Facing the 'Toughest Footrace on Earth'
April 4, 2014
David Barnes prepares to tackle the Marathon des Sables © David Barnes
It is known as 'The Toughest Footrace on Earth'. Over the course of seven days, participants run the equivalent of a marathon a day, battling temperatures of 50°C while carrying life-saving provisions on their back. Welcome to the Marathon des Sables.
Props are not renowned for their marathon-esque fitness. I remember from my younger years standing eagerly on the side of the Upper Bristol Road in Bath waiting for Jason Leonard to sprint past in the Bath Half Marathon. In reality, he strolled past the politely-applauding crowds as one of the last in the group.
For former Bath prop David Barnes, he is no stranger to endurance racing. He did the 2012 London Marathon and climbed Kilimanjaro the year earlier, not bad for a player whose playing weight was 114 kgs. But then came one of those decisions which, when made, you park quietly hoping it will never come around.
"I've been thinking quite a bit about why the hell I'm doing the race as it gets closer," Barnes told ESPN. "I think it's about looking for that next challenge. I played rugby for quite a long time and enjoyed the competitive side of it and it's about looking for that next competitive challenge. I did the marathon in 2011 and after Kilimanjaro it was about doing something more extreme. So two years ago I entered the race and it's now upon us."
The training has been brutal. His routine now sees him train in 45°C heat with 40% humidity in an attempt to get his torso ready for the extremes of the Sahara. The training has seen his weight go from 114kgs down to 96kgs; he last did weights three years ago - "there isn't much of me left" he says. The weight loss has been an inevitable result of his training regime and difficulties he has had to overcome.
"I've done a lot of running which I'm not really designed for. It's been a lot of mileage but I initially picked up a lot of injuries from over-running. My body wasn't used to it as I was doing miles too quickly. So I've adapted it to gym-based work on bikes and cross-trainers. Last July I ran a 100km footrace called 'Race to the Stones' and I've done double marathons and marathons and doing marathons in training."
© David Barnes
The dangers of the race are fairly clear. While dehydration is an issue, so too is getting lost in the vast expanses of the Sahara. Barnes has heard such stories in the past but he is part of a three-man team so is hoping they will keep an eye on each other. He will do the race alongside Bath Rugby Foundation trustee Stuart Doughty and ex-Parachute Regiment captain Martin Hewitt who was shot in the chest and foot fighting in Afghanistan back in 2007. They fly out today (Friday) with stage one kicking off on Sunday.
"It is a self-sufficient race across the desert so each competitor has to carry all of their own food and kit for the week. You get given 1.5 litres every 10 kilometres and you don't know the race course until you arrive on the day. It works out at a marathon a day for the first three days, day four is a double marathon, day five is a rest day, day six is a measured marathon and day seven is a 10 mile 'fun run'.
"It's certainly my biggest challenge. It's a multi-day event whereas my problem in training has been that, as a typical sportsman, if you feel in trouble, you just push through it and get to the end. Unfortunately with this race, it is seven days. If I go all out on day one then that will be harder on day two. It's about pacing myself, listening to my body and looking after it for the whole seven days. I have to be very careful about what I'm doing."
Whether Barnes can enjoy the 'fun run' remains to be seen, but what will be a constant carrot at the end of the course will be the charities he is raising money for. The trio have picked out three: Restart, the Rugby Players' Associations' charity where Barnes currently works, the Bath Rugby Foundation and Help for Heroes.
Apart from the charities, there will also be another thought dominating Barnes' mind. "Throughout my training, I have been dreaming of pizzas and junk food and I'm hoping that the marathon will be no different. When I finish I want to jump in a swimming pool with a big piece of pizza."
To donate to the trio's effort, click here.
Stuart Doughty, David Barnes and Martin Hewitt © David Barnes
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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