Marathon des Sables

So, 6 marathons over 7 days, across the Sahara, carrying 10kg of equipment and food supplies, in 50 degrees centigrade. How the hell will you explain this one?! Mate, your dad’s gonna kill you!

My friend and former colleague, Chris

What is the marathon des sables?

Described by the Discovery Channel as the toughest footrace on earth, the Marathon des Sables or MdS, is a grueling six-day race through one of the world’s most inhospitable climates. The rules state that you have to be self-sufficient and carry everything you need to survive, including water. You are given a place in a tent to sleep at night, but any other equipment and food must be carried.

Imagine yourself in the Sahara Desert, with nothing but rolling sand dunes for miles around. When you plough your feet through the sand, a fine dust kicks up. You can’t feel the sweat dripping down your face because it’s evaporating in the baking heat. Your lungs feel parched. Today’s temperature is over 50 °c. Part of your brain is screaming at you to stop right now, but the other half is stronger and knows that, on completion, you will have run the equivalent of six marathons in seven days and a total distance of 156 miles.

Here’s a taster, in case you’re tempted...

But why?

This challenge captured my imagination for over five years thanks to a conversation over lunch with my friend, Stephen Burton. I will never forget the look of excitement and the thrill in Steve’s eyes when he first told me about the toughest footrace on earth and from that point onwards, thoughts of running the MdS lodged themselves in the back of my mind.

When you achieve something you really didn’t believe you could do, when you suspend self-judgment and just put one foot in front of the other, something kicks in. To other people, you become fearless, or even fearsome. The very thing you didn’t think you were able to do becomes a reference point - proof that your capability is far beyond what you imagine it to be. Contrary to what some may think, the thing that drives you is not insecurity, but curiosity. You can’t help but ask, “If I can do this, what ELSE can I do?” It’s not about proving yourself, but more about finding yourself.

Unfortunately, my friend Simon and I failed to complete this race at first attempt due to a number of significant errors relating to training, kit, nutrition and overall preparation. However, I completed the race successfully at my second attempt in 2015.

Bill Gates once said: “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose.” In my case, this was certainly true. Failing the Marathon des Sables at first attempt and then making the decision to go back and do it again was a real learning curve for me and culminated in my book, Big Steps, Long Strides.

Of course, I had experienced failure before, but I had succeeded at so many outrageous challenges prior to the MdS that I was in shock. This achievement was so important to me that there was no question that I would attempt the race for a second time. However, this time I decided I would also write a book.

I decided to document all the lessons I’d learned over the past two years. My book covers every single technical aspect of the race and I hope that by sharing the journey of how I went from being a non-runner to an ultra-runner, you can see that even seemingly impossible feats can become a reality.

The book has received some fantastic reviews and rather unexpectedly, has led to a number of speaking opportunities, some of which are directed at an audience of runners, whilst others have been presented in front of a corporate audience. During these events, I share my experiences of failing and the steps I took to turn that failure around. Many of these lessons are particularly applicable to the Business world.