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Teacher runs the Sahara to raise money for students’ laptops

Liz Byron is participating in a 155-mile footrace known as the Marathon des Sables

Gardner Pilot Academy photos

Liz Byron is participating in a 155-mile footrace known as the Marathon des Sables.

If everything went according to plan, Liz Byron is right now running or walking her way through the Sahara, participating in a 155-mile footrace known as the Marathon des Sables, or Marathon of the Sands. The race lasts six days, and most of the competitors are professionals from around the world.

Byron, 29, is a sixth-grade special education teacher at Gardner Pilot Academy in Allston.

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She is using the race to raise money to buy laptops for her students, and has so far raised half of the $50,000 goal. The race is self-supported, meaning that she will not be supplied with provisions such as food, clothing, a sleeping bag, or toiletries — only water. The course itself is run over the white-hot dunes of southern Morocco, where, unlike the Boston Marathon course, there are no spectators to cheer you on.

Byron spoke with the Globe a week before leaving.

Q. What made you choose the Marathon des Sables?

A. I chose this marathon after I Googled the hardest running races in the world — in 2009 I did that. And there’s a wait list, and a limited number of runners get to go each year, so I got off the wait list about a year ago for this year’s race. There are other qualifications, too. The race is so extreme, and the challenge is so great both physically and mentally; that’s what attracted me to it. Now, I draw a parallel to that: An incredible challenge is being a public educator.

Q. What’s most challenging about being a public educator?

A. You have 49 different personalities to engage in learning, and to inspire, and to teach in a way that’s meaningful. And managing that, and providing exemplary instruction, which GPA [Gardner Pilot Academy] does every day — it’s a huge challenge, but we have an incredible school.

Liz Byron with some of her Gardner Pilot Academy students.

Courtesy of Gardner Pilot Academy

Liz Byron with some of her Gardner Pilot Academy students.

Q. Is there a reason you chose to raise money for laptops?

A. Absolutely. You know, we thought a lot about this; this was a very long discussion of what are we raising money for, and why? There’s all different stuff out there, but what we wanted was a device that would be mobile — and a desktop isn’t, and they also take up a lot more space. So to have a media lab that can go between classrooms in a middle school is ideal. But we’re not getting enough computers where we could have computers in every room, and we wanted to be able to use them in multiple classrooms. They’ve got to be mobile. And why laptops, not iPads or any other [mobile] device? Because the keyboard is important as far as being able to use the laptop as a multimedia tool. We do have an iPad for our grade level, but you can’t create PowerPoints, it’s not as accessible or useful to create products.

Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your job at Gardner Pilot Academy?

A. I am a sixth grade learning specialist. That means I teach reading, writing, and math. I am focused on students who receive special education services, as well as ESL [English as a second language] students. And many of our students live at or below the poverty line. So they’re a very high-need group of students. They’re also primarily minority students.

Q. How about extracurricular activities? Are you involved in any of those?

A. Yes. I’m on the board of an arts nonprofit called ARCK [Art Resource Collaborative for Kids]. We have a great arts enrichment program at our school; that’s a side thing, though. All the teachers at the school do so many extra things. Besides this fund-raiser, I’m also in a group called EdVestors. We’re doing a two-year-long, action-based research project on how technology impacts education within our classroom.

Q. As far as donations go, have you had success since you first started the website [www.runforlaptops.org]?

A. Yeah, it’s actually been incredible. The support has been very inspiring. And it’s a 100 percent tax-deductible donation; none of it goes to my race or travel costs. So I’m just doing this race because I want to, and it’s great publicity for the school, and it’s a great way to generate funds for a huge area of need.

Q. Is it safe to assume that you aren’t going to run the whole 155 miles? As in, are you going to do just parts of it? And how much are you going to run each day? Tell me a little bit about the breakdown.

A. So they allot a distance for every day; they don’t tell you how far you’re running until April 6th. You don’t even know the course; it changes every year. So you run somewhere between a marathon — 26.2 miles — and 55 miles a day.

Q. Any idea who you might be competing against?

A. No, not really. There’s a lot of Moroccans and a lot of French. It’s a highly European and African race, with only 50 people from the US and Canada participating.

Q. And how many people are participating in total, do you know?

A. [Based on] prior years, I’d say about 800 or so. I’m sure it changes a little every year — but yeah, it is pretty big.

Q. Have you done this before?

A. Oh no, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Because it’s pretty prohibitively expensive, so I don’t right now plan to do it again.

Q. Have you been to Africa or the Sahara before?

A. I have not. I have been all over the world; I’ve been very fortunate to have traveled. I do like running and traveling, though, so wherever I go, I end up running anyway [laughs].

Q. How about other marathons?

A. Yes, I’ve run in Austin, Texas, the Cape, Hartford — in total, I’ve run six marathons, and two shorter ultra-marathons. The ultra-marathons were over 26 miles; they weren’t 100-milers, they were 31 and 42 miles.

Q. So I guess none of them were really comparable to the one you’re about to do.

A. No, no. A marathon is really just 26.2 miles, always, and then an ultra-marathon is, hypothetically, anything longer than that, to be called an ultra. This will be my first really long ultra-marathon.

Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Cocchia can be reached at peter.cocchia@globe.com.

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