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David Hellard does Marathon des Sables

by Editor
Thursday 4th February 2016
Tags  David Hellard   |   OCR   |   Obstacle Course Racing   |   British Military Fitness   |   MDS   |   Marathon des Sables

When someone mentions the magic words “Marathon des Sables”, you cannot help but stop what you are doing and smile. Described as the “toughest foot race on Earth”, consisting of six stages of between 21km and 82km over seven days, the race is often thought of 'the race' to do, the ultimate race for a bucket list and is one of those events you would love to do, but few ever take that step.

Marathon des Sables has never been won by a British athlete, although in 2014 Danny Kendall finished fifth and gave us all hope that one day we could take the win. This April, David Hellard, the man famously known for leading the London Marathon for 400 meters and all round good guy, is taking on Marathon des Sables. Not to turn up and take part, but to compete and go for the win.

So if the 'runners runner' says he is going to Marathon des Sables to attempt to write history, we just had to be part of it. Welcome to the David Hellard Project.

PH: You look familiar David, are you that chap that did the amazing Ronan Keating rendition in Ultimate Hell week? Or the man that changed the London Marathon forever? Tell us about both.

David: Well they say that everyone has their 15 minutes of fame, think they account for about 90 seconds in total. A few years ago I was going to run the Sierra Leone marathon for Street Child and realised that very few friends would sponsor me to run another marathon.

I really needed to up my game to get at their notes, so set myself six unlikely challenges, one of them leading the London marathon for 400 meters. Thankfully I was in the championship start, so waited at the front while everyone warmed up and when the gun went off dodged through a few rows of elites, before finding some space and going hell for leather. I caught the front pack, but still had to put in another 200 meters with my Go Pro bouncing up and down on my head, they all looked very bemused. I clocked in it at 65 seconds over the 400, which given the slow start I was pretty pleased with!

Ronan was part of the tv show, Special Forces – Ultimate Hell Week. The Navy seals asked one of us to sing, my mind froze and it was the only song that came into my head. If anyone ever thought I had an ounce of street cred, it vanished right there! Sadly I was forced off the show halfway through for failing to be able to do another 50 press ups, something I'm reminded of on a near daily basis by 'friends' – f&8k you dante!

PH: So talk to us about your athletic prowess, what are your notable races or achievements over the last 24 months? Also any dark moments, or regrets?

David: The last couple of years I have been concentrating on Obstacle Course Racing, as a founder of what was inov-8 OCR and now the British Military Fitness Race team. I'm not the most graceful OCR racer – terrible flexibility, I can't touch my toes and not a great head for heights, so I've had to rely on my long distance experience and training to do well, winning races such as the Eliminator marathon and Man vs Mountain.

I've just started running Ultras and have managed to podium at the Dorset Coastal Trail Series ultra and in Country to Capital, I have no idea how competitive those races are though. I don't have many regrets, mainly because I'm realistic with my expectations and aware that I'm not much more than an average club runner.

David Hellard

I switched to forefoot running in 2014 and as a result had to stop all sport for six months, having overloaded my hamstrings. That was frustrating, as I was the fastest and strongest I'd ever been, but had no race results or times to show for it. Ultimate Hell week was also incredibly frustrating. I felt I'd been singled out, before I'd had a chance to play to any of my strengths. It didn't help that the edit then rewrote the story, removing all footage of me leading the camp for two days and portraying me as a limp biscuit, but I guess that's TV.

I don't regret going on the show and the top three contestants were all amazing – as sportsmen and people.

PH: If your friends were to describe you, what would they say your two best strengths are and your two biggest weaknesses are?

David: They're probably two sides of the same coin depending on whether you're talking about racing or life in general – I'm very positive, affable and love to socialise, whether that's chatting to someone on a train or magicing up a tray of Jaeger bombs at four in the morning.

Sadly it can play havoc with training. In some ways it's where I get my strength – running 22 miles after an all-nighter at Glastonbury certainly prepares your body for the worst and some races then seem a doddle in comparison. I'm sure hangovers aren't the best training partner though and it does mean I can get very tired trying to fit everything in, as I never want to miss out.

I was leading my heat in the Red Bull 400 in Austria, but had to stop mid-race for a Jaegar bomb, that certainly cost me some places. I can also be very stubborn, which because I'm aware of, sometimes results in me procrastinating all day, putting off my long run, as I know I'll eventually do it, even if I end up running a 20 miler at 11 at night.

David Hellard

PH: So tell us how you came to find Marathon Des Sables? Or did it find you? What are your reasons for entering and even more, what is your aim?

David: I'm not really sure. The idea has just grown in me over time. It's the poster boy of ultimate challenges and a few friends and I discussed it many years ago. Since then by chance I've become friends with five previously highest placed Brits, so the idea has blossomed over time.

I always try and link my races to Street Child, so as soon as I signed up I knew I had to set ambitious targets to raise as much money as possible. In some ways it's a shot in the dark, as until recently I'd never run an ultra and I have no idea how I'll respond to the heat, the weighted backpack, let alone a 50+ mile middle day. On reflection if I wasn't in the top 50 I'd see it as a massive failure, I think top 20 is possible and potentially scrapping into the top 10. Being first Brit to finish though would be epic and that's my ultimate goal. To some extent it's out of my hands, as it depends on who else is there, but typically the first Brit finishes somewhere within the top 20 and training seems to be going well. If I can stay injury free it's a real possibility.

