In a few weeks you hope to be the oldest British finisher of the Marathon des Sables in history – a run that is reputedly the toughest running race in the world. Are you ready?
I don’t know if I’m ready! Time will tell. [Fiennes did in fact finish the run, making him the oldest ever Briton to do so.]
In March you turned 71. Did you manage to find time to celebrate or was it another day of training, running around Exmoor with a back pack on?
I did have to do a run – it was actually nice and cold. But despite that I had a good birthday with the family.
The last time you ran marathons on consecutive days was in your 7x7x7 challenge in 2003 where you ran seven marathons in seven days on seven different continents – despite suffering from a heart attack and undergoing a double heart bypass operation just four months before. Can the Marathon des Sables really be tougher?
The Marathon des Sables is tougher than the 7x7x7 because at 60 years old I was young then, and now I’m 71, which is ancient.
With temperatures of over 50 degrees C compared to the minus 50 degrees at the South Pole, for example, the African desert will challenge you with the opposite extremes of the poles and Everest. How has your preparation differed for this challenge? How did you prepare to cope with the heat, running in sand and dehydration?
The heat was always going to be the biggest challenge, as unfortunately, training in the UK I’ve been unable to train in any heat. For running in sand, and specific training for the MdS (Marathon des Sables) I’ve been working with 11-time MdS finisher Rory Coleman in the dunes of South Wales’ Merthyr Mawr. I also run an hour a day and four hours on a Sunday.
With a total distance of 251km to run over six days, the longest day of which could see you having to run over 100 km, how will you pace yourself?
My plan is to go as slow as is permissible – just ahead of the ‘elimination camels,’ who bring up the rear of the race. That’s the only way I can see being able to last the entire distance, without either having to quit or being disqualified.
In 2009 at the age of 65 you became the oldest Briton to summit Everest, and now at 71 you’re attempting to run the equivalent of almost six consecutive marathons in the desert. Is age just a number?
In the heat, age is more than just a number. Those over 65 are much more prone to heat stress than the young. Heat stroke is the most dangerous consequence in the desert, with multiple organ failure and even death a risk if you get struck by it.
You mention in your autobiography Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know that the regular challenges and strenuous training for them have staved off old age. Is staying young just another case of mind over matter for you?
‘Staying young’ is a question of doing your best to do all the well-known medical Dos and avoiding the Don’ts.
Despite the heart problems, an on-going struggle with diabetes, and frostbitten fingers are you still relatively happy with how your body has coped with everything you’ve demanded of it over the years of extreme adventuring?
There are no two ways about it – despite everything, I’ve been incredibly lucky so far with my health.
So much of your adventuring seems a solitary experience - even when you’re part of a team you must be alone with your thoughts for days on end, especially in harsh environments. What do you think about, and how do you cope?
To answer ‘What do you think about’ would need a book! But I don’t find silence difficult. Even so, I always prefer doing my adventures as part of a team, not alone. A team of two is best.
Have you developed any mental techniques for self-motivation through the long, often painful hours of these physical challenges?
Not really, although having a charitable fund raising goal is a meaningful motivator on stressful journeys when things get difficult. I’m hoping to raise £2.5m for my favourite charity, Marie Curie Cancer Care with my MdS journey. They were a huge help when I needed them, during my first wife’s illness.
You have published 19 fiction and non-fiction books. Do you enjoy the writing or is it just part of the adventurer’s job – a way of making a living from the journeys?
I enjoy writing but when people ask whether I prefer writing fiction or non-fiction, I say I enjoy ‘factual’ books and also enjoy making factual events appear to be ‘fictional’. Mystifying readers keeps the suspense going.
Are you looking forward to being in the desert again? Your army years in Oman seem to have given the sands a special place in your memories. Why?
I have spent many happy times in the desert, not just in my army years but during the 1992 expedition to find the lost city of Iram in Oman. I do love the Sands but don’t precisely know why.
Many would say that choosing to be ‘a professional adventurer’ is a selfish pursuit but you have raised north of £16 million for charitable causes. You’ve also written in the past that you felt the odd pang of guilt when embarking on dangerous adventures. Does being married and being a father make taking on dangerous challenges harder?
I’ve always been married on all the journeys, almost since I first started leading expeditions at the end of the 60s. Having a daughter and stepson hasn’t made the challenges harder yet.
What does your daughter think about having the World’s Greatest Living Adventurer for a dad?
My daughter is interested in all sorts of things, including ballet and anything to do with animals. However she is not at all interested in expeditions…
Obviously training, skill and character are paramount in your adventures but how much do you think luck plays a part in success or failure - or even simply staying alive or dying?
Luck is a certainly a major ingredient in completing a dangerous journey successfully and without major incident. Maybe it’s even the major ingredient.
In your autobiography you only mention briefly saying the odd prayer when the chips are really down. How important is your faith in your adventures?
Faith is very important to me. But silently, not openly.
The oldest man to finish the Marathon des Sables was an 80 year-old Frenchman. Do you reckon you’ll be back in 10 years to do it again and beat him?
I have no interest at all in other people doing the Marathon, as we are all different. Good luck to each entrant whatever their health history and age. For me, one attempt to complete the MDS will be more than enough!
For more on Sir Ranulph’s Marathon des Sables attempt and to support his fund-raising for Marie Curie Cancer Care, see mariecurie.org.uk