These days, combining vacations with marathons like the Tokyo Marathon or the Gold Coast Airport Marathon is growing in popularity with adventure travellers.

However, there are marathons… and then there are Ultra-marathons.

Singaporean Ian Lye, aged 35, and his team-mate have just completed one of these Ultra-marathons – the Marathon des Sables (MdS), ranked by the Discovery Channel as the toughest footrace on earth.

The MdS is a demanding six-stage 251km run through one of the world’s most hostile landscapes, the Sahara Desert. The six-day race requires you to run with a backpack carrying your equipment and food, with only one rest day after the longest stage at over 80km. In addition to the challenge of running on sand in almost 50 degrees centigrade conditions, competitors have to race against the clock as well for fear of elimination should they not adhere to the time set out for each stage.

The motivation for Ian and his team-mate? To raise money and awareness for Save our Street Dogs, the duo’s adopted charity. With their efforts, they have managed to raise over S$30,000 in sponsorships and donations.

Curated Travel asks Ian about his experience and tips to surviving an endurance test as punishing as this.

Race Across The Sahara 1CT: What first inspired you to take on this challenge?
Ian: The Sahara desert has always held a certain mystique to me and after watching the documentary “Running the Sahara”, which chronicles the attempt of three men to run across the entire Sahara desert (from Senegal to Egypt, which they did!), I began to think about running in that desert one day.

I decided on the MdS because it’s the granddaddy of multi-stage ultra-marathons, and part of the ultra-trail world tour, so I thought if I was going to put in the time and effort to train for something like this, why not go for the biggest and toughest one to really test myself?

CT: How did you prepare for a marathon as gruelling as this?
Ian: We had 15 months of intense training prior to the race, including completing both the Sundown half and full marathon races in 2013, training on the hilly terrain on Lantau Island in Hongkong, and clocking long distance runs on sand, trails and hills during the hottest hours in Singapore. In the last 2 weeks before flying off, I also took hot yoga classes (yoga in a room heated to 40 degrees Celsius) as a means of heat acclimatization.

In addition, we spent a lot of time poring over blogs written by past competitors, and reading countless reviews of equipment needed. I would say we spent the last few months really geeking out over gear, debating minutiae like the merits over which brand of Ziploc would be lighter, stronger etc.

CT: In a race with a multitude of challenges, which was the toughest one for you?
Ian: I think the biggest challenge for me was probably the longest day (81.5km), just from a mental point of view more than anything, since we walked most of it, which made it seem to drag on forever. I think we were on the move for about 22 hours straight, with just a few 10 minute breaks at each aid station, and a long break for dinner at around the half-way mark.

To top it all off, genius that I am, I switched the type of sunscreen I had been using (which had been fantastic for me up till then) for another brand that was supposed to last longer that morning, and I ended up getting some pretty serious heat blisters on my legs, making it pretty painful to keep moving at times.

Race Across The Sahara 3CT: What do you think the appeal of overseas marathons is for many Singaporeans?
Ian: Before doing the MdS, I had been running in local races here in Singapore for several years, but most of the marathon routes here tend to overlap due to the lack of space, so running in Singapore can get rather stale after a while.

The climate here can also get rather unpleasant so running overseas in cooler climates makes it very attractive to many Singaporeans indeed, especially as running continues to explode as a sport here. It also gives them a chance to see new destinations with stunning landscapes very different from what we might have here so why not?

For me, I think part of the joy of running comes from being immersed in your environment and the beauty of nature around you. The sights, sounds, smells… things that you can’t replicate from watching a Nat Geo documentary on television. It really is a great way to explore a new destination.

CT: Now that this is off the bucket list, what next?
Ian: I would like to seek new experiences and races around the world, especially mountain trail races in the future. I will probably take on another ultra-race overseas in the second half of this year. I was planning on trying my hand at The North Face Hong Kong this year, but I’ve also been invited by the race director of a 3-day trail race in Jeju island, South Korea, to race there in October. I’m seriously tempted, as I’ve never been there before, so it would be an amazing way of seeing the country.

I hope to get more experience this year racing in the mountains, which is an entirely different animal from desert running. Hopefully, this will prepare me to take on my longer-term goals of doing the Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji (UTMF) in Japan next year, and the Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) in 2016, which is the holy grail and big daddy of mountain ultra-races!