Hugh and Paddy make ultra marathon effort for hospice funds

Co Armagh men Hugh Morgan and Paddy Hamilton knew that the epic Marathon des Sables - billed as 'the toughest footrace on Earth' - would be incredibly gruelling, but were prepared to meet the challenge to raise much-needed funds for hospice services. In the end, they were lucky to make it back home - they talk to Mairead Holland about the experience and why they are determined to keep on running and fundraising

Hugh Morgan, pictured right, and Paddy Hamilton are still recovering from the hellish Marathon des Sables they undertook to raise funds for hospice services. Picture by Hugh Russell
Mairead Holland

SPANNING six days and 156 miles over punishing sand dunes and inhospitable rocky terrain in the blistering heat of the Sahara Desert, the Marathon des Sables is an endurance race like no other in the world.

But little did Co Armagh men Hugh Morgan and Paddy Hamilton realise when they signed up for the ultra marathon that it would push them to their absolute limits and require reserves of strength they didn't even realise they possessed.

Hugh (60) is candid when he describes it as "one of the worst experiences I have ever had in my life; it was horrendous", while Paddy (40) admits that what transpired in Morocco at the beginning of October was not what he had envisaged.

The men, both of whom live just outside Newry, were among dozens of competitors stricken with a severe stomach bug, resulting in vomiting, diarrhoea, nose bleeds and potentially life-threatening dehydration.

Around a third of the medical and support staff also became ill, medical supplies ran out and the situation was exacerbated by the fact that the desert was around 10 degrees hotter than normal, with temperatures reaching up to 58 degrees.

Tragically, one runner, a Frenchman in his 50s, died in the dunes on the second day, and almost half of the 672 competitors failed to cross the finish line - the usual drop-out rate is between 5 and 10 per cent.

Hugh, however, says that while he feels lucky to have made it home alive, the experience was still worth it, with all the money raised being divided equally between their chosen charities, the Northern Ireland Hospice and the Irish Hospice Foundation.

The Northern Ireland Hospice provides care for more than 4,000 babies, children and adults every year who are suffering from illnesses such as cancer, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis and dementia, as well as helping to support their families.

Among the services provided by the Irish Hospice Foundation is Nurses for Night Care where patients receive expert nursing care in their own homes in their final days. It also runs a bereavement support line.

"I was very sick in the desert, but I knew once I got help that I'd be okay. There are people in the hospice who are sick and who don't have light at the end of the tunnel," says Hugh.

"I was out for a bit of a run this morning and I was grateful to be fit enough to do it. People sick in bed would love to be able to do that.

"This last 18 months, there hasn't been much fundraising for the hospices because of Covid. Any money we raise will comfort somebody."

The men had set an ambitious fundraising target of £100,000 but with coronavirus restrictions a number of events they had planned could not go ahead.

Despite that, the total to date stands at an impressive £45,000 and the donation line will remain open until December 31.

Hugh, who owns Morgan Fuels, took up running again about 14 years ago after several years when work had "got in the way". Since then, he has completed 25 marathons, including two which helped raise £58,000 to buy a new minibus for Newry Gateway Club.

However, the Marathon des Sables was the 'big one', both in terms of the challenges of the race itself and the fundraising goal.

Both Hugh and Patrick had put in months of preparation, even going to Lanzarote to acclimatise to running in the heat, while carrying their food and drink supplies on their backs.

However, once in Morocco, Hugh contracted the bug on the first evening of the race.

The event is split into different stages and lengths every day, with the toughest considered to be 50 miles on day four and the marathon on day six.

"I should have stopped but I kept going because I was hoping the sickness would clear up," he explains.

"Even at night, you'd be in the tent and you'd hear people up being sick, and the shouts of them with the pain. People were falling like flies and even military guys were pulling out.

"It got to the stage where I was dehydrated completely and on the fourth day I collapsed but there were no medical supplies and no drips left."

The father-of-four was driven the three hours back to the camp and then transferred to another Jeep for a six-hour journey to the nearest medical centre.

Meanwhile, Paddy, who works as an operations manager for a food production company, took ill on the second day, but he was quickly hooked up to an IV drip and felt like a "different person" afterwards.

"I went out being a competitive person but after day two, I had lost so much time that it was about managing the race and not putting myself into that situation again where I was in potential danger," he explains.

"I finished 42nd or 44th but not where I should have been. I had high expectations of what I wanted to achieve.

"Blisters and sore feet were what people dropped out for in the past. I wasn't expecting people to need drips. It didn't go as planned but you learn from it and move on.

"Saying that, it was good to be doing something for charity and the amount we have raised is a credit to the generosity of so many people.

"The race director said in his speech at the end that competitors from the UK and Ireland have historically been at the forefront of fundraising."

Paddy, a father of three daughters, has been running for about 20 years and moved into ultra marathons two years ago.

"Neither of us did as well as we wanted to, but there are a lot of other good races about. This one was a big commitment from a training point of view and from a family point of view as well," he says.

"In the 12 weeks leading up to it I was averaging 100 miles a week. Getting out and running is like therapy, it clears the head."

Hugh, likewise, is clear about the benefit and attractions of running.

"It's so good for the mind and the body. That hour or hour-and-a-half in the morning with no mobile phone is like heaven," he enthuses.

"I get up around 5am, no matter what the weather is like, and try to be out though the door at 5.15am."

Amazingly, Hugh wouldn't rule out doing the Marathon des Sables again, despite losing almost a stone in weight during the gruelling experience.

"There's nothing to say I wouldn't give it another shot," he muses. "I am still recovering and am trying to get back to doing 40 or 50 miles per week. I might do a marathon before Christmas.

"Age is no barrier if you keep yourself fit and eat right. I know a guy and his father, who is 74, did the Manchester Marathon in two hours, two minutes."

:: Both Hugh and Paddy have thanked everyone who has donated so far.

The Team Morgan Page at will remain open until December 31 for anyone wishing to donate to the hospice fundraising.

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