After retiring as a ward sister at the Northern General Hospital, Sally Smith’s thoughts turned to the Sahara desert.
Now, at the age of 60, she can reflect on how she ran the Marathon des Sables, described as the toughest footrace on earth.
She joined competitors from across the world in running 156 miles over six stages in temperatures up to 46 deg C under the Moroccan sun, carrying a 9.5 kilo pack and self-sufficient apart from being provided with a tent and water.
A member of Sheffield Triathlon Club, Sally completed the ordeal in 65 hours 58 minutes (“I entered to complete not to compete”) and in temperatures so high that a record number of athletes dropped out in exhaustion.
“It was extremely exhausting and emotional, but I found I had an inner strength that I did not know I’d got,” she said. “It saps every last bit of mental energy out of you. You have to be reasonably fit to start, but quite of a lot of it is mental attitude.”
The run was the toughest challenge yet for Sally, who lives in Eyam, after taking part in marathons, ultras (longer than marathons) and triathlons, which combine running with cycling and swimming.
“It was a retirement gift to me,” she said. “I retired as a nurse two years ago and decided to use some of my pension pot to pay for it.”
At its extreme, one stage saw her starting at 8.30am and running the equivalent of two full marathons until finishing at 12.30pm the next day.
There were occasional breaks to cook or to take a cat nap in the dunes.
And it is an experience Sally will never forget, whether it be the camaraderie among runners who did not speak the same language or the environment.
“The skies are stunning. There is no air pollution and you can see the shooting stars and the Milky Way - but it was brutal on your feet!”
She has always wanted to do the Marathon des Sables, and now she has done it. “It was just a treat for me and something I shall always remember.”
And she is full of praise for the “fantastic” support from Sheffield Triathlon Club, whose member sent e-mails every night.
And other club members have been making an impact.
Charlotte Jenkinson won silver in the European Duathlon Championships in Holland and four members completed the London Marathon. Other club members have qualified for European and World Triathlon Championships. The club’s own event, the Hathersage Hilly, on June 29, has attracted over 160 entrants.