Ordinary people can do extraordinary things if they want to – my ultra running story

I may not have a beard and a Patagonia Trucker Cap, but I am an ultra runner.

My lack of the seemingly obligatory kit is telling. I didn’t grow up wanting to run silly distances, or to encourage others to do.

But that’s what has happened.

And this is me now. An ordinary man with some extraordinary tales to tell. Central to those stories are my experiences running four of the toughest footraces on Earth – experiences I want to share with you today.

How it all began

Of course, like most – although not all! – ultra runners I didn’t just get out of bed one morning and decide to run 100kms.

I started off with the usual sensible short distance races – 10ks up to half-marathons, with some obstacle course racing thrown in.

Then, in 2021, I got fed up of not being able to get into the London Marathon – sound familiar! When I got an email asking me what my goal was for 2012, I realised I didn’t have one.

And before I knew it I had opted to run my first ultra, a mere 100km from London to Brighton.

Incredibly, I made it through that race relatively unscathed, but more to the point, I was hooked. I was an ultra runner.

the marathon des sables

My first big race came in 2015, and what a race it was.

That year, the Marathon des Sables was celebrating its 30th anniversary. Dubbed the toughest footrace on earth by The Discovery Channel, it was an event that I had wanted to run since falling in love with ultra running.

My wife, naturally, thought it would be the pinnacle of my running career and sanctioned it on that basis, despite the fact I would be away for my youngest daughter’s birthday.

Seven days and 165 miles through the searing heat of the Moroccan Sahara awaited me, along with the company of over1,300 runners from 50 different countries.

On arrival in Morocco, the first test was an eight-hour coach transfer through forebodingly monotonous landscape. Once at the campsite, it was mayhem trying to find a space in a tent – there were clearly enough spaces but people were reserving spaces for friends.

The tent mates you find at an event like MDS are extremely important. You take care of each other over the course of the race, sharing food and stories. The camaraderie found between ultra runners is well known – at MDS it is multiplied by ten.

Every morning on the start line, we would have a moment of silence for those who had not made the start that day – it was very emotional even though we had no idea who they were. These were fellow runners who had given up so much in time, money and effort just to be there but would not get a finishers medal. 

After three days of roughly marathon-a-day distances, day four – the long day we feared the most – arrived. It consisted of 56 gruelling miles through the desert heat. I arrived back at 4am having started at 8am the previous day.

The temperature has reached more than 50 degrees in the day, while the night was chillingly cold and sunglasses were no help against the blast of countless sandstorms.

Day five is a rest day – thankfully I could get my much-blistered foot tended by the vicious medical team, doctors whose armoury consisted of a long needle, iodine and tape. 

Suitably patched up, I took on the final day of the race, a marathon accompanied by plenty of painkillers and strapping.

The race founder Patrick Bauer is quoted as saying: “For a lot of participants, the Marathon des Sables is an opportunity to break with everyday life and feel a sense of timelessness.

There is even a spiritual dimension, a quest for answers to what are at times very personal questions.”

He’s not wrong. It’s a race that would have many thinking they have proved all they need to. My wife certainly felt that would be the case – she WAS wrong!

The internet is full of tempting races and I discovered the aptly named Beyond the Ultimate website and with it the 144-mile, five day, self-sufficient, Amazon Jungle Ultra.

The race would fall on my eldest daughters’ birthday and my wedding anniversary!

off to the amazon

Welcome to Colombia. The time before a race is nerve wracking to say the least and I was ill prepared for the altitude. I’m not sure I was much more prepared for guinea pig for dinner.

The race entrants travelled to the starting line on a minibus with bald tyres and a dubious overtaking strategy. It was a wonder we made it there at all.

After the briefing, where I was seriously out of breath climbing the stairs and a mouthful of coca leaves did nothing to help, I retired for the night in the relative luxury of a tented camp in the cloud forest.

Race day soon came and that luxury became a distant memory as we shot off down a hill. A drop into a river valley was accompanied by only a rope – and followed by hideous, 1,000ft climb.

An hour in, I felt a heart attack might be in the offing, but 24 miles later my fellow runners and I somehow made it to camp. The power of one foot in front of the over has few rivals.

After a shorter day two, the race entered the jungle. I remember one section where the path had collapsed and been replaced by another rope. What a way to learn to trust your co-competitors – with a 100ft drop if you didn’t make it.

The highlight of day three was a hot and steep climb, followed by a lovely coast downhill to the Santa Rosa camp, where runners were greeted by children with beads sprint racing you to the finish.

That evening demonstrated why the rainforest got its name as it tipped it down all night, soaking equipment – and the course.

The next morning it was touch and go if we would be allowed to continue, but the decision was made to continue, and everyone pressed on over what was a 22-and-a-half-mile section that started with an aerial wire crossing. And you thought running involved having your feet on the ground!

