"I felt like superwoman" - Women's Running UK

“I felt like superwoman”

Author: Women's Running Magazine

Read Time:   |  May 4, 2016


Having not run since her cross-country days at school, Tanya Pieterse from Pretoria, South Africa, had little interest in taking up running in her forties. That was until her husband Genis returned home from Morocco in 2013, having completed the Marathon Des Sables, a gruelling multi-day ultra marathon in the Sahara Desert. Inspired by her husband, Tanya held the same race in her sights and, less than two years on, she found herself on the start line with her husband last year. She said: “When he came back he was so excited and it meant so much to him, I thought, ‘I want to do this with him.’ So I started running!” Despite having not run since her school days, Tanya threw everything she had at the challenge.

The equivalent of five-and-a-half marathons through the Sahara Desert, where temperatures nudge 50°C each day, the race is ranked by the Discovery Channel as “the toughest footrace on earth.” Runners carry all of their food supplies and belongings with them as they tackle the relentless course, covering vast stretches of scorching sand, saltpans, dunes, valleys and desert-mountains. Runners are commonly known to suffer from chronic exhaustion, dehydration and see their feet torn apart by blisters.

While her physical strength was undoubtedly vital, Tanya believes it was her mental strength that got her to the finish line. For Tanya, her husband’s confidence in her abilities not only gave her the courage to sign up in the first place, but also gave her the self-belief that she could continue when things got tough. “He had more faith in me than I had. So there were times when I wondered whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew but he knew I could do it. He would tell me all the time to ‘keep it together.’”

This mental strength was tested when she found herself hallucinating during the race’s longest stage – a 57-mile day. “I hallucinated and the footprints in front of me became these grotesque craters, so I had to keep telling myself it wasn’t real!”

With nothing but isolating stretches of barren desert in all directions, Tanya found the companionship of her husband – and other participants – hugely comforting. “There are long periods that you are alone and don’t see anyone else,” says Tanya, “but there wasn’t a time when I felt like I was on my own.

“We crossed a few mountain ranges and, because of the weight of my backpack, I would struggle to pull myself up, so Genis would help me. He also made sure that every day we finished a few hours ahead of time. We stayed together through the race and every time we crossed the returned home from Morocco in 2013, having completed the Marathon Des Sables, a gruelling multi-day ultra marathon in the Sahara Desert.

“We made some very good friendships there and met some amazing people. We ran a section of the course each day with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the renowned English explorer. It was so nice knowing we were doing it with someone who has done so much and done such amazing things in his life.

“We also met a fellow South African, Leigh Michelmore, who was a big inspiration. He kept on telling me how proud he was of me, and had this constant smile and sense of optimism, even when he himself was going through a hard patch.

“One thing I really liked about the race was that we all had name tags, so people would say, “Hi Tanya, how’s everything going today?’

“And at the end of each day, we were met by Muhammed Belemlih, from the Moroccan ministry of tourism, who would wait for us and give me a big reassuring hug!”


Suffering from dehydration and finding herself unable to swallow, Tanya began to lose her sight during the gruelling 57-mile stage. “I had to hold Genis’ hand over all of the dunes because I couldn’t see,” she says. “I went to the medic tent and had a glucose drip, two hydration drips and a morphine injection for the pain. At that stage, I knew that I could quite easily stop running and I won’t have to feel bad but I thought, ‘You know what? I’ve come so far. I am going to do this.’”

“After visiting the medics, we had about four hours ahead over the dunes and I still couldn’t see. It did occur to me that I might be permanently blind, but I thought, ‘One day when I’m old and my grandchildren say, ‘Grandma why can’t you see?’ I’ve got a good story to tell them!’

“I was very relieved, though, when the next morning my sight was back again.”


For Tanya, proving to herself – but, most importantly, to her daughter – that anything is possible was the key reason she decided to take on the race. Tanya is keen to prove that, despite taking up running at the age of 44, and having very little running experience under her belt, the world’s toughest race was by no means out of her reach. “I wanted her to realise that no matter what hurdles you come across, you can overcome them.”

These words hit home for Tanya on the second day of the race. “I got to the top of the mountain and I could see all of the ground I’d covered and I felt like superwoman!”

And Tanya won’t be stopping there. Now ultrarunning addicts, Tanya and her husband spend their weekends running in the local nature reserve and have two more ultras in the pipeline. “In about a month we have a 100-mile race and, in October, we are going to be doing the 250K Namib Desert Challenge.”

Away from ultrarunning, Tanya enjoys nothing more than taking part in her local parkrun with her daughter – who has been inspired to run after seeing her mum’s achievements. She tells her, “If you can run through a desert, you can do anything!”


Women's Running Magazine

NMA’s 2020 Lifestyle Magazine of the Year, Women’s Running provides expert advice on gear and training, motivation from your favourite runners and the latest running news.

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