No ultra run is straightforward but Paul Davies could hardly have had a more difficult assignment as he joined 1,100 other runners to cover 230km in just five days in the Sahara in an event dubbed the 'toughest foot race on earth'.
Marathon des Sables takes place every year in the Sahara Desert, with competitors from all over the world covering the equivalent of five-and-a-half marathons in blistering 40c heat, carrying all their food and everything they need to live on.
Thirty-eight-year-old Davies, from Surrey, was among the 2016 entrants and not only was this was his first ever ultra run but it came just a year after taking part in his maiden marathon. He finished in 537th place and we spoke to him shortly after his return home to find out more about the experience.
Big step up
"Having completed my first marathon last year I wanted to challenge myself with an adventure worthy of raising a substantial amount of money for Scope, an incredible charity which helps disabled people to have the same opportunities as everyone else."
Bitten by the bug
"I used to play football but started running when I got older and kids came along. Running gives me an opportunity to reflect on things and it’s when I do some of my best thinking. I find it incredibly fulfilling and it's great that it gets me get outdoors and helps me stay active. This time last year I did the Brighton Marathon and absolutely loved it - from then on I’d caught the bug."
"You start off small and build it up. I began with very short runs and Fartlek training [a system of mixed pace training for distance running] and went from there. I took plenty of advice ahead of the Marathon des Sables and also did some heat chamber work but mixing up the running with long walks up mountains with a rucksack was the best foundation."
Do a mud run
"Mud runs were good fun and very useful too as they get your hips and core strong and I even slept on the kitchen floor for about week before I went to get used to that."
"You've got to have a venom pump in case you are bitten by a snake, a blade, a lighter, a compass and 200 Euros. You also need a sleeping blanket, a head torch and all your food. You carry everything and the only addition is water which you get given sparingly at checkpoints and when you check in at night. And you’ve never got enough - it’s the most precious thing in the world for that week."
Coping with the heat
"You actually don’t feel the heat that much as there’s a breeze. Getting sandblasted can be more of an issue – you’ve got a wrap on your face as well as glasses and a hat to protect you from the sand and sun. Acclimatisation was pretty difficult as I was out running round the streets of Surrey beforehand with three or four layers on as well as gloves!"
"There’s camels, big black beetles, some birds of prey – and running at night is incredible. There’s no light pollution so the sky is just breathtaking. But the first time it went dark I remember thinking, ‘I’m on my own in the desert’ - but then you get to the top of a Jebel and you see the other headtorches."
Feet of endurance
"Both the mental and physical challenges are incredibly tough. I’d had about four blisters in my life up until this point and when I finished day four I had 10 on one foot and six on the other and I got off relatively lightly compared to some. It’s actually a very technical race – it’s all about management of your body and fluid intake."
Body and soul
"Every part of your body is telling you to stop but my heart just wouldn’t let me. There were moments where I was close to tears, which hasn’t happened to me since the birth of both my little boys. It’s gruelling and you go through lots of different experiences and ask yourself lots of questions."
"People’s support was the biggest source of energy I could have got when the chips were down. You’re allowed one message a day from home. They are huge. Just a little word to let you know everyone has got your back is massive."
Friends for life
"There was an incredible spirit – you’re in the desert with no distractions and your focus is purely about getting through the day. There were nine of us in the tent and you help each other out constantly and make friends for life. It has really reinvigorated my thoughts about the human race – there were people there who had the odds so stacked against them and yet they got round, they wouldn’t be beaten."
Crossing the line
"It was actually the fear of not finishing which got me over the line, so while there was a moment of joy it was more of a relief to be honest."
"There's so much you only appreciate afterwards but I’d really concentrate on getting my backpack weight down as low as possible. Mine was probably close to 10kg without water and it needs to be nearer six or seven."
My next challenge
"I’d love to do a jungle ultra. No one’s quite buying it at home yet but that’s on my bucket list while I’m still able to do it."
Paul hopes to raise a total of £8,000 for Scope following the Marathon des Sables, here's his JustGiving page.
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