It doesn’t happen everyday does it… an actor with a career spanning back to 1992 taking on the challenge of the Marathon des Sables; arguably one of the most iconic multiday races in the world.
Bertie (Robert) Portal however is not shy of a challenge or putting himself way out of his comfort zone. In 2012, along with James Cash, Bertie crossed the Atlantic in 63-days and in doing so raised £350,000 for ‘Facing the World Association.’
‘…the idea of setting foot again on another waterborne vessel, let alone our boat, Patience, fills me with dread and horror.’ Bertie explained in a Telegraph interview (Feb 2012).
Swapping water for sand, Bertie will attempt the 29th edition of the iconic ‘MDS’ and his journey begins on April 3rd. I was intrigued; what had attracted an actor who has appeared in some modern day blockbusters such as, The Iron Lady, My week with Marilyn and The Kings Speech to leave the comfort of ‘Blighty’ behind for a week of self-sufficiency in the Sahara? After all, reduced food and water rations, sharing a bivouac with 7-others, oh, and the small matter of running approximately 250 km’s wouldn’t appeal to everyone?
I caught up with Bertie in the final days before his departure for Morocco, for the first of several interviews that will help document Bertie’s journey into the unknown.
IC Bertie, you are renowned for your acting career, what has attracted you to the Marathon des Sables, it’s going to be a little different to what you are used to!
BP People ask me this all the time and I often give different answers, however, as an actor I spend my professional life in someone else’s clothes, speaking someone else’s lines and being told where to stand and what to do… these events are me being me! Facing a challenge, it’s what I enjoy. I also enjoy facing the elements, be that the Atlantic of the Sahara on its own terms to see what it has to offer.
IC Is this something that has come to you later in life or have you always been interested in testing yourself in sport?
BP Fair to say I have pushed the envelope recently! However, I have done marathons, triathlons and swum to keep fit. I found that when I did the Atlantic, we were halfway across in a storm and I thought if I get out of this, I will do something land based. The Sahara fits the bill!
IC MDS has a reputation. It’s one of the oldest, if not THE oldest multiday races. It’s on many a runners bucket list, for you, the contrasts between the Atlantic and the Sahara will be extreme. When did you start preparing?
BP I have been training for about 18-months specifically. Ultra marathons are very different from doing a ‘normal’ marathon of 26.2-miles, so, doing longer runs of 30 or 40-miles have been a great eye opener. The thought of doing them back-to-back is very different; running on tired legs is something you need to adapt to. I have done lots of that; I don’t take this lightly! I think the MDS will be more painful physically than the Atlantic as it is more compacted in terms of time.
IC I guess 18-months ago you were just getting consistency in running. When did you start being very specific; placing an emphasis on MDS and doing specifics that will allow you to run in the Sahara?
BP I have been training with a pack for quite a long time. I availed myself of the services of Rory Coleman, he has done MDS 10-times and he helps out people with coaching. He set me a program and I have followed it. I went to Wales a month ago, we had a weekend program of running in dunes. It was a nightmare! I hated it… it’s grueling, debilitating, energy sapping, exhausting and depressing to be honest. It was a big eye opener and I found it incredibly hard. I am under no illusions of what to expect. Recently I have been in a heat chamber and I have 2-more sessions to do before we depart. That was horrible too!
IC Aaagh, you are really looking forward to the MDS then? (Laughs)
BP The heat chamber was just a small room. Quite claustrophobic, so it’s not ideal, however, it serves a purpose. You just want to get out of the room but you can’t. Lots of people are watching so you can’t ‘wuss’ out.
IC You will learn from anyone that has done MDS that heat sessions in the final days before departure are a great thing to do. It can be a savior to have that adjustment done before arriving in Morocco. Let’s go back a month ago if I may… the dunes, I guess you wanted experience and also a confidence boost. Do you now have a sense of dread of what the MDS holds?
BP The weekend was 2-days; Saturday was dunes and Sunday was a little different. I felt a little down after the first day but running up a mountain on day-2 was much better. I have also been told that dunes only make a small part of the MDS. The terrain is quite compact, hard, and rocky at times and we have salt flats to cover so that is good, we have a bit of everything! Dune day sounds like it will be day-1 so I shall grit my teeth and push through it.
IC Yes, you are correct. Dunes only usually make about 20% of the race route. However, the dunes take longer to get through because of the difficulty. What are you most fearful of?
BP Not finishing! It’s a fear of failure… far more than the heat, dehydration and so on. I think I can control those things. I need to look after myself. Personal admin is important. If I have my head screwed on that will be okay. However, I will have unknowns, maybe the medical team could pull me out of the race. I would hate that. All I can do is look after myself as best I can and don’t start too quickly. I need to enjoy the experience. I am so looking forward to it.
