Updated: Dec 1, 2019
205km over 4.5 days through the Namibian desert.
Having arrived back in London 5 days ago from the what I now see as the biggest adventure of my life, I am am still struggling to see this experience as real. Somewhere in the back of my mind I can't seem to process 5 days that were so incredibly brutal on the mind and body, yet contained such astounding beauty. The people I met on this challenge had huge depth of character, large hearts and unending resilience. But if I'd met them on the street, I would have been so quick to judge.
All that I have learned to date now seems a bit questionable.
The trip did not start well....and very much rooted in modern day reality. Whilst travelling to the airport and checking in to go to Johannesburg, I discovered that my flight had been cancelled and I had been re-booked for 24 hours time. Given the pickup was for 2pm the following day (at which time we would be whisked away for 4 hours to a remote Namib farm), I was convinced the trip was over even before it had begun. In tears, I sent an email to Jim Mee (Rat Race owner and adventurer extraordinaire) telling him to head off without me. Thankfully, within 10 minutes he had responded telling me not to worry - the first day was a rest day anyhow and I wasn't the only one in this situation.
So, first test of resilience....FAIL.
Two days later, I arrived bleary-eyed at Windhoek airport along with three others that had also suffered the same fate as me. We were picked up and over the course of five hours, drove to Namibgrens Farm, arriving in the dark at 9pm that evening.
After a very quick briefing, dinner and a shower, I did my best to organise my gear in the dark for the start of the run the next day.
Rising at 4am the following morning, I felt completely daunted at what lay ahead. I knew no-one, had slept a grand total of 7 hours over the past two evenings, and the most I had run before was 54kms in a day (after which I felt like I was about to die!)
Day 1: 42kms of varied terrain - 8 hours duration.
The group size undertaking this adventure numbered around 40. Two options were provided to participants - cycle around 180kms over the first two days using fat bikes, or run 100kms. I, along with 16 others, chose to run.
The running group departed on a bus at 6am and we arrived at perhaps the most remote location I have ever been at 8am. We all trotted off the bus, had a quick toilet break and gathered at the start line for the countdown.
At 8am we all set off, miles of flat red sand ahead of us, as far as the eye could see.
About 5kms in I nearly stepped on a stick...that then moved! I let out a scream and only just missed landing on a very friendly, but slightly agitated puff-adder snake. Had I stepped on him, my journey would have been over.
Throughout the course of the day, I came across a huge amount of wildlife. However, as I wasn't one of the front runners, my viewing entertainment was largely left to those who didn't quite make the cut.
Whilst these sightings always provided a much-needed distraction, perhaps the most sought-after thing to see was that of the food and water tent. For miles on the journey I would often think I had spotted the next tent (which were spaced about 10kms apart), but mirage's come in all forms, especially those with a green roof!
As the course of Day 1 went on, we started to come across our first sand dunes. Having run the first 20kms or so, these literally stopped me in my tracks. Going up hills I am pretty good at. Going up sand dunes is like being on a step machine....two steps get you one step higher.
Fortunately around this time I came across another runner - Tom, with whom I managed to pass the rest of the day at largely a brisk walk. Aside from us both running out of water before the third water stop, we completed the distance fairly uneventfully soon after 4pm that day - coming in at a respectable tied fourth.
Enjoying the sunset, quick wash and dinner, I mentally ticked off the first day - one I knew was the easiest of them all.
Day 2: 57 kms of varied terrain - 12 hours duration
Day 2 started super early given it contained the longest distance to run for the trip. Setting off at 6:30am, I felt pretty good. I had my first proper sleep in three nights and I knew that whilst it would be a long day, the terrain would largely be flat.
So, confident in my abilities, I set off at a brisk trot and really enjoyed the first 20kms of the day. Despite the hot weather (maximum of 35 degrees celsius expected), there was a cool breeze. And the views were wonderful.
The first 35kms of the route were largely flat and entailed running around the rim of a canyon. I felt that my nutrition and hydration were spot on (nothing sweet before midday, alternate water and my electrolyte drink). There was then a quick water tent before a large descent down to the river bed. In my mind the run was going to get really lovely from this point - lower, finally some trees, flat and lots to look at.
The reality is that NOTHING could be further from the truth. Descent = no wind and heat trap. Unfortunately, it also meant more sand and no water stops for 22kms. As I had hit this section around 2pm in the afternoon, I was running in the heat of the day. I ran out of water rapidly and found myself with over ten kilometres to go in 35 degree heat and absolutely nothing left to drink. My mouth went dry, my tongue went swollen and I couldn't eat. I mentally told myself that I just needed to get on with it and complete the remaining distance with no water. After all, wasn't this trip meant to be a challenge and test me?!
To deal mentally and physically with this setback I found myself needing to stop every couple of kilometres. With 5kms left to go, a crew truck finally came across me. I stopped, fell into the arms of the poor man and started to cry (sorry Stuart!)
In the end, the last 20kms took me four hours to complete. I arrived in camp around 6.20pm that evening, again in the top third of the group, but having spent nearly 12 hours on my feet. My heels were bruised and blistered and I had lost three toe-nails. I had also made the newbie mistake of tying my shoelaces too tight that morning. The consequence being that the natural swelling in my feet from the long day and heat had caused a lack of circulation and quite a bit of pain. I collapsed, took off my shoes, propped my feet up and had a Coke. I was done for this trip......but only half way through the journey.
(to be continued...)