I have recently returned from taking part in the inaugural Desert Ultra a 250km 5 day self sufficiency race in the Namibian Desert. The word Namib means “vast place” and this is certainly true as the Namib stretches for more than 2,000km. The race itself took place in an area called Damaraland, inhabited by the Damaras. (The Bush Men had been forced out of this part of the Namib many years ago – although their paintings still exist in the caves that can be found along some of the dry river beds)
The terrain was ever changing, from rocky marsian landscapes to scrubby bush and dried up river beds and a backdrop of the most beautiful mountains often multi-coloured. These colours changed from pinks and oranges to the most beautiful shades of grey/green on stage 4 when we navigated our way round the extinct volcano Doris (I think they could have chosen a better name!!) and complimenting the amazing scenery was the wild life that live in this desert.
Welcome to Africa
Having arrived at Windhoek on the afternoon of the 15th November a group of us were met by Andy (from Beyond the Ultimate) who told us that instead of going to the camp that night we would be staying in a lodge and driven into the Desert the next day. I was quite happy with this as it meant I could sort my kit out without getting everything covered in sand. Also after a long flight a shower and a last chance of a bed with sheets was a blessing.
The following morning we had a long drive to the base camp, neatly laid out tents in the middle of the desert, where we found the other competitors. It was great to see a few familiar faces and meet some new ones. Later in the day we had all the usual kits and medical checks as well as a race briefing on the stage one. Everyone was in bed early that night in anticipation of the next day when the race would start.
Up early after a cold night – though quickly warmed as the sun gained height in the sky, race kit on, coffee, breakfast and it was time to head to the start line. With 3 minutes to go I was told that I had my shorts on the wrong way round – what a plonker, so had to quickly take them off and put them round the right way. This got me into a minor panic as I hate being late!
Instructions for the first CP were to head for the Saddle which could be seen for miles, but I was slightly surprised as on the website it had said it was a “marked” course – but hey hoe. Off we all set heading towards the middle of the saddle and our first CP about 10k in. After less than 5km I managed to fall down a hole twisting my dodgy left ankle and hurting my right knee again. (much of the desert is pockmarked with holes in the sand made by ground squirrels or some such varmit. The holes merely indicate the location of intricate subterranean passages, most of which are only a few millimeters from the surface and collapse as soon as you step on them – as if this wasn’t enough the “desert” has very little smooth sandy surfaces and is largely made up of millions of small rocks and pebbles and every footfall needs careful placing). You can imagine how cross I was but pulled myself together and continued onto CP 1 where HWMBO was helping out and taking photos.
Shortly after leaving the CP I twisted my ankle again, “OUCH” it was sore and stopped me in my tracks but again I kept going. This happened many times and my ankle was getting worse. I felt as though my body wasn’t balanced as I appeared to be tripping over nothing. My pack was comfortable, considering how little I had trained with it, so perhaps my body was just out of kilter. The course was very undulating which meant there were times when I would lose sight of the saddle and once or twice I did have moments of worry as I could see no other runners and thought perhaps I was going in the wrong direction.
Eventually I saw Martin the race photographer waving from the edge of the saddle, what a relief and by the time I reached him (18km) I had twisted my ankle so many times I just burst into tears! (I know, pathetic but it hurt)
Martin instructed me to follow the track round the corner where I would find two yellow flags. I had to line these up and find something in the distance to aim at for CP2. In the distance I spotted a tree and to the left I could see the CP so off I headed towards the tree. Again, very difficult as the undulations meant that I lost sight of my marker and when I found it again I had gone very slightly off course but eventually came to CP2 where I had already made the decision I was going to stop.
In 2008 I caused a huge amount of damage to the ligaments and tendons of my left ankle which had taken over a year to get right so I wasn’t prepared to be in re-hab for the next few months and unable to train or race so for me was absolutely the right decision, although still not a nice one to make.
Cathy one of the medics strapped my swollen ankle and once the final runners had gone through they cleared up the CP and we headed towards CP3.
We arrived at CP 3 to find a few of the other runners sheltering from the heat of the sun and also discovered that George Evetts (a Doctor himself) was also out of the race as he had tripped over a fence (only a foot or so high) – taken by surprise he had gone down with arms flailing in all directions resulting in what was thought to be a broken elbow (he had in fact dislocated it which was a huge relief). It made me giggle as George had been given various drugs to take away the pain he was in a very happy place!
