Friday, 20 March 2015

A meeting with Sir Ranulph Fiennes - The Marathon des Sables for Marie Curie

It's not every day you get to meet the world's greatest living explorer.  A man who has climbed the North face of the Eiger, the oldest man to climb Everest, conquered both the North and the South Poles and completed 7 marathons in 7 days - after just having had a heart attack!

The word is used too often, but this man truly is a legend.  And at the age of 71 he's not hanging up his hat just yet.

Image: Mike Goldwater with Gretta from Mums Do Travel, Christ from Thinly Spread and Mary from Keynko

It's said that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, well it's possible that Sir Ranulph is both and he'll be doing a whole lot more under the scorching sun.

I met him at Kingston University's sports science department as he underwent training and assessments ahead of the ultra-marathon: The Marathon des Sables. To you and I a marathon generally means a 26 mile race, and I know how rigourous the training for that can be - my Old Man is in training for the London Marathon next month and he's out all hours running.  But the Marathon des Sables is an ultra-marathon in the extreme.  It is dubbed the toughest foot race on earth.

It takes place in the Morrocan Sahara, over 6 days and is a total distance of 156 miles in blistering heat and suffocating humidity, carrying all personal equipment needed for the duration on your back.  Battling your way across shifting sands, endless miles of desert with no point of reference, sand in your eyes, your shoes and everywhere it shouldn't be.  It sounds like pure hell to me, but Sir Ranulph seemed totally unfazed.

I joined him as he undertook some training and observations in Kingston University's heat chamber which took him up to 40 degrees - last year temperatures in the MdS topped 56 degrees.  He was hooked up to a thermometer and heart monitor and asked to complete cognitive challenges to see how he was coping on the treadmill in the heat - both physically and mentally.

The key concern is keeping his core temperature to a reasonable level.  Normal core body temperature should be 37.5, but if a person's raises too far above that it can have severe physical affects, and if it reaches 43 the body's enzymes are affected and it results in fatal hyperthermia.

Sir Ran was also weighed before and after the hour-long session to assess how much fluid he'd lost and whether he was taking on adequate liquid.  His trainer Rory Coleman has instilled into him the habit of 6 sips every 15 minutes.

Image: Mike Goldwater

Water is going to be a huge issue in the desert. It's essential fluids are kept up, but water is only issued in 1.5 litre allowances at checkpoints every 6 miles.

He'll also be carrying his kit in a rucksack which must weigh a minimum of 6.5kg and contain all the stipulated race essentials including a signalling mirror; compass; torch; anti-venom kit; safety pins; sleeping bag; food; passport and quite literally his bus fare home (well, enough money to cover transport back to base if he needs to abort).   He'll also need to carry flares, but as I pointed out you can't run in flares, you'd trip up!

In the heat chamber, after nearly an hour on the treadmill in 40 degrees, Sir Ran had barely broken a sweat while the camera man was positively dripping. This man is a machine.  I mean, seriously incredible especially when you consider he's 71, had 2 heart attacks, survived cancer and had a double-heart bypass.

So why does he do it?

Well, clearly he's passionate about the charity he's raising funds for.  He hopes to raise £2.5 million pounds for Marie Curie to help them care for cancer and terminally ill patients and their families.  He's already raised over £16 million for charity in 10 years and his goal is to reach £20 million so that can be put on his gravestone.

Marie Curie provide free care and support to those living with terminal illness, and to their families.  Their nurses work 24-7 in people's homes to provide hands-on care and emotional support.  They also run 9 hospices around the country which provide specialist care around the clock.

We had a chance to chat with him after his heat chamber session. Sir Ran is a humble man.  He has a daughter around the same age as mine and it was funny to hear that she's point-blank not interested in what he does. It reminded me of Ruby who nonchalantly accepts her Dad's medals after races with a shrug and a 'whatever'.  He's a man of simple tastes. He said that after the race he'd be looking forward to a cup of tea and a chocolate Malteser rabbit! He is a funny guy, he made me laugh a lot.

Image Mike Goldwater

I was curious to know how he comes up with his challenges, and it turns out, he generally doesn't.  His first wife worked tirelessly and used to suggest and help plan his expeditions, and he has a trusted team who does that for him now. Some ideas he'll reject, others they'll explore further.  The one hard-and-fast criteria for vetoing a trek is creepy crawlies - he's completely phobic, although when he was in Arabia he did have to try and face his fears to retain the respect of the Arabs on the trip with him.

But I was curious what drives a man to undertake these extreme challenges.  It turns out, it's pure, unadulterated competitiveness.  Speaking to Sir Ran he was one of the most laid-back people I've ever met and this seemed at total odds with his achievements.  I almost wondered if he'd grasped the enormity of what he'd agreed to do, there was a feeling that he just gets on and does it.

The thing that showed the raging fire in his belly though, was his raw determination to beat his arch rivals the Norwegians at all costs.  I guess we all need something to spur us on.

I wish Sir Ran and Rory the very best of luck - it was a pleasure meeting you both and an inspiration.

You can donate to Sir Ran's challenge for Marie Curie below.

Please follow his progress on social media as the race commences on 5th April - #RunRanRun, I'm sure you'll agree he deserves our support.  Or you can donate £5 and send a message to Sir Ran by texting RUN to 70007.


  1. He is totally inspiration and I agree 100% on the charity he is supporting. Good luck to him and I hope that lots of money is riased

  2. What an amazing man to meet! I am in awe of his physical endurance. Let's hope he raises a lot of money.

  3. It must have been so inspiring to meet such a legend. He is superman encapsulated! I'm very jealous! Marie Curie is a fabulous charity to raise funds for.

  4. How fascinating!
    Must've been such a fun day.
    I find it very interesting that his youngest daughter is not really interested in her dad's achievements. I wonder why?

  5. What a great day Liz and how lucky to meet such a motivational guy. Mich x

  6. Such an amazing person and a great cause too for Marie Curie and cancer research.

  7. It sounds as though you had an amazing day and he certainly is one of a kind!

  8. wow what a totally inspirational man! he without a doubt is amazing and i wish him all the luck in the world at completing this challenge for such a worthy cause x

  9. He's such an amazing individual. I know how shattered I was after the Comic Relief danceathon, and that was only 6 hours long. It was a bit humid in Wembley Arena, but nothing approaching this!

  10. How simply marvellous to get such a great opportunity! He really is truly amazing, but also must be at least a little mad!!

  11. Wow, what an amazing opportunity. I've read a few of Sir Ranulph's books and find him completely inspirational. To be setting himself challenges like this at his time of life is pretty incredible.

  12. It was lovely to meet you on Tuesday and amazing to have spent the day with Sir Ranulph. He is truly inspirational.

  13. What a great opportunity you had and what an amazing man he is x

  14. I'm in awe of anyone who could do that marathon but to do it at his age is amazing!

  15. Wow what an amazing man and taking on such a task! Go him!

  16. great cause and what an opportunity to meet such a chap

  17. What an inspirational man - would love to hear all about his adventures

  18. Amazing! I have signed myself up for Race for Life.
    I'm really looking forward to it - Love inspirational people like this

  19. He's an amazing man and what an opportunity to meet him - I'm very jealous.

  20. What a wonderful opportunity to meet such a great man.