Words: Lisa de Speville ǀ Compiled: Sarah Kobal ǀ Photos: Terence Southam
n o g Ta k iNn a m ib D e se rt t h e C h a l l e ng e
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When it comes to multi-day extreme endurance foot races, the Namib Desert Challenge is right up there with the very best of them. But this should come as no surprise when you consider that it is hosted in one of the most remote, diverse, pristine and untouched wilderness areas to be found anywhere on earth. Now into its fifth year, the event held in March (5th edition) proved so popular that a 6th edition of the race is being held in October. So if you are taking part in this upcoming event and it's your first Namib Challenge, then follow Lisa's account of the 5th Namib Challenge to see what you are in for. I'm off to Namibia on Saturday for the 5th Namib Desert Challenge, a 230 kilometre, five-day staged foot race. I fly into Windhoek on Saturday and I'm staying at a B&B near the hotel from where the race bus departs on Sunday. We drive to Sossusvlei - a long, long drive - and we start running on Monday.
Daily distances Monday, 25 March 2013: 42 km Tuesday, 26 March 2013: 46 km Wednesday, 27 March 2013: 44 km Thursday, 28 March 2013: 56 km Friday, 29 March 2013: 28 km
Sleeping We sleep in tents provided by race organisation and they will also hang onto our sleeping rolls and sleeping bags fortunately we don't have to carry these with us.
Clothing We do have to carry any and all clothing with us throughout the race. I've decided to go with 3/4 tights, a short-sleeved top and armies for my race attire - topped off by my widebrimmed hat. The more skin that can be covered up, the better. Plus, of course, sunblock and shades.
Equipment There's the usual stuff to pack like space blanket, knife, whistle, headlamp, compass etc. In addition I'll take a trekking pole. While two are nice I've usually got something in a hand - map / route instructions / food. And then there's the question of two-litre water reservoirs...
Food We're being spoilt this year as dinner is provided. So we only have to pack in breakfast, during-the-run munchies and lunch. We only have to carry each day's food; not everything for the five days. This really lightens our loads. I haven't been strict on the weight of my foods; I'm on around 760 g/day. I've gone with an add-water cereal (with protein powder) for breakfast and two-minute noodles for lunch (one packet is too little, two is too much so I've got 1.5 packets/lunch). Snacks include my usual salty favourites like corn nuts, Salticrax crackers and nuts with dried fruit (mango and home-dried banana) and a scattering of sweeties. I always pack sweeties but I rarely eat them; so there are just a few for each day.
Weather It is expected to be hot. Hotter than it was in 2009 when we were blessed with unseasonably mild conditions. It's 32°C at Sossusvlei as I type this and expected to hit 36°C on Friday and then cooling down into the high 20s during next week.
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Desert gaiters When you run in sand, you do need a shoe covering to prevent sand getting in. Desert sand is not the same as beach sand; it is fine and dry and it sneaks in through any and every gap in your shoe - the top, the mesh, the tongue. A desert gaiter is a shoe covering that is attached to the upper of the shoe and it covers your foot from the ankle to the sole.
Tips #1: Walk. Walk because you want to, not because you have to... In essence, walk early on and mix in walking and running. And when you walk, walk properly. Not a Sunday stroll in the mall. #2: Keep moving. Doesn't help to sit in any square of shade you can find and feel sorry for yourself. Walk, jog, run - just keep going. #3: Take care of yourself from Day 1. If you skimp on drinking or food on one day it will bite you on the bottom the next day or the next.
Namib Desert Challenge: The night before... We've got a good 42 km stage coming up tomorrow. It looks very much similar to the first stage route in 2009. I seem to recall some really fabulous terrain and views but a very long and hot 10 km from a vista to the finish. I remember slogging before. Tomorrow I'm going to wax it ;)
Stage 1 Three letters. We knew it would be. H.O.T. Actually, the morning from the 07h00 start was perfect for running. Cool. From 09h00 it was quite warm. From 10h00 it turned quite very warm. From 11h00 it was getting seriously warm and from 12h00 is has be absolutely frikkin’ cookin’. At about 13h00 my wristwatch read 36°C. Personally I think my body temperature was cooling the reading from reality. It’s always different to knowing that it is going to be hot to experiencing the heat. This first stage started into the sunrise. Not long after the first water point we hit a sandy river bed. We’d been told this wasn’t a desert gaiter stage today. It certainly was! We’re actually chatting about it now in the shade of the dining tent in camp. We must have been through a good 10 km plus today of sand. This long open road to the finish I recalled from previous – and not with any fondness. I think it helped knowing what I was going into. I rocked it for the first couple of kays and really, really felt it on the last three kays, which were cooking. Today’s winner, Argi, is totally made for running. I think he had a third place at Atacama Crossing (seven days, staged) and when he ran Marathon des Sables in 2006, his first staged ultra trail race.
