IF THE TV series Mad Men is synonymous with New York’s Madison Avenue, then Cirencester’s Laura Maddison is synonymous with . . . mad women.
Mad, but gritty, determined and utterly triumphant.
Laura, an amateur athlete with the Running Someone Else club, has just returned from the Sahara where she took part in the infamous Marathon des Sables.
A brutal seven-day endurance test in the 50-degree heat of the Moroccan desert extending to 157 miles with barely a level step, it is not without reason known as the hardest footrace on Earth.
A beefy male member of Laura’s running club returned from the race two years ago on crutches; another came back minus all 10 of his toenails.
Forty-three year old Laura, a cataloguer at the English Heritage Archive in Swindon, came back virtually unscathed with just an enormous craving for food after having to survive the week with just the provisions she could carry.
Oh, did I forget to mention that the runners have to carry all they need for the 157-mile quest in a 9lb back pack – water is provided at checkpoints en route. Mandatory items include a distress flare and an anti-venom pump And they sleep eight to a tent in open-sided desert bivouacs at night.
And here’s the mad bit – Laura wants to go back and do it all again For the record she finished in 54hr 12min 08sec which earned her 673rd place overall from a starting line-up of 1,029. Of the 154 women who attempted the race, 128 finished with Laura coming home in 73rd place.
This year there were no winds to speak of and no sandstorms – the weather had been much worse the week before the race when Britain got the residue from some 100km Saharan winds on their cars.
But the devilish organisers of the 29th Marathon des Sables decided to ring the changes on the schedule this year introducing the runners to the ‘never-ending' Merzouga Dunes on the opening day.
Race director Patrick Bauer said: “We had warned people that we’d be attacking hard from the outset. The first stages were demanding and there wasn’t the time to acclimatise. You had to be ready.
“It’s a reminder that the Sultan Marathon des Sables is a sporting event and not a hike across the desert.”
Many of the higher-than-average number of drop-outs (112) failed to get through an attritional day one.
And yet the remarkable Laura, who started running as self styled ‘numpty’ 11 years ago, admits to only two periods when she doubted her ability to finish – once on the overnight stage when she was reduced to tears and again on the full final day marathon when she struggled from halfway due, she thinks, to a lack of food, and had to be carefully monitored by the medics, “Crossing that finishing line and receiving my medal was just the best feeling ever,” admitted Laura.
“I felt so under-prepared going out there, but I imagine that is the same for everyone. I coped really well with the heat and I feel that was down to the time I spent preparing in the sauna at the Cotswold Leisure Centre. “I found hunger was my main problem. The rules state you have to have at least 2,000 calories for each day of the race but I simply could not eat enough and I lost half a stone.”
Laura was quick to point out the camaraderie of the competitors.
“It was wonderful to meet so many crazy people who were all raising huge sums of money for charity,” she said.
“The other seven people in my tent – Brian, Ollie, Su, Claire, Iain, Philippa and Tamsin – became like family and I love them all. I was so sorry that two of them failed to finish.
“They all certainly helped me through the tough times on the overnight stage when I got very down and there were tears.
“But the wider community throughout the race were also so helpful and friendly.
“The desert was just beautiful and one of the things I enjoyed most was the self sufficiency – only being able to use the things that I carried on my back. Life becomes very simple.
“I would do it all again perhaps in about five years’ time – and that despite the cost. I’ve got into debt because of the race as the entry fee alone is £3,728.76.
“I have already spoken about the possibility to Andy Sampson and John Buck of RSE who did the race before and they haven’t yet said ‘No’.”
There is still time to contribute to Laura’s charity of choice, the Prospect Hospice in Swindon.
“I had a target of raising £750 and I have already passed £2,000, so I am really pleased,” she said.
“Rachel Bird, a great mountain bike riding buddy of my husband’s, spent her last days in the Prospect Hospice when she was suffering from breast cancer. She was 42.”
Laura’s charity page can be found at www.justgiving.com/ sumoeddie.
If you want to see our latest local sporting celebrity, Laura will be turning out in the Highworth 5m race this weekend. She may even be wearing her Marathon des Sables medal.
“It’s been in my handbag ever since I got home,” she said, “because everyone wants to see it.”