© Benedict Tufnell
Ironman UK? Check? Multi-stage desert ultra? Check. Ultra-duathlon? Check. Endurance sport enthusiast, Mara Hafezi, has notched up an impressive list of fitness firsts just this year alone. Better known by her social handle of The Fit Londoner, Mara, who is a communications specialist by day and personal trainer on the side, chronicles her endurance adventures on her blog of the same name.
Fresh from completing the 5-day, 260km long Wadi Rum Ultra in southern Jordan a few weeks ago, I quizzed Mara about how it felt to complete her first ever multi-stage desert race.
Tell me about your background – have you always been fit and sporty?
I played netball and was on the team throughout school and had a short stint at my local U16 team until they found out I wasn’t old enough! Otherwise, I didn’t really feel sporty until I went to Law School after university when I discovered the power of lifting weights and exercise. Law school was an intense few years and exercise became my outlet to de-stress. My younger brother was also applying for a place at American universities around then. He was doing all these sporty and entrepreneurial activities to put on his application and that made me realise I wasn’t doing anything that exciting or interesting outside of Law School. That really encouraged me to see what I could do within sports and led me to today.
This year has seen you run your first Ironman. How did that come about?
I knew after completing the Verona Marathon in 2016 that I wanted my next goal to be something that would really make me work for it. I wanted all the blood, sweat and tears. I can’t remember where or when I had heard of Ironman, but I just remember knowing I wanted to do it. It was something about it being described as ‘one of the hardest endurance events in the world’ that drew me in. The only thing was, at the time, I didn’t own a bike and had a phobia of deep water so I kept putting the whole thing off! Then, in 2017, I woke up one morning and just thought: Stop putting everything off, stop finding excuses not to do things, and let’s see how much I can really test my limits. After saving up for most of the year, I finally bought my bike in November last year. After booking my race entry for Ironman UK 2018 and finding a coach (out of all the coaches I spoke to, only two said it was possible that I could complete the race), I began training.
You’ve also completed an ultra-duathlon and, more recently, the Wadi Rum Desert Ultra. Did each event become a stepping stone to the next challenge?
I’d heard about post-Ironman blues, which sounded a lot more intense and full-on than the normal post-race blues; you’re going from this one extreme of intense training to the complete opposite afterwards. To avoid going down that rabbit hole, in the last month of training for IMUK, I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. That’s when Lauren [Morton] messaged me out of the blue to see if I wanted to be part of Team Like A Girl who were going to run the Wadi Rum Ultra in October: 260km of running over five days in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan. The ultra describes itself as “one of the toughest foot races on earth” and I just knew I had to see if I could do it. I want to run Marathon des Sables one day but the cost of that has put that on hold for now. This was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to.
After Ironman UK, the organisers of Descente London Duathlon asked me if I wanted to take part. I’d done a handful of short distance duathlons earlier in the year during my training, but back then I was fairly new to cycling and wasn’t the most confident – although I’m not sure how great a cyclist I am now! The London Duathlon is the world’s biggest duathlon (run-bike-run) so how could I say no to that? The ultra-distance duathlon drew me in; after IMUK it looked achievable but equally, out of all the other distances, I noticed there were fewer women taking part in the ultra duathlon and part of that made me feel I had to do it to show women they can do it. Part of what The Fit Londoner does is to encourage men and all women – including women of colour – to challenge themselves and step outside their comfort zones. I’d love to see more women complete the ultra-event at Descente London Duathlon in 2019.
Tell me more about Team Like a Girl and why you said yes to the Wadi Rum Ultra?
Lauren, one of the founders of Team Like a Girl, messaged me to see if I wanted to take part. The TLAG motto resonated with me: ordinary women taking on extraordinary challenges. Their mission is to give females the belief to achieve so that we can boost the perspective of what they think they can do. That aligned with my own beliefs – I use the hashtag #defyexpectationstogether on Instagram, which is similar. I knew a couple of the girls who were going to be on the team as well.
What did a typical week of training for Wadi Rum involve?
The importance for training for Wadi Rum Ultra was time on feet. If I wasn’t able to do a training session that day, I’d substitute it with walking to places.
Mondays were usually my rest days, then on Tuesdays I’d have a track session with my triathlon club – these were super-tough sessions. In one of the last weekends leading up to the event, a group of us from the club went to the South Downs for a weekend of back-to-back trail running. Wednesday would be a tempo run, Thursday would be a strength session in the morning and a short tempo run in the afternoon. Friday, I’d build up on speed and distance, then the weekend would be a long bike ride with my cycling club for cross training, and Sunday would be a long run.
Tell me about your Wadi Rum experience – did it live up to your expectations?
The Wadi Rum experience was like nothing I’ve experienced before. It was incredible. Looking back now, I can’t believe it only happened a few weeks ago. While we were out there in the desert over five days, it was an intense experience. I came back re-evaluating the things I’m doing in my life. It opened my eyes to what else is out there in terms of challenges, what kind of challenges I want to do next and how I want to push my body and mind mentally and physically.
