Daily Express, December 26, 2006

THE CRAZIEST THING I’LL EVER DO

DUNCAN CRAIG is training to run six marathons in seven days in the Sahara desert. Ignore the ‘why’, here’s the ‘how’

MY TRAINING for the “toughest footrace on Earth” began where I feared the whole enterprise might end – in Accident & Emergency. Preparing for a medically inadvisable six marathons in seven days, in the Sahara, my flatmate Blake cycled into a stationary car.

The leisurely ride was supposed to gently introduce our cardiovascular systems to the concept of exercise. But before the two could even exchange pleasantries, we were crunching around in the remnants of a rear windscreen, Blake with a bloodied arm thrust skywards in a tribute to some half-remembered first aid advice.

Having braked suddenly at a pedestrian crossing, the driver felt sufficiently culpable to offer his by now rather draughty Vauxhall as an ambulance. It was not the most auspicious of starts to our training for the Marathon des Sables (MdS).

The event was conceived by Frenchman Patrick Bauer in 1986. Two years earlier, the former concert promoter had taken a 200-mile solo journey across the Algerian Sahara. Moved by the beauty and brutality of the landscape, and the catharsis it provoked, he decided to share the experience, while tapping into the growing appetite for self-flagellatory fundraising.

Today, despite steep entry costs, a less than reassuring “corpse repatriation fee” and more than a few differences from your average week in the sun, the MdS fills its restricted annual quota years in advance and raises hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity.

The annual event is defiantly, refreshingly sadistic – the perfect antidote to our pampered world. Self-sufficient, save for a stingy daily water allowance of nine litres, its 750 competitors must conquer 150 miles of bleached, wind-lashed wilderness – a third of it in a single day.

Steep entry costs and a less than reassuring ‘corpse repatriation fee’

Temperatures bubble around 50C, sandstorms scour the resolve and towering sand dunes plunder the last remaining energy reserves.

At night, when the merciless sun grudgingly retreats behind the horizon, the hobbling, withered masochists drag themselves into communal tents for the comforts of weightless, tasteless dried food and fractious sleep.

Every dawn they wake to a brutal choice: strap up their gnarled feet and push on into the unyielding furnace or surrender to the ever-lengthening “Liste des Abandons” and outwardly forgivable/inwardly insufferable failure.

Make no mistake, if you don’t conquer the desert on your first attempt, it will haunt you until you return – as Sicilian police officer Mauro Prosperi will attest. When he got lost in a sandstorm in 1994, he wandered the desert for nine days, living off dead bats and boiled urine.

He was found 125 miles off course, 40lbs lighter, with terrible breath. Four years later he was back. As competitors are warned, the MdS is “the craziest thing you’re ever likely to undertake”.

An MdS veteran had warned me that one of the greatest enemies to preparation was runner’s “burnout”. A varied training programme was what was needed, he insisted.

With Blake temporarily restricted to nothing more physically demanding than trying to shower with his arm encased in a plastic bag, I turned to the internet, eventually resurfacing at Bikram yoga. I was off to the desert; Bikram is done in 40C heat. I wanted a painless start; yoga is mostly standing around posing, isn’t it? Perfect.

A competitor got lost in a sandstorm in 1994. He wandered the desert for nine days, living off dead bats and boiled urine

“Any beginners with us today?” the incessantly upbeat instructor chirped. I didn’t need to raise my hand. I was sweating like John Prescott at an office party and we were only on the first breathing exercise. All around me, svelte bodies in swimming costumes were being effortlessly contorted into unfathomable postures.

My lazy preconceptions foundered in a sea of sweat on that first, gruelling morning. I have never worked so hard.

Bikram yoga, named after its now seriously financially enlightened founder Bikram Choudhury, consists of a 90-minute sequence of 26 postures and two breathing exercises which stretch and strengthen specific muscles, ligaments and joints; the heat supposedly helps to deepen stretches and flush out toxins.

With a growing global army of followers, it is credited with everything from improving body alignment and circulation to curing chronic injuries and relieving stress. I left my first class drenched and dizzy but revitalised. Thereafter, I found the sessions slightly less arduous. I still looked like a dad at his daughter’s ballet class but I found my flexibility improving and energy levels rising.

Our aim was to be “marathon fit” – capable of banging out 26 miles in relative comfort – four months prior to the event in March. This process itself normally takes months but by the time Blake returned from injury we only had a few weeks.

The body quickly came to expect a daily hit of running and would become restless if rested. Steadily my endurance began to build: an hour, 90 minutes, two hours. But distance running is as much about rhythm as it is about fitness, and now the engine – the heart and lungs – was rarely getting out of second gear.

I was like a pub regular drinking the same amount every night and never feeling the effects. What I needed was a weekly binge.

To my endurance and yoga-aided flexibility, I was adding reserves of explosive power, a 4×4 gear, to drive me up those dunes

Which was how, via some groundless bravado, I came to be fronting up to a ring-hardened boxer in a remote corner of a local park. His first punch ripped through my flimsy guard and jerked my head back, dislodging my headband. As I pawed at the regrettable accessory with my gloved fist, he emptied a two-punch combo into my unprotected mug.

With my ego bruising badly, I lashed out, throwing a right hook that was more Slug & Lettuce than sweet science, but which somehow connected with the heavyweight’s head. “Gosh, sorry!” I blurted out. Tyson, I was not.

It was the first and last sparring session I had with Paul. Thereafter we returned to the pad-based, boxing-centred circuit training in which this affable former British universities champion specialises.

Following an introductory session that left my lungs twitching and arms trembling, I’d signed up for weekly workouts. The boxing progressed gradually, from stance, movement and defence to the intricacies of individual punches. We advanced to a series of high intensity, three-minute rounds, building to punishing combinations.

This was punctuated by improvised circuit training in which innocuous features of the park would take on an unspeakable menace. Trees, pitch markings, benches – all were ingeniously enlisted for Paul’s torturous designs.

Having a personal trainer was a revelation. One hour in the open with Paul was worth 10 worshipping alone in that stagnant temple of self-deception, the gym.

To my endurance and yoga-aided flexibility, I was adding reserves of explosive power, a 4×4 gear, to drive me up those dunes. For the first time I began to feel like I might just stand a chance in the desert in March.

But the clock is ticking, the base of my hourglass filling ominously with sand.

* Duncan and Blake have teamed up with their local bar, Gigalum, in Clapham, South London, to raise £20,000 for Noma sufferers. See www. facingafrica. org Paul Carroll, personal trainer (London area): call 07790 210 031 or e-mail paul@fit2be.com