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Armagh mum ran six marathons in six days across sweltering Sahara in aid of Belfast Children's Hospital

 

By Ivan Little

Lauren O’Malley’s exploits in the gruelling Marathon des Sables are even more remarkable considering she had to learn to walk again after being knocked down as a teen, and cheated death second time due to a huge blood clot.

South Armagh's very own Wonder Woman Lauren O'Malley, who was almost killed by a drunk driver 20 years ago and who has only recently recovered from a debilitating illness, has completed 'the toughest race in the world'  - running the equivalent of six back-to-back marathons in sweltering temperatures in the Sahara Desert.

Alongside the 156-mile slog in the Marathon des Sables (MdS) last month, Lauren has raised thousands of pounds for the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children as a heartfelt thank-you for the painstaking lifesaving care it gives to her two young sons.

The famous race started a few weeks back with the AC/DC song Highway To Hell blasting out from helicopters, but the sanguine 38-year-old Boston-born runner took all the exertions in her stride - even though the MdS left her feet in tatters.

The agony did nothing to dampen her ecstasy on finishing a race that has down the years seen competitors lose their lives and a huge number drop out.

Lauren who, almost unbelievably, had never done a marathon before, won't go so far as to brand her sojourn in the Sahara was a walk in the park.

And although she'll never do it again, she looks back with no little pride on her participation in the gruelling MdS as a challenge she's glad she undertook - including the mind-numbing and energy-sapping 56-mile double stage, which took her 23 hours to finish.

Lauren, whose mother's family emigrated to America from Cushendun, was already a keen athlete before she came to Belfast in 2003 to study criminology at Queen's University.

She had no intention of staying here, though that all changed after she met her future husband, Newry-born mountaineer Terence 'Banjo' Bannon, in the Himalayas. Where else?

She laughs: "I was trekking there and when I saw a tent with an Irish flag I decided to go over and introduce myself as the good Irish-American that I am."

The tent turned out to be Banjo's base camp for what proved to be his successful attempt to conquer the world's highest peak, Mount Everest, the second Irish man to do so.

Lauren says: "It was a surreal coincidence. Our meeting came before I'd even got to Queen's.

"I'd just rented an apartment in Belfast over the internet from Tibet and then along came Banjo."

In Ireland, the spark between Lauren and fireman Banjo ignited into a full-blown relationship. She even took up mountain climbing - and there was to be no going back to Boston.

So in 2005, when Banjo set his sights on climbing to the summit of the notorious K2 in the Himalayas, which is regarded as the 'mountain of mountains', Lauren went with him.

But she wasn't along for the ride because she acted as base camp manager for Banjo, who abandoned the bid to scale K2 after four Russian climbers who were ahead of him died in an avalanche and he was fortunate to survive.

As for Lauren, she curtailed her adventuring somewhat after the arrival of sons Conor (9) and Rowan (6).

But she still undertook 5km and 10km runs to keep herself in trim, pounding the roads around Jonesborough, Co Armagh, where she lives and which she says she loves with a passion.

However, after one mountaineering expedition two years ago, Lauren became dangerously ill.

She explains: "On my way home from work I started having severe pains in my chest and I was struggling to breathe.

"Once I got to hospital they knew right away there was clotting and eventually they put it down to a very rare complication from swimming and climbing. Muscles on the front of my chest had crushed and I had a massive blood clot. I spent more than a month in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where one of my ribs was removed. Later, there were transplants from the arteries at the top of my leg into my chest. Then there was a punctured lung, too."

It took Lauren more than a year to recover from what was her second brush with death. In her teens in Boston, where she was a keen athlete, she was knocked down by a drunk and both of her legs were broken.

She says: "I had a lot of surgery and there were metal rods and pins and screws. My kneecaps needed a great deal of attention because they took the impact. I was in hospital for a long time and in rehab, too. I was in a wheelchair for over six months."

Almost as an afterthought, Lauren adds that she also suffered a fractured skull and head and facial injuries.

"It was tough to recover from the accident but I pushed myself and happily I was able to get back to full strength again after nearly two years of surgeries, because I desperately wanted to return to running."

