A former soldier from St Helens is celebrating after completing the world’s toughest athletics race in the scorching Sahara Desert.
Ricky Harden, from Portico, finished the Marathon des Sables in Morocco after making his way across 250km of punishing terrain in baking temperatures of up to 50 degrees centigrade.
He finished the race in 386th place out of almost 1400 runners having run the equivalent of five and a half marathons in six days while carrying all his equipment except a tent and water on his back.
The race took him across gruelling and inhospitable landscapes including salt pans and huge sand dunes and pushed him to the limit with its marathon stages, with the longest leg measuring 91km and taking him 17 hours to finish.
Having served in the Army and previously run back to the UK from Bosnia to raise money for charity Ricky is no stranger to extreme physical challenges but admits the Marathon des Sables was incredibly hard.
Ricky, 43, said: “It’s as it’s billed, tough. You can’t train for the heat and there’s lots of different types of terrain, which actually helped me.
“There were big mountains to climb where you could only walk up the slopes and the sand dunes were a killer. You got up one face and then slid back down again.
“The longest stage was hard, I think you had 34 hours to complete it so I did quite well. The toughest moment was at the end of that stage because I was the first person in our tent to get back.
“The wind had blown it completely and the camp had been almost destroyed. My feet were blistered and in bits and I just crawled under the tent feeling sorry for myself. I think it took about four hours before the pain went away. There were lots of ultra-runners competing so I was made up to finish where I did.”
Ricky’s stint in the armed forces including two tours of duty in Iraq, including the initial invasion of the country in 2003, as well as time in Bosnia, but he said the camaraderie among competitors in the Moroccan desert was something he had never experienced before.”
He said: “It was a fantastic race because of the people you meet from all walks of life.
“I’ve worked quite closely in a tight-knit group in some extreme circumstances but this was completely different. We were all thrown together and didn’t know anyone.
“It’s quite nice to know people can get on and be so caring and giving to complete strangers. That’s what I will take away with me.”
Ricky decided to do the Marathon des Sables when looking for challenges shortly after turning 40 as he wanted to stay in shape outside of his job as a crane operator.
His achievements in Morocco were all the more impressive as he suffered an injury around a month before and had to rein in his training, having previously been covering about 80 miles a week.
He also used the Marathon des Sables to raise money for St Helens children’s charity Helen Marie Friends.
Ricky said: “The forces are quite adventurous and my job was sitting down for around 12 to 14 hours a day, so I wanted to get more active. I googled something like the toughest race in the world and the Marathon des Sables came up.
“Training was difficult because I could do a 12-hour day at work, come home at 8pm and then have to go running for at least two hours. After my injury I also had to really ease off on my preparation.
“After Christmas my training fell to bits really, but it all came good in the end.”