PH: Take us through how you aim to prepare for this journey? Do you have a training plan, any warm up races and what is your nutrition strategy? 

David: I've been making it up as I go, trying to follow Danny Kendall's training blog (the highest ever ranked Brit), which goes into great detail about his mileage and so far I'm roughly on track, having had a few 80+ mile weeks.  My warm up races have been the Coastal Trail Series 33 mile ultra and the Country to Capital 44 miler. They went well, I didn't find the extra distance too much of a challenge, although in the C2C I was far more tired than I'd expected. In the third quarter, running mile after mile along the canal, I really struggled with boredom and had to battle for motivation, which worries me, as the MDS is going to be very samey.

The Pilgrims Challenge is in a few weeks and I haven't pencilled anything else in yet, other than cross country with London Heathside, but I'm sure I'll add a few more for variety if nothing else. Nutrition has been interesting. My diet tends to be dictated by what's on the reduced isle section at Sainsbury's or whether I've been out drinking. I'm lucky enough to be sponsored by Clif bar and their nutritionist advised me that I need to start upping my protein intake. It's not something runners normally need to monitor, but with 100+ mile weeks, recovery is everything and your muscles are in constant repair, so I'm just about to start drinking powershakes daily in addition to bars and my usual dose of shitbox chicken. For the race I'm going to stick with what I know - I love shotbloks when racing, clean, easy to stomach and tasty, but will supplement them with some Clif bars also for the protein.

Clif bar for breakfast, Builder bar post-race and because my stomach has been trained on years of budget food (I'd even find cardboard tasty), I'll eat whatever pouch dinner has the best nutritional composition. I'll be racing as light as possible, so will have to get used to being constantly hungry. I haven't read the rules yet, but if I can catch me a camel, I'll be laughing.

PH: Outside of MDS, the training for it and the thoughts - what is your day job and how do you propose to do this job at the peak of your training?

I'm a co-founder of a tech startup called www.zipcube.com – it's on demand meeting rooms where private offices can list their rooms and make money renting them out. It's pretty involved.

Fitting training in has been a lot easier than I was expecting though. My office is five miles from home, so commuting four days a week gives me 40 miles without thinking and all with a 6kg backpack, so it's a great training base. Add to that a couple of British Military Fitness sessions (Monday am and Wednesday pm), track with Heathside on a Tuesday and a lunchtime tempo run on Thursday and I'm up to around nearly sixty miles with my weekend still to spare. So, I still have my Monday nights free to record the Bad Boy Running Podcast, Thursdays to get on it and Friday for relaxing or catching up with friends. There will be a fortnight in March when all I do is run, as I'll be on 120 mile weeks, but it still leaves me the weekend evenings to play with. Running 2/3 times a day instead of once is great as you never have the dread of having to go out for another long run, it all seems very achievable and your body has more chance to recover.

David Hellard

You actually improve faster, while you're building up the miles and it's easier, as you have recovered before each shorter run.

The benefit of being a reasonably paced runner is that you can train and still have a life if you want to, even when doing the MDS. It's why I'm so impressed by very slow runners; their training must seem eternal. If I didn't have the free miles in my commute though it would be tough. I can't imagine having to repeatedly go out for 15+ mile runs in the cold and dark every evening, that's when training would take over and it would be hard to get the same quality from tempo runs and track sessions. I don't think I'd run as much as I am now. I now live in hoodies and clothes than can fit into a backpack, run to drinks, from gigs, between business meetings, whenever I'm travelling I think free miles.

PH: Finally we hear you are the Team Captain for the BMF Race Team - what do you bring to such a prestigious team and how will competing at MDS compare to your fellow athletes?

Ha – our titles are very much theoretical, as I think I'm down as manager on another website. The team is more a group of friends, very informal, who all make decisions together, Ross Macdonald and I do a lot of the organising and Thomas Blanc the boy band videos.

I'm aware that I'm only in the team because I was one of the founders. If I came along now, it would be touch and go whether my obstacle racing credentials are strong enough. We enjoy racing together and appeal to sponsors because we're always having fun, leading the charge at the afterparty, as much as during the race and are happy to whore ourselves out over social media along the way. That's probably more my role in the team. I'm fairly well networked with the race directors, sponsors and sometimes write for leading running magazines.

David Hellard

It helps that we've only worked with sponsors that we genuinely love and are desperate to use their kit, so we live and breathe their brand. As part of our partnership with British Military Fitness we are now recruiting three new team members. They'll at least need to be able to beat me at The Major Series (our team's ladies are both undefeated outside of the world champs and males have won the World Champs, UK champs and most other titles), but it's equally as important that they buy into the team ethos – win the race …. to the bar. Mo Farah wouldn't make the cut, Ian Botham would. There are rumours of a team initiation involved Ross, myself and a soapy bathtub, but I think we've just hit our word count for the article... ☺

Sadly that is all we had time for, but fear not we will check back with him next month as he gets ever closer to the Sahara Desert.

More information on MDS and how to enter can be found here: http://www.marathondessables.co.uk/site/content/2016.

To sponsor David or see the list of his challenges, please check out his fundraising page HERE and his Facebook page HERE.

David Hellard


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