Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service Station Commander James Bull’s long and tumultuous journey to complete the most notorious endurance race in the world was published in FIRE February 2022 issue, and if you did not catch the full story, suffice to say, James has been to hell and back over the last three years of navigating the pandemic, adjusting his training plans and being beaten for reasons beyond his control in his first attempt at the race in 2021.

Last October, following two years of delays because of Covid-19, James attempted the 2021 edition of the Marathon des Sables (MdS), a 250km foot race over six days across the Sahara Desert, only to be struck down by a gastrointestinal virus that spread swiftly through the camps and forced hundreds of competitors to drop out of the race, which is where my first telling of James’ story ended. So, it is with great pleasure that I am able to provide this update on his story and report that he successfully crossed both the unforgiving conditions of the desert and that coveted finish line.

Luckily for this year’s competitors, there were no signs of any debilitating viruses, but that is not to say the race itself was a breeze. In fact, in complete contrast to James’ first attempt, where he completed the first three days feeling strong and confident, this year it was the first three days that nearly broke him. He says: “I had to laugh at one point because we had every single type of weather thrown at us, and I just looked up and thought, you’re really testing me here!”

The weather caused mayhem: searing heat, driving rain and sandstorms pummelled the competitors for three days. If, like I did, you are thinking, surely the rain would have been a nice reprieve from the heat, you are wrong. James endured hours of gritty sand and water causing the most unbearable chaffing, and when the sandstorms hit on day two, the sand felt like glass against his skin and visibility dropped to non-existent. James described day two as the hardest day. The storms were intimidating and disorientating and he hoped the people he was keeping sight of in front of him were keeping sight of the people in front of them.

At the end of day two, as the storms abated, there was a mountain to cross. James was exhausted, he had run out of water and he was physically in agony. He says the memory of his first attempt was still fresh enough to plant doubt in his mind: “I was in a bad way, and I was feeling really nauseous. I felt quite emotional because I thought, my god, it’s happening all over again.” From the top of the mountain he could see the next checkpoint, so he pushed his demons aside and fought through his exhaustion to reach it.

Thankfully, following some disastrous reports on the medical support during the virus of the previous edition, the organisers seemed to have learned from their mistakes. When James reached the checkpoint, the medical staff took his blood pressure, gave him an anti-nausea tablet, replenished his water and added an energising solution, and then forced him to rest for 40 minutes before moving on, which, James says, with hindsight was a good thing. James praised the organising of the event this year, saying the support for the health and welfare of the competitors was vigilant, attentive and effective throughout.

By day four, the weather had improved, but James had to consider the physical and mental effects of the first three difficult days before attempting the longest day of the race, with a distance of more than two marathons to complete. He says: “You’re hoping to get to the longest day as unscathed as possible, but you’re going to be battered to a degree because that’s the nature of the race: not getting enough rest, not eating properly, you can’t wash; it does wear you down. It’s just a matter of trying to manage that as best you can… I played it fairly conservatively and decided to be sensible. I latched on to a couple of guys from my tent who are all ex-military and had decided they were going to speed-march it.” They marched through the day and most of the night, arriving in camp as the sun was starting to rise on day five, which was thankfully a full day of rest in camp before the final marathon towards the finish line on day six.

James described the atmosphere in the camps as good and friendly. The MdS is a French race and is usually dominated by French competitors, but this year there were more British competitors than any other nation, which gave cause for some good-spirited banter throughout the journey. Nationalities are generally grouped together in the camps and James was surprised to learn that there were a lot of competitors who, like him, had returned to complete the MdS this year after dropping out in 2021 because of the virus. He says: “It had obviously cut deep for many of us who had gone out there in October and [not finished]. I didn’t expect anybody else would be as mad as myself, but there were quite a few! It’s obviously something that people struggle mentally to move on from.”

James’ mental health and raising awareness about the importance of speaking up and asking for help are the reason he initially signed up for this challenge before the pandemic, and he is now a mental health ambassador for numerous organisations. Crossing the finish line for James was a moment full of mixed emotions. He has put himself under immense pressure to complete a challenge that has taken years longer than first anticipated, and he has raised over £7,500 for The Fire Fighters Charity from his efforts, so to finally complete what must be the pinnacle of his athletic exploits to date has given James an overall feeling of relief.

So what is the most meaningful lesson he has learned from his experience? He has previously heard mentioned about the MdS that the person who goes into the desert is very different from the one who comes out, and before the event, he hoped this to be true. This is what he says after completing the MdS: “I’ve come to realise that things like this aren’t life changing. If anything they’re life affirming, and they make you reflect on what is actually important. One of my biggest reflections is that, ultimately, this was just a race in the sand – a very famous and iconic race, but nothing more than that. It’s not going to change my life, but I’m hoping it will prove to be a turning point in terms of my mental health, and that I will be able to more forward more positively. But, ultimately, it made me reflect on what’s important, and that is my family; the people who keep me strong and safe.”

James has dedicated his completion of the race to his mum, who sadly passed away in December 2021. He says: “Whenever I’m running now and I feel the warmth of the sun, I think of my mum. She was with me every day out there, every time I looked up at the sun, and that helped me get through it.”

Throughout his adventure, James has been followed by a film crew from Hide and Seek Media who are currently editing their footage into a documentary for public viewing sometime in the coming months.