Running the Marathon Des Sables for The Urology Foundation

I was languishing in Baghdad last September, having completed my final run in the sun because I hoped not to have to return there for some time. I have subjected myself to running in 50-degree heat because, in a fit of madness and cabin fever brought on by a work trip earlier in the year, I signed up for the 2019 Marathon Des Sables (MDS).

For those of you who do not know, the MDS is what most sane people would label a challenge. It is a six day, 160-mile ultra-marathon, in the Sahara Desert. The longest day is a double-marathon, the shortest a single, and the terrain is undulating to say the least – so ends theory. You are required to carry all of your own equipment, survival kit and food for the entirety. You do not quite sleep under the stars, but the black tarpaulin propped up on sticks leaves little to the imagination…

Whilst training in the Iraqi mid-summer heat is good acclimatisation for a desert run, some of you may have been keeping up with the news of political unrest in the country and wondering if that presents a danger to running out in the open. In short, yes it does. However, whilst the general animosity towards westerners, mingled with the ready availability of legacy Soviet automatic weapons and Iranian made IEDs, did occupy my nerves during these runs; the true reason I kept my head on a swivel out there is for much more mundane threats. The treacherous combination of a lack of pavements and barely established driving regulations is particularly acute here. The aggressive, and often bigoted, nature of local guard dogs is also a concern. However, I will admit that the suspicion with which a runner should treat freshly disturbed earth – picking his way carefully – is probably the most alarming concern. Suffice to say most of my runs have provided for an engaging experience and breath-taking evening scenery.

Why would anyone torture themselves like this? I hear you cry. Firstly, it is useful to find ways to stave off that civilian body shape for another year. Secondly, I would like to do something useful for others before I am thirty. Therefore, I am going to run this hyper-marathon for charity. My main beneficiary will be The Urology Foundation (TUF), which some of you may know was very supportive of mum and I, in the wake of dad’s illness. They are the only UK charity dedicated to all urology diseases – while not the most glamorous of subjects – half of us will develop such a disease in our lifetime. Next summer will be the seventh anniversary of Dad’s death and, while I doubt you would ever have persuaded him to attempt the MDS, it does seem a fitting challenge to undertake in order to help raise funds in his memory.

I have now moved to the USA to continue training. On my first morning, I went for a jet lag run up the other National Mall. When I reached the Lincoln memorial, I found a large group of runners who clearly had the same idea as me – stair sprints. These famous steps, as many of you will know, must be one-hundred feet wide, but all the runners were jogging up one side only in what resembled a large and congested conveyor belt. Not wanting to be constrained in a large pack I rationally decided to run up and down the empty side. The tutting began in earnest and I could feel the judgement at my back for my unwarranted display of initiative and self-preservation. My first lesson in the land of freedom was learned – go along, before you get along.

I am now running in my race shoes, which I was told need to be bought one and a half sizes too big, to accommodate for foot swelling in the Sahara. Recent training has proven that the American winter is not very conducive to training for the forty-degree heat of the desert. The above photo of a recent run in Philadelphia should help demonstrate this, but at least it allowed me to pose like Rocky. The more avid fans might have noticed that the statue is further away in my photo than the original… I would never want to pretend that Rocky could not make it to the top of the steps, but clearly to get the best no-filter snap, he decided not to.

My job here involves travelling nationwide for meetings and the frequent need to travel with hand luggage only has sometimes left me without the space for trainers. Resorting to occasional on-the-spot sprints in a hotel room, is often preferable to slipping down an icy Denver street. And with the heating turned up to full, you can even create a more realistic training environment than the one found outside. The first time I have braved the bracing air outside, I quickly realised that donning t-shirt and shorts whilst embracing the Army mantra of ‘be bold and start cold’ is less of a thing in Washington than Salisbury Plain and can be downright dangerous. I recently read an article by an MDS veteran, who described the strange looks he got from his fellow gym members whilst doing step-ups and sit-ups in a crowded sauna. I have not resorted to this yet.

I have set up my Just Giving pages, which can be found by clicking here. My target is at least £30,000, to make the investment cost worthwhile. You will find that there is a page for each charity ─ TUF and the Household Cavalry Foundation (HCF) ─ and I have decided to send 90% of funds raised to TUF and 10% to HCF. Therefore, if you are kind enough to donate, then please split your donation accordingly. 

I am now into the final two-month stretch. Training is ramping up, until the final two weeks which will be purely stretching and rest. Send happy thoughts and innovative yoga techniques, please. Any audiobook recommendations would be greatly appreciated – I have a lot of hours to fill.

Comments (6) Add yours ↓
  1. Roger Kirby Professor of Urology

    Fantastic! When the going gets TUF, supporters of TUF get going! That is certainly true of Tom, who follows on from our amazing Atlantic rowers in doing an extraordinary challenge for TUF. Do ask your patients and friends to support him, and Tom please keep this blog updated with your progress in training and during the challenge itself. We are most grateful for your endeavours.

    February 26, 2019 Reply
  2. Louise de Winter The Urology Foundation

    Thank you, Tom, for supporting TUF in this way. Fascinating to read about your training in the extremes of the Iraqi heat to the penetrating cold of a US winter. What you’re doing is incredible and the MDS does have to be one of the hardest physical challenges on land.

    In terms of books, I highly recommend ‘A Gentlemen in Moscow’ by Amor Towles, for something thoughtful, lyrical and humorous too, or you can try the post-apocalyptic ‘End of the World Running Club’ by Adrian Walker.

    Do keep us posted with your progress.

    Good luck!

    February 26, 2019 Reply
  3. Ben challacombe Consultant

    What an amazing challenge. This is surely the king of all long distance events with the sand and the heat and the kit carrying. Sounds like your thermostat is being challenged both ways at present !
    Best of luck and thanks so much for supporting TUF.


    February 26, 2019 Reply
  4. Justin Collins Urologist

    Amazing challenge. Hope it all goes well and you raise lots of money for your Hurculean effort. Best of luck and wishing you every success.

    February 27, 2019 Reply
  5. Roger Kirby Professor of Urology

    I think you mean “Herculean” Justin!
    Thanks for the comment though

    February 28, 2019 Reply
  6. Duncan Summerton Consultant Urologist, BAUS Pres


    What a superb commitment to raising money and awareness – truly impressive.

    As an ex-“matelot” my (anaesthetist) cabin-mate aboard RFA Argus Hospital ship trained for this whilst we were in the Gulf in 2003 in similar temperatures. He only had a treadmill and flight deck to use, but subsequently completed the MDS and found it an amazing experience.

    All the very best.


    March 6, 2019 Reply

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