How Adventurer and Ultrarunner Jane Harries harnessed the power of illness to conquer the formidable Marathon des Sables 2017

23 Jun 2017
How Adventurer and Ultrarunner Jane Harries harnessed the power of illness to conquer the formidable Marathon des Sables 2017 image

KitJam — As we near the end of Women’s Sports Week, it is important to reflect on the purpose of what we have been promoting throughout this week. The point has been to encourage other women to take on challenges they have never before thought possible to achieve. With that in mind, meet Jane Harries who teaches us invaluable lessons about grabbing life with both hands and holding on tight. Over to you Jane…

In 2008 the oncologist shuffled his papers, looked up and uttered the words that changed my life — “the mammogram is clear but the MRI shows a lump”.

I am lucky, because they found my lump before it had a chance to turn nasty.

I am lucky, because when I developed post-surgical complications, a team of specialists collaborated to heal me.

I am lucky, because I know the magic of having a second chance to attain unfulfilled dreams.

I am going to share with you the story of one of my dreams, the Marathon des Sables (MDS) and the role my illness played as I pursued that dream.

In November 2001 I moved to Melbourne, Australia. Knowing almost no-one, I threw myself into everything that interested me. In those days I was a rather fit adventure racer, kayaker and avid hiker unsurprisingly I sought out the adventure scene. Soon afterwards a chance encounter with an ultrarunner led to my learning about the MDS. He described it as:

  • 250km in the blistering burning baking heat of the Sahara desert;
  • 250km over sand dunes, across rocky plains and up dried river beds; and
  • 250km of thirst, hunger and (most likely) humongous blisters.

I was mesmerised. Slight problem, I didn’t have enough annual leave.

What would you have done in that scenario? Perhaps diarised it for next year, written to the organisers asking for more information, or asked your employer for unpaid leave so you could go to the Sahara right away?

I wasn’t that organised. I parked the idea somewhere at the back of my brain and promptly forgot about it. You wouldn’t do that would you?

Fast forward to 2006, when I next heard of the MDS. This time it was thanks to a documentary which told the story of how an an Italian Olympic marathoner almost died when he got lost during one of those frightening, furious, ferocious sandstorms that whip up across the Sahara.

Fear and doubt crept in. Was MDS too tough for me?

When faced with a challenge, what steps would you take so that instead of giving up on a dream, you work at it and thereby get closer to achieving and eventually attaining your dream?

For when we embrace a challenge, perhaps by reading a book, attending a course or talking to our boss, we develop as a person. Instead of a solid wall blocking our path, the obstacle becomes a hurdle we can step over.

What did I do? Nothing. I let fear, doubt and a lack of confidence to move the MDS from dream to fantasy.

Fast forward again, this time to 2009. Guess what was coming to Melbourne? A talk and book launch about the Marathon des Sables. Was this race stalking me?

In the previous year the MRI had picked up a lump. I’d been operated on, developed complications, spent a month in hospital, had undergone seven general anaesthetics and thanks to those complications had been on a cocktail of powerful prescription pills.

Now that my body was in no fit state to do adventure races, ultras or charity hikes I really wanted to do the MDS. Finally in 2010 I contacted the race organisers and joined the waiting list for the race.

Months later an email landed in my Inbox offering me a place the following April. Only I’d needed more surgery and was now up to eleven general anaesthetics. Surprise, surprise — my weakened, drained, exhausted body was spent.

What would have been achievable for me in 2002 or 2006, or any time prior to my initial surgery in 2008, had passed into the realms of fantasy. Yes, thanks to procrastination, fear and doubt — I had let my dream float away.

Please do not procrastination, fear and doubt kill your dreams.

To conclude, I have some good news.

I am lucky, for after two more operations I felt different. It’s as if the surgeons finally managed to remove the last atom of poison from my body.

I am lucky, for whilst rebuilding my broken body took time I have now substantially rebuilt it.

I am lucky, for thanks to the power of illness I reclaimed my dream. Yes, in April I lined up at the start line of the MDS and I crossed that scorching, sizzling, searing desert, all the way to the desert line.

As you drift off to sleep tonight, I urge you think about your own dreams. Whatever you do, please do not be a Jane and wait until a bout of ill health makes you realise the importance of seizing opportunities. So go on, take that first step and the second and the third. Take all the steps you need to take to go and live your dreams.

KitJam - Jane's full kit list for Marathon des Sables 2017 is available on KitJam.com .