A challenge for soul, soles Marathon: Tim Mackie, 38, of Baltimore, will run 150 miles in six days over the Sahara. He'll be carrying all he needs on his back, a load of nearly 30 pounds; Running


Tim Mackie is dressed in a dark suit. His 6-foot, 190-pound frame seems best suited for a basketball court or a squash game. But tomorrow, Mackie, with a backpack weighing close to 30 pounds will set off on a marathon run through the Sahara desert.

It is not just any marathon; it is the 13th annual Marathon des Sables (Marathon of the Sands). It covers 150 miles in six days, with each competitor carrying everything he or she needs for survival on his or her back.

Over the past few months, Mackie, managing director of Prudential Insurance Company of America in Baltimore, has run 50 to 70 miles a week to prepare. He has packed and repacked more than 50 backpacks over that time, too, searching out the right size, determining the right weight, deciding how little he can survive on.

And, at night, he takes a scrub bucket, fills it with alcohol and soaks his feet 15 minutes, trying to dry them and toughen them against the inevitable blisters he anticipates will torment his mid-race strides.

"Some of the people running in this race will be there to win," Mackie, 38, says. "My goal is to complete it -- with my other teammates. I don't have any question about whether I can make it physically. It's the psychological challenge that will be hard -- that I'm not going to die, that I can keep going. We want to finish as a team."

He is running as part of World T.E.A.M. Sports, which brings together able-bodied and physically challenged athletes.

On this marathon, Mackie and Jim Bain of Charlotte, N.C., are the able-bodied. Their teammates are Dan Jensen of Sioux Falls, N.D., who stepped on a land mine while serving in Vietnam and lost his right foot, and Bryant McKinley of Spokane, Wash., who is blind.

"As a team, we haven't worked together yet," said Mackie, who met his teammates for the first time Thursday night before they VTC flew to Casablanca, Morocco. "We don't even know if we like each other. But I've done a few events like this and most people are accomplished and motivated."

Mackie seems an unlikely candidate for such a grueling adventure. He had little interest in sports growing up in New Orleans, where he met a girl named Karen in seventh grade and married her when they were 18. They've been married 19 years and have three children: Kwency, 17, Wynston, 11 and Timme, 5.

"The first time he decided to do something like this, I wondered, 'Why is he doing this? Does this mean he's taking life to a different level and does he expect me and the kids to do the same?' " says Mackie's wife, Karen.

Mackie began running for a cause in 1982, shortly after Karen's sister died from multiple sclerosis.

"He ran in the MS Tour for Cure," says Karen. "He wanted a challenge, but he also wanted to help change something for the good."

The Marathon des Sables is known as "the toughest foot race on Earth," but that hasn't stopped 400 competitors representing 30 countries from signing up this year. Neither has the prospect of carrying food, sleeping bag and snake-bite and medical kits on their backs.

All they can expect from their hosts is a tent to lie down in at night, and nine liters of water each day. A typical daily menu will be a bowl of grits or oatmeal for breakfast, three high-nutrition bars and two or three handfuls of trail mix through the day and a dehydrated noodle meal in the evening.

They will run through heat of 125 degrees and biting winds. Their course, which will not be known until each morning, will cross a terrain of sand dunes, small mountains and sometimes stony, dried river beds.

The competitors range in age from 16 to 74. Organizers say only one person, Brahim El Jaoual, a butcher from Fez, Morocco, who is 64 and has 10 children, has participated in all 12 previous races.

"I don't foresee doing it again," says Mackie, who plans to be back in his Baltimore office April 8, the day after he returns from the desert. "I'm looking forward to it, because I'll always remember Morocco, the desert, the people I meet and what we talked about. But next time, I'd rather go to Iceland or Antarctica or something. There's just so much to see in life."

Pub Date: 3/28/98

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