It Never Rains in the Kalahari

There is something truly unique about the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM)-250km self sufficient race through the desert over 6 stages/7 days that brings you back time and time again. The Kalahari didn’t fail to deliver another exceptional week of stunning beauty, stiff racing competition and fabulous camaraderie.

Running alongside such beauty is part of the experience.

Running alongside such beauty is part of the experience.

After finishing KAEM in 2013 and having learnt a lot from other races completed this year, including Marathon Des Sables (MdS); preparation had an even more concentrated focus. I analysed my kit & nutrition to ensure there was no room for error and that I had the correct weight to energy ratios with race nutrition being the key. A major learning after MdS was to stop using nuts/low carb foods as fuel during racing hours and converting to high carb fuel such as gels/bars/clif shot bloks and liquid energy such as perpetuem. My nutrition plan worked so much better, nothing is ever 100% but it was close.  I will be doing a further blog purely on nutrition in the new year as I’m having my entire weeks food diary analysed which will be interesting to get some further feedback from an expert.

Returning to the Kalahari after finishing 14th overall last year I had the key target of being in the top 10 overall and pushing for the female win. This meant after MDS I had a small recovery period before training and races leading up to this began. Weekends were made up of back to back long runs, little social life, healthy eating, alarms going off at 4:30/5am weekdays to fit training runs in around work. To really ramp things up and to make sure we (my husband Dion was also competing) were as ready as we could be we turned our spare room into a heat chamber by purchasing a treadmill and sealing off the room with 3 big fan heaters and radiator bringing the room up 38 degrees.  We ran in here every day for 3 weeks prior to the event for anything from 1 hour to 3 hours with or without our race kit and bag on, with sweat flying everywhere.  It wasn’t pretty or fun, and we still haven’t seen the electricity bill so that joy is still to come!  All of what we did worked though, we were both the fittest and the strongest we have ever been and I believe the heat acclimatisation helped for sure, when trying to train in the UK at 0-15 degrees for a race in 40-50 degrees it is the only way to do it.

Prior to the race I had also been working with Marina Ranger who also ran in 2013 and wanted to go back to better her performance.  I am now working on putting together training plans for ultra runners and we were keen to work together to see what results we could get.  Marina came and spent a weekend with me in Edinburgh over the summer and we trained together and talked through a lot of ideas and I put together a plan for her, catching up regularly to help motivate and coach.  She worked hard through the plan and the results came for her to, coming in 18th overall (5th female) in just over 32hrs, nearly 11 hours quicker than 2013 where she came 37th overall (9th female).  Not only that but she has picked up the competitive bug and we are now working on a plan together to get her ready to compete for Transvulcania in May 2015 with me.

X-Bionic pink twins, Marina and I

X-Bionic pink twins, Marina and I

With 70 runners registered to compete this year in the 15th edition of the race and the field looking strong, I started eyeing off the competition from arrival at the transit hotel in Jo’Burg.  By the time we had all flew over to Upington, I was starting to wonder if it would even be possible to better my 14th overall placing from last year, these runners looked like they meant business.  It was fabulous to see a lot of familiar faces, including the ever welcoming race organisers Nadia and Estienne.  There was quite a group of us from last year’s event that had returned for more fun in the sand and sun along with many newcomers I would get to know well over the week ahead.

The first two nights pre race are spent at the Augrabies Falls Lodge giving all the competitors time to get to know each other over 2 dinners and Friday is race briefing, kit and medical checks where we all compare the sizes of everyone’s bags (I’m using the Raidlight Olmo 20L which I had used at Marathon des Sables earlier this year). I’m confident with my preparation and planning and a bag starting weight of 6.4kg so leave these discussions to the others and begin to concentrate on tomorrows start.

Runners congregate at the start.

Runners congregate at the start.

Race day arrives with the runners congregating at the start line amidst an electric atmosphere filled with pre race nerves and excitement. Our morning had kicked off with our own excitement when one of the local baboons tried to come into our room at 6am via the window, that could have been an interesting situation had he made it and scoffed all my energy bars!

It’s always interesting to see what people are wearing, with X-Bionic, Raidlight and Salomon a common choice.  I’m kitted out in X-Bionic marathon shorts and a bright pink Trick shirt, Raidlight desert hat, Injinji toe socks (under my knee length socks which are not compression but more to keep the sun off) and New Balance Leadville shoes covered with my bright pink gaiters from AR Racing, this combination works for me with no blisters on my feet and no chafing in the nether regions to cause discomfort.  After a few final words of luck the race starts with a cheer.  We may be running through the desert but the race starts off with a couple of river crossings to get your feet wet and a few of us have trouble even staying on out feet with hubby Dion taking a quick fall in the 3rd river crossing trying to keep up with the leaders.

