Friday, 31st March 2023
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David Hellard gets hot and steamy in his final preparations for the MDS

by Davidhellard
Saturday 9th April 2016
I’m sat in a Sauna in 85C heat trying to type this article. The Fitness First sign clearly states no newspapers allowed, but it doesn’t mention laptops. I’ve found a loop hole, but a few minutes in and I’m starting to see their wisdom; keys I haven’t touched for a while are becoming increasingly hot, so I’m having to restrain myself from typing words such as lynx and quizzical – ouch! The laptop fan is spinning like crazy and so’s my head. I think it’s time to leave!
Tomorrow I’m flying to the Sahara to take part in the Marathon Des Sables – a 257 km race carrying enough kit and food for 7 days. Since my last update, following the Pilgrim Challenge, training has been going well. My weekly mileage has increased to 120 miles a week, which felt surprisingly comfortable and the last ten days I’ve been tapering and trying to get my body ready for the desert.  
In the 2007 London Marathon runners were dropping like flies when temperatures reached a moderate 21C. The temperature is not very high, but if you’ve been training through winter your body is used to regulating your temperature at 5-12C and cannot cope with the extra heat while also having to respond to the stress of running a marathon.  
The heat in the Sahara can reach up to 50C during the MDS. To put it in context, that’s the heat at which most roads in the UK would melt. So, for someone like myself, a cross between an albino and a shocked ghost, trying to race in such conditions without a lot of preparation would be dangerous.
I headed down to the Sports Performance Services Team at St Mary’s University to try out their heat acclimation chamber. With visions of Dolph Lundgren in Rocky Four, wires protruding from every orifice, I was pleased to discover that the training lab was more akin to being a heated hamster than a lab rat – two treadmills housed within a Perspex box - where Paul, the resident expert, could monitor our response to the heat. Find out next week how I got on, as Paul takes us through the science behind heat acclimation.

Hellard chamber 2

To maximise the impact of the sessions, I wanted to test some other ways to replicate the heat of the desert. I had my last 50 mile weekend still to run, so I decided to bring the desert to London, alternating two thermal layers with two waterproof jackets, adding a pair of mittens and woolly hat. Sexy. It felt warmer than a typical run, but it was completely different to the heat chamber. It wasn’t until I finished and stripped off that I realised just how much I had sweated. My tops were soaked, but it didn’t seem to impede my running. Psychologically I have no problem running drenched, it’s part of obstacle racing. Running in heat is difficult because of the pressing warmth on my lungs, the dry grating of the air on your throat or the claustrophobic heat that makes your head feel like a baked apple. I was still breathing in cold air, so while the training may have helped my body get used to dealing with a raised core temperature, I was doubtful of whether it would help me cope with desert running.

Hellard chamber

Next up I headed to my local Fitness First to spend some time in their Sauna. The first few minutes were wonderful – dry heat far surpassing any temperature I would experience in the desert - but even after ten minutes I was starting to struggle. I didn’t realise quite how hot they were – 85C and due to the heat acclimation at St Mary’s I was now creating more sweat than an iphone factory. Twenty minutes in and I had already drunk 3 pints of water. I knew training wasn’t going to be easy, but when the easy stuff is hard, you know you’re in for a challenging race.
In many ways I feel ready, prepared and in control, but the MDS has so many variables that every decision seems to be impossible. Being self-sufficient for 7 days leaves you with a lot of choices of just how comfortable you want your race to be. Outside of the mandatory kit list that includes a flare and a venom pump, you have complete freedom on what food and equipment to bring, as long as you are carrying more than 2,000 calories a day. But how much is enough? We will burning 4,000+ calories a day, in addition to the 3,000 average for an adult male, but carrying close to 50,000 calories would weigh around 12 kgs. Most of the other runners seem to be taking high fat foods to up their calories, but I have opted for high carbs, good protein and an evening meal that’s packed with vitamins and minerals. My daily average comes to about 2,800Kcal. I’m already very lean, by the end of the race HeMan might mistake me for his mortal enemy.
The choices don’t end at food though. Each night we have an open bivouac to sleep in, but that’s it. I have the lightest sleeping bag possible, though the desert evenings can be as cold as 0C, but items such as a pillow, a ground matt, a sleeping bag liner and even a stove are luxuries. A good night’s sleep is essential for racing well, but does seven days of the extra weight justify the extra comfort? I’m yet to decide and will only decide once I’m there. All in my kit comes to just over 6.5kg, the race requirement. I’ve no change of top, shorts or even socks and to save weight I’ve even unwound a toilet roll to remove the card inner (and discovered that somehow my new roll is larger the original).

Hellard wall

So I truly am as ready as I’ll ever be. I have no nerves, no worries and currently very little excitement. The notion of running an ultra through the desert seems so far removed from rainy London, it still doesn’t seem real and I suspect it won’t until I’m half way through a difficult day and it suddenly hits me: ‘oh shit, this is crazy’. By now most friends and a lot of the British contingent know of my aim to finish in the top 20 and ideally first Brit. I set the goal to increase the pressure on myself to force me to train hard and it’s worked. In such a hostile environment though, my biggest danger is running too hard and ending up on a drip, and the trying to perform as close to 100% as possible increases my chances of not finishing, as I try and run as close to exhaustion as possible. The support I’ve received from friends, family and those in the Run247 community has been wonderful and during the dark times I know I will encounter, the donations to Street Child and messages of good will provide strength, as I can remind myself of why I’m doing this.
The long day is on Wednesday and that alone is further than I’ve ever run before in one day. It’s possible to track our progress and send messages to us via the official website www.marathondesables.com – I’m number 990. On Tuesday night I know I’ll be smiling and joking with my tentmates, but inside I know I’ll be scared of what’s to come and whether I can finish over 50 miles, in up to 50C heat, having already run over 70. It won’t reduce the number of miles, but any messages you could send to me on Tuesday will keep me distracted during the evening and remind me of how lucky I am and that each step I take will help those who aren’t quite as lucky.

You can sponsor David at:
All photos by Sarah McKenna-Ayres

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