I ran 140 miles across the Sahara to escape my suicidal thoughts
The dunes were like mountains, stretching in every direction. Someone said it was 45°C in the shade, but I’ve no idea how they knew.
There’d been no shade since the last checkpoint, an eternity ago. An alarm started ringing. My blood glucose was plummeting. I still had days of running ahead of me.
It sounds like a midlife crisis: during my mid-30s, I began running long distances, and in April 2019, aged 40, I took part in the Marathon des Sables (or MdS), a 140-mile footrace in the Sahara billed as one of the toughest on earth.
For a week, competitors run, walk or crawl roughly a marathon a day with all their food and kit on their backs.
While I’ve blogged about the challenge before, I’ve never written about the crisis that led me to that start line.
When I was training hardest, I’d run up to 70 miles a week, sometimes covering a marathon before work. I was doing this for charities supporting people with type 1 diabetes, which I’ve had since I was 13. I wanted to join the handful of type 1s who have completed the MdS since the first did so in 2013. (Type 1s cannot produce insulin, the hormone that aids the conversion of food into fuel.)
I was blogging about all this, but had told no one that at the same time, I’d become obsessed with the thought of killing myself. I don’t mean obsessed in the way men my age might start spending too much time playing golf; I mean I could not stop thinking about it.
The more I tried to clear it from my mind, the more I thought about it. Running was my only escape, but the thoughts always came back.
Gradually, the words lost their power. I could let them wash over me, without them disturbing me
It was like someone whispering taunts in my ear: you’re a failure, you’re broken, kill yourself. My response was to list the reasons why I’d never do it, like a mantra: it would break my wife Natalie’s heart, ruin our kids’ lives, suicide is a betrayal, etc. Round and round it went. If I was never going to kill myself, why could I think of nothing else?
I eventually sought help. At 36, I was told I had obsessive compulsive disorder. It was a relief. In my darkest moment, suicide seemed inevitable. Now it had another name: OCD. It could be fixed. I began cognitive behavioural therapy. I was worried my counsellor would tell me to stop running, so I was happy when, after some weeks, she suggested I combine the therapy with running.
That’s when things got weird. I was to record myself voicing the thoughts that disturbed me, and listen to it on a loop for a few minutes at a time as I ran. To my surprise, it helped.
Gradually, the words lost their power. I could let them wash over me, without them disturbing me. Thoughts of suicide seemed ridiculous as I prepared to run across a desert that could easily do the job for me.
All type 1s must inject insulin to say alive. Judging how much is a lifelong balancing act, which makes anxiety or depression three times more likely.
Having too much sugar in your blood can cause extreme thirst, tiredness and, eventually, blindness, organ failure or death. Low blood sugar can cause confusion, convulsions and death. In the desert, either could end my life quickly.
If they didn’t, Natalie probably would. I’d promised her and the kids I’d say safe, after all. I thought of this as my glucose monitor alarm went off in those beautiful dunes.
I squeezed some glucose gel into my mouth, rested a while, and then set off, bouncing down the slope like I was walking on the moon. Two days and 70 miles later, I crossed the finish line. I was ecstatic, but sad it was over.
It had been the journey of my life. In fact, it saved my life.