With such a small number of people taking part compared to other desert ultras like Marathon des Sables, it was so nice to socialise with everyone taking part. We all had different running histories, life stories and endurance events-based backgrounds. It also meant we knew all the crew, including Sam and Jamie, the race organisers, and they knew us.
What did you find toughest mentally about the Wadi Rum?
The desert was so vast and many times it was difficult to judge distance. As soon as we noticed the next checkpoint on the horizon, while it looked near, it always felt like forever until we reached it. Things like that were such mind games. Reaching the finishing line each day was such a high – especially on the last day. As soon as I reached that finishing line, I couldn’t believe it was all over and that I had done it. I felt relief and happiness for completing it, but also sadness that the experience was nearly over. The five days had been unforgettable.
How did your first multi-day ultra compare to doing your first Ironman?
In many ways, Ironman was harder than the Wadi Rum Ultra; Ironman is an intense day out with no stopping, although the marathon provides opportunities to slow down or walk if you need. With the Wadi Rum Ultra, even though you’re running this insane distance over five days, the distance changes each day and by the third and fourth day, your body begins to get used to it. There was also time to rest and recover in the afternoons and evenings each day during Wadi Rum Ultra, as well as at the checkpoints every 10km where you could recover for a bit and stock up on water.
We also had osteopaths at the checkpoints and after each stage so we could get sports massages and help for any niggles. In the few days after Ironman, I felt broken and exhausted and was so glad I had booked an extra day off work. However, after Wadi Rum Ultra, although a little sore and slightly waddling, I felt fine and was back at work on Monday.
But then, Wadi Rum Ultra felt harder in other respects – while Ironman is over and done in one day, there’s five days in Wadi Rum Ultra. You have to really think about your nutrition and hydration because once you’re in the desert, you don’t leave. Running on sand is also completely different to trail or road running. You discover there are different types of sand – soft sand is hard to run across, soft sandy long dunes usually mean you’re walking, and hard sand is your friend.
Had you done any heat training in prep for the Wadi Rum?
In the lead up to the event, Ultra-X and Likeys organised a training weekend in the Brecon Beacons to practice running on sand and sand dunes, and also to speak about training and provide kit advice. Sam, one of the organisers of Wadi Rum Ultra, advised us to have heat training in the month leading up to the run, and through that I discovered lots of different ways to heat train.
Luckily, we were in the midst of a very hot summer in London, which partly helped. I also did hot yoga once a week and used the heat chamber at St Mary’s University. There, the sports scientist would measure some of my stats and then I’d go into the heat chamber and use the treadmill. While I ran, the temperature was set to 40-degrees to replicate running in the heat. All these sessions massively helped me to acclimatise to exercising in the heat.
It was 40-degrees in the desert. Did you have a strategy for staying hydrated?
Yes! I had two 750ml bottles containing electrolytes. There were checkpoints every 10km so I’d refill my bottles, add electrolytes and take on a salt tablet. On the longest day, Wednesday, which was 70km, I also brought a soft squeezy bottle, which was easy to pack into my bag and meant I had extra water if needed.
The last two days were really hot and there were a lot of open stretches of land where we were exposed to the heat, so the organisers put on additional water stops every 5km towards the end. After the race, I couldn’t look at electrolytes for a long time, but they helped me so much with my hydration strategy and prevented muscle cramps.
Tell me about your food – did you have a nutrition strategy?
Food took up the biggest part of my luggage. For breakfast and dinner, I had dehydrated food that required hot water. Dinner included things like dehydrated macaroni cheese, or fish with parsley sauce. During the first three days, I ate dehydrated porridge but on the fourth and fifth day I was a bit tired of it and switched to normal oats. The aim with breakfasts was to ensure I was fuelled up before the long run ahead each day. My nutrition changed half-way through day two as I found I was struggling to eat in the hot weather. From then onwards, I ate every 20 minutes.
What kind of foods did you eat during the run?
I had packed a mixture of solid foods like spicy mixed nuts, plain mixed nuts, energy bars, Clif Blok Energy Chews and also liquid-based foods like nut butter sachets and gels. Despite them working for me during training, I found it harder to eat the nuts and ended up switching to Babybels, gels, Clif Blok, Energy Chews and Chia Charge bars.
As soon as I’d arrived back in camp at the end of each run, I’d have a bottle of electrolytes designed for after exercise, as well as a protein shake. I ate either packs of spicy Korean noodles in the evenings or the dehydrated dinner packs.
Blisters and sand issues are common during desert ultras – did you have any strategies for preventing them?
In the lead up to the Wadi Rum Ultra, I bought trainers a size up as it allows for feet swelling in the heat. I’m normally a size 9 – if that’s not hard enough, imagine how difficult it was to find a pair of trainers in a women’s UK size 10! During the ultra, I wore gaiters over my trainers, which are like socks you wear over your trainers to prevent sand getting into them.
