Fred Streatfield has been running all his life. You could say that running defines him. However, Fred is so much more than a runner, he’s a husband, a father, a grandfather, great grandfather a builder and in April 2017, he has set himself the challenge of running the Marathon des Sables.
‘MDS’ as it is known within the running community, is for many a dream goal. It’s been billed as the ‘Toughest Race on Earth’ and while we all know that it’s not, the multi-day Saharan adventure does bring its own set of unique problems and difficulties to encounter.
The race is over 30-years old and has without doubt paved the way for all modern day, multi-stage races. It’s format of self-sufficiency has been copied time and time again. In the early days, it was tens of runners who toed the line. Now it’s 100’s of runners and in recent years, with the growth of ultra-running, more than 1000 stand within the dunes of Morocco every April for what will be, for them, the ultimate experience
When you’ve been running for as long as Fred, you’d think this Moroccan adventure would be a walk in the park, or should I say, the dunes for him. But no, despite 49-years of running, Fred is intimidated for this new venture in his life.
A race like this is intimidating, it should be, after all it’s why you do it, no? Fred is no different than any other when signing on the line and paying the deposit. He wanted his run experience to be made whole, with something alien to him, something that would completely take him out of his comfort zone. Little did he know that when he signed up, his challenge would become something so much more than running…
Niandi Carmont caught up with Fred after a training camp in Lanzarote. It was a camp specifically tailored for those undertaking a multi-day race of any type. Among the 40-participants on the camp, Fred became somewhat of hero.
It’s a simple way to start any conversation about a future race, direct is best sometimes, “Do you feel prepared Fred?’
“Well, yes. Yes and no really. I feel I now need to do more training but in all honesty, I don’t stop – I do need to do more long runs though.”
Fred had arrived in Lanzarote feeling a little worried that he would be isolated, little did he know that he was leaving one family behind to be joined by another.
“The training camp was absolutely just beyond belief really. The volume of running we did and the guys I ran with… It was amazing, they were all young whippersnappers, and me, I’m an old boy! But I did keep up with them.”
Keep up with them Fred did. He’s an old-school road runner, a little obsessed with running fast. Too fast at times, particularly when you consider his 65-years. We had a phrase when I was younger and you’d see an older runner, ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’ and yes, Fred is as fit as a butcher’s dog. On day 1 it was a shakeout run of just 60-minutes, Fred by his own admission says that he’s not used to technical terrain – too many years running on the road! Forty minutes into the run he hit the deck, it looked a bad fall. His arm was bruised, is elbow bleeding and he was holding his ribs. We imagined the worst. He bounced up, brushed himself off and pushed on. The next day, the first day of the camp was a long run, Fred didn’t hold back and placed himself in the fast group.
”Yes. I went with the first group, with the fast group. Last year I ran The Great North Run with Mark Scott (also on the camp) and I beat him by about three minutes. We were running for Macmillan charity. In the race, Mark came in after me, we exchanged niceties, shook hands and then we met again on the camp. As I was waiting for the run to start, Mark came and said, “Come on, Fred. Come on. Come on. You belong in this group.” which was the fast group. I said, “No, no, Mark, I’ll go with a slower group”. He went, “No, no. You go into this fast group.” Anyway, I stuck with him for 40-minutes, the run was going to be about a 20 to 23 plus miles. I thought to myself, if I continued at this pace I may not finish. It would have done me in. Ian was with me at the time so we eased off with another runner, Paul Allum and then joined your group Niandi.”
Niandi was of course flattered, it was just 1-day into the camp and already Fred was getting a fan club. Niandi’s group was pretty much running all the time but it was a slightly slower pace than the group up front lead by Elisabet Barnes, 2015 Marathon des Sables ladies champion.
Fascinated by stories and people, Niandi knew Fred had a story, we all have a story, but Niandi had that intuition, that sixth sense that told her that there was more than meets the eye. It started simply, ”Tell us a little about what motivated and inspired you to decide to do MDS and how it all started?”
“Well, it goes back quite a way. There is a nice little story attached to this. I saw the race on the internet and how it posed the question of challenging one’s self. I was attracted to it but I dismissed it and moved on. Then a few weeks later, I went on to a website and it popped up again. My initial thoughts were about it looking really tough and I wondered if I could do it, after all, I am getting on!”
Niandi laughed, she’d heard rumors that there was more to the story. She probed, “Tell my how your wife was involved the entry process?”
“I went off into town with my wife. I left her and went to get some information on the desert running. I hadn’t told her though. I bumped into a friend of mine and he said, “What are you doing?” I was on the spot so I told him that I was thinking that I may be tempted to run in the Sahara and I was getting some information. I told him though, whatever you do, don’t tell the wife!”
I am sure you can fill the gaps but the inevitable happened. The following day they bumped into each other once again and how did the friend great Fred?
“How’s the desert coming on?”
“Have you entered?” my wife said. “No, but I’ve been considering it”
The ice was broken. Fred entered the race and never looked back. His wife supported him every step of the way. But elation and excitement turned to loss, sadness and questions if the race would ever happen.
