I was 30 days and 600 kilometres into my run. The temperature was -9[degrees]C. Snow caked the ground and obscured the road signs. My map was no use. I was well and truly lost. I was in France but it looked--and felt-like Russia.
Suddenly, I laughed out loud as I remembered the reaction of my friend and training partner Donnie Campbell when I had first told him about my plans to run 4,281 kilometres from John O'Groats to Merzouga, a desert outpost in the Moroccan Sahara. 'Your navigational skills are shocking,' he had said with a laugh as we jogged along the South Glen Shiel Ridge in the Scottish Highlands. 'You'll probably end up in Russia.'
I followed a road that my compass told me travelled vaguely south. To my relief, it wasn't long before I entered a small hamlet. I bounded up to a man clearing snow and asked him where we were I was sufficiently off course to be on the wrong map, but my new friend gestured patiently until the BBC crew that was covering this section of my journey turned up. My dreadful French produced guffaws from everyone.
The idea for this journey had come during a run across Mongolia that followed in Genghis Khan's hoof prints. The Gobi Challenge is a 250-kilometre, six-day race. It offers stunning scenery and tile opportunity to camp with local nomads at the end of each day. Ice gorges gave way to vast plains before Asia's highest sand dunes eventually came into view. But it's the generosity of the Mongolian people that has remained my strongest memory.
As with many multi-stage races, the Gobi Challenge requires self-sufficiency. Each competitor is expected to carry all clothes, food and equipment, and having to turn down the hospitality of the locals was difficult.
During the race, I saw at first hand the work being conducted by the Yamaa Trust, a charity that aims to reduce poverty in the region. 'Why not combine a huge challenge with raising money for the Yamaa Trust?' I thought. Ultimately, I decided to combine my love of Scotland with my love of running in the Sahara.
I've been fortunate to run in some of the world's most incredible environments, including the Himalaya, the North Pole and Patagonia. But I feel most at home in the desert. I'm content to watch the light shifting over the sand all day long, Running to the Sahara from Scotland seemed like a natural way to link the two places.
Preparing for the Scotland to Sahara run turned out to be as difficult as the journey itself. I would be travelling in winter, so I needed to source equipment to deal with a variety of conditions. My footwear, for example, included snowshoes, sand gaiters and miniature crampons. I was accompanied most of the time by a campervan, in which I usually slept. Everything had to fit inside the vehicle.
I also had to study for a sports medical exam that I was due to sit in Edinburgh ten days into the trip. As if that wasn't enough, I was marrying my fiancee, Jennie, one week after the planned finish date. I had to get my skates on.
There was a severe-weather warning in the far north of Scotland as I took my first steps towards the Sahara. Waves crashed over the harbour wall at John O'Groats and hailstones clattered on the ground. During a race in Indonesia the previous week, I had picked up a tummy bug, so I set the next public toilet as my first stop.
I had chosen a route based upon places I wanted to visit. I also wanted to bring attention to the health benefits of keeping active, so I arranged three fun runs en route. Running is one of the simplest forms of transportation: all that is required is the inclination to do it. We're among the best performers in the animal kingdom over long distances. This skill enables us to chase animals to exhaustion.
Twelve hundred people joined me on the fun runs, 75 of whom opted for a hilly section of the West Highland Way between Kinlochleven and Tyndrum. …