Trail Running (UK) - - Contents - Words Paul Hal­ford

Ul­trarun­ning star Tom Evans re­veals his se­crets for tack­ling the Marathon des Sables

To un­der­stand just how tough Tom Evans is, con­sider this: we chat­ted with the barely-out-of­breath army cap­tain af­ter he’d just fin­ished what he de­scribed as an easy, stress-re­duc­ing four-hour run around Lan­zarote. The ca­sual ob­server would think he’d spent 15 min­utes am­bling up and down the aisles of his lo­cal su­per­mar­ket rather than tack­ling thou­sands of me­tres of as­cent on this vol­canic is­land. But then he is tougher than your av­er­age

Spar­tan war­rior.

It isn’t in­ac­cu­rate to de­scribe a four-hour run as a brief jaunt for this rel­a­tive ul­tra novice, whose name be­came prom­i­nent in trail run­ning cir­cles for an epic eight-hour-plus stint in the Marathon des Sables (MdS) last year.

That in­cred­i­ble ef­fort came on the long­est stage – an 86km run across the Mo­roc­can sand dunes – of a race the Sus­sex man en­tered as an un­known. He ended up mak­ing his­tory by be­com­ing the first Bri­tish male to make the podium of ar­guably the world’s tough­est foot race, be­com­ing one of the world’s most ex­cit­ing ul­tra trail prospects in the process.

In Lan­zarote Tom was act­ing as an in­struc­tor at an MdS train­ing camp, and un­sur­pris­ngly had some great ad­vice to pass on. Les­son one would be to do your re­search. And his words of wis­dom are use­ful not only to those em­bark­ing on the gru­elling 251km desert run, but any­one with a ma­jor run­ning goal.

“Con­trol the con­trol­lables,” is how he puts it. The six-day Sa­ha­ran epic has plenty of un­con­trol­lables, but Tom’s re­search gave him a mas­sive head­start over other rook­ies in the race.

It was just five months ear­lier


that Tom com­peted in his first ul­tra, which he won con­vinc­ingly af­ter a last­minute en­try when he saw the course mapped out while train­ing in the Bre­con Bea­cons. Tom dis­cov­ered a 46-mile race was be­ing staged the next day and, even though he’d only com­pleted one marathon be­fore, lined up and beat the field of 200 with a win­ning mar­gin of 43 min­utes.

“It was such a huge sur­prise to me,” he said. “I had ab­so­lutely no idea that I was go­ing to be able to do it, let alone be able to do it to a rea­son­able stan­dard.”

Al­though clearly nat­u­rally tal­ented – he won a na­tional schools medal on the track as a young­ster – un­til 2015 he’d con­cen­trated on rugby rather than run­ning and weighed 16 stone aged 19. How­ever, in the mean­time, eight-mile walks wear­ing 26kg back­packs had honed his fit­ness, while other as­pects of army life built up the men­tal re­silience that serves him well in races.

Army com­mit­ments meant his buildup to the 2017 MdS race wasn’t ideal. “I knew it would be un­com­fort­able, but I didn’t think much of it,” ad­mit­ted Tom. “I was in good shape but I did noth­ing par­tic­u­larly spe­cific to ul­tra-marathon. I went out with hopes of fin­ish­ing in the top 20, but hadn’t even con­sid­ered that do­ing bet­ter than that was an op­tion.”

He sur­prised ev­ery­one by fin­ish­ing fourth on the first stage of five, not far be­hind the Mo­roc­can favourites. “It was a real shock that my body was able to deal with it,” he said. “The rea­son was my men­tal strength and I owe a lot of that to serv­ing in the Bri­tish Army. A lot of the time if you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re prob­a­bly right. There were a cou­ple of hours dur­ing that long stage where I had a dodgy tummy and ended up very close to pulling out. I couldn’t stom­ach any food or liq­uid. I kept con­vinc­ing my­self that I was go­ing to be fine and for­tu­nately my body lis­tened and re­alised it wasn’t the end of the world. I was able to keep push­ing to get my best per­for­mance.”

Les­son two for Tom’s stu­dents: let the mind win over the body. Rep­re­sent­ing the Welsh Guards Char­ity also helped him mo­ti­va­tion­ally push through, and he would go on to raise nearly £20,000.

