<b>OUARZAZATE, Morocco</b> - By day, Achim Knacksterdt is chief of the Technical Engineering Section at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District, managing 18 architects and engineers of multiple technical disciplines who support construction projects across the district.

After hours, the German engineer straps on his running shoes to complete a portion of the 50 to 90 miles he runs each week in preparation for multi-day marathon races.

Most recently, Knacksterdt's ambitions took him to the valleys and dunes of the Sahara Desert April 4 to compete in the 25th annual Marathon Des Sables, or Marathon of the Sand - a 250 km (155 mile), seven-day race, equivalent to running almost six regular marathons.

According to the event's website, the marathon is one of the very first endurance races established and has the reputation of being one of the toughest, if not the toughest. More than 1,000 men and women from over 40 countries compete in this six-stage race.

Knacksterdt completed the race in 38 hours, 48 minutes, 50 seconds earning him 201st place out of the 923 who completed the race (90 runners did not complete the race) and fifth place out of the 35 German runners.

"On the first day, you don't really care about how fast you're running. On the second day, you realize you actually can do it and you see how fast you can be," he said. "So when I realized I could do it, I tried really hard to improve. You run 38 hours and you can get upset by three minutes."

Unlike the endless miles of sand many people imagine, Knacksterdt found himself running through a desert full of mountains, dunes, muddy river beds, a large valley, and more gravel and rocks than sand.

"You have this picture in your mind about what the desert looks like and I was surprised by how different it was. The ground was more like 20 percent sand. And suddenly you see a house and kids in the middle of the desert and you wonder about them," he said. "You also have no idea about distances. On the first day, I came over a mountain and saw the camp and you think, 'Oh, just five minutes.' It ended up taking 45 minutes."

Marathon organizers provide runners a simple canvas tent at each stage's end-point shared with seven other participants and up to 2.6 gallons of water. The runners carry everything else to sustain themselves over the desert run, including food, medical supplies, toiletries, a sleeping bag and equipment they're required to carry to meet the minimum 14 pounds. Knacksterdt's bag weighed just under 20 pounds.

"The good part is that the backpack gets lighter every day," he said. "The bad part was that I had no appetite for the food I brought. What you eat here in Germany doesn't necessarily mean you can eat it in Africa. And even if something was good the first day, it gets old by the seventh day. If I could do it all over again, I would definitely do some things differently."

Another challenge Knacksterdt faced was the monotony of the desert. According to the marathon's website, the race consists of a classic marathon stage (26 miles), a day across some of the tallest sand dunes in Africa and an endurance day (51 miles) that leads runner into the desert night in addition to four other stages with distances between 13 and 25 miles.

"It gets pretty boring out there. You're out in the middle of nowhere. There's nothing to do. You have the same guys in your tent every night and all you can do is talk," he said. "But you find that because you live with the same people for a week in an atmosphere where you have nothing, you build a good team with people you don't even know."

Why does Knacksterdt put himself through the endless training, the unpredictable weather conditions and the blisters that come with the multi-day runs'

"It helps me relax. All you're doing is running, eating and sleeping, so it's easy to let go of all the stress and work that weighs you down throughout the year," he said. "I tried to keep that feeling of complete relaxation going after I got back, but reality came rushing back too soon. So I just have to keep running."

But it's more than just running, Knacksterdt said. It's about the experiences he gains through these competitions.

In 2009, he ran the Swiss Jura Marathon, a 350 km, 7-day race from Geneva to Basel. Next up, Knacksterdt has the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 163 km race in Chamonix, France, and the Transalpine run, a 295 km through Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

"You start with running and build up to your first marathon. Then you think, 'Can I run it faster'' And as you add things like mountains and multiple stages, I started asking myself, 'How far can I go''" he said. "T.S. Elliot said, 'You have to risk going too far to discover just how far you can really go.' I'm still waiting for the day when I say, 'No more, that's too much.'"

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16