Off hours: Dubai PR boss goes to extremes with ultramarathon

Three and a half years ago, James Holmes and his wife, Kerri, had a baby.

Becoming a father to Ruby made Mr Holmes want to become fitter, so he drew up a training programme with the goal of competing in a couple of local triathlons. Mr Holmes had been a competitive sailor in his teens and 20s – reaching the Olympic development squad – but gave up his sporting dreams to pursue a career in PR, leading to his current role as managing director at Limelight in Dubai. But he admits he is inherently competitive by nature.

Little did he realise, however, that getting fit again would fuel his competitive appetite to such an extent that less than four years later – and with a second child on the way – he would be preparing to run what is billed as the toughest footrace on Earth: the Marathon des Sables (MdS).


The six-stage race begins on Friday and covers 251 kilometres across the Sahara desert in Morocco in temperatures that regularly hit 50°. The competitors carry backpacks weighing 9 kilograms containing all the equipment they need during the race (apart from their tents and water) including food, clothes to sleep in, blister kits, flares and venom pumps. In 2014, of the 1,070-plus runners that made it to the start line, about 100 dropped out – mainly owing to heat exhaustion and fatigue.

“I’ve never done things by half and I don’t like to over-rationalise big decisions at the risk of not making a decision at all,” says Mr Holmes. “Which might go some way to explaining why I’m attempting to run six marathons in six days – considering my first half-marathon was only three years ago.”

While training for the triathlons, it was the running bug that bit and Mr Holmes quickly went from running 10km distances to 20km and 40km. In 2013, he signed up for his first ultra-marathon of 70km, the Wadi Bih in Oman.

“I wanted to set myself an experience that took me to the edge of my capabilities,” he recalls. “At the time I had no idea whether it achievable; but then if I knew I could get to the finishing line safely, it wouldn’t be such a challenge.”

Putting himself outside his comfort zone is one of Mr Holmes’ main philosophies.

“I wouldn’t grow professionally and the business wouldn’t grow if I didn’t take risks and likewise with running,” he explains. “It sounds slightly masochistic but I want to struggle, I want the stress and I want the anxiety.”

After completing the 70km run, Mr Holmes then signed up for his first multistage race of 150km over three days.

The first day he did well; the second day he “vomited constantly” and became dehydrated. The organisers urged him to pull out but he kept going, finishing the second day at least two hours behind the person immediately before him. On the third day he decided the only way to continue was by breaking the challenge down into bite-sized chucks.

“Suddenly I found myself standing at the finish line,” he says. “When you put so much training and your heart, soul and time into it, then failing isn’t an option.”

Looking for a bigger challenge yet, Mr Holmes then decided to sign up for the MdS; there would never be a better time and he had the advantage (compared to competitors from Europe) of being able to train in a hot, sandy country. It was a decision he took with his wife – then had to retake a couple of weeks later after they learnt she was pregnant with their second child.

“This is a solo sport and sometimes running is incredibly lonely but it’s also incredibly lonely for my wife,” he says. “I’ve needed her unconditional support.”

Mr Holmes trains before work – getting up at 4am or 5am to run in the desert – or late in the evening after his daughter is asleep. He clocks up 100 to 150km each week. He also often runs carrying a bag of sand equivalent to the weight of the gear he will carry on is back.

Currently he is feeling confident and trying to figure out his race strategy – whether to be happy with just finishing the MdS or to race for a position in the top 100.

He stresses, though, he never prioritises running over business and the hours running solo in the desert give him time to think creatively – time he may not have had getting through his “to do” list in the office.

“I have a team who are equally dedicated to Limelight,” he says. “What I am doing would never be motivating if it were seen as my day-to-day focus – even as the event draws near. And it’s not. My focus is Limelight and its success.”

While Mr Holmes is slightly concerned about the gap in his life in May when his current intensive training is over, he has decided not to think about it. Instead he is focusing only on the event itself.

“There is absolutely no way in my mind that I will not get to the finish line,” he says. “I don’t even think about failure.”

James Holmes will be running for the Hand in Hand with Syria charity http://www.handinhandforsyria.org.uk/

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