Wednesday, 9 April 2008

The morning after

Sitting in camp the full scale of what we and the other competitors had been through began to become clear.
The race had been won by Irish Tom who finished the course in an astonishing 17 hours despite getting lost in the early stages and adding an extra five kilometres to his trek. He had spent the entire journey on his own.
Next in was Andy whose time was about 22 hours. Most of the others had finished less than an hour before us.
We had come equal seventh! Individual stories were swapped as we all hobbled around our tents. We compared shocking blisters and talked of our experiences through the night. One of the competitors had seen in the beam of his head torch the terrifying stare of a hyena.
It can only have been 15 feet away from him. Much of the talk was of the last desolate 12 miles and the mental and physical agony endured on that final trek to the finish line.
Ahead of us now lay sleep and our first shower for five days. They were moments to cherish.

Check point 5 to finish. The salt road

We left check point five elated after a quick stop to take on our last load of water. We were lifted by the thought that we had nearly finished. It was a mistake. The last 12 miles of the Namibia Ultra Marathon were our darkest hours.
Twelve miles, it doesn’t sound much, but with more than 60 already in your legs those 12 were by far the hardest few thousand steps I have ever taken. By now the pain of my blisters had numbed but the muscles of my legs had begun to turn to iron.
But the biggest battle was in my head. You pray that every corner you approach will be the last knowing in your heart of hearts you have many more to go. You pray you can stop with every step knowing with every step that you can’t.
The salt road runs along the south of the Skeleton Coast bordered by mountains and salt plains. By now our powers of endurance were waning. Lack of sleep and the sheer exhaustion in our bodies began to sap our minds and at times we both suffered from hallucinations and on occasion we both felt nauseous and ready to drop.
We felt the end would never come. Pete’s watch became our ruler because we knew if we kept going at pace we would make it.
Eventually out of the early morning light came a white race van with a race marshal. “Three miles to go,” he told us. We were nearly there.
It is impossible to describe how far or how hard those three miles felt. Your body and your mind are at such a low that even when we could see the finish it seemed a million miles away. The last ten steps and there was a ripple of applause and some loud cheers from our fellow finishers and race supporters.
We had finished the Namibia desert Ultra Marathon within the 24 hour time limit. In fact we had 19 minutes to spare!
We shook hands and hugged each other. We sat in camping chairs in a dusty camp site on the Skeleton Coast and were given a cup of tea. We had done it. We had actually done it.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Stages 4 and 5 – Crater to the coast

These two stages are one story because the darkness and the silence of the desert took us into a world of surreality.
A stunning canopy of stars was the only feature through seven hours of trekking when you see the world by the light of your head torch and are guided by tiny glow sticks placed along our route far away in the distance.
For us this was a journey of almost total silence and the high points were a glimpse of light that always seemed impossibly far away.
On and on and on. This was the greatest test. There was nothing to talk about apart from the sheer hell of what we were doing.
There was nothing to consider but going on. We went through check point four at 1.20am unsure whether we would make the distance in the 24 hour limit.
My blisters were beginning to burn and even taking my shoes off to change my socks became a major decision.
The pain of putting them back on again is indescribable. Many times before we have discovered the only way is to keep going, so keep going we did. At about 3.30am we get a boost.
Our silence and determination has paid off. A passing race official tells us we have nine kilometres to go before check point five.
We quickly calculate that if we can cover this distance in 90 minutes it will give us four hours to complete the last leg. We both drop into the zone and stretch our pace not forgetting to keep taking on water and calories in the form of nuts and handfuls of jelly babies.
For the first time in hours we cracked a joke. We knew we could do it.

Stage 3 – Through the Messum crater

The first three kilometres through the river bed were intense as the heat of the sun radiated back on to us from a sheer rock wall but soon the day began to cool and we embarked on our best section of the race.
A short half hour climb took us to the lip of the crater and stretching below us was a stunning sea of green speckled with two pairs of springbok.
By now we were laughing and joking, inspired by the landscape and the exhilaration of being in a place where few humans ever tread.
Untouched, rarely traversed, the Messum crater is a special place. As the sun began to set we took our last pictures and packed away the camera.
We knew a long dark night lay ahead. Slightly disorientated we used our GPS to take a bearing for the first time.
As we trekked across the crater we felt we were nearly half way, and in a race of this distance, these moments of elation quickly seem false.
Darkness was closing in and for the first time we were able to see a strobe light marking the third check point. Again, the last three kilometres seemed everlasting but we arrived strong and were again quickly into our check point routine. Again we had caught up with some others and were able to get information about the front runners.
Everyone was suffering and we could share experiences of aches, pains and blisters. One runner had fallen foul of the sun and was pulled out by the race doctor suffering from extreme heat exhaustion and severe leg cramps.
The perverse nature of the desert climate meant we were suddenly cold and pulled our running fleeces and leggings on to keep out what felt like an icy wind. We cooked for a second time and left on a downhill slope into the darkness