Dion making his way through the river crossing.

Dion making his way through the river crossing.

The field spreads out pretty quickly and I focus on running my own race and not getting caught up in anyone else’s pace.  The route is well marked with markers every 200-400m along the route but you do need to keep your head up to make sure you don’t miss these along some of the sections, as well as making sure you spot any wildlife, 2 giraffes greet us only a few kilometres into day 1, this is what it’s all about.  It’s straight into action on day one with some tough technical sections to run along a river bank made up of soft sand and massive boulders for a few Km’s and finishing with long steep inclines to really get the legs working.  I get in on day 1 after 25km in 2h57 and in position 8th overall, 2nd lady with just 6mins separating me from Linda Doke (Salomon sponsored athlete from South Africa) my main rival for this race.  Dion does well coming in 4th in 2h36.  My strategy worked well today, maintaining my own pace & eating every hour along with a salt tablet and focussing on keeping the water intake up.
After an interesting night in a full blown African storm, where the heavens opened up we all finally managed to get some sporadic bits of sleep ready to face a new day.

At the start line with Dion

At the start line with Dion

With the mix of the rain sodden ground and the Kalahari heat the biggest challenge of Day 2 was the overwhelming humidity.  With 35km to tackle today it turned into the day I truly questioned myself; my abilities, my motivation, my mental strength with me feeling serious discomfort all through the stage and a complete lack of energy.  I held onto my 2nd lady position, but actually came in 3rd lady for the stage with both Linda and Bakiye ahead of me.  A time of 4h9 I finished 12th for the stage.  Dion seems to have an equally rough day out there finishing in 3h41 maintaining his 4th position after a gruelling day.

Some of the terrain along the way.

Some of the terrain along the way.

Yet again we spent a night of wet weather with a stunning lightning storm to keep us on our toes, with the earlier starts for Day 3 starting in the rain, luckily the skies cleared and we were able to head off for the 40km stage.  A stunning mixed route of gorges, massive rock walls and sandy river beds motivated me to no end and after my tough day yesterday I was stoked to be feeling strong and on fire today.  I was 100% focussed today and this was very apparent in my running style and my results, coming in at 4h21 as 1st female (5mins ahead of Linda) and 6th overall.  I felt so strong and happy when I crossed the line I was fist pumping the air and felt like I could have run it again!  A gorgeous camp spot awaited me as well, on the banks of the Orange River, so after a refreshing dip and wash I was feeling on top of the world and ready to face the long stage the following day.  Dion had a tremendous day as well coming in 3h44 and not only smashing 2nd place for the stage but moved up to 2nd overall.

The stunning Orange River

The stunning Orange River

The long day was 70km and was made up of all the runners leaving in waves of staggered starts, the first group leaving at 6am, I left at midday and Dion was in the last group (of 2) which left at 1pm.  Leaving in the heat of the day felt like the worst option after sitting around for hours seeing everyone else head off wishing you could get started, but I guess the bonus is it’s not as long until the sunsets.  I was in a group with Bakiye (previous winner) who was currently 3rd lady but without the leader Linda, so I wouldn’t know how we were placed until the end of the day.  I felt strong again and pushed hard as this was the day in my mind I truly wanted to smash.  I reached the 1st & 2nd checkpoints before Bakiye but then got lost in a gorge, losing about 15mins easily, and finding myself having to chase Bakiye down again which I managed before the 3rd checkpoint.  I was angry with myself but I had to try and control my anger as this could waste too much energy and lose the mental control that you need in a stage like this, so after screaming at the sky with a few expletives I decided what will be will be and just get on with it.  I’d been passing the back runners since checkpoint 2 and was using the next figures in the distance as race figures to catch them up as soon as possible, so I was flying.  I only needed to put my head torch on after the last checkpoint and made it back to camp utterly spent in 8h29, 1st female by 18mins and 5th place overall for the stage!  A double happy day with Dion also smashing it in 6h54 in 2nd overall, only 2 mins behind the race leader Mahmut for the stage, which now put him firmly in 2nd place overall.

