120,000 litres of mineral water, 270 Berber and Saharan tents, 6.5 km of Elastoplast and 6,000 painkillers; just a few of the ingredients that will be helping myself and the 1300 other runners take on the Marathon Des Sables (MdS) this month. Dubbed the 'toughest footrace on earth' (something I prefer not to remind myself of) the MdS takes you across the Sahara Desert, running six marathons in five days in temperatures in excess of 120oF.
In an era where Ultra Marathon's have gained in popularity, the MdS is still one of the most notorious. Having to run the equivalent of a marathon a day means this isn't the type of event you sign up to without serious, drawn out consideration; and probably the type of thing you shouldn't really consider having never run a marathon before, which is true for me. On top of this perhaps the world's greatest explorer Ranulph Fiennes is taking on this year's MdS. So I was under no illusion when signing up to run the race for the learning disability charity Mencap, this would be one of the toughest years of my life.
Fortunately for me I have a background as an ex Royal Navy Commando and am accustomed to the levels of discipline and training required to attempt such an unnatural sounding challenge. My time in the military also allowed me to travel to corners of the world with immense hardship and social demise. In Iraq and Afghanistan I saw children whose lives had been devastated by conflict, and were forced to suffer without having a voice or anyone to listen. Coming from such a comparative background of privilege and witnessing lives that in many cases have very little hope of a bright future provides a powerful incentive to make any small impact I could to benefit children's lives. I was powerless to help the children I saw when I was away, but I knew I could make a difference to those in the UK.
Whilst in the Royal Navy I helped a number of marines and sailors with learning and development, some of which had learning difficulties. This experience led me to Mencap, a charity which supports people with a learning disability, which is different to a learning difficulty, and can have a profound impact on someone's life. After understanding more about learning disability I realised this was the issue I wanted to fight for and fundraise to support. I was shocked to hear that there are 1,200 people with a learning disability dying avoidably in our NHS every year, and that over 120,000 disability hate crimes were recorded in the past two years.
The money I'm raising for Mencap is great of course, but educating people so that they understand what a learning disability is and how it affects people is just as important to me.
So in between my 15 months of weight loss, cardio and long distance running I've been arranging presentations at mainstream schools about Mencap and learning disability, fundraising at Waterloo Station, organised a number of sponsored runs and also, which was perhaps the highlight, a Q&A style hustings event with the Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt MP. He's one of many MPs who have signed up to Mencap's Hear My Voice campaign, helping people with a learning disability to have their voices heard during the General Election, and took questions from children with a learning disability about the upcoming election and how politicians could help shape their futures.
It's not just the six days in the desert that you find challenging when you take on the MdS. It completely transforms an entire year of your life. A significant amount of people who take part still work Monday-Friday jobs, like myself, and have to use every spare moment either research training schemes, arranging fundraising activities, and do the actual training itself.
And this isn't your normal repetitive style fitness training. Learning to run marathons in 120F heat means I've had to acclimatise myself by exercising in a sauna, and to build my lung capacity and efficiency I've completed a number of endurance events such as the Brutal Enduro 12 hour race and the Pilgrims Way 66 mile multi-day ultra which took 13.25 hours. I've also got a fundraising target of £9.5k to achieve, and have had to rely on all my communication, marketing and organisational skills - sometime's it just a case of making people realise that even the smallest amount they donate makes a real difference when all added up.
One of the truly great things about the MdS, apart from the stunning scenery I am about to immerse myself in, is that it attracts the type of people who really want to make a difference to the world they live in. The sense of achievement when completing an endurance event like the MdS is one of unrivalled physical and mental ecstasy, but if you couple this with being able to understand first hand the effect of the awareness and funds you've created for your cause then the feeling of pride and satisfaction will be tripled.
So for anyone wanting to learn what a learning disability is and the inequalities people with a learning disability face in their day to day lives, head to Mencap's website. For anyone wishing to donate and learn more about the MdS please head here.