Health & Fitness Correspondent Lorna King reports on a fire officer’s participation in the legendary Marathon des Sables and his remarkable journey across the Sahara Desert
In recent months I have been working on two separate themes for FIRE: personal resilience and extreme challenges for charity. I am undecided as to which category this article best fits, because it is a story that covers both in abundance. It is enriched with unexpected twists and shocking revelations, not unlike those found in blockbuster movies and documentaries, but for Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service (HFRS) Station Commander James Bull, it is a reality that has demanded more of him than he ever thought possible.
The legendary Marathon des Sables (MDS) is a 250km foot race across the Moroccan Sahara Desert. Participants can walk or run the distance, but they must complete it in six days and be totally self-sufficient, carrying everything with them needed to survive. It is a race I have heard mentioned frequently within my running community – the monster of all endurance races. It is feared. It is respected. It is on many a bucket list. But I have never before met anyone who has willingly signed up for the challenge.
I first spoke to James a week before he was due to leave for Morocco, at the end of September 2021. I initially thought we had a bad telephone connection until he casually dropped into the conversation that he was shelling a bucket-load of monkey nuts while we talked – one of the many jobs on his list in preparation for a departure he has been anticipating for three years. James has trained to optimum fitness, both mentally and physically, three times, only for the race to be repeatedly cancelled because of the pandemic. This will be his fourth attempt, and with only a week until departure, this time it is certain the race will go ahead. He says: “You’ve got to keep training, you’ve got to be ready to go at the drop of a hat, and it’s been really difficult. It’s difficult enough training for something like this because it’s considered the hardest race in the world, but when you peak and then go into taper three times – I’ve had my fill of it now, I need to get on and do it!”
James joined HFRS in 2000 and has worked his way up through the ranks across different stations within the county. Before he told me what inspired him to take on the MDS, I asked what I have asked most Fire Service personnel in my interviews, and the answer was unexpected. I said: do you enjoy your job? And he replied: “That’s a difficult one. I used to, but my mental health is causing me issues that make enjoying what I do more of a challenge. The job has made me ill and robbed me of the person I once was. I still enjoy elements of it, but I’m not in love with it anymore. I do think it’s damaged me.”
This threw me at first. I’ve only ever heard Fire Service personnel talk about it being the best job in the world. As we continued to talk, James revealed that these feelings and how he has subsequently dealt with them, are his reason for taking on the MDS. James has struggled with his mental health for some years and for many of them he bottled up his feelings and tried to carry on regardless.
In 2017, James realised that the stigma attached to talking about mental health in the emergency services needed to be challenged, and as a first step towards raising awareness, he asked for help. “I started having therapy and since then I’ve been on this journey. I’ve turned a complete circle from not talking about it and keeping it secret for 20 years to becoming a public speaker and a mental health ambassador for various organisations. It’s been good for my own therapy… The reason I chose the MDS is because it is so iconic, and I knew it would have a high profile. If I wanted to expose my story and be an advocate for mental health, then I wanted to pick the race with the highest profile. The MDS has attracted a lot of media attention and I’ve managed to get a lot of sponsorship.”
James is more than qualified for the challenges of the MDS. His sporting history includes professional rugby and working the competitive running circuit to a high standard and chasing national rankings. Now he has a young family and is committed to being there for them, so he competes more as a hobby, but his skills have given him a platform: “My running has become a vehicle for me to raise awareness of mental health, and that is now my motivation. I’m really fortunate to have this opportunity; I can use high profile events like the MDS to raise awareness of what’s important.”
James’s reasons for doing it are more than valid, but what of the challenge itself? How does someone prepare for such a challenge as the MDS? James answered: “I’ve run lots of ultra-marathon races, so I’ve nothing to fear from the distance. However, I’ve never run across a desert, on sand, in that heat, under those conditions. There’s going to have to be some walking. Some elements of it you cannot run because of the terrain. It’s not all sand in the desert, there are rocky areas and mountains. One of the mountains on the route even has a guide rope because it’s so steep! So that’s where the challenge lies – all the elements I can’t control is what worries me, not the distances.”
I asked James how he will navigate the 250km journey: “We’re given a road book, a basic hand-drawn map of each stage with landmarks on, but if there is a sandstorm those features can quickly disappear. So we are also given some bearings and we have to carry a compass. There’s a documentary from one year where an Italian runner got lost in a sandstorm and was found 12 days later in Algeria. He’d survived by eating bats and drinking his own urine. Now we have to wear a GPS unit, so they know where we are.”
It is clear how important it is to James that he completes this challenge. He is driven and focussed, and I can tell that this race, specifically, is almost like the final frontier. In completing the MDS James will finally break down the mental health barriers that have held him back for so long. “I’m aware that I’m going to be in absolute pieces and there are going to be some dark moments, but I’ve got to stay strong. This should have been done a really long time ago, so it’s difficult to keep on being enthusiastic about it. It’s been a massive sacrifice of time spent with my family because I’ve had to keep training for three years, and I’m constantly stressed about it because it’s hanging over me like a cloud. I need to get through it now, I need to get it done and spend time with my family.”
James is raising money for The Fire Fighters Charity because he has witnessed the good work they have done for so many of his colleagues: “They swear they’ve been brought back from the brink by the charity. In November, I’m actually going [to Harcombe House] for a respite week for some mental health programmes. My current treatment has come to an end and they didn’t want to overlap treatment, so now I can go and see first-hand how good [the charity] is.”
With the MDS so imminent, I was keen to find out how James would get on, so we arranged to have a catch up when he returned home a few weeks later.
