Ultra-marathon man

GP and ultramarathon runner Dr Andrew Murray talks to GPST about his achievements.

  • Date: 12 September 2011

THERE aren’t many doctors who would recommend running 100 miles across the Arctic wastes with a broken leg, but that’s just one of the many challenges faced by Dr Andrew Murray, Edinburgh-based GP and sports and exercise registrar.

Andrew, 31, is an ultramarathon runner – regularly taking part in extremely demanding races in some of the world’s most hostile environments. Most recently, he completed the Scotland2Sahara Charity Run from John O’Groats to the Sahara desert – an astonishing 2,659 miles run in 78 consecutive days, averaging 34 miles a day. Featured on the BBC’s Adventure Show in a piece called ‘The Ultimate Marathon Man’, the aim of this outstanding achievement was to raise money for the Yamaa Trust, a charity which works to tackle poverty in the south Gobi region of Mongolia.

He is clearly made of hardy stuff. “The Arctic race, where I fractured the tibia in my lower leg, was 150 miles without any support, with an average temperature of minus 52 degrees with windchill,” he says. “I also had to drag all my stuff behind me in a sledge. Because of the sort of race it was, there was no option to stop, so I had to keep going even though I was injured.

“In the same year, I’d run desert races in temperatures of 45 degrees. It was really good fun. I like challenging myself by going into completely different environments and seeing the way different people live. I’ve also run in the jungles of Indonesia, and taken part in the Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 151 mile endurance race across the Sahara.”

Andrew first discovered ultramarathons when he was travelling in Nepal and a friend left some valuables six miles and 1,000 feet back up a mountain. Luckily for his friend, Andrew volunteered to “jog back up to get them” and, on the way, met some runners training for the Everest Marathon. Inspired, he decided to give it a go himself.

He says: “I’d never run a marathon before, but it sounded like a good idea. And Mount Everest is spectacular, so I decided I could do a big run and combine it with seeing a bit of the world.”

Going the distance

But it was a race in Outer Mongolia, the Gobi Challenge, which gave him the idea for Scotland2Sahara: “I had never seen anything like it, the environment in the Gobi region is ridiculously hostile, people are living in extreme poverty, but they want to share whatever they have with you. It made me determined to raise money for them.”

Determination to raise money for a worthy cause is one thing, but finding the will to run 2,659 miles in consecutive days is quite another. Andrew seems surprised by the suggestion that his type of running would be completely beyond the reach of most people, although he does admit to being a “targeted and goal orientated person”.

This kind of understatement is typical of his gentle manner, which comes with a very dry and self-deprecating humour you imagine serves him well in the middle of nowhere with only the sound of his feet pounding the snow or sand for company.

So how does he prepare for an ultramarathon? “Mental preparation is the most difficult thing,” he says. “You have to be very adaptable. Of course, you have a practical plan, making sure you have everything you need for the environment you’ll be running in, for example, but there are a lot of things you can’t predict.

“Every single run I do there’s a moment where I think I can’t go on, when your legs tell you that you want to stop. Experience helps, because you know it will eventually get better. During the Scotland2Sahara run, the fact that I was running every single day, I was constantly tired and I felt like the world was conspiring against me. But it was also amazing, knowing I was part of this adventure and, honestly, that’s one of the things I love most about it, pitting your wits against the environment.”

Alongside maintaining some work as a GP, Andrew is a keen mountaineer, and has scaled the highest peaks on four continents. He also runs Marathon Medical Services with his friend Dr Duncan Goodall, providing medical services to marathons, races and expedition in the UK and beyond. The role has seen him travel to six continents and the North Pole, working with some of the world's top athletes.

Having medical knowledge has also helped him stay in tune with his own body, although pushing himself beyond known limits is perhaps part of the appeal.

“All the advice in medical textbooks says that if you run more than four consecutive marathons, then your body will start to decline and break down, you will get loads of overuse injuries,” Andrew explains. “Knowing this would happen was maybe unhelpful in a way, but it was also good because I could take action to prevent it. The biggest problem I had was actually anaemia, with my feet slapping against the road over and over, and losing some blood in my pee, but I saw what was happening so I started to take iron tablets.”

He also planned his route from Scotland to the Sahara so he could take a sports medical exam in the morning, then run 30-odd miles afterwards, through one of the harshest UK winters in living memory.

His worst moment came not in the heat and sand of the Sahara towards the end of the run, but in the cold and dark of London near the beginning, he explains. “When I was running in England, my Achilles tendons were killing me on each step – they are twice the size of a normal person’s. I was running through incredibly deep snow, nothing was open, all the roads were closed. I was thinking ‘what am I doing? It’s not going to get any better anytime soon.’ That was my lowest point.”

But Andrew struggled through, driven not only by his promise to raise funds for the Yamaa trust and his impending wedding to fiancée Jennie Reeves but also his passion for highlighting the benefits of physical activity.

Beyond marathons

He now plans to focus on working with the government and other agencies to try to make the nation more active. He is currently one of four registrars in Scotland in the new specialty of sports and exercise medicine, which includes training on safely prescribing exercise in individuals and managing musculoskeletal injuries.

He says: “I work very hard to support this agenda, and am pleased to say progress is already being made.

“Only 35 to 45 per cent of Scots get enough exercise a week, which is shocking when you realise the recommended amount equates to just 2.5 hours. It’s an exciting thing to be involved with and I’m grateful I’ve had the support of so many people, including the RCGP. Doctors have a terrific role to play in promoting activity.”

Andrew recently published a book, Running Beyond Limits*, which details his epic journeys and physical endurance, and has an introduction written by the great adventurer and explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Modest as ever, Andrew says: “It took me ages to write, I’m really not that clever!”

Many would beg to differ. Indeed, his achievements in medicine, running and fundraising were recognised by youth organisation JCI Scotland in August, when he won the Outstanding Young Person of Scotland Award.

As for the next challenge, Andrew says: “There are a few hills I want to climb, a few runs I want to do, but I think my wife would like me to take a break for a while!”

* To order, visit: www.mountain-media.co.uk

Rowan Morrison is a freelance writer and a partner at Bird Morrison, Edinburgh

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