The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon
The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon is the second oldest 7 day, self sufficient race of its kind. The oldest being the Marathon Des Sables. The difference between the two races are the number of entrants, MDS hosts over 1000 competitors where KAEM caps their entries at 100. The costs are also very different, MDS costs in excess of $5600AUD, KAEM is half the price at $2800AUD (there is also an even cheaper option to choose from)! According to other runners who have completed both, KAEM is tougher (MDS prides itself as the toughest in the world), more enjoyable and there are no waiting lines to see a medic.
Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be invited to run in KAEM. I was planning on a race over in India but sustained my first injury in years which forced me to cancel my flights and withdrawal from the race. After fully recovering I quickly registered for KAEM and had only three months to prepare.
I slowly built my base up in the first month running up to 30km, the second month up to 40km and then had to really push myself in my final month of training to get up to 50km which was my final run before flying over to South Africa.
I hadn't trained at all with my running pack which weighed up to 8kg, we had to carry all compulsory items, our food for the week and water. Some runners packs weighed up to 14kg (some even had steak for the first couple of nights)! I thought I could get away with training without it as I had done previously in the Lycian Way Ultramarathon in Turkey, another 7 day, self sufficient race.
After arriving I got to meet a lot of the other runners, everyone was in high spirits and were very keen to start the race. I also got to reunite with my friend Tomas Sundman from Denmark, we had run together back in the Lycian Way Ultra back in 2012.
After spending a couple of days mingling at the Augrabies Falls Lodge and going sightseeing, we finally got to the start line for day one of the race. The sun was already out but not too hot. The previous year it had reached up to 50 degrees Celsius which caused massive problems for both runners and organizers. Luckily the forecast showed that it was only going to reach up to 40 degrees on some days for this years race.
Soon enough we were on our way, I kept up with the front group until we hit the first bit of sand. I've always struggled with sand running and this year I wasn't getting away by not training with my heavy pack, it was quickly starting to wear me down. The first 10km were tough which was very unusual for me, but after 10km I started to get into the groove of things and regained a decent pace. This all stopped once we got down into a riverbed and had to climb over large rocks and tread through un-runnable sand. It also didn't help that the temperature was already up to 40 degrees. I put my head down and tracked my way to the finish line coming in 6th place overall for the 26km stage. Tomas had a good run coming in 2nd place behind previous race winner Dirk Cloete.
We were all allocated a gazebo to sleep under each night, in my gazebo I had Dirk and two other runners, Mark Curtis and Francois Liebenberg. Most runners brought along a mat to sleep on but I chose not to so I could keep my pack weight down, I also used my pack as my pillow. It wasn't a comfortable sleep at all but I somehow managed to sleep better than most.
Day two was 33km, I once again managed to stay with the lead group and once again I slowed down after hitting the soft sand. It was frustrating to not be able to run how I had trained. I only had myself to blame by not training accordingly. I dredged through the sand and continued on my own for a while until Mark caught up to me, we chatted a bit until we got to some hills, I walked as he powered up them and eventually was out of sight! He had never done anything like this race before and was performing very well. He was however nervous about the long day having never experienced a distance that far before. The rest of the day for me was straight forward with some technical tracks and then a long stretch of sand to the finish line under the hot sun. I came in 7th with my overall placing at 6th.
I felt different on day three, I could feel that something wasn't quite right. I had also developed a mouth full of ulcers, seven in total. My energy was very low and I was finding it hard to eat. I decided early on that I would take it very slow as I had the big day of 77km to look forward to the next day. Half way through I started to feel quite unwell, this would come and go right up until the end. It was a nice and easy course for the 39km (except for the end where there was more sand to dredge through) so that helped quite a bit. My overall placing was at 7th place, my original goal was to make the top 10 but this was now turning into a goal of just completing the race. Tomas did well coming in 1st place!
Day four started out well, I was feeling good and was able to maintain a good pace for the first 20km, there was a sandy riverbed but it went slightly downhill which made it easier to run on. It was also cloudy at times which kept the hot sun away. Things eventually made a turn for the worse, the track started to gradually go up a slight incline for a very long time, my stomach was feeling upset, I was dry retching until I ended up actually vomiting, I knew I was in real trouble. Feeling down, I looked to the horizon as thunder cracked from the distance, across the desert and saw a big, bright rainbow soaring through the sky, for a moment I was distracted from my dilemma and was in awe of where I was, Africa!
Later in the day Dirk passed me with Tomas close behind (The start times were scattered so they started last). I knew I had to run with Tomas for a bit as we had run most of the Lycian Way together and it didn't feel right not being able to do this entire race and not run with him. It was great but I couldn't stay with him for very long and had to let him go.
Once the day turned into night I knew I needed help, I could no longer drink water, there were two things I could keep down, salt and vinegar chips and Skratch chews but I was running low on both and still had two days of running to complete. I decided to get help from a medic knowing that if they found something seriously wrong they would withdrawal me from the race, I was extremely nervous. The medic took me to the side and checked my blood pressure and blood sugar levels, thankfully they were both normal, he gave me a tablet to settle my stomach and I went on my way to the final checkpoint. I asked the medic there to also help, she gave me some rehydrate drink and ENO. My stomach had finally settled and after an hour of waiting with medics I carried on and finished the last 6km back to camp with the total distance of 77km covered. Mark, who was nervous about the day did a terrific run and locked in a spot for the top 5!
We had the rest day the next day which allowed us to relax, swim, wash our clothes (in the river) and replenish. All of the runners were asking how I was and being very supportive, I smiled telling them I felt fine but in reality I was exhausted and unwell. I still couldn't eat and was struggling to drink water, I tried to do as little as possible that day.
I knew that if I could get through day six I would finish the race. It was 45km so was in no way a small day. I would try and drink every 10 minutes but would have to stop and walk each time so my stomach would settle down. I was only eating my Skratch chews and salted chips for the entire day, anything else made me want to vomit. My strategy was slow but it worked, I saw the flags for the finish only a few hundred meters away, I stopped, threw up and ran fast to the finish line. Afterwards, it took me more than 5 litres of water throughout the evening before I was rehydrated! Dirk had performed well on the long day and gained a big lead over Tomas which once again cemented his position to first place. We all had only 26km left keeping us from finishing the entire race.
On the final day my stomach had finally calmed down, I was able to run for most of the course but was lethargic due to barely eating. In the last few kilometres I hiked up 'Moon rock' where at the top you could see all of the stunning African landscape, it was definitely the biggest highlight of the entire run, absolutely beautiful!
After Moon rock I had to make my way through thick, overgrown vegetation while balancing on a narrow platform above water. After getting through it all and back on the path I realized it was the same path from when we started and only a couple of kilometers from the Start/Finish line. I picked up my pace and finally got a good run going, passing other competitors that had started earlier than me. Finally, I saw the entrance to the lodge, ran through the gates, past the cabins that we had all slept in before the race and around the corner where everyone was waiting and cheering on the runners. I raised my hands in the air with a huge grin on my face and crossed over the finish line for the final time. It was a mixture of relief and sadness that it was all over. Relief because of the nausea I had been dealing with and sadness because of the amazing people that I would be parting ways with, not knowing when or where I would ever see them again.
The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon will always be one of the best weeks of my life. The landscape, the animals, the people, the variety of terrain on the course and the fact that I had to push myself, not to get a position but to just finish each day made it that much more special (I did get my top 10 position coming in 9th overall). I'm not sure when but I know that I will be back. Also, when I do decide to return, I will remember to train with my pack!