Dear family and friends,
As you will see from the attached photo I was languishing in Baghdad in 2017, having completed my final run in the sun because I hoped not to have to return there for some time. I had subjected myself to running in 50-degree heat because, in a fit of madness and cabin fever brought on by a work trip earlier in the year, I signed up for the Marathon Des Sables in Morocco, April 2019.
For those of you who do not know, the MDS is what most sane people would label as a challenge. It is a 160-mile ultra-marathon, run over 6 days in the Sahara Desert. The longest day is a double-marathon, the shortest a single and the terrain is undulating to say the least, often with sand or loose rocks underfoot – so ends theory. You are required to carry all of your own equipment, survival kit and sustenance for the full 7 days, except water which is rationed daily along the route. You do not quite sleep under the stars, but the black tarpaulin propped up on sticks leaves little beyond to the imagination… bugger!
Whilst training in the Iraqi mid-summer heat is good acclimatisation for a desert run, some of you may have been keeping up with the news of political unrest in the country and wondering if that presents a danger to westerners running out in the open. According to a local friend who was present, this danger was exacerbated even further last September, when the PM and his entourage had to be farcically bundled out of a hotel in Basra at 11pm. Fleeing in his pyjamas, he managed to escape – by minutes – the crowds of his own citizens threatening to ransack the hotel. In fact, his pilot was still wearing his pyjamas on the hasty flight home. Maybe perhaps, Theresa ought to be grateful for relative mercies.
However, whilst the increase in local tensions and general animosity towards westerners, united with the ready availability of legacy Soviet automatic weapons and Iranian made IEDs, did occupy my nerves during these runs; the true reason I kept my head on a swivel out there is for much more mundane threats. The treacherous mingling of a lack of pavements and barely established driving regulations, for example – though a prevalent threat throughout the world – is particularly acute there. And the aggressive, and often bigoted, nature of local guard dogs can be found throughout sub-Saharan Africa too. However, I will admit that the suspicion with which the runner should treat freshly disturbed earth – picking his way carefully – is a slightly less regular experience. Suffice to say most of my runs provided for an engaging experience and breath-taking evening scenery.
Why would anyone torture themselves like this?… I hear you cry? Firstly, it is useful to find ways to stave off that civilian body shape for another year. Secondly, I would like to do something useful for others before I am thirty. Therefore, I am going to run this hyper-marathon for charity. My main beneficiary will be The Urology Foundation, which some of you may know was very supportive of mum and I, in the wake of dad’s illness. They are the only UK charity dedicated to all urology diseases – whilst not the most glamorous of subjects – half of us will develop such a disease in our lifetime. Next summer will be the seventh anniversary of Dad’s death and, whilst I doubt you would ever have persuaded him to attempt the MDS, it does seem a fitting challenge to undertake in order to help raise funds in his memory.
I am now living in Washington DC and have continued training, despite getting less acclimatisation help from the weather. I will send the final update early February.
family and friends,
You may remember my first email from Iraq, where I
promised to write you the occasional update on my Marathon des Sables training.
However, not as many interesting anecdotes come from running around Washington,
as from Baghdad. Due to this, settling in and a small injury, I have waited
until now to send my second update.
My move to the US has been an assault on the senses –
even more than Baghdad in some ways. It is all in the details. On my first
morning I went for a jet lag run up the other National Mall. When I reached the
Lincoln memorial, I found a large group of runners who clearly had the same
idea as me – stair sprints. These famous steps, as many of you will know, must
be one-hundred feet wide. But all the runners were jogging up one side only. In
what resembled a large and congested conveyor belt, they were using perhaps
thirty percent of the available space. Not wanting to be constrained in a large
pack, dodging others’ feet in the half dawn light, I rationally decided to run
up and down the empty side. The tutting began in earnest and I could feel the
judgement at my back for my unwarranted display of initiative and
self-preservation. My first lesson in the land of freedom was learned – go
along, before you get along.
I have recovered from my old reoccurring ankle injury. I
am sure that, with some zinc oxide tape and grit, I can manage it through the
race. I am now running in my race shoes, which I was told need to be bought one
and a half sizes too big, to accommodate for foot swelling in the Sahara. Recent
training has proven that the American winter is not very conducive to training
for the forty degree heat of the desert. The enclosed photo of a recent run in
Philadelphia should help demonstrate this, but at least it allowed me to pose
like Rocky. The more avid fans might have noticed that the statue is further
away in my photo, than the original… I would never want to pretend that Rocky
could not make it to the top of the steps, but clearly to get the best no-filter
snap, he decided not to.
My job here involves travelling nationwide for meetings.
Whilst I have taken off eighty-five times, hit more than twenty states and
become very au-fait with the TSA airport security process, the frequent need to
travel hand luggage only has sometimes left me without the space for trainers.
Resorting to occasional on-the-spot sprints in a hotel room, is often preferable
to slipping down an icy Denver street. And with the heating turned up to full,
you can even create a more realistic training environment than the one found
outside. The first time I have braved the bracing air outside, I quickly
realised that donning t-shirt and shorts whilst embracing the Army mantra of
“be bold and start cold” is less of a thing in Washington than Salisbury Plain
and can be downright dangerous. I recently read an article by an MDS veteran,
who described the strange looks he got from his fellow gym members whilst doing
step-ups and sit-ups in a crowded sauna. You will be relieved to know that I
have not resorted to this yet.
I am now into the final two-month stretch. Training is
ramping up, until the final two weeks which will be purely stretching and rest.
I have been put on the earliest flight to Morocco, which should give me extra
time to acclimatise. However, to get a head start on this, I am trying to find
a University with a heat chamber training facility. Whilst these are relatively
common in the UK, I am finding it very tricky to locate one here. Any help
would be greatly appreciated, as would audiobook recommendations – I have a lot
of hours to fill.
Finally, I should let you know that I have set up my
Just Giving pages, which can be found at this link https://www.justgiving.com/teams/maples89-3. Of course, there is absolutely no obligation
to sponsor me for receipt of these motivational coaching updates… but some of
you have asked to and any contribution will be gladly received. My target is at
least £30,000, to make the investment cost worthwhile. You will find that there is a page
for each charity – The Urology Foundation and the Household Cavalry Foundation.
I have decided to send 90% of funds raised to TUF and 10% to HCF. Therefore, if
you are kind enough to donate, then please split your donation accordingly.
Some of the more pessimistic of you may want to hold back your donation, until
I have finished the race. Oh, ye of little faith! However, I will of course
leave the page open for at least one month after the race is over (late April).
Do not worry, I will remind you.
One more update to go, before the race. And I hope to be
able to send you daily reports from the dunes. Send happy thoughts and
innovative yoga techniques, please.