250kms over 7 days, 6 stages, across the tough but beautiful terrain of the Kalahari Desert.
16th October. After an incredibly busy time with work and personal commitments, I was still working out what to take with me to the desert as I got ready to leave for the airoport to fly down to South Africa.
My normal OCD type preparation had gone out of the window and I was just grabbing everything I could find to take with me so that I could sort it out when I got there.
I had my Salomon Speedcross trainers, a pair of shorts, my desert shirt that I wore in the Sahara, socks, a rucksack, the compulsory gear on the list from the organisers, so I guessed I was ready.
For food I really had not thought much about it. In Morocco I got away with 2 x 800 calorie freeze dried meals each day, plus a cuppa soup and some energy bars, peparami and sports beans, so I hoped that would be OK for this trip.
Suit case packed, Anna drove me to Heathrow for the Virgin flight down to Johannesburg. Checked in and ready to go I found the servis air lounge, and was pleasantly surprised to find that terminal 3 at Heathrow has a spa ! So I thought why not, and booked in for a 30 minute massage. Nice relaxing way to start a trip.
I still had some work to do at the airport, which I just about completed by the time the in flight service started on board.
Time to relax and sleep before getting to Joberg and an adjoining flight to Upington. That was when I checked the paper work for the joining flight and realised that I had less than 90 minutes from the time we landed to the time I had to be on board ! More poor planning on my part.
17th October. After a reasonable flight, we landed on time and I ran to the customs hall, before getting held up in a 20 minute queue for passport control ! Got my bag, then ran pushing the suitcase to the local flight terminal. Found the desk and checked in with 30 minutes to spare, not bad.
At this point I was met by Genevieve from the KAEM team, which was a nice touch. I started to relax.
The flight to Upington was on a small 30 seater jet, full of people with Raidlight rucksacks, T shirts from previous events, and even some Extreme Energy T shirts and buffs. Nice to see them so far from home and to meet several people who I knew from our events.
On arrival we jumped on a coach and were taken to the Augrabies Falls Game Reserve where we were staying for the nights we were not running. It is a fantastic place to stay, great cottages for 2 people, and some wonderful views of the falls from your patio and the restaurant area.
It felt so good to be in Africa and in the Kalahari. It was also, very very hot !
I relaxed and went out for an early evening short run to get the legs going.
That evening we were all taken to a Lodge for a traditional South Africa outdoor evening meal. It was great to meet everyone. The wonderful thing about the KAEM is that there are only 65 runners, which meant that you pretty much get to know all of them.
The race was sponsored by a South African wine maker, which meant that there was a serious amount of wine on offer. In true ultra running style everyone had plenty of wine and beer. It was when an investment banker called David from the UK (who had retired to Cape Town) went and bought Jaggermeister shots that I knew we were going to be in trouble, so I retired to bed.
October 18th. Started with an early morning run in the park, that was supposed to be short, but as I got going and the scenery was more beautiful, I got carried away and was out for just under an hour. I was welcomed back with baboons wondering around the camp, looking for trouble !
After breakfast it was kit check and briefing, so I packed everything up, filled the water bottles. I was uncertain what to take for the evenings as the previous night had been very cold, so I added in an extra T shirt just in case. When I weighed my bag it was 9.3kg, with full water, so I was happy.
Kit check done, the briefing started. It was a good thorough briefing about the route, the conditions, the markings etc. I remember the warning about puff adders and spitting cobras (basically avoid them), and if we were attacked by an Ostrich roll up in a ball with our rucksack exposed upwards to avoid the sharp claws…….. interesting.
We were weighed by the medical team. In full clothes I was 72.5kg. The the doc briefed us on the dangers of using ibruprofen, asprin etc due to the strain on the liver and kidneys in the desert. Something I was not aware of, and given I normal pop pain killers every 4 hours on an event, this was a concern for me.
The rest of the day was time for relaxing before we went out to dinner at the Lodge for a South African Briar. Another fab evening, with slightly less wine and beer.
October 19th – 1st Race Day – 26 kms. As we mustered at the start around 0830 for photos, final chats etc I realised that there were some very experienced and pretty fit looking people around, aswell as some who were complete novices to this type of event, and those who were clearly walkers looking at the size of their packs.
We had to run through 3 sections of water within the first 3 kms, and the advice was to take off your shoes and walk through bare foot …………. I could not understand why, especially being from the UK where having wet feet is a daily occurrence. Clearly the South African’s didn’t like wet feet.
