Hot foot to the finish in Sahara challenge

Gregor Neilson
Gregor Neilson

A former St Andrews man has successfully completed what is labelled as “the toughest footrace on Earth” in aid of charity.

Gregor Neilson, a keen athlete, mountaineer and hillwalker, took part in the Marathon des Sables during which he ran 150 miles over six days in the searing heat of the Sahara Desert - and carried everything he needed for the duration, except a tent.

A technical analyst with Scottish Hydro, Gregor (47) is the son of retired Madras College teacher, Keith Neilson, and his wife, Isobel. He participated in the event in aid of the Friends of Rymonth in St Andrews and also the 45th Perthshire Scouts in Alyth, where he resides with his wife and two sons.


In an exclusive interview with the Citizen, he said: ”This was definitely the toughest challenge I have faced, but what an amazing experience. It was one of the hottest Marathon des Sables ever, with temperatures hitting between 52 and 54°C (126°F) and - combined with the long sections of sand dunes and large climbs - I soon realised I had to pace myself very carefully.

“At the start I managed to get my pack weight right down to 8kg without water, but backache was a major problem for the first few days. On the third day I got blisters on the balls of my feet which had to be cut open, drained and taped.

“That said, I was let off lightly compared to a lot of others. After the fourth day, the 51-mile stage, I decided to really go for it. At the end of the next stage it took me half an hour to recover enough to move from the stage finish line, crawl into my tent and collapse in a heap again.

“By the the time I crossed the finishing line I had nothing else left to give.”

However, Gregor explained that it was not the fatigue, the pain nor the forcing down of food or even each stage finish line that never gets closer that he will remember the most.

He added: ”Foremost are the memories of the spectacular scenery, the small cup of sweet tea you receive at the end of each stage, the encouragement of other competitors when you are on your last legs, the support and banter of tent mates and the friendships made.


“Of course, there is also the unexpected - a hailstorm, and the bizarre, the Paris Opera performing to a bunch of filthy runners in the middle of the desert.

“In hindsight, there are things I would do differently but I’m very satisfied as I feel I gave it my best shot. My personal goal was to try and get into the top 200 and I ended up 163rd.”

On top of this, thanks to all those that sponsored him, so far Gregor has raised almost £4000 for his two nominated charities.

And, would he do it again - “I’d never say never.”

The Friends of Rymonth support the provision of residential accommodation for 22 adults with learning difficulties in the university town - Gregor’s sister is a resident - while Alyth Scouts plan to refurbish their hall as part of the group’s centenary next year.