Toronto woman takes on the Sahara desert

Crawling up and down the sand dunes of the Sahara desert sure straightens out the kinks in life’s road.

At least so much is true for Alison Simpson, a Toronto woman, who ran 250 kilometres in the desert.

“Going up some of the really steep dunes I would kind of end up crawling or tripping a little bit,” Simpson told Centennial students in an interview during March break.

Together with her team-mates, Colin Nanka, Sandy Johnson, Gavin Lucas, and Stéfan Danis, who also participated in the Four Deserts Sahara marathon, Simpson raised 100, 000 dollars for The National Advertising Benevolent Society (NABS).

NABS is a charity that helps people in the advertising and marketing industry who have been financially hit by unemployment or serious illness.

But raising the money was not the hard part because Simpson had a lot of support fundraising and training for the marathon.

“The office was amazing. They helped me raise- so I raised just over $17, 000 dollars- and they raised six or seven thousand of that. They were incredibly supportive,” said Simpson about her co-workers at Maritz Canada.

The difficult part came when she found herself alone in the hot, harsh desert, where Simpson encountered a handful of challenges.

The first challenge, running in extreme heat, on sand, with an 11 kilogram knapsack on her back, she had trained for, and was prepared for.

“The heat wave we had last summer was an absolute blessing because it wasn’t Sahara heat but it was really close. And I attracted a lot of attention running in that kind of heat with a pack on,” said Simpson with a chuckle, reminiscing at the looks she got from passers-by during her training on the beach in Toronto.

But on the fourth day, Simpson got an intestinal infection that lead to hallucinations.

“I had a very long conversation with my dad, who clearly wasn’t with me in the desert. In fact he’s been dead for over eight years,” Simpson said.

When Simpson fell to delusions, she also fell off the map to those back home, who were keeping tabs on her day to day experience through her blog.  As she grew sick, she stopped blogging, thus severing the connection to her friends and family.

“It was really terrifying when I wasn’t blogging because I was sick. That was really scary for my husband, my mom, and my sister; my friends back here because they thought ‘What’s happening, if she were alright she’d be blogging’,” Simpson said.

Simpson resurfaced to reality, and ahead of her stretched 87 kilometres of golden, hot sand, the longest stretch of desert she had to run in a single day during the entire race. But Simpson pushed on.

“Thinking I couldn’t finish was pretty heartbreaking,” Simpson said.

Finally, the finish line came into view where her husband awaited her with open arms.

“I enjoyed the hug more than he did,” said Simpson, who only brought the clothes on her back, and wore them for six straight days.

“I spent three hours in the washroom when I got back,” Simpson said.

Scrubbed clean, Simpson and her husband, David Dawson, went on a vacation to Seychelles, and the dessert bar that helped Simpson gain back the weight she lost in the desert.

“They had a dark chocolate and banana cake that I had a few times,” said Simpson, who if she could be any dessert, would be a French-mint ice cream from a home-made ice cream shop located in the Beaches.

Looking back on the race gives Simpson the strength to overcome the challenges in her life and at work.

“I have a box of sand from the Sahara in my office at work because there’s always challenging clients, challenging days and it’s put what I thought was a challenging day in an entirely different perspective. So if I’m having a crappy day, I just open the box, look at the sand and go ‘Oh yeah, I can probably get through this, it’s not so bad,’” Simpson said.

So, from desert to dessert the story goes, and with a magic sandbox hidden in a drawer in her office, every new obstacle melts down to nothing more than a piece of cake.

This story was also published on the Centennial journalism blog. 

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