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Interview: Alistair Wood on running the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert

Who on earth would run a marathon each day for the better part of a week in one of the world’s hottest places? Alistair Wood, that’s who. We caught up with the Singapore-based expat in the lead-up to “the Toughest Foot Race on Earth”, the Marathon des Sables event in the Sahara Desert.


Alistair in his element 

Why are you doing this?
A very good question and one I’ve been asking myself a lot recently. One big motivator is raising funds to help tackle dementia. A few years ago my Nan was diagnosed with a form of dementia and I’ve seen it rob her of the person she used to be. It’s a horrible disease that will affect many of us, so this is a good excuse to get people to dig deep and help a good cause. I also thought it’d be nice to mark Singapore’s 50th Golden Jubilee by raising funds for a condition that affects the pioneer generation more than most.

I was looking for a new challenge, too. I’ve done a few marathons in the past, and managed to break the sub-three hour barrier, so I figured that instead of trying to go faster, I could try going longer. I also turn 30 this year (the same day Singapore turns 50) and apparently we tend to search for new meaning in life when we hit a new decade. I guess this is my early mid-life crisis!

Finally, it gives me a chance to try and inspire my students. I run the Challenge Week programme at school, which sees our Grade 11 students carry out a week of community service combined with a creative or active project in another country without any supervision. This is part of their IB curriculum and the idea is for them to get out of their comfort zones. I figured it was time I “walked the talk”, so this is my Challenge Week.

How long have you been running?
I’ve always kept reasonably fit but I decided to give cross-country running a bash at university. I then fell into doing my first marathon, finishing in 4 hours 9 minutes.

When I graduated, the world of work hit and I just did the odd run for fun, never really pushing myself. In 2011 and 2012, I got swept up in the whole London Olympics euphoria and got back into running properly, surprising myself with a time of 3 hours 6 minutes in the Amsterdam Marathon. It made me really want to go under the three-hour mark. I managed to do that in the Milan Marathon, scraping in at 2:59:55 (phew).

While I think my biggest achievement is the sub three-hour marathon, in terms of actually winning races, I won my last school’s fun run, beating a field of teenage girls and a few dads over 4km. I still have that medal.


Training hard to get rid of an Aussie holiday paunch 

How are you preparing for the race?
The training has basically taken over my life. I knew that training for a specialised event in the desert would take some proper knowhow, so I sought out an expert. Rory Coleman is an 11-time finisher of the race and he does online coaching via Skype; he helped me to develop a plan. (His first tip: lose 20kg. That’s when I pulled that shocked emoji face you see these days.)

Nutrition-wise, Rory also gave me a list of “banned substances” that I could no longer consume if I was going to make it to the race in the right condition. Out went booze, sugar and all the stuff you look forward to having at a brunch. I’ve fallen off the wagon a few times, but I’ve been pretty good and it has worked. When I started training, I’d just come back from a four-week tour of Australia and wasn’t in my best shape – about 89kg; now I’m 73kg with a few weeks still to go.

The kit plays a big part of your race. You want to be as close as possible to the minimum 6.5kg pack weight, which means big sacrifices.

Hot dinners require carrying a cooker and fuel, so they’re gone. Instead, I can look forward to cold, dehydrated spag bol ration-packs. Yum! I also got a local cobbler to sew Velcro onto my trainers so I can attach gaiters to stop sand getting in. Sand in shoes equals mangled feet! Aside from training in the middle of the day, one of the things I did to help prepare for the temperature was to visit a heat chamber at a university. This allowed me to test myself in simulated desert conditions to learn about my body and spot the warning signs that could lead to heat stroke or worse.


Aforementioned paunch, right


Are these full-time preparations or do you also have a day-job in Singapore?
By day I teach Economics at St Joseph’s Institution International School on Thomson Road. I love teaching; it’s such an enjoyable job, working with young people. They’re full of energy, and you know that every day is going to be different.

It’s been tricky fitting in the preparations around school but because it’s a place that focuses on a rounded, holistic education, they’ve been really supportive; and my students are positive and intrigued by it all. I also run the school’s Athletics CCA so I’m trying to encourage the kids to push themselves in their own challenges.

Tell us a bit about your expectations of the actual race.
This year, 1,500 people have entered – lots from France and the UK, and others from around the world. I’m one of eight from Singapore. Among the competitors is British adventurer and national treasure Sir Ranulph Fiennes. At 71, and after having a double heart bypass, he’s aiming to become the oldest ever Brit to finish. It will be humbling lining up with him every morning; hopefully I’ll get a chance to speak to him. (He’s also being coached by Rory, so I feel like I’m in safe hands.)

The race is 250km, split into six stages – a marathon a day, on average, though Stage 4 is 91km. It’s hot – really hot: between 35 and 42 degrees centigrade most days, but as high as 52, with zero shade and no wind. Then it gets below 10 degrees at night so you have to pack enough to stay warm too. The terrain is a real mix. There are some dry rocky bits but also some huge sand dunes known as jebels. Apparently climbing them is like walking through custard; your body sinks into them with every step, sapping what little energy you have left.

Each competitor is assigned a tent with seven other people. I say tent but it’s basically just some canvas over an open-ended A-frame. They say you form a special bond with your tent-mates that lasts a lifetime. Sharing in such an experience does something to you, apparently. We shall see.


Alistair at SJI International School, calculating the weight of his race kit 

What do you think will be the single most difficult aspect of the race?
The “long stage”. It’s almost twice the distance I’ve run before. Starting that morning with aching legs knowing that it will be at least the middle of the night (or worse) when I get into camp will be a real test of mental resolve.

My friends and family are going to record some messages and songs that I’ll put onto an iPod and break out when I hit my lowest point. I’m not going to know what songs are on there so I hope they’ll be kind, but knowing them they’ll probably put Justin Bieber on repeat for a joke.

Any scary or uplifting stories from previous Marathon des Sables events?
I read recently about Italian Mauro Prosperi who got lost during the 1994 race and survived by drinking his own urine and bat blood. He tried to kill himself by slitting his wrists but he was so severely dehydrated that his blood clotted too quickly, stopping him from bleeding to death. Here’s hoping I won’t get lost.

There’s a special team of 50 medics at the event who focus purely on treating people’s feet – blisters, swelling and so on. The docs slice your blisters with a scalpel and then put iodine on them. It’s apparently excruciatingly painful.

How will you celebrate once you cross the finish line?
If I’m not some sort of physical and emotional wreck, I’ll treat myself to a nice cold beer. I won’t be able to celebrate for too long though as I’ll be on the plane the next day, getting back to school for the new term. But when I’m back I might replace the back-to-back marathon training sessions on the weekends with back-to-back brunches instead.


This year’s Marathon des Sables takes place from 3 to 13 April. Follow Alistair at marathondessables.com, his blog or on Twitter (#woodvsdesert).

This story first appeared in EX’s April/May issue.