Rafael Jaime, a blind Mexican triathlete, will attempt to become the first person with this disability to cross the Sahara desert next month by competing in the Marathon of the Sands, a six-day 156 mile ultramarathon.
The journey will take competitors through the desert sands of Morocco, where conditions usually reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. A fifth of the distance is completely covered in sand dunes, and is considered to be one of the toughest races on Earth. As Jaime needs a pacer, or a fellow competitor to lead him through races, he will be joined by Nahila Hernandez, a fellow ultramarathoner.
“You need to be strong, not just physically, but of soul and make your mind unbreakable,” Jaime told SportsCenter in 2014 about competing in such events. “To be a blind triathlete, you need to see beyond limitations.”
Jaime was diagnosed with cancer in his eye at the age of four. He lost his right eye as a result of an operation designed to remove the tumor. At the age of 18, the cancer came back. Fearing that it could spread, doctors decided on taking his left eye to cure him, rendering him completely blind. Not long after that, Jaime found solace in exercise and the world of sports.
After competing in his first marathon in 2012, he quickly took up swimming and cycling to become a proper triathlete. In 2013, Jaime says, he became the first blind triathlete in Mexico's history. He later competed in the Ironman, completing that grueling race as well. In 2016, Jaime became the first blind man to complete the Ultraman endurance challenge in Hawaii, completing a 320 mile triathlon, on the tenth anniversary of losing his sight completely.
Looking for his next challenge, he contacted Hernandez in order to compete in Morocco. Hernandez, who took up marathon running at the age of 34, agreed to be his pacer for the event and return to Africa eight years after she completed the race for the first time. In 2009, Hernandez placed eighth in the women's category and 127th overall among a field of 770 finishers.
During the Marathon of the Sands, competitors are also tasked with carrying a backpack that holds their food and water for the duration of the race, a condition that adds to the already overwhelming difficulty. Jaime, who lives in the northern Mexican city of Durango, has recently spent time in Chile, where Hernandez currently resides, training in the Atacama desert in preparation for the April race in northern Africa.