On 2 March 2021, Sean Burgess set off on a 7-day journey that took him from the Saudi border in the Abu Dhabi Emirate to Fujairah on the east coast of the UAE. He crossed 7 emirates in 7 days and covered 650km by foot, setting the Guinness World Record for the ‘Fastest crossing of the United Arab Emirates on foot’. In collaboration with Sported, we were fortunate to interview him after this great accomplishment. Read the interview below.
Congratulations on the accomplishment of your Challenge and on setting the Guinness World Record. How are you feeling today, a week after crossing the finish line? How is your mental and physical recovery going?
Mentally, I’m still trying to digest what happened over those 7 days. The extreme endurance, sleep deprivation, body stress (I lost over 8% body fat in 7 days!) and the general gravity of the event was a huge amount to process and it’ll take time for many of the emotions I will eventually feel to come out.
Physically, I was pretty broken after the challenge with severe shin splints and inflamed hip flexors the two biggest culprits, but also general fatigue in my legs and lower back from crossing 600km+ over 7 days. My feet held up incredibly well considering I was moving for up to 18 hours day (thank you Runderwear!) and only slight issue was the little toe on my left foot however this healed up very quickly.
5 days after finishing the only thing left over from the challenge is that I’m still in a sleeping pattern of only 1-hour a night, this is partly due to habit and partly because of the pain in my shins, plus I’m having vivid dreams that I’m still walking across the UAE – I wake up in a pool of sweat thinking I’ve still got 100km to go!
What are you the proudest of?
I’m proud that when things got physically & mentally tough, plus it looked like the record was slipping from our grasp on days 3 & 4, that I didn’t even consider throwing in the towel or letting off my pace. Part of this challenge was to test my mental strength and I’m glad I kept strong even when it got very difficult.
Also, on the last day I had 52km to cover with the first 18km a consistent incline up to Masafi. I started at 1am after about 30 mins sleep, and my mental test was to cover this distance without taking a break, which based on my speed and the incline was nearly 4 hours. After nearly 600km and my body being in a fairly depleted state, it would have been easy for me to break this up and still come in under the record, however I managed the whole distance without breaking, reaching the top with my legs burning and having little left in the reserves, but I was proud I concurred this final test.
What were your biggest challenges and issues during your journey? What didn't you expect?
The biggest issue I had was not being able to sleep, which is partly due to a bad sleeping set-up and also my body was in so much pain that sleep was difficult.
As I couldn’t sleep (I had 2-3 hours combined over the first 300km), I couldn’t recover and this led to my body breaking down quicker than I expected. This impacted my pace so I needed to increase my movement time each day from 16 to 18 hours to be able to cover the required distance.
Also, I’ve never had shin splints, so getting these on day 3 was completely unexpected and definitely added an extra element to the rest of the challenge.
Did you push your limits, if yes when and how did you handle the situation?
There were a few moments when I was pushing my previously known physical & mental limit, in particular during day 6 after crossing into Um Al Quwain; I remember not being able to speak or move my body and ended up crashing out on the ground for 2 hours (the longest sleep I had all week).
From day 4 onwards the challenge became a real test in accepting and managing pain and I think this taught me a lot about how much our minds and bodies can really endure.
It looks like our Naked Vest accompanied you on every day of your challenge. What did you like about it, how did it help you in your journey?
I’ve never been a big fan of traditional running packs so was very lucky and grateful Sported were able to support me with the Naked running vest. It was really easy to slip on in the mornings and after 18 hours on my feet I wouldn’t have any issues that I’d have with a traditional vest, such as rubbing of straps, overheating with the thermal back pouch and weight distribution only on the back.
What was really helpful was being able to have everything I needed within easy reach so I didn’t have to stop (as I would with a normal pack), plus it was breathable so never had sweat dripping down my back as I would with traditional packs.
Sported supported you with products that are used in endurance sports. How did that work for you?
- Naked running vest: I wore this for 95% of the trip and it became my second skin. I was lucky to have a support team that was never too far away, so I’d only ever load it with 500ml hydration, some nutrition, phone, wipes, headphones, etc and it was incredibly comfortable.
- Naked running belt: this was used by the support team whenever they’d join me on the road. They packed it full of the essentials which meant anything I needed to switch in/out of my vest we could do it on the road and not have to stop.
- Runderwear anti-blister socks: I wore these for almost the whole trip, only switching to a slightly thinner pair of socks towards the end because the inflammation and swelling in my feet/ankles meant I couldn’t get my trainers on – my trainers were 3 sizes bigger than I usually wear which shows how much swelling I had by the end. Although I had a few blisters on my toes, what I heard from everyone, including the podiatrist at Mediclinic, was how amazing my feet were considering the distance I’d travelled.
- Runderwear short boxers: Wore these when on the move to stop any chaffing and they worked brilliantly. Similar to my feet, considering the distance I’d travelled and the environment I was in, my things/bum was almost ‘chaff-free’ at the end which was a really nice surprise.
- BV Compression socks and shorts: I wore these during my rest periods to try to help with the recovery. Whilst my body still broke, I think these certainly helped delay that more than if I hadn’t worn them.
