James Cracknell – Toughest Race On Earth Review: Dune-atic


James Cracknell is a hard man. And a mad man. How do we know this? Look at the evidence: he won an Olympic gold medal in the coxless four in Sydney in 2000, but then decided that a real man would have a pair, so he won another in Athens four years later. After that, he realised that the Olympics were for wimps so he raced from Britain to Africa in 10 days by rowing, cycling and swimming the 1,400 mile journey. But then he realised that even such an epic journey was far too easy (“anyone can thrive in clement conditions..”) and so he joined Team QinetiQ in the Amundsen Omega 3 South Pole Race. Yet despite some pretty serious frostbite, that turned out to be more boring than challenging so then he set off for ‘The Toughest Race on Earth’. This documentary, the first of three over the coming weeks*, tells the story of his struggle. Interestingly, do you know what James Cracknell eats for Breakfast? Pain.

The Marathon Des Sables takes place over 250km of the Moroccan Sahara Desert. To compete in it you need to be both an outstanding athlete and clinically insane… fortunately, James Cracknell meets these criteria easily. To prepare he goes to the QinetiQ performance lab in Hampshire to determine just what this race will take out of him and the answer is – a ridiculous amount. Watching him compete in the prelim tests, such as a 30 minute run in simulated desert heat is worrying, because you begin to realise that the word ‘quit’ doesn’t seem to be in his vocabulary which, whilst a positive attribute in most competitions, could quite literally mean death in the Sahara. His wife jokes “you’re going to die in the desert..â€? Probably not the best time to say things like that to be honest.

Added to this, James finds out that he’ll be mostly living on powders rather than solid food, and he’s not too happy. Originally it was to be only powdered food, but the team of scientists soon realised that he needed some solids as a psychological boost but it has to be kept light in order to reduce the amount of weight he has to carry whilst running.

By this point it seems as if James’s main threat will be himself, he seems incapable of not pushing his body to the limits and it begins to make you wonder if he will be okay (yes, even though it’s a TV programme so he’s unlikely to die – as they probably wouldn’t have made it if he had. But that’s not the point). Plus it’s a fascinating look at a mindset most of us are incapable of comprehending where, as Neil, one of the scientists says, makes you really feel that the mind can conquer the body. The last part of the programme sees James actually running in the race with a target of finishing in the top 50. When you consider that he’s only a few bits of metal away from being the Terminator, would you bet against him? If you did, he’d just hunt you down – just see what happens when some poor chap called Eliot says he thinks he can beat James. It wasn’t a smart move.

*Next week we will be seeing his fateful cycle ride across America..