For some, a lung-busting, gut-wrenching road marathon just isn't enough. For a hardy few, only racing 156 miles in the searing heat of the Sahara while carrying everything you need to survive will do. 

28 Apr 2015

Angus with his Marathon des Sables medal

Men United's Angus McCaffery is one of those people. Earlier this month, against the stunning backdrop of the Great Desert, Angus joined legendary adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and 1350 others vying to complete the Marathon des Sables – a six day ultra-marathon.

Angus picked up the gauntlet early last year. Since then he’s raised an astounding £30,000 for Prostate Cancer UK and the Stroke Association, in memory of his father-in-law John Bassett, who died in 2013, aged 80.

“I got on very well with John. Even though he was a good age when he died, it still feels like he was snatched from us.

“I remember the family coming to London in early 2011 to tell us that John had prostate cancer.  As with most things he didn't seem too phased, considering it was cancer.” 

Angus's father-in-law John died in 2013

Mountain meals

It was the mystery surrounding the race, the stunning desert landscape and the sheer scale of the challenge, that persuaded Angus to take part.

“The Marathon de Sables has an air of mystique. Not many people know about it. The idea was gnawing away at me, but my wife thought I was mad!

“I went to see Rory Coleman, he’s run it twelve times, and is a bit of a legend in the Marathon des Sables world.

“The advice he gave me was bang on. He told me not to take too much food. I wish I’d listened! After a few days, my body just didn't want any more of the special ready meals, called mountain meals. They all have a certain type of taste. I should have taken more peanuts and beef jerky with me. That’s what you really want after a few days running in the heat.

With Rory’s help, Angus spent months preparing. After wearing out seven pairs of running shoes, running 700 miles and spending several sessions in a heat chamber and Bikram (hot) yoga, he was in top shape. 

“I did some heat accumulation training and it really helped. Your body quickly forgets that it’s used to the heat, so you can only really do it just before you go. I was running in 40 to 50 degrees every day. You could spot the people who hadn't done it; they really struggled.”

Toughest challenge

Angus shared a tent with trainer Rory and seven others, including 71-year-old explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who was competing to become the oldest Briton to complete the race.  

“Sir Ranaulph is a really interesting guy and was always happy to talk. He was really patient too; it seemed like there was an endless stream of people asking him for an autograph, and he’d always happily do it.”

Angus and Sir Ranulph Fiennes

The seven men in Angus’s tent pulled together to help each other through the toughest challenge many of them would ever face and are now great friends.

“The event is made or broken by who’s in your tent. We really looked after each other and there was lots of swapping of kit and food. The best way I can put it is to think of Big Brother. So much infighting goes on in that TV show. The Marathon des Sables is a much more hostile environment; you really are on your own with your team mates, but I never heard a cross word.  

Finish the thing

Angus exceeded his own expectations to finish in 143rd place overall. But It wasn’t just camaraderie and excellent preparation that helped him along.

“The night before the last day, we’d just completed the 'long stretch' (92km). Fortunately, I completed it at around 11pm (some people have to run all night), so I had a bit of time to recover before the final day's marathon. Even then, I didn't want to eat, so I was running on empty and on the next day, I hit 'the wall' after 15km.

“I pictured John sat at home. His memory helped get me through.”

Angus poses in his Prostate Cancer UK T-Shirt

Just 12 days after getting home, Angus’s attention turned to his next challenge – the London Marathon, which he finished in a cool 3 hours and 26 minutes.

As for any future racing, Angus has ruled out a return trip to the desert, but has no regrets.

“I'm delighted to have completed the Marathon des Sables. I had three goals when I started: I wanted to finish the thing, look my sponsors in the eye when I got home, and finish in the top 200, and I did, so yes I'm thrilled.”

Angus’s top five training tips

1. Change the way you eat:
Cut out processed carbs and eat clean (fresh veg, chicken, fish, nuts).

2. Run with a heart rate monitor:
Learn to run at a controlled pace

3. Shorten your stride:
You’re better off running in 40 short steps than 20 normal ones.

4. Stop running on roads:
Find trails, towpaths and paths to run on. Tarmac is a no-no

5. Learn to love the treadmill:
Get your heart rate screaming at about 160 beats per minute two or three times a week.

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