SA couple's epic Sahara desert achievement

2015-05-20 19:23
Tanya and Genis Pieterse. (Supplied)

Tanya and Genis Pieterse. (Supplied)

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Johannesburg - It’s a race that makes grown men cry and throw up, but Tanya Pieterse completed the 250km marathon through the Sahara desert with most of her toenails gone and at one point blind from glucose deficiency - and with help from her husband Genis.

According to Genis, the Pieterses, in their 40s, are the first South African couple to compete in the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day multi-stage race across the Moroccan Sahara held between April 3 and 13.

Carrying their own food and survival equipment, about 1 300 competitors jogged, walked, and dragged themselves through heat in excess of 50°C, across endless salt pans, up and down mountains and sand dunes. Water was provided at checkpoints about 13km apart.

Tanya's backpack weighed 9kg. At one point she began hallucinating. The shoeprints competitors ahead of her had left in a sand dune turned into skulls with “horrible faces”.

“But I knew I was hallucinating. I decided I’m just going to stand on them. When you see the big guys crying or throwing up, then you know how hard it is.”

Having struggled to swallow and eat, she went blind from glucose deficiency on the last stage, a 91km slog that took them a day, a night, and most of the following day. They did it with less than two hour’s rest, just two hours before the 36-hour cut-off time.

Asked why she did it, she said it was to spend time with Genis, and to challenge herself.

“My whole life I feel like I’ve been looked down on. When I looked in the mirror I saw a failure. Genis wanted me to do it. He knew I would be able to finish.”

On the long stage she reached the top of a mountain and could see for miles.

“I thought, I don’t know anybody that could do that. Maybe somewhere I am superwoman,” she laughed.

When the blindness struck, Genis had to take her hand and guide her. It lasted more than half of the 91km stage, she estimates.

She went to the medics and was put on two drips and given morphine to deal with the pain of losing all the toenails on her right foot, and some on her left, but decided to keep going.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to live with myself if I quit,” she recalls thinking.

“The doctors were very nice. They asked me how my sight was. I lied. I got up, put a big smile on my face and said ‘it’s better than ever’. My sight only came back the next day. I really believed that I’d gone blind permanently. But I thought, if my grandchildren ask me about it one day, at least I’ll have a good story to tell.”

Genis said she was back on her feet after an hour of medical treatment. They got a two-hour penalty for the drip.

“An hour later she was up and said, ‘let’s go’. I take my hat off to her. Her body took an absolute hammering.”

Tanya said she was lucky to have had him by her side.

“He was with me all the time and gave me all the emotional support. There was another couple and she came to me and said she never saw her husband after the start. Some men came to Genis and said, ‘I can’t believe you brought your wife’.

“Some of the couples we saw had huge fights. We managed to make it work. It was like Lord of the Rings, like a quest. It forged our relationship. I respected Genis before, but I’ve got more respect for him now.

“It was nice walking and running with him. Holding his hand and knowing I’m not alone.”

Genis was similarly full of praise for his wife.

“It said something about our relationship, the trust, teamwork, our ability to work together. That was seriously nice. It was tough.”

The couple live in Pretoria and have a 23-year-old daughter. Genis, a management consultant, describes himself as an experienced ultra-endurance desert racer who has competed in the Addo Elephant trail run and the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon.

This was his second Marathon des Sables, and Tanya’s first.  Tanya, a project manager, is now devoting her time to painting and writing a book about the marathon. She has been doing ultra-endurance marathons for two years.

“It has to be tough, otherwise it’s not worth doing it,” said Genis of his reasons for doing such races.

“From a physical perspective, I’ve always been very adventure-orientated. It was such a privilege to run with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. It’s great to see him at 72 to do that. It gives you hope.”

Tanya said Fiennes, an English adventurer, had been lagging at the back of the pack towards the end of the race. He was just ahead of the camels, who brought up the rear.

“If you’re in front of the camels you know you’re going to make it,” she said.

She said Fiennes crossed the finish line just ahead of the camels, turned around and gave them the finger.

Genis said the heat at one point reached 58°C. If the ambient temperature was 50, then near the ground it would be about 20 to 30 degrees hotter, causing a “major amount of trauma” to the feet and calves.

“You start at 09:00 so that you never run in the cool. It should not be comfortable. And you come in between 14:00 and 16:00. Just when the heat starts breaking you get in.”

Tanya said before the start of the each day’s leg, AC/DC’s Highway to Hell was blasted over speakers by the organiser Patrick Bauer. Racers sing along and dance, she laughed.

The couple said there was nothing that could be done about the heat, other than accept it.

“There’s no reprieve,” Genis said.

“There’s nothing you can do. You are the only thing that throws a shadow. You overcome it mentally. You can’t overcome it physically.  Every millilitre you waste will come back to haunt you.”

They managed to average a speed of about 4.1km/h while going up and down dunes. During a solid, flat stretch, they reached a peak of 14.5km/h.

Genis said they did general fitness training for two years to prepare for the race. Closer to the time they used a more specific training regime. He went through six pairs of shoes during training, and used a seventh pair during the race.

“It’s not about fitness. It’s about whether you enjoy it or not.”

When asked about the cost of the race, he said: "You don't want to know". According to the race's website, the 2015 edition's entry fee for individuals was Euro 2900, (about R38,000) which excluded flight transfers.

Tanya was looking forward to preparing with Genis for the 6633 Arctic Ultra in March 2017. It’s an eight-day 560km trek that enters the Arctic Circle. Temperatures can reach -65°C. They will have to pull all their equipment and food on sleighs.

"If you put one foot in front of the other and see it through, you can accomplish anything in life," Tanya said.

She wouldn’t do the Marathon des Sables again though.

“It took too much out of me. If I do it again and don’t make it, it will spoil the feeling.”

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