Mark Gillett

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James Cracknell’s Marathon des Sables

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James Cracknell – Superhuman?

I first met James at the bivouac on the Marathon des Sables, also known as the MdS. One of my commissions was to supply images for Discovery TV as they were filming James during this years race for a scientific programme analysing how the body reacts under such pressure in the desert heat. I was keen to examine his performance.

Is he superhuman or just a normal human being who is able to achieve the extraordinary? Like athletes Daley Thomson or Jesse Owen, or Richard Branson and Steve Jobs of the business world; these are individuals who found or find it hard to achieve anything less than perfection in their chosen fields.

The Marathon des Sables is a 250km run over some of the harshest terrain the Moroccan Sahara can throw up. It is a stage race where competitors run increasing distances each day until stage 4 which is 82 km long. They have to battle through of sand, mountains, rocks and wadi beds. Stage 5 is an official marathon and finally stage 6 is a mere 20 km but over some of the highest dunes in the world. And that brings them to the end of the race. It is a self sufficient run so James had to carry everything he needed for the 7 days and water was rationed and handed out at checkpoints and at the end of each stage.

The highest ranking Brits prior to this year were the two previous years at 13th. Ian Sharman in 2008 and William Davis in 2009

“I am not a runner and I weigh in at 90kg” James told me. “I will be pleased to finish top 50”. I was a bit sceptical at first as I have run the event and not being a runner and that heavy is incredibly hard going. Most of the top racers weigh in at 65 kilo’s max!

I did some research of my own though and saw that he had clocked a 1:18 half marathon and a 2:50 marathon.  That did not read like someone who does not run. Top 50 was looking more realistic to me now. Or at least until I saw him run…  His style was a little like Paula Radcliffe’s head but his whole body was wobbling. He certainly made it look like hard work.

Start Line Day1

The first day got going with the normal pazaz of the MdS, loud music at the start line, press everywhere and the helicopter hovering above the mass of runners. I was placed just in front of the start and James was right up at the tape just staring. No emotion, nothing showing in his face. Just staring. I snapped him. I also felt his energy or his presence. In fact more than I did any other runner in previous years, maybe it was just his size…

James set off at an incredible pace. He was grouped with the top runners most of the first stage which was 28 km. He finished this stage in 9th place and none of us could believe it. He was totally exhausted and the talk was “has he over cooked it?” “can he last?” and so on…. Honestly? in my heart, I felt he was done. He lost 2 kg that day and the fluids he was rationed to were nowhere near enough to replenish his body. He also looked awful.

He recovered quickly, though, and I could start my daily blog filming him speaking a few words about his race. He had a minute each day with a major online paper.  On the way to our location he commented “I am not impressed by the small gap between me and the elite runners. In a marathon I am so far behind at the end.” It occurred to me that he had just finished the equivalent of the first 12 minutes of a marathon. If he had measured the distance between him and the leader of a marathon at the same point there would not be a huge difference either.

The next day was brutal. A steep climb and much sand.

Reaching the top of the 500m jebel...

I saw James again at the top of the Jebel looking pretty bad. He did not even stop for a breather having hauled himself up the rope during the final meters of the climb. He just ran off. I was beginning to see this man differently to any other runner I had witnessed on the MdS before.

Again he finished a high 12th that day. His science team were looking worried but his recovery seemed so fast. He would reach each check point 12km apart looking pretty bad but always running. His TV crew were finding it hard to keep up with him and he finished each stage totally exhausted. An hour later he would be laughing with his tent mates.

Most of the 1000 runners end up walking the majority of the way. If you are inside the top 200 you probably run 70%, top 100, 85 % and top 20, 95 percent. The top Moroccan will run 99% of the distance with only the toughest jebel slowing him down to a trot!

James fitted well into this top bracket but with regard his size and sporting background he seemed to be achieving the impossible. Day 3 went by in the same way and stage 4 came about all too soon. 82 km of the toughest foot race in the world. “This is the hardest sporting event I have ever taken part in” he said into the camera after his day two efforts, “it just keeps getting tougher” was all he could say on day 3.

James set off well on the long stage. I saw him early on then again at the 52 km, Checkpoint 4 where many runners stop to overnight. James came in around 10th postion looking really bad. He still had 30 km to run. He took on his water, some quick food and left the camp within a few minutes. He wobbled out of the checkpoint off course. Then after a minute or so started running again and in the right direction.

I didn’t see James again until 10:14pm. He ran over the finish line in an incredible 10 hours 14 minutes and 4 seconds. What happened next will stay with me for a long time.

James wobbled to the barrier, then leaned over it. He could not speak a word. His pupils were dilated and he was not in a good way at all. He sat down in silence and took some tea. He then just collapsed.

