SYDNEY // An overweight, middle-aged Australian who survived the 2002 Bali bombings is to embark on one of the world's toughest ultra-marathon races to raise money for charity. In March, Erik de Haart will cross 250km of salt plains and hills in Chile's barren Atacama Desert on foot. He will carry all his equipment, water and food - unappetising freeze-dried rations - and camp out each night of the weeklong adventure in South America. By his own admission, Mr Haart is 30 kilograms too heavy but he is religiously following an excruciating training schedule that involves jogging, yoga, swimming and boxing classes as well as climbing hundreds of steps.
"It's a bit of a killer and I can't believe I'm doing it," he said during an early morning conditioning session. As the sun rises over the Pacific Ocean at Coogee Beach in Sydney, the portly 50-year-old accountant cuts an unlikely sporting figure as he slowly carves a track through the damp sand. "I think a lot of competitors will be surprised when I turn up," he said, his shirt soaked with sweat. "They'll think, 'this big-mouthed Aussie bloke, what's he doing here? He's not going to last'.
"It's not about appearances, it's not about physical fitness. The toughest battle for everyone is going to be inside their head and to me I think I've already won that battle. "I'm not concerned about my mental state at all. Eight years ago I got a virus called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which left me paralysed from the neck down so I came back from that." In Oct 2002, Mr Haart was on an end-of-season rugby tour with friends from Sydney when Islamic extremists bombed the Indonesian holiday island of Bali. Six of his club mates were among the 202 victims. "I get a lot of inspiration from it," he said during a break from training. "When I am doing it tough I start thinking about those boys and at least I'm alive and able to do things like this so in essence I'm doing it for me but I'm also doing it for them." The congenial tax accountant will need every ounce of his mental and physical strength to complete the savage Atacama Crossing, which is part of a unique worldwide endurance series that involves punishing events in the Gobi desert in China, the Sahara in Egypt and Antarctica. Mr Haart hopes to do all four ultra-marathons in 2010 with his friend and mentor, Peter Wilson, 35, who has previously conquered the Atacama Desert challenge and believes his enthusiastic charge will be up to the task. "Mentally Erik will be ready," Mr Wilson said. "Physically he'll be all right. For a guy his size it's not the easiest thing to put yourself into. It'll probably be the most memorable experience of his life if he goes about it the right way." "The race attracts nut jobs - basically people who want to see what they are made of and test their mental fortitude." The Atacama Crossing is about the same distance as a return trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. The remote, virtually rainless Chilean plateau lies to the west of the Andes Mountains on the Pacific coast of South America and its lunar-like landscape is used by Nasa to test its Mars rover vehicles. The race often reduces hardened competitors to tears and Adrian Batho, a personal trainer from Sydney, has some simple advice for Mr Haart. "He must have the right shoes and make sure that his gait and his stride are mechanically OK," he said. "If his movements are incorrect he could end up creating more problems in terms of unnecessary wear and tear on his knees, lower back and ankles. Posture and flexibility are very important." "If you've ever picked up 30 kilos of dead weight you'll understand that's a lot of additional weight he's carrying on his frame right now and attempting to carry that is obviously not healthy," Mr Batho said. Mr Haart appears unfazed by the enormous challenges that lie ahead as he seeks to raise money for the Sydney Children's hospital. He attended this year's Atacama Desert race as a volunteer and believes he knows how to reach the finishing line in one piece. "I see people make the same three mistakes," he said. "They go too hard the first day through natural exuberance, their packs are too heavy. They try to take too much gear and they don't take proper care of their feet. They don't have enough socks or keep their feet dry." "I'll probably take more socks than food. I've got a few spare kilos I can afford to lose!" The first four days of the race is like running a marathon a day - about 40km for each leg. The fifth stage is an overnight stage where competitors go 80km in 36 hours and the last day is only 15km. "I have no doubt I will finish the race. If it's on my hands and knees crawling, I will finish the race." email@example.com