Stage 2. Check point two – river bed to crater entrance

This was the section of our journey when the Namib desert became a cauldron. We learned later that all the competitors found their race plans shredded and their bodies drained as temperatures soared to an unbelievable 46 degrees.
The scenery was starkly stunning but the give of the gravel river bed began to burn our calf muscles and eat into our mental reserves. This section seemed endless and our pre-race briefing began to pay dividends as we took a break in the shade of a solitary thorn tree to escape the merciless heat for just a few minutes.
Though it was unspoken the task ahead seemed impossible and I began to question in my own mind whether we had trained hard enough for this unbelievable environment.
It seemed the other racers had streamed ahead and we felt daunted and alone by what lay before us.
On and on we trekked and trekked, our search switched between good ground and the route ahead. In this race going the wrong way could prove fatal. When you train hard together you get a sense of how far you travel in a certain time.
This was to prove a friend and enemy. We sensed we were closing on check point two and ahead of us we spotted a shape on a mountain side we were sure was a tent. Heads down for an hour long speed march only to discover the shape was a rock. It was a major morale sapper. We still had two kilometres to go.
But we made it, and this stop proved to be our biggest lift of the race as we caught up with four of the other runners and were relayed information that everyone, including the ultra specialists, were finding this task tough to handle.
Clean socks, drinks and handfuls of raisins improved our mood, as did the feeling that we were not completely alone.

Stage 1. Camp to check point one.

Within minutes you could feel the heat. We immediately knew the unflattering desert hats we were wearing would be our greatest ally.
Under foot the crunch of the Brandberg gravel plains beat out a rhythm that would become all too familiar for the next 24 hours.
Morale was high as one by one we picked out the tin route markers placed on high ground through the first section that initially ran along the side of a dirt road before turning west along a dry river bed.
Ahead of us the field began to pull away, creating a scattered convoy of individuals tackling the ultimate challenge.
Around us the desert and the mountains provided this stunning backdrop to the singular battles we were all to fight.
We quickly realised that the satellite image map presented us with a misleading picture of our mission. It did nothing to capture the distances or the terrain we had to cover on this journey in an inferno.
We quickly lost sight of the other runners and alone we began to tick off the kilometres. We saw desert hares, rats and giant insects and away to our right we would catch glimpses of the race support vehicles who were monitoring our progress.
Our first section was marked with happy conversation, regular stops for pictures and to appreciate the magnificence of our surrounds. For the moment we were pain free but already the distance we had ahead was becoming a reality.
The first sight of check point one led us to a feeling that was to become familiar over the next day. The last kilometre before we rested was murderous.
We arrived in good spirits and quickly went into our routine of foot care, water replenishment, and on this occasion cooking a rehydrated meal on a hastily put together field stove, to refuel our bodies. Spaghetti bolognaise with extra salt.

Into the abyss

The low murmur of softly spoken Afrikaans woke us before the sun rose. Deep in your stomach is a feeling of nervous anticipation and fear.
The camp was waking up slowly, the cooks preparing breakfast as the competitors emerged blearily from their tents.
Water bottles were filled, energy drinks mixed and running bags carefully packed, unpacked, and packed again.
Every item was assessed for its weight against necessity, many were discarded as we tried to minimise the amount we would carry. Suddenly the task ahead of us had become very real.
The heat of the day before had been a lesson and a race requirement to carry a minimum of two litres of water through every stage meant even the most basic running packs were a burden to be reckoned with. 9am and the sun is just rising above the mountain.
It is already hot. In the desert around us there is nothing but heat and dust. On the start line, which is made of jeep tracks in the sand, stand Tom, from Northern Ireland, Andy ,aged 46, of North Yorkshire, Joakim Jonnson, 32, of Sweden, Ken Dunne, 35, Alan Logue, 35, Will May, 25, from London, a 40-year-old myself and my compadre Pete Holdgate, aged 56, and Chris McCarthy a 25-year-old from London.
All of were here for different reasons. All of us had prepared differently. But one thing we had in common was that ahead of us lay 120 kilometres of unknown desert and pain.
The route we were to take would lead us across gravel plains, river beds, sand expanses with no horizon and through the magnificent Messum crater, a 20k wide scar on the earth caused by a meteorite collision millions of years ago.
Ahead of us lay individual journeys that would stay with us forever, but parts of which we would prefer to forget. The nerves were evident in our silence but that ended with a single shot from a pistol fired by race starter Farn.
The race had begun and all set out with a muted cheer and mutual calls of good luck. I can only describe what lay ahead through my own experience and observations of the other competitors. Each will have their own story to tell.