Two runners hadn’t come through the CP which was a big concern as at CP 2 they had been lying about 6ish in the race and the slower runners were already through. Search parties were immediately sent out to look for them, myself, two medics and Garvey (one of our local Namibian supporters) went out in the Bakki to track them down. The search continued until it got dark when Garvey dropped us off at the camp and went out to re-fuel his vehicle before returning to collect HWMBO, Martin & a medic. Together with other teams of searchers they were out all night, even an airplane had been dispatched in the later half of the afternoon in an attempt to spot them.
Thankfully one of the runners was found safe and well that evening which was a huge relief to everyone, but you can imagine how worried and concerned we all were for the runner (Dennis) still out on the course – somewhere – now without water and some 13 hours or so after he had last been seen.
In the morning a helicopter was dispatched to help with the search and one of the Namibian trackers found the runners tracks so was able to direct the helicopter to the right area where thankfully he was found, safe and very dehydrated – 26 hours after he was last seen. The runners were so pleased and relieved to see him when he was helicoptered into camp, where the poor guy got a hug from everyone.
As George and myself were both out of the race we asked if we could walk some of course, which after much discussion was agreed. Once the other competitors had gone we were driven to CP2 where we would start again ahead of the runners as “walking wounded”. My ankle had been strapped up to within an inch of its life and although we were walking fast I would have to slow down on the more “technical” sections to avoid going over on my ankle – which of course I did a few times and consequently did a lot of swearing under my breath.
The scenery was stunning and the walk to CP3 was easy going. Once at the CP we had a compulsory 10 minute stop which the medics had set up to make sure we were hydrated – personally I thought this was a complete waste of time and from a runners point of view very frustrating as your body ceases up, but this is what we had to do, the we were given our next set of instructions – “head for the signpost at the top of that hill over there and from there you will see flags in the distance to follow”. George and I continued on our journey arriving at CP4 in good time and feeling marvellous.
We had to wait for a bit at CP4 in order to get the markers up to the next CP which wasn’t an issue as we weren’t racing so we chatted to Chris and Wes; then in came the top boys, boy do they run fast really good to see them and looking marvellous.
The section between CP4 and the finish was certainly much longer than we had been told. The route took us along a riverbed where we made a slight navigational error by turning right sooner than we should have done, but thankfully we realised very quickly that it couldn’t possibly be the right way and continued along the riverbed. Once out of the river we then had a very rocky climb to the top of a hill where we were given water and then had to follow the flags back down onto a “road” (sandy gravel track) where after a short distance we came to the finish at a junction of the track and a dry river bed – from here we were driven up the river bed to the camp site. Today we saw an ostrich and a baby snake – exciting or what!!
Stage 3 was a mere 37km but it was going to be very hot.
The running on the first stage wasn’t too bad as you can see, but the track was very sandy so easier to walk on the edge where the sand was harder. I don’t really remember much about today other than it was very hot and thoroughly enjoyable. Navigation went well once I had the flags pointed out to me! HWMBO was at CP1 so very nice to see him and he made sure that we headed off in the right direction.
George and I made good time doing a lot of talking at times and on other occasions we were enjoying our own thoughts – perfect. When we arrived at CP 2 we were told that it was 11k to the finish which didn’t seem to make sense but onwards and upwards. As we headed towards the river bed where we were camping for the night we saw loads of Elephant dung, some of it fresh too, so we were very excited that we may see these wonderful animals, sadly it wasn’t to be – we must have scared them off. (Apparently there were Rhino footprints quite near to the camp as well).
It turned out that the finish was only about 7km so you can imagine our delight when we saw the finishing banners and we weren’t last! Go the walking wounded!
I was looking forward to this stage, even though I was only walking I knew that I was quite capable of completing the distance in the time we had. The runners were woken up at 4am by the RD, although I had been up for about 15 minutes already as I wanted to get my ankle re-strapped. Some of the crew/medics had been sent off the night before in order to set up the CP’s in time for the front runners. We didn’t actually set off until 6am when the sun came up. We were told that for safety reasons all the runners/walkers had to be through CP in 9 hours, if we didn’t reach the CP in time we would be short coursed to CP7 (20k) where we could continue our journey. Again, I didn’t quite understand why we had to be short coursed as runners had until 11-12noon the following day to complete the route, but those were the rules.
Everyone set off with real gusto, especially the front runners who disappeared into the distance leaving us walkers way behind. We had a bit of a competition going with the other walkers which was quite fun, although Neil decided that today he was going to pick up the pace and disregard the rules and actually run – can you believe it!!! Quite rightly he was worried that if he didn’t he would miss the cut-off at CP5 so it was good to see him go.
George and I gave it everything we had, making the CP’s in good time, not lingering to chat just a quick refill of the water bottles and of course our little treat of a wine gum each – yummy. The first section of the course wasn’t too bad, there were a few tricky sections for George and myself as we had to clamber over rocks which isn’t easy when you are with a one armed man and a woman with a dodgy ankle but we came out the otherside in one piece!