IC If you look at the race objectively; completion over competition, It is a great attitude to have. Cut-off times are very generous so you can slow down and still finish. Have you thought about this?
BP Well I set myself goals and I like to do things to the best of my ability otherwise I don’t see much point in doing them! I want to be the best that I can be. I’m in the middle I think; I won’t win but I want to give the best account of myself.
IC With a couple of days over and once familiarized, you will then be able to asses and decide if you can test yourself. You will know at that point how you feel and how you are reacting.
Bivouac will be interesting; an open tent with 7-other people. For me, it’s an attraction. You do have a celebrity status do you think at MDS you will be recognized?
BP I’m always ‘another’ person! I love these events because I can get away… no e-mail, no phones, I am away from all the humdrum day-to-day routine and I love that.
IC You have appeared in The Kings Speech, My week with Marilyn, The Iron Lady; they are all films about strong individuals. They are all characters that have overcome diversity, pressures and so on that have used strength of character to survive. Can you take anything away from the real life situations and apply that to the MDS?
BP Gosh! I don’t think so… my film life and my adventure life are so different. My actor mates and directors just don’t understand what I do. I was about to row the Atlantic when I did ‘Marilyn,’ my peers just didn’t get it. So, I don’t intertwine the two things at all. You are correct though; the films were about strong people. It’s the first time I have ever thought of it… it’s a great question. I will need to go away and think about it! Ask me on day-3 of the race.
IC How has training gone for you, are you confident, can you maybe give us an idea what a training week has looked like?
BP If I am honest, I was at my fittest in October last year. I was doing 3-day ultra runs. A normal week would be as follows: Monday, power hour on a treadmill – this is 4mins at pace and then sprint for 1-min and repeat. It’s horrible but gets your speed up. I may run a 5km the next day, 10km the day after and then on Thursday I would do a long run in the park. Richmond Park is my ‘killing ground’ and this is where I do my entire running. It has some nice hills! Then I would race at the weekend, a marathon or an ultra.
IC Okay, so how many races have you done in the build up?
BP Lots! I must have done somewhere in the region of 20 marathons in the last 11-months.
IC Wow, that is great. That’s lots of racing.
BP I have always ticked over. A typical year for me would include what I call the ‘Big-5.’ That would be 2-half marathons before London, London marathon and then another couple of other events. I am also a swimmer; I do that throughout the year. So I have a good base.
IC Tell us about your equipment. I am sure you have been through everything, weighing it and looking at options. Are you taking any luxuries?
BP I am looking at my bag now. I had problems with packs. I was going to use one pack but I found it too small, I just couldn’t fit everything in so I have changed it recently to something a little larger. I can’t run on nuts and air! (Laughter). My luxuries are ‘sweeties’ such as jellybeans, cola bottles and so on. I have a few gels but they can make me run to the bushes… not many of those in the Sahara! I have kept luxuries to a minimum; I see this as 7-days and 7-days only, I can get through that!
IC What is your pack weight?
BP About 9kg I believe.
IC You will need to add water to that?
BP Yes, I will add water and that is provided. I have packed food that I had left over from the Atlantic and I have trimmed packets, cords, and other items to reduce any weight. The food packets are useful as I can eat out of them.
IC You will take a stove then?
IC Do you have any words of wisdom or is that only something you can pass on after the experience?
BP I think there is only so much you can do. You can train, you can prepare and you can plan but you can’t actually prepare for running in 45 degrees other than doing it. It’s no sprint; it’s what I call the Sahara shuffle.
IC You have the physical and mental strength to last 63-days in the Atlantic. I am sure you will be able to draw from that experience and apply it in the Sahara.
BP Yes, I do have lots to call on and I am grateful for that experience. I had some horrible moments. When things get tough, I will think to myself, it’s only 7-days. My father said, ‘you can doing anything for 7-days.’ However, I don’t think my dad has done MDS! (Laughter)
IC In the Atlantic you broke your oars and you bobbed around in the water for 7-days unable to move… ironically you could have run MDS in those 7-days.
BP Absolutely! Thank you for that. I will think on that whilst I am in the Sahara.
See you in the Sahara!
A race preview of the 29th edition of the MDS is available HERE
MDS hints ‘n’ tips from 3x ladies winner, Laurence Klein HERE
Bertie will be raising money for Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity (Facebook Here)
To make an individual donation, please visit: uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Blazing-a-Trail
Or send cheques payable to Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity to:
6 Cleeve Court, Cleeve Road, Leatherhead, Surrey, KT22 7UD
Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity website – HERE
Go to ‘Blazing a Trail’ on Facebook – HERE
Follow Bertie’s MDS experience on www.iancorless.com and on Twitter @talkultra
Images from ©IMDB
Atlantic Crossing in The Telegraph – Here