IN 1984, a young Frenchman called Patrick Bauer decided to run across 350 kilometres of the Sahara in Algeria, alone. For 12 days, he carried his food and water; occasionally he checked in with his brother at arranged meeting points. When he returned to France, other people told him they wanted to run the Sahara too. So in 1986, Bauer organised the first Marathon des Sables, a marathon of the sands. For several logistical reasons - fortunately, as it turned out - he chose to set it in Morocco. Twenty-three runners took part. Last month, 495 competitors from 30 countries gathered in southern Morocco for the 13th event. What began as a personal quest has become a business, which has doubled in size in the past two years. It costs each runner US$2,400 (HK$18,500) for the privilege of carrying six days' food across unforgiving terrain in wildly varying temperatures. So many wanted to take part that the list closed last November and 200 applicants were turned away. Among those running this year was a team from Hong Kong who wanted to raise money for the Society for the Promotion of Hospice Care. There were five members: Mabel Au-Yeung Wai-man, the society's head of fund-raising; Inspector Justin Shave, Inspector Mark Sharp and Senior Inspector Carol Cheng Mei-lin of the Hong Kong Police Force; and Chris Hanselman, an ex-Chief Inspector who now has a sports public relations business. Sponsors were galvanised. Designer Tommy Hilfiger, who is backed by Hong Kong money, kitted out the team. The Hyatt hotel group came up with rooms in London, British Airways supplied flights, and it was from Heathrow on a cold, rainy afternoon towards the end of March that the group flew to Africa. There was a brief stopover in Gibraltar; as the plane took off again, a sign at the end of the runway thanked us for visiting the colony. The notice was sponsored by a company called Bland Travel. It's fair to say that the journey, beyond that point of empire, was as far from bland as it is possible to go. Marrakech, Friday 27th March IT TAKES 10 hours to drive to the desert base camp. The Hong Kong team has hooked up with the 50-strong American contingent and the air on the bus is thick with geographical exclamations - Memphis! Mississippi! South Carolina! - as people get acquainted. After that, conversation revolves entirely around food. Because everything has to be carried, and because no one wants a heavy backpack, the secret is to locate the lightest, energy-giving comestibles on the face of the globe. People show off their finds. 'Self-heating,' says one runner waving a foil packet. 'Hey, is that some sort of nuclear ... ?' asks his neighbour. 'Jeez, naw, it's chemical.' Justin, who took part last year and is therefore a fund of worrying information, discusses the psychology of the race. 'It's about focus,' he says. 'The thing you have to think is, 'This is what my life is about.' ' Last year, a one-armed, one-legged competitor finished the race. This year, there is a Vietnam veteran in the American contingent who has lost a leg. There is also Bryant McKinley, from Seattle, who is blind. Bryant wants the landscape described for him. The bus has passed over the snowy High Atlas mountains, down through gorges of early blossom, alongside terracotta villages of bright rugs and women in glittering veils, and now it's traversing a plain of occasional mesas and massive boulders. It is spectacularly lovely. Bryant listens intently. 'Is it smooth, will it be easy to run on?' he asks. 'Sounds as if it's going to be a problem for me.' Darkness falls, the absolute blindness of Africa. The last 10 kilometres of the journey are endured in the back of an army truck: hot, claustrophobic, lit by a single jolting torch. The expression which is always trotted out about the marathon is that it's 'a human war-zone' and, suddenly, that doesn't seem quite so cliched anymore. Certainly the chaotic shanty town of tents at journey's end has the look of a disaster area. The Hong Kong team will live for the next week with five other people under a bit of old hessian sacking, propped up on a couple of poles, and entirely open to the elements. Saturday 28th March It rains, on and off, all night. In the grey morning the huddle of competitors' tents resembles some dark, hump-backed beast. It's windy too; the sand blasts the skin and collects in the body's hollows and crevices. A variety of flags has sprung up, including one from a San Miguel brewery in Spain which has sent a team of employees; this reminder is considered a subtle form of psychological torture. Other entrants include a German team of diabetics, a blind Frenchman who's raising money for a children's home and a gallant, 75-year-old