Hugh dares wins... From south Armagh to the Sahara with fearless Hugh Morgan

Hugh Morgan running the Great Wall of China Marathon
Hugh Morgan running the Great Wall of China Marathon

THE truck was driven by a native Bedouin who navigated the desert by the stars.

He travelled fast across the baked Sahara, bouncing over rocks and sand dunes as Hugh Morgan writhed in agony in the back.

Hugh had prepared well for the Marathon des Sables (the marathon of sands) in Morocco but after four days of the toughest foot race on earth, he was dehydrated, sick and exhausted.

Death hadn’t arrived yet but Hugh knew it was in the post.

From it rose until it set, the merciless desert sun had scorched the earth and temperatures soared to over 58C as Hugh climbed one sand dune only to find a bigger one on the other side. The conditions and the course would have broken most of us but it was the sickness that raced through the camp of runners that broke him.

Half of the 650 competitors and many of the staff were struck down. Medical supplies ran low and Hugh lay helpless in the back of a pick-up truck until the Bedouin driver took him on the nine-hour journey to the nearest hospital in a little town he’s forgotten the name of.

“How, in the name of God, did I get here?” he thought as the truck rattled along.

IT’S far from the Sahara he was raised. Hugh grew up among the mountains of South Armagh in Killean (Kill-e-an) where he still lives and works today. He went to school at St Michael’s PS and then St Joseph’s in Newry but formal education was not for him. A grafter who was never afraid to get his hands dirty, over the last 40 years he has built his business – Morgan Fuels – from scratch into an international success story.

“I found that the best way for me was self-education because, when you learn for yourself, it stays with you,” explains the tall, slim, 61-year-old as we chat over a cup of coffee.

“I never passed an exam in my life, well, I never did any exams in my life. The only test I passed was the driving test.”

He went to school until the Christmas holidays in fifth year and never returned. He was on the road at 17 and his first job was driving a lorry. He’d clocked up a good few thousand miles around Ireland and England when a petrol station came up for sale on the old Dublin-Belfast road. He was 20 when he bought it and he worked 15-hours-a-day seven days a week to make it a success.

“My mother (Kate) would have been a very driven person,” he explains.

“My father (Michael) was very steady, but my mother was a very driven woman and I suppose that’s where I got my drive from. I was always a good worker. I was picking spuds, or taking in hay, I was on the shovel, or the yard brush, or on the grape cleaning out the cattle sheds or the henhouse.

“That’s when I was 10 or 12 and I never saw that as slave labour, like some people do now, it was an education on how to work.

“I would have listened and I always had a vision of where I wanted to go and what I had to do to get there. I suppose I was gifted with the ability to see the end product.”

Even so, when he started out in 1981 he’d have needed a crystal ball to see what Morgan Fuels has become. What began with that petrol station now has a turnover of over £200million a year. One of the largest fuel suppliers in Ireland, Morgan Fuels trades out of all the major terminals in the UK including the Thames in the south of England, Jarrow in the north and Grangemouth in Scotland.

“We would have access to diesel there and we sell it out of all those terminals to resellers and to transport companies,” Hugh explains.

On top of that, Morgan Fuels operates a network of 6500 sites across Europe. Their card is accepted across Ireland, the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Luxembourg, Portugal and continues to grow…

“I always had great help from my sisters and my brother Eamon has been with me from the day we started and we’ve built it up into a sizeable business now,” he says.

“Ambition will eat the arse off success and I never see Morgan Fuels as a success, I always see something else that needs done. I always feel there’s another hill in front of me and I have to get over that hill and when you get to the top of it there’s another one.

“But I’m still as passionate about the business now as I was when I started.”

He’s up every morning at quarter past five and he’ll do an eight or 10-mile run before he leaves for work. But he doesn’t see it as ‘work’.

“I look forward to getting in,” he says.

“I’d still do 15 hours-a-day and I’m thankful every morning that I’m fit to do it.”

HIS work ethic meant that there was no time to play Gaelic Football and, although he insists he doesn’t do regrets; that might be one.

The name Hugh Morgan is synonymous with GAA, particularly in his native county. As sponsor, his family name was on the orange jersey throughout Armagh’s golden era from 1999 to 2008.

“I always had a great interest in football,” he says.

“It (playing) is something I’d have loved to have done but I always had the vision of building my own business and that took up a massive part of my life.

“You never got a day off. There was no such thing as holidays or Bank Holidays and to this day I’m the same. Yes, everybody needs a holiday but when you’re running your own business you don’t see it that way.”

But he did find the time to cheer on his county during their run to the 1977 All-Ireland final and he was there through the barren years of the 1980s and into the 1990s. By that stage, Morgan Fuels was well established and he was already sponsoring the club leagues in the county when Armagh chairman Gene Duffy visited his premises on a winter’s night in 1995 to ask if he’d be interested in becoming the main sponsor.

“I was the pit out there (he points through the window of his office nestled among the hills and stone walls near the border) in the yard putting a spring in a lorry and he came over to talk to me,” Hugh explains.

“He went down on his honkers and he had a brochure about sponsorship. I said: ‘Gene, you needn’t bother with the brochure, we’ll do it’. Paddy Og Nugent (county secretary), Peadar Murray (treasurer) and Seamus King were at the launch of the sponsorship and John Moley (successor to Duffy as county chairman) asked me how long I was taking it for.

