An extract from the book – Sports the Olympics Forgot.

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One of the world’s most gruelling races takes place in the Tunisia desert in June of each year. The official name is the Tunisian Oasis Race although it’s also known as the Tunisian Desert Classic and The World’s Hardest Triathlon. It’s loosely based on an epic Saharan escape behind enemy lines by a British soldier during WWII.

Quite simply, contestants in the race must make their way through 80 miles of desert between Tatouine and Houmt Souk on the island of Djerba. Competitors carry a bicycle in case there’s any terrain where they can ride without sinking in the sand.  There are no refreshments available on the course so the competitors have to climb coconut palms and hack down the fruit, which will provide them with much needed liquid. No running can take place on a tarmac’ed road or the contestant will be disqualified.

Contestants set out at dawn and head northwards from Tatouine towards the Sebkhet el Melah, a large salt sea.where competitors can sometimes use their bikes to ride across the salt-crusted ground. Once the salt sea ends the racers head to the Mediterranean coast and then swim over to the island of Djerba before running to Houmt Souk. On land the route is marked by a red camel on a black background and inflatable red camels ten yards apart mark the safe swimming channel for the athletes in the Mediterranean.

What makes the race so difficult is the fact that the contestants have to run on three separate occasions with both cycling and swimming interspersed with the running. Sometimes, the Sebkhet el Melah can have recently been wet and so the bikes sink into the mud and are almost unrideable as a result.

The record time for the race is 15 hours 43 minutes 39 seconds by the Egyptian Zardar el-Mubarak in 1978. He was a marathon runner by training and in that year the saltsea was filled with a few inches of water so most contestants discarded their bikes and ran most of the way.

El-Mubarak said of his race: “I was expecting a difficult race but the terrain was very energy sapping and so I had to carry a coconut with me at all times. Luckily, I enjoyed climbing trees as a child and this came in useful later in the race when I saw some date palms near the coast. They have so much sugar and this helped with the swim although I was nearly run over by the ferry from the mainland.”

Hassan Ahmed from Sfax is he only person to win the race three times. After competing it took him two months to recover from the race and for this reason he only competed every other year. He described his training as follows:

“To train for the Oasis Classic, I ran for 10 hours a day, six days a week for six months. At the end of this time if I wasn’t injured I knew I was ready for the race. I would train by carrying a bike at all times and ten kilograms of water in a rucksack. I would need 5,000 calories per day during this time. On my day of rest, my wife made me do the gardening.”

Such a gruelling race has had plenty of casualties of course and the Red Crescent is always on hand to revive ailing athletes. In 1990 the salt sea was covered in water but only to a depth of five inches in places; however the water looked deeper and so some athletes dived in thinking they could swim some of the way and ended up concussing themselves.

Some contestants injure themselves falling out of trees due to exhaustion later in the race – in 1963 there was an argument between a date farmer and the organizers after 12 athletes decided to take dates from the same palm tree leaving the farmer with few dates. Since that race the farmer and his sons have guarded their trees during the race.

Many athletes start out with a bike on their back together with a small, waterproof rucksack containing a spare running top, a pair of thin running shoes for use on Djerba, and some power bars for sustenance. They begin wearing a stout pair of running shoes, which are used until the swimming when they are discarded. The bike is left with the organizers once the salt sea section is completed. When the contestant lands on Djerba the backpack is also left with the organizers.