- 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.