Writing about the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon is not easy. I worry very much that I won’t have words to do this amazing event justice. Ask anybody that has done it and they will tell you it’s not a race but a life changing experience. What has been very obvious this week is the post-race blues that has hit every single KAEM runner in the knees, right when they arrived back in the real world behind their desks, counters and laptops. Estelle Geerkens actually said to me the person that went to the desert and the person that returned are two different people but the big problem is that the real world we return to stays exactly the same. That is why for three years the majority of my thoughts revolve around going back to the Augrabies to run the KAEM.
I could probably go on for thousands of words and endless pages but this year there were moments that stood out so glaringly that I will only write about them.
1. Over Eager & Hungry. I had a very distinct plan after my rather successful 2015 KAEM. This plan involved going as hard as possible on day 1 (I know it’s not a good plan) and then defend whatever lead I managed to build up. This worked in 2015 but needless to say I was better prepared and about 5kg lighter and also I did not take into account the humble running genius that is Maretha Combrinck. I managed to finish second but was 5 eons behind Maretha and only 10 minutes ahead of the very talented Alison Glass in third place. I was cautiously optimistic but very aware of how far I still had to go. My willing spirit and heart was in a losing battle with my slightly overweight and very hungry body. I don’t remember much of the first or second camp because I was probably hallucinating about food and very definitely wine. The last five kilometres of the first day stands out as five of the most difficult kilometres I’ve ever done in the KAEM as they were more technical than I was used to but also breathtakingly beautiful as you negotiated your way over massive rocks on the banks of the Orange River. The highlight of day two was going through notorious Death Valley and actually being able to enjoy the magnificent beauty in relatively reasonable weather with a high of around 35 degrees Celsius. The reality of the effort did however again become a problem when I was sitting in camp cursing my two minute noodles and tasteless cous-cous. I was very ready to trade a body part for a piece of cheese or slice of bread. The fact that I was not eating enough would come back to haunt me on stage three.
2. A massive crash and trying to pee. Every day the start of the KAEM is scattered and the slower runners start early and faster ones last. If however you are me, you end up in the fast group very much by accident, and as soon as Louis and Brendas say ‘GO’ you get left behind like a cartoon character looking around you not knowing where everybody went, trying to convince your diesel engine to stop sputtering and protesting. The 40km stage would be my hardest day in the desert to date. Climbing up a very hard yet spectacular little hill called Spieel Kop I got to the top tasting blood and seeing only the backside of Richard Shannon wearing his luminous yellow Polly shorts, the top 10 firmly in his sights. I soon felt like a wounded impala on the Savanah, with the medical team driving behind me at a snail’s pace, actually just keeping a watchful eye on the last runner on course. I am sure I was probably mentally more exhausted because of being so very hungry and sat down for the first time at a check point after probably about 20km. I always make an effort to be nice to the very hard working crew, and told everybody that was willing to listen (in language not befitting a lady) that I felt extremely bad. I melted into the fold up chair at the check point and realised the podium spot I was trying so hard for was probably not going to happen. With 80km looming the following day I knew I had to regroup and take it very easy, otherwise I was never going to cross the finish line four days later at the Augrabies Falls National Park. I sat at the check point and knew Estelle Geerkens and Sarie were on my heels. I knew this because you could hear them long before you could see them. After Sarie twisted her ankle (on the very hard climb up Spieel Kop only a few kilometres into the race) they were also on a slow crawl towards the finish. I joined up with them, and have to admit that if it wasn’t for them I would have probably crawled under a bush and felt so sorry for myself that desert creatures would have carried my dying body into the Kalahari desert, never to be heard from again. The moment with them that will forever stay with me was when we approached the finish at Dabaras through an endless sea of sand. Sarie wanted to empty her shoes and I had wanted to go for a wee for a while, which is a highlight only desert runners will understand, and I decided to use the opportunity to dive behind a rock. The problem was that I was so tired I couldn’t squat and when I tried grabbing onto the rock I was hiding behind, it burned my hands it was so hot. So there I was standing with my pants around my ankles trying to explain to Estelle and Sarie that I could not wee because my legs were too sore. What Sarie asked next I can’t write here but all I can say is that she questioned what one part of my anatomy had to do with another part. I had no answer and burst out laughing. All of a sudden losing my lead plus another 50 minutes or so, was no longer a very big deal. Arriving at the finish at Dabaras I was amazed with how worried everybody was about me. After a cold shower and massage I started feeling a bit more human and a lot less zombie. I did however drop 4kg in weight from the start and I knew that the next day was not going to be easy running 80km the way I was feeling. I was so negative I didn’t even want to mix with the other runners and actually just wanted to sit in the corner and sulk, but finding a corner in the desert is not as easy as you think. I did find one a bit later and as I was feeling slightly better, I wasn’t going to sulk in it but rather sleep in it.
