Since I first put on a pair of running shoes about five years ago I have always been the kind of person to wing it when it comes to planning my year and I often don’t think the challenge through that I’m about to undertake. This is not always a bad thing as if I had to think the things I do through I would probably end up not even doing half of them. The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon was on my radar since I Googled ‘Toughest Trail run in SA’ and the search engine spat out www.kaem.co.za. At this point I had not even run a Comrades marathon let alone a 7 day self-sufficient 250km trek through the Green Kalahari during the hottest time of the year. In 2012 I entered the Otter Trail run which would be my first attempt at a long trail run with stars in my eyes and the KAEM in the back of my mind. At the end of the race when I dragged my carcass over the finish line second last and only 5 minutes within the cut off time I said in very peppered language not befitting a lady “*beep* the Augrabies”. The KAEM however was never far from my mind and once I recovered from my Otter attempt I started thinking about running in the Augrabies again. I realised that I would have to put in a concerted effort and that falling around in the suburbs would not be enough to finish the gruelling journey through the desert.
Two years later I decided I was ready and took the plunge entering for the race. I was still blissfully unaware of how hard it would be and in actual fact that year I was like a lamb to the slaughter. At that point I was doing a mere 50km a week and it was a herculean effort to up my mileage to the 100km plus I was supposed to be doing. Honestly, I think I maybe did one 100km week and I only did about three 30km plus runs in the months before the race. The scary thing is that I was under the impression that I was training very hard but as they say sometimes ignorance is bliss. Before my first KAEM I was quite arrogant and I didn’t fear much, this was soon to change.
Arriving at the Augrabies Falls Lodge, the atmosphere the event is known for was overwhelming and the camaraderie between previous competitors and new runners was immediately obvious. The night before we were to set off on the 250km journey, everybody was in good spirits stuffing themselves with every carb they could find and enjoying the last cold beer or glass of wine for the next seven days. I was looking forward to the experience and thought myself ready and up for the challenge.
Less than 24 hours later I was sitting on a rock only 12km into the race wanting to cry because I was goingto have to abandon on the first day of this horrifyingly difficult race. The extreme heat of over 42 degrees shocked my system and I got extremely nauseous and not able to take in any food. Sitting on that rock I still managed a laugh because the rock was so hot it was burning my backside and I had to get up. Nothing could have prepared me for ‘running’ in that heat with a 10kg backpack. In what is the true spirit of the event I was caught by Dave and Ian from the UK who were also having difficulties on the first day. These two guys literally carried me to the finish line where we all collapsed after collecting our allocated five litres of water for the day finishing the 25km stage in 4h50 min. I was in big trouble. I did not know how I was going to ever finish the remaining 200 plus kilometres.
Day two was more bearable as we had a bit of very uncharacteristic rain and I was hopeful yet still completely terrified. I had my best day on the third 40km stage but had a major and very unexpected mental implosion soon after the finish. As I sat down under the gazebos bracing myself to eat my dehydrated sadness I suddenly realised I had to run a mammoth 70km stage the next day. I was so sore I could hardly walk. I hadn’t slept well in three nights and I could not imagine being out in the desert for that amount of time the next day. I burst out in tears and announced to everybody that I was going to quit the race. Yet again in the spirit that makes this race so special everybody supported me and convinced me to not throw in the towel. I could already taste the pizza and beer I would have that night at the lodge but alas. I decided that if I wanted to quit I would do it during the stage the next day and that I at least had to start.
The next morning I took a different approach and turned off my Garmin. There were about 10 checkpoints over the 70km stage and I decided I would not look at distance at all and just go on time and checkpoints. One checkpoint at a time I managed to slowly make my way towards the finish line. That long day in the desert I got to see what the Kalahari was really about. Quiver Tree forests with so many trees you can’t count them, Gemsbok that run across the trail kicking sand in your direction, the sun setting over a horizon so vast you are completely lost in the magnificence that is the green Kalahari and then of course the full moon rising over a dream landscape of indescribable beauty. I reached the finish line at around ten o clock that night after spending almost fourteen hours out on the trail. I lay down and every part of my body was utterly and completely shattered but my mind and heart were beyond joyous because I knew I had broken the devil’s back. I was over halfway and had a rest day ahead of me.
