In April 2013, Wellington’s Greig Rightford and Willie Tokona tested their physical and mental limits in the Marathon of the Sands, a 6-day ultramarathon ranked as the toughest footrace on earth. In scorching heat, air “so dry your lungs are almost bursting” and with 8kg of supplies strapped to their backs, Greig and Willie raced across the Sahara Desert. AC/DC’s Highway to Hell provided a fitting send-off at the starting line.
Both Greig and Willie were recovering from injuries – a broken neck in Greig’s case – but this just made them more determined to “knock the bastard off”, as Willie put it. They’d made a pledge to raise money for New Zealand’s Malaghan Research Institute. Nothing was going to stop them.
“We just made up our minds that we were going to do it,’ says Greig. “It was a mindset.”
Together with 1,022 other competitors from around the world, Greig and Willie travelled 230km through punishing terrain, traversing rocky plateaus, mountain peaks and steep sand dunes.
“Sometimes we couldn’t believe how hard it was,” Greig says. “But we were inspired by our competitors. You’d feel exhausted, but they’d help build your spirits back up again.”
One sand dune, around 1.5km high, was so steep that they resorted to crawling on their hands and knees, only reaching the top with the help of a rope. “It was slippery and we weren’t moving fast but our breathing was so labored,” says Willie. “It was mayhem.”
The searing heat – reaching 54°C on day 3 – compounded the challenge. ”You’re so fragile in that kind of heat. It affects your decision making,” says Greg. “Whoever made the best decisions, performed the best.” For Greig and Willie, the decision on day 3 was to rest in their tent, and it paid off, sparing them the heat exhaustion suffered by others.
At night, they faced the opposite problem, with temperatures plummeting to around 7°C . “Others brought sleeping bags, but we just slept in our Icebreaker base layers and space blankets,” Greig says. “If we hadn’t worn Icebreakers we would’ve really struggled.”
Water was rationed – “we didn’t waste a drop on washing ourselves,” Greig says – and by the third day, their concentrated food was playing havoc with both Greig’s gut and Willie’s mind. “I’d see a lilo and wonder what it’d taste like,” Willie says.
Something Greg and Willie found comfort in was their #Icebreaker gear. “We had reservations about wearing wool in the desert,” Willie says, “but those tops were great. We never overheated.” For Greig, it was his Icebreaker cap that he couldn’t have done without. “It gave me lots of airflow and I’d wet it to keep me cool – it retained all the moisture.” Both were also impressed with their gears’ lack of odour, especially given that they wore the same Icebreakers the whole time. “We were amazed that we didn’t smell at all,” Greig says.
As well as succeeding in “knocking off” the Marathon of the Sands – Greig finished 62nd overall, and Willie 75th – they raised approximately $29,000 for the Malaghan Research Institute. They also served as an inspiration to their many supporters, including everyone at Icebreaker. Congratulations, guys!