Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, 24-30th October 2015:

The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM) certainly lived up to its ‘extreme’ tag this year. Following the same format as the Marathon Des Sable but with less than 100 entries (70 started and 54 finished; results here) the Kalahari race is a great smaller and friendly alternative to the MDS.

I arrived at Johannesburg Airport after a week in the Garden State, having run the Otter (click for previous blog), and traveling from my final day in Cape Town. Checking into the Upington flight were runners from many countries – easy to spot with more desert gear than most outdoors shops! When a queue of people are wearing mainly Raidlight, Salomon, innov8s and other trail gear you know I’m in the right place. The British group made themselves known at the airport hotel and I finally met Joey Sharma (though we reckon we’ve met before) who has done MDS and a few other big races – and is one of the most fun people. Harry Hunter was already in full joke-telling swing before we got through security. I knew it was going to be a fun trip. Getting on the short flight in a tiny plane it felt like we were ready for a desert adventure. Much of the chat was about kit – how heavy the packs were, what food you were taking, if you were wearing gaiters etc. This carried on for the next two days. I don’t think a group of people have ever discussed weight so much, someone overhearing would have thought we were off to a fat-camp; ‘mine’s 9kg dry’, ‘I think I can get mine down to 8kg, but I’ll be hungry all week’, ‘can I eat my sleeping bag on the last morning?’.

The flight was fairly uneventful, I managed to say hi to Nathan Montague who I know from various UK multiday races – he’s being sponsored by my good friends at Extreme Energy and had recently had a haircut (race prep?) so I hardly recognised him without his curly mop. He told me about his summer and it was clear he was coming to KAEM to really run well. I’ve seen him win many a race so knew he’d be a strong contender and after his UTMB disappointment he was ready to fly in the desert. He’s also one of the nicest people, never a bad word to say about anyone, a genuine good guy – definitely someone you want to have around on a week-long race.

Arriving off the coach at the Augrabies Falls National Park the temperature felt raised and it was evidently hotter than Joburg. But then it is the edge of the Kalahari and I’d come for a hot run so no great surprise. I met up with some of the KAEM group from Pretoria – where I’d run a 25km training run a couple of weeks before. Anthony, Altie, Rinaldi and Simone all in good spirits. Checked in and sharing with Annie from the UK – who had run KAEM in 2012 and I’ve seen on numerous UK events and had been so helpful with my endless packing questions beforehand!  That night we had a good dinner at the Augrabies Falls Lodge; I spent much of it with my ankle in a discrete ice pack as it was still enormous from spraining it at the Otter. It didn’t hurt – and was the other ankle to the one I went over on in September on Ben Nevis –  so kind of felt evened up. Talking to Altie about the women’s field I’d already said I wanted to be in the top three (with her) and the ankle had been rested for 10 days so should be fine (which is hard to say when it looks twice the size of normal and has a little blue sheen still!).

Registration and Kit check were on the Friday. With a slightly dull head from the red wine the previous night (Namaqua sponsor the race – how perfect, my favourite recovery drink!) I listened to the Race Director Estienne tell us about the rules, introduce the medics and crew and what to do if an Ostrich attacks you (roll in a ball, back facing up, and wait until it stops tearing your bag apart seemed the main idea; that or the classic ‘run with someone a little slower…’). My pack was 8.5kgs dry; I’d done so many repacks I was grateful of the kit check to see what I’d ended up with! My food was mainly dehydrated packets – noodles, smash, beanfeast, with protein powder and oats for breakfast and plenty of fruit and nut bars. At the weigh in and medical check I found out exactly how much the resting my ankle and drinking in Cape Town had added – not too bad but definitely a couple of kilos to lose in the desert heat.

Runners listen to the race briefing.

Runners listen to the race briefing. [All photos Hermien Webb Photography unless otherwise stated]

Day One: 25kms.

The start, set off by the National Park manager

The start, set off by the National Park manager

25kms seems pretty easy for a starting day – and I was running ok, though still getting used to the heavy pack. About 5km in we saw a big herd of Giraffe that crossed right in front of Faisal – great to see! Then not much later an Ostrich came into sight and ran straight through our path the other way. Relief at the Ostrich running by at about 40kph was briefly stifled by the route taking a right turn so we were directly behind the Ostrich – though it just carried on a long way ahead of us and didn’t look back. Phew.

