Last updated: 22-Jan-19
Mark has been running since 1997 and lives in Yorkshire with his wife. He ran the Marathon des Sables (MDS) in 2012, a life-changing experience which has seen him continue to run ultras and aim to complete other desert races, as well as change career, his diet and outlook on life. Mark has also written a book about his MDS experiences (“Running from Shadows – My Marathon des Sables.”) and he blogs on www.runningfromshadows.com.
Mark came back from the Sahara Race (Jordan) in February 2014, a Racing the Planet event which is part of the 4 Desert Series. The event didn’t go entirely to plan for Mark and he had to pull out after 113 miles during Stage 5’s 51 miles with gastritis and a chest infection. The tents were threadbare and competitors got soaked in the rains of the first two bitterly cold nights. But this hasn’t deterred Mark from plans to run future desert races.
Read more of Mark’s top tips and ultra running experiences below:
Your experience of ultra running
Q. How long have you been doing ultras?
A. My first marathon was London in April 1997, towards the back of the pack; I’ve progressed to the middle since I ran London again the following year, a lot faster, in a personal best I haven’t yet beaten. Then I discovered ultras. In 1999 I did the George Littlewood 6 Hour Challenge, a race that is no longer, which is a shame. It was organised by Sheffield’s Steel City Striders. Someone should resurrect it as it was a great race, ideal for a beginner. That time was a golden period for my running: I did a few Ironman triathlons, more 6 Hour Challenges and a couple of 24 Hour races. The amazing people you meet at these events adds to the enjoyment: you can spend hours talking and running with a competitor and never know what he or she does for a living as it’s not relevant. Some of them have done some truly amazing things. For example, on the MDS I met a guy who had travelled the world naming unnamed mountains. I only found that out because of speaking with another tent mate!
Q. How did you first get started doing ultras?
A. After my first couple of marathons it made me think: “How and where can I push things?” It changes your perception of your own capabilities. I read articles in running magazines like Runner’s World and first heard about the MDS. That really is an event that changes your perceptions about what’s possible. By the mid-2000s a long-hours working life was getting in the way and I’d picked up a couple of injuries so I then spent 4 years literally doing almost nothing. I came back from a holiday in Majorca in 2009 and thought “What is going to get me fit again and off my backside?” The heat on my holiday after a quick run got me thinking about the MDS. I got onto the waiting list for 2012 as I’d already missed the confirmed list. I finished 550th in the MDS 2012.
Q. What motivated you to start running?
A. I’ve always been active and fit and had a brief amateur rugby union career. The view of a friend was that if you don’t regularly do something sporty by the time you’re 25 it gets increasingly difficult to keep the weight off as you get older! I’d finished rugby in my mid-twenties because of injury. He challenged me to run my first marathon, and so it began.
Q. When did you do your first ultra race?
A. The George Littlewood 6 Hour race was the first one – I did 3 of them and my best result was 34 miles in 6 hours.
Q. Why do you keep running ultras?
A. You go through an incredible number of highs and lows during the longer races and you get to the end and think: “Wow! I’ve just run x number of miles! If I can do that, what else can I do?” The races are a metaphor for other things you can do with your life: push yourself and see where you can end up. I’d spent about 12 years training for and practising as a tax lawyer for some of the biggest law firms in the UK. I came back from the MDS in 2012 and thought: “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I’d always been interested in finance and investments and wondered how I could make a career out of it. Completing the MDS gave me a new drive: what was stopping me now?
Top Tips for running
Q. What are the essential ingredients to being successful in ultras?
A. Start off easy in a race or you can blow up and run the risk of a DNF (“Did Not Finish”).
Drink and eat regularly: you can’t get away with just water in an ultra.
Keep positive, accept things as they are and try not to hold back.
Remember that you’re unlikely to do permanent damage running ultras: you’re not going to kill yourself. I’ve only started learning those last two from my coach, Rory Coleman, in the last six months or so: I wonder now how much better I could have done in my previous races. Still, there’s plenty of life yet to make up for it!
Q. What tips would you give to someone doing their first ultra?
A. Probably my number 1 tip from experience has to be: get off-road as often as you can. The Long Distance Walkers Association Challenge events are open to runners and are absolutely ideal for long off-road events on challenging terrain. I’m largely injury-free since I stopped my old mainly road-running habit.
Find an event and get signed up, now. Unless you’re particularly disciplined get a training schedule which includes the gym, speed work and rest as well as the long, slow distance runs. Learn to stretch properly and daily if you want to be doing this for years to come. Get to the start line refreshed, excited and ready to go. Get used to the mindset of “can.” Once you’ve completed your first ultra you’re still one of a few who got out there and did it. So many others could scale their own personal ultra, whether it’s a 5K or 100 miles, if they could accept the words “I can”. You have to want to do it: after that there’s nothing stopping you.
Q. What type of kit do you feel is essential for an ultra?
A. It’s very rare for me to go out without my iPod. I might not wear it all the time but if I have difficult moments I can listen to something upbeat to distract me. The power of music can really eke out a few extra seconds per mile.
Q. What is the one thing you never travel without?
A. Can I choose two? My iPod and my Garmin Forerunner 310XT. Travelling to open countryside, ideally.
The good times running
Q. What is your proudest running achievement to date?
A. Completing the MDS has opened up so many other things in my life. The experience of the whole event is a strange mix of emotions, highs and lows, awe, humdrum, tranquility, noise. Second-to-none organisation, amazing views and meeting great people.
Q. What has been your favourite ultra to date?
A. The George Littlewood 6 Hour Challenge from times past was great. If someone could resurrect this one – that would be wonderful. The Druids Challenge was really enjoyable last November: 84 miles over 3 days across the oldest roadway in the UK from Buckinghamshire to Wiltshire. There was great camaraderie on that race and the route itself had lots of different terrain without being ridiculously difficult in the cold and wet!