3. Losing my Spoon. The night of the third day I decided to sleep out which meant I would not spend the night with the other runners under the gazebos. I scouted around for a quiet spot and decided the area where the physios worked during the day would work as it was fenced with shade netting, had a roof and was close to the toilet. Of course Francois ‘Faf’ Liebenberg, Alfred Thorpe and Alwyn Maas decided to make a camp fire and discuss food close to where I decided to camp which provided the perfect soundtrack for falling asleep in the Kalahari, even though it resulted in me dreaming about food all night long. The following morning I woke up very rested and ready for 80km, but of course I first needed my 50 grams of miserable chocolate flavoured Future Life. This was fine but I could not find my spork/spoon/whatever. After a while I got a bit tired of this and started thinking somebody hid it or maybe I dropped it in the ecstasy of eating another packet of Two Minute Noodles the night before. After packing every single piece of my kit on a table close by, I could still not find my spork. It was only when I started walking around that I spotted it sticking out from the drum I was sleeping next to. Some night time creature had stolen it right from under my head and treated it like a piece of biltong. Funny enough I did not mind the idea of some desert rodent scurrying around my head during the night scouting for food. I’m just grateful the rest of my food served as a pillow, because if it got stolen or eaten while I was sleeping I would probably have had a nervous breakdown. The long day that followed was by far my best running day and I had a wonderful time from start to finish. There wasn’t one kilometre that I did not enjoy and as always running in the dark was a massive highlight. I told myself that I had to give my best as you never know when somebody else would have a bad day, but both Alison and Rene that overtook me on my fateful third day ran strong and only finished a few minutes behind me. I did however have the goal of trying to catch everybody that started in front of me, which I managed to do. Also only four runners that started behind me caught me in the last few kilometres. I arrived in camp happy but extremely tired. It has to also just be mentioned that sleeping on the hard ground after running 170km in four days is probably one of the most uncomfortable things imaginable. I fell asleep really quickly because of the extreme exhaustion, but waking up only a few hours later my body was aching with the most incredible pain from the top of my head to the tip of my toes. A soft bed and crisp sheets would really have been welcome.
