Touted by some as the hardest foot race on the planet, the Marathon des Sables is a six day 251km slog through the Sahara desert - effectively six marathons back-to-back in temperatures often above 40°C.
In short - it’s no walk in the park. Long-term friend of the shop Chris Pinder recently subjected himself to the arduous race - raising over £46,000 for charity in the process. Seeing as this isn’t exactly the kind of thing you hear about everyday, we thought we’d better call him up to find out more...
For those who don’t know, what is the Marathon des Sables?
It’s been going since 1986, and it’s been called the hardest foot race on earth. It’s a 250k race across the Sahara Desert, split over six days. It’s roughly a marathon a day, for six days. As you can imagine, it’s a hard race, really.
It doesn’t exactly sound fun. What made you want to do it?
My company donated some cinema equipment to a children’s hospice - so I got invited to the open day of this cinema. I went along to it, and I was really affected by meeting the people in this hospice - the children and the families - and I came away feeling like I wanted to do something to raise some money, so we could make some more of these cinemas. But nowadays, if you’re doing the London Marathon or something, no one cares.
You’ve got to go pretty far to impress people these days.
Exactly, so I started looking for eyebrow raising challenges that would make people take notice - doing a Google search - and I typed up ‘Hardest Race in the World’ and it came up. I literally booked it right there and then, without really thinking about it.
I’d done the Manchester 10k once, but I wasn’t really a runner - I just knew I didn’t like cold weather, I hated swimming and I was too clumsy to ride a bicycle, but I could put one foot in front of the other. And that’s when I realised that I had to start training for this. I had ten months.
"I had to sacrifice loads of stuff so I could go from being Mr Average to a proper athlete, so I wouldn’t die in the desert." - CP
How do you train for something like this?
I joined the local running club - Malvern Buzzards - and explained to them what I’d signed up for. And they emailed me back, saying, “I know someone who’s done the Marathon des Sables, I’ll put you in touch with him.” And it turned out this guy - Rory Colman - had done it 15 times. In the end he offered to coach me. He was like some sort of legend of the desert - he knew all the hacks and all the mistakes that most people make - and he certainly stopped me from making some bad decisions. On the first meeting with him, he was like, “Are you taking the piss? Most people train for three years to do this race.” He wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it, but he said that if I could do six marathons in six days, before Christmas, I had a chance. So I had four months to start clocking up the miles and get myself into some sort of shape.
A local and Chris Pinder (right)
Almost a Karate Kid training montage, with the old master showing you the way?
Yeah, he was like the desert running Yoda. I just started doing a lot of running, I gave up alcohol and I gave up bread - I had to sacrifice loads of stuff so I could go from being Mr Average to a proper athlete, so I wouldn’t die in the desert.
I suppose it’s something you’ve got to take pretty seriously.
This year over 200 people dropped out. On day three there were some big sandstorms - and it doesn’t matter how much training you can do, but you can’t prepare for anything like that, unless you hold a hair-dryer in your face and get someone to chuck some sand at you. It’s really hard to train for it in the UK. You’ve basically got to mentally admit that it’s going to be hell for six days.
"You can’t escape - it’s like you’ve been put in Mad Max - you’re stranded in the desert with your rucksack and your running shoes." - CP
None of this sounds too fun. What kept you on the track to doing this? A lot of people make bold claims or resolutions - but not many actually stick to them.
I’d made myself very publicly accountable. We’d launched a fundraising campaign - and every time someone donated, it was another reason not to quit. Some people didn’t actually donate until I did the race, as they didn’t think I was going to do it. By the time I started the race I already had £25,000 in donations, and we’re now at £46,000 - so it’s mission accomplished.
Going to the race - what’s the set-up at the start?
You fly to this random airport in the middle of the desert in Morocco, then you get on this coach which takes you for six hours even deeper into the desert. You’re at this camp, and you feel like a prisoner of war. You can’t escape - it’s like you’ve been put in Mad Max - you’re stranded in the desert with your rucksack and your running shoes.
