DUBAI // Michael Burke thought it would be a good way to get in shape when his cousin asked him to take part in a race in Morocco.
But the 32-year-old Irishman had no idea he had agreed to run one of the most gruelling and demanding challenges in the world.
“When I sat down later, in August, to research the race, I asked myself, ‘what have I done and what did I get myself into?’.”
Mr Burke had registered for the Marathon Des Sables, a six-day, 251-kilometre ultra-marathon across the Sahara desert, which takes place at the beginning of April next year.
“It was too late to back out,” he said.
“By that time I had already paid a lot of money to enter the race and had told a lot of people I was running it.”
Mr Burke had been in good shape during his college years and had completed three marathons in three months – in Belfast, Berlin and Dublin – but he had not put on his trainers since 2004.
“I let myself go when I moved to the UAE and started to put on the Dubai stones. I enjoyed the easy life the city had to offer,” he said.
The owner of three companies – in real estate, relocation and landscaping – said the service-based culture of the city encouraged him to eat out a lot and do little exercise.
“My jeans started not to fit anymore and T-shirts were getting too small,” he said. “It’s easy not to notice and let things slide when it all happens at a gradual pace.”
By last year Mr Burke was the biggest he had ever been, weighing in at 103 kilograms.
“I knew I had to lose weight for the marathon but didn’t realise how serious it was until August.”
After signing up for the Marathon Des Sables, Mr Burke started running six kilometres a week – but he soon realised it was not enough.
“I had to train 20 times harder and got serious by joining an endurance running club.”
In the beginning, he found it difficult to keep up.
“I found myself two laps behind the slowest group at the club and would get heart palpitations, dizzy spells and constantly be sore and stiff,” he said.
Determined though, he pushed through the pain and made significant progress in a short space of time.
“I am now running 75km a week and doing yoga once a week, which is essential,” he said.
Mr Burke also puts himself through what he calls his “days of pain”, where he runs 20 to 25km in the desert outside Dubai every morning for five days straight.
He plans to run the Dubai marathon on January 25 – and straight after run 20km home to Dubai Marina.
He also plans to take part in the Nike Wadi Bih run, a 75km mountain race between Ras Al Khaimah and Dibba.
Mr Burke has so far donated £5,000 (Dh29,944) to the Facing Africa charity, which sends doctors to Ethiopia to perform facial reconstructive surgery on children with noma, a disease that leads to tissue destruction.
“Not only is it great to give to charity, but it will prove to me that there is no limit to what my body or mind are capable of.”
He hopes to continue raising money for other charities.