Namib Desert Challenge 2011 race report

The Namib Desert Challenge: five days and 220km of running across sections of the oldest desert on the planet. The race is tough (self-sufficient per day), long (average distance each day 44km), gruelling (the highest dune in the world was saved for Day 5) and unbelievably hot (we ran in temperatures hot enough to slow roast a leg of lamb).

Many wonder why do we do these things... and voluntarily?
Only runners know that answer: we run because we can.
And because we love it.
Simple as that.
Running gives us joy, it illuminates our lives, it gives us perspective.
Most of all, it makes us feel alive!

This year was the third staging of the NDC and the biggest field yet – 42 runners from 10 different countries: SA, Namibia, UK, Ireland, Germany, Italy, France, Australia, USA and Canada. There were some top names at the start line – several very experienced desert runners (Marathon des Sables, Sahara Desert, Atacama Crossing), a Jungle Marathon kid, and a handful of fearless adventure racing champs. It was obvious from the start this race was going to be a tough one.

The race covered an extensive area of Sesriem and the Namib Naukluft National Park, ending in the heart of the Sossusvlei – after summiting Big Daddy, one of the highest dunes in the world.

Day 1: 42km
Our race started in the Sesriem area, and took us over grassy gravel plains, through rocky outcrops (speckled with bushman paintings, which I missed and only heard about later) and over a couple of low mountain passes. Typically for the first day of a stage race, we went out at a fast pace. (It happens every time, but I’ve learned to just go with it – enjoy the fresh-leg feeling while it lasts!)

Inevitably, as is common for day 1, everyone was checking out their fellow runners, seeing who slotted in behind who, observing pace and style, and watching out for any strengths or weaknesses evident. Of course a race like this is long, much can change over 220km, but from the very first starting yell, the competition began.

And this year the winner ran clear within minutes of the start: Australian adventure racing demon Damon Goerke dashed off into the heat shimmer every day for five days, leaving Graham Booty (UK) and Wayde Kennedy (SA) waging battle for second and third positions.

I was never close to those speedsters, but I had my own battles to fight. I was well aware that Erica Terblanche, ladies winner of the 7-day Sahara Desert Marathon in 2008 (she beat the 2nd woman by a clear 12hrs), is a desert-running machine and would be hungry for first spot. I knew I’d have to keep my eye on Erica, but wasn’t sure who else. That’s always what Day 1’s for: gauging the field.

Distance running over fairly even terrain requires steady pace and consistency, and that’s pretty much what NDC is about. It calls for head-down-and-dig kind of running – with a good deal of multitasking thrown in to ensure you don’t miss the incredible landscapes and the occasional ostrich, oryx or springbok trotting by.

By the end of Day 1, I had a rough idea of who I was up against. Coming in 5th overall, I’d managed to glean a 22 min lead on Erica, which I was relieved about, although I was well aware it was very early days and anything could happen. Just two minutes behind me was last year’s men’s winner, Andrew Collier – I knew he’d be hungry for a win this year, having come second overall last year to ultramarathon desert queen Mimi Anderson (UK), who cleaned up the entire field in a very tidy 25:23.

Day 2: 46km
It took me all of the first five minutes of yesterday’s stage to realise that I’d brought WAY to much food for this race. Each day I had enough food on my back to feed half the field, dammit, and I was lugging this for 42km+ each day. The Italians had it right: after each day’s run, they’d munch their way through a pile of crackers and a fat wedge of parmesan cheese (36 month matured...). Bang for bucks calories in a single brick, and not a heavy brick, at that.

Today’s route gave us our first taste of sand – and a healthy dose of it, at that. The first 20km or so were easy underfoot, varying between narrow sandy track, dry riverbeds and wide open gravel plains. And then we hit Elim Dune, said to be the world’s longest dune. Now, don’t let the biblical name conjure up images of goodness and grace – there should be no such associations when trying to run along this damn dune. From afar Elim Dune looks completely innocuous - there’s nothing dramatic about it at all. In fact, right now with all the rain Namibia’s enjoyed, it barely looks like a dune at all for all the grass growing on it.

the end of Elim Dune

But be not fooled, this Elim is the devil in disguise. The jeep track we had to follow was of deep, dry, dark red sand that was thick underfoot, making it virtually impossible to run on. Every step was a slog that made the calf muscles scream and our swollen feet shift in our shoes.