The rest of the race I slowly advanced with joy in almost every step because I knew I would finish. I hadmade a new friend, Sandy May, who I ran with the entire second last day and we did not stop talkingthewhole way. It was the first company I had since the start of the race. The last day was a breeze with an almost empty pack running home like a horse heading for the stable. Reaching Moon Rock you know you only have three kilometres to go and after so many endless kilometres during the previous six days, approaching the finish line was one of the most emotional and spectacular moments of my life. I had finished something that seemed impossible six long days before.
The next two days were spent celebrating and people that started out at the beginning of the week as strangers had become more than friends or family. I think in any extreme trail event you can’t hide anything and the raw emotion you experience with your fellow runners during a race like this binds you together over continents and cultural divides. Even on the first day when I was sitting on that hot rock I never thought ‘I am never doing this again’ or ‘I hate running’ I was always thinking ‘How can I get better at this’ and ‘What am I going to do different next year’. I did everything different.
After the finish of the 2014 KAEM I was lying on the soft white bed at the Augrabies Falls National Park already thinking how I would approach the 2015 event and my whole year was about going back to the desert. The first half of 2015 was challenging as I got tick bite fever as well as pleurisy in a matter of a few months but in July my plans were made and I started training hard. In 2014 I hadn’t competed in even one marathon or ultra going into the race but 2015 was a different story. During 2015 I did one multi day race (AfricanX), seven Ultra events (Comrades, Loskop Marathon, Oorlogskloof Trail, Mount Aux Sources, Dawn to Dusk, Whale Trail as well as the Hout Is Goud Circuit race) as well as two marathons (Marakele Marathon and Cape Town Marathon) and the very challenging Crazy Store Magalies Challenge.
Unlike the previous year I was very cautious and also worried by the weather forecast that was promising record breaking heat in the week to come. I was not harbouring hopes of winning the race and knew the competition was extremely stiff with Jennifer Bradley, Bakiye Duran, Kris West as well as a few other very good runners on the start line. My biggest goal was to finish the race in a better time than 2014 and to maybe make it into the top five if I was very lucky.
The biggest change I made for the 2015 was that I was completely obsessed with getting my bag as light as possible. Weight plays an extremely big role and an extra kilogram or two can make a very big difference. I left all technology at home not taking my phone, a garmin or any chargers. I had an old swatch watch I could use to take my time and plan my runs, I also left my sleeping mat at home and slept on a windscreen visor also opting for two sleeping bag liners rather than a sleeping bag taking the advice of 2014 ladies winner Linda Doke. In 2014 my Raidlight backpack weighed around 10.5kg at the start with water and in 2015 I managed to get this down to just under 9kg wet. This difference of almost 2kg made a massive difference.
The morning of the first day the field was cautiously optimistic as the weather seemed mild and pleasant. I don’t really know what happened to me as my race plan of slow and steady flew out the window and I ran like a woman possessed. I started at the back and made my way up the field even catching Jennifer with about 9km to go. She told me I was now first lady and to say I was shocked would put it mildly. The weather also took a turn for the worst with temperatures reaching a scorching 46 degrees giving us a taste of what was to come that week. At the last water point a crew member told me that I was lying sixth overall and this seemed to just spur me on further. I finished the day more than two hours faster than the first stage of 2014 but the reality of the situation didn’t seem to sink in. The day took no prisoners with two ladies being taken to hospital suffering severe heat stroke on a very difficult day.
I always knew that Jennifer was in a different class and something amazing would have to happen if I wasgoing to beat her. My 10 minute lead of the first day didn’t stand long and from the second day Jennifer steadily built up a lead that would see her winning the race comfortably at the end of the week. I decided that I wanted to defend my second place and ran the rest of the race accordingly.
