Irish survivors join Ranulph Fiennes in Marathon des Sables mission

You mightn’t know Paul Deasy. To give you an idea what we’re dealing with, he’s a guy who regularly gets his wife to drop him off in Dungarvan. Only Paul lives in Fermoy, 32 miles away.

Irish survivors join Ranulph Fiennes in Marathon des Sables mission

Paul doesn’t bring the phone.

“You get weak and you get tired. You will naturally look for a way out, so if you remove that natural way out then you’ve got to get home.”

The man in the pristine running gear who eased alongside Paul one day, just outside Fermoy, didn’t know him.

“Hey, bud. I’ve read all the books, I know everything there is to know about running. Your technique is all wrong. But I reckon with a little bit of work you might finish a marathon.”

Paul is not the kind of guy to mention that he had 30 miles done today and 40 yesterday. And that’s why his running style might be unravelling a little.

Even at times like this Paul knows it’s the people you meet along the way that make the journey special.

He smiles, gives thanks, tells his tutor he stopped off to get some shopping. That’s what the bag on his back’s for. Then he pounds out the last couple of miles all wrong.

Today, Paul Deasy is in Morocco, ready to attack the Sahara, among 1,500 entrants, many of them Irish, who believe they are ready to take on what Discovery Channel tagged ‘The toughest footrace in the world’.

The Marathon des Sables. In its 28th year, already a legendary test of endurance. 150 miles in six days in likely 50-degree heat. This year, the longest stage is 62 miles. Your week’s supplies and bedding on your back. Ahead, whatever it is you want to find out about yourself.

Alongside the elite will be the survivors. The great British adventurer Ranulph Fiennes lines out this year, aiming, at 71, to become the oldest Briton to finish.

This is the reason you might have seen Paul at the Energy Fitness gym in Mahon in Cork, running the treadmill wearing a backpack, two jackets and a hat. That’s why there’s an 8 foot by 5 foot walk-in freezer at the back of his house, one he’s converted into a heat chamber with lamps above his head.

He can crank it up to 55 and it fits a treadmill. You know Paul’s done in there when you stick a fork in him.

He’s been busy too educating himself on the dangers, working studiously on water management for the desert.

“Over-hydration is probably a bigger problem than dehydration. If you’re not taking your salt tablets and your electrolytes, all the water washes the salt out of your body, so your muscles go.

“Because of that, they really ration the water, so there’s guys who’ve run out of water in the middle of the day.”

Then there’s the snakes and spiders to consider. Potions, antidotes and safety in numbers. “It might be the one and only time you’re happy to sleep in the middle of the tent, with seven other fellas around you.” He’ll definitely tip his shoes out too, every morning. Scorpions tend to object strongly to being woken abruptly.

Mostly though, he knows the toughest hurdles will be inside his head, when every rational thought considers the pain, the fatigue, the blisters, the sand, and screams enough.

“A regular person’s body tries to shut down at 50% when it’s in danger for any reason, whether it’s heat, dehydration or whatever, but as an ultra runner, you’ve really got to push that on beyond 80%.”

“You’ve got to recognise the signs. There is a difference between discomfort pain and real pain. You’ve got to realise that you’re actually okay. Then your body leaves and your mind takes over for the next 10 to 20%. And you get to that 80% and you’re running in the hippy phase. The runner’s trance. You just don’t feel anything, you’re not aware of anything, you’re just running.”

Not aware, yet maybe as self-aware as it gets.

“You have to be very comfortable in your own head. I spend a lot of time in Kerry on the mountains. You have nothingness and just beauty and nature and you just try to connect with your surroundings.

"I try to keep it as pure as I can, I try to keep phones away and keep it natural. And that gives you time to think, good, bad and indifferent, what’s going on in your life. Helps put perspective on your life.

“We hear so much about depression these days and a lot of it is that people are uncomfortable with themselves. Because they’ve never been on their own like that. You have time to analyse things. You’re having a hard day at work, whatever. Often people mightn’t analyse that. You just put it in a box and the problem with that is it stays in the box. And it could be six months down the line and you’re putting so much stuff in that box, it overflows, and that’s when you get depressed.”

We hear much these days, in elite sporting circles, about the focus on process over results. On the road, or in the desert, it’s the only way.

Paul felt he was ready for Africa when he completed The Kerry Way ultra marathon last September. Mentally anyway. 120 miles, 32 hours running. Never once did his mind wander beyond the next checkpoint.

Blinkers on, but not shutters down. When the MdS starts Sunday morning, strength will be drawn from one another. As the organisers put it: “your bivvy team become your family, your support team, your nursing team and invariably they become long-term friends.”

Paul has no problem letting people in. “It’s definitely about that connection with people on a real, real base level. People are very vulnerable when they’re running. They talk straight. The mask goes. They talk about their lives and what’s important and you really get to know someone on a real personal level.”

He connects with two more Cork men who’ll be at Sunday morning’s startline; James Winters from Kinsale and Ian Hickson from Clonmult.

He’s had help off-road too. Paul will run for Crumlin Children’s Hospital, where his daughter spent time.  That perspective word again.

Friends, colleagues and strangers have been intrigued by his training regime. One man, Tom O’Leary from Little Island, was fascinated by his training regime. “Jesus, you carry all your equipment?” Paul explained the need for lightweight backpacks, special sleeping bags, what have you.

A few weeks later, O’Leary tapped him on the shoulder and handed over a box. “€600 worth, at least.”

Paul will carry that gesture with him in the desert too. It will lighten the load.

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