It’s not often we can pinpoint the exact moment which changed our lives forever, but Captain Tom Evans of the 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards can. He was watching a TV documentary on rowing legend James Cracknell’s epic run in what is generally regarded as the world’s toughest race - the Marathon-des Sables, a 156-mile week-long slog through the Moroccan Sahara in temperatures of over 50C. Competitors carry their food and belongings and water is strictly rationed. Many give up or are forced to retire. Cracknell came 12th out of over 1,300.
“I thought I could do better than that,” Evans said, and eventually he did. At 26 he had been a career soldier for seven years but trailrunning and ultra marathons had surreptitiously moved from a hobby into a near-obsession and when, two years ago, the army generously said “Go for it and see how you get on” he took up the offer and went for it.
Now third in the world ultra-trail rankings, Evans has made the bittersweet decision to quit the army to concentrate on his unequivocal ambition to become the best ultra marathon athlete in the world.
“I’m very much an all or nothing person,” Evans says. “If I do something I want to do it properly and give it all my attention. The army has been incredibly supportive and I have loved every minute of my time in the Welsh Guards. I could have stayed a career soldier and just done a bit of running but I wanted to see what I was really made of in the elite sport world, and not let anything get in the way.”
Recently, Evans came third in this year’s world trail championships, having previously sensationally won the Costa Rica Coastal Challenge, breaking the course record by over 45 minutes. Soon he is heading for the Alps to prepare for a series of important races. “Being able to focus completely on running is really great and hopefully will help me towards some of the major goals I’ve got in the coming years,” he says.
These include next year’s Marathon Des Sables and qualification for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, but Evans’s unashamed ambition is to become supreme champion of his sport, whatever the cost in blood, sweat and tears.
“Racing in ultras requires lots of discipline determination and being positive when things seem bad and my army training has been a fantastic help both mentally and physically. The easy bit is the race itself - it’s the training beforehand that needs the mental resilience to get you to the start line absolutely ready and focused.”
Currently, Evans runs and exercises six days a week, plus yoga, swimming and cycling and a daily stretching regime. “We focus on ‘process not outcome’ - if you get the key sessions ticked off, train hard and stay dedicated the result will look after itself,” is his philosophy.
Since leaving the army, there’s also a small matter of earning a living. Recently Evans became ambassador for specialist trail running shoe brand Hoka One One, runs in their EVO Mafate brand, and has been testing a new prototype.
His handsome clean-cut looks keep him in demand for photoshoots and endorsements and part of the summer will be spent in America combining training with commercial jobs and promotions.
Strangely, Evans wasn’t all that struck on running at school. “I was far more interested in playing team sports although on the rugby pitch I was never the biggest, the strongest or the fastest.”
But he was good at running, and at 13 was competing in 1,500m races at national schools level. Later he switched to cross-country with Lewes Athletics, but not until joining the army from school in 2011 was he bitten terminally by the running bug.
Son of a Dragoon Guards officer, Evans went straight to Sandhurst from school, one of only five non-university candidates on his course. “I felt I didn’t want to go to university just because it was expected.”
He says he started serious crosscountry track and road running in 2016. “Fitness in the army is a big deal and very important for the job. I spent 10 months in Kenya where it seems nearly everyone does longdistance running.
“Then I discovered trail running, did my first ultra-marathon in the Brecon Beacons - which I managed to win - and it’s been a roller-coaster ride ever since.”
Evans knew about the formidable Marathon des Sables, but it was the Cracknell documentary that decided him to enter. “I also had two friends who had completed the race the year before. They had finished in the top 300. I said I could beat that and they said I couldn’t. I did it for a bet, really.
“It would be only my second endurance race and you couldn’t find anything harder. I managed to get into the 2017 race but my preparations were disjointed due to work commitments. I managed to get some quality weeks of training in Lanzarote but I hadn’t trained on sand. I was heading into the unknown. Talk about a steep learning curve!”
His training regime for the gruelling event was largely his own creation and involved long runs without fully hydrating to accustom his body to being short of water. He planned to carry just 1.5 litres and refill it at each checkpoint - many runners lugged around double that amount.
“I found that running the Marathon des Sables was similar to being in the military and the mindset you need when you are cold, tired, dehydrated and haven’t eaten much. It’s about looking after your body and getting the best performance out of yourself when the chips are down
“A lot of people say your body will do what your mind tells it to and to me that was the key. I saw it as a huge physical challenge and I wanted to test myself to see what I was capable of.”
Evans had never run in anger on sand before and says he learned sand and dune running techniques actually during the race from the Moroccan runners around him. “I doubled my knowledge every single day of how to run on the sand and deal with the heat.”
Incredibly, he came third, the first Englishman to reach the podium, pipped at the post by two Moroccan brothers, one the defending champion. Overnight, Evans became the new star on the ultra running scene.
Ever the realist, he remembers: “My goal for the race was to finish in the top 20 which I thought was going to be a serious challenge. I surprised myself by coming third just as much as everyone else.
“There were only seconds in it. You can say ‘What if?’ but that time in Morocco was an incredible experience and I wouldn’t change it for the world. All I can say is I’ll be older and hopefully wiser when I compete there again next year.”
And the future? “The current world champion is in his early 40s,” Evans says.”I intend to carry on for as long as possible, barring injuries and other mishaps.
“You’ve got to be sensible - a lot of talented youngsters do too much too soon and end up burning themselves out. I will be very careful, working with my coach and my sponsors to perform at the highest level without taking too many risks.
“My motto is: ‘Learn to love the things you were taught to fear.’ The future as an elite athlete will be tough and not always that pleasant, but you’ve got to learn to love what you do because you know it’s going to lead to bigger and better things.”