett, who’ll be runner No. 495, is one of 77 competitors from the United States to enter the 2008 race. For several months, he has communicated with other racers about items like gear, and food through an online message board.
Dr. Danny Pierce, associate professor of physical education and recreation at Maryville, said the experience in Morocco will be “phenomenal” for his advisee in several ways.
“First, he’ll get a participant’s point of view and really understand what high-endurance sports require,” Pierce said. “Secondly, it will be valuable for him to watch the organization of an event of this size and scope — to see everything from the marketing to the registration process to the logistical aspects like feeding people and supplying them with necessary amenities.
“And of course, the networking aspect is valuable. He’ll meet so many people — not just runners, but vendors and others invested in outdoor recreation. Who knows what those connections could turn into?”
Hackett’s personal goals for the marathon are pretty simple.
“My biggest goal for this race is just to complete it,” he said. “While it would be nice to race for a placing, the more experienced runners have been doing this for years and know what to expect. The winner of last year’s race is able to maintain a cruising speed of almost 13km an hour. That is inhumanly fast for a 243km race!
“My goal is to finish, have fun and meet some amazing people.”
Further information about the race can be found at www.darbaroud.com