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Explore Discover Coach - Marathon des Sables Revisited

‘I want to feel confident going into the Marathon des Sables that I can complete the event’ ~ Elaine, Coached Athlete

‘I want to get back into long distance running in a responsible manner without breaking my body’ ~ Ashley, Coached Athlete

Heralded as the ‘toughest* foot-race on earth’ the Marathon des Sables is legendary amongst the ultra-running community and beyond. Since its inception in 1986 hundreds of ultra-runners have flocked to the Sahara Desert to test themselves physically, mentally and emotionally; myself (twice in 2015 and 2018 - blog post here) and several of my coached athletes included. The thirty-seventh edition starts later this weekend where participants will tackle the equivalent of six marathons in six days; endure temperatures which creep into the mid-40 degree Celsius; sleep under the stars in traditional Bedouin tents (visualise a blanket propped up by a couple of pieces of wood); encounter seemingly endless sand dunes; whilst carrying all their own equipment and food (minus water) for the duration of the event.

Over the last six months it’s been a delight to coach two phenomenal ladies; Ashley, a seasoned multi-stage ultra-runner keen to dive back into running after her first child and Elaine, a first-time ultra-runner excited and daunted in equal measure to face the Marathon des Sables. At the heart of their goal lies their WHY; a deep motivation for dedicating time, energy and often encountering discomfort during training and the event itself. This motivation includes finding me-time as a mother; escaping work pressures; embracing an unknown physical challenge, seeking adventure and pushing physical, mental or emotional boundaries.. It’s important to harness the power of this WHY to inject a mental boost when daily sessions might be tricky to prioritise or a warm duvet is hard to leave for early morning sessions; especially since both athletes are UK-based where training through the dark and cold winter months can be particularly bleak and mentally challenging at times!

Each athlete had a bespoke macro training plans created for them based on their personal responses to an onboarding questionnaire and our initial online consultation that captures previous experience and future aspirations. This is then split into shorter three-week ‘build-build-recover’ micro cycles to develop fitness focus on either strength, endurance, technique and sharpening before the final taper. Individual speed, endurance, hills, strength, flexibility, plyometric drills and cross-training sessions for each cycle are delivered through the Training Peaks platform with detailed descriptions and background information to educate the athlete. Rest is one of the most important; though often overlooked elements for success. My aim is to support the development of a well-rounded athlete; opposed to one-dimensional runner.

Our online monthly conversations form an integral part of the coaching process; the chance to look beyond Training Peaks data or comments and learn more about each individual, talk through ninja mindset strategies; solutionise every possible challenge; and celebrate success – whether it’s smashing a tough 800s speed set or consistency in completing sessions. It’s also been invaluable meeting Elaine in-person, heading out onto the trails to analyse her running technique, offer advice on how to improve form and help build confidence. At the beginning of March we headed to the sand dunes in Merthyr Mawr Nature Reserve in Bridgend, South Wales to demonstrate and practice technique on how to ascend and descend or slide down steep sand dunes whilst carrying a weighted backpack. These sand dunes are the second highest in Europe so replicate what lies in store in the Sahara Desert albeit in a slightly cooler climate.

As the days turned into single figures and the start line loomed ever closer it’s been a pleasure offering last minute advice and helping to dispel nerves; whether it’s when to carry out the final kit check, identify what items to place in the aircraft hold or take as carry-on luggage and navigate possible ‘taper tantrums’ which can surface as the pre-race tension rises. Scrolling and scanning through the Marathon des Sables social media posts images of the desert and a familiar list of names jump out from the elite female line-up; triggering a moment or two of wistful FOMO and evoking past fond memories of my desert adventures. Over the next seven days a part of me will stand on the start line each morning, waiting for ‘Highway to Hell’ to blast through the desert airwaves which indicates the start of another day in the desert. I’ll be sending speedy vibes from afar and tracking my athletes and friends progress each evening.

Train Smart. Run Happy.

Anna-Marie is a UK Athletics Coaching in Running Fitness (CiRF) qualified coach and elite ultra-runner part of the La Sportiva UK Team and Precision Fuel and Hydration Ambassador Team. She specialises in coaching ultra-runners tackle their first ultra; athletes who want to step it up to longer distances or multi-stage events and extreme mountain or desert environments.

Previous athlete feedback:

‘Anna-Marie is an awesome coach! She takes a holistic approach to training that involves building strength and flexibility as well as improving running economy. The Reach For More program is supplemented by practices that help athletes increase their awareness, such as breathwork. The running regimen is always engaging and interesting, complete with drills and footwork, and a focus on correct posture’ ~ Carrie

‘Anna-Marie successfully coached me to a top half finish at the Marathon Des Sables in 2022. I really appreciated her coaching style introducing a mix of yoga, strength-work and different types of running. I would highly recommend Anna-Marie for coaching for all types of running and endurance events’ ~ Olly

‘I booked Anna Marie for an online training evaluation for my brother for his 40th birthday. My brother has recently got into ultra-running and is doing really well - I thought it would be nice for him to get some structured advice from an expert. The process was seamless and Anna Marie was really flexible with arranging the training and the feedback that I got from my brother was great - really sound advice and some things he would never have thought of. He loved it. I would highly recommend’ ~ Sarah Jane Edwards

Note* This claim admittedly hotly debated within the ultra-running community with the advent of other endurance events from the Barkley marathon, Dragon’s Back, Spine etc.

**Names have been changed by request to respect the identity of the athletes.


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