At 0900 we started the race. With my 9kg pack on I started at a good steady shuffle, knowing that it was a 6 stage event, I did not want to burn out on day 1. The first few kms were only a game track, so good going, then we turned off up a river bed. My first introduction to the Kalahari river beds of deep sand that I would grow to love and hate.
After sand for about 30 minutes we ended up back on some minor tracks, and then on the game trails again. The CPs were spaced out about 8kms apart, which meant that you were never going to run out of water. My routine as I approach a CP was simple. Drink loads as I approached to reduce the water in my bottles. Undo the lids, ready to fill up, fill up, pop a Nuun in every other CP, and take a salt tablet at the other CPs. I was going very well upto CP3, feeling good, well within myself, lying about 15th I guess. Then we headed down to the Orange river for the last 3.5kms. Which I assumed would take about 30 minutes. How wrong I was !! We hit the river shore and then for the next 60 mins spent our time, climbing over huge boulders, deep sand dunes, and generally having a really hard time. It caught everyone out. Some people had not filled their water bottles at the last CP, expecting to finish quickly – big mistake, and a key tip, always leave a CP with full bottles.
When we finally got to the end of the boulders we had a 1.5km climb up a sandy river bed to the finish and 1st overnight camp.
The overnight camp was basically about 16 gazebos, set up together, and lowered to about 3 feet high. Basically crawl in, find a space, and settle down.
I finished with Lucja Leonard (Dutchy) on day one, she was there with her husband Dion. So we set up camp together with Peter (princess – a nickname we gave him, no idea why !), We pretty much set up camp together at the end of each day in the central part of the tent.
On finishing my routine was always the same. Wipe my feet with antibacterial wipes, have a wash, find a plastic 1.5ltr bottle of water (we were given 5 litre bottles when we finished !) cut off the bottom for a mug, make some soup, add 2 oat cakes and have a diralite rehydrate sachet in one of my 750ml bottles. Not having a mug as a stupid oversight, from my MDS experience. Technology had clearly moved on, and most people had very light metal mugs with lids. Hot water was set up by our camp chief – JD, on a gas burner and was always available for us.
One great luxury was that there was a sports massage team each evening. This was a small charge for 30 mins massage, and was very very welcome. Fiona became part of my team and sorted out my tired legs each evening to get me ready for the next day.
I then rested, until evening meal. I realised very early on that my rations were very basic compared to most people, who had thought very carefully about each days calories and how to make it special. Some had olives, some had biltong, some spices and many other treats for their snacks and evenings.
For racing I had 2 x 9Bars each day, 2 x peperami, 1 x sports beans, 1 x a small bag of almonds and macadamia nuts.
I had no snacks for when I had finished, thinking about weight not comfort. The only thing I took as a minor luxury were 2 Nescafe 3 in 1 sachets for morning and afternoon coffee each day.
At around 1700 as we were resting the last 2 people came in. Jessie and Patricia. They had done extraordinarily well, especially as Patricia is blind ! How they had got over those rocks I will never know. As they came in and everyone cheered I had a tear of pride for them in my eyes. Very humbling and inspirational
Evening meal was around 1800 hours each evening. 1 bag of dried Extreme Expedition food. 800kcal x 160grams.
Dark came about 1930 each evening, so the camp was quiet by then, as people got into their sleeping bags to settle down.
A great first day and I was lying in 13th place. Better than expected.
October 20th – 33kms. Pretty restless night. Hard floor, snoring, very hot till after midnight. However got up at 0500 feeling rested. JD had the hot water on, so it was coffee and porridge for breakfast.
The starts were staggered based on day 1 finish time. 0700, 0730 and 0800. I was in the 0800 start. After getting myself sorted, kit packed, I rested and waited for the start.
