Sir Ranulph Fiennes has racked up a number of firsts in his astonishing career as an explorer and adventurer. He was the first man, along with friend and fellow adventurer Charlie Burton, to circumnavigate the globe along its polar axis by surface travel; the first, with Dr Mike Stroud, to cross the Antarctic continent on foot and unsupported, and the first to complete seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. He conquered Everest at 65, and, now 71, is still taking on incredible challenges. In April he completed the 156-mile Marathon des Sables (MdS) in the Moroccan desert for cancer charity Marie Curie. He crossed the line in 67 hours, 59 minutes and 52 seconds, becoming the oldest Brit to finish the race.
Why the Marathon des Sables?
I was on the lookout for another big fundraising challenge for Marie Curie, because my Antarctica expedition in 2012 had been for a different charity, fighting blindness in Bangladesh. My old pal Mike Stroud had done the Marathon des Sables years before, which had given me an interest in it. It was very different to previous challenges that I had taken on.
Was the ‘oldest Brit’ element important to you?
Yes. Doing something first helps with fundraising. We’d originally discussed me taking part in it in 2014, but we discovered that I would then not have been the oldest person. It was a bit annoying, but we had to wait until 2015.
And what’s your impression now of the ‘toughest footrace on earth’?
It was not a happy and enjoyable experience. The heat, the sheer distance and the soft sand were a hard slog. I experienced dizziness and sickness. If I’d known just how problematic it would be, I probably would not have taken it on.
Why is that?
I don’t like taking risks with my health. [Fiennes has survived two heart attacks and also undergone a double bypass operation.] The only way to complete the race is to not get caught up by the camels that ‘sweep’ from the back – but because of my heart problem, I mustn’t let my heart rate go over 130 beats per minute. At one point the camels were only 13 minutes behind me.
What was the hardest part?
I was on my feet for 30 hours during the fourth stage, with just one hour’s sleep. During the night, I misjudged a step down on to a rock and the jolt of landing did my back in. Taking a great number of painkillers – far more than was recommended on the packaging – was the only way to carry on.
At the finish, you said, ‘I never thought I wouldn’t make it.’ What gives you such self-belief?
You can’t give up. It took me three attempts before I reached the summit of Everest. If your health forces you to stop, well, that’s different – that’s not mentally giving up. You get the irritating voice in your head when you’re feeling negative, saying, ‘You should stop’. But then I would have had to do it again.
Do you have a genetic gift for endurance or is it sheer hard work?
Hard work. Over many years of expeditions, we [he and his expedition partners] have learned what we can achieve if we don’t give up.
How does your wife feel about your exploits?
[Sir Ranulph married Louise Millington in 2005, after losing his first wife, Ginny, to cancer] She’s pretty good about it. But we have a daughter [Elizabeth, nine], and when I was doing MdS and Louise got word of how difficult things were getting, I received an email from her saying, ‘Enough is enough. Elizabeth wants her daddy back, not a corpse.’ I said I would think about it.
How did you prepare for MdS?
I enlisted the help of Rory Coleman, a Welsh ultra-running coach. He accompanied me during the race as well as advising me on how to prepare for it. He was brilliant. He got me to follow a schedule of four one-hour runs and one four-hour run a week. I didn’t do as much preparation as I wanted, as I was also racing to fulfil a book contract, writing 1,500 words a day. But I did take part in the Druids Challenge, 84 miles over two days [in Buckinghamshire] in November, which built my confidence.
Are you making a stand for older people by doing these challenges?
Not knowingly. But I’m very keen on the fact that older folk are attempting to do more these days. Though whether their nearest and dearest are equally keen on it is doubtful. I believe if you still are lucky enough to be able to walk around not stooped, no crutch, no Zimmer frame, then you might as well go for it.
You are an inspiration to so many people. Who inspires you?
I never actually met my grandfather or my father – he was killed in action during the [Second World] War not long before I was born – but I grew up on stories of them and they are my heroes. What they achieved inspired me not to give up.
What have you planned next?
We have to keep it quiet, due to rivals - usually Norwegians!