Conquering the Marathon des Sables

Kate Sanderson was told she would never run again after suffering horrific burns in the Kimberley ultra marathon fire, let alone fulfill her dream to complete the toughest foot race on earth.

The 41 year-old suffered 60 percent burns to her body, lost half her left foot and several fingers in 2011 after being caught in a bushfire whilst running an ultramarathon in the Kimberly in WA. Kate and fellow runner Turia Pitt were the most badly burnt.

The runners weren’t aware there was a fire ahead.

"I got into a crevice and the fire lit my shoulder and I thought, 'This is what it's like to die in a fire'," she said. "I jumped up without thinking and just covered my face, hence my fingers and tendons are gone in my fingers, but I saved my face”.

Kate told Sunday Night she didn’t think she would survive the pain.

"Being told that I'd never run again… I never thought I'd get through it."

Kate's burns extended to 60 percent of her body and she lost half her foot
Kate has lost some of her fingers and little control of her hands

But five years later Kate Sanderson beat the odds and completed the grueling six-day desert challenge. While she still can’t run she did walk the entire way.

"[It was] absolutely the hardest experience of my life, the hardest challenge I've ever done."

"I love a challenge, but that was next level."

And it's no surprise. The race is is a 257km slog across the Sahara desert and Kate's severely damaged foot didn’t even pose the biggest problem.

Because of her vast amount of skin grafts she cannot sweat like an athlete should.

"I am 60 percent burnt and I don't sweat where I've [had skin grafts] and so I can't regulate my temperature. I get hot really quickly and I can't cool down."

This posed a very real risk of death according to Kate's surgeon, Heather Cleland, Burns specialist at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.

This year's course was a punishing 257km

"Clearly this is a dangerous undertaking, if she were to become too hot... that can kill you," Dr Cleland said.

The Marathon de Sables has been held in Morocco's Sahara Desert for 31 years, and attracts around 1000 competitors each year.

The equivalent of five and a half marathons, it is run in stages over six days and many never make it to the finish line.

Competitors are given a daily ration of water and a tent to sleep in each night but must carry their food and bedding on their back.

This year temperatures reached 50 degrees Celsius, and medical tents were overwhelmed with cases of extreme dehydration.

The whole team, including ultramarathon veteran Mari-Mar Walton and fellow runner Bronwyn Hull, knew day one would make or break the endeavor.

Should Kate’s prosthetic foot fail or the heat become too much she would be forced to pull out of the race.

She came in with Bronwyn just half and hour before the cut-off time after a 10-hour hike.

At one point Kate crawled under cars to escape the heat, unable to cool down

Day two and the wind that was battering her competitors became a blessing in disguise for Kate as her sole relief from the heat.

60 runners had already abandoned the race at the end of day two.

Sydney's Peter Kingston completed the race twice before but this time around, the desert had a more punishing experience in store.

"Times are much, much slower than in the past because everyone is getting belted and dehydrated," Peter said.

"Sometimes you just hit those black spots… every little thing goes against you."

By day three he couldn’t cope with the sandstorms and despite feeling well physically wasn’t mentally able to continue. He was full of admiration for his fellow Australian Kate Sanderson.

Kate calms herself for the start of her six-day slog.

"What she is doing here is absolutely outstanding, from an aspiration point of view. She is an absolute inspiration."

"I could think of all sorts of reasons why it has belted me mentally this time, I'm just not in a good head space to be able to continue," he said at the officials tent when he withdrew.

By day four Kate was unable to keep food down, she had diarrhoea her feet were raw and blistered and the toughest day yet was ahead — a single 84 kilometre slog which they must complete within 35 hours.

She looked for shade anywhere she could find it even in the shade of a medical vehicle before making her way to a checkpoint where a medical team awaited.

"The conditions were quite hot… it was very stale the air and poor Kate just basically felt like she was burning inside" said Travelling Fit’s Mar Mar Walton.

READ MORE: Alex Cullen's blog about covering the Marathon des Sables

Incredibly, Kate and Bronwyn walked through the night and well into the next day, for 28 hours straight to make their next camp.

"I cant believe what she does and you know the fact that she has no foot basically going down these steep sand dunes is probably the hardest," said Mari Mar Walton.

By the end, day six, 135 people abandoned the race but Kate Sanderson wasn't one of them.

"I feel sore, I feel relieved, I feel buggered, just can't believe it… I feel like a shower," Kate told Alex Cullen at the finish line.

"To see maybe 300 people out there clapping and cheering you on it was just amazing."

For more information about the Marathon des Sables click here to head to the website

Travelling Fit runs tours to the Marathon des Sables, click here to go to the website