gentleman called Claude. In the afternoon, everyone lines up in the drizzle with their luggage, like a check-in queue at some bizarre airport, an image fuelled by a number of helicopters and a small plane (very English Patient) lined up next to the camp. One of the helicopters belongs to Jennifer Murray, wife of former Hong Kong taipan and ex-Foreign Legionnaire, Simon. Jennifer is hoping to make a documentary of the event for STAR and has arrived with her British co-pilot, Quentin Smith, and a camera crew of two from London. Simon is planning to fly in later in the week and run the final stage of the marathon. Medical tests, including an ECG, are conducted on each competitor, and numbers assigned. There is a kit inspection. The rules on what must be carried by each runner are strict; Justin had a 30-minute penalty imposed last year for failing to carry a mirror. Mabel, however, has a problem. She hasn't got any anti-snake venom, one of the compulsory items. The others managed to clean out supplies in Hong Kong and she couldn't find any in London, so she's turned up with a suction cup and a piece of string. The Frenchman checking her kit is inclined to be doubtful about the efficacy of these offerings but, miraculously, he speaks Mandarin and after some linguistic bonding he lets her off. Justin, who has a police examination the day after his return to Hong Kong, nobly elects to take his revision notes with him. He is confident he will be able to squeeze in hours of studying between races. Last year's winner, Moroccan Lahcen Ahansal, is the favourite with his brother, Mohamed. The winner for the three previous years was Russian Andrei Derksen, so at the media tent (laptops wrapped in transparent plastic bags to keep the sand out, desk-top computers covered in cut-outs of nude women) there is some informed debate about this rivalry. Sixty hacks have turned up to cover the event. It seems there's a whole, terrifying sub-culture of journalists from stern publications called Outdoors, Soldier Of Fortune and, er, Penthouse who track people running endurance races all over the world. Every now and then a thin bleating is carried on the wind. It comes from a sheep, bought by Quentin at a local market. In the evening, he slits its throat and roasts it for the delectation of the STAR crew. Sunday 29th March There has been a desert storm during the night. The press tents, which have zips, are saturated, and so ferocious are the wind and rain that the organisers take pity on the competitors and turn up with flashlights and tarpaulin. This kindness startles the sleeping runners, several of whom later admit they'd thought they were in line for an alien abduction. The lunar landscape has that effect. As it's difficult to get 495 people to stand in any semblance of order, there's a relaxed feel to the countdown as conducted by Bauer, in French, at 9.30 am. Even as the Moroccans are off like whippets across the plain, shadowed by helicopters and press Land-Rovers, clusters of competitors stand around chatting before breaking into an amiable jog. Among the strollers is Mabel, determined to pace herself sensibly for today's 24-kilometre run. The sun comes out. There are herds of camels in the distance, and Berber women, collecting firewood and water, glide past as if the competitors are simply a mirage. Bryant's teammate, Jim, calls out descriptions of the terrain as they trot by, each holding one end of Bryant's white stick. A group of Italians comes chattering along, and one of them stops, whips out a disposable camera, snaps the wonderful view and jogs on. There's a checkpoint after 10 kilometres where water is dispensed in numbered bottles. The numbers are to prevent runners leaving the empties along the way; there are severe penalties for abuse of the environment. Most competitors slosh water over themselves and sit in the shade for at least a few minutes. But the Ahansal brothers don't bother to pause. Within 86 minutes they're at tonight's bivouac, along with Derksen. They're supposed to be given a Coca-Cola - one of the marathon's sponsors - as they cross the line but the Coca-Cola delivery man is rumoured to have got lost in the desert. Mark, who has revealed an unexpected single-mindedness of purpose, is number 64 home. Justin comes in at number 182, Chris is 253, Carol is 433 and Mabel is 453. By late afternoon, they're all in their tent eating high-calorie, freeze-dried concoctions laughingly described as Beef Teriyaki or Chili Con Carne. Justin is limping around gingerly in a pair of Shenzhen Bay Hotel paper slippers; he claims to have managed some revision. Chris is beginning to voice small but meaningful regrets, and Carol has decided to