- Secret Training Protein: Each day I was only eating about 2,000 calories compared to burning 7,000+ calories and whilst this wasn’t a major issue because I was burning my fat reserves, my support team were concerned that I wasn’t having enough protein for recovery. Being able to add the Stealth protein mix into my porridge or have as a post-movement shake just meant I could be taking in enough protein for my muscles to recover properly.
You said you had lots of highs and lows. What went through your mind when you were in one of these lows? How did you motivate yourself to keep moving forward?
The most difficult time of the day was starting the 3am shift. The first three hours were in the dark, usually on my own and with only my mind to keep me occupied – I’d usually spend most of this time running the numbers over and over in my head, trying to calculate how much I’d need to do in the remaining hours to break the record. This might not be the healthiest strategy but it kept my analytical mind occupied.
From the third day my brother, who headed up my support team, would join me around 5am for 10km. Sometimes we’d chat and sometimes we’d be in silence, and this is one of the huge benefits of having my brother on the team because he knew exactly what I needed each time.
The motivation to keep going when things got tough was partly because I’m so stubborn that I couldn’t let myself fail, but also as the challenge went on it became about the support team. All of the support team were volunteers and many who’d committed to 1 or 2 days, ended up staying the whole 7 days because they were personally invested in the challenge. The vision of standing on the coastline with these incredible people and celebrating a successful record attempt became the dominant motivation.
Tell us a little about the logistics.
The logistical side of the challenge was organized by Gino Vassallo whose day job is a film producer, but who 9 months ago heard my vision for the 7 Emirates Challenge and from that point worked tirelessly to turn it into something I’d never imagined. The whole team consisted of 7-8 vehicles and up to 15 support people, which included support, transport, paramedics and the documentary crew. I don’t pretend to know how Gino put this altogether, but I do know that without him this challenge would never have got off the ground.
Because all of this was taken care of, it left me and my support team of 3 people to just focus on getting the distance covered each day. I’d usually start my morning session at 3am and go until 11am, then start at 2pm and as long into the evening I needed to cover the remaining kms (usually 1pm or midnight). As the days went on and my pace slowed slightly, the movement periods because longer to make sure I was covering the distance, which meant less rest and recovery.
The route was fairly easy to navigate, if not easy to actual travel, because it was the E-11 highway all the way to Um Al Quwain and then head East to Fujairah. It was on major roads for 95% of the way, the only change going through Dubai and Sharjah. Whilst this was the quickest and most efficient route, obviously there was a lot of danger walking along the E-11 highway, plus the hard shoulder has a slight camber, so I was taking a slightly shorter stride on right side. This is ok for 10km, but after hundreds of kms this slight inconsistency in stride causes havoc with the bodies dynamics and caused my hip-flexor issues.
What would you do differently if you started all over again today?
There are a hundred things I’d do differently, but equally I know that these would have their own problems and I’m not under the illusion that making these changes would mean I’d have a perfect challenge.
The two biggest things that I’d change if I had the chance is that I’d have a better sleep set-up and I’d walk the whole challenge (I ran 25-30% of the first 2 days). Having a better sleep would mean I could recover quicker and not running would mean my body wouldn’t have broken so quickly. The shin splints became my limiting factor in the end, so avoiding or delaying these would probably have had the biggest impact to the challenge.
However, in the end the mission was to break the record and we did that, so I can’t beat myself up too much about the mistakes I made. All I can do is make sure I learn from them for the next challenge.
You had a shin splint about midway. How did you hold on physically?
The shin splints and the inflamed hips flexors were infuriating not because of the pain but because they limited my pace. I’m usually at a 9.30 min/km pace when I’m walking, but having these issues adding up to 2 mins per km to this pace which had a huge impact.
Other than these, the body ended up getting used to the stress of moving 90km+ a day very quickly. I remember on day 3 calling my running coach Rob Jones and asking him whether it’s just going to keep compounding, however he assured me that by day 4 the body starts to adapt. Sure enough, day 4 wasn’t any worse than day 3 in terms of muscular fatigue and in fact I felt my legs get stronger from this point onwards.
I did a body analysis before and after the challenge and what was fascinating alongside the 8% body fat loss, was that I’d added 2kg of muscle to both my legs over those 7 days. It just goes to show how amazing our bodies are at quickly adapting to new stresses.
On the finish line, you told me you had plenty of time to think about your next Challenge. What do you have in mind for next year?
I’ve already got the postponed MDS booked in for early 2022, which will be completely different experience to the challenge as the distance will be less but I’ll be carrying my own kit and travelling over much harder terrain.
As far as bigger challenges are concerned, I’ve got some ideas for supported challenges in the UAE and Middle East, which will either be just myself or with a team, plus might be another discipline other than on foot – possibly cycling or even on the water.
I am also looking at taking on a big unsupported challenge, which will put me up against not just the physical and mental challenge, but also being completely self-reliant. A lot of the success of the Challenge was due to the support team and I owe them so much, however I’m now interested in seeing whether I still have the mental and physical strength when I don’t have this support network around me.
There are so many adventures to have that it’s just finding the time and funds to get them all done.