“I think it was December 10th, it was the registration day. That was 2015. We waited for the entry for 2017 to open. I am not computer savvy and she had offered to help me fill out the forms. Technology and me don’t go together. Anyway, we checked in and we paid the deposit and that was the start. At the same time, we were in the process of moving house, always a big thing. The move happened and then 5-weeks later she passed away.”
It’s a moment like this that a life can fall apart, imagine it, married for so many years and then suddenly a void. Fred was all set for throwing in the towel but this is the power of running and the community connected with the sport.
”There was a closed website group just for the people who are running the MDS in 2017,” Fred continued. “They all said, “No, no, no. Don’t give up. She wouldn’t want you to.” So, I decided to carry on. It’s been difficult and it’s still difficult now. That’s one of the reasons I’m running. II am also running for Macmillan Cancer Charity. It’s important to help the charity too.”
No words needed. What feels like minutes is only seconds and Niandi picks up the conversation. “That’s a very noble cause, Fred. You’ve had a lot of support from the running community and from the people at the Lanzarote Training Camp, but it’s also due to your personality because you’re very outgoing. You’re very positive. You’re very bubbly. You’re very communicative and you’re really fun to be around.”
There’s silence and then a, “Thank you.”
“I can’t remember my first race. But I was running at school. That’s where it all started but a key moment was when I had started work. Some guy just walked up to me. He went, “You look fit. In the car park, over here, every Saturday morning, be there. You will want to bring some running stuff.” I didn’t get any backing from my parents or anything like that and I really appreciated it so I started to go, I still have those old plimsoles.”
Simple beginnings and picture starts to form of Fred, his background, his history, his dedication to work hard and graft.
“I got some old shoes and some old shorts and then just went running. It just went from strength-to-strength really. I was about 15 or 16 and I have never looked back – I have met some amazing people. Obviously, they were not with us anymore, but they kept me going and helped me and nurtured me through. Even in the early days, the running community helped me.”
Community, bonds, friendship, values, Fred found all these in Lanzarote and it confirmed to him all that is good about running and although the decision to continue after the passing of his wife was a tough one, he now knows it was the correct one.
”Words fail me really, everyone on the training camp has been so incredible. It’s been tough. they’re so nice. It was really tough, II didn’t say anything on the camp but while I was there it coincided with the anniversary of my wife’s funeral.”
“I think there was a very strong bond between everybody and people knew what you’d gone through and I think that they felt the vibes,” Niandi responded. “Family is also very important to you. I also got that impression because you come from a very close family. Well, maybe you could tell about your family, about your daughters.”
”Yes, my daughters have been strong for me. Also, I don’t know how they’ve coped losing their mom. But anything I want, anything, they are there for me. They cook me my food and they take turns to have me as a guest at weekends – just so that I don’t starve. I’ve got four children myself and each of my four children have got four children.”
”That is 16 grandchildren?”
”Yes, 16 grandchildren and one of my granddaughters who is now 20, she’s not the oldest, she’s just had a little baby girl, six months ago!”
“You’re a great-grandfather?”
“I think that shocked some of the guys in Lanzarote. They looked at me and said, “How many grandchildren you got?” I said, “I’ve got one great-granddaughter.” I don’t think they could believe it.”
Married for 44-years, his wife was 18 and he 19. Through thick and thin, as Fred quite rightly says, “It wasn’t all roses.” But who’s story is. They battled the tough times, enjoyed the good times. “She was my best friend. She helped me, she made me who I was and she was a very strong person and a really nice person as well.”
Part man, part robot, Fred has held back some other vital information. “You also have to keep a check on your health,” Niandi asks. “Because you’ve had a few health issues?”
“Yes. I’ve got a pacemaker. It’s all checked, it’s all monitored, and it’s good to go. In 2012, when I had a problem, they said I would never run again. At the time, I was looking at the MDS and I thought my chance had gone. But since then, everything is working out and I am fine. I’ve done just over 200 runs and races. I’m pretty fit.”
The finish line of the 2017 Marathon des Sables will be a special one. Red ribbon will pass through the fingers of race director Patrick Bauer. Attached to the ribbon will be a large disc of gold. As Fred crosses the line and the prize is placed around his neck, I have a real feeling that there will be more than just Fred’s tears shed on the finish line. This simple man embodies the race. He is a personification of the values the race holds true.
Fred’s typical training week:
- Monday – Swimming
- Tuesday – Run club night which is usually a sat 8km-10km.
- Wednesday – Cycling 2-hours indoors.
- Thursday – Run club hill sessions or fartlek. Followed by 1-hour swimming.
- Friday – Rest.
- Saturday – Park Run in the morning and then a 10km to half-marathon run.
- Sunday – Usually 9 to 15-miles.
I’m sure I’ve got everything that I need. The Lanzarote trip helped with this, there might be a couple of little bits that I need, but nothing really. I think I need to slow down a little bit when running, think about the long game. I’m under no illusion that it’s going to be tough. Believe it or not, I’ve joined a sauna club. I’m hoping to spend a few hours in the sauna. I don’t know if I’ll be able to take my running stuff, though. I run in Lanzarote with my pack and that worked, I didn’t have full weight in it but it was good. I need to test out my food now and I am good to go.
Would you like to join our 2018 Multi-Day Training Camp, if so, go HERE