RACING THE PLANET – NAMIB DESERT RACE
This is my first attempt at writing a blog! I have done numerous races myself from parkruns to multi day ultras as well as marshal, sweep and first aid at events so I understand to a certain extent what the competitors are going through! I would really love to be able to do a huge adventure race like this but having had previous disc problems with my back, I would not take the risk of carrying a heavy bag for that extended period of time. Anyway I hope that it may be of interest to tell what it is like to be on ‘the other side’ of a 7-day adventure race. I have previously volunteered at the Atacama Crossing in Chile and at the Gobi March in China as my husband Donald competes in the races. We both love traveling, running and adventure so this type of ‘holiday’ goes down well! The race consists of roughly a marathon a day for the first three days, a double marathon on the fourth, a rest day on the fifth, then a marathon length dune stage on the sixth day finishing with a 10k on the last day. The competitors must be self-sufficient throughout, carrying all their own food and equipment for the week.
Like the runners, volunteers have to take all of their own equipment and food and although their bags are transported from the camp and checkpoints, the weight needs to be kept down as you often have to lug them quite far and over sandy dunes!
We slept in basic eight-man tents, as did the runners – these are kept in a separate area from the competitor tents and you can share with whoever, whenever. So I spent the week sleeping around!!
They share the same basic toilet facilities (Namibia was very good compared to Gobi!) but there are no showers or running water.
In addition to the volunteer team there is the management team, the camp team, the vehicle drivers and the media team. It is a huge operation!
TRAINING DAY – HURRY UP AND WAIT!
We have an all-day training today in Swakopmund, which is a small German colonial resort town with quaint cake shops and coffee houses and is a centre for adrenaline activities. The volunteers are a very multinational bunch from US, Australia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Canada, South Africa, China, Israel and UK. I have worked with some of the volunteers before in both Atacama and Gobi and it is so lovely to see them again – it feels like a family get together.
Training day was long and covered rules and regulations, health and safety, mandatory kit, communications, penalties and a medical talk from the all US medical (ER) team. We checked and counted the equipment in the check point bags and then practiced setting up a check point. This is quite a detailed procedure with 2 tents (one medical), flags, banners, a funnel, flooring etc. We also covered how to do ‘the book’ – this is where the timings are kept but there is a double-checking design to it so we can make sure everyone is accounted for and we haven’t lost someone in the back of beyond! It was also stressed the importance of being on time – hence the phrase hurry up and wait!! In the evening we all went out for pizza where I met an amazing lady, Blanca Fernandez, a previous volunteer for racing the planet, who is cycling around Africa on her own – same age as me – very inspiring!!
We are up early for 8am team meeting at competitor hotel which is about 15mins away. We set up the registration area which starts at 9.15am. I am on kit check ascertaining that the competitors have all the mandatory equipment and clothes for the week. Its hard work as there are 36 different nationalities amongst the 108 competitors and many of them don’t speak much English and don’t have the full kit – in which case I am unable to sign their race passport and they get sent out to the shops!! When they return with the missing item, I can sign their book – or, if it’s still missing, it is passed on to the management team and they may be given a time penalty! The doctors then check their electrolytes and the calorie content of their food. It’s so interesting to see the differences in competitors’ bags – ranges from 5.5kg to 14kg! Certainly makes me realise I have far too much stuff with me!
We then get loaded onto 3 buses and a fleet of jeeps – everyone gets a packed lunch. It’s like a school trip as we are required to count and check that we have all the correct people on the correct bus – extra complications when several have to get back off to go to the loo!! We set off in a long convoy. It is a 3-hour journey through the desert – we can see mountains in the distance but it’s pretty dull. It is one of the remotest parts of the world – very few people live in this harsh terrain and ‘Racing the Planet’ need special permission to use the area for the race. We arrive at the gates to the Skeleton Coast where camp 1 has been set up. We are greeted by African singers and local Himba tribespeople dancing which makes it feel very special as well as very far away from home. I am told I am sweeping tomorrow so have extra lesson on communications – radio, sat phone, GPS tracker and Nokia. Sweeping means that you go at the back of the race making sure that all the competitors are safe as well as collecting the route marking flags and any litter – it can mean being on your feet for a long time with periods of running and then walking depending on the pace of the final competitor. I meet Donald at the campfire and join him for my main meal of freeze dried pasta. Last meeting is at 8pm with more details about tomorrow.
