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Photos: Estevan couple conquers world's toughest on-foot race

Lloyd and Roanna Sehn completed the 252.8-kilometre, six-stage, seven-day odyssey through Morocco's portion of the Sahara Desert.

ESTEVAN - The Marathon Des Sables proved to be everything that Lloyd and Roanna Sehn expected it to be – and then some.

The Sehns are back home in Estevan after completing the 2024 edition of the marathon, a 252.8-kilometre, six-stage, seven-day odyssey through Morocco's portion of the Sahara Desert. They were 448th and 449th overall among the 781 runners who finished the journey. But reaching the finish line on the final day, together, meant more to them than their placement, since their goal prior to the race was to finish.

"To me, it was more special than any other finish line, because this race is considered to be the toughest foot race on the planet," said Lloyd. "To get that finish line meant the world to us."

"And we were together, too, so that was pretty special," added Roanna.

"Every finish line we came across hand in hand, and to be able to do that as a married couple, that's a pretty rare thing," added Lloyd.

Between 850 and 900 people entered the race, Lloyd said, but some didn't start. The number of finishers was a record. The course is modified each year to provide something different for those who return, and this year Lloyd said it was billed as the longest and most difficult circuit yet.

"We got very lucky. We got the longest one and the hardest one," Lloyd said.

At no point did they consider dropping out of the marathon due to the heat or the variety of physical afflictions suffered to their feet and lower bodies along the way. It would have taken something significant for them to withdraw.

After a travel day on April 12, and technical and medical checks the following day, the marathon opened on April 14 with Stage 1. Each day brought another stage, except for Stage 3, which was April 16 and 17; they had 35 hours to complete that particular jaunt.

The final day was Stage 6 on April 20. 

In the first day alone, their feet took a beating from the black rocks and the downhill treks. Roanna had a series of blisters on her toes, and Lloyd had blisters, too, but other people were in worse condition.

"What we found is when you had a section of land that was relatively clean, we seemed to hit it at the highest point of the heat of the day. So, it might have been easy footing, but you're dealing with 45 Celsius heat," said Lloyd. 

The longest stage was the third stage was 85.3 kilometres, and it took them 20 hours, 58 minutes and 11 seconds to complete. It might have also been the day with the best scenery.

"It started with a significant climb on what they call a jabal, which must be the Moroccan word for mountain. It was solid rock faces as high as you could see on both sides, and there's this crevasse that's cut out of the mountain that you work your way, zig-zagging up, and it's all rock face. That was breathtaking, that view," Lloyd said.

Once they hit the top, they had to go down a 25-degree slope. A rope is anchored into the mountain. Then it opens up into a "humongous" and soft sand dune, he said, with sand over their shoes, which they had to ski down.

Also that day was another mountain range, and at the summit was a very narrow section about eight kilometres in length.

"It's single file, and you're not passing anybody … there's not enough room. When you looked over the edge, you were looking at least a thousand metres below," said Lloyd.

The sand dunes were majestic, but they weren't fun to run through.

"It was always challenging terrain, because even when you were on the flats, I've never seen that much rock. Black, sharp rocks," Roanna said.

The sixth and final stage was a half-marathon at 21 1/2 kilometres. They decided to run the distance.

The heat was stifling, exceeding 40 C and even 50 C some days. And the sleeping conditions were "pretty brutal", Roanna said. They slept in a tent with five other people.

"It's not even a tent," added Lloyd. "It's open on both sides, and it's more of a shade. We slept with it open, so when the sandstorms would come, we tried to drop one side to at least limit the sand from coming straight through but that wasn't always possible."

They didn't get a lot of sleep at night. At one point a sandstorm knocked down the pole supporting their tent.

"We knew going in, wearing the same running outfit throughout the week, that we would be pretty dirty, but I had no idea the sand that would blow, and how filthy we would feel with that. It was in your scalp. You had a nose full [of sand]. And you had to try to sleep in that," said Roanna.

Everyone in their tent finished the race, and they encouraged each other at the start of the day.

They also had to reach the checkpoints spread out across each stage in a certain amount of time, and they had a time limit for each stage.

"They have two camels that pace the minimum pace, and if those camels catch you, your race is over," said Lloyd.  

The training they undertook before the race paid off, Roanna said, as they spent a lot of time on the treadmill and a stair-climber while carrying extra weights. They also dedicated a lot of time on building upper-body strength, but Lloyd thought they could have done more for their backs, because they were carrying 22-pound packs each day.

"We finished strong every stage," Roanna said.

The Sehns came away marvelling at the organization of the event. There were medical staff at each checkpoint. All-terrain vehicles and a helicopter were available for those who needed to drop out.

"The pre-race meetings every morning were incredible," said Lloyd. "We would be at the start line a half hour ahead. They would detail the sections of the day, where the water stops are, where the checkpoints were, and what we were going to face."

When they started off each day, AC/DC's Highway to Hell played, which Roanna thought was appropriate.

Some of the organizers entered as runners and carried medical supplies to help in case someone was in distress. One entrant they knew had a heart attack at the summit of the mountain on the third day but is on the road to recovery. One of their tentmates saw a person collapse from heat exhaustion in front of him.

The Sehns knew they had support from people back in Estevan. They tried to send an email and a video message home each day, but those often didn't arrive. And they were focused on the task at hand.

Once the race in Morocco was finished, they spent time in Nice, France, before returning to Estevan. And they had a couple of days to experience the culture of Ouarzazate, the Moroccan city that is a few hours from the marathon's start line.

Lloyd and Roanna have entered daunting races in the past, and now that they have conquered the toughest foot race in the world, they will enter at the Sinister Seven in the Crowsnest Pass, Alta., this summer. And Lloyd wants to enter Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, Calif., but they need to build a resumé to apply, and only 100 runners are accepted each year.

"I think we checked a box on Marathon Des Sables," said Roanna. "Our goal was to go and finish, and we did that, and there are so many other amazing races out there and options for us."