For most of us, the thought of running the London Marathon causes us to feel a small wave of panic and dread, for Major Sally Orange however, the though of such a luxury is just a distant memory as she has just returned from doing the Marathon Des Sables, which is a combined 153 miles, across the Sahara Desert… on foot.
Sally is a great friend to Pretty Normal Me and is without a doubt one of the most inspiring people I know, she until recently, held the Guinness Book Of World Records for the fastest marathon dressed as a piece of fruit, and has actually done 7 different marathons dressed as 7 different pieces of fruit, including one of in Afghanistan dressed as a banana and one with the US Marine Core in Washington.
Not only that, but Sally has actually done 19 marathons in her life, taken part in Ironman UK, climbed Kilimanjaro and two more ‘much bigger’ mountains, Island Peak in Nepal and Chacchakimanga in Bolivia and last year she made another record by being part of the first all women team to complete the Arch to Arc, a triathlon starting at Marble Arch and finishing at the Arc De Triumph… including the channel.
But the Marathon Des Sables has been something else entirely, a marathon a day (with one double) across the Sahara desert. It will come as no surprise then that as soon as her blisters had healed, I needed to see and to interview this wonderful woman and share her incredible story, after all, if any girl can – this girl can.
(As we conducted this interview Sally is in her PJs and we’re both sporting relatively sore heads following a ‘congratulations Sally’ dinner the night before)
What was it that made you want to do the Marathon Des Sables in the first place?
“It was a challenge. I applied a couple of years before but had had to pull out and so after I completed the Arch to Arc last year, I felt so good and it had such a positive effect on me that I wanted to find that feeling of euphoria again!”
Can you tell us what this challenge is and how you heard about it?
“So it’s six marathons in six days across the Sahara Desert in 45 degree heat, carrying your own kit, over sand dunes – oh, and one of them is a double. I saw a documentary about it a while ago and I’d also known a couple of people who had done it and that really inspired me”
Was the it as hard as you thought it was going to be or was it much, much worse?
“Much much worse! In all honesty, I had known what it was but I kind of hadn’t really thought about it that much, when I actually did it I ended up just breaking it down to each day and then breaking each day into each checkpoint you know? One step at a time. I still can’t quite believe I’ve done it though!”
What do you think was the most challenging thing about it, apart from having to run 150 miles obviously?
“Being so ill; so I almost had to have a drip fitted on the first day, I would actually describe it as shitting across the desert rather than walking! As well as an upset tummy I also had a chest infection so I suppose I don’t make life easy for myself!”
Was there a highlight to the week do you think?
“Yeh, some of the people that I met and of course the camaraderie of doing it with Walking With The Wounded team, we were so so lucky”
(Walking With The Wounded is the charity that Sally did the MDS for, it works to provide vulnerable veterans with independence through employment, part of the team was Duncan Slater, who did the marathon(s) on prosthetic legs, you can read his story here)
What was it that got you through it do you think? Was it just crazy determination?
I think so yes, it must have been! Bizarrely I actually really enjoyed it, which really surprised me. We decided to make it fun, I honestly had belly aching laughs and I think that definitely helped to get me through it.
In terms of training, how much did you do?
Well, I only signed up on the very last day, so only really started at the end of January, I didn’t really have a set training plan, mostly because I couldn’t find one. But yes I had about three months training around and in-between work. It was harder than I have ever trained for anything else that I’ve ever done though…
I went into a heat chamber four times, which is basically a treadmill in a room where they put the temperature up to 50 degrees, but I did have to run with a thermometer up my backside to measure my core temperature, so it was actually a bit of a relief not to have one up my bum for the actual run! You also don’t sweat half as much in the desert because it was so dry to be honest.”
Is there anything from this adventure that you will remember forever?
“Yes. So one of my tent mates decided, in the middle of the night, that his feet were too blistered to walk to the side of the tent, and decided instead to pee into a bottle, which bearing in mind was only 2ft from my face was hard enough. But having had sever diarrhea, I was really dehydrated, so in the middle of the night, I reached for my bottle of water, took a swig and thought ‘that didn’t quite taste right’, so reached for another one that seemed a lot cooler.
In the morning I asked said tent mate what was in the bottle (thinking it was a new electrolyte tablet!) and he just said ‘ooh you don’t want to drink that’, I replied asking if he was joking and told him that I already had. The whole tent erupted into laughter and it would seem that in this instance I really had taken one for the team as morale was very high for everyone that morning… but me of course!
The worst thing was, at the airport on the way home I was talking to this guy who said how hard it had been, we got chatting and I said to him ‘well yes, but at least you didn’t end up drinking someone else’s wee!’ and he replied with ‘oh! That was you? You got me through the whole MDS because when I was thinking that I’d had a bad day, I just thought to myself, it’s not as bad as that girl who drank her tent mate’s piss!'”
What advice would you give to someone who was training for, or thinking about taking part in a big challenge?
“To embrace the journey because the training is just as much a part of it as the end result. There’s no point in doing something unless you are going to enjoy it but at the same time I would say: if your dreams don’t scare you, then they are not big enough. I was so scared of this, but I don’t think it would be normal if I wasn’t!”
Did you learn anything about yourself while you were doing it or since you have been back do you think?
“Yes. I learned to laugh at the toughest times and I discovered what truly incredibly support I have which was so important. I also learned that if you can dream it then you can definitely achieve it.”
What have you got planned next?
“So next week I’ve got the Invictus Games, where I will be representing the UK in cycling and indoor rowing in Florida and then after that I have 2 Ironman challenges, the 3 Peaks challenge and a 50 mile marathon in the Lake District… all happening before August.”
Truth time now: would you ever do it again?
“Never say never…”
So far Sally has raised a massive £6000 for Walking With The Wounded, but of course if you did want to donate a little something, please do and help this mad woman on her mad missions!
From the bottom of my heart I am so proud of Sally and everything that she has achieved, I’ve known her for years and have seen her on many a challenge and have never once seen her without a smile on her face, she is by far and a way one of the most inspiring people I know and I hope that by reading this, you too have begun to understand the fabulous force of nature that is Sally Orange!