How I trained for and raced the 2019 Marathon des Sables

How I trained for and raced the 2019 Marathon des Sables

The infamous Marathon des Sables – often described as ‘the world’s toughest footrace – is actually completely achievable by the anyone with a little amount of training. With generous cut-off times and a 93% success rate this year (2019), you should not allow the intimidating title and rumours to put you off. I’m no superman but I did feel that the event is billed to sound harder than it actually is.

 

This is how I got to the finish line.

A climb above the sky: scaling mountains in Kabul

A climb above the sky: scaling mountains in Kabul

There is a tentative sense of security on the streets of Kabul as the Taliban engage with US diplomats in peace talks in Doha, Qatar. The conflict here has cost billions of dollars for many countries and claimed the lives of many on all sides – but there is still adventure to be had in this, the most unlikeliest of places.

 

After topping up our flasks with hot green tea from a friendly street vendor, we set off towards the mountain. Research tells me it’s around 3000m high and judging by the profile of the slopes; would need safety gear to mitigate the avalanche risk of the last section. For now, we’re going to hike up through the snow to a bivvy spot around 2500m.

 

We’re led by Shoaib, a charismatic thirty-year old Hazara man that trains in these hills almost every week. He knows the route like the back of his hand and makes the perfect guide for showing us the way.  Shoaib speaks a little English however it’s miles better than my Dari / Farsi and we get by just fine. We only met a few days prior in a café after talking online for a couple of months. Being regularly in touch with the sports community in Afghanistan means 

Atlantic Ocean row part 3: Always a little further

Atlantic Ocean row part 3: Always a little further

And then, without warning - it drops. 

‘Brace!!’ We both shout.

 Boooooom!!!

 Everything turns white.

 All the water we’ve just watched building comes crashing down onto Danny and I - like a blow to the chest. The sheer force punches us both of our seats and sends the oars everywhere. 

 Dazed, we look around to assess the damage. We’re both bruised but generally okay, and the boat is still upright. It’s some kind of miracle. Danny shouts to the Skipper “The rigger is broken!”.

Taking on giants: Matterhorn expedition part 1

Taking on giants: Matterhorn expedition part 1

I open my eyes to a familiar sound. 

It takes a few moments for my brain to register what the sound is, after my body has given me that heady feeling of excitement, trepidation and focus. I should be surprised that these flying machines still have this effect however I’m far more interested to see what’s going on - I don’t need to look far; the helicopter is obviously going to rescue someone from the Matterhorn that’s mostly in view from our base camp.

Atlantic Ocean row part 2: This won’t come easy

Atlantic Ocean row part 2: This won’t come easy

The words hit me like a ton of bricks. I wanted to punch something, but realised that wouldn’t help the situation.

“We have to get to the Canaries and replace the batteries. This means it’ll become a supported expedition. And that means the record is off”.

This challenge had been my focus for almost 6 months, and now I was hearing that it would no longer become a world record attempt. I could barely contain my frustration and a stream of swear words escaped my mouth, unedited. 

Atlantic Ocean row part 1: Why I chose to row an Ocean.

Atlantic Ocean row part 1: Why I chose to row an Ocean.

The Jetboil is angrily bouncing around the deck, like a trapped rat threatening to spill boiling water all over us at any moment. 

Duncan and I both reach to grab it and almost knock it on to each other. It’s 2 minutes past midnight on Christmas day and we’re bobbing off the coast of Lanzerote in the pitch black – like some clandestine boat going to raid the celebrations we can see across the island.

Laughing at the absurdity of the situation (and trying not to imagine what everyone at home is up to) we’re going to wake up the other shift with a present of hot tea. Little do we know, we have a 7-hour battle with Neptune ahead of us just to get to the sanctity of the breakwater. And this is only less than a third of the time we’ll be on the ocean.

Hindu Kush: A marathon on Afghanistan's silk route.

Hindu Kush: A marathon on Afghanistan's silk route.