Eventually the dune spat us out into a dry riverbed just a couple of kilometres from the finish line. What is it about the last couple of km’s of any race/stage that they’re far l-o-n-g-e-r than any other? They go on forever, particularly when they’re in a dry riverbed in a desert under the baking noonday sun...

That day I bagged another 28 mins on Erica, widening the gap to a more comfortable measure. I’d also managed to get a 27 min lead on Andrew. What sparked my interest was that only about four or so minutes ahead of me in the overall running was Italian Francesco Galanzino, winner of the 4 Deserts overall championship award in 2007. Maybe... perhaps... possibly there was a chance I could catch him over the next three days...

Today chewed up five runners and spat them out with feet so gruesomely blistered they could barely walk. Forget the speedster runners, the true superstar in the camp was our medic, Amy Lichtenstein – she treated every blistered toe, every loose toenail and every suppurating chafe as if our lives depended on it, and she saved the race for more the half the field.
(Not for sensitive viewers!) Amy working her wonders on some rotting toenails (not mine, please note!)

Day 3: 42km
Sandy riverbeds, rocky ground and long stretches of grassy gravel plains made up today’s route. It was my favourite day. I saw springbok pronging (such a perfect phrase that!), ostrich strutting their stuff, and a beautiful black-backed jackal dashing through the bushes just ahead of me as I run across a dry riverbed.

At around 25km I caught up with Francesco, who seemed to have slowed down. We chatted for a bit before I went ahead, and he seemed to be battling a bit. If I was to get ahead of him, now was my chance to make the break, so I put my head down, picked up the pace and dug. By the time I’d reached the finish, I’d established a gap of just under 10 min, putting me 6 mins ahead of him and in 4th position overall. Erica was now an hour or so behind, which was reassuring but knowing her endurance capability, I knew I’d have to run strong, not only to maintain my lead but, if at all possible, try my best to further establish it.

rain sodden dunes

Sleeping out in the bush is always a special experience. Of course where we were in the Namib, there were no predators to worry about, and at times out the darkness we’d hear the shrieks of jackals in the distance, the hoot of owls and the gentle cooing of a disturbed wood dove. Around midnight that night we had a terrific rain storm that had us all scurrying out our two-person tents to drop the flaps and keep the rain out. In true African storm style, the lightning, thunder and pelting rain was over in half an hour, and the night was peaceful again.

Day 4: 56km
We were all apprehensive about today – it was the big one, and probably the make or break of many people’s race. From the route description, the daunting factor of today’s route wasn’t the terrain so much as the distance, particularly considering we already had 128km in our legs. Not at all daunting, that is, apart from the #*% dune we had to slog up and down in the 56th kilometre before crossing the finish line!

Apart from that (place expletive of choice here) dune, today involved a lot, and I mean a LOT, of long, flat, endless running. We had a lot of ground to cover in order to get from where we started – the Sesriem Canyon (highlight #1 of today) – to halfway to Sossusvlei: Dune 45 (highlight #2, cruel though it was).

wading through the Sesriem Canyon
About 8km into the route, we hit the canyon. With all the rain of the past two months, the water was deeper than we expected, and shorties like me needed help... forget wading, I couldn’t even touch the bottom! Race organisers Terry and Gary had rolled the dice for which of them would be on canyon duty, and Gary had lost: he spent more than an hour wallowing in the (apparently snake-infested, we learned afterwards!) muddy water helping runners keep their packs raised above their heads as they swam across.

Many hours, and a lot of running later, came Dune 45. As we’d been warned by last year’s runners, the enormous red New Balance branded finish line was placed at the base of the dune, and could be seen by the runners from miles away through the heat haze. In a cruel twist of sick humour (sorry guys!), the organisers required the runners to pass the banner and head on up the dune, slogging all the way to its summit to touch the New Balance flag. After 55km of running, it’s a BIG ask – the mind protests madly and the muscles agree. But the feeling of reaching the summit, turning around and charging down the dune is as exhilarating as the slog up is punishing. All the pain and effort is forgotten and momentum takes over!
me heading up Dune 45
But it was the heat that was the toughest challenge of day 4. Being the longest stage, we were all out there for far longer than on the other days, and by afternoon the sun had heated the earth to scorching point. The heat was grilling down and baking upward. I felt like I was running in a furnace. My every instinct screamed for me to slow down and walk, but walking was worse:

Note to self: three reasons to run rather than walk when in the desert:
• Flies LOVE walkers (what the hell are flies doing in the middle of the desert anyway??)
• When you walk, you lose the breeze you create when running (Proof that running’s cool)
• My favourite mantra in the heat: the more you run, the sooner you’re done.

