Former Leinster and Connacht rugby star Damian Browne on taking on "the toughest footrace on Earth"
Damian Browne doesn’t do holidays.
Or, at least, he doesn’t do holidays in a conventional sense. Two weeks lounging by a pool in Lanzarote wouldn’t be his thing.
Some of his most recent trips abroad have involved excursions in locations as remote as the Congo, Afghanistan, Tanzania and Tajikistan. And, in April of this year, he took on a challenge that is scary to read about, never mind physically participate in.
Browne playing for Leinster against Montpellier in 2012
You’d think that after retiring from a professional rugby career that took in spells with Connacht, Leinster, Northampton, Brive and Oyannax, a man might relax and put his feet up, but Damian Browne decided to take it up a notch instead.
When JOE caught up with Damian, he was back in Ireland having just returned from the Marathon des Sables, which doesn’t carry the tag ‘the toughest footrace on Earth’ lightly.
Participants are challenged to complete the guts of six marathons in six days, through rolling sand dunes and sandstorms in 50 degree heat in the Sahara desert, all while carrying everything that you need to survive the experience.
Most sane people would have taken one look and said, ‘no thanks’. So why did Damian Browne do it?
“I saw a documentary on this 13 years ago and I knew it was for me straight away,” Damian says.
Damian at the start line of Marathon des Sables
“Everything about it appealed to me; the adventure, the extremity, the mental and physical challenge. So when I knew I was going to retire, it was one of the first things I booked.
“I just said, ‘Let's get it out of the way while the body is still in one piece. Give it a go. Follow the dream’ for want of a better phrase.”
If the marathon doesn’t sound tough enough as it is, this year’s edition, the 31st Marathon des Sables, was a longer distance than it’s ever been.
Some of Damian’s fellow competitors who had taken part on numerous occasions in the past said that it was the toughest ever. 100 of the 1100 participants had dropped out by the end of the second day.
As part of his mental preparation for the event, Damian used some visualisation techniques that he had employed during his rugby days. So, knowing what was coming and having visualised what he might encounter, was the actual experience of it as bad as he had imagined?
“It was worse!” he says.
“The first two days were very, very challenging physically. This year, people were saying it was the hardest first two days there has ever been, just because of the way they set up the stages.
“There were a lot of dunes early, I think there were 12km of dunes straight out of the first stage. We were hit with strange conditions as well, trudging into a 60/70km/h sandstorm for the best part of two hours.
“The second day was very hot and very long and I think the accumulated fatigue from the first day caught up with a lot of people.
“I saw a lot of people there rejecting food, through maybe fatigue or nausea that they had from the sun or from the race itself.
“Basically, if you're rejecting the food and can't get the calories into you, you’re fucked.”
Was giving up ever an option?
“I never felt like it.
“I never got to such a low place where I even considered it. I suppose, when you've been thinking about something on and off for 13 years and you've prepared mentally for it, you kind of get over those hurdles, the depths of suffering and despair that you go through at times.”
Hard as the first two days were, they were a walk in the park compared to Day Four, when participants were asked to complete two marathons, a combined total of approximately 85 kilometres.
By that stage, Damian had three days down and another three in front of him. Spending the best part of 80 minutes hitting rucks and tackling 20 stone opponents must have sounded positively joyous by comparison.
Instead, on Day Four, Damian was on the go for 25 hours and reached the stage where he was literally sleepwalking in the desert. With his feet looking like this...
“That day was a double marathon and there were seven checkpoints throughout that day,” he says.
“I knew I was going to be out for a long time so I took a break at every checkpoint. Early doors, it was just 10 or 15 minutes to get some water into your backpack and get some grub, maybe an energy bar, into you.
“But by the time I got to checkpoint six, I was literally walking and nearly falling asleep so I needed to get the head down for a couple of hours. I tried to sleep for about an hour and a half and then I got up again and took off until the end.”
The end came at the end of Day Six, by which stage Browne had covered over 250 kilometres in some of the most gruelling conditions imaginable.
To keep him going during the race, he had consumed around 31,000 calories worth of food – including a lot of shakes and powders – which weighed around 9kg in a bag that he had to carry himself the entire time.
Even for a man of Browne’s size, it was quite the burden to bear and the feelings that engulfed him when he crossed the finish line overwhelmed him a little.
“I'm not afraid to say I got pretty emotional.
“Just the accumulation of coming through the event and to actually complete it after all the highs and lows you have during it, as you're crossing the finishing line it's such an amazing feeling.
“I wouldn't be alone in that. There were 1100 competitors and at least half of them have had it on their bucket list for a long time. It was a very special feeling.”
Completing the race wasn’t just something Browne did for himself.
There was a charitable element to the pursuit as well and he was able to raise thousands of Euro for two charities, the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association and Amani Children's home in Moshi in Tanzania, which Browne visited while travelling a few years’ back.
“When I came out of rugby, I always wanted to give a little bit back because professional sport can a very selfish pursuit so this was something I wanted to do," he says.
“It was another goal of mine, it's gone great so far with nearly €6,000 raised between the two charities. The support from family and friends has been amazing.”
Damian celebrated with a few beers and a few club sandwiches in Morocco when the race was over but it wasn’t long until his thoughts were turning to his next adventure and he hasn’t ruled out doing the race all over again.
“Personally, if you had asked me in the middle of it I would have said no way in hell am I coming back to this but as times go by that might change,” Damian says.
“If a mate said he wants to give it a go that might change my mind.
"I think it's in human nature to forget the bad things and remember the good things so I might be back.”
The Marathon des Sables might have to take a back seat in 2017, however, because speaking to JOE a few weeks after his return from the event, Damian confirmed that he'll be taking on another gigantic challenge at the end of the next year.
Damian has put his name forward for the Talisker Atlantic Row, a 3000 nautical mile row from La Gomera in the Canaries to Antigua. Participants have the option of competing with one, two or three teammates, but it'll hardly surprise you to learn that Damian is going to do it all on his own.
It's worth bearing in mind that more people have been in space and summited Everest than rowed the Atlantic. Easy, right?
Damian's explanation of what inspires him to seek out such challenges and to visit far-flung places would nearly make you feel guilty about booking that summer getaway in the sun.
“I'm kind of in a place now where I'm going to the lesser-known corners of the world," he says.
"I recently went to the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and I was in Afghanistan last August as well.
“I would definitely say there's a curiosity element, I like to go out and see what life is like in a place with my own two eyes as opposed to what you might read in a newspaper.
"I didn't go into Afghanistan on my own, I went trekking in a safer part of it that's untouched by the war.
Browne playing for Connacht against Leinster in 2003
"I normally find a reason why I want to go, something might interest me there. It could be something to do with the wildlife - that's why I went to the DRC, to see the mountain gorillas - and we also trekked to the summit to one of only five lava lakes in the world.”
“I find something that interests me as opposed to just turning up in a place; I find my way around.”
Wherever he ends up next, it’s not going to be somewhere where’s he’s lounging by a pool for a few weeks; Damian Browne doesn’t do conventional holidays.
Check out the Marathon des Sables website for more information on the race.
For more information on the charities represented by Damian, check out the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association and the Amani Children's Home.