Jamie Carr: ‘I never ever felt like giving up. In all my training, failing was never an option’

Manchester city coach on his decision to embark on ultra-marathon in the Sahara and rowing across the Atlantic

Meet Jamie Carr. March 2022. Somewhere in the Sahara. In bits.

Day four of the 251km Marathon des Sables is a double stage, 91km across the desert. Everyone still standing has been reduced by three days of pulverising heat and the remorseless tyranny of putting one foot in front of the other, getting by on dehydrated meals and whatever rations you can lug in a backpack, channelling your inner mule.

On day two of six almost 100 people dropped out, broken by a sand dune that climbs to more than 1,000m, the height of Mount Snowdon. Carr scaled it with his body bent parallel to the ground, hands on knees, sand shifting under his feet, pushing like a piston. That was his strongest stage. Early days.

At every stage the competitors are followed by a member of the Berber tribe, walking with a camel. Anybody who finishes behind the camel is eliminated. For the fourth stage, though, hell stays open for longer: 36 hours if you need it. But if you can manage a double marathon in a day the prize is a rest day before the final push. Carr completed the stage in less than 18 hours, blinkered and battered and losing and winning.


“The last 15 or 20km that day were probably as dark as it’s ever been in terms of a physical challenge for me. I had no running background. I don’t even like running. On that long day people say that you find limits you never knew you had. I don’t think I ever got to the stage where I was empty. I was close, but I wasn’t empty. I could still run, I could still hobble.

“When it got dark you’re scared of being on your own. You don’t know how you’re going to feel in an hour or two’s time, and because it’s so dark it’s easy to get lost. At night it’s bleak. We tucked in behind two German lads that were going a really good pace. You’re holding a piss because you don’t want to stop.

“I woke up on day five and I literally couldn’t walk. My feet were so cut up, so blistered, and they were all crusted. My socks were still on because I was wearing the same socks all week. My knees and hips were the worst I’d ever felt. I couldn’t move.

“Everyone in the tent was in great spirits because we got through the long stage. I sat there feeling sorry for myself for an hour. I had to give myself a kick up the arse, like, ‘Get a grip. You came here knowing it was going to be like this.’ I was in a bad way, but I had made a promise to myself that I’ll never quit while I’m in camp. When you’re out there and moving, you find a way to get through it. I never ever felt like giving up. In all my training, failing was never an option.”

Why do it? Well. You need a good reason.

Meet Jamie Carr. Football coach. Somewhere in Arunachal Pradesh, northeastern India. Summer 2014. Hanging tough.

Carr was 23 when he decided he no longer wanted to be a footballer. He had captained Ireland at the World University Games, he had played in the League of Ireland and he had completed the FAI course in Carlow IT, but none of it was leading where he wanted to go. He wanted to be a coach. No experience.

I learnt to be on my own, away from all the comforts of home. And it was a pretty lawless place. Everyone was walking around with either a machete or a gun

He sent his CV to about 60 clubs in the UK and “99 per cent of them didn’t even reply”. Queens Park Rangers (QPR) were the exception: they offered him a zero-hours contract, on a trial basis, working in their community scheme, not coaching, but a foot in the door. “I was so committed to moving to the UK to make a career in football I was willing to do anything.”

He rang a friend who was in the Reading Academy, to ask what he thought. He said wait. Reading were trying to organise a soccer camp for children in a remote part of India, near the Himalayas, and they were looking for two coaches who would commit to the project for six months. Two days later Carr met the Reading CEO; a fortnight later he was on a plane.

“I’m so happy I had the balls to make the jump, and just go for it. It was literally a village in the middle of nowhere. For a young lad, it was an amazing experience. I learnt to be on my own, away from all the comforts of home. And it was a pretty lawless place. Everyone was walking around with either a machete or a gun.

“The shops were shacks at the side of the road. There were no bars. You had to be back in the hotel before dark. No internet, no 3G, nothing. Once every four weeks we drove to another hotel that had wifi, about an hour away. I lost about eight or nine kilos. Everyone said we looked ill when we came back. It was really hard but really, really rewarding.”

Having completed that mission, Reading offered him a job in their academy and he stayed there for a few years until it exhausted his ambition. “I’m a fairly driven person. I just wanted to do better.”