By the end of Day 4, I’d established a 31 min gap between me and Francesco, which I was happy about. Erica had had a strong day and I only managed to add two minutes to my lead, but it meant that I was 1:02 ahead, which was reassuring... providing tomorrow went well.

Day 5: 28km
For me today’s stage started with a scare: when I got up and out my tent, I was limping – I wasn’t able to put weight on my right leg! I’d had a slight niggle in my hammy for a couple of weeks (caused during a 100km week of road running I did a month back after I’d twisted my ankle – blame it on tar) but it had eased and felt ok. Seems instead it had saved itself til now, the final day of a five-day stage race. Nice.

At the starting yell, I hobbled off like an amputee late for a bus. Everyone ran past me and away into the distance. Great, I thought, so this is how my first ever desert race is going to end – for four days I work hard against top male runners to establish 4th position overall, and on the final day with just 28km to go, I can’t even walk properly. That’s cruel.

I shuffled my way along for the next few km’s, determined to shed the damn hammy issue – or be able to just ignore it if I had to. Ever so gradually it eased, and by the 5th km I was running evenly, had picked up pace and was able to make my way one by one through the field. Such relief!

the pan we sloshed through, with Big Daddy in the background
Today we had two dunes to conquer: one at 14km (a baby in comparison with yesterday’s Dune 45) and one at 23km (appropriately named “Big Daddy”, known as the highest dune in the world). To waste words on the first half of today’s stage would be a shame – the magnificence of this stage began in the last 14km. I’ve never touched such contrasts: one minute we were crunching our way across a parched, cracked clay pan that felt like bone china underfoot, and the next sloshing through shin-deep muddy water across a 400m wide pan, surrounded by age old burnt red dunes.

Then, the NDC’s piece de resistance: Big Daddy. OMG, what a whopper this daddy was. He towered above us, stretching his spine up and up like a winding staircase. Only this staircase wound very s-l-o-w-l-y and had no stairs, just thick, loose sand of 45 degree incline, that wound its way into the heavens for 345m. This daddy was a monster with a sick sense of humour.
view looking back from a third of the way up Big Daddy
It took 1.5km of slog to mount the highest dune in the world, and it took me 27 min. I just put my head down and ploughed. Eventually I reached the peak. Then ooooover the side I shot, down an almost sheer drop that was bliss to run on. It took a couple of seconds and a not-so-tidy head-over-heels to learn that deep heel placement was the way to go, then I let gravity do its thing. Damn, I haven’t had that much fun in sand since I was a kid!

Running across Dead Vlei, the starkest “dead pan” imaginable, was eerie – it was the very epitome of desert. But then the final couple of km’s to the finish line was brilliant – knowing the race was over and I had my win (women’s) in the bag. I crossed the line in 2:58, bagging 4th place overall (22:55) and the breaking the women’s record by 2hrs 28min.

NDC, what a race! And the Namib Desert, what a place to run a race!

A huge thanks to Terry & Gary and the whole Kinetic Events team for staging this brilliant run, and for going the extra mile in so many ways to make the race so memorable for all of us. NDC is a must on the international ultra running calendar!

From me personally, a huge thank-you to Velocity Sports Lab for backing me for NDC and enabling me to do this race – it was a privilege to represent Velocity Sports Lab again!

Thanks too to PeptoSport and PeptoPro for powering me through the desert at pace! I did the entire five-day race fuelled only by PeptoSport. It’s The Bomb!

And to my long-term sponsor, Salomon, for always providing the best kit I ever need. I’m proud to be a Salomon kid and be able to fly the Salmon flag high!

* photos credited to David Montgomery

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