Uber-action man Sir Ranulph Fiennes talks about the Marathon des Sables, how it was “one long nightmare”, and his fear of camels
Words: Damian Hall Pictures: c/o Marie Curie
The many adventures and achievements of Sir Ranulph Fiennes need no introduction. Quite simply, he’s the ultimate action man, the person most of us wish we were. But at 71, the ex-SAS officer and serial world record-breaker has suffered two heart attacks, undergone a double heart bypass, a cancer operation and has recently developed a form of diabetes.
That’s enough to consign most right-minded folk to a well-earned, peaceful retirement. But not Sir Ran.
None of his ailments were going to stop him from completing the six-day, 156-mile Marathon des Sables (MDS), in 50-degree plus temperatures and becoming the oldest Briton to do so. Though they almost did…
“My aim, before I cop it, is to raise £20 million for charity – mainly Marie Curie. We’ve found they don’t raise as much if I don’t succeed in a project. And as I get older it gets more difficult to raise big money.
Generally for fundraising, if you climb a mountain like Everest you will get much more money from donors than if you climb an infinitely more difficult mountain called Panga Danga Wanga Langa. The nice people who give money for charities have heard of Everest, so even though it’s pretty easy, they will give money.
Likewise, if someone gets to the North Pole and they’re the youngest, oldest or they’re blind, they get much more money. It’s just one of those things. A charity finds it easier if they have some headlining cliché.
I wouldn’t have made as much money doing the Marathon des Sables, which calls itself the ‘toughest footrace in the world’, in 2014, because I wouldn’t have been the oldest Briton. So I waited for 2015, which was also its 30th year, and they made it tougher than normal.
I’m not much of a runner nowadays. Two years ago I stopped running because I had too much to do on the literary front. But in my book Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know there’s a list of running races I used to do; the ACE Races, mountain marathons – I won the Elite Veteran class one year at LAMM (Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon). I was in the UK B team back in the nineties at the Eco-Challenge world races. The last thing I did was a few years ago in Edale, the High Peak Marathon, and our team won the Veteran class. Performance coach Rory Coleman (rorycoleman.co.uk), who’s run Marathon des Sables 11 times, set me a training programme.
I had to run for an hour, preferably not on flat stuff, for four days every week, for four months before the race. At weekends I had to do a four-hour non-stop jog, again preferably with gradient. I was meant to run in a heat chamber. But that was only possible for one hour, for medical reasons, to see how my heart would respond to running in the heat. I also gave up chocolate and sugar puffs – and I still have.
Doctors made it clear there would be dire results if I didn’t. At the startline I was apprehensive because I had thought of a 7kg pack – only one stone – as like a coffee cup or a thimble. When I’ve pulled sledges I’ve pulled 500lb (227kg) loads, so I didn’t think it would be any issue whatsoever.
But after a bit of time running with it I realised I had got a bit older since those days, and it actually was a big issue on the back. So that was startling. I also began to realise that the camel cut-offs were an issue. Although I’m quite capable in cold conditions, because I got designed that way, this thing was incredibly hot.
The orders I had from the cardiologist at Bristol Royal Infirmary after my last heart attack was that I shouldn’t ever let my heart tick more than 130 beats per minute. So I was thinking: ‘Number one, don’t let my heart get stressed and over 130bpm’.
The other thing, which was diametrically opposed to that, was ‘Don’t go so slow that you’ll be caught up by the camels’. It was a very fine balance between the two, and without Rory I would have gone too far one way or the other. Quite honestly, it was six days and it was all one long nightmare. I can’t really remember one day from the other.
The first day was tough; going up the dunes was the hardest part, especially under the midday sun. My shoulders were sore from the pack and my right foot needed looking at afterwards.
At the end of day two, my feet felt bruised, I had a constant pain across my shoulders and this dreadful feeling that I was holding people up behind me. That was constantly on my mind.
On day three there were some warning signs from my heart, so I heeded them and sat on a rock for a bit. As well as a few foot bruises and a big shoulder bruise from the pack, I had a new pain down my left leg. The 91km fourth stage seemed to go on forever. It took us 30 hours, with just one hour’s sleep and I needed medical attention afterwards. At the time I described it as ‘more hellish than hell’.
There were very big cliffs with sand. You’re trying to go up and your feet are slipping backwards. In terms of going up steep things, it wasn’t like the north face of the Eiger. But bearing in mind you’re trying to go at a certain speed, it doesn’t help having soft stuff under your feet.