My strategy was to take it easy, steady running, walk the hills and do a walk every 25 minutes of running. This went out of the window almost straight away. I felt good as we started up the sandy river bed to the first track. The conditions were slightly overcast, so I thought let’s use the cool to make up some time, I could then slow down when it got hot. I quickly got into a good running pace, pushing on to CP1, and CP2 really quickly. Running much of this section with Lucja. It felt good as we ran down the hill to a long stretch of track by a vineyard. At this point the weather turned. There was dramatic lightning, and then heavy rain came in. Strange to be in the desert in heavy rain !! At CP3 we went under the game fence back into the park and climbed up a long winding river bed, with some dramatic geology. The sand was hard to move in and we had to scale some pretty big rock faces to get up the river. I was still pushing on strong. I went past one of the South African competitors and started having a chat with him. About half way up he said he was going to take it easy, and I pushed on to CP3. At this point I realised I had read the route car wrong and instead of 3.5kms to the finish we had 7.5kms !! Ah well “ it is what it is” I said and pushed on. As we headed down hill along sandy tracks, the South African I had overtaken in the river valley came past and said “You’re slowing up”……… something that really annoyed me, and I set my sights on beating him that week.
I pushed onto the finish which appeared like a mirage just at the right time.
I settled into the same post race routine as I waited for others to come in.
A good fast 2nd day and I had moved up to 11th, so not bad running at all.
October 21st – 39kms. The evening and morning routine were the same. Nothing eventful happened. We started the next morning at 0800, with a climb up a very rocky river gorge. This suited me fine, because I had quickly realised that I was faster than most uphill, and especially if it was technical. Must have been all those years training and competing in the Alps. I got to the top of the gorge leading the main group of 0800 runners (except the 4 leading runners). Again I felt good and with the weather overcast I pushed on at a strong pace. As the day wore on the sun came out and it got very hot. The scenery was dramatic, especially as we wound our way through the mountains. The last 10kms were on sandy tracks, and very tough, with every step forward slipping backwards and sideways. Really challenging. And then we came to the final river bed, which was about 1km long, and wound it’s way upto the camp. I was very pleased to see the finish. Hot, tired, but pleased. And as I came into camp I saw a small swimming pool and proper toilets ! Was it a mirage ? No it was real. So the evening routine of a wash took place in the freezing cold water of the campsite pool. Awesome.
The routine in the evening was the same. Except all the talk was about day 4 and the long day.
My thoughts on the long day were simple. It was 45 miles. I have run much further. The conditions would make it hard, but that was why I was here.
Food strategy was discussed. Some people wanted to take a meal to eat enroute, my view was, it would take about 10 hours, so I would just double up on my 9Bars, Peparami, sports beans and add to it a small pack of beef jerky I had brought.
We turned in for the evening and everyone was a little nervous, especially after we were given staggered start times. Mine was 1100 in the morning ! Just before the real heat of the day. Great !!
Another good day, tough finish, but pleased to move up to 10th place, 10 minutes ahead of Gavin in 9th place.
October 22nd – 75kms, the Long Day. With people setting off from 0600, it was difficult to rest, or lie in. I didn’t want to eat breakfast before 0800, but in the end I couldn’t wait and ended up eating around 0700. I felt a bit ill, unsettled, light headed. I wasn’t sure whether it was the heat, an upset stomach or just anticipation. As start after start went out the morning dragged on, but then with 30 minutes to go, I got all my kit together, made sure everything was comfortable and waited for the off.
We set off, 6 of us at 1100. We stayed together for the 1st 25 minutes, then I started my first 5 minute walk. I walk fast, so only lost about 100m, and then when I started running again I overtook 2 or 3 of the group. CP1 and CP2 came around pretty quickly. I stuck with the walk run strategy. At CP2 the rest of the group lost me as we headed down a sandy river bed. I was on a 5 minute walk. As I started running I over took the group 1 by 1 until I was just behind the leading lady. The heat had really kicked in and from the bottom of the river bed for the next 3 hours or so we climbed slowly uphill. I ran on the downs and the flats, and walked fast up the hills. This worked well and I created a big gap between me and the rest of the group (with the leading lady running off into the distance).
As we approached CP4 I started to catch some of the early starters. This was really motivating. After CP4 we had a great downhill section through the bush on a good track. As we turned a corner to start climbing a sandy track I realised that we had covered a marathon distance. Awesome, and I felt good. It was getting very hot !! Pushing on through to CP5 and CP6, we then had a mind numbing 7kms along a wide dead straight track to CP7.
At CP7 the dusk was starting to come close as the sun got closer to the horizon. The section from CP 7 to CP8 was a very sandy track, tough to run on, and quite demoralising. As we headed down hill, Gavin who I had not seen since the river bed after CP2, went racing past me like he had just started !! “Drugs test” I shouted………..