Two decades on Lauren still has difficulties with her legs, but quite remarkably, after all that she'd gone through in America and more recently in Ireland, she hit on the idea of entering the Marathon Des Sables.

She explains: "I started to feel within myself that I was fit and strong again and that I'd finally got back on track and around Halloween last year I investigated the Marathon des Sables."

Participants have to undergo stringent medical tests before starting the race and they have to be totally self-sufficient, carrying all their rudimentary food and supplies on their back.

Organisers provide water and the most basic of shelter for the runners for sleeping in at night. But that's it, apart from SOS tracking devices in case of emergencies, though accepting medical assistance results in time penalties or expulsion from the race.

However, Lauren went into the MdS with her eyes wide open. She says: "I'd heard about the race - it's listed as the hardest in the world - but there's a real competitive streak within me. I reckoned it was a now or never scenario as I'm not getting any younger, and with my kids, life is getting more and more complicated in terms of time."

But Lauren almost didn't make the starting line, never mind the finishing line. "The race was fully booked. But someone dropped out and I was offered a place. I took it even though I had only six months to prepare."

Which wasn't easy for a busy young mum who only checked with her medics if she could enter the event after she'd paid all the fees.

She says: "The doctors accepted that I had a history as a competitive athlete so it wasn't totally unknown for me, though there was talk that this was the craziest idea I'd ever come up with."

Given Banjo Bannon's own intrepid nature, it might have been difficult for him to oppose his wife's plans, but he was fully supportive of her, as were her family across the Atlantic.

Lauren says that the multi-stage long-term endurance event involved a lot of pain and suffering in the desert.

The course isn't just sand, but huge dunes and rocks, as well as running in temperatures which at one point hit a fierce 54C.

"It was brutal," says Lauren whose only 'luxury' item in her backpack was a toothbrush. "There were 1,300 of us at the start. But several hundred didn't get to the end.

"Every morning we were off running at 8.30am, ensuring that we were out in the desert through the heat of the day to make it even more intense. The stages took an average of eight hours every day, twice as long as a normal marathon might involve.

"It was extremely physically demanding and my feet took a horrendous battering.

"Nails were coming off and there was blistering and infections.

"For me, the race checkpoints, every eight or so miles, were my lifelines because there was water there and because I'd broken down each marathon into small sections, taking one step at a time. If I'd looked at 156 miles lying out in front of me I would have been overwhelmed.

"There was a lot of mental focus required, because once my day was over, it wasn't really over because I had to get ready for another marathon the next morning. I was lucky in that I ended up with three other Irish competitors and we looked out for each other."

The 56-mile double stage of the MdS was particularly demanding.

"We started off in the morning as usual but we didn't finish until 7.30am the next day - 23 hours later. We only stopped for one hour and when night fell we were away again, but problems with our head-torches meant that we ran most of that stage by moonlight, which was eerie."

Lauren had told her husband and children that she wouldn't be availing of the opportunity to contact them by a single email every day.

She explains: "I needed my head to be totally in the race. I couldn't have had anyone asking me where the school uniforms were back home in Jonesborough. I had to be focused on myself because the MdS is a selfish endeavour.

"I knew if there was something really wrong I would have been contacted through the race organisers or vice-versa.

"The same applies when my husband is away mountain climbing."

This year's MdS received even more coverage than usual in the UK as TV reports concentrated on one competitor - former British soldier Duncan Slater, who lost his legs in a bomb blast in Afghanistan, and whose epic journey through Morocco was tracked online by Prince Harry.

So far, Lauren has raised more than £4,000 for the Royal in Belfast where sons Conor and Rowan, who both have common variable immune deficiency, receive vital treatments every two weeks through the Immunology Centre.

The boys are given infusions of immunoglobulin replacement, which allow them to lead a completely normal and healthy life.

Lauren says: "The boys have been given fantastic care and the doctors and the nurses in Belfast are amazing. I can't thank them enough."

  • Anyone who wants to donate to Lauren's fundraising campaign can do so at www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/lauren-omalley

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