As memories of the aches, pains and blisters begin to fade for the 35 000 runners who competed in the London Marathon, a handful may now be looking to take on an even bigger challenge to push their limits further. With the infamous Marathon des Sables booked up until 2011, what is left for those athletes brave and mad enough to take their running to the next level? I travelled to Africa with nine runners of all ages and from all walks of life for the first-ever Namibian 24-hour Ultra Marathon and now ask: Could this be the toughest footrace on earth?
It’s 8:00 and the sun is slowly creeping over the tip of the Brandberg. The temperature is already rising.
One-by-one, nine male runners emerge from their tents with a look of nervous but eager anticipation in their eyes. Each is about to embark on a remarkable journey that will remain etched in their minds forever.
The setting is the striking but forbidding Namib Desert. The event, the first-ever Namibian Ultra Marathon, which kicks off in just under an hour’s time.
Racing 120 kilometres in 24 hours, competitors will battle it out along the dusty gravel plains, dry riverbeds and vast sand expanses of the oldest desert in the world, before passing through the spectacular Messum Crater and finishing at one of the most hostile coastlines on earth, the Skeleton Coast.
Runners will have to be self-sufficient throughout, carrying all their food, water, energy bars and change of clothing on their backs to equip them for temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius and plummeting to two degrees at night.
It’s a race that will test their physical and mental strength to the limit.
As 9:00 looms, the nine intrepid competitors approach the start line, marked by four-wheel-drive tyre tracks in the sand.
The firing pistol sounds and they are off. Feet crunch across the gravel plains as the runners, caked in sun lotion, head off into the Namibian bush, which stretches as far as the eye can see. Behind them, the sun casts its orange morning glow over the majestic Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain. With its tallest peak standing proudly at 2 573 metres, the massif creates a stunning backdrop to history in the making.
Split into 20-kilometre sections with five water and rest stations en route, the journey is mapped out with tin route markers. All the runners have a GPS (global positioning system) to help guide them along the way.
As the kilometres accomplished begin to increase, so does the heat. One runner clocks an unbelievable 46 degrees C on the temperature gauge of his watch as heat waves shimmer across the sand in the distance. Just four hours in and the Namib Desert has turned into a cauldron. Heat exhaustion is setting in, calf muscles are beginning to ache and heat-provoked hallucinations become plenty. Visions of the next ‘check point’ turn out to be little more than marks on rock faces, but despite these moral sappers, the trekkers trudge on.
Rest stations provide much-needed relief from the beating sun, a chance to take on more water, refuel with specialist, freeze-dried meals such as spaghetti bolognaise (race experts say you should take in 4 000 calories during the race), which the runners re-hydrate with water boiled on gas burners carried in their backpacks. It also gives them a chance to catch up on the progress of other fellow contenders – everyone, including the ultra specialists, is finding the going tough.
One runner falls foul of the sun, suffering from severe leg cramps and heat exhaustion, and is pulled out by the race doctor. For the remaining eight, the race goes on.
The Messum Crater is a magnificent 20-kilometre-wide groove on the landscape created by a meteorite impact 115 million years ago. It is rarely traversed and is the stage for some of the most amazing sights as the sun begins to set, and day turns to night for the gritty competitors.
Head torches soon become the only light source apart from the spectacular Milky Way display above and random glow sticks that mark the route ahead. It’s a lonely time when all you have is a solitary beam for comfort, one competitor seeing in his the terrifying glare of a hyaena’s eyes!
The temperature quickly plummets and the chilling winds kick in. A long dark night lies ahead.
A strobe light marks the next checkpoint. It seems within a spitting distance away, but the reality is there’s still four kilometres to go. No matter how many steps you take, the light seems just as far.
The long, long night drags on. Will this journey ever end?
Eventually dawn begins to break, but the kilometres continue to stretch ahead into the shadowy distance.
Leaving the Messum Crater behind, gravel plains head out towards the coast in what is the final section of the race. And some may say the worst.
By now the blisters are bloody and burning, the body aching and the leg muscles have turned to iron. Lack of sleep and sheer exhaustion leaves contenders feeling nauseous and ready to give in. Powers of endurance are beginning to wane.
The last leg is truly horrific – punishing on the mind, body and soul. Eighteen kilometres down a road that never ends, followed by a further two down to the sea at the Mile 72 campsite. Each and every step is punishing, painstaking and pure hell.
Eventually for most, after 23 long hours, the end is in sight. The finishing line beckons. And so does a cup of tea, a hearty breakfast and a kip under canvas, still clad in sweaty clothes that have seen so many miles and a chance to relay the experiences of a race that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
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