Following the flags we continued our journey with very little chatting as we were putting all our efforts into getting to CP5 before the cut-off, very little chatting today!
I was a little disappointed with the Dunes they certainly weren’t what I expected and not very big. We walked up the first dune (covered in vegetation) heading on the most direct route towards the CP where HWMBO was. He did ask me why we didn’t use the track and I replied that it quicker going cross country.
On and on we continued with the scenery and colours constantly changing as we went round the Doris Crater. One minute the colours were pink, then orange and the next time we looked the mountains had turned to a stunning grey/green colour then back to a yellow hue, quite beautiful.
We arrived at a very cheerful CP4 where we had a compulsory 10 minute stop; very frustrating as I wanted to keep going but the crew were fantastic and couldn’t have been more helpful or positive. As we left we knew that time wasn’t on our side but we continued to push to see if we could make it. Thankfully once the other walkers had gone through CP4, they closed up and drove past us saying the CP5 was to stay open for a further 1 hour, fantastic. I looked at my watch and knew we were capable of making it before the cut-off. There was NO talking now, it was a case of heads down and try to beat the clock.
As we were coming up to CP5 I kept seeing a flash of white and thought perhaps I was hallucinating, so kept checking to see that what I was looking at was actually moving. Thankfully it did turn out to be a real person not a figment of my imagination. We had caught up with Camilla who once again was having a real issue with the heat. I know she would have been devastated to have been short coursed so kept my fingers crossed that she would be OK.
Unfortunately we arrived about 15 minutes after the cut-off to be told that we had to wait for the other walkers (of which there were 3) – the leaders had gone througb the CP in 7 hours making the 9 hour cut-off a big tight so the extension to 10 hours, still tight, was important. A Bakkie was going to pick us up at about 5pm to take us all to CP7 where we could continue. We waited and waited but no Bakkie in sight but no worries we re-hydrated, sorted ourselves out ready for the next stage of the journey. Unfortunately the radio battery had died so we were not able to contact anyone – we learned later that radio contact wasn’t very good from CP5 onwards.
Eventually 2 hours later a Bakkie arrived to pick us up – there was absolutely NO way he was going to fit 6 runners, 2 medics & the CP in to the one vehicle. Cathy (medic) took control (marvellous woman) and made a decision that the driver took the runners who were still in the race, together with 1 of the medics, to CP7 and try to make radio contact on the way, leaving us behind to be collected on the next run. We said goodbye to the runners and settled down to wait for our turn to be picked up.
We waited and waited and nothing turned up. Thankfully I had put a sweatshirt in my pack so put that on to keep warm. Day turned into night and it was getting colder. My body temperature was dropping so Cathy gave me her sleeping bag to wrap round me, this made all the difference. Still no one came, we really felt as though we had been forgotten.
I got my glowstick out and after a bit of fun swinging it around creating a magnificent light show I attached it to a pole (my attempt to scare any wild animals away). If I was to be stuck in the middle of a desert with the possibility of being eaten by a wild animal I couldn’t have chosen two nicer people to spend my time with; but in the back of my mind I was extremely angry as now there was no way we would be able to finish the 100k day. I know also for George it was a disappointment.
I didn’t mind pulling myself out of the race, it was the right decision and that I’m happy with but not being able to finish the final stage when I knew it was something I was capable of completing was a huge disappointment and made me feel quite negative and a total failure.
It was a huge honour to cheer in other runners and see them finish the race, they had pushed themselves hard, suffered dehydration and blisters but completed the inaugural Desert Ultra – congratulations to each and every one of them.
Although there were things that went wrong with the race, I believe knowing Wes that once he has ironed out the initial issues it will be an amazing event – you can’t beat Africa for a location.
I loved my week racing in Namibia, there was a great bunch of competitors and crew who all made the trip fun, with lots of laughter as well as a few tears. A big thank you to George for putting up with such an old bag, I thoroughly enjoyed your company, thank you.
KIT I USED DURING THE RACE:
INOV-8 25L pack – brilliant
X-Bionic Fennec kit – absolutely outstanding worked really well would highly recommend it.
Trainers – Hoka OneOne, Rapa Nui – fantastic didn’t feel any of the rocks
Gaiters – Race Kit – absolutely marvellous!
Socks – Toetoe/Wigwam
Buff – essential bit of kit
Ambit2 – great bit of kit and the battery still hasn’t run out.
The photographs in my blog are provided by Martin Paldan, Tim Anderson and a few by me!!