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Namibian deja vu

Posted on 23 July 2010

Once again I found myself waking up at 5.30am in the middle of the Namib desert on the day of the Namibian 24h ultra marathon. I was amongst the first people to wake up and the camp looked almost deserted, except for Faan’s cooks who were busy preparing breakfast. The evening before I had been a bundle of nerves; maybe because I knew what laid ahead of us. This morning I was remarkably calm though.

I was here in the desert for a third time. The inaugural year for the race, 2008, I had been at the shore of the Atlantic, feeling on top of the world at the end of the race. Having made the race the first year I had come back in 2009. I did feel strong at the start line, but together with about 50% of the participants I had not completed the race, and instead I had found myself with an IV-drip in my arm after a collapse at roughly 61km.

So now I was back and I had a score to settle with the race. I needed to prove to myself that the first year was not only fluke and that I still have it in me to finish the race. A few of my friend had asked me why I was going back. I think it was to find that feeling of strength and self-belief that I had found when I finished something that at the outset looked almost inhuman to complete.

I boiled some water and as I started my morning ritual by eating some freeze dried meal as I reflected on what lied ahead. A gruesome race through some of the most inhospitable environment on earth. Yet I felt a calm I had so desperately been looking for on the evening before. Maybe it was that extra beer I had had sitting in front of the fire when everyone else had gone to bed.

Darren, last year’s winner, was amongst the support staff this year. He came over and shared a few words. I thought about what he had said the day before during race briefing, something along the lines of: “Dont try to make it too complicated. Some people talk about the dark side etc. Instead focus on why you are here, that you are fortunate to be in this environment and to be part of such special race”. Darren gave me his iPod and told me to listen to a song. “Break on through to the other side, break on through, break on through to the other side” blasted in my ears and once again I felt the calmness come over me. Little did I know that I would be singing “Break on through to the other side” for the next 20 odd hours or so!

I shared some jokes with Kobus in the morning. Kobus had been the race guide the two previous years and was now going to take part himself. “Rule number one in Africa: Ruels are meant to be broken. Rule number 2: shit happens” made us all laugh, and it was good to laugh and release some tension. 30 minutes before race start we were all ready, some people conserving energy in the shade of the camp, but I was too energised to just sit around. I wanted to get going.

Faan said it was 10 minutes left and we all gathered on the starting line. I exchanged a few handshakes, hugs and well-wishes with the people around me: Aleks, who had come over from Canada looked like a strong candidate; Tom, who had come second last year, beaten by only 90 seconds was back for revenge; John was back to do the marathon distance, only two weeks after having completed a race on the North Pole. So much energy and all of us roaring to go! A last strong handshake with Kobus and the countdown started. In contrary to previous years I didnt try to take the lead, but instead took off in my own pace, running next to Kobus for the first kilometer or so, he then dropped back and I was on my own; even though we were all within eyesight.

Navigating was easy, I had only to look where Aleks and Tom were heading and follow in their paths. It was hot, but not unbearable and I was happy we were on our way. Soon I was running in a group of 4, with Jason, Myles, and Angela. We came to CP1 and I was doing well, running at roughly 10kmh. With so many checkpoints this year I had said that one of the main goals would be to keep my time standing still to as short as possible and after less than 5 minutes we were off again, the four of us staying together.

A few kilometers more and Jason started to drop back, he told us to continue since he had ache in his knee. I was so impressed when he crossed the finish line, having done roughly 110km with ache in his knee! A few kilometers more and Myles told me and Angela to continue. We soon dropped into the Messum riverbed and underfoot the sand started to make it difficult. Rather than staying on the meandering track we stayed in the middle of the riverbed. We were lucky to see both an owl and I almost had to break Angela’s neck to make her see the small antilope that had been hiding in the grass and ran away as we came through the bush.

We were still jogging and I was really pleased with the progress. At CP2 I was feeling good and after filling up water bottles we quickly left again. Shortly after leaving the CP2 I was looking at the time and feeling the heat from the sun. I told Angela to go ahead and true to my own strategy I eased on the pace and started to speed walk instead. I knew that I had struggled on the next stage the year before, so I told myself to not think and just get on with it. A few cars with tourists came through and their eyes said it all. I cannot blame them for questioning what we were doing. It was not nearly noon and the sun was beating down on us, and we had about 100km to go still!

Shortly before CP3 Allie and CJ came up to me and past me, both looking strong and were still jogging. I met up with them at CP3 and although I left ahead of them they soon past me again, and I turned down an offer to run together. I wanted to stick to my strategy and not try to push my luck. I had paid dearly last year for pushing too hard and looking to close at the time. This year I was going to stay in control. This stage proved to be one of the longest of the race. Although the riverbed was a constantly changing environment the CP4 seemed to never arrived. I kept walking and eventually I could the Allie and CJ leaving the CP4 just before I arrived.

Angela was there, looking really strong and she was very happy having won the Marathon on a great time. She helped me to change socks (mental note to not use Injinji socks, looking like a glove with a compartment for each toe, for the second stage of a race). My toes were by this stage so swollen that they could hardly fit into the sock. They might be great for blister prevention, but when the feet swell, it is difficult to fit them on the toes. Important learnings for my multi-day race in the Amazon later in the year.

