Belfast fitness fanatic Claire braves Sahara to run 150 miles in seven days for Samaritans
A Belfast fitness instructor is hoping her military training and her "stubborn streak" will help her to complete the world's toughest footrace.
Claire Withers is flying to Morocco today to take part in the gruelling Marathon des Sables.
It will see her run 150 miles through the Sahara over seven days alongside more than 1,000 international competitors, braving temperatures in excess of 50C.
The race route varies every year and is the equivalent of nearly six marathons over some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, including mountains, sand dunes, salt flats and dried-up river beds. Scores of the super-fit athletes are forced to pull out, defeated by the harsh environment.
Claire (40), who has her own gym in east Belfast and served 12 years as a physical training instructor in the Royal Irish Regiment, said that her time in the Army taught her the resilience and self-reliance she will need in the Sahara.
"One of the things you learn about yourself in the Army is that if you want to do something, you can do it," she added.
"I know mentally that I will finish it, unless I fall down and break something. I'm pretty headstrong, I definitely have a stubborn streak and I'll need that." Throughout the race, Claire will have to carry a backpack with all of her essential gear for the week, including dried food, toilet roll and a compass. The organisers provide water rations and a basic tent for overnight stops. Each morning, Berber tribesmen move the camp on to the next stop.
"Whatever you want, you have to carry," said Claire. "My pack will weigh about 10 kilos with the water ration added in. I'll really feel that weight in my legs and knees.
"I'm sacrificing clean underwear for extra food. I'll be taking in about 3,000 calories a day, but burning at least 4,500. It's a huge deficit and it will really sap my energy."
There are six stages over the seven days, with the first three daily stages set around 20-25 miles each. The fourth stage is approximately 50 miles and the fifth stage is always a full marathon of 26.2 miles. The sixth and final race is the shortest, coming in at under 13 miles. "I'm just trying not to focus on what could go wrong," Claire said. Her training has included running in the Mournes and Castlereagh Hills, often accompanied by her rescue dog, Cash, a five-year-old beagle.
"Cash comes with me for the shorter runs and he really loves it," she said. "I did some mountain races in the Mournes last summer, but the real training for this event began in December.
"Winter training was challenging, to say the least, with horrific conditions. I never saw a wetter January or February. I even went out in the rain on Boxing Day when I was in Donegal. I had to."
Claire hopes to raise at least £3,000 for the Samaritans and has received sponsorship from Belfast law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.
"I hope I'll be able to highlight the great work done by the Samaritans," she said. "They're a lifeline for so many people. I visited their offices and heard such harrowing stories. I've got a collection box and a swear box in my studio and my clients have been contributing."
"I haven't set myself a target but I hope to finish in the top half. Just getting to the finish line is my main goal."
You can follow Claire's progress in the Marathon des Sables. Go to http://live.marathondessables.com and enter Claire's race number, 1219