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Imagine traversing through a canyon of waist-deep water at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres. Imagine doing it for five kilometres, knowing it’s a mere fraction of the distance you’ll need to cover over the next six days in the driest place...

Surviving the most gruelling desert marathons | Toronto Star

Imagine traversing through a canyon of waist-deep water at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres. Imagine doing it for five kilometres, knowing it’s a mere fraction of the distance you’ll need to cover over the next six days in the driest place...

Surviving the most gruelling desert marathons | Toronto Star

Imagine traversing through a canyon of waist-deep water at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres. Imagine doing it for five kilometres, knowing it’s a mere fraction of the distance you’ll need to cover over the next six days in the driest place in the world. And, you’ve yet to arrive at the most punishing terrain.

The next day, if you’re like Torontonian Paul Borlinha, your feet are blistered. Your pack is heavy. You’re briskly moving along broccoli-like rock formations. And there’s a 40-kilometre stretch ahead of you before you reach the base camp.

At the end of the day, you’ll be hydrated, you’ll have a tent to protect you while you sleep and you’ll get medical attention, if needed. The rest is up to you. As you rest, you’ll reflect on the sand dunes, salt flats and gravel that lie ahead.

This is a sample of what you’ll encounter if you dare to sign up for a 250-kilometre, seven-day race through Chile’s Atacama Desert, with little more than a 20-litre backpack carrying only the essentials.

This desert run is a niche variation of what’s known as an ultramarathon, a race category that includes any distance beyond 50 kilometres.

A few days from now Borlinha will do it all over again, but with the bar raised. The 52-year-old, a race veteran who’s finished nine ultramarathons and five Ironman competitions to date, will attempt to conquer a mind-boggling 400-kilometre course in the Gobi Desert.

If that sounds daunting, it is, Borlinha contends, but the training at times can be gruelling, too. It’s a test of endurance and also a test of will. Yet, there’s something within that compels him to constantly seek new challenges — what he says drives him the most.

“It’s about a real deep focus,” he said at a coffee shop in High Park. He occasionally trains in the area. “You stop thinking almost. You’re numb. In some cases, it’s good. You don’t feel the pain as much.”

“The reality comes back when you start to feel the pain and it snaps you out of autopilot.”

The 4 Deserts Race Series, which stages the Atacama Crossing, puts runners through the test on four continents, in some of the world’s most extreme conditions: the Atacama Desert, Sahara Desert, Gobi Desert and the Antarctic. To date, after the inaugural Gobi March in 2003, more than 7,000 people have participated in nearly 50 competitions.

As one of 200-odd competitors enlisted in each race, there are moments when Borlinha — who in 2014 became only the third person to do all four in the series, as well as a Roving Race that annually changes locations, all in one year — said he had no choice but to confront pain.

“At the end of the fourth day, I had to drill some holes right down through my nails” to release the pressure, he said, which forced blood to explode “like a little geyser.”

Somehow Borlinha, an entrepreneur who runs a creative agency, finds time to prepare. He says it’s difficult to formulate a consistent routine, but typically he’ll run between 130 to 160 kilometres a week. Weekdays, he’ll run 16 to 24 kilometres each day, split into two or three sessions. One run will focus on interval training; the other, elevation.

On most Saturdays and Sundays, he’ll split 50 kilometres over three sessions separated by five hours of recovery time. The first is a warm-up; the next one is faster, usually along the Humber River if he’s in Toronto; for the final one, he slows down the pace.

When the season changes, he still trains outdoors here as much as possible but since he’s on the road frequently, he’ll often head to warmer destinations to get mileage in.

It’s time consuming, but Borlinha said he adjusts his conditioning according to what his body tells him. If he’s coming off a red-eye flight from Vancouver, as he often is after client meetings, and working all day, he’ll take it a little easier during the night run.

“Sometimes a rest day is doing a swim or spin on a bike because you’re resting from an activity that’s maybe too much pounding (on the body),” Borlinha said, referring to two activities he’s been doing since he added Ironman Triathlon events to his repertoire.

In preparation for the fall Gobi race, he’s conducted “experiments,” for which he’ll deprive himself of sleep and rest in short intervals to figure out an optimal pace.

After Gobi, Borlinha — known as The Beast in racing circles for his monstrous approach to a course — might be hard pressed to find a similar rush. Now that he’s competing at this level, any lesser distance will bore him. “I don’t know what’s next. I’ll quit before I start doing a marathon.”

Canada’s grittiest athletes

The common thread uniting ultra-marathon desert racers is the constant hunt for the next big challenge. Here’s a look at a few Canadians who’ve punished themselves for the glory of running through deserts. Each is signed up for the 250-kilometre Atacama Desert Crossing in October.

Erik Kovessy, 30, Toronto, paramedic

Experience: One 250-km ultra-marathon (finished 48th in Gobi March 2016); one Ironman; five half-Ironmans; three marathons

Essential race item: camera

During the Gobi March, Kovessy bonded with other competitors. “Once we cross the finish line every day, we have a lot of downtime to chat with each other, talk about how the day went,” he said. “It’s difficult to express what you go through, because there are such high and low points.”

Isabelle Sauve, 40, East Ferris, Ont., police officer

Experience: One 250-km ultra-marathon (Marathon Des Sables in Morocco); one Ironman; five half-Ironmans, three marathons

Essential race item: Mr. Noodles

Sauve has done a lot of endurance races, but wanted to attempt a course that was seemingly impossible. She said the Morocco race took a “crazy amount of research and training” to find the right equipment and nutrition to pack. “You are capable of so much more than you think,” she said. “I enjoy being put in those situations because you learn how to push yourself.”

Cynthia Fish, 55, Montreal, retired university professor

Experience: Five 4 Desert ultra-marathons; Race to the Stones (100 km, England); Winery Running Festival (50 km, Australia)

Essential race item: silk scarf (“It’s absolutely essential for comfiness at night.”)

For Fish, these competitions are an escape. “It’s a total meditation. Your mind stops thinking about all sorts of foolishness. Your body is really aware of what’s going on around it. You really feel alive.”

Eric Chan, 40, Toronto, holistic nutritionist

Experience: Three ultra-marathons (Morocco, Namibia, China)

Essential race item: electrolyte tablets

Chan and his brother are aiming to complete four desert races over a six-week span. “I want to test myself against the toughest and most extreme ultra-marathons on the planet.”

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

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