Race across the Sahara Desert: A Toronto woman says she’d do it again.

by Jane Igharo

Whoever said fear is the greatest motivator, never knew the strength and resilience that comes from determination and perseverance.

Teona Baetu, Alison Simpson, Elita Tsilo and Jane Igharo at Centennial Journalism for an interview.

On October 2, 2011, Alison Simpson, the executive vice-president of Maritz Canada and 29 time marathoner, began her journey of endurance through the blazing heat of the Sahara desert.  Regardless of the health threats that might have fazed most people, Simpson’s optimism outweighed her obstacles and gave her the will to push through the violent heat of the dessert.

After meeting up with her colleague Stefan Danis, who had previously run across the desert,  Simpson decided to sign up for the chance to do the  same.  She wanted to use the opportunity to raise money for the National Advertising Benevolent Society, a charity set up to help people in the advertising industry who were suffering from illness or had fallen on hard times.

Her fearless decision to run through the desert was questioned by her family and friends; but they eventually put their opposition to rest after coming to the acceptance that she was not the kind of person to give up.

Simpson began preparing for the race by receiving training from an athlete at her company’s gym and also running 100 kilometres per week while wearing a 25 pound bag on her back.  Through her intense weeks of training, Simpson began to reconsider her decision, but she never allowed fear or doubt to overwhelm her will to do something extraordinary.  She continued her training and on October 1, she landed in Egypt and began her six day journey on the trail of self-discovery and fortitude.

“I never regretted my decision because I know that going into something like this, there would be times in the six days were I wanted to stop – that’s part of the challenge – forcing yourself to get past that point and keep going.  I don’t tend to give up easily; this race absolutely tested me on that measure,” explained Simpson.

The six days journey of physical and mental strength did not only give Simpson an opportunity to take up a great cause, but also allowed her to form great friendships, allowed her to discover a suppressed inner strength that she never knew existed and gave her the opportunity to connect with someone she had lost – this was a journey that changed her life.

“I knew I was going to be changed, but I didn’t know how I would be changed so the only expectation I had going in, was that it would be a mental challenge – it will be physically exhausting in ways I had never imagined,” said Simpson.

The days started at 5:30 in morning.  The runners would wake up and have their breakfast which consisted of freeze-tried packaged food that usually consisted of 800 calories or more.  After breakfast, they would pack up their belongings and begin the race.  At the end of each day, they would go to the camp that had been set for them, have dinner by 7:00 p.m. and would be asleep by 9:00 p.m.  The first four days was a 40 km race and the fifth day was an 80 km day and the last day was a 10 km race; the temperature ranged between 40 and 50 ˚C.

The long trek through the smothering heat left many people sitting in the desert and gasping for air; these were the times when the concern and encouragement of racers came into play.

On the first day of the race, Simpson came in contact with a man called Xavier who was sitting in the desert.  He was exhausted and she talked and walked with him until he felt better.  Simpson was unaware that her kind act will be rewarded during one of her most vulnerable moments.

Two days later, Xavier found Simpson in the same position she had once found him – exhausted and discouraged.  He showed her the same courtesy that she had showed him by spending the rest of the day running and talking with her.  Simpson explained that Xavier will forever have a special place in her heart for getting her through that moment.

“Just knowing that I wasn’t in this alone was very powerful.   You’ll be running along and someone would be struggling or you will be struggling and you would slow down and run or talk to them and help them and they will do the same for you.

“I can talk to someone for hours on end and in six short days, I got to know people that were complete strangers at the beginning better than I know people that I’ve know for years – that was a great way to get through it.”

Although words of encouragement were a huge motivation, sometimes the nature of the environment overpowered even the strong-willed.

At the end of day two, two racers were taken to a hospital in Cairo and on day three of the race, Simpson almost became the third victim.

The night before the 80 km race, Simpson became extremely dehydrated and had to take in two bags of fluid intravenously.

“I was convinced my race was over – my doctors were convinced my race was over.”

Simpson was lying on a cloth in a tent when she reached her darkest moment.  Her strong will to succeed had been softened and her optimistic attitude had been replaced with uncertainty.  She described that moment as “heartbreaking.”

During Simpson’s weak state, she hallucinated having a conversation with her father who died of Alzheimer’s eight years ago.

“All the people in the world who could have helped me through that challenge it was my dad.  He had this wicked sense of humour, this ‘Suck it up and get on with it’ attitude; he knew what say to me in that setting.  So I do think there was a reason he was the person I envisioned in front of me and talked to.

“That was one of the best moments of the race – which is odd – I might end up not finishing the race, I might end up in a hospital in Cairo but there was a pretty cool moment that came out of that too.”

Although her body was weak and at the verge of breaking, her heart was strong and determined to get as far as she could.  The next morning, Simpson woke up and decided to continue the race.   She was able to finish the 80 km day.

Even at times when it seemed impossible to accomplish her gaol, Simpson found ways to carry on.  During the pitch black nights where her only guide was the fierce moon, she conjured up the strength to climb up a long steep incline as she listened to Bat Out of Hell by Meatloaf on her iPod.  She said that the music kept her pushing.

Although she found the music encouraging, she found the cyber support of her friends, families, co-workers and strangers more motivating.

“The amount of support from friends and family was extraordinary.  Complete strangers who were friends of friends who heard about it or people I haven’t been in touch with for more than ten years found out about it.   I was getting these amazing messages from friends from grade school.  Knowing that there was a community around me at home – I would have really missed that.”

Simpson once said running across the desert is not something she would do again, but she has changed her mind.  Simpson explained that her experience across the desert is similar to childbirth.

“You go through this extraordinary pain and think ‘Oh I’m never gonna do this again’ and then you get some distance from it and you see the joys the experience brought to your life – I would absolutely do another race.”

Running across the Sahara desert has become a means of motivation in Simpson’s life and career.  The thought that she is capable of enduring just about anything because she completed an almost impossible task has given her a different perspective.

“Accomplishing something like that and seeing the degree in which you can endure mental and physical challenge – that you can survive is very freeing.  It’s put what I’ve thought was a challenging day into perspective.”

Whoever said fear is the greatest motivator, never knew Alison Simpson, a woman who ran across the Sahara desert in six days.  They never knew of the strength that can be driven by willpower or the desire to fight that can grow stronger with encouraging words.

Whoever said fear is the greatest motivator would never believe that strength, resilience and a strong heart were the key motivators in a 250 km race across the Sahara desert.




2 thoughts on “Race across the Sahara Desert: A Toronto woman says she’d do it again.

  1. The Sahara Desert dominates the North African country of Morocco. This is a world both forbidding and cruel. To walk here is to place ones life at risk; to run is insane. Yet, running is exactly what hundreds of madmen do in arguably the toughest footrace on the planet. This is Sahara: Footrace Across the Sand. This Emmy Award-nominated one-hour special was produced, directed, written and edited by Red Line Films. It featured a 40-year old mother of two Ruth Marie Milliman, who battled her way to a shocking second place finish. Airing on ESPN in the summer of 2003, the grueling race featured 600 adventure runners from around the world during their 7-day, 150-mile desert trek.

  2. Whoever said fear is the greatest motivator would never believe that strength, resilience and a strong heart were the key motivators in a 250 km race across the Sahara desert.

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