Topping up the water bottles at one of the checkpoints

Topping up the water bottles at one of the checkpoints

The rest day is a great opportunity to spend some time catching up with others, having a swim or two in the river and eating, and eating.  I’d made sure I’d planned a big day of food, lots of small snacks to keep me busy and completely refuelling after 4 full days of hard racing.  With a marathon and a half to go, the end was starting to seem real.

Linda & I enjoying the rest day in the Orange River.

Linda & I enjoying the rest day in the Orange River.

With a mere 8 minutes overall separating me from Linda, today was make or break for the lead. Linda pulled ahead of me quickly from the start, my legs were really feeling it and I was in admiration as I watched the small group of runners she was in pull gradually away from me.  It was a tricky, technical day with temperatures soaring up to 42 degrees for the day.  The route had a bit of everything thrown in for fun and it really became a challenge to finish the day.  It is always a tough mental challenge on the 2nd last day as mentally you are preparing to finish, but the desert hasn’t finished with you yet.  As tradition would have it (2 years running now makes it a tradition) I finished the day dehydrated and with a good cry, heat & exhaustion will do this to a woman!  The heat in the camp was relentless that afternoon and there were some temperatures fraying in a number of runners, none of which you can take personally, that’s just the name of the game after such a tough day and week.  Linda and I had a chat, with 35mins separating her from me as the leader we both knew I wouldn’t be able to make that up on a half marathon distance the following day and happily agreed that we would run the last day together, neither of us were at risk of losing any overall position and we wanted to have just one day of taking it easy and chilling out. Linda was a deserved winner and it was an honour to race against her and learn from her during the week.

We enjoyed every step of the last day to the 26k finish line enjoying the stunning scenery including a small herd of springbok bouncing directly through our path, and soaked up every minute of crossing the finish line together triumphant, hand in hand.  A cold beer awaited us at the finish and I was in a quandary as to whether to have beer first or jump in the pool first.  The beer won out, but not by much as I quickly jumped in the pool beer in hand in full kit, lovely!

Linda & I cross the final finish line.

Linda & I cross the final finish line.

A fantastic week long race full of challenges and excitement, finished off with a day to relax at the Augrabies National Park ending with a superb evening awards ceremony where every runner receives their glass blown leopard trophy, each to their own round of applause and their own moment of fame.

A herd of glass blown leopards ready for the prize giving.

A herd of glass blown leopards ready for the prize giving.

Dion and I walked away with 2 trophies, with Dion 2nd overall and me coming 8th overall & 2nd lady (improving my time from last year by 5 hours), we received an additional trophy made out of rose quartz collected from the very desert we had just run through and a handmade silver pewter runner on top.  This now makes 2 of these trophies for me and they both sit pride of place on our mantle piece together.

The winning ladies (Lucja, Linda & Bakiye)

The winning ladies (Lucja, Linda & Bakiye)

The winning men (Stefan, Mahmut & Dion)

The winning men (Stefan, Mahmut & Dion)

It is with a full heart that we leave the Kalahari and our family of runners & supporters for another year……..we will be back, of this I have no doubt but it won’t be in 2015 which is looking like the year of the mountains for me with the following race calendar in place:
Jan 31/Feb 1 – XNRG Pilgrims Challenge (66 miles over 2 days)
Mar 6 – Transgrancanaria 125km single stage race with 8,500m of ascent (equivalent of Everest) with a 30hr cut off
May 9 – Transvulcania – 73.3km single stage race with 8,525m ascent
June 27 – Ultimate Trails 110km in The Lakes
July 25 – Salomon XReid 123km race across Norway which I will be running as a pair with Dion
August 29 – UTMB (If I get accepted – registration is in!)
November – TransOmania – 330km non-stop race across Oman