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Stage 2 Today’s 42 km section started from the base of the Elim dune - a massive dune classified as ‘living’ for the grasses growing on it. The jeep track from the start took us on a slight uphill for kilometres – running through a grassy plain. After an up does indeed come a down – a lovely long stretch of good running. It feels great to get in as much distance as possible in the morning before the sun eats you alive, but it was certainly still two hours to the first water point at around 15 km. From the water point 1 we headed across a flat, open grassy plain and then across a pan. A lot of nothingness. Hot already. The next water point was only about 9 km from the first so we hit it quickly. By this stage Joe and Dave have been hunting me down for kilometres (I’d left the water point a bit before them). I run faster than them but they catch me up when I’m walking. We hit the water point together and loaded up on more fluids before heading out. I tried to pull out time on them on the dunes – very sandy track winding mostly up, up, up - and while I made a gap it was only a few minutes so we saw each other at the third and final water point. This was a sneaky water point because you see it from a distance away but it takes a good chunk of time – certainly 45 minutes – to get to it. Goodness!
My game was to run for 40 paces and to walk for 30 paces. Although these numbers look odd to you, they have an orienteering background for me. In pacing distances I cover 100 m in 40 paces and the same distance, walking, in 60 paces. So, each run-walk set is essentially 150 m. At the front of the race is still Argi. He ran the stage in 3h28. Marius was second again about 20 to 30 minutes behind. He says he had an easier run today as he knows Argi is so out of range that there really is no need to chase him so Marius can rather focus on his own run as Argi runs off into the distance. He’s really quite something. Third was Asa, who caught the German runner, Stephan. (Stephan was third yesterday, not Asa). I don’t know any other positions, not even my own other than second lady.
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Stage 3 Today we were on a jeep track heading into a valley. At first glance the track looked all cool with decent terrain underfoot most of the way. Except that it was slightly up; so slight that most of you wouldn’t term it up, but we feel it now. I probably ran for about 25 minutes before my first walk ... yesterday it was an hour-odd, as was the day before. I hooked up with Joe, my companion from the last stretch yesterday, and we did the run-walk thing together. With many bushes around we’d run from bush to bush. Joe got into the groove too, calling “Bush to bush” or “Bush to tree”. It’s quite fun and we make steady progress. And then, up ahead, we saw our Greek Champion, Argi, running towards us! He said he’d run all the way to the buildings at the end of the road (and top of the valley) and hadn’t seen any signs. He’d turned around but on his way back to us he didn’t see the following trio of Marius, Stephan and Asa, so he knew they must have turned off somewhere. I looked to the side and found the pink direction arrow face down, the stick to which it was attached broken in half.
The route gets interesting from water point 2 as it winds first on a track and then across a riverbed and into some interesting rocky features. Here Dave and I caught Charles, who said that he’d run the first 25 km and now was most definitely walking through to the finish. He’s dealing with some blisters, which were obviously giving him trouble. And then we caught Joe, just before the section where we head cross-country, as-thecrow-flies, to the third and final water point, which we could see about 4.5 km away in the distance. Tomorrow is the BIG day. 55 km. I heard this evening that we’ve got a 15 to 20 km section on the tar road (or just next to the tar road, which will be cooler) leading in to the finish.
Stage 4 We started on the road just inside the gate of the Sossus Nakluft National Park, heading towards the Sesriem Canyon. This wasn’t in the long route four years ago, so I was looking forward to seeing this popular tourist site. The first water point came up really soon. We think about 7 km instead of 9.5 km. It was in the canyon and a whole bunch of us were all together. I decided to take out the inner soles from my shoes to make more space, which worked really well. We got onto some hard pack and just ran, ran, ran across a vast, open area. This was very much the theme from today with many vast, open stretches. Sossusvlei is like a funnel – broad at the mouth with dunes on either side many kilometres apart. And they close in further down. We kept to the right on a track that was mostly firm underfoot. Argi took the stage win. Marius was second, Stephan third, Paul in fourth and Asa in fifth. Christine was first lady again, with me in second. We’ve only got a short, 28 km stage tomorrow.
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Stage 5 On paper it is a comparatively short 28 km, but the reality is that you can’t just blitz it or think that you’ll nail it in three hours and be done. No. No. This morning we set off in two waves from the base of Dune 45, where we finished yesterday. It was the slower 10 runners first and then the faster 11 runners 30 minutes later. The first 15 km of the stage are actually quite cruel. It must be about 13 to 14 km across a flat, stony plain that runs at the base of big dunes. The tricky part here is not the terrain underfoot. Because it is some of the most pleasant of the race; firm but not hard and littered with little stones that don’t prod your soles. The tricky part is the perspective. We run heading for a point in the distance, but with the huge dunes and the open expanse you just can’t tell how far away anything it. You just run and run and run and never seem to get anywhere. It plays with your mind.
Overall It has been a really good five days of running. For us everything had felt very smooth in terms of the running of the event and how well we’ve been looked after. I know that behind the scenes things can be crazy dealing with crises, but in chatting to Nel he said how smooth it has been on their side too; marking the trails, the daily bus transport, the wonderful dinner spread and the small team of volunteers who make it all happen.
It has indeed been a wonderful treat for me to return to this race. I ran in the inaugural event in February 2009 and now I’ve run their 5th event. Both events are united by good organisation and wonderful warmth and hospitality. If you’re looking for an away race that is very sufficiently challenging but that doesn’t require you to lug kilograms on your back each day, then I can highly recommend that you put this one on your bucket list. It is not easy out here, but it is very doable and the whole experience is one that you will treasure. Terry and Nel and your team – thank you and well done. An event to be most proud of. •
To read Lisa's full blog, visit http:// adventurelisa.blogspot.com/search/label/ Namib%20Desert%20Challenge
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