Dion Leonard is an extreme runner and stage race veteran.
He has tackled the Marathon des Sables several times, along with 2 x KAEM (Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon), MdS Peru, the 4 Deserts ‘Gobi March’ race and Global Limits Cambodia (where I first met Dion) to name a few – regularly bagging podium spots for his troubles.
Dion lives with his wife, Lucja – also an extreme runner – in Edinburgh, Scotland. He became an international figure in 2016 when he befriended a stray dog whilst running across the Chinese Gobi Desert, and went on to adopt the dog – named Gobi. He recounted the story in the International bestseller ‘Finding Gobi’ (one of my top audiobook recommendations).
Later this year, Dion is headed to the USA to attempt the audacious ‘Triple Crown’. This is a challenge of three non-stop races of 200 miles or more – namely the Bigfoot 200, Lake Tahoe 200 and Moab 240 races.
In this interview, which was featured in the recently published Stage Race Handbook, I sat down and quizzed Dion on his stage race experiences and preparation.
Hi Dion, you’ve run a lot of stage races but are especially known for your affinity for the Marathon des Sables. What was it about the MdS that first appealed to you?
MDS is the iconic blue riband event when it comes to multi-stage races. It’s the best of the best when it comes to runners, organization and desert challenges.
I remember first watching and being captivated by the beauty of the Sahara Desert and thought to myself one day I would love to experience it.
What mistakes did you make in your first MdS preparation?
I’d completed the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme 250km in the South African Kalahari Desert a few months earlier so was well prepared for running in the heat and sand.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the sand dunes and the size of them. At my first MDS on Stage 1 we ran 25km in the famous Merzouga dunes and the wheels came off.
I only finished the stage because my wife Lucja caught up to me as I was sitting in the dunes contemplating dropping out but she managed to convince me to get to the finish line.
It was a massive wake up call, the race continually feels like its punching you in the face and you just have to pick yourself up day after day.
What has been the biggest failure for you, during stage races – and how have you addressed it?
Recently at the inaugural MDS 250km in Peru across the Ica Desert, I struggled with illness.
I battled every day to finish and every night I battled to make it to the start line, it was a disaster, everything went wrong and it became the longest week of my life.
It took me a few days to forget about how my race from a competitive point of view was ruined but to just appreciate the opportunity, beauty of the area and breathe it all in.
You have to adjust your goals during the week as things outside of your control happen and dealing with this quickly will help you get to the finish line.
How do stage races influence other aspects of your life, whether personal or professional?
Stage races have changed me completely. I’ve learned a lot about myself and every time I complete a race I walk away a different person.
These races have you spending a lot of time in your own thoughts and whether its work, family or lifestyle I always come back wanting to improve, change or complete something that I haven’t done before.
You’re also in a unique environment for a week with lots of people from all over the world so you get to meet and spend time with people you wouldn’t normally.
I’ve met a lot of wonderful people during stage races and made some friends for life from all over the world.
Is it hard to find time to train sufficiently for stage races?
I don’t know if it’s hard to find the time or its harder to find the motivation. Training is a huge piece of a stage race and when it’s cold outside but you still need to get that run in then it can be difficult to get out the door.
I tend to train a lot more flexibly these days and don’t stick to any generic plans. I combine running with cross training, turbo training, indoor rowing and swimming and that keeps things fresh for me.
What advice would you give to someone preparing for their first ever stage race?
Don’t be overwhelmed. You need to get 3 things right – training, food, and kit. It’s simple and doesn’t need to be expensive, time-consuming or difficult. A lot of forums giving advice really cause more confusion than necessary.
Any ‘secret sauce’ tips / quirky things you do to help you during stage races?
Sometimes the water given to you during stage races is sitting at checkpoints in temperatures of up to 50 degrees and is simply undrinkable. To cool it down, place a wet ‘Buff’ over your water bottles before you put them in their holders and as you run the breeze combined with the wet ‘Buff’ will chill your bottles.
If you’re in the campsite then use the drink bottle nozzle to hang them in the air from a tree or your tent to catch the breeze.
Finding Gobi, Dion’s book recounting how he encountered and adopted Gobi the dog, became a 2017 Bestseller.
Follow Dion’s running adventures on twitter @findinggobi.
Main image Photo Credit: MdS Peru