At eight the next morning you queue up at this big inflatable start line, a French guy stands on top of a Land Rover - giving a speech about solidarity and stuff like that - and then they start playing AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ on a big PA system, they start counting down - and as they get to one a helicopter flies over your head. And then everyone charges off. As the day goes on you find your rhythm.
And each day you’re running to the next camp?
Yeah, they bring the same camp along everyday. If you finish the day too fast the camp might not even be ready - you’ll cross the finish line and you haven’t even got a tent to sit in, because they’re still putting it up. It’s not even really a tent anyway - it’s just a bit of material with two sticks in the middle.
I suppose if it was too luxurious no one would carry on.
The good thing is that they put you in a tent with other people from your country - and luckily the guys in my tent were solid guys.
How important was the camaraderie aspect? In marathons people always say that’s a big thing, but I imagine it’s amplified in a race like this.
Honestly, it felt like Band of Brothers and we were in the middle of a warzone. In my tent there was a banker, a school headmaster, a data analyst... some seriously clever people who I’d probably never socialise with outside of that environment - but in that tent you’re just eight blokes with rucksacks and running shoes. You’re all in the same situation.
There are so few times in modern life where you find yourself in a situation where people aren’t asking you what you’re doing for a living or what car you drive - but no one gives a shit about that in the desert - it’s more like, “Can I borrow your lighter?” or “The tent’s about to blow away.” And that was part of the race that I hadn’t thought about. What also makes it the hardest race is that you’re not just running in the desert, you’ve got to live in the desert as well.
What do you eat during the race?
That’s another really hard thing about the race - you’ve got to carry all your own food with you. So a lot of it is freeze-dried food that you add hot water to, or a lot of nuts or dried fruit - stuff that doesn’t weigh much, but has a lot of calories. You’d have energy gels during the race - then in the evening maybe some freeze-dried mash potato with bits of biltong, jerky or pepperami.
Like space food?
Just like that. I lost 6kg doing the race - which was a mixture of muscle wastage, dehydration and fat burn.
Quite the diet. How do you deal with the heat?
I think the highest temperature was 43°C. If you go too fast you get tired quicker and you might burn out before you finish the stage, so you’re trying to judge being efficient, whilst conserving water - because if you drink your water too quick you could then have five miles where your mouth is dry, your lips are burning and you’re getting all dizzy and woozy.
"When I crossed the line I couldn’t speak. And at the end of the race they give you a can of coke - the first sugary drink you’ve had - and it was unbelievable - the nicest thing I’ve ever drank in my life." - CP
The saving grace is that you don’t really sweat because it’s such a dry heat. And because you’re coping with so many other things at once, the heat is just another thing on the list.
As well as being a super physical battle - I imagine it’s a bit of a mental struggle too?
One minute you can think you’re super strong, and you’ve got it in the bag, and then half an hour later you’ve had to run up a bit of an incline, suddenly the sand has gone really soft and you’re knackered - and then you start to wonder what you’re doing.
I was trying to get into the top 100 - I didn’t want to just complete it, but I wanted to get a good place, which was just a silly idea. When day three came I was 117th - so I set off really fast and by halfway through there were only about 20 people in front of me, so I must have been making up some places. But I was really reliant on music - and all through my training I had these different playlists for different paces - so I’m running and I innocuously tried to pull my headphones as they were snagged on my rucksack - and a headphone came off in my hand. It killed my music, and I still had about 15 miles to go, but something in my head just went.
It really wobbled me, and I ended up getting a bit depressed. I stopped running for a bit and started walking, and I thought I was probably going to jack. I got into this spiral of negativity. I was walking on my own, getting more and more despondent, but then one of the guys from my tent came up behind me. I told him about it all, and that I was going to quit, but he managed to talk me down. He said, “Look mate, no one cares where you finish,” and really helped me out. So I finished that stage with him, and then did the whole of the next day with him - and we replaced the music with just talking rubbish for hours on end. I knew I wasn’t going to get in the top 100, so my focus shifted to finishing the race. And you know what? I still finished 158th - which is still decent.
"It’s almost like joining your first football team... and it’s Barcelona." - CP
It was strange how my lowest moment was basically breaking my headphones. A lot of people were struggling with their feet - their feet looked like something off the meat counter - but I was lucky with mine. Some people were hobbling by day two.
