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pp-live-2020-nov-19
Jan 29, 2020

Taking on the ‘hardest race in the world’

Tony James speaks to ex-Commando and TV celebrity David McIntosh about the challenges he faced in the Desert Ultra

You’ve got this TV Gladiator with what seemed to be different celebrity girlfriend every week. He’s an ex- Commando turned mercenary who survived a gun battle with pirates, and he crashed a vanload of dead badgers into a bus-stop. Then he successfully ran what has been called the toughest race in the world carrying a backpack full of sweets and jars of peanut butter.

You couldn’t make it up, and you don’t have to. David McIntosh has done it all and a darned sight more besides.

You only need to be in McIntosh’s warm and entertaining company for a few seconds to know you’re facing someone who hasn’t the slightest intention of failing at anything he does. And if it’s reckoned impossible, so much the better.

“I can’t quit, “he says. “I don’t know what the word means. I’ve been looking for new challenges ever since I was a kid. I just want to keep pushing myself to the limit and if I can motivate people who feel their ambitions are beyond them, that’s a wonderful bonus.”

McIntosh comes from Wigan, joined the Royal Marine Commandos at 16 and served in numerous trouble-spots including Northern Ireland, Somalia and Afghanistan.

Leaving after seven years, McIntosh encountered a situation which to a large extent has influenced his life and ambitions ever since. “I had reached a pinnacle of physical and mental fitness in the Marines and when I left I felt I had a great deal of potential but no outlet.

“This is a common situation when you leave the military: what to do with the skills and qualities you have achieved. So many servicemen have this feeling of anticlimax and I was determined not to get into that state.

“Now I hope that what I do - going out and pushing myself to the limit - will encourage more exservicemen to do the same. They have thrived on action and when this ends there’s not really anyone to give them any proper help.”

In the search for something to replace the challenges of military life, McIntosh became, almost by accident, a show-business celebrity by landing a role in the TV hit show Gladiators. As the hard-hitting, unbeatable Tornado, he caused a stir on and off the set with rugged good looks, complex love-life and bad-boy image.

“Gladiators was a piece of cake,” McIntosh says now. “Most of the other guys were sportsmen and although extremely strong and fit, didn’t quite know how to cope with someone from a military background who gave them a hard time.”

Soon afterwards, he found himself in the Big Brother house, albeit the first to be evicted, the celebrity dating show Famously Single and the Ancient-Rome reality TV series Bromans, monitoring contestants during physical challenges, but couldn’t entirely let go of the action and danger he was accustomed to in the Marines.

Between TV and modelling assignments he was to be found working as a security operative in the world’s trouble-spots and was among ex-Commandos who escaped after a gun battle with pirates, followed by a spell in security transportation, hence the mishap with the badgers.

But none of it was apparently producing the required adrenaline rush which came when McIntosh was pushing himself to the limit. He needed something more and he finally found it in an ultra marathon.

“I had done long-distance running in the marines when I was in my early twenties but since then had concentrated on bodybuilding and weight-lifting and hadn’t done any serious running for years. I had heard about ultra marathons and when I Googled ‘the hardest race in the world’ the Desert Ultra 250km kept coming up so I reckoned that was the one to go for.”

His friends thought he was mad. McIntosh had no long-distance running credentials and the Desert Ultra, a gruelling test for the most experienced of ultra marathon runners, takes no prisoners.

Run in the Namibian desert, it’s a five-day race split into five stages of sand-dunes, dry river beds and baking scrubland in the shadow of the Martian mountains.

Temperatures reach 55 degrees in the day, plunging to below freezing at night, when runners have to navigate the darkness by the light of head torches. They are responsible for carrying everything they are likely to need, including food, water and safety equipment and can only call for help in the most dire of situations.

This, decided McIntosh, would be his introduction to the world of ultra marathons. “My plan was to spend five months preparing for the race, but due to other commitments it turned out that in the end I only had five weeks!

“I knew that my body would physically be nowhere near ready to do the race but my mind was in the right place and I knew that I would never quit however bad it got. “

McIntosh went to Australia to acclimatise to the extreme temperatures and train for the race, devising his own regime of hill sprints in the most hostile conditions he could find. “I’m training for a 250km ultra marathon and the most I was doing was 10km runs.

“Everyone told me the training just didn’t make sense but I reckoned that as I only had five weeks I didn’t want to trash my body with unaccustomed pressure but I knew that if I could clear my mind, keep positive and keep focused I would probably be OK.”

On the first day, McIntosh’s 45lb back pack was the heaviest in the race. “I was an amateur. I just packed it full of food, including sweets and jars of peanut butter, because I was determined not to go hungry.

“I really hadn’t a clue about how to run an ultra marathon. After the first 20 km, I had sweated out all my body fluid, had cramp and there was still 30km to go. I did wonder if it was actually physically possible to carry on, but I knew I couldn’t quit. Not for myself but for the reason I was doing it: to motivate all those people who were feeling low and depressed.

“The first day was the toughest. The sun was beating down, the sand held me back and I was carrying 45lbs, but I managed to do it.”

His efforts didn’t go unnoticed. A race commentator remarked: “Unquestionably the most energetic man in the race is David McIntosh. The course has been hard on him but nothing was getting between him and the finishing line.

“He is a great character and his positivity in the face of this massive challenge has been lifting people throughout the race.”

His feat of coming 18th out of 30 finishers was generally regarded as phenomenal for a first-time ultra runner. McIntosh said: “To be honest, I was happy to finish anywhere. Once over the line I couldn’t move my legs, fell down and was taken off in a wheelchair vowing that I would never race anywhere ever again.”

But not for long. Currently involved in an online training and fitness project featuring leading international coaches, McIntosh is already planning more ultra marathons for next year. “I fancy a race through the jungle,” he says.

“I don’t expect people to attempt the things I have done but I just hope I can inspire them to try something new and challenging. A lot of people have forgotten who they actually are and what latent abilities they might have.

“I always tell them: ‘How do you know if you don’t try?’”

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