From non-runner to the toughest race on earth, Devinder Bains, aged 33, tells how she got the running bug
As I stood on the start line, I took the deepest of breaths. How had I ended up in the Sahara about to take part in a 151-mile race across the desert?
That's the equivalent of six marathons in seven days in temperatures reaching 50 degrees, carrying everything I needed on my back. How had I ended up on the start line of the 27th Marathon Des Sables (MdS), known as the toughest foot race on earth?
It was April 2012, almost three years to the day that I had stood on the start line of my first marathon. Back then I’d never even heard of the MdS, I didn’t know what an ultra-marathon was... in fact, I wasn’t even sure you could call me a runner.
I’d started running just 10 months earlier, in July 2008. The girls at work had organised for us to do the 5k Race For Life so I set about doing a bit of training. I managed 15 minutes without stopping on my first outing.
I was actually quite pleased with that, as I hadn’t exercised for years. The main thing was I enjoyed it, so I went out again the next day and ran another 15 minutes. I completed the race a month later in a respectable 27 minutes. And I’d caught the running bug.
I started running three times a week, and ran a Cancer Research 10k in October 2008 in just under an hour. I’d found it quite tough and had no plans to run any more races. But a month later, I got a call from the organisers at Cancer Research UK offering me a place on the Flora London Marathon the following April. I’d helped raise a lot of money in the last two races and they were keen to get me on board for the marathon. Naively, I agreed. It was so difficult to get a place on the race, how could I say no?
I was a complete novice really, running about 10 miles a week in total. But the running had highlighted something else in me: I liked a challenge.
With four months to prepare, I slowly started upping my distances. I followed a proper training plan, including speed training, hill runs and long runs at the weekend.
I trained four or five times a week and ran my first London Marathon in 4 hours 32min. I had trained hard and it had paid off. After this I started running the 11 miles to work once or twice a week and attended classes at the gym – I’d found a love for keeping fit, not just running.
I ran a couple of half marathons, and two years later in April 2011 I was back on the start line of the London Marathon. I had trained even harder and was all set to run a sub four-hour race. But it wasn’t to be my day.
It was hot and I was tired; I had probably over-trained, running a 22-miler at race pace just two weeks before marathon day.
My knee went at mile 15, my whole body started cramping and I had to limp the final 11 miles to the finish. I made it in a personal best of 4h28, but it was half an hour slower than I’d expected.
I was gutted and my confidence was knocked. Half of me wanted to sign up to another marathon within the month and try again while I was fit, the other half was tired and needed time out. I decided to take a few weeks off running and joined in various gym classes instead.
It was a couple of months before I started running to work again, and almost instantly I remembered how much I loved running. Still smarting from what I saw as my marathon fail I started looking for a different challenge.
That’s when I stumbled across the Marathon des Sables website, the ultimate ultra marathon, and found there was a waiting list of up to two years - a sensible length of time to train for such a feat.
But luck (!) was on my side, and in January 2012, while I was nursing a knee injury, I was awarded a last-minute place in this year's Marathon des Sables taking place in April.
Gulp. I'd been training for a 50k race when I got injured, so I was already in good fitness - apart from the fact I couldn’t actually run, of course.
Now I had eight weeks to train for the 'toughest race on earth'. Yes, I was scared, yes I doubted my fitness - but surely it was worth a go? So I said yes.
What followed was some seriously intense training. Lots of cross training, distance walking and Pilates until my knee started to feel better. Then it was long runs, hill walks and Hot Bikram Yoga to acclimatise to the heat and strengthen my core.
Hours went into buying the right kit, selecting the right food to take and choosing my sleeping equipment.
Finally I found myself on the start line, butterflies circling my insides. And just like that, the race started.
It was six days of running, and walking when needed, through sand dunes, over mountains and along rocky paths. And all this carrying a heavy rucksack and in temperatures that soared to over 50degC.
For the first three days, I was covering distances that varied between 33km and 38km. I took it fairly easy as I was saving myself for day four - the 'long day' when I had to cover an energy-sapping 80km (50 miles). This distance meant travelling through the night for even the best runners.
By day four, my feet were covered in blisters and all I could manage was a slow shuffle in utter pain; it took me 24 hours to cross the finish line that day. I managed it more through mental strength than physical fitness.
Day five was a rest day, followed by a marathon on day six. By then, my feet felt a bit better and I managed to just about squeeze them into my trainers and ran the whole way. I surprised even myself at what I made my body do out there.
The final day was just 15.5km but involved running over the highest sand dunes in Morocco. And suddenly, there was the finish line!
I’d somehow done it and even managed to enjoy myself along the way. As I received my medal I thought back to how far I'd come since that first 5k Race for Life: what a long way I'd come.
I’m no elite runner, I’m not super skinny, I'm just a normal woman, yet I’ve achieved something extraordinary and I’m pretty proud of myself.
And what I say to all my mates is: if I can do it, anyone can, and I truly mean that. Find something that sounds scary and challenging and go for it. Devinder's kit was sponsored by lights by TENA, statistics show 1 in 2 women experience light bladder weakness, and often when exercising.
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