What was the last day like?
The night before the last day we actually had some messages delivered to camp - a bit like in I’m a Celebrity. My eldest daughter had written a couple of sentences, but my youngest just wrote two words, ‘Do well.” So on the last day I was going to give it full beans - and I was going to run as fast as I could the whole stage, and I was boosted because one of my tent-mates let me have his headphones. I’m at the starting line for the last day, my pack is as light as it’s been because I’ve eaten most of my food, I’m in good shape, I’ve got my music back, and I’ve got these words of encouragement from my daughters in my mind. I went off as fast as I could, running at my absolute limit - and I kept repeating to myself over and over “Do well... do well... do well...” the whole way.
When I crossed the line I couldn’t speak. And at the end of the race they give you a can of coke - the first sugary drink you’ve had - and it was unbelievable - the nicest thing I’ve ever drank in my life. And then the race photographer guy started filming me, and I started off very composed, and then I just went... started crying. I’ve never felt like it before - it was just a wave of realisation that what I’d done was quite a big deal considering where I’d been ten months before.
Not trying to be a macho man here - but I haven’t cried since my last daughter was born nine years ago. But when I crossed the line I just couldn’t speak - I was crying through sheer relief that it was over - rather than happiness that I’d done it.
When people finish marathons they usually say when they first cross the line, they don’t ever want to do another race... but then it’s not long before they start planning their next race and the bug gets them again. Has it been like that for you?
I fully relate to that. Now I’ve done this, it feels like whatever else I’m doing isn’t good enough. For that moment you were a bonafide ultra-athlete - almost heroic - and now you’re just back to being normal, and people are bored with your Instagram posts about the desert. You can’t keep talking to people about it. It almost feels like a dream - like I was acting in this movie - I had this gig for a week and then it’s over.
I’m constantly looking for another race now, but I still haven’t seen anything yet that looks on a par with the epic scale of the Marathon des Sables. It’s almost like joining your first football team... and it’s Barcelona. A few of us are thinking about coming up with our own challenge - getting a bit of a support crew and seeing what we can do.
Am I right in saying for your day job you work in tech - is it good to have a balance of doing something completely different?
You can have your phone with you, but you’ve got no service. I had my music on an old iPod, so my phone was just left in a suitcase which I wasn’t going to get back until the end of the race. And at first it was a really horrible feeling - and it’s obviously a feeling that even our parents would never have had to deal with - it’d be completely alien to them. But then after a day or so you realise that it doesn’t matter. You’ve got these people around you, and they’re interesting to talk to too. Although you’re in a pretty grim situation, you’re in an incredible part of the world. There’s something about making a fire and boiling up water and having to put a bit of effort into your food, that makes it taste better - when compared with getting a Deliveroo or whatever. You’re not looking to kill time in the same way.
Maybe a bit of a naff question - but has the race changed you at all?
I don’t think I sweat the small stuff as much. Most of the challenges you face on a daily basis aren’t life or death challenges - whether you’re going to dehydrate or whether you’re going to collapse. I used to get a little anxious about work things in the past, but I don’t think I have been to the same degree since I’ve been back.
It’s made me appreciate family time. What was interesting to find out was when I’m alone, with just my thoughts, what do I think about? Who do I think about? Where does my mind go? Because the things that pop into your head are either the things that you love the most, or the things that worry you - and what was interesting to discover was that I only really thought about my family. In the desert, when I was alone under the stars, I was just thinking of my kids and my wife - I wasn’t thinking about the football or whether we’d won a contract at work.
You quickly find out what’s important to you in situations like that. Rounding this off, what would you say to someone who was thinking of doing a race like this?
You’ll have no regrets about doing it. You don’t have to be a hippy or some sort of deep and meaningful life-coach loving, quotes-on-my-wall, kind of person to get something out of the race - there’s no doubt about it, you’ll come away feeling like it’s a very worthwhile challenge... but definitely train. You’ve basically got to think of the race, plus all the training before it. It’s extreme, but it’s super rewarding.
Photos by Jon Bromley.
Donate to ‘Together for Cinema’ via Chris’s Gofundme page here.