Manchester City advertised for academy coaches and he applied. The interview process was gruelling: four hours, with different interview panels, peddling different scenarios. A few days later he was asked to do a pitch session with the U-16s, under the gaze of everybody who mattered in the academy. They liked him.

“It has opened my eyes to a different world. There’s a quote in Moneyball, ‘It’s amazing how much you don’t know about the sport you’ve done all your life.’ I came in here and it was like, ‘Wow, this is totally different’.

“For me, it was impostor syndrome galore. You feel like you’re just treading water. I used to have sleepless nights. Even before I started at Reading, I hadn’t got a clue, honestly, I hadn’t got a clue. You leave Reading and you’re like, ‘Right, I think I’ve got a clue.’ Then you come here and you’re like, ‘Haven’t got a clue again’.

“Now [having worked with the younger age groups for four seasons] I feel like I know how it all works around here, I understand player development – and then I got the under 18s job [assistant manager] and I’m like, ‘I haven’t got a clue,’ because it’s a whole different world again. With the 18s and 23s, that’s where the return on investment comes in. You need to be getting players in the first team or making money [for the club]. Agents come into it at that stage as well. Someone else handles all that, but finances are a lot more in play when you get to 18. Like, it affects you day-to-day. You have to be moving the dial the right way, or you’re accountable.”

When my Dad was diagnosed with dementia and had a very sharp decline ... You’re like, ‘Sh*t, this is my life, only I can live it. It’s up to me – if I really want to do these things, go and make them happen’

Meet Jamie Carr. November 2022. Manchester City Academy coach. Charity fundraiser. Adventurer. Rower. Sort of. Facing the Atlantic.

He tries to remember when all these things first entered his head: running an ultra-marathon in the Sahara; rowing the Atlantic, solo and unsupported. He followed Damian Browne’s Atlantic crossing in 2017 and remembers being in awe of the images he posted on Christmas Day, alone, in the middle of the ocean.

A year earlier, four British women became the first crew of four to row the Pacific unsupported, more than 8,000 nautical miles from California to Australia. The sports psychologist that worked with them gave a presentation at a Premier League coaching course that Carr attended, and he was enthralled by their story.

“Why now? These things were on my to-do list for years and I never had the courage to do them, really. Then during Covid, when my Dad was diagnosed with dementia and had a very sharp decline, I had a lot of thinking time. You’re like, ‘Sh*t, this is my life, only I can live it. It’s up to me – if I really want to do these things, go and make them happen’.”

A week before Jamie went to the Sahara, his Dad passed away.

He picked two charities to give his expeditions a higher cause: Cancer Fund for Children, in Ireland, and City Thrive, a mental health programme for young people, run by Manchester City. Then he dived in.

Carr had never rowed a stroke until March of this year. He already had a conditioning coach from the Sahara run, but now he needed a rowing coach too. “I don’t feel like my body is made for rowing. I’m not very mobile and flexible. So being scrunched up in the catch position is something that’s really hard. I look at the other rowers in the fleet [for the Atlantic Rowing Challenge] and they’re miles ahead of me in terms of their output. But I’m okay with where I’m at and I’ll be able to hang in there. That’s probably the most important thing: ‘Can you endure?’”

Getting to the start line in the Canary Islands next month has been a journey in itself. Carr needed to raise £100,000 (€114,000) through sponsorship, half of which was invested in the boat, and he needed to meet the stringent safety conditions of the race, including at least 120 training hours on the water. How does he feel? Daunted, excited, able; ready.

“I know I’m going to be scared for the first storm. I know I’m going to be scared when I first lose sight of shore. People are always asking me, ‘What are you going to be like on your own?’ I’ve no idea. On the ocean, the nearest person to me is going to be in an international space station. That’s how exposed you are.

“The big one I’ll be scared off is getting into the water to clean the barnacles off the bottom of the boat. If you don’t do it that slows you down by a week or two. I’ve watched too many shark documentaries over the years. But I want to have an amazing experience. If I see dolphins I’m going to put the oars down and enjoy it. I’m going to enjoy the sunsets.”

He will carry enough provisions to last 85 days; his target is to complete the crossing in 60. “Part of me thinks, ‘I have no right to push these boundaries. Who am I to row across the Atlantic?’ But part of me thinks, ‘That’s what life is all about.’”

No limits.

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