I’ve done an awful lot of work over the years in the biggest deserts in the world, Arabia, the Sahara and all that. But on civilian expeditions, you’re on camels not feet. So I didn’t appreciate the problems of the soft sand and the effects of making you more tired than if it was firm.
When I had been on foot in the deserts, it was in the Arab army in the 1960s and we only moved at night, in a sort of Ninja-like fashion, because of the communist-terrorist ambushes. We were always carrying heavy weapons and moving in a tactical rather than competitive manner. During the day it was 53 degrees, with very high humidity. A pretty good sort of hell on earth.
The heat had an accumulative effect with the soft stuff under feet. When I did the Seven Marathons on Seven Continents – and I have to say that that was Dr Mike Stroud’s idea, not mine – I collapsed on the only hot one, in Singapore. I ended up in an ambulance on a drip. When the BBC news people asked me: ‘Is that you finished?’ And I said: ‘Yeah, I’m finished, but Dr Stroud will carry on.’ Because as long as one of us did it the whole thing was still a success.
I didn’t know that Mike was half an hour behind me peeing blood and being sick. So when he arrived the BBC said: ‘Dr Stroud, I understand that Fiennes is dropping out but you’re carrying on.’ He came into the ambulance wagging his finger at me and said: ‘Don’t you think for one minute that you’re dropping out.’
The night on that fourth day was pretty horrific and what caused my back problems. The headtorch had a big problem and there wasn’t much light and I miss-stepped – I thought the ground was much closer than it actually was. So when I landed it was a hell of a jolt. Rory said it was my glutes.
From them on I couldn’t really walk upright and I needed a lot of painkillers. I started ignoring the instructions on the packet as to how many you can take. I had several moments when I had to stop and let my heart slow down. On occasions Rory noticed I was going all over the place and he said: ‘You must stop now, for a few minutes.’
The balance between the camels and the heart was tight, and we cut it very fine. I began to think – particularly where there were big steep sand dunes – that the camels were going faster than us, that we wouldn’t get to the checkpoint before the cut-off. When we did, I asked Rory how much we did it by. He said 13 minutes.
There’s a mixture of things going on in your head when things aren’t going terribly well. It does help, whatever you’re doing, be it the mountains, a marathon or an expedition, to know that you would be letting someone down. In this case someone was dependent for a lot of money, and on the task’s completion rather than just attempting it. When you start thinking you’re going to give up, you think of the nurses and what they do when the people you love are terminally ill. Which is what happened to me.
When I was about 60 I took on Everest for Marie Curie and on the last night on the Tibetan side of the mountain I had a big angina [i.e. heart] attack, well above 28,000 feet and within 300 metres of the summit ridge. Therefore I had to go back and try it again a few years later in 2008 on the easy side, the Nepal side.
Again on the very last night within reach of the summit I turned back because we passed three dead bodies; one of which was my Sherpa’s father, one of which was a friend of mine, a Scottish bloke, and one of which was still being buried, he was a very good climber who had just got to the top without oxygen. And it had a bad effect. So I tried again in 2009, which was very easy, and I couldn’t understand why I’d had a problem previously.
So I thought the same thing would have had to happen with Marathon de Sables – and it very nearly did. I would have had to do it again which I really wouldn’t have wanted to do. I really didn’t enjoy it terribly much. I think I’ve got to a stage where this sort of thing is not really an advisable project.
My feet weren’t in terribly good nick. I learnt in Antarctica about a year ago that the trouble with my hands and feet is I’ve developed pre-Diabetic status. It affects your circulation, first of all in your fingers and feet, especially if they’ve been frostbitten in the past, which is the case for me. So my circulation isn’t good and running with shoes on every day doesn’t help. But you stop it getting worse by not having sugar.
Ninety-six people dropped out of the event, there were two broken legs, another one fell down a mountain that he thought was basically sand but was rocks and he cut his face open. One woman I saw at the end had the bottom of one of her foot peeled. I never thought I wouldn’t make it. But there were points where I thought the camels were getting dangerously close.
Life in the bivouac was paradise. It was rather like a polar expedition, where you’re man-hauling a heavy weight for 10 hours then get in the tent and its heaven on earth. Having lots of people around was really pleasant. Of the people in the tent nine were British and one Swedish. They were a great crowd, as you would expect from people who are competitive and keen. I would get in thinking, ‘I wonder how so and so got on – has he managed to get into the first 75 as he’s desperate to do?’ They were a great bunch and helped take your mind off your own problems.”
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