“I said: ‘We’re taking it until we win the All-Ireland’. They all looked at me…”

He was true to his word. Success didn’t come immediately but it came alright. There were Ulster titles in 1999 and 2000 and then the Sam Maguire in 2002.

That All-Ireland is one of five that Morgan Fuels have been part of.

Armagh also won U21 and minor crowns in 2005 and 2009 and Down were minor champions in 1999 and 2005. In all, Morgan Fuels’ sponsorship has been the cornerstone of 24 national titles won in football and hurling by Armagh, Down and Louth.

In 2010, the Athletic Grounds became ‘The Morgan Athletic Grounds’ but his partnership with his native county ended in some acrimony two years later with Hugh claiming that the money he had invested wasn’t being used “in the development of the teams”. The County Board disputed that but he reluctantly pulled the plug on his sponsorship and Armagh haven’t won a Championship title since.

BY 2012 Hugh had developed a passion for running. Continuous business travel across Europe meant he had to spend a lot of his time in airports and that meant lots of fast food. He began to pile on the pounds and so he went to John McCloskey (former Armagh coach) for some advice on how the get in shape.

McCloskey advised him to “buy a pair of runners” and he began by running from one telegraph pole to the next, then walking to the next, running to the next and so on. The excess weight began to fall off and he’d gone from 5k to 10k runs when a family connection to Newry Gateway Club led him to his first marathon.

“A marathon was a big thing,” he says.

“The thought of it scared me but I gradually built it up and started to do half-marathons.

“I ran a half-marathon in Newry and Paddy Duffy was there. He was involved in Newry Gateway which was the first place that people with special needs in this area could go. My sister Brigid would have gone there and my mother was on the committee.

“So I entered the Dublin Marathon to raise money for a new bus for the Gateway and myself and Paddy plugged away at it. I did it in 4.01 in 2013 and we raised £22,000. It wasn’t enough so I decided I would do the London Marathon the following March and we finished up raising about £58,000.”

He didn’t realise that by running London he had completed one of ‘the six majors’ and so he set his sights on the other five: Tokyo, Boston, Berlin, Chicago and New York.

One by one he chalked them off and completed the sixth, New York, in 2017.

WITH 25 marathons under his belt, Hugh began looking for a new challenge and along with his friend and coach Paddy Hamilton, he decided to tackle the toughest of the lot – the formidable Marathon des Sables (MdS).

An ‘ultramarathon’, the MdS is the equivalent of almost six normal marathons and the difficulty of the eye-popping distance is multiplied by the desert terrain and then again by searing heat. Preparation for the race in Morocco began in May 2020. Hugh ran every day, at weekends he had a heavy pack on his back across the Cooley Mountains and himself and Paddy did a warm-weather training camp in Lanzarote.

But nothing could have prepared him for what he faced in the desert.

The temperatures were exceptionally high in October last year and things quickly turned from bad to worse, to downright dangerous after a stomach bug, which Hugh believes was caused by food poisoning, swept through the camp.

“They talk about seeing the other side and it was close to the other side for a lot of us,” he says.

“The heat was absolutely stifling - you could see the heat rising off the ground in front of you. It was 58 degrees on the second day when we were going over the sand dunes. Every one you got over, there was a bigger one in front of you and every step you took was only half-a-step because your feet were slipping back down the sand.

“Paddy was sick the second day and then I took sick on the second evening. Very few of us slept because of the sickness and you would hear men screaming in pain in the middle of the night… It was like something out of a war film, it was unbelievable.

“Then you got up the next morning and put your kit on your back (runners have to carry their own food and water) and away you went. You had to keep going.”

A French runner died on the second day and by day three over 300 competitors were sick and medical staff were struggling to cope. But the race went on. Hugh, who was running to raise money for the Hospice, admits he should have pulled out but somehow he continued until the third stage on the fourth day. Then he hit the wall.

“I was done,” he says.

“I collapsed and that was the end of the line, I wasn’t fit to get up. I would have kept plugging away but I wasn’t fit to stand up and I had never felt like that before.

“We were dehydrated, we had no medication and there we were in the middle of the desert. There were so many people sick that the doctor didn’t even have painkillers, all she could give me was a bottle of water. So many of the medical staff got sick as well so the back-up teams fell apart, there was nobody.

“I was very lucky I got out of it. I was lying for three and-a-half hours in the camp in the back of a pick-up truck and it took six hours - up and down these sand dunes - to get from the camp to the hospital. The hospital was in some wee town in the desert, I don’t even know the name of it.

“They had some sort of potion, I don’t know what they gave me, they gave me a big glass of stuff and it took me a couple of days to come round again and then I got home. And I tell you what, I was glad to get home.”

What did he learn? Something about the fragility of human existence. He ticked every box – gear, fitness, nutrition – in his preparation but found himself at the mercy of forces beyond his control.

“You can do everything right but if you get sick it will wipe you out, end of story,” he says.

“It doesn’t matter how well you’re prepared, that will take you down.”

For many of us, that would have been the end of the road but since then Hugh has run the Clonakilty and Manchester marathons and on Easter Sunday he ran the ‘Two Oceans’ ultramarathon in Cape Town, South Africa over a 35-miles course on the Cape Peninsula.

But he won’t be back in the Sahara. Or will he?

“I might give it a shot next year,” he says.

If only someone could bottle what fuels Morgan…