THE SYMPHONY OF LIFE – STAGE 1
The volunteers are up around 5am as team meeting at 6.15am to talk about any changes to plan. I load my big bag onto the CP2 jeep and then they are all off. I have breakfast with some of competitors as the race does not start till 8.30am.
One of the sweepers jobs is to go around the competitors with a beeper which clears their timing chip ready for the day – as this is the first day, we have to chase quite a few, as they are still learning the protocols of the race! I am sweeping with Cary – a psychologist from Washington whose partner Mark is also doing the race. Its cold so we are well wrapped up.
We are all off, enthusiastically, at 8.30am – the course is pretty flat with hills in the distance and pretty lichen. We get a very unexpected, heavy downpour of rain and get soaked before finding the jackets at bottom of bag – of course it goes off then! Strangely many of the competitors at the front end of the race don’t get any rain! Then the sun comes out and everything warms up although it’s still quite windy. My shoes keep filling up with sand, which is very annoying, and, as a result, I am having to empty them out every 5 miles or so! I am also finding it very uncomfortable to run with the heavy rucksack, yet I don’t have nearly as much in it as the competitors, just the mandatory sweeping kit, communication stuff and a few personal bits and bobs. We see a snake and several lizards en-route. Rather surprised to find I have a wee blister on my toe – I’ve only done 14 miles!
We change over at CP2 and help to take down the CP and then it’s off in the jeeps back to camp 2. This is right beside the Atlantic and a fierce wind is blowing in. The native Himba tribespeople are back to support the race finish with a few babies who are all so very well behaved.
Donald finishes in 40th place but his plantar fasciitis is really painful, and he is worried it may put him out of the race. I learned that the leader completed the 27 sandy miles in just 3 hours 15mins. Impressive time, even without carrying a full backpack!
I have a quick baby wipe shower and then help at the finish line and then cyber tent. The cyber tent is an area set up with several tablets where competitors can send and receive emails as well as update their blogs depending on the package they have bought for the race, As volunteers we have to check their race passports and help them to use the equipment. I have to wrap up as there is a cold wind straight off the ocean. We have a meeting at 8pm with tomorrows details and then off to bed as I am knackered!! The tents flap all night as they are buffeted and blown by the wind!!
DIAMOND TRAIL OVER SCOTTS BRIDGE – STAGE 2
We are up at 5.30am as the morning meeting is at 6.30am – just a quick coffee, fill the flask and then off in the jeep through the desert to CP3 with CP Captain Bev – I worked with Bev in Atacama and it is good to do so again. Lots of jackals and hyenas en-route and they watch us set up the CP from the dunes in the distance. I have my home mixed porridge concoction which is rather good! The runners are really spread out today so it’s a long day in the dunes. I did ‘the book’ which takes a bit of concentration!
One of the drivers Jacques shows me a hyena den in the dunes and explains how old the footprints are and a bit about hyena life. Eventually we get packed up and head off to camp 3 which is in deep sand and very close to the sea. We top up jeep with water supplies and check all equipment is ok. I then have my dinner with Donald of re-hydrated shepherd’s pie which was yummy – he has had a good day and moved up a few places. We have an early meeting at 7pm and then off into the tents as its rather cool.
THE SKELETON BEACH RUN – STAGE 3
We are up at 5am today and have a coffee by the fire in the dark then team meeting at 6.30 for any updates and leave sharp after that.