4. The Rest Day. The rest day is usually next to the river and again the setting was beyond stunning and waking up on a Wednesday morning next to the Orange River with Namibia on the other side is really something you can’t describe to anybody. I dragged my body to right next to the water and watched the sun come up from my sleeping bag. Swallows swept over me in the early morning air and a Fish Eagle was calling in the distance. For a few moments I forgot about how my body was feeling and I fell into a deep, peaceful and painless sleep. The rest day is actually not that easy. You become aware of problems in your body and even more aware of the fact that again you only have dehydrated sadness to eat and pretend coffee to drink. I woke up with a searing pain in my Achilles and was immediately worried about finishing the race, as it was so painful I could barely walk or even stand. I had a little cry behind the ‘Kitchen’ and the lovely Richard Shannon gave me a stern yet empathetic talking to. I spent pretty much the rest of the day lying in the shade next to the kitchen, worrying about what my foot would feel like the next day. Like so many times before, the Mediclinic team saved the day and Doctor Marlise Vlok managed to put me back together with strapping and an anti-inflammatory. They tested my kidney function and I was told I could have the tablet at 17h00 that afternoon. I have to just mention that I counted the moments to when I would be allowed the tablet and as soon as I had it I forgot all about it and actually had to ask Maretha if she saw me taking it… Of course I did but after 5 days in the desert my brain was turning into mush. The spirit of camaraderie at KAEM also again warmed my heart when Estelle Geerkens gave me her compression socks to try and help me with my cranky foot. I always experience the afternoon of the rest day as slightly tense because the 45km day to come on day 6 is not one to be taken lightly. Everybody wants to get to the finish but anything can still go wrong in the last 70km. Another fitful night’s sleep followed before the dawn of the second to last day.
5. Running Happiness. I woke up on the second to last day convinced a miracle had taken place, as when I got up I felt absolutely no pain in my foot. I was excited to run but also a bit worried it would come back. I put it to the back of my mind and started with a group of incredibly awesome people. I would run the entire 45km with Faf Liebenberg and it turned out the two of us could talk for seven hours straight with hardly taking a breath. I will also never forget Alfred Thorpe showing up on the start line looking extremely dishevelled and disorganised only finding out later he lost his tripod in camp and was looking for it until a few seconds before the start. He caught up with me and Faf and we ran together up to the second check point. Alfred also brought to my attention that my head was stuck in one position and I should look up once in a while. At that exact moment we saw the most amazing group of Gemsbok and again I realised why I do these crazy things to myself. Reaching the end of the stage I was almost a bit disappointed because I was in the middle of a story and now it would be unfinished, the vibe in camp knowing we were almost done with our journey, was one of excitement and also a bit of melancholy because soon we would all be back behind desks and laptops. Something else that happened that afternoon that I will never forget was when Alwyn asked if I wanted to use his shower. Of course the first thing that came to mind was some fancy Camp Master or the like shower that I would mount on a tree somewhere so of course I enthusiastically said yes. The shower turned out to be a small empty Oros bottle, not really what I expected. I didn’t turn it down and started looking for a place where I could take my ‘shower’, I found a quiet spot and have to admit it was probably one of the best showers I ever had even though it consisted of only 250ml of cold water. I felt marginally cleaner and fresher and I’m convinced this is what led to the sand flea onslaught to follow that night. A few of us got eaten alive by creatures unknown that lived in the sand and I’m secretly convinced it was the better smelling people but we will never know. Everybody had supper on the rocks, Alfred found his lost tripod and the knowledge that only 25km lay between us and the finish line at the Augrabies Falls National Park had everybody feeling great. The evening ended with one last camp fire and I was a little bit sad knowing that a week later I would be back home wishing I was still in that exact spot getting bitten by bugs.
6. Finish! Waking up on the last day everybody was in a good mood. There was a great suggestion the night before that we do the First Km of the Last Day with legendary Fransa Cole, who walked the entire event at the age of 62 not losing her composure once. Everybody sat off at 06h00 with Fransa, most of us still wearing our ‘pajamas’. The last day of KAEM 2016 had started. I was again in a starting group with Faf and we decided we would run together all the way to the finish. I had one bleak moment about 11km into the race after the first check point when I felt that 14km would be an eternity and I was no longer in the mood to run. I struggled a bit to keep up with Faf but knew even if I fell apart right there I would still make it. One of my best friends Lisa Sue Hoffman was waiting for me at the finish under strict instruction to have an ice cold Savanah ready, and this was enough to motivate me to pick up my speed. One of the biggest landmarks in the race in my opinion is Moon Rock. Its name fits it perfectly, and as it is only 3km from the finish you know when you get there you can basically smell the end. The view from the top cannot be described and we took a few moments before making our way down towards the finish. I don’t cry often but no matter how hard I try when I approach the finish line of this 250km journey something inside me just breaks. I’m not sure what you call it when you cry and laugh at the same time but that pretty much sums up what happens when you see Nadia Arendt waiting for you, ready to put a medal around your neck. Again I feel like my words don’t do this moment justice but I can only try.