The week could have turned out very differently though as the fourth day which was supposed to be our long day was the hottest day in South African history for October with temperatures going over 50 degrees on the day and looking back, that day was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I started the day running with Craig whom I ran the third day with and if it wasn’t for him I may have been in a major spot of trouble. Our start time of 11h00 was not ideal with temperatures already high up into the forties. There was a slight problem with distances between checkpoints and they were slightly further than the runners anticipated which normally would not be a problem but in 50 degree heat with humidity of over 25% this provided a challenge on a completely new level. Before even reaching
the first check point I was convinced we were lost and I wanted to turn around on a few occasions with Craig urging me not to. If I was alone I would maybe have run off into the wrong direction and gotten into serious trouble. We trusted the route markings and kept going and it turned out we were on the right track. I could sense that everybody was very worried at the check points as the heat was unreasonable and on the verge of life threatening. People were hopping from tree to tree to get to shade and the whole situation started to feel extremely dangerous. Reaching some ruins not far from the second checkpoint Craig decided to take a break and empty his shoes by which time my water had run out a long time ago so I decided to rather keep going hoping to get to the check point as quick as possible.
Reaching the check point my first thought was ‘oh goodie, I have caught up with a whole bunch of people’ on seeing probably about thirty runners squashed under the small gazebo. It took me a while to register that the stage had been cancelled for the day. The race doctor put it into perspective explaining that if more than two people go down with heat stroke somebody would die as they can only attend to one or two people in severe distress at a time. After the first day where two people ended up in hospital, one of them
fighting for her life they were not going to take any risks as the heat was much worse than day one. Of course there was a lot of comment on social media but in my opinion if you were not there experiencing the feeling of your brain boiling and being on the verge of delirium you should rather reserve judgement.
The following day people were extremely negative with the race being shorter but in all honesty I don’t think many people would have actually been able to finish the previous day and others were just grateful to be there and not back at the lodge or in the hospital, myself included. The heat did not subside and the rest day was spent lying around moving with the shade and going for a swim in the river every now and again. We were all excited to take on the 47km on the next day but there were still worries about the heat cutting our stage short again. At
around three that afternoon we were thrown a curve ball and told that we would run our next stage during the night as the weather for the next day was probably going to be as bad as the past two days. The stage would be 33km and we would start in batches from 20h00 that night. I was very excited and looked forward to the opportunity of running at night. The stage had a few hiccups with the biggest one being a ‘slight’ detour which resulted in a total distance of 47km rather than 33km. I was one of the few people not bothered by this because I don’t run on distance. I did realise that our outing was going to be more challenging than anticipated but I didn’t allow myself to freak out. I knew that other people would be having a very hard time with this change and this seemed to motivate me and I caught up with a large number of runners in the last 15km. Arriving back at camp my right Achilles was throwing a major tantrum and even though I was feeling exceptionally good I was very grateful to be finished not wanting to further aggravate my already very angry Achilles.
Something very uncharacteristic that I was noticing about this year in the Kalahari was that my clothes were not drying. Normally in the extreme heat your clothes are dry within fifteen minutes but this year with the added humidity my clothes stayed wet. This resulted in me sleeping right next to the fire that night many times envisioning my sleeping bag liner catching fire with me hopping screaming into the Orange river. A moment about the night stage that will always stay with me was something the race winner Nathan Montague said sitting next to the fire at three o clock in the morning. People were complaining about the additional distance and all he said was ‘But aren’t we ultra runners?’
The distance of the last day was also shortened to 11km with the heatwave still causing havoc and at this point I think people were realising that we were all lucky to actually finish this extreme edition of the KAEM. With a good lead on third place I did not put in a big effort as my Achilles was still a bit sore and in all honesty I was actually wrecked.
Crossing the finish line as the second lady behind my new friend Jennifer and finishing in the top ten over all was more than a dream come true. It was validation that after a very difficult year personally I still had it in me to dig deep and be strong. I have achieved many amazing results in cycling but not one of them comes close to finishing the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon. For me this race is not about competing or racing as fast as you can, it’s about seeing what you are made of when you are faced with the most extreme and harsh conditions nature can throw at you, when things go wrong and
your plans go up in flames, when your body is on the verge of giving up and your spirit is broken and through the cracks strength shines through. After taking trail running seriously for about a year this event has inspired me to explore what I am capable of and see where I can take my body. The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon does not only test you, it defines you and I will be back in 2016 to see what new lessons the desert has to teach me.