The sterile smell of disinfectants was in the air and the massive, black treadmill stood out from the clean, white walls. Welsh Guards Captain Tom Evans was running on it – his face distorted with pain under a blue mask through which oxygen supply was being changed – mimicking the tough conditions of an ultra marathon.
Just over a year ago he placed a bet in a pub. Now he is a full-time athlete training at one of the country’s best sports science laboratories at St Mary’s University Twickenham in London.
“There’s some friends that have done the Marathon des Sables (MdS) before and me being very competitive – I had probably one or two drinks in the pub – I bet them that I could do better than they did”, Evans shrugged, now resting on a swivel stool with wheels.
The MdS isn’t just some city marathon you’d run on a Sunday afternoon. It is the toughest footrace on earth in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments – the Sahara desert in Morocco. Evans ran it having previously competed in only one ultra marathon, the Brecon Beacons in Wales.
One hundred and fifty-six miles and millions of sand grains later, Evans finished third in April 2017 – the best finish by a Briton since the inaugural MdS in 1986.
Prior to that, he had done most of the training on his own, but the great result drew the attention of many sponsors. Soon he was being trained by Allison Benton, one of the country’s best endurance coaches.
Ultra running is growing in popularity and while racing on trails in spectacular places like the Sahara, Costa Rican rainforests or the Alps, the endorphin highs make it as addictive as heroin.
Evans beamed: “If you are racing for 100km in the mountains, for example, the amount of ground you can cover and the things you can see, the adventures that you can go on is incredible.”
His military background certainly helped to establish the right mentality and work ethic to survive such extreme physical pressure. There, he has gone through situations where you are supposed to put stress and pressure on yourself. “That allows you to be slightly more comfortable under pressure”, said Evans, who is currently third in Ultra-Trail World Tour rankings.
Athletes can do the exact same training, the same nutrition and have the same physical conditions. What really makes the difference is the mindset.
“I describe ultra running as 70% mental toughness and 30% physical. The mind games that you play with yourself are just crazy. You are constantly telling yourself to give up and not to do it and it’s only gonna get harder and then it starts raining”, Evans laughed, clearly thinking back to unpleasant moments.
He added: “In one of the races that I did, the weather really closed in when we were about 2000m above sea level and it started hailing. I’m in a little vest and skimpy shorts – it isn’t a good look even at the best of times – and it is just hurting and you are thinking, ‘why on earth am I doing this’?”
“And that lasts for like five or ten minutes and you put yourself together and then the clouds just break for ten seconds and you just see this most incredible view across the valley and you think, ‘that’s why I’m doing it’. You finish and all the pain goes away and you think ‘that was just the best thing ever’.”
In his last race, The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica, Evans proved he has a winning mentality as he became the new course record holder. He completed 142.915 miles in 21 hours, 44 minutes and 11 seconds over six days.
When observed from the outside, he seems to sacrifice so much for running, which he fell in love with at the age of 13. When not on duty with the army, he spends his day training for the World Championships. He runs two to three times a day and eats and sleeps as much as he can.
“I think it’s a fairly normal day, but my girlfriend doesn’t think it is a normal day”, Evans laughed.
But as extreme as ultra running may sound, Evans sees the beauty in it and that is what keeps him going, mile by mile. That is why he is keen on promoting the sport in the UK:
“Ultra running is such a huge growing sport and my goals and ambitions are just to promote elite sport in the UK and try to inspire people to do it. I would like to rewrite British ultra running history.”
Evans’ long-term goal is to compete in the 2022 Commonwealth Games, to be held in Birmingham. He still shakes his head when thinking about how it all started:
“I’ve got the most addictive personality ever. I hadn’t planned on doing anymore races apart from MdS. Here we are 10 months later, and I’m a full-time athlete preparing for the World Championships for Team GB. I am excited to see what happens in the next 10 months and in the next 10 years.”
Featured Image © COPYRIGHT LEO WILKINSON