The route wiggled around the desert on mainly dusty gravel roads and sandy tracks. It was hot – about 4o degrees but didn’t feel too bad. About 20km I was struggling to run with a sore ankle – especially on the downhill sections, which was frustrating. Altie overtook me in her very cheery way and I was a little grumpy being unable to do more than a hobble. A couple of others overtook me in the sandy river bed towards the finish but I was pleased enough to get through the run no more injured than I started.

Not just the runners that suffered in the heat...

Not just the runners that suffered in the heat… at least I look more alive than something

Then it was a case of trying to keep cool all afternoon – I drank a heck of a lot of water as it was 47 degrees in the rocky gorge we were sleeping in for the night. Thankfully there was more water in the morning and the 4.5L per runner rule was relaxed. As the afternoon progressed it was clear the day had been very hot – and for some far too hot. News of two medical emergencies filtered into camp and we became very worried for those still out in the midday heat, and the medical staff and crew also suffering and trying to help reduce casualties. It was clear from that afternoon this would be remembered as ‘the hot year’ in KAEM history.

Day 2: 34kms

This day started well for me – my ankle was a little better and I was getting used to the weight of the pack. I’d resisted the temptation to eat all my food to reduce weight but had made some headway with the heavier dinner and breakfast having been eaten. Though I had no cause to complain when I saw some guys with steaks, sausages and even… spam (tinned meat!) in their packs. A fairly steady day and I managed to claw back the 11 minutes Altie had on me from the first day – with a few more for a cushion, and I was nicely in the top ten overall. Awaiting finishers through the afternoon we did have the bonus of the river by camp and managed to get cool, if only temporarily. I had my first of my regular end of run massages – mainly to get my shoulders into a slightly happier place. Chris the masseur I’d met in Pretoria was also on the trip and thankfully got me moving ok again – though not without me whimpering through the massage!  This second night was probably my worst sleep of the trip – I’d got about 3 hours the first night but I don’t think more than 2 the next. It was starting to take it’s toll in my mood and snappiness (moi? ahem).

Day 3: 40km

Pretty sure I managed to annoy most of the runners in the second start by declaring it was about time we actually did a decent run. Not completely true as Nathan and the front guys were posting decent times but I felt I’d plodded and jogged with the pack rather than actually running. So day 3 saw a nice uphill stretch and a bit of rocky underfoot – as we were at the edge of a quartz area. I pulled away pretty early and decided to have a good go at a decent run. Which I kind of did until 30km when the wheels came off a bit. I regained it enough to come home 7th overall and with a good 20 mins on Altie. I should explain – Altie is a good runner, she’d done the KAEM last year in about 30 hours and was back having done some training and to be more competitive. Of all the runners I wanted her to do well – and she did amazingly! She reckons she’s a slow plodder but her endurance is fantastic, we’re doing a couple of races in March when I go back to SA and I’m sure she’ll have sped up further, she’ll be a serious contender to win KAEM next year – I’ll have to up my game; might even train with a pack and not bugger my ankle before it next year!

Altie the smiler and Jennifer the grump.

Altie the smiler and Jennifer the grump.

Day 4: Cancelled stage (should have been 81kms, I ran 20kms to check point 2)

