Ranulph Fiennes has climbed Mount Everest, run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, and was crossing the Arctic unsupported when he suffered frostbite so severe that it required him to self-amputate the tips of five fingers. But in April, during this year's Marathon des Sables, a 156-mile trek across the Sahara Desert, Fiennes encountered a new type of hardship: heat.
"I've mainly done expeditions in the cold," he says, "and I assumed I would be equally well built for the heat. But I hadn't really thought about it."
Halfway through the race, with the temperature swelling to 120 degrees, the former British army captain became dizzy and nauseated. He'd suffered a heart attack more than 10 years ago, requiring double-bypass surgery, and his doctor had warned him about exceeding a pulse of 130 beats per minute. The sutures in his chest began tugging inside him.
"It felt like the wire was being pulled apart in my chest," he says.
Fiennes lost his balance and was forced to stop. His training partner, endurance coach Rory Coleman, who was running with him, considered calling off the race. But after resting for an hour and taking a prescription painkiller, Fiennes returned to the course. When he crossed the finish line after six days, he became the oldest Brit to complete the grueling event.
"I did not like it at all," says Fiennes. "When I finished, I had to make sure I hadn't damaged my kidneys by overconsumption of painkillers."
Fiennes became a full-time adventurer in the 1970s, after he left the military, at the suggestion of his equally adventurous wife, Ginny. (The couple led the first hovercraft expedition up the Nile.) He hasn't slowed down since, becoming the first person to circumnavigate the Earth by way of both the North and South poles, in 1981, and the first to cross Antarctica unsupported. Since turning 60, Fiennes has climbed the north face of the Eiger, in Switzerland, and set off to ski across Antarctica in the dead of winter, in 100-below-zero temperatures. He abandoned that attempt after suffering frostbite.
In fact, Fiennes estimates that 40 percent of his attempts at records have failed. But he never regrets trying. "If you do a journey, you can make a living through lecturing and writing books," he says. "That's the way to get big sponsorships."
"I was very lucky to be doing this in the Sixties and Seventies," says Fiennes, "when certain journeys had not been managed yet." He still views his first Antarctic trip, in 1982, as his most memorable. "There was an area from the coast to the South Pole, 900 miles, that was utterly unmapped," he says. "No one had seen it. Now's there's a map from satellites. In terms of climbing or ocean racing, it's now all been done. You're out of luck."
In 2004, Ginny died of cancer, and Fiennes began breaking records to raise money for Marie Curie Cancer Care. So far, he's raised about 14 million British pounds (around $20 million) for charity, including $155,000 from the Marathon des Sables. Fiennes hasn't chosen his next trip but says his goal is to have "20 million pounds" on his grave.
"I'm frightened of having to retire, but I know people do that every now and then," he says. "If you succeed, you're relieved, and then you start planning the next one. It's sort of become rhythmic."