The friends you make during these seven days become friends for life, because when you suffer together the way you do during the KAEM you get to know somebody for who they really are. Everybody stinks, everybody loses their temper and composure at some point during the race and seeing people work through this forms a bond that is very special. The two days after the event is spent telling war stories and consuming massive amounts of beer and wine, and something I have discovered is that drinking hard is a lot harder than running hard. The Augrabies Falls Lodge and their team feed us with food that we have been talking and dreaming about for days and people that you would never imagine setting their foot on a dance floor turn into dance stars as Simon plays music till the early hours of the morning. All good things have to come to an end and driving away from the Park the Sunday morning is probably the most difficult part of the week for me. I was lucky to not go home directly, and first spent a few days in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park with Lisa, but upon returning home this week the post race blues that hit me was the worst I had ever experienced. What Estelle said about the person that goes into the week of KAEM and the one that returns from the desert being two completely different people, best describes this life changing journey. What makes the KAEM extra special are the friends you make and yearly the field consists of every day heroes that fight to reach the finish line. This year was no different and although I didn’t get to know every single person that well there were a few that were extra inspiring.
Dirk Cloete for running a clinical and well planned race taking his third KAEM title.
Maretha Combrinck for being the most humble champion and one of the nicest people I have ever met.
Fransa Cole for walking the entire 250km always looking and acting like a lady
Richard Shannon for making up about a zillion places from 2015 after quitting smoking!
Annelise Lievens raising awareness and funds for CANSA, all the while having the worst blisters on her toes that I have seen in a long time.
Alwyn Maas for finishing an eighth consecutive KAEM and always being willing to give advice or help out with sore feet.
Lindie Steenkamp for finishing the event after a horrible fall on day three and needing stitches on her knee.
Sarie Coetzee, for finishing after twisting her ankle on day three and basically limping the remaining 170km to the finish line.
Estelle Geerkens for never leaving Sarie’s side and always keeping her sense of humour and of course giving me her compression socks.
Luigi Bognanni for finishing with undoubtedly the worst feet of the race and running like the wind on the last day.
Torsten Selck for proposing to his lifelong love as he crossed the finish line
Rene Volgraaf for finishing on the podium and also making up a million places from her 2015 race.
And of course the legendary Edward Chapman, finishing his tenth consecutive race. A true ambassador of the event and I can’t imagine coming back in 2017 with him not being there.
After doing this race three times you would think I know what I’m doing, but I learn things all the time, and in 2017 I hope to do a few things different.
1. Take more food. I feel very sorry for the other people in camp for having to deal with my sad and hungry face the first few days and I’m also grateful to them for sharing their steak with me but one thing is certain and that is that I will take my own steak in 2017.
2. Bag weight is important, but being well fed and comfortable when you sleep is more important. I’m sure in 2015 I momentarily turned into a machine as it wasn’t such a big problem, or I could possibly just be getting older, but carrying 1kg extra to ensure your stomach is full and you sleep well is a small price to pay!
3. Take more food!
4. Next year I will take a solar charger so I can take my phone. I really miss listening to music and I’m sure if I could listen to a few nice songs I would have felt a lot less sorry for myself while moping around camp.
5. Take more food!
6. Take more food. Take more food. Take more food. Take more food. Take more food. Take more food. Take more food. Take more food. Take more food. TAKE MORE FOOD!!!
Like I said before I don’t know if words could do this event justice and I really could go on forever as there are so many small moments that make the experience so unique, but I will leave it there. If you are at all thinking about doing this event stop thinking and just enter. It will define you.