My love for running really took off when I moved to Dubai in 2002. It all started with my first half marathon in Abu Dhabi. Marathons and triathlons followed then eventually I discovered that my true passion lay in long distance trail running. There are so many reasons to love trail running. I love exploring new places. Nothing beats heading off in a random direction and just discovering where the path takes you. Trail running also unites interesting people and amazing places. On longer solo runs, I get to munch on business topics; my keynote at World Art Dubai came together during the 30k night rebel race. There’s alot to be said for using solitude to feed your creativity.
These are my top most memorable runs over the years:
> My best run last summer was with my friend Ilonka, who runs a mountain lodge in the France Alps. We both love alpine runs and got up early one morning to hit the mountains. I don’t own any cold weather running gear and can remember it was a bitterly cold start in just shorts and a light fleece at 5am. Still dark, we used our head torches to wind through the forest trails, past little mountain village Narreyroux and on to Col du Bal. Running on the high ridges with spectacular views and fresh mountain air is when I’m in my element. These are truly magical moments.
> A run filled with anxiety and excitement… or perhaps more an escape run! I fled my parents house back in 2003 to run free. It was my wedding day and the house was full of family and friends… it felt like chaos and I just needed to get out there on my own. I enjoyed an amazing run through the forest and remember feeling so free.
> Day seven of the Gobi March, a 250k self supported running race in remote China. Day seven marked the final stretch to the finish line and I can remember running the entire way, despite the blisters, aching limbs and immense fatigue. Running through the Flaming Mountains and ending at a Buddhist village made for an incredible setting. It was pretty much all downhill at that point. Crossing that finishing line came with such immense relief and pride before receiving the biggest medal ever. I felt on top of the world.
> A memorable run to be that remains in the pipeline will be a dash with one my boys, either in a competition or just a run down the street. Having seen other dads during that proud moment of first running with their sons, I can’t wait to do so with my own.
> Living in Dubai means living pretty much in the desert. In just a 30min drive, you can hit spectacular dunes which make for perfect training ground. Running in soft sand builds character, turns a run into a serious workout and requires a decent sense of navigation. Followed by setting up camp with the family, these runs can turn into a really fun weekend. I remember one run not far from Bab al Shams, when off I started, with a loaded pack at the usual crazy hour and there, beautifully lit by the early morning sun, was a stunning white Arabian Oryx. It was perhaps only 100m away, staring intensely at me… probably wondering what on earth I was doing… for what seemed an age. I stood still, staring back at him and then he just dashed off. And so did I.
The most noticeable things about working with Hollywood stars is that the stakes are high, shoots come with lengthly pre-meetings, you’re seriously time limited and the entourage on set is enormous. But when it all comes together… when the shoot runs smoothly and the crew is happy… it’s so rewarding and such a cool thing to do. Recently, I experienced just that, shooting the gorgeous Margot Robbie for a big British Airways PR push.
We used the stunning Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort as our base before venturing off into the desert. The Empty Quarter has no shortage of shooting options, yet a recce did prove to be a worthwhile exercise to stake out the best location for capturing the afternoon light yet remaining in close proximity to the resort. All in all, we had a time limit of 1 ½ hours on site. Margot was a complete joy to work with… hard not to be perhaps when in the company of six good looking pilots (her words…)! Dressed in Burberry, she remained effortlessly down to earth with bare feet and a sense of adventure. Here are the final three images that made it to the press along with a few behind the scenes images.
I timed it so we would capture the very best of the afternoon light, making our way into sunset. During the recce, we picked a varied mix of dunes as the ultimate backdrop. I mostly shot using the light available supplemented with a bit of fill in flash to knock off some shadows. To keep the client in the loop with the images I was shooting, I used the CamRanger, which transfers the jpgs from the camera straight to an iPad screen. This is great as the team could stay involved with feedback and approvals and it’s easier for me to absorb images on a larger screen than on a 3” LCD one.
Quick doodle visualising shot list.
Behind the scenes image by Kish
Rehearsals / Behind the scenes image by Kish
It’s always awesome to look back and trail how shooting opportunities land in the calendar. This gig came thanks to another I did in the Empty Quarter back in 2012, when I shot golf legends Luke Donald and Martin Kaymer. Euan, who worked for Abu Dhabi PR at the time, now heads his own agency called MCS Action, so when the Margot Robbie gig came up, he called me up straight away. Thanks for reaching out.