We get to an Afghan Army checkpoint at the edge of the town and the soldiers, wave us through with bemused looks.  Next to the checkpoint is a ghostly reminder of Afghanistan's history; a burnt-out soviet tank,– its barrel pointing menacingly into the mountains. We go in close to have a look: it’s all bare metal – no rubber or other material has lasted. Now it serves as a climbing frame for local kids – clambering over the turret and hanging off the barrel of this old war machine.

The Hiatus Journey

The Hiatus Journey

Nietschze said ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how’, and its true: When you engage passion into your everyday, you can literally scale mountains. But this is what also ended one dream in my past. And I learned that the human body must also know balance and rest; something I’m not particularly good at when my circuitry is energised by dreams.

 

Struggling with the idea of re-joining another machine-like organisation, I unknowingly placed subconscious barriers in my way to prevent me moving forward in my preparation. One afternoon writing in my journal, I realised that this wasn’t my dream any more.

                

  I had to do something bigger, more defining. Something incredible.

The Artist and the Scientist

The Artist and the Scientist

The artist is your ability to create emotional connection - the most powerful component of leadership in my understanding. You can be a person of authority yet if you lack the ability to emotionally connect with people - you're just someone yelling orders out.  I think of this as a subconscious effort stemming from the limbic brain. You can pretend to be charming and interested but this will feel insincere if you aren't truly interested in connecting with people. To be a both good and effective leader; we need a little of this ability to create social distance, so that we can make the hard decisions and reassure our people that we have their best intentions at heart.

ShadeShifter

ShadeShifter

In my professional life, I’d been taught a lot of leadership theory - why we follow other people.

But I always felt like there was something missing. I'd be taught the mechanics; how to behave, how to talk, how to dress, even how to stand (apparently leaders don’t slouch) - but it always felt that something was missing; some of the most influential people I'd ever met in the military weren't even in leadership positions.

Bridging the gap: building earthquake shelters in Nepal

Bridging the gap: building earthquake shelters in Nepal

The days are long here. We wake up around 7am to the sun lighting up the tent like a lamp. Around the same time, the wildlife wakes up – birds, crickets and all sorts. Matt and I are building shelters in the mountain village whilst Umesh and Tim are scoping out other areas we can help – it’s wonderfully reassuring to know that this isn’t just a one-off project, but a longer term opportunity to help both the country and our own veterans.

Snowboardistan: Riding powder with Afghanistan's national Ski team.

Snowboardistan: Riding powder with Afghanistan's national Ski team.

The snow is fresh and powdery. It’s my first ride of the year and I’m feeling rusty, partly because of the unfamiliar board.  Our first ride down the virgin slope is brilliant, we’re all excited to be out on the snow – like children we’re trying to race each other to the bottom; it’s funny how no matter where or who you’re with – competiveness is the same the world over, in any culture.

Building clear! Trauma medicine training in Holland

Building clear! Trauma medicine training in Holland

However, having since left that world, and preparing to study medicine - I decided I should ‘sanity test’ my dreams to see if it’s really the path I want to go down. Medicine isn’t a cheap and easy option; I fully expect to finish 4 or 5 years of study with around £55,000 of debt that I anticipate paying off well into my fifties (I’ll hopefully be starting med school at 35 years old – the age when most people are well underway with their career).

Return to Afghanistan

Return to Afghanistan

I’m looking out of my side window and everyone in the market around us is looking in the direction that we’re driving. My heart starts racing, and my palms get clammy.

Everyone is running in the direction that we’re moving. As soon as my conscious brain can translate what my eyes are seeing; two ambulances and a police pickup overtake us and scream down the road. People are running down the road with their hands on their head, shouting.

 

There’s been an explosion...

Black-Light: The Devizes-to-Westminster canoe race

Black-Light: The Devizes-to-Westminster canoe race

It was cold. Freezing cold.  And now the thought of rolling over again was putting serious concerns of hypothermia into my head. Falling in the middle of the canal, some 20 metres from the edge, would take us at least 6-8 minutes of fumbling to get to the bank. On top of this – we receive a message that we are in danger of getting disqualified; we’d come into the last checkpoint with just 15 seconds to spare!

 

Now we couldn’t afford to fall in – nor afford to take it too slow.