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‘We had no electricity, no running water, no Internet and no toilets'

May 20th, 2019 9:00 AM

By Southern Star Team

Bantry man Eamonn McCarthy runs across the Sahara Desert in the 2019 Marathon des Sables.

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Bantry man Eamonn McCarthy ran in the famous – and torturous – Marathon des Sables in April and survived to tell KIERAN McCARTHY the tale

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WHEN Eamonn McCarthy decided he was going to compete in the world’s toughest footrace – the Marathon des Sables in Morocco – he had a few nagging concerns: he hadn’t run in years, had piled on weight and was out of shape.

Usually, they’re deal-breakers. But these gaping holes in his grand plan didn’t stop the Bantry man. Instead, the Marathon des Sables gave him a focus.

‘Having not really run before was obviously a concern but I know I’m strong mentally so I just got my head down and trained as hard and efficiently as possible,’ Eamonn says.

The Marathon des Sables is epic. It’s a 251km ultramarathon. That’s the equivalent of six marathons in seven days in the Sahara Desert. Suffocating heat. Unrelenting sun. Freezing cold nights. To Eamonn, it was a challenge to be embraced.

He’s from Colomane West in Bantry, the son of Teddy and Ann McCarthy and a brother to Liam, who lives in Caheragh. Eamonn left Bantry in 1996 to go study in England – and he hasn’t stopped travelling yet. He has visited 98 countries and counting.

These days he is working in his eighth country. He is a golf course superintendent in Bogota, Colombia. It’s here he decided to signed up to run in the Marathon des Sables. With the plan hatched Eamonn needed to train. He needed to run. It’s been a long time since he was a kid playing football for Tadhg MacCarthaigh and soccer for Bantry Bay United – but he had to start somewhere.

‘Before I moved to Bogota I had spent 17 months travelling the world after my previous job in Bali finished in 2016. I’d a great time but it came at a cost. My diet suffered, the weight piled on fast and I was badly out of shape. I needed a target for myself,’ he explains.

With the April 2019 Marathon des Sables his goal, Eamonn whipped himself into shape. He was running over 120kms every week before he flew out to Morocco last month, including 50km runs in high altitude into the Bogota mountains. He trained well. Yoga. Bike work. Recovery. Stretching. Ice baths. Jacuzzi. He covered all the bases.

‘I started to see results and completed my first marathon in Medellin, Colombia, last September in a time of four hours and 22 seconds. I completed the Barbados Marathon in December with a calf injury in a time of three hours and 47 minutes so I could feel the body adjusting,’ Eamonn says.

Everything was on track.

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It cost Eamonn €4,200 to enter the 2019 Marathon des Sables. Not cheap but, he says, worth every penny for an incredible experience.

He arrived in Morocco on a chartered flight from London on April 5th, along with his friend, Down man Johnny Ward, a full-time travel blogger who has visited all 197 official countries in the world.

‘I had all my gear, as well as my 14,000 calories of food (2,500 calories per day) for the entire event, my sleeping bag, a yoga mat for my mattress (a big mistake as it was awful for sleeping) and a few other basic needs,’ he explains.

Eamonn was also armed with the mandatory kit, including his passport, €200 in cash, a lighter, penknife, compass, signal mirror, medical forms. But he forgot one medical form and that saw him, on day one, on April 7th, also his 42nd birthday, hit with a €200 fine and a one-hour time penalty.

On the first day the West Cork man took it slow. He needed to get used to his bag which weighed 9.1kg before adding the weight of all the water he needed. The sun beat down. It was over 34 degrees. He was running over mixed terrain – rocks, stones, soft sand, hard sand. Eamonn stayed in a tent that night with seven other runners. Day two didn’t get any easier.

‘I’d a terrible start that day. My whole backpack started to rip and I was panicking so I started to dump some stuff that I really did not need. I ended up wearing my Munster fleece while running in over 34-degree heat,’ Eamonn recalls.

'Luckily, one of the older men in my tent had a sowing kit so he helped me stitch up the bag and off I went through the huge 22km of sand dunes.’

Eamonn kept his head down on day three, over 32kms, and ticked off each check point with time to spare. He made sure dehydration wasn’t a problem, drinking one and a half litres every 10kms. Day four was the long day, over 80km. It took him over 15 hours. He felt okay after. He was on course to finish – and he did. Day five was conquered too, his feet holding up well.

‘The big concern for most people is their feet so everybody is advised to get Gators stitched onto your shoes to stop sand getting in and destroying your feet. Last year one runner lost 15 per cent of the skin on his feet,’ Eamonn explains.

‘Six weeks before going to the Sahara my physiotherapist strapped my feet weekly to help get my skin used to tape and I also learned to strap my feet in an efficient manner.

‘By the finish I just had two small blisters on my right foot. I got off lightly as my feet were perfect compared to other runners who had major issues.

‘The hardest part of the whole experience for me was the night temperatures. It was freezing below zero and my sleeping yoga mat was terrible; it felt like I was sleeping on rocks. As the week went on I had to take valium pills to get some sleep.’

Day six was the final stage. Of the 950 starters, Eamonn finished 405th and the fifth Irish runner home.

‘The time penalty of one hour on day one cost me 44 places but the truth is I was glad to get through it,’ he says.

‘Crossing the finish line was an amazing feeling. From being somebody who only had ever run two half marathons in Asia three years ago, I now find myself with the running bug. I have some crazy ideas in my head which may or may not happen.’

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Eamonn left the Sahara Desert with lots of happy memories – and lots of ideas for the future. He plans to run in the Berlin Marathon in September for a MS charity in the UK. He has an aunt in West Cork who suffers from the disease. Fifteen days after Berlin Eamonn wants to take part in the Chicago Marathon for a homeless charity. 

‘I have now decided to do a marathon in every continent in the world so next April I am going to register for the famous North Korea Marathon. This is a special event to me as I will run it and raise funds for my six-year-old cousin who has Leukemia in London.’

Conquering the Marathon des Sables has also opened Eamonn’s eyes.

‘I’d highly advise going off-line in today’s world. We had no electricity, no running water, no Internet, no toilets – but it was refreshing to sit around a camp fire at night and talk with my tent mates about all our lives and the everyday challenges we all face.

‘I have dropped 21kg in just over 15 months and feel super strong mentally and physically. I firmly believe if your head is in the right place anything is achievable.

‘I met some amazing people on this trip. My tent mates are brothers for life now. We all got each other through it especially on the tough days.’

And the adventure isn’t over yet.

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