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What would motivate you to run 150 miles across hottest, driest, windiest, coldest, and sandiest places on Earth? At the end of each day, you'd have run nearly as far as a standard marathon. Despite being completely and utterly exhausted, you'd get up and run another 25 miles (or more) the next day.
Would you do it for charity?
TechSoup Global's vice president for Africa David Barnard did. Six times. His most recent desert ultramarathon was the Last Desert Race across Antarctica.
Ultramarathons are extreme running events: 250-kilometer (155-mile) foot races over five or six days in the harshest environments on Earth.
David Barnard has completed six of these grueling races:
He runs these ultramarathons to raise money and generate awareness for charitable causes. You might call it ultra-charity.
I spoke to David just after he completed the Last Desert Race through the snow and sub-zero cold of Antarctica. He described it as five grueling days of icy winds, icebergs, massive penguin colonies, and numerous route changes to accommodate wild weather.
What Kind of Person Runs Desert Ultramarathons?
David describes his ultramarathon experiences this way:
"I run with 10 to 12 kilos [22 to 26 pounds] on my back and I am deeply tired after each race. It is very hard on my knees and back. I have to carry nearly everything: medicine, food, sleeping gear. At the end of each day, I prepare my food, treat my injuries, recover, and write in my log."
What motivates someone to undertake something like an ultramarathon?
David lives in Johannesburg, South Africa and describes himself as a keen sportsman, but strangely doesn't think of himself as a runner. He got interested in marathons in the early 2000s after he saw a TV show about the desert races.
He told me that he became particularly interested in the mental aspects of endurance. He says:
"I get a moment of ecstasy at the end of each race. It challenges you and makes you dig deep. The majority of ultramarathoners are not professional runners. There is no prize money. What drives us is overcoming the challenge."
Running for Charity
David's motivation is also charitable: he uses the ultramarathons to raise money for causes he believes in.
His first race was dedicated to raising money for the Southern African NGO Network (SANGONeT). SANGONeT supports the effective use of information and communications technology in civil-society organizations in South Africa.
His subsequent races have supported additional causes:
"Since joining TechSoup as VP of Africa, I have dedicated my races to additional causes. I want to move the needle on poverty alleviation, lack of health care, and climate change. I dedicated my participation in the Antarctica race to the work of Greenpeace Africa. I wanted to raise money to be used for a solar street lighting project in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg. It will create a sense of community safety and empower people living in an area without electricity."
He also uses these ultramarathons as an opportunity to raise awareness. On his blog, he says:
"I am especially running this race for you. I'd like to open your eyes to the reality and dangers associated with coal power. According to Greenpeace's research, air pollution from Eskom's coal-fired power plants is currently causing an estimated 2,200 premature deaths a year in South Africa. This includes approximately 200 deaths of young children every year. I am therefore advocating for use of renewable energy, specifically solar, which South Africa has an abundance of. Stand with me and let's do more than talk about the problem, let's be active in finding solutions."
He's Just Getting Started
Eventually, David would like to do 10 ultramarathons. The Atacama Desert in Chile is next. With that race, he says, "I would complete the series of four deserts; less than 100 people have done it."
Want More Ultramarathons?
Read David's desert race logs:
And check out the movie Desert Runners.
Images: David Barnard
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.
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