Eoin Ryan and Paul McGurrell are two runners who share one big goal: to make it to the finish line of the famous Marathon des Sables – a running challenge of 243k (151 miles) that takes place over six stages through some of the harshest environments on the planet.
Wexford native Ryan and McGurrell, from Swords, Co Dublin, have been training together for several months for their big challenge in the Moroccan Sahara. The training has been tough and relentless and includes 60k runs circuiting Howth Head.
Their big challenge is due to start on April 6 and both runners are using the event as a fundraiser: Eoin's charity is Pieta House and Paul has adopted the LauraLynn Foundation.
The Marathon des Sables is often referred to as "the toughest foot race on earth" but Eoin and Paul are not daunted. They have consulted other Irish runners who have completed the event and are preparing diligently.
The inaugural Marathon des Sables was organised by a French concert promoter, Patrick Bauer, who in 1984 decided that he wanted to complete an epic walk. He chose the Moroccan Sahara for this adventure and, on completing 200k, he decided to share his experience by creating a challenge that would have multi-cultural appeal.
The first Marathon des Sables event took place in 1986 with 186 competitors. This year's event will have 1,000 entrants, 200 press and a course management team of 400. The King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, will welcome the runners, while local running legend Lahcen Ahansal has won the event on 10 occasions – averaging 19/20 hours to complete the 243k.
Eoin and Paul have not set themselves any time targets for their challenge and their focus will be one of survival. Eoin (39) is no stranger to stiff tests. He has completed two Ironman triathlons (a PB of 11:14) and he has a marathon best time of 3:30. Back in 2008, Eoin ran seven marathons in six days as a fundraiser for Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin.
He took up running at age 18 after a blossoming hurling career came to an abrupt end when he accidentally severed a finger. His dream was to play for his native Wexford county hurling team and he had already represented the county's underage teams.
Running gave him a new focus and today it has become his business too, as he is race director for a number of events that include the Wicklow Half-Marathon and 10k on April 27, the Craic Dublin Mud Run in Palmerstown on May 10 and the Clontarf Half-Marathon and 5-Mile race on July 5.
Paul is a fireman in his native Swords and has been running since 2006. It was a broken ankle he sustained playing soccer that changed his sporting focus and he has a marathon PB of 3:40 – a big improvement on his 4:12 debut in Dublin in 2006.
Last October, Paul (34) ran back-to-back marathons in Dublin – starting out at 4am on Marathon Monday with his fireman colleague Padraig Thompson, who sacrificed his own Dublin Marathon medal and T-shirt to run the first leg of the marathon double with his friend. That was a big gesture that Paul greatly appreciated and he was able to average finishing times of 4:30 for his double marathon stint.
Over the six stages of the Marathon des Sables event, Eoin and Paul will have to carry everything they need on their backs: food, clothing, first aid and so on. The only help provided is water and shelter. The running surface they encounter will be uneven and an estimated 15-20pc of the six-stage course includes difficult sand dunes. Temperatures in the Sahara can rise to 50C and plummet to –5C at night. Although water is available, it is tightly rationed. The fourth stage is reputed to be the toughest when competitors have to complete back-to-back marathons.
Eoin and Paul have discovered a novel way of preparing for the hot desert conditions by taking up Bikram yoga three times a week – 90-minute sessions in an enclosed heat chamber where temperatures rise to 50C. "It's a way of tricking the body into getting used to this type of heat," Eoin said of their preparations. "But no matter how things go in the desert next month, I am delighted that because of taking up this challenge, I feel that I have also made a friend for life," Eoin said of Paul.
To support Eoin Ryan and Paul McGurrell's fundraising efforts, visit www.mycharity.ie and type in either of their names