Sunderland Harrier Matthew Jones takes on the daunting Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert.

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Sunderland Harrier Matthew Jones heads to Morocco on Friday to take on what is regarded as the toughest race in the world – the daunting Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert.

The epic race, starting on Sunday, is a gruelling multi-stage journey through a fearsome landscape in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates.

This is going to be one big challenge like no other

Matt Jones

Nearly 1,400 athletes will be racing 251km (156 miles) over six days and the rules require you to be self-sufficient, to carry with you on your back everything except water that you need to survive.

You are given a place in a tent to sleep at night, but any other equipment and food must be carried

With rolling sand dunes and blinding sandstorms to contend with, plus scorching temperatures, that can reach120 degrees of heat. It is an awesome challenge like no other.

But the 35-year-old’s final preparations have been hit by a leg injury. And he has been forced to spend most of this time on his bike than in his training shoes.

He said: “The bike has certainly helped to maintain my fitness.

“I have done hundreds of miles on it, while I have been unable to run.

“But now the leg problem has cleared and I am back training again.”

With a £3,000 entry fee to the race and other additional costs of over £2,000, he had this heavy financial outlay to consider as he strove for fitness.

Cardiff-born Jones who has aspirations of making the Welsh team for the 2018 Commonwealth Games marathon, said: “I entered the race18 months ago as the places soon fill-up.

“Then I didn’t know I would make such significant improvement over the marathon.

“It doesn’t really fit in with a marathon runner intent on improving his marathon times to gain Commonwealth selection for the Gold Coast.

“However, this is going to be one big challenge like no other.

“There is no way you can prepare for a race like this.

“All I have done is increase my mileage while increasing the weight on my back.

“I don’t know how I will deal with the heat. Maybe others are more worried than I am. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Jones made a late unremarkable start to his athletics career, competing in his first race in 2011.

A parkrun in over 21 minutes and a half marathon in 98 minutes did not suggest that there was a hidden talent lurking in the background.

The junior cardiology doctor at James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, made his marathon debut at Edinburgh in 2013, recording an unexceptional 4.16.

He said: “Every time I tried to step up my training I got injured.

“It was not until I returned from a climbing holiday in the Andes and lost weight that I was able to train the way I wanted, without getting injured.”

An 85 minutes half marathon at Redcar, a 38min 10k at Middlesbrough and a 17.37 posting in the parkrun in 2014, suggested that he was heading in the right direction.

It was in 2015 that his marathon performances and a glimpse of his powers of recovery were first noticed.

He ran four marathons during the year and his times for the classic distance came tumbling down. He leaped from a four hour marathoner to a sub three hour marathon runner at Manchester, recording 2.58.11 in April.

Two weeks later he was in Canada for the Toronto marathon where he just failed to beat three hours.

It was a golden September where he made his big breakthrough, winning the Hull marathon in 2.35.26 and six days later he finished third in the Edinburgh Half Marathon (73.37).

He then won the tough Kielder Marathon 14 days after in 2.43.02.

In the Seville Marathon in February, he shattered his personal best.

His time of 2.27.44 saw him briefly go to the top of the 2016 UK rankings.

Just three weeks later he won the Harewood House 10k in Leeds.

He had been squeezing up to 120 miles a week in training into his hectic working day and he was being rewarded with some fine performances.

The former Cambridge University student, who started his working life as lawyer but switched to the medical profession after two years, as he did not like the sedentary life style, has targeted the Bournemouth Marathon in October.

He has been invited as an elite runner, where he hopes to further advance his time and get near the Welsh Commonwealth marathon mark of a sub 2.18 qualification.

But, in the meantime, it is the Saraha desert and all that it can throw at him as his immediate challenge, before he can concentrate on the next part of his marathon development.