STAGE FIVE: 42KM
Making my breakfast on the morning of the last competitive stage of Marathon des Sables I found a messaged I had written before I left home, which now felt like a lifetime ago: “Future James, if you have got this far I want you to know how proud I am of you!! Go get that fucking medal!!”. I think my tent mates thought I was mad as I cried into my porridge.
On the way to start, buoyed with excitement and giddy tiredness, Mark and I decided that we would try and do something iconic; lead the race. The lead group of 150 runners would start three hours behind us so we wouldn’t be infringing the leaders.
Starting right at the front, we sprinted and soon Mark and I led the entire pack. Until about 300 metres in when we realised we had absolutely no clue where we were suppose to be going and we were forced to slow down so people who actually knew what they were doing could overtake and lead the way. But for a wonderful but fleeting moment we led the Marathon des Sables.
Within 8km we reached one of the parts of Marathon des Sables I had feared the most; the ascent of Jebel El Oftal. Jebel is essentially a North African way of saying hill or mountain and climbing its sandy peak is a tradition in Marathon des Sables. Since I suffer from vertigo the Jebel represented my primal fear sculpted out of sand and sharp rock. From the base to the summit of Jebel El Otfal is only 2km, but it took nearly two hours to complete the 250m vertical ascent as we had to painfully queue while we all carefully clambered up the steep ascent. The final section was the hardest and steepest with ropes to aid you. I spent most of it focussing solely on my footing, trying to distract myself from the fear inducing drop that would have paralysed me on the spot. Reaching the top felt thrillingly monumental; a finish line in itself. I lingered at the top with Susie Chan, who was there capturing the race atmosphere, basking in the swell of pride I had for myself.
However, this joy was short-lived and the rest of this stage was incredibly brutal. I had run out of energy following the long stage and the climb up the Jebel has sapped what little remained. I was running on only fumes and the feeling of pride in conquering my fear of heights only fuelled my footsteps to the first checkpoint.
I plugged in my headphones and slogged my way through to the next checkpoint with a soundtrack of Musicals, Motivational Speeches and heavy base. But it wasn’t long before the leaders were overtaking me so I unplugged the music to cheer them along. Every one of them wishing you well as they sprinted effortlessly by.
After the final checkpoint, I turned my attention to a task I had promised myself I would do during this race. Trust me to leave it to the last moment but it was mainly because it was something I was not looking forward to doing.
Most of you who know a little bit of my story will know that I started running because I was in a depressive spiral I could not escape from. Running helped me heal those wounds I had been laid low by. It wasn’t death by a thousand cuts that had led me to that darkness, more like two heavy hacks to my identity followed by countless self inflicted wounds as I blamed myself for what I had become. These wounds were healed with every mile I ran and had led me to a life I am so unspeakably happy with but I still felt like a shard of sorrow from that time still lingered beneath the skin.
So as I descended onto another endless salt flat, I took a scalpel to my healed wounds and laid myself bare once more. I unpicked those mental scars making myself relive those harrowing moments once more.
Suddenly I’m back in that dingy flat in London, shouting hollow words at my ex as I pick up my things and the broken future that had been shattered so suddenly and so effortlessly. I had held on to so much anger from that night, at her and at the way she started a life with someone else leaving me all alone. There is a phrase I was taught while living in India; anger is a burning coal, by holding on to it you only burn yourself. But in those final miles I let go of that anger, buried it deep in the sand forever.
I could feel my pace slowing to a stagger but I didn’t care. I felt that was I was doing now was monumentally more important than a few less minutes on my finishing time.
I then took myself to the worst memory. I am sat in a care home telling my grandmother she can finally rest now. Whispering my final goodbye. My Granny was a lighthouse to me, a woman whose life has dictated much of mine. I know for certain that I would not be the man I am today without her. It is because of her I went to live in India, a decision that shaped me more than anything. We shared the motto; “we are all stories in the end”, that once we die we live on in the stories people tell about us. I wasn’t a runner when she died, the grief of losing her is partly what led me to running, but I know she would agree that I’ve created a few incredible stories through my collected miles. I ran my first year of running in honour of her and I’ve run every mile since with her voice in my head. I look around at the landscape I am in and know she would agree, this is one hell of a story that someone will someday tell.
Then I am at my old house, watching the old me draped, defeated across the sofa that had become my safety net and my rock bottom stitched together in red quilting. I scream silently at him to get up, but I know I am a long way from rising through that dark cloud and heading out for that monumental run. Those scars that I had just torn open, I see them raw and new upon his skin. I had given up; on the world around me but also on myself. I only saw a cruel and unjust world, so I retreated into a world of one because I knew I was safe in the cocoon of depression I had created. My life now is incomparably different; full of laughter, love and adventure. I couldn’t have been more far removed from those black days on that red sofa as I stood in the Sahara Desert thinking about all I had gained since then.
By finally facing those memories head on I felt as if the pure desert heat welded a crack within my identity. One of my many broken pieces forged together once more as I let go of a burden I no longer needed to carry. My scars neatly closed up as I removed the infection of the past. I felt anew.
I look up from the swirling memories to see the finish in the distance, rippling in the heat.
With the finish line now in sight I picked up the pace only to fall badly coming down a steep incline. I lay in the hot sand, utterly broken, the emotional journey as well as the physical attrition had worn me to nought. With so few miles left to go my heart howled at my body to rise and finally complete this behemoth. But my body craved the comfort found in being stationary. However, the heat of the sand beneath radiated through my clothes quickly burning my arse, which quickly got me up.
The final few miles were a mosh pit of emotions; penduluming from pride, pain, grief, giddy laughter, joy, sadness, love. You name it and my sleep deprived mind experienced it.
Crossing the finish line felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I cried deep and primeval tears as I had that medal slung around my neck. I was a Marathon des Sables finisher…
Despite all those who doubted me, including myself at points, I proved that if you put your mind to it there is nothing you cannot achieve. You are capable of more than you know.
I have taken great pains to write this account to show anyone, maybe you right now, that no dream is too big. That if I can go from 20 stone non-runner to the finish line of the Marathon des Sables the limits you put in front of your dreams are fragile and frail. Go knock through them.
Calories Burned: 5,300
Calories Consumed: 2,555
- Great British Porridge (400cals)
- Clif Bar – Alpine Museli Mix (270cals)
- 2 Torq Gels (230cals)
- Peanuts (180cals)
- Dried Mango (85cals)
- Small Salami (120cals)
- For Goodness Shake – Chocolate Recovery Shake (270cals)
- Expedition Food – Carbonara (1,000cals)