This time last year I had just celebrated New Year's Day at the top of the Atlas mountains. I was the first person up there to see the first dawn of 2016 break over this stunning vista. This marked the start of a year of challenges - and my first ever marathon - which meant that I needed to get seriously fit.
Sitting at a desk in the City is a far cry from my professional rugby days and my fitness level in January 2016 was pathetic. I hadn't done any running since a major calf injury forced me to retire from England Rugby 7s and Gloucester in December 2014 and I had no idea whether I could actually run that far.
January became the start of my bid to get marathon ready by May, when I was set to take on the tropical heat of Street Child's incredible Sierra Leone Marathon.
This is my guide to getting fit enough to take on the world's craziest marathon when you're working a desk job in the City.
The biggest challenge to getting marathon ready when you're working 9-5 or, more likely, 8-10, is time. It's also the single biggest key to running a successful marathon. Time on your feet is vital if you're going to last the 2-5 hours it will take to run a marathon. It's all about getting your body used to being on your feet for that long. This doesn't mean you need to be running for four hours a day, but it does mean that you need to be active, and standing, as much as possible.
I started running to and from work most days - that's five miles there and five miles back. Then I'd walk around the office, take the stairs and stand at my desk and during meetings. It all adds up.
I knew that my injury might flare up again, so I didn't want to do too many big runs, but I would do a longer run at weekends, sometimes mixing it up by doing a four hour walk by the beach or a long cycle ride. I'd also run in a pool or sit on a resistance bike for an hour or two to get my legs used to it. I'm a firm believer that you don't need to have run a full marathon distance before race day. What's more important is that your body is used to being active for that length of time. The longest run I did ahead of the marathon in May was 15 miles, but I had done a lot of time on my feet and had made the effort to be mobile as much as possible.
It helps to have a shorter term goal to aim for during training too, so I signed up for the Old Deer Park half marathon in February.
The good news is that training was awesome for work - I'd come in from my run to work with loads of energy and fresh as a daisy. If I'd had a busy, stressful day, the run home would release that. It became a great part of my day. I went to a film premiere one night which meant I didn't do my usual run. I missed it so much that I went to the loo after the film, got changed and ran home from Leicester Square. The endorphin release was too good to miss.
Nutrition and equipment
I'm not a massive boozer but you definitely do have to make some sacrifices and drink less. You also need to eat well and regularly. Don't eat after 7pm as it's harder for your body to break that down. The days that you're training, eat carbs for breakfast and lunch. I'd have a big bowl of porridge. On days that you're not running, restrict the amount of carbs you're eating unless you're going on a big run the next day.
If you're going to use energy gels on marathon day, make sure that you use them in your training first or it can screw your stomach on race day - something I found out the hard way.
Make sure you have the right equipment too, take the effort to go and get measured for the right trainers and invest in some twinskin socks - they'll save your feet from being destroyed by blisters.
The mental battle
When I was playing rugby, one of the biggest drivers of success was winning the psychological battle. That's the same for a marathon. If you've put in the hours and miles on the training, you will be fine, but the likelihood is that at two and a half hours in, your body is going to turn around and say 'are you serious?!". For me, the real pain came when the sun came up in Sierra Leone and it started to get hot, then my legs started screaming, I was knackered and felt sick. My body started to shut down on me - and you have to listen to that - so I slowed down, had some rehydration salts and paracetamol and pushed on through. It is always going to be mentally tough at this stage and that's where being psychologically prepared is so important. It helps to visualise smashing it, the race going well and the finish line - but it also helps to visualise the pain and how you're going to deal with it.
The hardest part of the marathon for me was the heat and regulating my body temperature, but the best part by far was the place: the incredible landscape of Sierra Leone, the people lining the streets and cheering you on, running through villages as kids high-five you. It was hard, but it was a great experience. I loved it and it was worth all the effort and training.
The Sierra Leone Marathon is more than just a marathon though and what I loved most was the experience of being out there with Street Child, seeing the great work that they do and the way that it changes lives. That was actually more uplifting, powerful and inspiring than the marathon itself - though of course the marathon is a big part of the adventure and the race itself has become part of the fabric of the place now. It's something people in Makeni are really proud of.
Running a marathon in the the tropical heat and humidity of Sierra Leone is certainly not like running the London Marathon, but if you want to go somewhere that you'd never normally go and support a cause that needs more people to get behind it's amazing work then you have to do Street Child's Sierra Leone Marathon. Sierra Leone is such a special place and you don't realise how beautiful it is until you get there.
It's a challenge - and that's why they call it the craziest marathon on the planet - but the people you meet and get to run alongside really make it. The next Sierra Leone is on 28th May 2017 - so this is the perfect time to sign up and get training.