At least that's what it felt like when our man decided to put the marathon behind him and set his sights on one of the toughest races in the ultrarunning calendar.
Words: Jody Raynsford
"I will never run a marathon again,” I told anyone who cared to listen after the 2007 London Marathon. After dragging my 14st, 5ft 9in frame around the famous course in 4hrs 46mins on the hottest day the marathon had ever been held, I wasn’t in the mood to consider extending my running career. But just over a year later, I had broken my word and signed up for an even greater challenge - running 150 miles across the Sahara in the infamous Marathon des Sables (MdS).
In the months after my swearing off running, I stumbled across a book by Dr Mike Stroud, The Survival Of The Fittest. A runner and physician, Stroud demonstrated through his own experience that our bodies are capable of far greater athletic feats than we could ever imagine. It put my 26.2 mile trot into perspective and I became intrigued with a race Stroud ran to highlight his point, the MdS. In July 2008, I paid the not-insubstantial entry fee - in excess of £3,000 - for the 2011 event and started my training.Everyone assumed the man in the silver hat knew where he was going. He didn't.
Although, like most chaps my age (I’m 32), asking for help doesn’t come easily, I knew this was one challenge that would require it by the truckload. You can bury yourself in a deluge of reading but there is nothing like first hand experience to both guide and motivate you. I soon signed up for a desert training camp, organised by seven-time MdS competitor Rory Coleman and upon its completion parted with several hundred pounds to gain the benefit of his experience in a one-to-one training session.
I considered myself a casual runner, notching up miles in the hope it would be enough to improve my speed. I’m not naturally skinny, and although I had never considered my weight an issue when it came to running, I felt poor genetics had conspired to forever make me a plodder. But Rory soon had me on a treadmill and running like my life depended on it as part of a VO2 max test. And there, as my lungs (and my head) screamed at me to stop, I had a Damascene moment.
I knew my earlier characterisation of my athletic ability was simply an excuse for not pushing myself harder. I simply hadn’t been prepared to face the hard work I needed to get into shape, cut my weight and actually compete. For the first time I thought ‘yes, I can do better’, but it needed someone else to help reveal it to me. Together we formulated a detailed training regime concentrating on race-specific workouts and runs to help me towards my goal of comfortably completing the MdS.
With renewed vigour I threw myself into the programme. I’ve never liked the gym, yet my programme required attendance four days a week, so I joined up and began to focus on the strength and core training I had previously swerved. Weekends became dedicated to longer runs, including back-to-back ultra-marathon distances, while speed work became my nemesis. Training was going well so I scheduled an event to test my progress. With hindsight, I wasn’t prepared for my first taste of multi-day endurance eventing and The Toad Challenge 2010 was a steep, painful and emotional learning curve.
Blithely ignorant of what lay ahead in the 90-mile, three-day trek along the Thames Path - having never competed above marathon distance before - I found myself bringing up the rear from around the first mile. It’s fair to say I got almost everything wrong, from my backpack to the pacing and my pre-race diet. Aching and low that night, I wondered how I could go on, but for my second and third day I learned to cope with the stress of running big distances on consecutive days and fuelling my body in the right way to deal with it.
Fortunately, I managed to gain speed and move up the field and though my legs were shot to pieces (I wouldn’t be able to run for a month following the event), it was proof I could stare the distance in the eye and do it some damage.Jody's supplies - we wonder what Jamie Oliver made of the fare on offer.
Tackling the weight
Despite hours pounding the pavements each week, with six months to go my weight was still firmly rooted at the 13st 7lb mark and showed little sign of ever moving. My complaints about the relatively mild heat of the London Marathon in 2007 would pale into insignificance if I found myself boiling in the desert due to excess body fat.
The thing about cutting weight is that, essentially, it’s very simple. You know what you shouldn’t eat; you just find excuses for eating it. In the end it proved relatively easy to shift the 10kg to get myself down to a more manageable 75kg.
Cutting out all alcohol, sugar, bread, pasta and rice from my diet was the general gist, replacing them with other carb sources and more protein. Breakfast consisted of scrambled egg followed by a mid-morning snack of fruit or a cereal bar with soup or a small jacket potato and beans for lunch.
Being vegetarian, my main meal choices have always been somewhat limited so I became creative with vegetable dishes, curries and all types of bean while using soya and Quorn to provide me with protein. Within weeks my body composition was changing and in just eight I was down to my target weight. The extra kilos have stayed off thanks to portion control and sensible food decisions without being a fitness fascist. I hope.
When your natural instinct, like mine, is to lounge on the sofa rather than head out for a run, you need a pretty good reason to get off your gluteus and the one element that unites both plodder and athlete is perhaps the most important - mental attitude. If you are considering taking on a crazy-distance challenge, you need to be clear why you are doing it.
That clarity is necessary from the moment you sign on the dotted line. You need it when you step out at 6am to run in the rain, you need it when all you want after a hard day’s work is to crash in front of the TV. Without it, the process is indescribably more difficult and the last place you want to be questioning why you’re running 150 miles for charity is stood atop a dune in the baking Saharan sun.