It continued to rain until lunch time but the day was broken up by a short boat ride across water – it was too dangerous to cross any other way.

A near vertical climb which involved kicking-in for foot holds and grabbing at tree roots, and a long descent, meant the day was far tougher than expected.

The good news for the final day was that we finished near the camp so didn’t need to pack away or carry our hammocks – the bad news was that the stage was 57.5 miles long and contained over 50 river crossings and 12 miles of thick jungle!

We started in darkness and after a long haul, were eventually told at the last checkpoint that we were a few kilometers away from the finish.

It was almost too much to believe, but the sound of music and a sign for the finish soon followed. Runners were again joined by local children as we approached the end. They insisted on dragging me the last half a mile at a pace my battered body was not really capable of.

A beer and some meat-on-a stick awaited. To this day I’m not sure what that meat was, but after a week of freeze-dried food it was more than welcome.

After a day of rest, we even had dinner with the local Mayor, consisting of yucca and piranha fish. 

The death-defying journey back to Cusco and the long flight home were safely navigated – that was surely it, my wife thought… but no, not quite.

to hell and back

I had started to harbour a strong desire to see the Himalayas – well, run in them – so I looked up the Everest trail race.

But it was way outside of my budget (both the real and the fake one!). I thought maybe that was that, until an advert for the Hell Race popped up on Facebook feed.

It sounded ideal, a terrible name and cheap too. Naturally, I sent 55,000 rupees to a man I had never met, in a country I have never been to! 

The journey to India had begun…

When I broke the news to Mrs H, she didn’t seem to share my excitement, especially when the altitude training machine arrived. Big noisy and annoying when people are trying to watch TV doesn’t quite cover it!

Not long after I signed up, I got a message saying the race had been delayed by a week as the road it travels on hadn’t been cleared and opened after the snows!

But despite that false start, I made it to India, where I encountered a super clean and modern underground system. At least that was the case in the airport. After changing trains, I was met by about 1,000 people in a space meant for 500 and a policeman controlling crowds with a pistol.

A 15-hour bus ride followed – always good for the legs before an ultra – and a simply terrifying tuk-tuk journey to the hotel.

My fellow runners are amused to find I live at 80 feet of altitude, but after a day or two of acclimatisation we were ready to take the steep drive up to the camp before the race the next morning.

Day one started slowly as we struggled to find the start line, which turned out to be some spray paint on the road – a plain start to an epic race.

Another delay followed due to a pair of insistent Indian couples who wanted to have their photo taken with me, and an impromptu dance with some Sikhs which left me breathless.

The tarmac of the start quickly changed to a dirt road. I had been told it was impossible to go wrong as there was only one road, but things didn’t look right.

I asked the soldier if I was on the right route and he directed me to an office. The commander asked me for my passport (I didn’t have it), my visa (I didn’t have it), then asked me what I was doing there.

When I said I was running a race, he sensibly asked where everyone else was. At that point, I realised I hadn’t seen anyone for a while.

Things were starting to get a bit hairy when he asked me to follow him into a dubious looking alleyway at the side of the building, but thankfully a race official arrived with the paperwork and I was saved.

After finishing the stage, our aching legs were put through a 70km drive to our hotel – ‘The Yak’ – where no one spoke English but a sign promised hot water between 7pm and 9pm. Sadly, it was a short lived and cold post-7pm shower!

The next day we were stopped en-route to the start. Again, no-one had passports until the support vehicle arrived to save the situation. We eventually got to the start at the exotically named Zin Zin Bar, which was nothing more than some tin sheds.

We started out on an 18km climb as the air became increasingly thin at 4,900m. My mood wasn’t boosted when it started to snow, but with the help of two fellow racers I managed to walk the last nine miles – including an unwelcome trek past and back to the campsite.

Cold to the core and wrapped in a duvet, I managed to keep dinner down and slowly started feeling better. The race was on.

Day three was the Gata Loops – 21 switchbacks and a climb up to 5.000m. When I reached the top, I was spent. Luckily my fellow runners again helped me continue and despite a hail storm on the way down and a close call where I had to dive into a gully to escape possible death, I finally completed the stage.

As the next day dawned, I felt rough. I was sick of the relentless diet of chai and noodles, and the high altitude. The latter problem was slightly alleviated when the day’s running took in the Moray Plains, but once again we had to run past the finish and double back.

I have to admit that my stubborn streak kicked in and when my watch hit 26.4 miles. I refused to run any further, grabbing a lift in the car for the last 0.2 miles. Every metre counts!

The final day began with a 10 mile climb up to Tag Lang La. At 17,500 feet, it is the second highest road pass in the world. I stopped at almost every step, battling against the snow and ice, but the top eventually arrived and the following 16 miles of downhill proved an upside.

