Chasing the Big Six marathon majors? That’s child’s play compared to the Marathon des Sables (MdS) 2018, happening from April 6 to 16 this year. Imagine running 5½ marathons (or 254km) in the span of five or six days in the oftentimes 50°C heat of southern Morocco. Add to that having to carry a backpack weighing 6.5kg to 15kg as you need to be completely self-sufficient. Runners of the legendary MdS know to carry a week’s supply of food, a sleeping bag and, considering the race is run in the desert, potentially life-saving items like a distress flare, venom pump and compass. We speak to Datin Sue Ding — a lawyer with London firm Desai, Ding and Oberoi Solicitors and a participant in this year’s MdS — to find out just what the toughest footrace on earth, as described by Discovery Channel, is all about.
Options: How did you hear about the legendary MdS?
Datin Sue Ding: I follow this photographer on Instagram @iancorlessphotography. He travels the world documenting extreme running races and has covered MdS for many years. His images excited me but also posed the challenge: ‘Could I do this?’ The only way for me to find out is to stand on the starting line!
Is it true you are the first Malaysian woman to participate in MdS’ 33-year history?
I have been led to believe so but I can’t confirm it.
What have the preparations been like?
I entered the race about a year ago and over the past 12 months I have gradually increased my training to prepare me for the challenges ahead. MdS is not only physical but mental, and the race requires very specific equipment. It is a huge undertaking and, for me, a true test of my limits. I ran a few specific races in the UK as preparation and in January this year, I attended a special desert training camp in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, which proved to be invaluable as I got to meet fellow MdS competitors.
You have already completed the London, Berlin and Tokyo marathons. What has each experience been like?
Running is my escape and I use it to relax and enjoy the freedom the sport affords. I don’t impose any specific targets on myself. Road marathons, for example, are very time-oriented. People always ask what time did you clock but, really, the question should be: Did you enjoy it? London was like a huge running street party and I completed it in 5:05. Berlin seemed more serious and that was reflected in my time of 4:38, but I also trained very hard for it. Tokyo, without doubt, was the hardest as I had pain in my right foot two days prior. I didn’t know it at the time but I had a stress fracture. I completed it in five hours, nevertheless, and had to reduce to walking, from running, coupled with a lot of pain.
Now, with the MdS happening this week, how do you feel and what was the reaction of most people when you told them you were taking part?
Most people are amazed but I seriously think many don’t fully understand the challenges of MdS. I am not so sure I do either. It is difficult to comprehend — covering 250km over six days, carrying everything I need while running through the arid landscape of the Sahara desert while being baked by intense heat. I am actually laughing as I say this.
You are also running for charity. Why did you pick Make-A-Wish Malaysia and Malaysian Dogs Deserve Better (MDDB) as beneficiaries?
I have a dog named Holby and she has become such an important part of my life that I would like to think my charitable exploits can give others an opportunity to enjoy the joy that having a dog can bring. Holby was a rescue dog, so providing for MDDB feels right. Make-A-Wish Malaysia is a way of fulfilling my passion and belief in the human race. And if I run for a cause, it’s what pushes me out the door when it’s raining and cold, as I have an obligation to others. For MdS, I am hoping to raise RM250,000. At the moment, I am just around the RM100,000 mark, including offline fundraising. My Simplygiving link is simplygiving.com/appeal/sueding, if anyone is willing to help.
Running the MdS is a costly exercise. Is it true it can cost as much as £3,650 just to participate?
The entry fee alone is substantial but, when one takes into consideration all the equipment, training camps, training races, heat chamber sessions, medical bills, personal coaching and countless other things, like flight tickets, I anticipate the total cost to be around £8,000.
And is it true that AC/DC’s Highway to Hell is the pre-race anthem?
Yes. Apparently it’s played as the start time of the race approaches.
What do you think will be going through your mind as you are running?
To be honest, I cannot anticipate how the race will impact me physically and mentally. I have, so far, broken it down into manageable chunks, day by day. Once Day 1 is complete, only then will I think of Day 2. But my mindset is to control the controllable and adapt to the countless challenges that will arise and I can’t plan for. I guess that’s why the race is so hard. I will have my music, which I will ration and use only when needed but I will also remind myself that I will be in the Sahara, a place so few people get to go to — and I will be having the experience of a lifetime. I shall embrace every moment and be thankful for the opportunity.
What are you looking forward to most, as well as dreading?
It will be an amazing experience — one that will provide dread as well as excitement in equal measure. I’ve seen photos, I’ve read stories, I’ve spoken to people. Now, I will get the opportunity to write my own story.
At the time of print, Datin Sue Ding has successfully completed the six-day 250km Marathon des Sables. This article first appeared on Apr 2, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.