adopt Mabel's tactic and walk the race. Night brings out stars of such brilliance and profusion that it's a genuinely disconcerting experience, as if a billion eyes are winking intimately from the heavens. And the brighter the stars burn, the colder the desert air becomes. Monday 30th March Reveille is at 5.30 and it's freezing. Each day follows the same pattern: by 6.30, when the sun is up, the shivering competitors have been turfed out of their tents, which are folded away on lorries. Everyone stands around, obsessively packing and repacking their kit and brewing up dubious messes on cookers the size of postage stamps. By 8 am it's growing warm but there's no shade. By 9 am, when the race starts, everyone's already sweating. Today's race is 37 kilometres, much tougher and in much hotter conditions (45 degrees Celsius is registered on one thermometer) than yesterday's. The media Land-Rovers squeeze through narrow passes where occasional collapsed runners are being tended to by teams from Doc Trotter, the marathon's medical organisation. By the end of the day a pall of gloom is hanging over the Hong Kong tent. Chris has thorn-bush gashes on his leg and looks bewildered by the brutality of the experience, describing it as 'humbling'. Justin is subdued, swears he'll never do it again and insists this year's is a much harder course. Carol has two bad blisters and a limp. Mabel staggers back at 5.15 pm and immediately begins queueing for one of the cardboard boxes in which the mineral water is stored so she can lie on it tonight as a feeble form of padding. Everyone does this, it's part of the hideous ritual. There are rumours that the Moroccans are having help with getting their kit carried, and the American women's team has written a letter of complaint to the organisers about the female German runner, Anke Molkenthin, whose kit seems suspiciously light. Tuesday 31st March Civilisation is definitely breaking down. Initially, there was at least a semblance of modesty in people's lavatorial habits but now it's hard to admire the view without a minimum of five people squatting in front of it. The area round the competitors' camp is a-blossom with pink tissue paper, some of it worryingly close to home. As Chris observes bitterly, had the bivouac stayed up another five minutes people would be peeing inside the tents. Bryant, his face bearing traces of dried blood, has dropped out; he fell too many times yesterday to continue. About 10 others have joined him. Nearby, the team from the British Army Parachute Regiment is singing Always Look On The Bright Side of Life. There is a feeling of preparation for battle, not because of any gung-ho jeering (although the San Miguel team like to do a whooping, circular war-dance every morning) but in the quiet, methodical preparation for the day ahead. It's genuinely eerie, like a scene from Shakespeare or a Vietnam war film ... except that the morning smells, not of napalm, but of Factor 40 sun lotion, plus a distinct human whiffiness. There is a steep hill at the beginning of today's 36-kilometre course, then a plain, then sand dunes, which are a killer to run on. By checkpoint two, Chris is emotional. 'My crutch is gone,' he announces and points to the flesh rubbed raw at the top of his legs; the salt running into it from his sweat is agonising. Justin says he's getting through it by fantasising about the Club Class lounge at Heathrow; he's going to pay for an upgrade back to Hong Kong. He also swears that he's seen one competitor having lunch in a Bedouin tent. Mark, chatty and affable in real life, simply puts his head down and goes for it, silently, on the course. Way, way back, Mabel and Carol are walking together. Even that, in these conditions, is hellish, and means they arrive at camp so late they have little time to recuperate before tomorrow. The radios in the Land-Rovers crackle in French all day with the numbers of those who can't take any more. At tonight's camp, the drop-outs arrive at the catering tent for supper. Now they are no longer competing they can eat with the organisers, medics and press, but they have to pay extra. They also have to wear green armbands as a mark of failure. The medical tent is revolting, a Category Three vista of pulpy toes and feet flayed into bleeding steak by the sand. And there's still no sign of the Coca-Cola man. Wednesday 1 April All Fool's Day, and the toughest part of the whole marathon: a 76-kilometre run which will go on all night unless, of course, you're a Moroccan superman. In order to even things out a little the organisers have decreed that the top 60 runners won't start until sizzling midday. Mark, who came in at an impressive number 33 yesterday, is