As I approached CP8, the dark closed in and I needed to get on my head torch. Only 8kms to go, so I set off at a good paced run. Still sticking to my 25 / 5 strategy. It was difficult not to stumble on the uneven ground and deep sand in the dark, but the motivation of getting to the finish, a rest and a beef stroganoff pushed me on.
The route was very well marked by small glowing leds and reflective tape. Suddenly I could hear voices and smell a fire. Then I could see the fire and the finish at last.
I had targeted 10 hours when I set off and I crossed the line exactly on 10:00:00, un believable, but true.
I was about the 9th person to finish, with some of the early runners getting in first, including princess.
I was delighted to get my pack off, sit down in the tent, get my smelly kit off and get some food inside. Every 5 or 10 minutes people were coming in. Dion was not far behind me, having started at 1200, then Lucja, and the rest of the Brits, slowly came in.
Most people had something to eat, got in their sleeping bags and passed out exhausted. I had to take some nurofen to sleep because my legs hurt so much. The first drugs of the week !! Interesting !?
I had moved upto 9th place overall and eaten over an hour out of the person in 10th (the South African who made the stupid comment to me on day 2 – that was satisfying, Gavin, who had been backwards and forwards with me all week was about 10 minutes ahead of me in 8th place).
October 23rd – Rest Day. It was about 5 O’clock when I woke up and got out of my sleeping bag to make a coffee. I looked around the area, the first time I had seen it in day light.
We were on a beach. Not quite St Tropez, but a sandy beach that led down to the Orange River. The beach was littered with animal droppings aswell as people curled up in sleeping bags. They had basically dropped their kit got out their sleeping bag and collapsed where they stopped.
As the camp arose the stories of the long day started to come out. Everyone was very pleased to have finished. Standing round having coffee and eating we all talked about our highs and lows of the previous day. After breakfast several of us went down to the river with soap and our filthy clothes, got in the river and had a really good wash, it felt great. The other side of river was Namibia so several people decided to swim over to the far shore, although part of our run did take us into Namibia anyway.
At around 0900 Jessie and Patricia finished – 27 hours after they had started. Inspiring.
The day was mainly spent sleeping and resting, regenerating the batteries after 4 tough days. As the afternoon wore on we started to talk about the next day. The 6th day was 45 kms, so about 28 miles, and was not a small challenge. It would be easy to underestimate it given the fact that we had completed over 180kms, but I know that would be a mistake.
After evening meal we all settled down to sleep. I decided to sleep on the beach under the stars. With no light pollution and a slightly less than full moon, that did not rise till after midnight, the night sky was nothing short of breathless. I lay there watching shooting stars and making out constellations until I fell asleep around midnight for about 3 hours.
October 24th – 45kms. After the normal morning routine we were lined up in 3 starts, I was off at 0800. The weather had started to change overnight and a strong wind came in from the North around 0700. It was so strong by the time we left the gazebos were being blown away.I looked at the map and saw that we were running mainly South East, so a North win might not be that bad for us, however, I knew that this would be a long run, I target 5 hours 30 mins, and set off with my 25/5 run / walk strategy. Many of the group had soon left me, but I stuck with my strategy and sure enough by CP1 I started to pick people off, including Gavin. The challenging weather got much worse as the day went on. The wind increased to gale force, and the heat became intense as the sand was whipped up and created an oven effect blocking out the sun. The effect of the wind and the heat was draining on the body. Although the wind started to the North it moved to the East by mod morning so was right in our faces.
At CP2, I arrived with Gavin, plus a couple of others, he was clearly struggling and had to stop to do some stretching. As with all the CPs, I did not stop. Just filled up my water, and pushed on. Stopping at CPs can be a big mistake as it is difficult to get going again. So I filled my water, poured some on my head and round my neck, then sorted my self out as I left the CP, either at a walk if it was my 5 minute stint, or wait till the next 5 minute stint. This meant I always made time on people.
As I pushed on into the wind, I realised that my roll mat on the bottom of my pack was acting like a sail – something to note for the future. No external roll mats !!
I kept thinking to myself I have trained and competed in much heavier winds in Wales on the mountains and normally in it is raining, so this was a bonus. The BS we tell ourselves to push on. When I finally made the finish which I could see from about 1 km out I was so pleased. It was a massive relief to get in. Day 6 was probably the hardest day, I just collapsed in the tent for 90 minutes, not moving, with a long stare. Everyone who came in looked and felt the same. The wind and the heat had done it for most. There were even tears at the end because it had been such a hard day.