I am off to CP2 today with CP captain Mary. I have worked with Mary at both Atacama and Gobi and she is the founder of the 4 Deserts/Racing the Planet and quite an extraordinary and lovely lady! It is a long drive to CP2 but we get a very special treat when we arrive as it is set beside a huge colony of cape fur seals. There must be thousands of them as far as the eye can see, all jumping about or surfing in the waves or lounging on the beach and don’t seem to be too bothered by us.
A nosey jackal comes quite close to check us out and we can see several others watching us from a distance. Again, it’s rather cold as we’re beside the ocean but we keep warm with lots of cheering and running up the dunes to check on the competitors coming along the beach. Once everything is packed up we head off to camp 4 where I am delighted to find it is a bit warmer and where I help at the finish line and cyber tent. Tomorrow is the ‘long march’ which is a double marathon so there will be 9 Cps instead of the usual 4 – so we have to prepare 9 CP bags, equipment and water and get it all ready to be loaded onto the jeeps. We are invited for a meal with the camp/driver team – a nice change to the rehydrated meals but kept top secret from the competitors. Delicious spaghetti bolognaise, coleslaw and BBQ German style fish. Everyone was such good fun and I had a lovely chat with MC who is Dr Philips girlfriend. Dr Philip Stander is a desert lion expert/researcher who is keeping an eye on the course and making sure it does not go into lion territory. I discover that the race route was changed the day before and did not go over Scott’s bridge as a lioness with cubs has a den under it!! Team meeting at 8pm to find out duties for long march tomorrow. Tonights tent is really uncomfortable with lots of rocks and once again being buffeted by the wind.
THE LONG MARCH THROUGH THE WORLDS OLDEST DESERT -STAGE 4
We are up at 5am as team meeting is at 6am and we have one or two jackals in the camp spectating. I am on CP2 and then sweeping with Mabasa as far as CP4, which is about 13 miles. It is a long drive through the desert – first there is a mist and then the sun gradually breaking through revealing amazing scenery.
We follow the course team who are laying out some last-minute markers and I just love seeing the course all the way. As we approach CP2 we see Dr Philip parked up in the distance in his research vehicle checking all is ok with the lions.
He tells us that there may be leopards in the deep gulley behind us so best to stay away from the water. Apparently, leopards will not harm anyone unless you go too near and disturb them! Dr Julie is CP captain today and I have worked with her before in Gobi. She is an ER doc from Utah and loves to keep fit so we end up doing press ups and planks while waiting for the first runners! CP2 is fast and furious and I only just manage to eat some breakfast before I am off sweeping.
I am sweeping with Mabasa who is originally from Zimbabwe but now lives in Namibia and has volunteered in the race here before. We are off through barren and beautiful mountains and not too sandy underfoot. Although its hot there is a breeze and I don’t feel too uncomfortable, although I seem to be quite thirsty. Have fiddled with rucksack but it’s still hurting my back. We see lots of lizards, a few springboks and strange multi coloured beetles. There are also lots of Walvitchia plants – Namibias national plant some of which are over 1000 years old.
We get to CP4 around 5pm and help to take down just as the sun is setting. Then off to CP5 where we can get hot water for food.
We then head off in the jeep with Riitta, who is one of the event directors and driver Kristof to check all the other CPs and whether they need Mabasa or myself to help. I have worked with Riitta at both Atacama and Gobi as well as meeting up in Malaysia – she is an amazing athlete herself! Fabulous to see the whole route and check the runners are ok. Help a bit at each CP and then move on – we also put out some extra glow sticks to help folks find their way in the dark. Eventually get into camp just after midnight and go to bed and completely zonk out for 5 hours and have the best sleep I have had for months!! I then head over to help at finish line where the last competitor comes in at 8.20am (cut off is 9.30am).
REST DAY – FOR COMPETITORS!