“It didn’t go well. Not just for me. For everyone…”
I hadn’t prepared myself for the conversation we were about to have. I didn’t do my research and look up the results or any news articles on the event, which was actually a conscious decision because I wanted to hear the first-hand version from James before I heard about it from other sources. What followed was upsetting to hear, because I knew how much of himself James had thrown at this challenge. Here is the story in his own words:
“It was the hottest [MDS] recorded in history. There was a freak heatwave, so temperatures were over 56 degrees. The Sahara is pretty unforgiving anyway, but throw in a heatwave... Plus there was a gastrointestinal virus that swept through the camp, which in the end took out 70 per cent of us, which is the most they’ve ever had [not finish]. I managed to get it too, and that’s why I’m devastated, because I was physically ok. I did the first three days fine and completed well over 100km, and I was coping with the heat, but then during day four [the longest day with a distance of two marathons to complete], I started throwing up at the start and just went from bad to worse, and I ended up unconscious. It was horrific. I feel like I’ve been robbed of three years of my life.
“It was actually quite intimidating because at night, all you could hear was people throwing up, and some people were seriously ill and calling for help. A lot of people were exhausted because we got no rest at night and we were then running through those extreme temperatures during the day.
“Medically speaking, it was awful. Someone in my tent had eight bags of saline pumped into him on the third night and was then dumped back in our tent, where he immediately collapsed and crapped himself. They were doing that to loads of people to make room for more people needing medical attention. These people shouldn’t have been put back in their tents, they should have been in hospital. It was just shocking really, the things that we were observing.
“On day four, during the daily pre-race briefing, they asked us to try not to get in trouble out there because they didn’t have enough staff to help us. Some people turned around and went home to their families. I was pretty delirious at this point and decided to stay, and hoped by some miracle that I would start to feel better, but I didn’t… I had vomiting and diarrhoea, and once you get that you’re finished because you’re completely dehydrated and you can’t keep anything down. Every time I took salt tablets or took fluid on board I was just throwing it back up.”
James’s entire journey for the last three years has been documented by a film crew from Hide and Seek Media. They are making a documentary about his challenge in a bid to raise awareness of men’s mental health which is planned for release in 2022. The crew caught up with James in the desert on day four after initially experiencing trouble with their hired jeep. James continues: “It was only on day four that I saw them a bit more, and it was lucky that I did because they potentially saved my life. They are the ones who found me when I was seriously ill. They recorded all this, and they suggested I get a saline drip at the next check point, but the race official said no, I’ll be disqualified. But that was a complete change of the rules from the day before, because it’s printed in their road book that a drip is just a time penalty, and competitors are allowed a couple of drips, which could have made a big difference. I believe they refused me a drip because they had run out – which is another example of organisational failings. This, for me, bordered on negligence. It was an absolute shambles.
“Some people finished, and to be fair to them, credit where it’s due. I don’t want to take anything away from them, they fully deserve it, because it’s clearly been the most difficult and dangerous MDS in history, and I just happened to be in it.”
When I asked James if he was happy to be home safely, he dropped a bombshell: “I am, but I’m going back. I’ve got to do it. The initial idea was to help my mental health, but if anything, it’s made it worse because I’ve never not finished a race in my life, so I’m trying to get used to that, but also, the nature of how it happened. I just feel completely robbed … Mentally, until I’ve completed what I initially set out to do, I won’t ever fully get over this. That’s just the way I’m wired.”
I was stunned by this story, and I couldn’t just leave it here, so I contacted the MDS race organisers to find out what happened out there in October 2021. MDS Content Manager, Emmanuel Lamarle, issued the following statement: ‘We won’t reply to the opinions, rumors and impressions, but only to the facts… The absolute temperature record in Africa is 51.3°C. So if it was 56°C during 35th MDS, I think we’re all going to be in big trouble real quick. We read a maximum of 44°C, but maybe it did a little more, we don’t have a recorder. Of course, the temperature felt is higher in full sun at noon.
‘We had the staff and water for about 750 competitors, and we had only 672 on the starting line, and day after day, less and less. We had a significant portion of our staff sick during the week, but never everyone at the same time, and knowing that we quickly lost dozens and even hundreds of competitors, the sizing remained sufficient.
‘According to the analysis made by the race doctors and doctors in Morocco and in France outside the race, it is not a virus. It is therefore certainly, but we cannot be sure of, a bacterium transmitted gradually. Also, according to the doctors, the isolation of the last two years due to the Coronavirus has reduced our immune defenses, and therefore facilitated the transmission of the virus and increased its consequences.
‘This edition has been particularly difficult. It was postponed three times because of the Coronavirus [pandemic], and a small number of participants were less ready than usual, or more tired, more stressed. Then it was particularly hot for the whole week, which made all the bodies tired. Then there was this gastroenteritis epidemic that affected more than half of the participants. Finally, the death on the second day of the race marked everyone’s morale, with competitors who preferred to stop – and we are not judging anyone. All this means that we had a dropout rate never seen on MDS… But we still have a little more than half of the participants who went to the end of the race, and who are absolutely delighted with the experience – let’s remember that it is about covering almost 250km on foot in the heart of the Sahara, carrying on [their] backs enough to live for a week. Not really a walk in the park’.
In response to this statement, James said: “I’m not surprised by this as I’ve seen similar responses in the media about this edition of the race. It was a PR disaster for them and I expected some spin off the back of it. It’s just a shame the organisation hasn’t been prepared to admit to some of the obvious shortfalls and mistakes. To try and suggest this was a failing on the part of the athletes taking part is an insult. The competitors are some of the fittest athletes from across the globe – you don’t go from a parkrun to the MDS!”
James has vowed to his numerous supporters that he will honour their donation to The Fire Fighters Charity by completing the MDS in March/April 2022, and a more recent twist of fate has given him further inspiration; he wants to dedicate his completion of the MDS to his mother, who sadly passed away at an incident he attended on December 12, 2021.