Aging adventurer runs and runs – to show he still can

Rory Coleman and Sir Ranulph Fiennes climb a jebel (desert mountain) during Stage Two of the Marathon des Sables, a 156-mile ultramarathon in the Sahara Desert of Morocco. Fiennes, 71, became the oldest Briton to finish the desert race.
Rory Coleman and Sir Ranulph Fiennes climb a jebel (desert mountain) during Stage Two of the Marathon des Sables, a 156-mile ultramarathon in the Sahara Desert of Morocco. Fiennes, 71, became the oldest Briton to finish the desert race. McClatchy

The television crew follows him from bivouac to blister station to the bathroom scale, where he weighs in at 176 pounds. While Sir Ranulph Fiennes, 71, munches on mixed nuts, the BBC videographer grabs him.

For viewers of “BBC Breakfast,” Fiennes’ gray whiskers disguise his latest muse: a 156-mile ultramarathon through the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco.

“Last night was pretty horrific,” Fiennes says into the camera. “It’s hell on Earth.”

What drove a Briton who’s had double bypass surgery, a cancer operation and two heart attacks into the Sahara Desert last month?

Twelve years ago, Fiennes lost his wife, mom and one of his sisters to cancer in an 18-month span. Since then, he’s pursued adventure feats such as the Marathon des Sables in hopes of raising 25 million British pounds sterling – about $38 million – for Marie Curie, a foundation for terminally ill patients in Britain. He’s the United Kingdom’s No. 1 celebrity fundraiser, according to Just Giving, an online philanthropy platform.

Dubbed the “greatest living explorer” by Guinness Book of World Records, Fiennes is the last of a dying breed of adventurers. On his one-way crossing of Antarctica from 1979 to 1980, he and his team mapped 800 miles of previously unexplored territory.

The route from Jebel Irhs to Kourci Dial Zaid on the western edge of the Sahara passes over miles of dunes and mountain reliefs with patches of palm trees. Every April since 1986, this has been the backdrop for the Moroccan ultramarathon directed by Frenchman Patrick Bauer.

For one week, the event builds a transportable international village of black bivouacs, doctor’s offices and showers in the world’s largest non-polar desert. This year’s race featured runners from six continents: professional athletes, psychotherapists and insurance executives, a resort owner from Tonga, a fireman from Andorra and an industrial designer from Israel.

In one of the 56 British tents, Fiennes sits in the far corner slurping custard and strawberry mousse from a makeshift bowl formed from a water bottle. His gruff face and reclusive posture camouflage a cheery and buoyant demeanor.

“He’s a very welcoming person,” said Craig Barnshaw, a 45-year-old engineer who shared Fiennes’ tent. “We’re all pretty much in awe with him.”

Fiennes wasn’t always so laid-back. During his polar expeditions, he insisted on captaining every mission and reluctantly added crew members. But last summer, when Fiennes signed up for the ultramarathon, he relinquished the reins to 11-time finisher and performance coach Rory Coleman.

Coleman was hill-training in Cardiff when his phone buzzed. Out of breath, he pulled the sweat-stained mobile to his ear. “Hello, Sir Ranulph here,” came the voice on the other end. “Would you train me?”

“Oh, grief,” Coleman thought. “This is the dream call.”

Coleman prescribed a weekly training plan of three one-hour runs and a four-hour Saturday run to squeeze into Fiennes’ schedule of writing, lecturing and tending his second wife’s organic beef herd with his 9-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.

The Cardiff seafront became a popular training ground for Fiennes. While he and Coleman struggled through the sand, onlookers would turn their heads and point. Some came over and requested selfies with the British legend. “It’s not the kids,” Coleman said. “It’s grown men. They just want to touch his coat. It’s a bit like meeting Jesus.”

When Fiennes arrived in the desert, he was greeted with fanfare rivaling returning champion Rachid El Morabity. Competitors introduced themselves, event staff starred his name on their programs and cameramen followed him almost everywhere. “Everybody loves James Bond,” Coleman said. “Ran is James Bond.”

And he almost was on-screen, too. Fiennes says he was a finalist for the part of Agent 007 in 1973, but lost out to Roger Moore for having “hands too big and a face like a farmer,” he said.

The Union Jack waves above them as Fiennes and Coleman negotiate the sinking sand of a 200-yard-high dune. Fiennes nestles his right foot over a rock and hoists himself up. Aside from a pack of baby black goats, it’s just sun-scorched sand on the horizon.

While he walks most of the course with Coleman at his side, Fiennes takes off on the downhills. Descents are his specialty, dating to downhill sprints with the 21 Special Air Service Regiment in the early 1980s. “He’s got this Duracell kinetic energy that’s built in,” Coleman said. “He can’t turn off. You have to tell him to.”

But for someone who once tugged a 500-pound sled across Antarctica, it’s embarrassing to struggle. “How can it be now compared to what it used to be?” says Fiennes, shaking his head after the first stage.

He starts Day One in last place, trailed only by two camels that scoop up the dropouts. “The word used to be compete,” Fiennes says. “Now, it’s complete.”

Thirty minutes before the starting gun on Day Two, Fiennes adjusts his black-and-yellow Marie Curie uniform and removes his socks. He points to his right foot, which includes skin from his torso. During an army exercise in 1972, he suffered frostbite while wading through an icy river. Several years later, two of his toes fell off in the bathtub. He set them on a shelf and forgot they existed until his wife screamed.

In 2000, Fiennes lost further appendages after slipping under ice en route to the North Pole. When he pulled himself out, his fingers were inelastic and ivory white. After getting evacuated to the hospital and quoted a $9,000 surgery cost, he says, he retreated home with a hacksaw and amputated the five fingers himself. He keeps them in an office drawer.

In the predawn hours of stage five, running on one hour of sleep with 120 miles behind him, the finish line feels distant, Fiennes says. The penultimate stage, a record 57 miles, raised Coleman’s concern, as he wondered whether Fiennes’ heart could withstand the physical beating. But after more than 30 hours, Fiennes crosses the line around 2 p.m., one stage away from becoming the oldest Briton to complete the race.

By noon on the sixth day, temperatures drop to a hospitable 86 degrees. Fiennes’ back aches despite his handful of painkillers and lightened pack. As Fiennes plows forward through the rolling dunes, his 53-year-old mentor clutches the British flag and eyes him.

“I don’t want to be the person that finished off a national institution,” Coleman says.

Ninety-six runners dropped out over the week, but not Fiennes. When he rounds the bend for the final straightaway of the week at 3 miles per hour, more than 375,000 steps distance him from his starting spot six days before. Finishers line the barricades, urging him forward.

This is nothing like his gleeful gallop at the London Marathon 12 years ago. Fiennes manages no more than a shuffle. But as he crosses the line, he turns around to his nemesis of the week, the camels that appear ready to lick him up, and smiles.