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A 150mile Sahara Desert Foot Race, Singing Out Loud And A Taste For Gin Taught Me Anything Is Possible

08/02/2017 08:10
JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK via Getty Images

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I am a person of average intelligence and below average height. My many shortcomings are compensated - in part - by a sublime sense of dress and a strange capacity to recite every capital city. I knew that entering for the Marathon Des Sables - a 150 mile, self-sufficiency, foot-race in the Sahara Desert - was a bit of a silly idea, as an elegantly-flung silk scarf and knowing that Bandar Seri Begawan is the capital of Brunei wouldn't help me very much with the sand, running, blisters and soul-searing heat. The fact I had only ever run three miles before signing up was also a bit of a wrinkle in my credentials. But watching a documentary - on what is considered the toughest marathon on earth - I knew instantly that it was something I should do, and perhaps, with a good tail-wind, a few jokes and the promise of gin at the finish line, even something I could do.

sahara desert

To say people doubted me is a gross understatement; an aubergine running for high office would have been taken more seriously. I was ridiculed and laughed at. But I didn't blame them, as in front of them stood someone who was over-coiffured, over-coutured and over fragranced. A privileged kid with no exposure to hardship; a scion of a successful family being shaped to become a non-descript, obedient bolt-on. What possibly could I know about endurance? Nothing. But that was sort of the point.

As a child, the only sport I was exposed to by my family was eating. We are Olympic champions at it. So my frame of reference was limited, but a week into my training I realised that I had, by default, picked the right sport. It turns out I am a brown Forrest Gump. At a slow but steady pace I can run and run and run. But there was more ahead than running on the flat in temperate, leafy Nottingham: fifty-degree heat; mountainous dunes; broken river-flats; the threat of scorpions; powdered food; no plumbing; zero reflective surfaces and all done over seven days while carrying an 18kg back pack full of useful things that I would had no idea how to use. To this day, I'm still not quite sure what to do with iodine. It tastes strange with tonic.

After eight months of hard, daily training, I felt the most physically prepared I could be. I managed to get my twenty-six-mile time down to below three hours - not that such a distance mattered when running one-hundred-and-fifty miles. The weights (again, something totally new) had paid off: I now had the load capacity of a small pack-horse. But the Marathon des Sables is test of will more than muscles - anyone can get a six pack. My spirit was fresh out-of-the-box, never tried or checked.

harjeet johal

I tottered in to the check-in area at Gatwick in cowboy boots, a vintage leather jacket and red highlighted-hair which had been straightened to within an inch of its life. Shackleton, I was not. My fellow competitors were all wearing fleece and testosterone. I had misjudged the dress code to an epic degree. The quest for credibility became an uphill struggle from that moment. Once in Morocco, I heard someone who was sat behind me in the transfer bus ask his friend "what the hell is that idiot doing here?" A valid question.

After a few days in relative civility we were sent to the Sahara. I had been in a desert once before, but that time I was in a luxury SUV. The trip lasted four hours and was bookended by Martinis. This time, open-sided army trucks deposited us like land-fill in the middle of a sand storm. I could see nothing and just ran for one of the hessian covers set in an oval pattern. Once the winds had calmed I went for a walk; I set out to meet my enemy. I climbed a little dune and there it was. Nothing could have prepared me for how I felt when I first saw the empty infinity stretch out in front of me. I could hear it goading me, the way the boys in the bus had done. What right do you have to be here! It shouted. This was mankind's most deadly theatre. It had consumed armies; halted dictators and sucked the life out of the unprepared. It was going to chew me up and spit me out. It told me it would destroy me. It would spare my life but not my dignity. I nodded politely but then stared it down, hard. I had other ideas. "Let's see", I said, as I turned and walked back down the hillock of sand (I tripped a little as I got to the bottom).

The race started bad and got worse. The heat choked me from the first stride and didn't let go of my throat for a week. I tried to smile as the others were in those early minutes, but I couldn't. The desert was right: I should have stuck to Harvey Nichols and Bollinger. This was no place for me. But for some unexplained reason my feet just kept on moving forward and at a pace that wasn't altogether ridiculous. My bag bounced, my hat almost fell off, I had the gait of Coco the Clown but I was getting away with it.

marathon des sables

The blisters appeared at the end of the first day and grew in number every day. My heels suffered the most. It was as though there were cheese graters between my foot and the shoe. Every step shredded me. The toes got it pretty bad, too. Blisters developed beneath the nails. The heat, sand and movement inflamed them until they grew so large that they pushed the toenail almost vertical, causing it to pierce the tender skin. I lost six toenails by day four. Raw nail beds hurt - a lot. The blood seeped pretty steadily, turning my white socks a grubby, blotchy red by day two. My back throbbed, my knees twisted and my neck ached. The pain was all-over and all consuming. I had to find a way to dampen it. It turns out that screaming at my feet to 'get a grip' and singing very loudly works a treat. The pain was always worse when I woke up in the morning. It took me thirty minutes to dig as deep as I possibly could to set me up for the day ahead.

There was no relief, not for me, anyway. The food was powder and the tepid water did nothing to quench my desperate thirst. Some found the desert beautiful. I didn't. It was a horrid, beige hell. There was nothing pretty or relieving about it. Its ground wanted to trip me and its heat wrapped around me, trying its best to pull me to the ground. Every day the course got longer and harder. The low point came during the fifty-mile stage. At 2 am, after hours of trudging, I headed for what I thought was a ridge of a dune. It wasn't a ridge, but instead was a shadow from my head-torch. I fell, without warning, down the high side of the dune. I tumbled and rolled, twisted and span. I swallowed sand and bruised bones. I lay at the bottom in the freezing night. But, despite being bashed and in more pain than I ever had been in my life, I never for a second thought about surrendering. Within a moment I was back on my feet, scrambling up the sand. That was the pivotal moment of my life. I became someone new as I stood tall.

Over that week I saw all aspects of the human condition. I watched as some runners skipped through the course as though it was Sunday morning fun-run; I saw muscle-bound, spandex-clad men crying like babies; I stood, smiling as a fellow competitor sprinted toward the horizon, convinced he could see a branch of McDonalds. He braked hard as the mirage evaporated. And I saw myself cross the finish line, and sob as a I collapsed into the arms of my mum who had come to see me. I was smelly, bloody, hairy and a thousand miles from chic, but I did it.

marathon des sables

From that time on I have learnt to never accept the status quo; never be overwhelmed by the achievements of others and never listen to the noise telling me how to live my life. Shivering in the shadows is not for me and I will not be defined by the legacy of those who have come before me. It turns out I have all I need to shine bright, alone.

Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from The Huffington Post UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you've got something extraordinary to share please email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com with LLO in the subject line.

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