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The ultra-running army captain prepared to go the extra 156 miles

Tom Evans has completed the daunting Marathon des Sables in Morocco. Marathon des Sables

In years to come 2017 may well be come to be known as a breakthrough period for British athletics: the year of the unknown.

Josh Griffiths led the way in the London Marathon last Sunday when the club runner captured the public's imagination by qualifying for the athletics World Championships with a performance that took the selectors completely by surprise.

But while the Swansea Harrier's heartwarming success attracted the loudest fanfare, he was not the only British athlete who made remarkable strides this month.

Captain Tom Evans, another self-trained runner, also made his mark on the wider elite scene by finishing third in the competition that bills itself as the "toughest foot race on earth", the Marathon des Sables multi-stage ultra marathon.

His provisional placing (the results have yet to be ratified) after traversing 156 miles across the Sahara desert in Morocco over six days, carrying everything he needed for the journey in temperatures of up to 50C, was the highest for a Briton since the race was first run in 1986.

That he completed the notoriously tough challenge, which many entrants don't even contemplate running in its entirety, in 19 hours 38 minutes, at an average speed of faster than 7 mph, was only made more remarkable by the fact that it came in only the second ultra he had entered.

It hasn't ended there for the platoon commander in the Welsh Guards, either; Evans' success two weeks ago has attracted sponsorship and support and he plans to go full-time into running with the army's blessing. The ultra marathon scene will be his home initially, but he has also targeted the qualifying time in a road marathon to run for Britain, probably alongside Griffiths, in the Commonwealth Games next year.

Perhaps going through conventional channels and earning a place on elite sporting pathways isn't as important as some would have you believe after all.

"I did 90 percent of my training on my own," said Evans, from Sussex, whose running approach in January and February was inconsistent while he was on exercise with the army on Salisbury Plain. "It was incredibly fragmented and truncated due to work. I just couldn't stick to a solid plan."

The 25-year-old entered the Marathon des Sables after seeing a documentary charting Olympic rowing great James Cracknell's 2010 race, in which he finished 12th and set the highest mark for a British finisher at that time.

Evans had heard also about the race from colleagues who entered in 2013 and wanted to test himself, setting himself a target of finishing in the top 20 after winning the 46-mile Brecon Beacons Ultra Marathon - his first such race -- last November.

His running background was mainly in cross country with Lewes Athletics Club, where coach Dave Leach -- who also guided Britain's Rob Mullett to last year's Olympics -- helped him develop before also contributing to this month's breakthrough effort.

The Brecon race was the start of a steep learning curve about preparation and the detail needed for such demanding endurance races, but Evans was always heading into the unknown without having trained on sand.

What worked to his advantage from his military background was having spent training time in Iten, Kenya, that hotbed of long-distance running success, while there with the army two years ago. He was also able to take some time away this year to train in the heat of Lanzarote, and the need to be self-sufficient in his job was a major plus.

"It [running the Marathon des Sables] is similar to being in the military and the mindset you need to get into when you are cold, tired, slightly dehydrated and haven't eaten that much," said Evans.

"It's about looking after your body and getting the best performance out of yourself when the chips are down. A lot of people say your body will do what your mind tells it too and for me, that was key to my visualisation.

"I saw it as a huge physical challenge and I wanted to test myself and see what I was capable of."

The main challenges of the Marathon des Sables, apart from the extraordinary distances covered, are the heat and the sand.

Evans was lucky: his kit protected him well and he managed to keep the sand out of his shoes and clothing, so didn't suffer the blisters and chafing that so many have to endure.

His speed also allowed him to pack relatively lightly -- his bag weighed the minimum allowed -- 6.5kg -- and he carried around just 1.5 litres of water, which he refilled at each checkpoint; many entrants lug double that load around.

Water is strictly rationed for all entrants and there is a detailed list of compulsory items that must be carried, including foodstuffs with a set number of calories, whistle, knife and anti-venom pump, so choosing what else to carry was a tricky balancing act.

Evans travelled light and said he learned sand and dune running technique from the Moroccan runners around him (he was beaten by two athletes from the home nation) and was pushed on by the support of other British runners on the course, and his friends and family back home.

"It was inspiring seeing ordinary people doing extraordinary things," he said, having stayed overnight in the provided tents with other fundraisers for the Walking with the Wounded charity.

Evans lost weight in the race, inevitably, and was still eating ravenously two weeks later, but that didn't stop him wondering a little about the London Marathon himself after watching it at home.

"It was a shame I wasn't able to do it, but I wanted to give myself a full chance of recovery. I am really looking forward to running it 2018 or 2019," said Evans, who is confidently targeting a sub-2 hours 16 minutes finish at the Eindhoven Marathon in October for British team qualification.

"You can say 'what if, what if, what if', but I had the most incredible time at the Marathon des Sables and I wouldn't change it for the world."