From completer to competitor
I’ve led men to war, been shot at, blown up, sat hundreds of exams, presented to an audience of a thousand people, spoken on national television and given a piano concert. But in all of my 36 years, I’ve never been more nervous than the day I walked into Heathrow Airport to board a flight to Morocco one fine day in April 2011.
It was like the first day at a new school. I felt as though everyone was judging me, analyzing what backpack I was carrying, trying to decide whether I was quicker than them and more importantly, whether I’d live up to the reputation that I’d given myself.
In a moment of bluster, I'd publicly declared that I was hoping to become the top British finisher in the grueling Marathon des Sables (MDS), the same position that two time Olympic Gold Medalist, James Cracknell, achieved the year before. The reaction was mixed - with many saying I was being far too ambitious for my first MDS.
The desert ultramarathon
The Marathon des Sables is the original multi-stage ultramarathon that has become famous the world over. It’s the race that many of your friends will refer to as ‘the one in the Sahara desert’. It’s not your average race. In fact, it's 156 miles long, takes a week to complete and you have to be fully self-supported. That means carrying enough food for seven days, a sleeping bag, spare clothes and any other essentials. The result is a very heavy backpack.
Because you have no idea how your body will react to the heat over that length of time, Marathon des Sables veterans will tell you to use the first race for recon. Which is why most people don’t have any expectations of doing well, especially if you’re British. The MDS is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and, due to being inordinately expensive, isn’t one you can normally afford to repeat.
As ‘competitors,’ the Brits have never been taken seriously, with only a handful ever making it into the elite Top 50 finishers. We’re famous for carrying really heavy backpacks stuffed with way too much food that we then jettison half way through the race. Which is in complete contrast to the Moroccans who, running on home ground, dominate this race.
So considering all of these facts, why on earth would I believe that I’m good enough to compete with not only the best of the British, but also with some of the most experienced desert runners in the world? Especially considering this was my first desert race.
Training for the race of a lifetime
My transformation from ‘completer to competitor’ didn’t happen overnight. Because of the popularity of the race, I actually applied three years earlier - which is a long time to wait, but ample time to train for the race of a lifetime.
Having just retired our commissions from the British Army, my best friend suggested we enter the Marathon des Sables - ‘it would stop us getting fat and give us something to aim for,’ he said to me on the telephone, moments before entries became available.
Up until then, I’d only ever run a single marathon, a couple of triathlons, half marathons, and a failed attempt at a mountain marathon. I wasn’t quick, somewhat overweight and by no means a podium contender. When I applied, I had one goal - that was to finish.
But with my weekends now free from Army commitments, I filled them up with races. The odd ultra included, but mostly shortish ones that involved trudging through mud and climbing over obstacles. Having done the ultimate bootcamp - six years in the British Army - obstacle races were a natural stepping-stone.
However, I also surprised myself by going sub three hours on my second ever marathon, knocking 32 minutes off my one and only personal best of three hours 27 minutes. Suddenly, people were telling me that I was a good runner. I’d had no idea I could even run, let alone finish in the top 1% of the Paris Marathon. It was an important moment, because it gave me the courage to stand a little closer to the start line.
Following Paris, I entered several more marathons and ultramarathons. I was training quite a lot - but nothing programmed. Just getting time on my bike or running. I entered my first Ironman, which gave me a taste of what an 11-hour day would feel like. I raced a 125-mile kayak race, which took over 24 hours to complete. I even did a few multi-day ultras, including the 200-mile, 8-day Transalpine Run which crosses three countries and too many mountains to mention. Although I was a long way from winning, I finished respectably and started to understand my body better.
There were a couple of other key moments. I broke some important milestones – a sub-17-minute 5k, a 35-minute 10k, a 76-minute half marathon and even a sub-2:50 marathon. These times were quick enough to allow me go to the Marathon des Sables with a smidgen of confidence. I was at the peak of my fitness and I’d done my homework. I was good enough to be a contender – a real competitor.
Arriving at the airport was still a nerve-wracking experience. But I kept my cool, smiled a lot and tried to remind myself that ‘I know how good I am – their opinion doesn’t matter.'
Three years after entering, as I stood on the start line of the Marathon des Sables, meters behind legend Mohammed Ahnsel, who has won the race countless times, I could once again feel people’s eyes on me. ‘What’s that small English chap doing so near the front?’ But I believed in myself. I was starting to get used to podium finishes, so I had every right to stand at the front of 850 runners.
Off I went, not using any GPS watch or heart-rate monitor - just running on feeling. Despite soaring temperatures, my pack being at its heaviest and the first time I’d run on sand - I managed to finish the first day in the Top 30. Most importantly, I was the Top Brit. Now, all those who doubted me could see that I was serious – that I was in with a shot.
As the days passed, I held onto my position. Even better, I found myself slowly creeping up the overall leaderboard. By the start of the ‘long day’ – the feared 80km ultramarathon with a 36-hour cut off – I was sitting around 25th. Which meant I’d made it into the Elite Top 50 that start three hours after everyone else. There were only two other Brits that had crept in. I took the mental approach that I was going to push as hard as possible and try and gain time on my competitors.
It worked and I finished the long day 16th in nine hours and 25 minutes. That was it. With a three hour lead on my closest rival I knew then that, unless I severely messed up, I’d keep my position as Top Brit. But I never took it for granted. I continued to push my body to its limits while being careful never to cross them. Even the most experienced ultrarunners can succumb to heatstroke - especially when temperatures rise to 122˚F.
In the end, I crossed the finish line in 21st position, a painful eleven seconds behind the 20th placed runner. If only I’d pushed a bit harder.
But, I knew now that I’d run alongside some of the best ultrarunners in the world, and I could count myself as one of them. I came back two years later to have another crack at the Marathon des Sables. But funnily enough, I wasn’t in the slightest bit nervous as I walked into the airport. This time, I had evidence to say - ‘I’m a competitor not a completer’.