What do you pack for a week of solitude in the desert?
I’m referring to my recent Project Pause. For those not in the know, Project Pause refers to a week I spent in the Empty Quarter this last March. I lived for seven days, off the grid (no wifi, no email, no phone, no social media) and fully self-sufficient in the second biggest desert in the world. The idea evolved around wishing to spend some quality time in nature away from the digital rat race we live in. I felt curious to discover what the experience would give me. With the support of a few great brands I’ve now got an awesome short film (30min) to hopefully shift a few minds. Check out the 90 second trailer at the bottom of this post.
Back to the packing question. For me, it didn’t seem like a big task to prep and pack for such a long gig but I’ve had so many questions so here’s the lowdown. Do note this post title features the word ‘essential’. Could I have done with less? Absolutely. But I wasn’t on a Bear Grylls survival expedition. If you read my previous posts here and here, you’ll see there was more to my adventure.
Below edit has the full walk thru video I took in camp the day I left. Just to talk thru all the gear and toys I brought along. It’s a basic edit but feeds the gear freaks out there…
Think duct tape, cable ties, knives, my Petzl head torch, a Black Diamond LED lamp, bike repair kit, small rope, mini first aid, snow shovel and my Suunto Ambition 3 GPS, as with all my solo desert running, I knew navigation would be a big thing for me. I ventured deep into the desert yet kept a pretty good sense of where I’d come from and where I was headed. My Suunto, which had the campsite location safely stored, provided the navigational back up I needed and gave me the confidence to explore more and go deeper into the dunes. I’m a bit of a coffee addict too so never go far without my Handpresso. There’s no need to forgo real Latte’s when on a desert adventure!
I was truly amazed how well my Yeti Coolbox functioned in the heat of the desert. I still had ice on day five and coolish drinks on day eight when I drove out. The secret is to pack it smartly, with all the last-to-use items at the bottom and to minimise the time the lid is open.
With the sand storms throwing my plans around a bit, I didn’t get my Fatboy hammock out till the morning of day four. But once I did, it was amazing. Imagine a tropical white beach with two palm trees holding up a comfy hammock. Lying in it, I had that totally chilled feeling of not having to do anything other than absorb the moment and relax. Bliss!
We simply can’t survive without water. I took 80 liters of drinking water with me, intended to last seven days plus extra emergency days. I also took a full jerry can of tap water for cooking, washing the dishes and mini showers. I had to be pretty sparing by the end so in hindsight I would have brought a second jerry can.
I took the luxury of taking two tents, the first being my big-ass base camp tent (Marmot Capstone 6), which I used as HQ tent and the second (Marmot Limelite 2) which served solely as a sleeping tent. I kept this one closed to keep out creepy crawlies and on warmer nights, I removed the fly and just slept beneath the mesh.
TECH GARMENTS + FUEL
Marmot is, hands down, my brand of choice when it comes to time out in the wilderness. Their technical gear kept me nice and dry even when highly active and their down vest, which I love, kept me warm and comfy during the cooler evenings. Nobody performs without fuel and I stocked up heavily on GU hydration tablets, gels and recovery shakes. For longer runs, in particular, I use gels to keep up my energy levels. I wore Salomon trail running shoes, same as I wear for all my races. They’ve never let me down.
A buddy of mine worked for Primus and every year when he came to stay at our place, he brought a new fancy piece of Primus kit. We’ve now got a pretty nice selection! For Project Pause, I cooked on their Easy Fuel and went through four gas cylinders. My tea was kept nice and warm in Stanley thermos flasks.
SHADE AND SEAT
My plan was to set up camp with a big canopy to seek shade during the day and create a sense of cosiness in the evening. Stupidly, I tried setting up the OZtrail Festival 15 in the sandstorm. Bad idea! Even if I’d managed to assemble it, it would have taken off like a parachute so it wasn’t until day four that it came into good use. The size and ease of putting it up is great but I’d love a few big sand pegs to make it more wind robust. Add to this a comfy OZtrail camping chair and all would be great!