The next stage was beautiful and the Messum crater was truly magical as the shadows were getting longer and the sun started to set. I had now planned to start running again, but I struggled to get going and my mind couldn’t really take control. I continued to speed walk, even though I knew I should be jogging. A few people passed me on the hill going up to the half-way point in the race, but I didn’t care, I kept my pace and hoped CP6 would be here soon.

Once at CP6 I thought I was going to get hypothermia! I could not believe how could it had become and I was shivering as Dave the doctor helped me on with my fleece. Many of the guys stayed at CP6 to have a hot meal, but I was happy to just fill up water and get going again.

Soon after dropping down from the tip of the crater I was passed again. Jack, a friend from London who did the race last year, passed me and he was looking strong. Also Tanya passed me but I still could not take control of my mind and body to push myself into a jog. At CP7 Ruth, a doctor who I met at last year’s Al Andalus race in Spain, was sitting shivering. I was cold as I was speed walking but the people at the checkpoints did a huge effort to keep us going whilst being so cold. The smile on their faces always gave me new strength to push on. It was on one of these checkpoints I vowed not to do the race again. Funny though how the brain forgets about bad experiences since only two days later I told Chris, one of the doctors, that if he does the event in 2011, I’ll be there too!

At some point during the night I was really struggling. My back was hurting, my feet were soar, my hips were killing me and I could not get the strength to push myself into a jog. However this was when it all changed for me. At some point I started to jog, and soon I was actually running. I looked down on my watch and I saw that I was doing 11kmh! This was after some odd 75km and I was now able to run. I passed Tanya and Jack and both were looking surprised as I was coming down the road like I was sprinting a 10km race. I paid the price a few times though, falling flat on my face twice as my feet hit rocks and I took a nose dive.

The big truck came passed with all the people that had done the Marathon distance, or the people that unfortunately dropped out at this point and the cheering spurred me on. John was half-way out the window shaking his fist in the air. I could see their lights for a long time and about a kilometer away they stopped to meet up with another support vehicle. I aimed to get there before they took off again and so I did. I stopped to take off my fleece, because the running was now making my sweat profoundly even though we only had 5-6 degrees. John was as energetic and supportive as always, and with this in my mind I continued. My legs actually felt fresh and I was really happy with my speed.

I met up with Stephen from Ireland and as I passed him I stopped to talk for a while. Stephen is a great guy and we decided to try stay together. As great as he is, he is also an equal amount mad! Howling at the moon, speaking into his camcorder he gave the funniest account of our journey. Before not too long we were at the CP9, the last checkpoint and Steve (race director) & Darren met us with some laughs and smiles. Before long we took off and knew we had a long way to go. Even though we had covered about 105km, we still had 21km to go. Never has a half-marathon felt so long!

Both Stephen and I were struggling at this point and as the wind came in from the Atlantic was chilling to the bones. Everything hurt and as much as I hurt, I could look over to the side and see that Stephen was in at least as much pain!

What is strange is how your mind works at these times. I knew my fleece was in my backpack and it would only take a minute or two to stop, dig it out and put it on. Yet I preferred to go own, shivering cold; instead of a two minute stop! Relatively seen I was towards the end of the race, but this still meant that I had three hours to go!

By the time we got to the turning point, when we knew that there was only 2km to go, I was so so cold. My buff was covering my face so that I could keep a little bit warmer. At least we were now on the final leg.

We had seen the head torch of another runner on the hills behind us, always staying about 10-20min behind us. Suddenly the light was turning, and we were only some 500m from the turn. I told Stephen that if the person came close we would somehow have to try and muster the strength to overcome the pain and start to run. I didnt want to be ahead of someone for 125.5km only for them to overtake me on the last 200 – 300 meters.

Next time I looked around I could see a guy coming running. I grabbed hold of Stephen and said “RUN!” and so we did. The last 400 meters was like running on nails. Everything hurt, but in the end we came in, all in all about 60 seconds before Justin turned up with a big smile. When he caught his breath he said that he wanted to make us run for it! And so he did and we all shared a laugh.

And so I had come to the end again. Standing at the end of the race, staying awake for the runners coming in. Each and everyone of us very emotional from what we had gone through.

For me I had put some demons to bed. I knew that as long as I stay in control over my head I can push my body further than what seems possible at the outlook. And as for next year, will I be back? Well I have not signed up yet, but there is certainly a voice inside of me trying to convince me to go. The Namibian 24h Ultra Marathon is a truly fantastic race to be part of!

6 Responses to “Namibian deja vu”

  1. Jamile_siddiqui says:

    Great write up of an amazing experience Joakim,

  2. alyssa jade says:

    KUDOS! i love that you sprinted the last part – you really gave everything you have. thank you for sharing the story.

  3. Karen Nel says:

    AWESOME write up Joakim….makes me long to go back!! 🙂

  4. Kobus says:

    Namibian Viking.
    Very good my Swedish brother. May there be many more. Some we will share, some you will do alone, but i will be with you in spirit brother. Run if you can, walk if you can't and crawl if you must, always that man.
    Stay alive
    Kobus the Namibian

  5. Ultrarunnergirl says:

    Sounds like a great adventure! Thanks for sharing it. Way to settle the score and redeem your DNF. An exciting finish – talk about the icing on the cake!

  6. Thanks for sharing this great experience and congratulations on the finish. I look forward to reading more of your site (in particular Al Andalus!) as I am just getting into ultrarunning…