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Flying the Flag – James Birchall (left) and Andre Milne
Andre Milne (Left)  and James Birchall
Smiley Faces - Andre Milne (Left) and James Birchall
Ridge Line, James Birchall (left) and Andre Milne

Junglie Pilots Complete Sahara Marathon for Charity

Published: 04 May 2012

In April Royal Navy Pilots James Birchall and André Milne completed a spectacular charitable effort by competing in the grueling Marathon Des Sables race across the Sahara Desert. Described as ‘the toughest foot-race on Earth,’ the two 37 year old Lieutenant Commanders, from the Commando Helicopter Force at the Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, have exceeded their initial target of £12,000 and are only a few pounds short of £20,000. Donations for The Children's Trust can still be made at

The Children's Trust is a national charity providing care, education and therapy to children with multiple disabilities and complex health needs across the UK. It also provides rehabilitation for children following acquired brain injury giving them the best opportunity to succeed at home and school ( The two family men felt a huge affinity to the cause, not least of all due to the great work they both witnessed during their visit to the Trust; this certainly made their extreme challenge 'easier' to understand!

During the 154 mile, 6 stage running race, temperatures frequently exceeded 45°C and saw them treasure every drop of the 9 litre daily water ration particularly during the long stage of 51 miles. The water ration saw no washing for 6 days and self-sufficiency demanded the pair carry specialist lightweight food and equipment, oh and only 1 set of clothes. Luckily the camel walking at the back of the field did not catch them either, this would have meant disqualification and fortunately they didn't need any emergency intravenous drips, also leading to withdrawal from the race.

The searing heat and self sufficiency were challenges alone but throw in the terrain and you see why so few people take on this race. Around 860 competitors from 43 nations around the world competed this year and ran across the massively diverse Moroccan Sahara touching the edge of the Atlas Mountains. James and André crossed vast expanses of 'beach-like' plains, volcanic rock fields, dried river beds, powdery sand dunes and huge rocky hills or 'Jebels.' After the epic race and despite the high of finishing André said, " ... the low was the unimaginable number of dunes covered, I managed to empty half a dune out of my left shoe on the final day and have kept some in a tub as my own unique reminder to not do the race again!"

James said, "It was spectacular but we had little time to enjoy it, we were pushing hard, running together to keep our speed as high as possible. You had to keep focused and your mind was constantly busy evaluating your body to identify problems as soon as they developed. In parallel we frequently drew strength from the huge support we were receiving and for this we can't thank people enough, we never felt alone whilst running."

Both runners have been overwhelmed by the huge support towards their efforts and as a result never doubted their own physical resolve as André says, "No doubt it was tough, but we have been blown away by the public's generosity and are amazed we only have a few more steps to reach our revised target of £20,000."

With the race behind them the two runners are recovering well although seem strangely non committal on whether they would do the race again! However, one thing is sure they remain focused on hitting their hugely impressive fund raising target and would welcome any further sponsorship through their Just Giving profile.

The Event

- Raised over £19,000 (so far) aiming for £20K for the Children’s Trust having competed in the Marathon Des Sables 2012.
- 2 runners who met at school and now are serving together in the Royal Navy as helicopter pilots.
- Took place 8-14 April 2012 in the Sahara Desert.
- They have gained individual and corporate sponsorship.
- Primary sponsors were Netbuilder and Lockheed Martin. William Hill, Gosling Foundation, Selex Galileo, Vector Aerospace, Linebreak clothing, Blandy’s Madeira and Proof Marketing were also sponsors.

The Marathon Des Sables

- Annual running race in the Sahara Desert, start and finish in Morocco and televised on Eurosport (23 May).
- The event origin is brain child of Patrick Bauer a French concert promoter who whilst completing his own 200 mile unsupported desert ‘walk-about’ came up with the idea.
- Only 860 competitors this year. This was 27th year and we had to apply 3 years in advance.
- When we entered all places went in 2 hours.
- 154 miles (250km) in 6 stages, 1 stage per day with total of 6 marathons the cumulative distance (stages of 21, 24, 22, 51, 26 and 10 miles).
- The winner completed in a cumulative time of 20 hours (we finished in 37 hours and were 216/217th out of 790 finishers).
- Final stage included 6 miles of pure sand dunes and a further stage completed at night!
- Completely unsupported apart from emergency medical cover and provision of 9 litres of water per day.
- You have to carry all your own equipment and food for 7 days … whilst running!
- If you need an intravenous drip you receive a time penalty, if you need 2 or more you are removed from the event. We didn't need any!
- If the camel at the back of the field over takes you, you are pulled from the event! The camel was well behind us!
- Approximately 30% of competitors do not normally finish the event.

The Children's Trust, Tadworth is a national charity providing a range of specialist services to children and young people with multiple disabilities, complex health needs and acquired brain injury. The Trust provides expert nursing care, including palliative care, in the form of short breaks or as continuing care for children whose needs are too complex for them to be looked after at home. The Trust also runs the UK’s largest residential rehabilitation centre for children with acquired brain injury and an on-site special school, The School for Profound Education, for pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD).

The Competitors

- James Birchall and André Milne.
- Both are 37 years old and first met at school in Plymouth aged 13.
- Both are family men, each with 2 children.
- Both are Royal Navy Helicopter Pilots, serving Officers and ranked Lieutenant Commander.
- Operational duty with Commando Helicopter Force based in Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, Somerset.
- Both have previously raised £4000 each for varying charities whilst competing in endurance events.
- Both have marathon and Ironman Triathlon experience.
- Both suffered during this event but it was worth it!!


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