- Mohamad Ahansal and Meghan Hicks are the winners of this year's Marathon des Sables
- The epic race, taking place in the Southern Moroccan desert, is billed as the toughest footrace on Earth
- Runners had to cover more than 220 kilometers over six stages
The cries of pain turn into cheers of joy as the long-awaited finishing line finally looms on the horizon, stretching along the foot of an enormous desert dune. Mohamad Ahansal has already run more than 220 kilometers in the baking heat of the Sahara, but he still has the stamina to pull one last stunt.
The Moroccan runner is met with applause and awe as he crosses the line with a joyous cartwheel to be crowned winner of this year's Marathon des Sables (MDS), billed as the world's toughest footrace.
"I'm really very happy with this victory," said Ahansal, whose triumph Friday means he's now won the men's iconic race for an astonishing five times. "This edition has been very difficult as the competitors are increasingly strong and have a lot more experience with every passing year."
Ahansal's remarkable success was followed by the feat of Meghan Hicks, who took her first victory in the women's category.
"Winning an initial victory here is just incredible," said the American runner, who first took part in the ultra-marathon four years ago.
Overall, 980 out of the initial 1,024 participants started the fifth leg of this year's MDS, a grueling adventure challenging participants to test their bodies and minds as they take on whipping sandstorms and blazing temperatures of up to 50C in their epic journey across the Southern Moroccan desert.
Starting last Sunday, men and women of all ages from nearly 50 countries had to cover the equivalent of five and a half marathons over six stages -- including a non-stop leg of some 75 kilometers.
To toughen the ordeal, competitors were provided with just their water supply and a tent to sleep in at night. They were also required to carry all their equipment for the duration of the ultra-marathon -- from food and sleeping gear to an anti-venom pump and glow sticks -- as they battled with weariness and dehydration whilst snaking their way past rolling dunes, steep-sided uplands, dried-up lakes and abandoned settlements in the hostile heat.
Three runners have died in the 28 consecutive years the race has been taking place.
The roots of the MDS can be traced back to 1984, when Patrick Bauer decided to embark on a self-sufficient journey across the Algerian desert on foot, covering a distance of 350 kilometers over 12 days.
That expedition had a major influence on the adventurous Frenchman, who realized that other people would be interested in taking on similar challenges.
So in 1986 Bauer returned to Africa to organize the very first edition of the ultra marathon, completed that year by 23 pioneering runners. Twenty-eight years and more than 12,000 participants later, the MDS has grown to become a major endurance event whose model has been copied by several other races.
"Some runners come here to push back their limits and brave the extreme to write their tale," says Bauer.
"For a lot of participants, the Marathon des Sables is an opportunity to break with everyday life and feel a sense of timelessness. There is even a spiritual dimension, a quest for answers to what are at times very personal questions," he adds. "The desert magnifies the soul."
Putting the race together requires months of preparations and a plethora of resources: 120,000 liters of mineral water, 6.5 kilometers of Elastoplast, 400 support staff, 270 berber and Saharan tents, 100 all-terrain vehicles, 52 medical staff, 23 buses, 19,000 compresses and 6,000 painkillers. In addition, the organizers have two helicopters, one Cessna plane and six commercial planes at their disposal.
The MDS continued Saturday with its sixth and final, untimed, stage -- a 7.7 kilometer charity leg for UNICEF.