On the 27th August  this year, I stood, with my two ‘Team Wolfpack’ team mates, David Clement and Rich O’Connor, in the cold, pouring rain, in Chamonix on the start line of the UTMB PTL, arguably one of the hardest sporting challenges on the planet. Ahead awaited 311km of Alpine wilderness, and a lot of climbing. Twenty-five thousand metres (82,000 ft) of ascent to be precise. That’s about the same as climbing Everest from sea level – three times.

It had been a long journey to get here. For most of my life I had played football; when I started spending more time on the bench than on the pitch, I decided to explore the world of ultra endurance.   

This journey started with an Ironman triathlon, but I soon discovered I didn’t like swimming and wasn’t competitive on a bike. Thus, the transition into ultra running. Ultra running is classed as any distance longer than a 26-mile marathon, although, these days, 50 miles plus is probably more ‘ultra’ territory. 

My first ultra was called The Oner, a 76-mile run along the Dorset coastal path.  A beautiful race, but, to be honest, all I remember was pain and suffering. I finished hours behind the winner, in awe of how someone could run so far, so fast. Bizarrely, I was hooked. I loved the adventure, extreme challenge and unpredictability of this sport and I wanted to know where my limits were. I also discovered that pain and suffering are actually at the heart of all ultras and it’s only when these two friends arrive that the racing really begins.  

Resilience, rather than athletic prowess, is what makes the difference. Literally, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. 

Other races and challenges were gradually added to my ultra CV: the UTMB, a non-stop mountain race with 10,000m of ascent, the Western States Endurance Run in California (100 miles long), the Bob Graham Round (42 Lake District peaks in 24 hours), the Haute Route (ski traverse of the high Alps in Winter) and also the legendary Marathon Des Sables (MdS). 

The MdS has the debatable title as the ‘Toughest Race on Earth’ and it was my first multi-stage race – 250 km across the Sahara Desert. It is brutal.

Running in temperatures of up to 50 degrees across a desert for six days, carrying all your food and kit except for water and a tent, is an extreme challenge. Each day ends at the bivouac, where you share a tent with seven other runners.  The camp is very basic (I ‘slept’ on the stony floor after losing my sleeping mat when a whirlwind came through the camp on the first evening) and is taken down each morning and rebuilt at the end of the day’s stage. Each day gets tougher as the miles, injury niggles, reduced calories and lack of sleep start to take their toll. 

The fourth stage is the dreaded Long Stage.  On that particular morning I woke up sick from heat stroke from the previous day, when I had overcooked it in my attempt to qualify in the Elite category. I was too sick to eat properly but managed, taking about 15 minutes, to eat half a plastic cup of porridge before curling up in the foetal position in my tent, sweating with nausea and waiting for the race to start. Had I been at home I would have been too ill to go to work, but yet I had 56 miles of sand, searing heat and a vicious headwind to look forward to. 

I knew it was going to be an utterly miserable day, but I also knew from experience that if I could just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it would be all over in 12 hours. I wasn’t wrong. 

Overall, the MdS was an experience of a lifetime – with the highlight being the friendships built with my tent mates. They were an incredible group with exceptional positivity, grit, mental fortitude, talent, character and humour. Everyone looked out for each other and I benefited hugely from the strength that can be drawn from such company.

Surprisingly, despite my gastric issues, I managed one of my best results, finishing 33rd overall out of 1,330 runners and second in the 50+ age category.

These races all served as a continuing apprenticeship which brought me, this August, to the damp start line of the PTL – ‘La Petite Trotte à Leon’. It is the first and longest of the UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc) series of races, based in Chamonix, in the French Alps, each summer. Translated as ‘Leon’s Little Walk’ – the name reflects the mindset of the organisers who each year plan a route as remote, challenging and adventurous as they can conceive within ‘acceptable’ danger limits. 

Due to its extreme nature, this is a team event, maximum three members. If team mates drop out, continuing alone is not permitted, which explains why this was now my third attempt. The maximum time allowed is six and a half days, and on the previous attempt my final teammate dropped out after five and a half days. Close, but no finisher’s cowbell.

This year, as we left the cheering crowd in Chamonix we were immediately climbing steeply and soon discovered that above 2,000m it was snowing.  Fresh snow, rocks and trail-running shoes are never a good combination and, almost immediately, on one particularly tricky section, the two runners directly in front of me lost their footing and slipped a hundred feet down a steep rocky scree slope. They both survived their fall, but it was definitely time to focus – and put our crampons on!

