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In April 2015 Paul ‘Scully’ Sculthorpe and Nick Wilkinson set out to complete the ‘toughest race on earth’, the Marathon Des Sables, to raise money for the Steve Prescott Foundation.
Described as 6 marathons over 6 days in the 50 degree heat of the Sahara Desert, one of the reasons why the MDS is so tough is because of the variety faced by the competitors each day. It isn’t simply one marathon after another, instead each day presents a completely different challenge, on day 2 the competitors have to overcome rough uneven terrain that forces you to be constantly looking down at your feet, this creates a huge strain on your neck and back muscles. You also have to literally climb over 2 large hills, using your hands to climb over rocks and all in relentless 50 degree heat that makes you feel as though your head is about to explode.
Day 4 (and 5) is the suitably named ‘long stage’ this year (2015) presented the longest stage in MDS history at 93 KM. Over50 miles, and as usual the distance alone does not tell the whole story, a large part of the route, over 22 KM, is sand dunes that sap your energy and strength. It took us 30 hours to complete the stage from the early hours of the morning, right through the nigh and on into the next day.
The MDS made us think a lot about mental toughness. For a start, on a challenge like this mental toughness is no substitute for common sense and preparation. This is simply a challenge that you have to be ready for or you will be in trouble. We met one competitor that proclaimed how the race was all about mental toughness, that he would complete it and hadn't prepared at all. In fact someone else had packed his bag he loudly proclaimed, he didn’t even know what shoes he had brought. That guy dropped out mid way through day 2. The MDS is not something that you should ever underestimate. It is seriously tough.
One useful mental toughness skill to get you through the challenge is to break the different stages down into manageable chunks. If you keep thinking on the ling stage about the vast distance you have ahead of you then you can easily break your own spirit. It is always better to just think about making it to the first checkpoint and the drink of water and shade you will find there. When you are struggling then just focus on getting to the next landmark in front of you, getting to that landmark is all that matters. When you get there then take a moment to congratulate your achievement and then pick out the next landmark to push towards. Any great endeavour is made much more manageable if it is broken down into a series of achievable goals.
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