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University scientists prep firefighters for scorching 150-mile Sahara marathon

 University scientists prep firefighters for 150-mile marathon in scorching Sahara sun

A VALIANT pair of firefighters have thanked scientists from the University of Chichester for their help during a gruelling 156-mile footrace in the Sahara desert.

Graham Dance and Steve Holder returned triumphant from the harsh conditions of the Marathon des Sables in northern Africa. The firefighters, who have since raised thousands of pounds for charity, undertook specialist acclimation preparation with experts of the University’s Sports Performance and Rehabilitation Unit, which provides innovative training.

Mr Dance, 34, said the key to coping with the heat and sand was fitness planning with Andy West, a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology. The firefighters completed five sessions in the University’s pioneering heat chamber to replicate the unforgiving Sahara conditions including temperature, humidity, and radiant light to imitate the sun.

He added: “MDS was brutal, amazing, exhausting, and brilliant – it is sold as the hardest foot race in the world and would be hard to argue against that theory. I was fortunate enough to squeeze into the top 200, finishing in 34:56:16, 194th place.

“We both agree that the acclimation training at the University was very professional and without doubt aided us in our preparation for the desert environment, which peaked at 54-degrees centigrade. We were able to maintain our efforts throughout the extreme temperatures, surely due to our heat acclimation training.”


Graham Dance and Steve - Marathon des Sables

Environment training at Chichester laboratories

The climate chamber is intended for athletes who walk, run, cycle, and row around the globe to replicate temperature and humidity from minus 20 to plus 50 degrees Celsius and from ten to 90 per cent respectively. It can simulate altitudes of up to around 22,000 metres by reducing the oxygen concentration in the room from approximately 21 to nine per cent.

Andy West, who specialises in exercise physiology, is part of the Sports Performance and Rehabilitation Unit at the University. The facility was developed to help athletes prepare for a variety of environmental conditions before they compete in worldwide events.

He said: “Repeated exposure to the heat helped Graham and Steve’s bodies slowly adapt to the heat – in this instance the heat of the Sahara desert. This type of training is designed to increase core and skin body temperature, induce high levels of sweating and increase skin blood flow.

“All of these responses stimulate physiological adaptations which improved the men’s tolerance to exercise in the heat and reduced their chances of suffering from heat illnesses, such as heat exhaustion. We are delighted to hear they successfully completed the race and found working with us so beneficial.”


The Sahara environment, where temperatures can range from more than 50 in the day to minus-three degrees Celsius at night

The 'toughest footrace on earth'

The Marathon des Sables is a multi-stage 156-mile race and the equivalent of six marathons across the same number of days. Day four is the toughest - competitors must complete 55 miles with many running into the night - while day five is for rest before the final marathon run on day six.

As well as running in the challenging Sahara environment, where temperatures can range from more than 50 in the day to minus three degrees Celsius at night, competitors must be self-sufficient for everything apart from water. Entrants carry approximately 11kg backpacks with bedding, food, anti-blister kits, head torches for running at night, and other equipment essential to completing the race.

Firefighter Graham has been racing in endurance events for around eight years and MDS was top of his bucket list. Colleague Steve ran 20 marathons last year to raise money for charity in memory of his wife, Sharon, who sadly passed away two years ago.

Graham is based at Havant fire station on Red Watch, alongside 44-year-old colleague Steve, and is also a retained firefighter at Emsworth. During the University sessions, technicians monitored the men’s core body temperature, heart rate, fluid intake, and sweat rate so their acclimation response was maximised while ensuring their safety.

He said: “A huge thank you to the University of Chichester, I have raised somewhere between £3,000 and £4,000. Recovery is now going well and the pain is starting to fade, and we are even looking at future races.

“I chose two charities for very personal reasons. St Wilfred’s Hospice took care of my Mum two years ago and gifted her final wish to pass away at home with her family, something that would have been near impossible without their help and support.

“I also chose St Richard’s hospital neonatal unit as they gave lifesaving care to my son Sebastian who was born prematurely in January this year unable to breathe. Both gave amazing care at different ends of life and both rely heavily on charity to maintain their wonderful care.”


Find out more

To find out more about how the University of Chichester is working with athletes competing worldwide events contact Andy West at Alternatively for more information about the climate chamber and other pioneering facilities offered at the Sports Performance and Rehabilitation Unit go to

Marathon des Sables is a multi-stage 156-mile race and the equivalent of six marathons

Pictures courtesy of Marathon des Sables at