The Sierra 260: 10 Marathons, 10 Days, One Country

Sierra Leone's interior | ©
Michael Duff/Rex
Sierra Leone's interior | © Michael Duff/Rex
At the end of October, a group of friends will embark on a brutal adventure, crossing Sierra Leone by foot, to raise money for two vital charities.

The Sierra 260 is a unique challenge that’s about to be attempted by a group of 14. The number in the title refers to the amount of miles these men will run, divvied up into 10 marathons, over 10 consecutive days. That distance will take the group from the mountainous east, near the border with Guinea, and finishing on a beach on the west coast, not far from the country’s capital, Freetown.

© Sierra 260 

Assessing the challenge, it’s clear it couldn’t be much tougher. When the adventure begins, the rainy season will still be hanging around. The mountainous rainforest will present the runners with 35-degree heat and around 90% humidity. It is also the furthest point from any potential outside help. Only 20% of the proposed route is on tarmacked road. Dirt tracks plus rainy season present a terrain considered tough for even the most seasoned of ultra runners.

It is important to point out that these are not professional athletes. Michael Houston, who came up with the idea, is the most experienced and will lead the expedition. He has a bike ride across Africa and a kayak journey across the Caribbean Sea on his CV, but the group of 14 are made up of ‘regular’ guys who are up for the challenge, keen to test themselves and raise as much money as possible for Street Child and Mind.

Street Child will be one of two charities benefitting from the adventure. © Sierra 260

One of the group, Jack Leslie-Melville told Culture Trip, ‘I think it’s fair to say we’re 14 quite ordinary people. Some of us have done marathons, but nothing more. The idea was floated in December and has been in the planning since then. Myself and Michael (Houston) were thinking of doing the Marathon des Sables, but it’s really hard to get a place. Michael said “Let’s sack that off and do our own”, but then it’s a case of if we’re going to do our own, let’s make it tougher.’

As a result, the Sierra 260 will cover a distance twice as long as the Marathon des Sables (widely regarded as the toughest foot race in the world). Aside from the sheer mileage, the team will face dense rainforest, constant elevation changes, dehydration, extreme heat and isolation. Half of the 14 have run a marathon before, with the others about to embark on their first, swiftly followed by their second, third and so on, in painfully quick succession.

Rob Deering, the oldest member of the group, enjoys running and has climbing experience, but is well aware that the task ahead is on another level. Sierra Leone has had a troubled recent history and the chance to raise money and awareness about the problems it has faced is too good an opportunity to turn down.

‘It’s ordinary guys doing an extraordinary thing.’ He explains: ‘Friends and family have asked us “have you thought about x, y and z”, but by all accounts Sierra Leone is a fantastic place and we expect to have a lot of support. No one has warned us off. Street Child already organise a marathon there and have been excellent in helping us with all the planning.’

Five of the 14-strong group ahead of the challenge. © Sierra 260

‘The camaraderie is an important aspect to something like this,’ says Leslie-Melville. ‘Fourteen actually felt like a good number in terms of delegating roles and we actually had to turn a couple of people away because of the number of vehicles that would be needed and other and logistics. We’ve managed to cover a few disciplines – doctor was obviously an important one to have!’

Just as these adventurers are not professional runners, they will rely on the skills within their group to get by. They will have radio contact and GPS if something serious goes wrong, but the plan is to tackle this ludicrous challenge using their own means, ‘even if it means crawling to the end’.

Head here to find out more about the expedition and make a donation.