It’s regularly touted as one of the toughest, if not the toughest, races on earth. Over six days, more than a thousand men and women will traverse 156 miles of harsh Moroccan desert, withstanding midday temperatures of 50C and bitterly cold nights. The longest single stage is twice a regular marathon; there’s only one rest day.
For one participant at the Marathon des Sables (MdS), it will be a particularly emotional journey. Just 10 years ago Joe Robinson, 28, was given a three per cent chance of survival after being involved in a car accident. This Sunday, on the exact anniversary of the crash, he’ll take his first steps onto the Saharan sand with his younger sister, Grace, alongside him.
In 2009, Joe was walking home from a night out when friends pulled over asking if he wanted a lift home to Thame, Oxfordshire. The driver lost control of the car, hit a central reservation and struck a tree; one passenger didn’t make it. Joe was in a coma for a month and spent a further month in hospital.
“I broke my back in three places, my neck in two places, fractured my skull, my lungs collapsed when I was in a coma, and I got pneumonia, meningitis and MRSA,” says Joe. He was given a three per cent chance of survival and a 95 per cent chance of being paralysed. “My parents had to say goodbye twice.”
The journey to the finish line at the MdS is one of the toughest tests of endurance around, but Joe believes his road to recovery will stand him in good stead. After relearning to speak, write, walk and run – at one point, when he moved his right leg his left finger would twitch – just the ability to take on the challenge is a blessing. “Trying to relive that moment to where I am now, it feels unbelievable, I struggle to get my head around it,” he beams.
A post shared by Joe Robinson (@joe_robinson09) on Jan 28, 2019 at 12:03pm PST
Joe had an active childhood. A fine cricketer and a better rugby player, he spent years in the Wasps rugby academy, though admits he “probably wasn’t going to make it”. But running was never his thing, which begs the question: why take on the most gruelling ultramarathon of all?
The answer lies with his sister. “Grace is the endurance athlete. I play a little hockey now, but she’s done two ironmen. We were talking about doing something together this year, because it’s the 10-year anniversary, so it was just meant to be.”
There’s clearly a close bond between the two, and Joe is at pains to stress the role played by family and friends in his recovery. In many ways, it was a recovery for them, too. “The questions are always about me,” he says. “How’s my recovery, how’s my speech, how’s uni. I was really badly injured, in the middle of it, but people fail to see thee impact it had on Mum, Dad and Grace.
The super-cool thing is that we’re doing this together. It’s symbolic of Grace and I being on the same journey of recovery, but through different paths. My younger sister became my older sister, looking out for me, constantly in contact with my friends. I’m quite forgetful, but Grace has taken everything in her stride, keeping a watchful eye, like an older sibling would do – like I used to do for Grace.”
It was almost a year after the crash before Joe had the confidence to run again. His training regime started last June, and he went in hard – perhaps too hard. After a few 10ks, an early 28-mile run gave him shin splints – “it was a terrible idea”. Joe has since slowly built up to 100K a week, and has run six London Tube lines start to finish. Heat chambers are helping acclimatise to the Saharan sun. Grace is training separately (“she’ll be absolutely fine”).
A post shared by Joe Robinson (@joe_robinson09) on Apr 3, 2019 at 3:24pm PDT
Joe’s accident has given him a steely determination to complete the race. He is raising money for Walk Once More, a spinal cord injury charity particularly close to the family’s heart as, aside from Joe, a spinal injury forced his father to stop playing rugby. The initial target of £8,000 has already been smashed. “I hope that someone like Judy, my mum, can see the story and think ‘my Joe can overcome this’.” Helping brilliant nurses and doctors like the ones he had at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital is also a motivation.
The 10-year anniversary is more than a convenient date – it’s highly symbolic. It gives a sense of closure to a tough decade. “It was a horrible experience, but it’ll finish with something super cool and crazy. It’s something Mum, Dad and everyone at the John Radcliffe would never have envisaged me being able to do. Grace will be representing Mum and Dad as well.”
Now a chartered surveyor living in London, Joe still experiences after-effects, but he doesn’t let the occasional neck and back pains get the better of him. “I try for the life of me not to let the crash affect my life any more than it already has,” he explains. “Grace is nervous, but I’m just excited to be able to close this chapter and open a new one, and to have such a cool story I can tell my kids one day, that such a horrific event can be overcome.”