Q. Which type of ultras do you like best?
A. Off-road ones are best: I avoid any kind of road running as it led to lots of injuries in the past. The 2009 book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall led me to start running off-road. I look at the Long Distance Walkers Association Challenge events and opt to run them when I can as they’re open to runners as well as walkers. They’re great, with a fantastic, simple atmosphere and good food: the bad, sugary stuff at the checkpoints I try not to eat the rest of the time, and hot pie and peas at the finish!
The rough times running
Q. What has been the most challenging ultra to date for you?
A. The MDS was the biggest challenge but in a positive way and on a multitude of levels: how do I cope with the heat? how do I cross sand dunes? what do I eat? Mentally and physically you had to have your wits about you all the time. No part of that race is easy.
Q. What aspect of ultra running is the hardest for you?
A. Cold weather isn’t really for me, particularly for hours on end. I get a bit sick of the UK winter conditions towards the end of a long training schedule: I found it tough in the last couple of months training for the MDS in April 2012 and the Sahara Race (Jordan) in February 2014. There are hardly any events around in the winter in the UK and it can be trying when you need to be out for 6-8 hours for the second day in a row in the snow/ice/rain/hail/freezing cold!
Q. Who or what has been your biggest help in doing ultras?
A. Rory Coleman has been a massive help in coaching me over the last 18 months or so to greater strength and better, consistent running times from 5Ks to marathons. That saw me strong in the Sahara Race (Jordan) until sickness put me out: I was heading for the top third in the field! If you’d asked me a few years ago to even plod a 5K I’d have laughed as I would have seen it as pointless; a few months back I ran around 22 minutes for the distance. I couldn’t believe it. Last year I ran 16 marathons: previously inconceivable for me. Rory reckons I can nail a sub-4h marathon. I’m still at the stage of convincing myself “I can!” So I’m unashamedly pro-Rory! But none of that could have been achievable without my wife! She’s put up with the long drives to various events around the country, my long hours out training and being the nudge to finally get me out of the warmth and into the cold for a long run.
Q. Have you made any significant sacrifices to complete ultras?
A. Changing career? Though I didn’t see that as a sacrifice. So, no, not really.
Q. What have you learned by doing ultras?
A. That if you do set out wanting to do something, whatever it is in life, you absolutely can if you allow yourself to picture it – there’s very little to stop you. I think the vast majority of people automatically put the brakes on before giving whatever they want to do a chance – even for their first 5k race. I vividly remember running my first ever run that was non-stop for an hour in the winter of late 1995: it would have been so easy to talk myself out of it.
Q. How do you feel ultras have changed you and your life?
A. Ultras have given me a far more positive view of life and put things into their proper perspective. I’ve always worked hard and believed you need to enjoy what you do for a living. You’re only on the planet once and have to make the most of it. The MDS gave me the time and absence of life’s white-noise to reflect on that and return to do something about it.
Q. Any helpful sayings or beliefs that have helped your running?
A. Lots of them! The most recent was written in a blog by Chris Murrer about the Sahara Race (Jordan). I’m sure neither Chris or Racing the Planet will mind repeating it here. Someone recently gave me a sticker that says, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”. And after coming home from this adventure, I’ve decided this is the truest thing that’s ever been said. I implore you, do something that scares you, even just a little. Things will go wrong or, at least, not as planned. But your life will be that much richer because of it. So true.
Q. How do you get motivated to do the training?
A. Good question and I’m not sure I’ve found the answer yet! The fear of getting fat and unfit? To see remote wilderness I wouldn’t otherwise see? To see how far is just too far? It’s certainly the perfect antidote to the stresses of modern life, a great means for a “life laundry”. I’ve been on an off-phase since the Jordan race and now I’m itching to get going again after a rest. Another multi-stage desert race is calling me!
Training and Prep
Q. How do you train for an ultra?
A. A combination of gym work, speed work and long distance running. I also go for a regular deep tissue sports massage by Jim Mason in Leeds which makes a big difference. This definitely helps keep me going: I’m pretty sure I’d be immobile by now without it!
Q. How does your training differ for each type of ultra?
A. At the moment I work on the basis that if I can complete a marathon a month that’s a good basis for quickly building to a multi-stage race, or just use it to run up to 50 miles. Rightly or wrongly I try and take a relaxed, flexible attitude to ultras.
Q. What race are you doing next?
A. I’m signed up for the Windermere Marathon (18 May 2014) and Durham Dales Challenge (30 miles) in June with another marathon intended somewhere in the UK in July. I’ve had my post-Sahara Race (Jordan) recuperation time so I’ll soon be back to monthly marathons as I start thinking about my next desert race. The Windermere Marathon might hurt though after my time off!
Q. What do you hope to achieve with your ultra running in the future?
A. Simply to keep going for as long as I enjoy and am capable of doing the runs. If I can write about my experiences in such a way that encourages just one or two others to sign up and undergo their own life-changing experience then so much the better. I’d love to be fit enough to be walking the MDS in my 70s and 80s; you may laugh, but there were a couple of guys of that age doing just that in 2012. You’ve got me hankering after the desert again now . . . There are so many cracking events around the world now it can be difficult to choose the next one.
Q. What would be your dream ultra event?
A. A slightly less hot MDS? Running around the world safely would be a cool thing to do – maybe a coast-to-coast in the States? The Ancient Khmer Path in Cambodia, a beautiful, awesome country, starts with a blessing in a Buddhist temple in the jungle 180km north of Phnom Penh and finishes at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. That’s seriously tempting and near the top of the list at the moment . . . Racing the Planet’s Gobi March or Atacama Crossing? Who knows!