Rathcoole man Gary Bloomer - an experienced triathlete and ironman competitor - is used to extreme tests of physical and mental endurance.
But next weekend he will set off on the biggest challenge of his life as he attempts to run more than 150 miles across the Sahara - the world’s hottest desert.
The 40-year-old father-of-one is competing in this year’s Marathon des Sables - a gruelling multi-stage adventure which has been dubbed “the toughest footrace on earth.”
He is due to jet out to Morocco on April 4 with around 250 fellow competitors from the UK and Ireland. They will be among 1,000 ultra-endurance athletes from across the globe who will line up in the Sahara for the start of the race on April 6.
“It was coming up to my fortieth birthday and I thought I’d like to do something to commemorate it and I just thought ‘The MdS, I’ve always fancied having a go at it’, so I entered it,” Gary explained.
The runners will take on six stages in seven days. Each stage is around marathon distance (26 miles), except one day which is a ‘double stage’ of around 50 miles. The athletes will be running in temperatures of 40 degrees plus, through choking dust, over sand dunes, salt flats and even mountain peaks.
The rules require competitors to be self-sufficient, to carry everything in their backpacks that they’ll need to survive, except water. They are given a place in a shelter to sleep at night, but anything else, such as a sleeping bag and food, has to be carried.
Gary has carefully planned what he’s taking with him, but even the bare essentials mean he’ll start the race with an 8.5kg pack on his back.
Gary, who works as a commercial diver, has run hundreds of miles in training, many in the Mourne Mountains and some on a treadmill in a spare room at his mother’s house with a dehumidifier and blow heater on full blast to get the temperature up to 40 degrees.
He had been aiming to finish in the top 100 until he picked up an ankle injury in January. Now he’s just hoping to complete the race and enjoy the experience - one he insists he doesn’t plan to repeat.
“I was thinking about the top 10 per cent, but the injury and the amount of training time I lost knocked my confidence a bit, so now I’m just wanting to go out and finish the race and enjoy it,” he said.
“But at the end of the day it is a race, so if I went out there and didn’t give it everything I would regret it; I’d be cheating myself, so I’m going to go out and give it my best shot.”
The annual race supports children’s charity Unicef, but Gary - a keen mountaineer and climber - is using his personal challenge to raise funds for the Mourne Mountain Rescue Team, which helps walkers and climbers who get into difficulty.
Gary’s wife, Nadine, is doing her own marathon challenge in support of the same good cause, running from Rathcoole to Whitehead and back this Saturday (March 29). Gary will join her on the road, using the run as one of his last training sessions before he winds down ahead of the big race.
Looking ahead to his African adventure, he added: “I was nervous about going, but now I’m really excited. I just can’t wait to be in that environment because I’ll more than likely never be back there again. It’ll be a once in a lifetime experience.”
Anyone who would like to support Gary’s fundraising effort can do so by donating online at www.justgiving.com/Gary-Bloomer