Apart from the first day, every morning I’d tape up my toes and specific areas around my feet where I knew I was prone to blisters. Like most people in the race, I wore two pairs of socks each day to prevent blisters. The first pair were toe socks and then I’d wear a normal pair of socks over them. Before the ultra, it took me a while to get used to the toe socks – it’s a really weird feeling being able to feel your toes move individually in your shoes!
I think I was quite lucky as I only got one very small blister during the whole experience. Others weren’t as lucky and had lots of them all over their feet. We were quite lucky at the ultra, as the doctors spent time fixing people’s feet both at the checkpoints as well as before and after the runs each day.
Which day did you find the most challenging?
Wednesday was probably the hardest. It was the longest day – 70km – and unlike the other days, cut-off times were applied: the distance between each checkpoint was 10km and we had to arrive at each one within two hours. We went through a lot of stretches of the desert where we could really feel the heat on this day so that added to the toughness too.
Did you use a GPS watch?
Oh, I wished I brought my GPS watch with me! I thought it wouldn’t bother me, but there comes a point each day when you just want to know how far you’d run and how long there was to go!
What kit did you find indispensable for your Wadi Rum run?
The Precision Hydration electrolytes and salt tablets played such an important role during the runs each day. I’m prone to sweating a lot and drinking the electrolytes in water helped to prevent muscle cramps and fatigue. With my events going forward, I’ll be including these in my hydration strategy.
The spicy Korean noodles were good to have. The dehydrated packs of food start to taste bland after a while, although bringing salt, pepper and chilli flakes to add to them helped. Plus, when I was at university, I was obsessed with them so they were a nice throwback to have with me.
Did you run the ultra with poles?
I didn’t take poles with me on the first two days because I wanted to see what it was like to run without them. Some people describe poles as a crutch, and while I think that can be true, I noticed they helped me a lot throughout the rest of the ultra. Whether I was climbing up a steep, soft sandy dune, or if I was feeling a little bit tired or wanted to increase my pace, the poles helped. Depending on what kind of ultra I do next, I would definitely bring my poles as a back-up.
Now that you’ve done a desert ultra, do you have any dos or don’ts to pass on?
I think there’s an assumption with ultras that you have to run the whole distance and that’s just not true – Kiko, my Team Like A Girl teammate, walked the entirety of the Wadi Rum Ultra and there was another participant who’d done Marathon des Sables six times and walked the whole ultra as well.
Running in a hot climate and running on sand are both taxing and you aren’t necessarily going to be running at your road or trail run pace, so that’s something to be aware of.
Heat training was a really useful way to acclimatise to running in the hot weather. Running in a heat chamber may be a luxury or you might not have one near you, but there are ways around this like hot yoga or wearing lots of layers during runs.
Variety in the food you pack for your runs is important, as is taste – a mixture of sweet and savoury foods helps. Instead of buying dehydrated packs of porridge, a cheaper alternative is to bring bags of oats with protein powder, nuts, and chia seeds and then mix with hot water. For the dehydrated packs of dinner-type meals, I’d definitely recommend bringing a small bottle of tabasco sauce and small packets of salt, pepper and chilli flakes to add.
And take advantage of the osteos or sports massage therapists at the desert ultra: it’s not every day you’re offered a daily sports massage!
What are your tips for choosing your first desert ultra?
If you’re choosing a desert ultra, look at the how many people are taking part as well as the type of people taking part. At Wadi Rum Ultra, there was a great mix of both men and women, which I think is a little different from what’s normally quite a male-dominated sport. There was also a great mix of age groups – ultras are stereotypically a middle-aged man’s sport, but this stereotype definitely didn’t apply to Wadi Rum Ultra. Less than 40 participants took part and there were 15 members in the crew (all volunteers), which gave it a friendlier atmosphere; the crew knew every single runner taking part and vice versa.
Would you do anything differently next time around?
I’d bring a GPS watch with me. I thought bringing a normal digital watch would be fine but I really regretted that, especially in the last few miles each day. The Wadi Rum desert is so vast, it can be hard to judge distance.
There wasn’t an enforced rule on the luggage weight limit and since we only needed to carry the essentials for each day in our running bag, I would bring a few more things with me like a solar-powered rechargeable power bank.
If I were to do this again, during training I’d also be stricter on strength-based training. While it was on my training plan, if I was busy or feeling tired, those were the sessions I’d ditch first. A little naughty, I know…
What’s next on your radar by way of events?
The next event I’m doing is The Speed Project in March 2019. It’s a 340-mile ultra-marathon relay from LA to Las Vegas in the US and I’ll be doing it with a group of seven other ladies. Our team is The Artemis Arrows and we’re one of the few all-female teams competing. The Speed Project has no rules and the aim is to run from LA to Vegas as fast as possible.
You can keep up with Mara’s endurance adventures by following her on social media via www.instagram.com/mara.thefitlondoner and www.twitter.com/thefitlondoner. Read Mara’s blog about the Wadi Rum Ultra here and visit her website at www.thefitlondoner.com.