Inspired By: The 1,000 Marathon Man

Rory Coleman, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and me at the start of the 30th Marathon des Sables, April 2015

How do you go from being an overweight, 40-a-day smoker and hardened drinker, to running 1,000 marathons? Rory Coleman, who ran his 1,000th marathon last Sunday (24th September 2017), can tell you a thing or two about that.

How do you run a 150+ mile self-supported desert race FOURTEEN times? Rory is your man.

How do you go from being unable to take a single unsupported step due to paralysis, to running 24 marathons in under 18 months? Well, Rory can tell you about that too.

In May 2014, in a fit of madness, having been egged on by a suitably crazy Scottish friend*, I signed up for the Marathon des Sables, “MDS”. Often referred to as “the world’s toughest footrace”, MDS takes place in the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco each April. With no marathons under my belt, I needed a trainer, which is how I came to meet Rory Coleman.

That July I visited the gym where Rory works in Cardiff and was given a bit of a dressing down which went something like this: “You need to lose at least 15 kilos if you are going to stand a chance. No bread, no alcohol, no rice, no potatoes, no nuts, no bananas.”

No BANANAS?

“Here’s your training schedule: you need to run 10 miles three times next week and start doing back-to-back runs on weekends — 13 miles one day and 20 miles the next in a few weeks time will be a start. It’s less than 300 days to the race. In September you come back here and we run a marathon together.”

YIKES!

The magnitude of what I had taken on — which I had already been gulping at — was starting to land. I was running about 5–6 miles a few times a week. In a few weekends time I was intending to do a 24 hour relay race which would involve running about 18 miles and was thinking of that as a challenge. Oh dear.

Rory is no nonsense — there is no doubt about that – and some people don’t take well to his approach. When I came back with my training schedule everyone thought it was crazy. “You’re going to go from 18 miles a week to 50, within a month? Are you nuts? He wants you to lose how much weight by when?”

The first ten mile run felt like absolute hell, but with the help of Leanne Spencer from Bodyshot Performance, who ended up running almost as many training miles as me that year, I managed it, and pretty much kept to the gruelling schedule over the summer. In September I ran an easy-paced marathon with Rory around beautiful Cardiff and my weight was on track (turns out when you run that much it’s not so hard to lose weight — especially if you cut out the, err, bananas!).

There was much more to come from Rory. “You MUST buy these shoes. You must have this back-pack. This is the right tape to use on your feet; that one is rubbish. You must run this race. This is the right food to eat. These are the best socks….” Basically, Rory has run this race so many times that he knows exactly — down to the tape, socks, underwear, minutest detail — how to do it and he’ll tell you because he genuinely believes it will give you the best chance of succeeding yourself.

I was at the start line of the Marathon des Sables in April 2015 feeling as prepared as I could possibly have been — and I finished the race, 156 miles and six days later. Not many people have done that — far fewer women — and it will always feel like a massive achievement. There is not a chance that I could have done it without Rory. That year he ran it for the 12th time, with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the “world’s greatest living explorer” who he also just happened to be training.

Just over a year later in May 2016, not long after his 13th MDS, Rory was struck down with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, “GBS”. A very rare condition that affects the nervous system, GBS causes severe weakness in the body leaving sufferers unable to walk, move more generally, and undertake the simplest tasks. Rory was in a wheelchair and had to be supported to take even one step. It was unclear whether he would walk again, let alone run a marathon, let alone Marathon des Sables.

But Rory had a goal, a dream, something that he was imagining and was determined to make happen — to run 1,000 marathons. This man wasn’t going to be beaten by his whole nervous system shutting down — no way! When GBS hit he had run 976 marathons — a 22 year journey since he first struggled to run 100 metres as an overweight, heavy drinker and smoker back in January 1994. Rory tells the story of how on the day of that first run he decided to quit smoking and drinking and live his life to the full. He has certainly done that.

In his daily blog, Rory openly wrote about his struggle with GBS, the progress and fall backs, and his never-ending determination to keep going for his goal, despite the most extreme challenge. GBS comes on in a few hours to a few weeks: Rory went from being extraordinarily fit to being being almost completely paralysed within a matter of days. Drawing on his mental reserves and learning to rely on others, Rory first learnt to stand, then eventually to walk a few steps unaided, and with much work and determination he finally began to run again, starting with his local 5k Parkrun in Cardiff — coming in last. In October 2016, he ran his 977th marathon — taking 2 hours longer than when he ran the same race before GBS. In April 2017, against all the odds, he completed MDS again — for the 14th time. He has a whole new raft of personal best times to rack up, post GBS.

Less than 18 months from his diagnosis—24 marathons done in that time — he is a 1,000 marathon runner!

Along the way to his 1,000 marathons Rory has coached, trained, encouraged and supported hundreds of people to make radical changes in their own lives, using running as a way through. He is truly an inspiration, consistently demonstrating what you can achieve if you believe not in the reality that you see right now, but in the reality created by your imagination — backed up by bloody hard work.

Details about Rory’s coaching practice are here and you can follow his blog here. You can also follow Rory on Twitter and Facebook. Here is the BBC news story about his 1,000th marathon.

*Alice Morrison, my wonderful friend, is an adventurer, BBC TV presenter and writer. She did the race herself in 2014.

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