I have breakfast with Donald, who is very happy to have finished the long stage in 19th place – feels ok but his feet are sore and rather messy with large blisters and he is off to check with docs. It’s a lovely sunny day with a breeze to keep us cool. Asked if I would sweep the dune stage tomorrow so that is exciting! We have a bit of down time too till 3pm – Colin from Australia makes us a lovely fresh coffee with his wee coffee making machine – I so miss my coffee!! Also help Bobby, another Australian and a fit outdoorsy guy with his knitting!! Not one of my skills I expected to use here! He is challenging stereotypes – love it!
There is a team meeting at 3pm and then we sort out the CP bags and equipment for stage 5 and load water onto the jeeps. I try to sort out my rucksack again to see if I can stop it hurting my back. I have tea with Donald and some of the British competitors and then we listen to a talk from Dr Philip about his work with the local desert lions which is so interesting. The local folks who look after the fires and boil the water break into harmonious, atmospheric singing which is very enjoyable. We then get an early night as last team meeting is at 7pm.
DUNE DAY – STAGE 5
We are up at 5am today and feeling rather tired as I slept with the guys last night and there was rather a lot of snoring! It is a misty and cool morning again, but the sun breaks through after breakfast. I am sweeping from the camp to CP2 with Mabasa as well as Peter from China.
We clear the competitor chips and are off for about 13 miles. Success at last with the rucksack – its comfy!! The Korean guy at the back is suffering with a painful leg and two of his friends stay at back to help and encourage him. Eventually one and then the other have to head off as they are afraid of being timed out.
The course is lovely and goes along a dried up river bed with mountains on either side and then we hit the dunes. They are just beautiful, but the competitor is having to walk backwards up and down the deep sand as his leg is so painful. Eventually a jeep is sent out to get us as we are 30 mins over the cut off and still have about 1k to go! We quickly pass over sweeping equipment to the next sweep team who have to chase down the new final competitor. We help to pack up CP2 and head off in jeep to camp 6 which is on the coast again and there is a cool breeze. This camp is next to a camp site with flushing toilets, taps and sinks!! The jeeps are all completely emptied and equipment put into piles for inventory later. The campsite tents are full of sand which is all blowing about so I am not looking forward to tonights sleep. I help at cyber tent and finish line. Donald has finished strongly again in 22nd place. I then head out in the roving car with Kristof the driver a few miles out on the course – we stop beside a sand airfield. We check the final competitors through and then help the sweepers to collect some of the course flags. Then its off to do inventory and pack things away for next years race – Art (from US) has done most of the work so its just counting and packing that needs finalised. A team meeting at 7pm with tomorrows plan and then a meal is brought in with some beer and wine. Pizza cones and salad – very tasty and an unusual way to have pizza. (We have to keep this a secret from the starving competitors.) As I expected, not a good night with tents flapping crazy and sand everywhere.
THE FINAL FOOTSTEPS IN THE NAMIB DESERT – STAGE 6
We are up at 5am today. Team meeting then leave at 6.15am in convoy to the finish line. Competitors’ families and friends had been invited to the last camp and those who had, were permitted to run alongside for the 10k final section. I was asked if I wanted to run with Donald but he was very reluctant as he was still in a race with Patrick from NY – he beat Patrick narrowly in Chile and they are neck and neck again so I was probably wise to keep out of that!!
We arrive in dark in middle of nowhere and help to set up finish line and lay out medals. The leader, Florian from Switzerland comes in over the last dunes in around 40mins which is just amazing after all the miles he has run. Donald is about 55mins but Patrick just beats him this time! He finishes in 23rd place which is a fantastic result considering how bad his plantar was at the beginning! Lots of cheering and photos as well as food and drink. The African camp folks are singing on the dunes and its really very atmospheric. Eventually everyone is loaded onto the buses and we are off on the long journey back to Swakopmund.
First shower for a week and it is just amazing!! I get dressed and head off to help sort out the prizes and other bits and pieces for the evening celebration. Buffet is delicious with enormous glasses of wine while we also enjoy videos and photos taken by the media team. Feel quite emotional watching it all on the big screen which really brings it home to you that you have experienced a huge adventure. Very sad saying goodbye to everyone but maybe, yes maybe we may be back for more!!