THE SAHARA DESERT, Morocco, April 23, 2008 — -- When you tell people about the Marathon des Sables, they generally have the same response: mouth agape, eyes bulging, "who the hell would want to do that?"
You start off by talking about the basics, the fact that it takes place in the Sahara Desert and that you have to run over 150 miles in six days.
Then you fill in the details, like that you have to carry everything you need to survive for that period except water.
You top it off by telling them about how temperatures regularly get into the hundreds and that you pay thousands of dollars to do it and use up a lot of vacation time.
Nine times out of ten the reaction is as described.
The answer to the question, who would want to do that, might surprise you.
I arrived in Morocco expecting to be confronted by a bunch of hard-core athletes who spent all their time talking about PowerBars and how much they benched.
The reality was quite different.
While all the contestants were certainly very fit, they came from all walks of life, had different interests, different body types. Some were running for the challenge, some for charity, others for the experience.
More than 800 people from 32 different countries entered the MDS this year, held from March 28 to April 7 —and there is already a waiting list for the 2011 race, it has become so popular.
So what is the appeal of the toughest footrace in the world?
Well, first of all, just that.
If you are looking to push yourself, you simply will not find a tougher competition than this one.
You effectively run a marathon a day for three days, then there's a super-long day — nearly 50 miles — and then you get one day off before running another marathon and then you run another 11 miles on the last day.
The terrain is brutal: you are trudging up sand dunes, sweating across salt-flats, struggling up mountains. There is sand everywhere, you get terrible blisters, there are no toilets or showers.
Yet, somehow, this is one of the most magical sporting events on Earth.
While the terrain might be tough to traverse, it is often stunningly beautiful: space and silence and sand as far as the eye can see. And the spirit of camaraderie that develops between all the different runners, notwithstanding age or gender or nationality, is simply amazing to watch.