Support through Sport UK chats to Rob Shenton about his sporting exploits and finds out why he's such a big advocate of sport ...
Hi Rob. So tell us - when did you first take up sport and what sports do you play - and have you played?
I've always been active, even though I'm not from a particularly sporty family. It started off at school, where I used to play a lot of football. I also attended some Bobby Charlton Soccer Schools. Then, when I was in my early teens, I took up running. I realised that putting in a bit of training meant that you could do really well at cross-country. I then joined the military and so fitness has obviously remained a key part of my life. Given that I'm not as fast at running anymore, I've recently taken up orienteering.
We know that you've completed a number of Ultras, including the Marathon des Sables. What motivated you to take on such extreme challenges?
The short answer is that my father was dying from lung cancer and so he was obviously short of breath ... so I made a pact with myself that everytime I became short of breath, I'd try to make it count. So I started doing some longer races and I started raising money for some charities that are important to me.
The first Ultra that I did was a Thames Trot - so a 50-miler. I then followed that up a few weeks later with a 20-miler in Devon. I then decided that I'd take it that step further and I signed up for the Marathon des Sables. I remember reading about Ben Fogle doing it a few years ago and being inspired. I think the hardest thing about challenges is filling out the application form and making the commitment to do them.
I would say that another thing that has motivated me to take on such challenges is something that one of my friends said when we were at school. He said that he never wanted to look back and say 'what if I had done that?' - so every time I have the opportunity to do something extreme, I generally grab it with both hands. In addition, the Founder of the Marathon des Sables (Patrick Bauer) says 'there are times when your maddest dreams come true ... as long as you try for them.' These thoughts are always at the forefront of my mind - and as a result my motto is stolen from the old Landrover commercials - 'one life, live it!'. There is so much out there to experience.
The Marathon des Sables is described as being 'the toughest footrace on Earth.' Would you agree with that statement?
Well it's described as being the toughest - but there are probably others that are just as tough!
The race takes place over six days and you cover over 150 miles ... so you average a marathon a day. You don't actually do a marathon a day, however. You start off with two runs that are just under marathon distance, on the third day you go just over marathon distance and then on the fourth day you cover over 50 miles. Then there's a day where you run an exact marathon and the final day involves a 10-mile run.
You carry all your own equipment apart from your tent and water (you get between 1.5 to 4 litres of water at each checkpoint).
In terms of preparation, I'm a believer that stress occurs due to a fear of the unknown. Therefore, I think that the key to avoiding stress is to try to figure out what those unknowns are likely to be and then try to prepare for them. So, for my preparation, I ensured that I could run the Marathon des Sables distances in the UK. I also tried to replicate the terrain that I would face in the Sahara (so, perhaps surprisingly, mostly compacted trails - but also sand). I trained for the sand part in Merthyr Tydfill - which is the largest sand dune complex in Europe. To prepare for the heat, I trained in heat chambers.
When it actually came to the event, I didn't find it too hard, which indictaes that my training and prep ration was probably spot on. I encountered a few sandstorms - but I'd actually taken out skydiving goggles (as they're light) - and these proved to be really effective in the storms.
You're going to attempt to complete the Everest Marathon in November - the highest marathon in the world. Can you tell us a bit more about that? For example, how will you acclimatise safely?
The acclimatisation in Nepal will be quite gradual. You arrive in Kathmandu, which is much higher than sea level, and then you're flown to Luka, where you begin trekking. You gradually increase your altitude over 12 - 14 days and end up at the start line. The basic principle is to climb high and sleep low.
In terms of preparation in the UK, I've managed to use an altitude chamber, where I've done a session at 2,000 metres and I'm due to do a session at 5,000 metres.
Is it true that at one point you thought that you might not be able to run anymore due to injury?
Yes. To be honest I shouldn't really run! I've had a number of injuries, including an inflammation of the knee and some serious injuries to my feet. I've spent a lot of time in rehabilitation centres. I was actually told by one therapist that I should stop running and should take up cycling (in moderation) instead - so two weeks after that I cycled from Land's End to John O'Groats! I have an interesting take on the word moderation ... Going forwards, I'll be looking to focus more on orienteering. I think that both the physical and mental challenge of orienteering leads to a long and happy life.
You often use your challenges to raise money for charity, and have raised a significant amount of cash. Can you tell us about some of the causes that you've supported?
I used my first Ultra to raise money for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, given that my father had lung cancer at the time - and also because Roy Castle was such an inspiration to me as a child. I've also raised money for Macmillan - I did the Marathon des Sables for Macmillan and raised about £8,000. The other charity that I've raised money for is Combat Stress. Combat Stress provide support to Armed Force veterans who suffer from mental illness. I believe they're currently helping about 5,000 to 6,000 people in the UK, which is incredible for such a small charity.
Why would you encourage people to get active? What would you say the benefits are?
For me personally, when suffering from depression I realised that there are three key basics in life: food, sleep and physical activity. I believe that you have to strike that balance right. I challenge anybody to sleep eight hours a night for a week and not feel so much better for it after. In terms of physical activity, the chemicals that are released into your body are almost like a morphine. I believe that physical fitness results in mental fitness. In fact, the military believe that physical fitness affects your mental robustness - which means that you can operate for longer hours in stressful and operational circumstances. I think that people need to strike the right balance between work and play.
Thank you, Rob, it's been fascinating talking and we wish you all the best with the Everest Marathon!