The day that wasn’t. I’d been looking forward to this day – really keen to do a long run and with relatively fresh legs I knew I’d go well. From even before the start it was clear that wasn’t going to be the case. I’d spent most of the night battling with mosquitoes the size of bats – having brought far too thick a sleeping bag for the 20+ degrees in the night I was either in it boiling alive or spending the night fending off insects. When a cricket landed on my head and I screamed it was the final straw – Joe who was next to me swore he could still hear me laughing; it was more a manic cackle of a deranged sleep-deprived woman. I was set to go off with the later groups – the slowest runners left at 6:30am but the fastest were 13:00; at 11:30  it was to be Alwyn, Duncan and I. Alwyn had just beaten me the day before – proudly demonstrating his ability to keep his bottle water cool with a wet buff before motoring past me in the midday heat. He had a bad calf injury else he’d have been far ahead of me already. Duncan was less than a minute ahead of me and I was fairly sure over the long stage I’d move ahead. So the three of us set off – Alwyn storming ahead early and Duncan and I tromping through the sandy river bed. By now I’d honed my skill at avoiding sand – running in zigzags on rocks and in between (sometimes IN) thorn bushes to get some traction. The Salomons I was wearing were good at keeping out the sand (I’d forgone gaiters) but I just hate the feeling of not-getting-anywhere that sand gives you. So yes I was probably doing a little more mileage and covered in scratches just for the sake of a few seconds here and there. By the time we were about 5km in I was suffering – the heat in the river gorge felt like no other and the steady climb took its toll. The water station should have been at 8km so when I asked Duncan how far we’d gone after 90 mins and it was 8.5km I got worried – having nearly run out of water I couldn’t do much more. At one point I was pretty much off the course – we were following little orange ribbons and it was a very well marked course but doing my zig-zagging meant I wasn’t always in sight. Thankfully I heard a ‘Jennifer’ shout before I went too far wrong. Getting to the water station at 11km I was a bit of a mess. Exhausted and out of water I’d shunned an offer of water from a passing vehicle – worried about the rules of the race and not taking help from crew. Turned out later they were there to help… Between checkpoint 1 and 2 I was mainly on my own trying to manage my water and try to get jogging to reduce the time to the checkpoint. It was the toughest running I’ve ever done. I saw various good runners, who were now good friends, hiding in thorn bushes to try and get any shade they could to cool down. I carried on, trying not to stop and slow down further. At one point Julen came past in a car – he’d had to abandon with the heat – and dosed me in cold water (which felt really weird as all our water was usually so warm). Arriving at checkpoint two I was surprised to see about forty runners – all crowded under a gazebo and was then told the race had been stopped because of the heat, with temperatures over 45 and a high humidity the Race Doctor then called it off for the day on grounds of safety. It was the right call – we were all destroyed from too little water as it was taking so long to get between checkpoints in the heat. Whilst waiting for the bus I sat in the shade of a thorn bush and managed to get myself well and truly stuck, the t-shirt I ran it didn’t make it back to the UK.

On the night of Day 4 I slept a whole 5 hours. More than the previous three nights put together. I think aided by the soft grass (unaware at the time, my pillow under the sleeping ground sheet later turned out to be a cow pat) and simply exhausted I managed to get over my issues with sleeping so close to so many people, outside with insects and animals by just passing out.

Day 5 & 6 : Rest day and Night Stage (47km, should have been 35km)

Day 5 should have been the day recovering from the long day – when runners would have finished through the preceding night. We spent it messing around in the river, sunbathing (well I am British!) and trying to not eat all the food for the next days. It was a good time with the group – who all knew each other pretty well by now. There was much griping about the cancelled stage the day before, but with no one really to blame but the heatwave that dissipated.

Day 5 we were told because the heat index was still so high we wouldn’t be starting the planned 47kms stage on Day 6. Later, around lunchtime, we were told to prepare for a night stage that wouldn’t start before 8pm and would be about 35km. Super – a slightly cooler run was just what I fancied. We had a funny trip over to the other side of the river in canoes – the one Altie and I were in getting stuck on the rocks. Setting off at 8pm I decided to blast it and stuck with the front guys for the first 4km of road; Nathan letting out a surprised ‘Jen?’ to check if it was me at one point. I had in my head a three hour run and was doing well getting to the first checkpoint (just under 11km) on the hour mark. Only to find…. nearly everyone else stood or sat around in the dark waiting for the race to be re-started.  It wasn’t that clear what had happened but the news filtered round that the course hadn’t been finished being marked as the quad bike being used had broken down. We waited for an hour and were set off again in groups of 5. My legs were heavy re-starting and it took some time to get up to speed again. Getting back into it I felt ok and some of the more technical rocky running suited me. Then the stage became weird. Really weird. I’d passed Estienne (on quad bike) and Nathan (running like the elite athlete he is) coming back towards me and then a couple of others, them looking as confused as I was. Running round a loop it became clear the course doubled back on itself – odd, I thought, as the 35km was nearly up. Getting a little lost on the loop I caught up with Kris who was similarly perplexed. Then I caught up with Nic who was having a good run but like me expected the next checkpoint to be the finish. I picked up the pace towards the 35km mark and what I thought was the final checkpoint… It wasn’t. After another 5km and another checkpoint my sense of humour failed completely. I’d run 40km at my fast 35km pace and my legs were hurting. But worse than that – the not knowing was killing me. I asked every crew member and no one knew. Only the doctor at the last checkpoint knew, and confirmed my suspicions, we had another 10km to go all the way back to the river. I was really frustrated. I completely understand when a race route is clear to runners that checkpoint staff don’t need to know how long it is to the finish but when it’s a changed route and the runners have no idea the communications have to be better. As a runner, when I’m helping at races, I find out where we are and all the answers to questions I know will be asked. Every runner was asking the same question ‘how far to go?’ with the same blank reply of ‘water every 5km’. But how many more 5kms?! I felt really sorry for the crew – but it later transpired the marking had been incorrect and we’d all done nearly 15kms longer than the original intended course. So thank goodness it was at night and we could manage our water sufficiently – but there were a lot of runners (me included) with sore legs and a sense of the never-ending. Getting the canoe back to camp I was in after 2am; when I’d expected to be back well before midnight. As it turned out my speedy start meant I finished 5th overall for the night stage, but I’d rather have been able to pace it better! In the final stretch I picked up Nicola, one of the Italians, and taught him the ‘ultra-shuffle’ while making him carry on, he claimed me to be the best woman ever and said he’d marry me – which he seemed to have forgotten the next day. Delirium.