The best word I can think of to describe the difficulty of this race is ‘unimaginable’. Testimony to this is that a quarter of the teams abandoned the race in the first 24 hours. These were all experienced mountain ultra runners who had not imagined how hard things were going to get on just the first day and, clearly, repeating this experience another five and a half times was not desirable.

The first day began at 8.00am and, for us, finished at 3.30am the following morning after 65km of climbing at high altitude in miserable conditions, with only one 45-minute refuelling stop. At the end of this journey was a hot pasta meal in a remote mountain refuge and an hour’s lie down, where I slept for about half an hour before being kicked out to make room for other arriving runners.  At this point, day two started. 

Due to the distances and terrain that need to be covered each day, sleep has to be sacrificed. I slept less than six hours total in the whole week and by day three, sleepwalking and hallucinations became a daily occurrence. I knew my hallucinations were starting when I started hearing ice-cream van music playing up in the mountains. Before long, every rock seemed to have a face, and I kept seeing pictures of fairytale characters on the trail. Approaching one particularly dangerous section, we had been falling asleep on our feet with such regularity that we had to take a 15-minute power nap to snap us back into clarity. As we were up at 2,500m, in the middle of the night, it was too cold to stop any longer than that. There was nowhere to lie down, so I had to wedge myself upright between two huge boulders to sleep.  

By the third day, the rain and snow stopped and the sun came out. The plus was that we could now enjoy the stunning wilderness through which we moved. It was also the low point of the race:  Rich, one of our team, called it a day when the altitude, sleep deprivation and an injured ankle were combining to affect his balance and making progress dangerous. David and I continued on. 

Also, moving had become more painful due to blisters caused from days of wet feet. Sore feet would be a constant companion for the rest of the race. On the last day my feet were so bad that when we had 22km to the finish line I found myself calculating how many more steps I could endure. I reckoned 44,000 steps would do it. 

One unexpected feature of the race was joy. Pure joy. Endurance competitors often speak of being broken by the experience. For me, I was repaired. The immense difficulty of this race focuses your mind on the truly important. Not once did I think about work, the mortgage or interest rates. All that mattered was to keep moving forward and my mind was free to dwell on my wife, kids, family, friends and faith.  I was blown away by the love and support from friends back in the UK and, every day, I would find myself laughing and weeping, at the same time, from the overflowing joy of feeling truly blessed and alive.

I know it’s only a race, but finishing the PTL after two failed attempts was, without a doubt, one of my life highlights. David and I ran hard for the last four miles, determined to finish strong, no matter how I’d felt five hours earlier when I was counting my remaining steps. After days up in the remote mountains it seemed strange to see so many people again. The streets of Chamonix were busy with cheering crowds and friends and family and the final tearful sprint to the finish line, joined by my wife, Nicky, was a perfect end to an incredible adventure. And, at last, I had my finisher’s cowbell.

A few years ago, a friend asked what was it that kept me going when others stopped. I didn’t have a clear answer, although I did know, and anyone who has seen me swimming in cold water will confirm, it wasn’t because I was naturally tough. 

This led me to start listing the factors that contribute to strengthening my resilience. I soon observed that none of these factors were fixed traits; none were unique to me, and all could be developed. I am convinced that we are all capable of strengthening our resilience, whether we are crosssing mountains or running a family or a business. 

Over time, I’ve started to receive more and more invitations to speak about my adventures and the ‘Secrets to Living a Resilient Life’ to businesses, schools, colleges, church groups, men’s groups and sports clubs.

I have a passion to share what I have learned, to help others keep running in life’s race when the temptation to start walking – or to give up completely – is so strong. It’s a heartbreaking statistic that around 80 men a day take their own lives in the UK and sadly, to quote Thoreau, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.

In ultra endurance events, the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t is simply the ability to keep going. I believe that there are steps that we can all take to help us build our resilience, run a stronger race, live more passionate, purposeful lives – and never give up. 

Andrew uses the lessons learned from his adventures in his work as a motivational speaker, to help others learn to become more resilient; to keep going when the going gets tough. To contact Andrew about a speaking engagement, call 07950 822801 or visit

Andrew Findley

Andrew is a husband to Nicky and father to Gee and Joe. He is a motivational speaker with a passion for helping others live more resilient lives. He speaks regularly to businesses, schools, men’s groups and churches. He attends St Mary’s church in Poole where he is involved with the leadership of the men’s ministry. Andrew loves adventuring in the mountains – whether running, cycling or ski touring.

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