Jules Widdowson is familiar with epic physical challenges. The 2019 season saw the lawyer-turned-personal trainer win her Age Group at the Outlaw X Triathlon, compete at the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships in Nice, and complete the 25-hour non-stop Red Bull Timelaps.
You could be forgiven for thinking Jules would want to take things a bit easier in 2020, but far from it. She's taking on the Marathons des Sables - a six-day, 251km ultra-marathon in the Sahara Desert - and we caught up with her to find out what it takes to prepare for a multi-day endurance event...
Hey Jules, thanks for taking time out of training to join us. Where does MdS rate on the difficulty scale of events you’ve competed in?
I’ve definitely not done anything which brings so many tough things together like MdS - the heat, the pack, the self-sufficiency, the distances.
I'd wanted to do MdS for 25 years, but then last year a friend died very suddenly and another got terribly ill and nearly died - that gave me a big kick to get on with things. They’ll be a massive motivation for me while I’m out there.
I want to inspire my kids too - to get out there and give things a go even if you think there’s a chance you may fail first time. I doubt they’ll notice I’m gone to be honest, though the fridge might be empty!
Credit: Jules Widdowson Instagram ©
How do you fit your training for MdS in around your family life and your role as a personal trainer?
This is a huge challenge for most people doing MdS. Training is often really time-crunched - sandwiched between clients or before school pick-up.
With so many years of triathlon training behind me I’m pretty good at finding a structure that works within the week, and I stick to that as best I can.
For example, I try to only train one day at the weekend so the impact on the family is minimised. There’s definitely plenty of 'mum guilt' with fitting training in around family, but they're all amazingly supportive of me doing this.
I can imagine it must be difficult fitting the required training in, so how do you prepare physically for a challenge like MdS?
My approach to physical preparation has been an interesting evolution since the end of the triathlon season when I was strong, fit and feeling confident.
I had in mind that I’d have weeks of lovely long runs out on the trails in the Surrey Hills, building up the distance and strength consistently.
The reality has been quite different as my Achilles really flared up.
It’s niggled badly for 25 years so I knew it’d be something I need to manage. But it got really bad around Christmas time when I couldn’t walk three miles.
Did you have to alter your training plan to cope with those injury worries?
I scaled things right back, went back to what I know, which is plenty of cross-training (i.e. bike and swim) and I trained more intuitively rather than following a schedule - that’s been a mind-set adjustment.
I’m well used to training 6 days a week and I’ve kept that up though the intensity has dropped.
I’ve typically done 3-4 runs or walks a week – 2 shorter ones with some speed or hills, a long one on a Friday and then a medium on a Saturday.
My hill strength sessions I’ve moved to steps as it’s easier on my Achilles – for example using the Box Hill Steps with a 6-10kg backpack.
And some runs or walks with a 4-6kg pack.
Credit: Jules Widdowson Instagram ©
Being from the cooler climes of the UK, how will you prepare for the heat of Morocco?
The other thing is prepping my body for the food - checking I can run for a few hours on the type of food I'm planning to take to fuel.
Excellent. Have you got closer to final decisions about the food you're going to take to fuel your event?
It's been a big change from my triathlon approach of using big brand gels, energy drinks and bars.
I’m really going for simple food that’s high calorie but low-weight and volume. I’ve made up an 800-calorie breakfast with added oats, seeds, dried fruits and chia.
With snacks, I'm taking Primal Pantry coconut and macadamia bars, salted macadamias, Peanut M&Ms, stroopwafels.
Dinner is Expedition Foods with my own little flavour boosts or Firepot.
And with drinks, Precision Hydration is top of my list and then I’m taking green tea leaves for breakfast and mint tea for an evening treat. Rock ‘n roll.
Interesting, so how did you first come across Precision Hydration?
I was trying to race better in the heat and so I took my Sweat Test at the IM 70.3 World Championships in Nice, which was a real turning point for me. I’d felt so sluggish when running in the heat, but Nice was the first time I approached my hydration properly.
I finally understood what my body needed and how to separate my hydration from energy needs, which gave me a huge boost, especially during the hot midday run on Promenade des Anglais.
Credit: Jules Widdowson Instagram ©
Good to hear, is there much you can do to mentally help you prepare for the heat and the challenges ahead?
I find some visualisation helpful - thinking through what a stage may be like and bracing myself for the heat.
It’s also been good for me, tied in to my physical prep, to sensibly manage my expectations of how much I’ll run on MdS - I don’t think it will be much, certainly not at the outset.
As someone who's taking on their first multi-day event, what are the biggest worries for you? And what excites you about the challenge?
Most worries come down to the unknown - I’ve never run so far, over so many days, in that heat, with a pack on my back. I’ve no idea how my body will respond. Will I get bad blisters? Will my feet swell? Have I chosen the right shoes, socks, pack, meals and snacks?
Will anyone hear me snore in the tent? Really self-conscious about that!
And, ultimately, I guess I don’t want to let anyone down back home if I don’t complete it - so many people have believed in me to help me get out to the Sahara.
That said, that’s why the MdS appeals isn’t it – to see what we’re capable of mentally and physically? I’m looking forward to that.
I’m also looking forward to taking in the simple beauty of where we’ll be and to re-set mentally in such a stripped back environment.
Credit: Jules Widdowson ©
For anyone considering taking on MdS or multi-day event in the future, what have you learned during your preparations?
Try and get your head into what it really means to be out in that unfamiliar environment with only the clothes on your body and the contents of your pack.
The big things like the right pack, shoes and food for you are obvious considerations. But I’d also put some thought into the little things that may make a big difference to how comfortable you are – for example, do you need to tape your shoulders or sew padding onto your pack?
Your pack’s only the size of a school kids’ rucksack so everything in it is really significant.
Train consistently over a long period of time and keep your progressions conservative with plenty of recovery.
And get on top of any injuries or niggles – MdS will blow them wide open which, for me, has put a bit of a dampener on some of the build-up.
And finally, consider if you think you would benefit from a support network in the build-up.
Has being part of the Walking With The Wounded charity team helped you prepare? And could you tell us what their particular cause means to you?
Doing it as part of the Walking With The Wounded team has really helped me to have the confidence to go out to the Sahara for this event at this time of my life. It felt too big to leave the family and head out there not knowing anyone.
WWTW is a charity that was set up ten years ago to help vulnerable military veterans reintegrate into society and become independent again – for example, they support veterans to get back into meaningful employment.
Armed service personnel have lots of transferable skills so they focus on supporting them with any mental health or social issues they may have. The charity resonates with me because I was in the Army Reserves for many years.
For me, those were amongst the best years of my life, but I recognise that it may not have been such a happy place for others.
Raising money for Walking With The Wounded is my way of giving something back.