I knew I wasn’t going to be caught out on super cold nights (which we have experienced before in Dec/Jan) so a lightweight down sleeping bag would suffice. I love the Marmot Helium, which makes for the perfect light duvet on warmer nights and when fully zipped up, keeps you snug during the colder, early morning hours.
Many asked what I ate during Project Pause. I took two crates of food. I love healthy, nutritious and fresh foods but for a week like this in the desert, you do need to be smart about what you bring. I took only hard fruit that would last well outside the coolbox… apples, pineapples, oranges and banana’s mainly. I also brought fresh veggies with short cooking times (to save gas) such as broccoli and other veg that doesn’t require cooking at all like avocado’s, cucumbers, carrots and peppers. I do think it’s important on trips like this, to keep your fresh produce intake as high as possible. Keeps you healthy and energised.
I had a crate full of dry foods like pasta, rice, crackers, dried fruits, mixed nuts, tinned fish, breakfast cereal and jam… foods I could survive on for weeks if I had to without having to worry about storage temperatures or expiry dates. Rather than bringing lots of herbs, I cooked with ingredients that are full of flavour like canned fish, cured meats, salami and pre-flavoured couscous. I also took some quick and tasty expedition meals.
Beyond a good tent and a warm sleeping bag, one item often neglected is a good sleeping mat. I’ve been sleeping on Thermarest mats for decades. Admittedly, they’re a bit of an investment but they last well and have great padding. A good night sleep leads to a great day in the outdoors!
SURLY MOONLANDER FATBIKE
My first experience on a Surly Fatbike surpassed all expectations. It seemed a little like ski mountaineering in the Alps when you spend hours getting to the top, which is an awesome workout alone, then experience the real joy of skiing down on virgin snow. Fatbiking in The Empty Quarter was no different… firstly, the challenge of cycling to the top of a huge sand dune and then the actual blasting down the dune. Hours of fun, exercise and exhilaration!
A first aid kit is one of those things you hope not to need and thankfully mine stayed untouched. My first aid kit is pretty well stocked with even an expedition first aid manual to answer any questions. Bear in mind that SIRI doesn’t work in the wilderness so you can’t google it even if not on a digital detox. I did have with me a Thuraya satellite phone (my thanks to Xtra link for their support) and I had Dr. Mike, a specialist desert doctor on standby, just in case…
I never go far without a camera by my side. For Project Pause, I took my Canon 1D X with a few lenses; 15mm, 16-35, 24-70 and 70-200. For the (self) filming I used the same Canon 1D X, their new Canon Legia Mini X and GoPro’s Hero 3+ and Hero 4. To keep life simple, I used the biggest SanDisk Extreme Pro cards (128GB and 64GB) so I didn’t have to spend too much time downloading. These cards are super reliable for storing files as well.
ADVENTURE PHOTO PACK
Nice and snug on my back, I had the fstop Satori EXP in blue with ICU’s to store camera kit. When hitting the world’s biggest dunes, you need a pack that sits comfortably and gives easy access to plenty of gear. I used the fstop mountain series with ICU’s to store my camera kit. What I love about the fstop packs is the gear access from the back pouch so you don’t have to place the sweaty backrest onto the sand to get anything out.
17. SOLAR CHARGING BATTERY PACK
I could simply not have done without the Goal Zero Yeti 500 and the boulder Solar Panels. I didn’t have much to recharge (camera batteries, sat phone, go pro’s, music) but the fact that I could be fully self sufficient and have my own power supply was awesome.
So here you have it. If inspired to stock up on some kit yourself, visit Adventure HQ, for pretty much all the stuff you need.
Now check out the trailer and see where adventures can take you…
Feel free to reach out if you have any questions for a project pause of your own. Get out there!
It’s always fascinating to see where new business comes from. Matt, a client who I did a lot of work with at the Abu Dhabi Tourism office, recently moved to the UK to work for a sports marketing agency. I’ve since gained the title of the desert photography expert at the office, which resulted in the epic opportunity to shoot golf legends Luke Donald and Martin Kaymer in the world’s largest dunes. (worth a read).
Matt rang me recently to ask if I was keen to do some destination work with Lewis Hamilton and Blackberry in the desert. ‘Hell yeah‘ was my reply, not because he’s a celebrity but just because he’s a very cool guy! I worked with him briefly two years ago on a shoot for McLaren and despite his status, he remains refreshingly down to earth….