James Thompson ‘warming up’ in Edge Hill University’s environmental chamber

An Edge Hill University student who made headlines after recovering from life-threatening injuries is already looking forward to his next challenge after completing one of the world’s toughest races.

James Thompson, from Maghull, who spent six months in hospital after a serious crash during a cycling event in 2014, completed Marathon des Sables in mid-April, covering over 140 miles across six days in some of the harshest terrain in the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco.

In the process, the second-year Sport and Exercise Science undergraduate has raised over £6,000 for the Walton Centre and Cancer Research North West – who did so much to help him in his recovery, when he was given only a 10 per cent chance of survival.

“It was the most amazing week”, noted James. “The whole thing was an incredible experience and it’s changed the way I look at most things: that a lot of things thought to be essential just aren’t.”

James, who finished 300th out of a field of 783 starters, utilised the state-of-the-art facilities at Edge Hill University to aid his preparations, running in an environmental chamber from which Dr Andy Sparks, Reader in Exercise Physiology, and four final-year students undertaking their work placement module could set and monitor conditions to mirror those which he was likely to experience. Dr Sparks, said:

“We worked with James from November to get him acclimated to the environmental stresses that he was going to face. He really struggled on his first effort, running in 30°C heat, but we worked with him several times a week, an hour per running session, and gave him advice on how he could adapt his training to promote his ability to thermoregulate in the heat.

“Given that most of his preparation was through the cold winter months here in the north west, the acclimation work in the chamber was even more important. By the time of his last session, he was getting up to 11-12km/h speeds with ease in 43°C.”

The chamber has also been used for other athletes, who have been tested through studies which have noted performance levels running at varying speeds, in cold or humid conditions or been adapted to mirror high altitude.

In James’ instance, the support of undergraduates Kiara Holmes, Levi Osborne, Georgia Maudsley and Ben Dobson was part of the Professional Practice in Sport and Exercise module on their course, as part of their 40-hour requirement in obtaining ‘real-life’ experience of professional analysis techniques.

“During each session we monitored variables such as sweat rate, helping him know how much water per hour he would need to consume to stay hydrated, monitored his heart-rate response to heat and core body temperature”, Ben noted. “The aim was to help him understand his response to heat and how we as a team could get him on the start line as the most prepared athlete.

“The first session, James will tell you was a big eye opener but over the period he very quickly adjusted and became increasingly more comfortable. In the week prior to the race he was also sweating better, had a lower average heart rate and lower core temperature than previous sessions.

“As a group we now feel more comfortable working in a sports science support role and wouldn’t hesitate if asked to be part of another special project. It has developed us as practitioners via increasing our wealth of knowledge, and has certainly enhanced our prospects of future post-graduate study, due to a lot of interest in the achievement we played a role in.”

(Left to right): Kiara Holmes, Levi Osborne, Georgia Maudsley and Ben Dobson monitored James’ progress

Aided by his meticulous preparation, James’ approach and attitude to the challenge will come as no surprise to family and friends who have witnessed his remarkable recovery.

“I arrived on the start line feeling completely prepared. Most people each morning fussed, I don’t know if it was nerves or if they were just looking for something to do but I just lay there until start time relaxed, ready for what the day could throw at me. I’d acclimatised and trained hard on most terrains.”

He hopes to one day complete the event again, which this year was won by home favourite Rachid El Morabity for the seventh time – and the sixth year in succession.

“Everyone has said, ‘You did amazing’ but I’d have liked to have done better. I messed my pacing up on the long stage, and next time I’d take an extra meal. Although people took 20 minutes to eat, they gained that back later 10-fold. That comes with experience and I’d love to do it again and change that, to see what difference it makes.”

The ‘long stage’ James references was the 47.4-mile stage four (of six), which he completed in nearly 16 hours.

“My feet were not great after that and getting antiseptic injected direct into blisters was a painful experience to say the least!”

James’ feet recover from their desert ordeal

Next-up James is competing in a 75-mile ultramarathon on the Isle of Skye (“to keep me busy”), before focusing on his final year and then potentially further study, or a future in the Marines.

Learn more about Sport and Physical Activity courses and facilities on offer at Edge Hill University, here.