MdS – What worked well & not so well

I am a Marathon Des Sables finisher! I successfully completed the gruelling challenge and after months of meticulous planning, it’s now time to understand what worked for me and what didn’t. If you are planning to do this event or something similar, I hope this information may be of use to you. Se my original posting here for a detailed kit & food list of what I took.
Was my training right? I had done the training, and I was the fittest I’d ever been in my life, and it wasn’t enough. Not to finish how I wanted, yes I finished which can never be taken away, but maybe my training wasn’t quite right. I did the mileage that’s for sure, you can see that on my training plan, but there wasn’t enough hills (both as hill repeats and long distance miles in the hills), there was a lack of strength and conditioning and the lack of heat acclimatisation was an obvious hindrance to me as the heat really affected me. I spent too much time running on roads (the dark winter nights & mornings the main cause) which has of course helped me, I would have been worse off without all those miles, but hindsight is a wonderful thing, and my advice to anyone taking this on would be hills, hills and more hills. 6 stages is a long time and you need to be consistently strong, recover well (which I felt I did, that routine won’t change) and be ready to change your game plan mid race if needed. Get into any dunes and run and run and run! If you don’t have dunes, then hills to build up the power in your legs to get you through the leg strength sapping dunes.
Food was better this time around, it still needs improvement. Still too much sweet, I didn’t enjoy the muesli or the Pro Bars for breakfast and would look to change this to cous cous. I would swap out the tracker and Eat Natural bars for more Pepperami (they were a Godsend and I can eat them all day) and the tuna packs were a great boost too as they are wet, so quite easy to stomach. I’m keen to try out some gels again as Dion found these worked really well for him and gave him good bursts of energy along the way. I took 2 Oxo stock cubes and made a couple of cups of hot stock in the afternoons which was a tasty, salty drink which made you feel good and also quickly got some fluid in. For the little they weigh, I’d be taking one for each day of different flavours. Biltong is also a great source of protein and a tasty snack, my friend, Philip Boardman, who I had met at Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon had brought me some over from South Africa.
I was happy with my clothing. X-Bionic is brilliant and I wouldn’t look to change this. It offers great protection for your body in terms of both from the sun but I also had absolutely no chafing. The X-Bionic clothes keep you cool, but I also noticed during the night stage the top was also working at keeping my body warm as the temperatures dropped. My Raidlight hat with the neck flap was great in protecting my neck, I tried taking the flap off for the charity walk thinking I’d be ok, but quickly put that on as you could feel the sun beating down in minutes! My New Balance Leadville shoes did the job again, I had them in a half a size up from my normal running shoe, and the AR Desert gaiters from South Africa were great. No sand got in to cause irritation, and they lasted the distance. I wore Injinji toe socks which work well for me (zero blisters) and at the start of the race I had Compressport calf guards on as well, but due to the high extremes of heat mixed with the constriction of the calf guards, my legs, including my ankles, broke out in a horrible heat rash. I ditched the calf guards after the long stage and it seemed to help.
I didn’t seem to find the Raidlight Olmo 20L pack as comfortable as the 30L Raidlight I used in Kalahari. It seemed to sit too high on my waist, rather than on my hips, so more of the pack weight was on my shoulders, so even though my pack was a kilo lighter, it felt heavier; or was it just the other elements of heat & sand confusing my feelings? The drink bottles again worked great for me.

Ready to go - full kit rehearsal still at home

Ready to go – full kit rehearsal still at home

It was a bit cool at night and although I had a long sleeved skin, I ended up nabbing a long sleeve thermal top from tent mate Cheryl on day 1 when she was dumping weight from her pack, which I used every night. I had my buff which worked 4 fold; as a neck buff during the day if needed (I didn’t this time), wore it as a boob tube in the afternoon to save wearing a bra, then it was an eye mask early evening while people were messing around with torches, then finally as head cover during the night when it got cold. I also had a pair of little shorts and 3/4 compression tights for the afternoon/evenings. You could just wear your race kit all day and night but it is ‘refreshing’ to change into something else for a while. Some people take underwear and spare pairs of socks, I don’t run in underwear as that prevents chafing, and I wore the same pair of socks all week with no issues. My socks were walking themselves by the end of the week however! They looked very cute standing up all on their own two feet!

Fashion statement of my camp attire and a water bottle as a foam roller!

Fashion statement of my camp attire and a water bottle as a foam roller!

My Thermarest sleeping mat was as ‘comfortable’ as it could be, although it’s noisy when rolling around on it; that is until it got a puncture on the night of the long stage which was rather annoying and ultimately very uncomfortable for the last couple of nights sleep. The lack of pillow was also uncomfortable after the first few nights. I had been using my pack as a pillow, but then it started to get too empty so then used my kit, but that wasn’t enough, and it stunk! So I need to find a solution to this, possibly going back to the z-lite mat or similar and I have heard of someone using a condom blown up each night as a pillow….might be one to try out.
I added a small bottle of antiseptic hand gel to my pack before the start and was grateful for that small touch of hygiene throughout.
It is always interesting see what other people wear and bring with them, but it is all pretty similar in the end.  I hope these thoughts are of some help to you with your own plans.