Day 7: The final day started early with another shortened course – 11km to the Augrabies camp and finish. Alwyn and I had joked as he was only a minute and a half ahead of me we’d race it but in the end we ran together and finished with Duncan, which was nice as we’d run not very far apart for the whole race.

The finish with Alwyn and Duncan

The finish with Alwyn and Duncan

Nathan the Kalahari champion

Nathan the Kalahari champion

After some beers, photos and getting checked in we all went to the evening meal grateful for the first showers in a week and with most looking unrecognisable from the running kit and sand-encrusted bodies of the last week. The next day was a nice relaxing day where a few of us went to Moon rock – Richard and Hugh doing their best David Attenborough impressions and teaching me a thing or two about the desert flora and fauna. We saw a lot of otter poo (my current theory is this is spread around rivers by park rangers and otters are actually extinct). Then the awards presentation and another meat-laden dinner. Some runners made the most of fresh legs by ripping up the dance floor and others made sure the Namaqua sponsors didn’t take home too much wine…

So 250km in the desert turned out to be about 185km. I was delighted to finish first lady – especially with Altie in second and Driekie third. Driekie ran really consistently and seeing her caring for Carsten (the one Dane in the race) on the hottest long/cancelled stage when he was really suffering was just one of so many examples of a real group spirit that developed.

I learned a lot in 7 days in the desert. Not just which sweets melt first in 45 degrees – Haribo become gu at about 40 degrees, Licorice Allsorts have strange temperature-defying properties. Not only why a minus 5 sleeping bag is probably too hot for a heat wave in the Kalahari. I learned a lot from the runners who were there looking just to finish – the back markers spent so much time out in the heat of the day I was amazed more didn’t quit. The laughter and way a group dynamic can change with just a couple of positive people – after the disappointment of the cancelled long stage and the ambiguously long night stage the mood could have become very dark but with some people really looking on the bright side the group was really upbeat by the end.  I learned I’m not really bothered by the heat when I’m running (though I knew this to 35 degrees it was a bit of a test to see if it held over 50!) and having a good water, electrolyte and food plan sees me through. I knew already, but saw even more of, how grumpy and foul I can be when things outside my control are going wrong. Not knowing how long a run is when I’ve hammered it for 35 kms at my 35km pace and it’s now over 45kms; having to stop running when the temperature is over into the ‘dangerous for life’ range, getting lost on a loop in the dark – all things I’m rubbish at dealing with. Taking it out on others is something I’m going to curb in the future! Seeing how Nathan dealt with the trials and tribulations was lesson itself – not only his running but his kind nature impressed all around him. The standing ovation he received at the awards ceremony was a reflection of the awe we all have of his attitude as well as his athleticism. As well as a beautiful rose quartz trophy I also won a place in next year’s race – which I’m looking forward to already, hoping to get the full 250km KAEM experience but knowing I was part of the most extreme race they’ve had.

These races, multi-day races in particular, only take place thanks to incredible organisation and planning. I’m feeding back to Nadia and Estienne on some elements I think could be improved – though on reflection the overall organisation was good. The medical staff were exemplary; not just at the blisters and foot care but at dealing with some really life-threatening moments. The main doctor Charl was awake for days on end it turned out as he dealt with crew mishaps as well as the runners.

So what next? Well… next race for me starts on Tuesday, by when the monster cold I’ve got has to have shifted (bloody UK weather and germs)! I’m running five marathons in five days on the outskirts of Bolton – up and down Rivington Pike, each marathon a 3 mile loop, 8 times, and repeat for 5 days. Digging out all my cold weather gear and replacing dehydrated food and electrolyte drink with baked beans on toast and cups of tea. I’m going to really try and not whinge about the weather(forecast is 8-13 degrees, the daytime highs)…