Les­son three: go light. The MdS is a self-sup­ported event in which you carry al­most ev­ery­thing you’ll need. Tom said: “Your pack has to be a min­i­mum of 6.5kg and I got mine down to that limit. I’d done lots of re­search that gave me good in­sight into roughly what to ex­pect. I was happy to run it and not have lots of com­fort, so I got rid of a lot of things that other peo­ple may not have wanted to.

“My body is ac­cus­tomed to car­ry­ing heav­ier bags. I’ve got a strong core so I can keep my body in a good pos­ture when run­ning, and that re­ally helps with ef­fi­ciency, econ­omy and stride strength.”

One more tip Tom passes on to wouldbe MdS run­ners re­gards nu­tri­tion and hy­dra­tion: “I did a bit of re­search about the food I should be car­ry­ing and what my nu­tri­tional re­quire­ment was.

“Do you carry slightly more so you can eat more but it’s harder, or carry less so you don’t have to work as hard? I went to the mid­dle ground, know­ing I would be in a calo­rie deficit pretty much from the be­gin­ning and hun­gry for a week. On a nor­mal day I was run­ning three and a half to four hours, and on each run I’d have about 2300 calo­ries, which isn’t usu­ally enough. But for me it was enough, be­cause my body adapted quickly to that re­duced calo­rie con­sump­tion and be­came slightly bet­ter at us­ing fat for en­ergy.”

When it comes to hy­dra­tion, Tom went to ex­treme lev­els too: “I spent time ex­am­in­ing my sweat con­tent and how salty it was, so I knew how much sodium I needed to put back into my body every hour. I used a com­pany called Pre­ci­sion Hy­dra­tion, who do sweat tests and then pro­vide the cor­rect level of elec­trolytes.

“I set my watch to beep af­ter every kilo­me­tre, so I knew when to sip my elec­trolyte drink. There’s a lot of times you get re­ally tired and it be­comes quite easy not to drink or not to eat. Eat­ing and drink­ing can make or break a mul­ti­stage race and it’s one of the few things you can con­trol. The longer the race, the more ex­ter­nal fac­tors there are. If you take on a race like the MdS, you’ve got the heat, wind, sands, hills, dunes. All of that you can’t do any­thing about, but there are a few things you can – like your kit, mak­ing sure you’re well hy­drated, what pace you’re go­ing, and how hard you’re go­ing.”

Tom built on his MdS re­sult with fourth in both the Eiger 101km in Switzer­land and the Ul­tra Trail du Mont Blanc CCC race to end up as third on the Ul­tra Trail World Tour rank­ings, and be­gan 2018 with a win at the Coastal Chal­lenge in Costa Rica. In May he rep­re­sented Bri­tain at the World Trail Cham­pi­onships in Spain, fin­ish­ing third. The suc­cess means he’s de­cided, af­ter seven years in the Army, to leave the Armed Forces and fo­cus on run­ning.

“If I do some­thing I have to do it prop­erly,” he said. “To achieve my goals, I’ve got to be so ded­i­cated. In a job like the Army, an in­di­vid­ual sport can be self­ish. I care so much for my sol­diers that I feel I’m do­ing them an in­jus­tice by be­ing away for so long. It was a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion, but I’m re­ally look­ing for­ward to fo­cus­ing on my run­ning ca­reer.”

As for those goals, as well as be­ing keen to im­prove on his marathon PB of 2:26:04 with a view to com­pet­ing at the Com­mon­wealth Games, he would love to tackle the Western States 100. He also hopes to be­come the first Bri­tish win­ner of the Marathon des Sables in 2019.

“I’m mov­ing to Morocco in De­cem­ber for around four months to train in a very spe­cific en­vi­ron­ment, to al­low my body to adapt as much as pos­si­ble,” he said.

Such metic­u­lous prepa­ra­tion could see him chal­lenge the very best in the world. What­ever your chal­lenge, even if it’s not as big as the MdS, you would do well to ap­ply the same de­tail to your plan­ning.

Tom fly­ing the Bri­tish flag in Spain in May, af­ter claim­ing a bronze medal and help­ing GB men to a team sil­ver at the Trail World Cham­pi­onships

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