When Don Devenney opened his email last February, one message made his heart skip a few beats.
He had been awarded a slot in the Marathon des Sables, a famed 250 kilometre run through the Sahara Desert in Morocco, certainly one of the toughest foot races in the world. Devenney was overjoyed, and a little fearful.
“I had mixed feelings,” he says smiling. “I said, ‘What have I got myself into now?’”
A marathoner and Ironman triathlete, Devenney is no stranger to gruelling endurance events. But running in 40 C-plus heat, through sand dunes and hardscrabble terrain, with a full pack for six days, is a new dimension of suffering.
“I’ve run in heat before, but I’ve never run in a desert,” says Devenney, a long-serving West Shore RCMP auxiliary constable. “They tell us the temperature is usually in the high 30s (Celsius) or mid 40s. Last year had days into the 50s.”
A handful of Canadians get selected each year through a lottery system for the Marathon des Sables, and most have to wait a few years, as Devenney did. Despite the obvious hardships of running the equivalent of five-and-a-half marathons through the desert, 700 slots sell out each season.
Devenney admits he wasn’t in the best of shape when he got his race entry ticket – his last marathon was in 2009 and his last Ironman in 2006. Being the IT manager for the Canadian Sports Centre Pacific left him little time to train and enter races. On the other hand, being an employee of CSCP has given him access to the most sophisticated athletic training facility in western Canada.
The 53-year-old View Royal resident has ready access to a treadmill in heat chamber – housed in a retrofitted camper – the same one used by Canadian triathletes in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He’s had a run at 30C, and the chamber maxes out at about 40C.
“By the end of March I’ll be on full heat acclimation protocol, spending six to 10 days in the chamber doing hard runs,” he says. “The 30 C run wasn’t bad, but it’s new territory for me. I need to ramp up the temperature and be uncomfortable.”
In the meantime, he’s keeping up a relentless six-days per week outdoor running schedule, set out by his coach and ultra-marathoner Mike Suminski.
After a year of slowly building endurance, these days Devenney can be found pounding out four hour runs through steep rolling hills in Highlands, with a 20 pound pack.
“It comes down to training, it’s so important to build up endurance,” Suminski said. “But also fuelling and hydration is critical. You can do all the training you want, but without a strategy for fuelling and hydration you can have a terrible race.
“Don is very mentally tough,” he adds. “You have to be really focused, the mental game is a huge part of training, and especially doing these ultras.”
Race organizers supply camps and shelter, and water at the start of each leg, but athletes in the MdS have to carry all their food, clothing, medical gear and supplies to last the week. If runners don’t show up with at least 14,000 calories worth of nutrition, and medical certificates proving they are fit, they don’t start.
“Food, toilet paper, snake bite medicine. It’s all on your back,” Devenney says.
“Being self sufficient is one of the more interesting aspects of the race. I’m working on finding freeze dried food. It’s minimalist, it’s about filling the void. I’m not worried if it tastes good.”
He also has to find ways to keep sand out of his shoes – it can tear feet up and quickly end a race. “Keeping blisters down is a real challenge,” Devenney says. “There are a lot of sand dunes.”
Devenney said he won’t know the route for sure until they’re bused out to the start line in the Moroccan desert, but it’s guaranteed to be long and hot. He tries not to dwell on the scope of the race.
“I’m doing the training and I feel strong and ready, but sometimes I’ll get butterflies,” he said. “But the bottom line is you do the training plan, get to the start line, and what happens, happens.”
As part of his run, Devenney is raising money for the Canadian Arthritis Society, in honour of his friend Rhonda, who suffers from crippling arthritis. To donate, see arthritis.akaraisin.com/p/running4rhonda.aspx.
For more on the Marathon des Sables, see www.saharamarathon.co.uk.