JUST four years ago, Craig Cunningham was unfit and “immensely overweight”.
But he can now claim to be one of the fittest men in the world – and the fittest in Scotland – having completed the toughest race on the planet.
Craig, who lives in Portobello, battled through the African desert to complete the notorious Marathon des Sables faster than any of his fellow countrymen.
It is a far cry from four years ago, when he lay exhausted following a work charity event. Craig, who is 5ft 11in tall but weighed 16-and-a-half stone, said that moment – after completing a 30-mile cycle and a 40-mile walk as part of a bike and hike event – was the “trigger” which set him on his way to excelling in the world’s most feared footrace.
“I just saw other people who were much fitter and healthier than me,” said the 42-year-old, who now weighs les than 12 stone. “I’d forgotten about taking care of my body. I just did no exercise and had nowhere to put the extra calories.”
After joining the gym and catching the fitness bug, Craig, who works for Scottish Widows, took part in the 95-mile West Highland Way Race in 2010 and finished 16th. He repeated the race last year and also completed several other ultra-marathons, including the 43-mile Devil o’ the Highlands, the 53-mile Highland Fling and the 41-mile River Ayr Way Challenge. But those races pale in comparison with the Marathon des Sables – a six-day, 150-plus-mile endurance race in the searing heat of the Sahara.
Craig, who underwent heat-conditioning training at Edinburgh University in the run-up to the race, finished 24th in an 860-strong field. The father-of-two was the second fastest British competitor, only being beaten by a Bermuda-based Englishman, and the fastest Scot. In the 40-plus age category, he was the fastest Briton and the 11th quickest overall.
“I trained hard and really pushed myself so I was pleased with how I did,” he said. “At the base camp it was like Desert Storm. There were 4x4s, helicopters, army trucks and 900 guys and girls who had been training hard.
“The temperature was 50C We had everything thrown at us weatherwise – there were hailstones in the Sahara at one point.”
The race is the equivalent of running six marathons in six days. The course is divided into stages, with competitors covering 50 miles in the longest stretch. Craig was comforted by emails from his children, Juniper Green Primary pupils Skye, ten, and five-year-old Ruben, and his wife, Carol-Ann, travelled to Morocco to meet him at the finish line.
He added: “You spend a lot of time in your own head. I was elated at the finish line. Now I’m home I’ve had time to reflect and I’ve realised what a life-changing experience it was.”