furious. He only discovers this at 7.30, when he's already prepped himself with suncreams and nipple plasters, and now he has to wait for another 4 hours in the heat. Bauer makes an encouraging announcement at 9 am that there will definitely be Coca-Cola by the time everyone finishes this section. There is a feeble cheer, then they're off to the first of today's six checkpoints. At that moment, it is apparent that this is the most courageous, determined, admirable bunch of lunatic masochists one is ever likely to meet. The day progresses with searing pain, the heat begins to wane and the chill of night comes on. Checkpoint four, at 44 kilometres, is set on a pass looking down on a vast plain clasped between two mountain ranges. As it grows dark, a line of green lights, pinned to the runners' shoulders, flickers in the distance like a strange, beautiful dragon. Mabel and Carol arrive, exhausted, after 8 pm. They've been walking for 11 hours but they want to make it to checkpoint five before taking a proper rest. As they pause in the shelter of a tent, a man lying beside them tells a doctor he can't go on; it's Andrei Derksen, the Russian. A woman stumbles past with a broken arm; it's Anke Molkenthin, the German. But, incredibly, the Hong Kong team survives. By dawn, the three lads have made it back safely and are sleeping in the tent. At checkpoint six, seven kilometres from the finish, the stragglers wobble through all morning. Mabel and Carol arrive at 10.30, followed by Claude, trembling with fatigue, then Jean Noel Lucas, also blind, and raising money for children. In the face of such resilience and endurance it's impossible not to weep in recognition of the human spirit. At 7 pm, after 34 hours, the last two runners arrive in camp. The Coca-Cola man must still be out there somewhere because he hasn't made it to the bivouac. Friday 3rd April 'Words can't describe the pain and torment,' cries Chris. Morale is ebbing in the Hong Kong tent. 'Basically, we're living in a cesspit,' says Mark, and the disgusting truth is he's hardly exaggerating. Everyone has diarrhoea, there are battalions of flies, continuous swirls of dust and a lurking suspicion that cholera might be waiting to pounce. A pile of bloodied plasters roasts in the sand outside the tent. Desperate smokers have taken to tearing apart their road maps to make roll-ups. The morning air is filled with coughing; the sense of impending disaster - war, famine, disease, take your pick - is strong. 'I think Bauer wants us to suffer,' says Chris, angrily. 'He's thinking, 'I did this and you have to do it to be a man.' ' Today's distance is 42 kilometres, a standard marathon. Simon Murray has turned up to run but has been forbidden to do so by Bauer: he isn't insured, and it's bad psychology for the other runners to see a fresh, clean, well-fed man suddenly streaking past. Nonetheless, Simon plans to go ahead furtively, with Jennifer stopping off in her helicopter to give him water, which is surely the taipan way of doing things. This scheme is scuppered when the organisers cotton on to what's happening. It's a tedious, grinding, exhausting run, the last serious one of the race. Justin collapses as he crosses the finishing line in the afternoon, but after resting in the shade for a while he recovers, helped along by a can of Coke. The delivery truck has arrived just in time for the final night in camp. Saturday 4th April Today merely involves a 14-kilometre stroll, mostly along tarmac, into the town of Rissani, and then a four-hour bus journey to hotels in Ouarzazate. That the Ahansal brothers have won is so foregone a conclusion that it's hard to raise a flicker of excitement over the result. An inescapable air of anti-climax and confusion hangs over the medal presentations in the packed town square. The shopkeepers seem to be under the impression that 432 smelly people have raced 220 kilometres to admire their carpets. No one thought, on day one, that all five of the Hong Kong team would make it. But they did, and this account can give only the smallest flavour of a genuinely heroic achievement. Every dollar they raised was painfully earned, and to witness what they endured was a remarkable experience. But perhaps the most incredible moment was the one when Simon, Mark and Chris swore (it's hard even to type these words) . . . that they were coming back next year. As the buses trundle off into the Saharan sunset, two runners sit at the back, massaging their feet and discussing plans for the Antarctic marathon. If you wish to make a donation please send a cheque, made payable to SPHC Ltd, with 'Sahara Race for Hospice' written on the back, to 1832 Swire House, 11 Chater Road, Central.