Medic tent at the end of the 82km stage 4

The TV crew helped him to the medical tent where he was immediately attended by the doctor on duty. He took some more fluids and then threw it all up. Finally the Dr’s assessment was that he needed a drip. “Err what time penalty does that mean?” he blurted out his firstwords…  The reply was “Two hours”. James then refused the drip and said he would hold down the fluid. The Dr was not keen but finally gave him 30 minutes to keep to his promise. I left the tent and returned 45 mins later to see him coming round. Eyes back to normal. Myself and the TV crew looked at him, waiting for a response. A groan or another bout of throwing up. We didn’t know how to react after what we had just witnessed. He smiled, looked up, grinned and started cracking a few gags! James seemingly had made a recovery in just 45 minutes. No drip, no help, just pure will. Determined not to lose any time on a penalty his mind and body went to work to repair itself. And it did just that. The condition he crossed the line in would have put any other runner out of the race..I am sure.

After a day off, James ran the marathon stage well but with the same determination and pushing himself to unknown limits. The final day, stage 6, was a short but punishing run over Erg Merzouga, some of the highest dunes in the world. Just to make things worse, James pulled a hamstring early which really pissed him off. But somehow it did not stop him running. He ran it all defying all hamstrings injuries, finishing in 1:47 and completing the entire race in 12th place. The fasted Brit to date.

I interviewed James later back home and I do not believe he is superhuman in any way. I do however believe he has an incredible mind. He has the ability to turn things around. His self belief is strong, not invincible but he manages it so well.  He also is very aware that his body can take far more than it normally has to take in terms of punishment. He also seems to know his limits, just!

The MdS is the toughest footrace in the world and sporting event james has ever taken part in. He finished well but still 7 hours behind the winner.

James at finish line

James Interview

Q1 When you first thought about doing the MdS did you ever doubt you would complete it.

I thought if I didn’t finish it would be because I’d made a mistake, pushed too hard too early and either run myself into the ground or picked up an injury.

Q2 I understand your goal was top 50 before you started what did it change to after the first day?

Before the race started all the advice had been about making the most of the long day and that the first few stages are just a warm up. I relied on being able to recover and thought that a few strong runs on the early stages would give me some time in the bank.  Having said that I never thought that 9th was a realistic position but it meant I changed from aiming for top 50 to top 25.

Q3 How did the fact that you were very dehydrated affect the goal choice of yours after day one?

I found it hard looking at the colour of my urine and seeing how dark it was and yet trying to convince myself I had recovered enough to give it a real go that day.  But I told myself everyone else was in the same situation.  The reality was though that a lot of the runners in the top 25 weighed less than 70kg where as I’m 95kg so the limited water effected me more.

Q4 When you finished day 2 you dropped some places…  How did this affect your belief in your final positioning (goal)?

I was still really surprised I was so high so it didn’t bother me, what I wanted to do was hold whatever position I was in after the long day.

Q5 When you finished day 4 you were a mess (excuse me). Actually you looked a mess at CP4 and still had 30 km to go. At this time can you describe your feelings in terms of belief, whether you would finish the stage? And event?

The long day was the furthest I’ve ever run, in fact by CP4 that was the furthest I’d ever run at that point.  I felt terrible but as the sun had gone down I felt my body was starting to cool from the broiling it had received earlier in the day.  Starting at 12pm amongst the top 50 and running in that extreme heat really effected me.  Over the last 30km all I was thinking about was being able to lie down when I finished.

Q6 Do you doubt much in your life?

In life a lot of what I do is judged subjectively and because of that there is only so much control you have over the outcome as people have often made a decision about you before they’ve read or seen what you do.  In sport you get the result you deserve.

Q7 If you were to asses your belief characteristics how would you describe them?

A decade of full-time training in rowing has given me a belief that my body will hold up to most things I put it through but fundamentally I believe in that the more you put in the more you’ll get out.

Q8 In the medic tent you were offered a drip. Then told you would have to have a drip if you could not keep down your fluids. In my opinion many would have found a reason to drop out before this point in your situation and certainly in the medic tent. To what extent do you think your overriding belief in your abilities had an affect on your recovery? Medically you should have been given help…

When I first went in the medical tent I was really worried I’d never felt like that before and couldn’t understand what was happening.  Once I’d understood, relaxed and things started to clear I focused on getting the fluid down and hoped that would make a difference, if it didn’t the drip was always an option and something that I knew would work so I always had that as a back up.  Although it came with a massive time penalty.

Q9 As far as I could see the science said you should have dropped out a few times (I think but need to verify this with Neil) however, you defied this and went on to recover at a phenomenal rate allowing you to continue. How would this affect your belief in the science in future events?

Maybe I would have felt worse if I’d actually known what was happening to my body but I think the relatively simple life of running, resting, eating and drinking made it possible to recover.  At home I always seem to be rushing around doing a load of things so to focus on just running and recovering was a refreshing change.

Q10 Last one…Have you ever used a sports psychologist coach?

