In the largest desert in the world, amid scorching temperatures, sandstorms, dust devils and sand dunes reaching up to 590 feet, a determined group of runners prepare to face one of the longest, hardest, and most challenging marathons in the world, ironically to the backdrop of ACDC's classic song "Highway to Hell."
The 27th Annual Sultan Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands or MdS), often called "the toughest footrace in the world," truly lived up to its reputation. The MdS is an ultramarathon across the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco, requiring its runners to run or walk more than 240km (150 miles) over six days.
Among the 853 runners from around the world, four runners from Caserma Ederle, donned the group name "Leoni di Vicenza" (Lions of Vicenza), and bravely contested the MdS, April 6-16, to experience a unique challenge of traveling 153 miles on foot in temperatures reaching up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Scott Francis, U.S. Army Africa deputy chief of staff, said the event was completely unsupported, except for water, meaning each participant had to carry their own food, sleeping bag and anything else they wanted to lug around with them.
"We'll have to counsel them for lack of Prosseco at the rest stops, but we'll take that to the directorate later," Francis said. "This is how we spend Spring Break."
During each marathon, runners were able to rest at designated check points where water was provided and blisters, which were a common injury, were treated with iodine.
Even though the fourth stage of 81km (50 miles) was the marathon that separated the weak from the strong, Col. Marcus DeOliveira, USARAF chief of staff, considered the last race, which was the shortest, to be the most challenging due to the condition of his feet.
"The 15km (9 miles) was the hardest, when you don't have any skin on the bottom of your feet," Deoliveira said, who was one of the many runners seen with scabbing blisters.
Despite the hardships of blisters, high temperatures and strong winds, the desert provided a beautiful backdrop for the runners.
Benjamin Walters, an ammunition materials handler with Ammunition Center Europe, 21st Theater Support Command, said he enjoyed running through the scenery provided by the Sahara Desert.
"The experience was amazing. Everyone was willing to help each other with anything. It was very tough but extremely enjoyable. I enjoyed the long stage the most and the time out there pushing the run in the gorgeous environment. It felt great," Walters said.
During the race there were a lot of unique quirks about the runners themselves. Francis said he observed one participant who was seen not with a backpack, but an ironing board strapped to his back, along with other inspiring sights, which made the race memorable for the runners.
"There was a blind person running with a guide, an 80-year-old man that has [ran the race] a couple of times. Then there was a group of French fireman that carried a paraplegic up and over the mountains and across the dunes, it was something to see," Francis said.
After a long six days, all the competitors trekked into the final finish line like a trail of ants. Each participant felt different emotions when they finally finished all 153 miles of the beast which is the MdS.
Francis said that he was very happy to see the end of the race, after climbing mountains and sand dunes, walking through sandstorms and passing a huge lake bed which he described as "10 kilometers of mind numbing straight nothingness."
Walters and Deoliveira experienced a more emotional finish at the end of the MdS.
"The finish was a physical relief and emotional, I found myself thinking of my wife," Walters said.
DeOliveira was privileged enough to have his son, Michael, 18, to participate in the MdS with him.
"When you get done there's the emotion of 'You got done,' but I finished with my son, so there's that quick emotional part. It takes a while to sort of sink in like 'we actually did this thing,'" DeOlivera said.
During the awards ceremony, Michael received an award for being the youngest participant to finish the race, and said although he suffered both physically and mentally each day of the race, he wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
"Even before the race started, I had instant pressure as the youngest competitor. Some said I wouldn't make it while others had no doubts. I used both positives and negatives as motivation along the way," Michael said.
Accomplishing this feat at his age was something special but he said he couldn't have done it without the support of his dad and many others.
"Over 250 km, I was able to meet people from all over the world, push my limits, and most importantly, share a life-long memory with my dad. Since I am graduating this year, time with my dad is important; running across the desert might not sound like bonding to most, but it was perfect for us," he said.
When the blisters heal and every piece of sand is removed, there comes the question of "Will they do it again?"
All four runners agreed they would take on the MdS again, but definitely not tomorrow.