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Ballito endurance athlete Harry Botha (81) defies age limits

Despite being slowed down by the brutal heat, Botha valiantly bit the bullet and managed to beat the camels to the end of the first stage.

One would not assume 81-year-old Ballito endurance athlete Harry Botha to be a hardcore rocker, but AC/DC’s thumping Highway to Hell brought him much joy in the Moroccan desert.

Signalling the start of the gruelling 242km Marathon des Sables race, the song also heralded a personal dream come true for Botha as he lined up with 1 150 international foot racers on April 27.

There was the disappointment of course of not completing the challenge as the harsh elements forced him to drop out halfway through stage two.

But Botha was elated nevertheless, having achieved his goal of at least making it to the super endurance race’s starting line.

The oldest competitor in the race, Botha was symbolically supported by his Ballito running club, the Dolphin Coast Striders, who walked the journey with him on treadmills.

With temperatures reaching 50°C in direct sunlight, Botha was tested to the limit right from the start.

He said he had one goal in mind to keep him motivated – stay ahead of the camels.

According to the race rules, competitors failing to reach the end of a stage ahead of the camels accompanying the “caravan” are retired.

“The air feels thick, one’s breathing becomes rapid, heat exhaustion is a constant threat and one’s mind becomes fuddled. You can’t think clearly other than focusing on getting to the next checkpoint where there would be water and a tarpaulin to provide some shade. As the brutal heat slowed me down, minutes felt like hours,” said Botha.

He barely had enough energy to identify himself to checkpoint officials.

Harry Botha in high spirits at the beginning of the race. Photo: Ian Corless.

Despite being slowed down by the brutal heat, Botha valiantly bit the bullet and managed to beat the camels to the end of the first stage.

That was another goal of his, finishing stage one and then take it day-by-day.

But stage 2 proved to be the killer – a tougher terrain, flat rocky ground, steep ascents, numerous sand dunes and finally a soul-destroying sandstorm.

Botha said he passed several competitors too tired to carry on.

Each racer is fitted with a two-button tracking device – one for non-life-threatening conditions while the second is an SOS dispatching a team of medical professionals by helicopter.

The camels that participants must stay ahead of to avoid disqualification. This was a constant threat for Botha. Photo: Ian Corless.

Botha said he contemplated whether to use it or not, but while battling through the sandstorm two marshals spotted him in difficulty, struggling to stand up.

“We were on top of a ridge with about a 100m drop-off on one side. They grabbed me by the arms and made me lie flat. The visibility was down to a metre despite me wearing sandstorm goggles. The wind howled while the desert sand swirled around us.”

Attempts to make it to the next checkpoint were eventually met with the realisation that the day’s battle would be lost to the camels.

Botha said the MDS was the greatest racing experience he had ever had and thanked his family, friends, and the race organisers for their support.

He won’t be competing in next year’s MDS, but said he will always cherish the memories – and those achievements of running marathons on seven continents, including the North and South Poles, the Mt Everest base camp marathon and the Great Wall of China.

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