A TRIO of runners from Cirencester have successfully completed the 27th running of the Sultan Marathon des Sables – dubbed the hardest footrace on earth.

The event covers 157 miles of the Sahara Desert in Southern Morocco over the space of a week. The runners race over rocky terrain and sand dunes, with barely a yard of level ground, lugging their own backpacks of essential provisions, and sleeping at night in eight-man tents.

James Walker, landlord of the Bathurst Arms, North Cerney, John Buck, a quality compliance co-ordinator at Honda in Swindon and Andy Sampson, manager of the Somewhere Else bar in Cirencester, ran on behalf of the charity Hope For Tomorrow and finished 305th, 379th, and 546th respectively from more than 850 starters.

While some colleagues at the Running Somewhere Else club face up to this weekend’s London Marathon – in which he has romped around previously in 3hr 25min – Buck insists the two famous endurance races are poles apart.

“London would not even tick the box in comparison,” he said. Fifty in August and the oldest of the trio by some margin, Buck admitted that relief was the immediate sensation when he crossed the finishing line on Saturday in a time of 43hr 46min 24sec – followed by an overwhelming sense of achievement and satisfaction.

Having spent £4,500 to take part – including entry fees, travel, accommodation and kit – he earned a medal, a tee shirt and a hug from the organiser, but he has returned to England minus all ten of his toe nails.

“Every runner has got different injuries,” said Buck. “There must be something unique about the shape of my toes and they took a real pounding on the rocks.

“Neither Andy nor myself could walk to the restaurant in our hotel on the night after the race so we had to settle for room service.” Sampson is still a little the worse for wear.

“Andy must have really had to dig deep to finish because he has come home on crutches thanks to badly infected feet,” said Buck.

“Also, we were washed out of our tent by storms on the rest day and poor Andy lost his sleeping bag, which meant he slept the last two nights in just a foil blanket.”

In the circumstances – the Sahara’s 50-degree heat, topped off with rain, wind, hail, lightning and sand storms – it says a lot for the endurance of the human spirit that only 59 runners abandoned the quest.

“The thought of quitting never came into it,” said Buck, “but I did frighten the life out of myself even on the first day.

“Despite all the warnings I failed to take in enough water and salt and I was forced to stop, feeling very giddy for at least 15 minutes. I raced much more conservatively on the second day and did a lot of walking.”

Buck is unequivocal about the toughest stage of the seven-day event.

“On Thursday (day four) we had the overnight stage of 50 miles,” he said. “I started at 8.30am and finished at quarter to two the next morning,”

“At one checkpoint I had to stop and rest, but I got going again after having some cold custard.

“Another chap was struggling at the same time but we helped each other. Everyone had their name on the vests and there was always a lot of encouragement from fellow competitors if you were going through a bad patch.”

While not ready to pension off his trainers just yet, Buck admits the time has come for some more low-key exercise.

“I think I will get the clubs out of the garage and start playing golf again,” he said.