We rarely used one rowing but that was because we trained together every day and our coach knew us better than anyone so didn’t really feel the need for a stranger who didn’t know us that well come in.  I think its totally different when you haven’t got team-mates to rely on during an event.  I used psychologists when recovering from injury as its important to make sure that when fully recovered the confidence is back to fully load up the joint.  A lot of what sports psychologists say is common sense and as that’s something most sportsmen lack they therefore play a vital role!

Mark Gillett is photojournalist but also a performance coach. He has run the MdS as well as 8 marathons and many other races. In his previous life he was a Tennis Professional.

James from the air....

Medic supplies on the long stage....

Written by markgillett

September 14, 2010 at 5:21 pm

14 Responses

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  1. Great writeup Mark – cool pictures and very inspirational stuff!


    September 14, 2010 at 7:14 pm

  2. Thanks, Richard…. He was a good runner to follow and I enjoyed seeing such a high performance.


    September 15, 2010 at 8:06 am

  3. Nice read and impressed with his efforts. Wishing him well on his recovery. What really gets on my nerves though is people who call it the hardest footrace on earth. Why is it that people write that? It’s rubbish and you of all people Mark should know better.


    September 16, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    • Hi Michael,

      Its all relative really. I call it that and if you run it properly then it can be for many people. Same as a few other events like the Badwater. Actually for me a 26.2 mile marathon is the hardest simply because you push your body to its limit in such a short time. You drain it of its resources in order to finish with a PB and your preparation is far more intensive. Its a much more finely tuned event to race because if you are too heavy you fail, too light you lack strength, over trained and you get injured etc……. My body hurts far more and for far longer after a Marathon than any other race. So yes, I agree with you if you intend to potter round, walk at the middle to back or not really push. James pushed like I have never seen before. So do the front runners. Most never see them but I see them cross the line of each stage often collapse and often throw up. Everyone else thinks they just do it easily….

      I also hate 10km races!

      Thanks for your comments…..


      September 16, 2010 at 2:57 pm

      • Thanks for the reply Mark. Yes it is all relative and I know full well that the top athletes far ahead of me do not find it easy and are suffering just as much as I do.

        I guess I am turning into a grumpy old man – despite having been on polar expeditions, rowed an ocean and been in some of the most inhospitable places on earth, people ask me have you done the Mds…

        My post is not meant to take anything away from any athlete who attempts this, I just think it gets a bit over-hyped.


        P.S not a fan of the 10k either


        September 16, 2010 at 6:20 pm

  4. Hey Michael,

    No worries… It gets hyped for sure..I just don’t like spoiling peoples day. If they feel its the toughest thats cool. It certainly is if run hard. How it competes with others I think is just dependant on how you run them. As for polar, I have not yet done that but will soon. James was adamant this was the toughest thing he had ever done……

    For me it was not. I love the heat, love the desert and loved the MdS but I also trained hard so I could enjoy it.

    Sounds like you have done a lot too…. What year did you run the MdS?


    September 16, 2010 at 6:25 pm

  5. nice post mark – inspirational.

    ah.. is it the toughest…. nope, but that never takes away the opportunity for us all to make any given situation the toughest thing we have ever done.

    I am trying to get my 5km time down to 24mins, for me this is by far the hardest thing i have ever’s all relative i guess.

    for many people, having the label is very important, having suffered through a race in brazil where the race director was determined to grab the title for toughest race, it all seemed so pointless.

    on the mds tho, to spend a week in the beautiful desert with 700 other likeminded people, to challenge yourself and experience a wide variety of emotions… what a fantastic thing to do, whether it’s tough or not is irrelevant.



    September 17, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    • Hi Kes,

      I agree about the 5k. I hate that but at least I got mine down to 19 mins!!! Keep going mate.

      I am not sure if its the label of being the toughest. The MdS use to be the only run like it so it evidently was the hardest run that anyone could do but now there are many copies and others too… Its undoubtedly in that bracket of toughest races. The rest is down to how you perform….

      Speak soon.



      September 19, 2010 at 10:40 am

  6. I followed James this year and was really interested in reading this article, as was my husband who did the MDS in 2009. Great read!


    September 19, 2010 at 10:27 am

    • Hi Leah…. Thanks and glad you enjoyed it… He is easy to write about..


      September 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm

  7. Wow, thanks Mark for a great read. A fantastically written report.



    September 20, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    • Thanks Darren….



      September 20, 2010 at 2:37 pm

  8. I was on the cot in the medical tent next to James after stage 4. It was really pretty impressive how when he heard they may put a drip in he immediately refused it. I left the medical tent not that long after he came in so was really amazed to read just quite how quickly he recovered.


    September 30, 2010 at 7:47 pm

  9. […] leave a comment » James Cracknell – Superhuman? I first met James at the bivouac on the Marathon des Sables, also known as the MdS. One of my commissions was to supply images for Discovery TV as they were filming James during this years race for a scientific programme analysing how the body reacts under such pressure in the desert heat. I was keen to examine his performance. Is he superhuman or just a normal human being who is able to achieve the extraordinary? Li … Read More […]

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