The downside? A doctor produced a blood oxygen meter that recorded dangerously low blood oxygen saturation and a racing pulse. He told me I was in a bad way, but when I said I just wanted my trophy he allowed me to carry on, his oxygen cylinder remaining unused.

Eventually, after enduring blazing heat, lots of switchbacks and sunburn I crossed the finish line – a suitably glamorous piece of tape held by two people.

But what of the much-heralded benefits of altitude training? No luck there, I’m afraid. I just had sore lungs for weeks and could barely speak for days.

My wife really thought that would bring the crazy stuff to an end… it wasn’t.

wildlife - and a wild life!

A call from a running friend – Dan, who had run South American jungle adventure with me plunged me back into the world of extreme, long-distance events.

He told me I had to take part in a race that travelled through Kenya and wildlife game reserves – who was I to say no?

I hadn’t really prepared well for the race due to the pressures of work, and a lot of my equipment had become old and battered. Could this have been one race too many?

Day one was suitably steady, but I developed a terrible lump on my shoulder. The medic said it was a hematoma, which sounded suitably awful. I asked him how long I had to live and if I would see my family again… to which he told me it was bruise!

A makeshift shoulder pad made from a cable tie and a hotel spa slipper was to do the trick.

The next day saw us running through the grasslands, a brave move considering we didn’t know what might have been in that thick African grass. Another issue was dehydration. We had been warned to monitor the colour of our urine, but I didn’t need to pee all day. We were all in trouble for not drinking enough water.

That said, when the middle of the night came, I was suddenly desperate for the toilet. But the presence of chattering lions persuaded me I didn’t actually need to go that much.

The next morning we had set off for Loldaiga. The views were stunning and we saw a lot of wildlife. Indeed, at our third campsite we were entertained by a couple of giraffes.

The nights were getting colder and it was harder and harder to sleep, but these events have no time for discomfort. Stage four was soon upon us, and it came with a strong running day – at least until I tripped over, smashing my camera, knee and elbow. Worst of all the flies took a liking to the taste of my blood.

The day’s final checkpoint was only six kilometres from the finish, but came with the but of a 3km steep climb and a long, sandy downhill section. We did receive some brighter news once we reached camp though – we were to be presented our finishers’ medals the following day by a famous Kenyan runner.

That was the good news. There was strange news as well. A friend of mine, Brian, was running the race for Save the Rhino and had been part of a team sharing the joy of being dressed as one of those noble creatures while running.

On the last day, he told me one of his team had dropped out, meaning he needed a rhino substitute. That would be me then!

I agreed to do the first hour – it was really hard as you can’t see your feet but I went as fast as I could. After the hour was up, I chased down the pack, sneaking up on Dan and roaring in his ear like a lion. He wasn’t impressed!

The terrain was supposed to be flat, but there was a constant incline and a cold, howling wind. We passed lots of tourists in minibuses and trucks who were bewildered by the fact we were running outside – especially when I was joined on my run by two giraffes. I can honestly say nothing gives you a greater sense of freedom than running alongside such incredible animals.

Finally. I heard the sounds of the finish line and saw the welcoming flags. Once there I was greeted by no other than Eliud Kipchoge, soon to become the fastest marathon runner on earth.

We spent the night in a posh tented hotel – they even give us a white towel on arrival, though that wasn’t the greatest idea when we hadn’t washed or shaved properly in a week!

helping others 'go beyond' their dreams

Was that it – maybe?

In the meantime, we decided to create our own event in Nepal to combine all of the things I had experienced.

That intimate race is the Capital to Country Multi-Day Ultra. It consists of only 20 competitors, taking place every November and starting in Kathmandu before passing through the incredible scenery of the foothills.

It is an adventure which I hope will bring runners as much joy as my own ultras brought me.

So, importantly, what did I learn from all of this:

  • The world is big and we are small
  • You can’t fight nature only embrace it
  • There are always people worse off than you. At MDS I had a nasty blister. Blind Dave couldn’t see a thing but still completed the race
  • Never judge anyone – Tony who I met in the jungle was a scruffy looking guy with a missing tooth and a sleeve tattoo who turned out to be a serving SAS trooper
  • Kindness doesn’t have a language – a helping hand or a reassuring armaround the shoulder doesn’t need translating
  • A good dose of extreme running, and the training and preparation that goes into it can distract you from your worries
  • Our lives are too soft. We have everything we need to hand. When it’s you versus a multi-day run in an extreme environment you have to draw on your own resources
  • It is possible to keep going when you think you can’t
  • We can share and take care of each other
  • Friendship can mean wearing a rhino suit
  • However much you prepare and worry you can’t think of everything or every possibility
  • And finally ordinary people can do extraordinary things if they want to