U.S. runners are competing this year for the first time in the Libyan Challenge, a grueling 125-mile ultramarathon through some of the most inaccessible parts of the Sahara Desert.
“The Libyan Challenge is very pleased to host the first American team on the event,” said Laurent Locke, Libyan Challenge UK representative. “Libya is only just opening up to tourism and has been virtually closed off from the Western world for decades.”
The event was started in 2005 by Jean Marc Tommasini, a member of a 4×4 club who has always enjoyed trail running, Locke said. “When the club’s travels took them to Libya and the Acacus [a desert area near the Libyan city Ghat], Jean Marc immediately fell in love with the uniquely stunning desert landscapes and friendliness of the local Libyans. He immediately decided that this would be the setting for a truly exceptional desert race. After many months of negotiations and discussions, the first Libyan Challenge took place in February 2005 and was an unqualified success.”
The 2009 Libyan Challenge begins on February 24. Runners have 75 hours to complete the event. They must carry their food and medical supplies and use a GPS device to navigate between stations where they can refill their water containers.
The race is staged in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, including the desert used as a location in the movie “The English Patient, Locke said. “Runners will be able to view prehistoric rock paintings showing that the desert was once a lush jungle teeming with wildlife.”
The area is extremely remote and encompassed by towering rock formations resembling ancient forts, Locke added.
The first American team to compete in the Libyan Challenge, from left: Rebecca Byerly, Bob Lashua, and Isabella De La Houssaye.
Photo courtesy Rebecca Byerly
“A good part of the course is along a centuries-old camel caravan route and totally inaccessible by vehicle. This, combined with the fact that only GPS navigation is used (there are virtually no course markers except for a few rock cairns and light sticks), and that the course is nearly 200 kilometers nonstop, means that runners quickly find themselves alone in the desert and that there is a true feeling of adventure and feeling at one with nature.
“The number of competitors is kept deliberately small to preserve this sense of shared adventure and allows the pre- and post-race atmosphere to be particularly warm and friendly,” Locke said.
The American runners are Bob Lashua (45), Howard Cohen (50), Isabella De La Houssaye (45), JB Benna (29), and Rebecca Byerly (25). Cohen will compete as an individual while Lashua, De La Houssaye, and Byerly will compete as a team. Filmmaker JB Benna and Byerly will video the race and cover the story for National Geographic, Al Jazeera, and other media.
Video: Howard Cohen tells why he wants to do the Libyan Challenge:
Byerly, a freelance journalist for CNN.com, spent the summer covering pre-Olympic sports stories in Asia. She competed in and covered the Great Wall of China Marathon, as well as the Gobi March, a 155-mile stage race, and the Sun Up to Sun Down 100-kilometer ultramarathon in Mongolia.
“I use my running and writing as a medium to share the remarkable accounts of people in far-flung regions of the world whose stories would otherwise go untold,” Byerly told me.
“Last September, a Libyan friend told me about the Libyan Challenge race and put me in touch with the Libyan consul here in Washington, D.C.,” Byerly recalled. “I thought this was a unique opportunity to learn about Libya while engaging in an extreme sport. Though I had no idea how everything was going to come together, I was determined to have an American team in this year’s event.”
Photo courtesy Mouss Production/Libyan Challenge
The Libyan consulate has been friendly and helpful, according to Byerly, a testament to the thawing of relations between the United States and Libya after years of tension that at one time resulted in the severance of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries. American citizens were not allowed to travel to Libya because of sanctions imposed by the United States.
All that has changed now and the two countries are tentatively trying to rediscover one another.
Byerly will be filing updates to this blog from Libya as and when she can.
Video: Rebecca Byerly talks about the Libyan Challenge:
Message from Rebecca:
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