Gavin finished behind me, and I was now 8th, 6 minutes ahead of him. After 225kms, only 5 minutes separated us – amazing.
October 25th – 26kms. The final day, the final leg, but still not a short run. The starts were staggered with the idea being that everyone would be finished before the overall winner crossed the line, so they could be cheered in by the all the competitors.
As the starts went out, I spent the time going through my final normal morning routine, and then I started to go through my rucksack to see what I could throw away. Anything that was not needed, or was not worth money, I got rid of to reduce the weight. Now down to probably only 2 or 3kgs with 1.5 litres of water.
In my start was Lucja, Gavin, Princess, my South African nemesis !! and a couple of others.
We started together, but princess soon headed off into the distance, keen to push hard. I decided that I would take it easy, as 26 kms is still along way, especially after 225kms of tough running. I wanted to enjoy the final day, but also hold onto 8th place, so I figured if I kept Gavin in sight, or ran with him, I knew I would be OK. If I let him get to far ahead or went off and had to keep looking back, I would not be in control.
We started running together, so that seemed like a good plan. Upto CP1 all was nice and steady, then Gavin decided he wanted to pick up the pace. I thought I better hang in and stay with him. The pace was intense, but actually felt good to stretch the legs, rather than the ultra shuffle. We overtook several others including my South African nemesis !. As we approached CP2 I thought if this pace carries on I will have to let Gavin go because it was just a bit to quick for me to sustain.
We got to CP2, loaded up with water then headed off. Gavin took a bit longer than I did, but I thought I would wait for him, because running together was actually great fun. As we headed off from the checkpoint he started puking up water, which was a real shame, not sure what had happened. I waited with him while he was ill. As we started running again, he turned to me and said “I’m not going to race you anymore, let’s enjoy the rest of the race” – we shook hands then settled into a nice steady pace for the last 8 miles. Apart from a slight “navigation” issue on Moonrock (a huge round rock that looked like the moon had crashed into the earth!), the rest of the route was uneventful, until we headed round the final corner to the cheers of the people at the finish. We crossed the finish line together with our hands raised.
What a fantastic feeling. 250km Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon completed. The reception at the finish was awesome. We were hugged by absolutely everyone. Because Gavin was getting married the next day Estean and Nadia had bought a bottle of fizz, which was opened shared and sprayed all over the place.
There was a beer tent which was really welcome, but not a great idea after no drink and dehydration for a week !! We were weighed in by the medical team and I had lost 4.5kgs in weight ? Interesting.
As the rest of the people started to finish, and we cheered them in, the atmosphere was electric. Smiles, tears, hugs, high fives, one of the greatest feelings I have had at the end of an event.
We stayed at the finish for a couple of hours and had some sandwiches, before heading off to the chalets in the game reserve.
Getting out of the smelly, dirty clothes I had been wearing for a week and having a shower and a shave had never felt so good. My body was in pretty good shape. Not to many aches and pains, or blisters. Good preparation and good kit must have worked.
After the shower I headed to the restaurant to treat myself to a steak, chips and glass of red wine which I had been promising myself all the way through the long day.
We rested all afternoon and then headed off for an evening meal in the lodge.
With everyone in such good spirits it was an awesome evening. Loads of beer, great food and then the shots started. With no running the next day, there was no excuse to not have a great evening getting drunk !!
Next morning I was awake earl;y, force of habit I guess. Alan (my roomy for the night) and I sat out on the patio with a coffee watching the sun come up and the baboons run around the rocks surrounding the Augrabies Falls. Magical.
Breakfast, goodbyes and then a lift to the airport to fly off to Johanesburg, for a night in a hotel near the airport before meeting Becca and Holly flying down from London for our week’s safari.
My emotions as I left and as the day went on were in turmoil. I was excited to have finished. Proud to have run so well. Delighted to have met so many wonderful people, but also sad and empty. The problem with such big events is you spend so long building upto it that when it is finished there is a hole is left, because the expectation and anticipation has gone. It is generally called post event depression, and is much more intense after a massive event like this, and having spent so much time with so many great people.
So that was my Kalahari adventure. I could not recommend this event highly enough, for the organisation, the location, the camaraderie, the physical challenge. It has everything.
Thank you to the whole team at Extreme Marathons and a massive congratulation to all the competitors.