Return to Namibia

Desert Ultra 2018 — Beyond The Ultimate

Beyond the Ultimate (BTU) organise a series of races covering some of the harshest environments on Earth. They follow the now established multi-day, ultra distance, self-sufficient race format pioneered by Patrick Bauer’s Marathon des Sables. In BTU’s series they cover Ice (Artic), Jungle (Amazon) and Desert (Namib). I have completed both the Jungle (2015) and Desert (2017). I have yet to test myself in extreme cold, this is planned for 2020 at The Spine or The Yukon Artic Ultra .

The Desert Ultra, is billed as 250KM, through the ancient Namib desert, over five stages, ranging in length from 22km to 89km, however, from participating last year I know that many if not all stages have been measured short and it is likely that the total distance will be 260KM. Temperatures will range from the late 30’s to mid 50’s. The organisers provide water and a shared two-person tent, everything else you need, you bring and carry with you. My pack is below.

4.9KG of food and compulsory kit. Approximately 2500 calories per day.

I managed, happily, to keep the weight to a minimum, using a simple mantra ‘is it food or compulsory?’, nothing else got in, with one exception, a pure luxury item, a noodle bowl (I struggled a bit last year, with eating out of zip lock bags, having a bowl that doubles as a cup, brings a little decorum to my meals, and should make camp just a a tiny bit easier).

Why go back?

I felt last year, that whilst I finished a creditable tenth, I could do much better.

Some of my favourite pictures from last year:

An extraordinarily rare picture of me leading the indomitable Austin Jarrett.
The magic of race photographer Mikkel Beisner, I love this picture.
A family of Elephants stopped by our camp, likely attracted by the water tank.

So the mission was clear, improve on tenth, I had 5th in mind. If the field were smaller, which it was, improve on previous year’s time to bring it in line with last year’s fifth place.

I was ‘flying solo’ without the company of Austin Jarrett who was with me in Morocco at the Marathon des Sables in 2014, The Jungle Ultra Peru in 2015 and The Desert Ultra 2017, which sad as it was, did mean I’d probably just moved one place up in the field, selfless as ever AJ!

2018 Desert Ultra

Happily whilst AJ, was not with me there would be some super awesome friends from past races, and of course the BTU and Exile Medics teams who I know well. Joining me on the start line as veterans of past races were Emma Zadronzy and Karl Heinz Reigel (damn a place lost!).

Looking shiny and clean in the hotel pre-race

In a smaller field than 2017, the goal became an improvement in time. I needed to knock off just over three hours of accumulated time, this equates to a pace improvement of just over a minute a mile, which is significant, to finish in line with last years fifth place.

I quite enjoyed my status as veteran of the race, and happily answered questions, and shared experience from the previous year. If you have detected hubris, or that a moment of pride and fall is looming then you are observant and intuitive.

Faffing with kit before the start


First stage, at pretty much the first point I was running alone, I managed to miss perhaps the best signed hairpin turn possible, heading straight on. In my defence, those runners that were on the right hand side of the track as they approach the signing did, as I did, interpret the markers as signalling straight on. There’s little solace in this though as all but me realised their error within a hundred feet.

Fight with a thorn bush

Having travelled on for several kilometres and upped my pace I was surprised not to be catching the runners in front, which led to the realisation I hadn’t seen any markings for a while, which in turn led me to realise nor had I seen any runners footprints.

I decided to use the interactive tracker, issued as a safety device by the BTU team, and text base to check if I was offcourse rather than back track needlessly; I was on a wide track with no turns typically course markers are less frequent when this is the case.

The trackers whilst hugely robust, and an ideal tool for the event, do have basic LCD screens, that were not up to the harsh desert sun. To read the screen and send the message to base, I needed some shade, in the desert, the only option was to kneel under a thorn bush. What felt like several thousand, old Nokia style, key presses to fashion a message later, proud runner me jumps up in self-congratulatory, I conquered the technology style, forgetting how carefully I had knelt under the thorn bush and managed to attach a branch, via some viscious spikes to my eyelid, penetrating just enough to put a small scratch on my eyeball but cause no real damage.

The Race

Race Director Kris King in a little pre-race ‘stirring’ had told me that I would be closely matched to fellow series veteran Wolfgang, a little slower perhaps but similar. I don’t doubt for a second he said the same to Wolfgang only in reverse….

In multi-day events you tend to ‘drop-in’ to about the same spot in the field each day, this can lead to some fun racing, irrespective of where you are in the field.

This year Adam, Kristina and Joffy ran away with the podium slots from the outset. I saw a little of the amazing Kevin ‘Mighty’ Mayo, whilst I didn’t let him get too far in front I couldn’t catch him either. Leaving as predicted by Kris King, Wolfgang and I to fight it out. This was absolutely the highlight of my week.

Wolfgang tended to start a little quicker than me. It would take me a few CP’s to get him in sight and from there we would both be looking for any advantage we could find, be that a better line, better sand, a quicker CP stop, or a bravado filled charge up a steep incline designed to ‘psyche’ each other out.

Wolfgang, an amazing companion and fierce competitor throughout the week

We passed and were passed by each other multiple times a day. To her great credit, multi-stage ultra running debutante Michelle Hincks, pressured Wolfgang and I from day three onwards, gaining confidence as the week progressed.

Day 1–50KM

I placed seventh, losing a couple of hours to missing a turn and getting patched up, having lost my fight with thorn bush, a very poor start.

Working my way back through the field

Day 2–50KM

Working hard to compensate for the previous day, I managed to finish in fifth, I had so much time to make up from day one though I felt I had already blown my Top 5 aspiration.

Day 3–42KM

Being a veteran of the race really paid off on day three. Having completed back-to-back 50KM stages, acclimatising as you go, its tempting and natural to be pleased with the shorter day three stage distance, however, day three starts in a dried river bed, which has the finest, silty sand imaginable, making running almost impossible. There are a full fifteen kilometres of this silty torture to endure, and they are are incredibly frustrating. Last year I cracked and did my best teenage, knuckle dragging, this sand is stupid impression walking every single step of the first fifteen kilometres.

Somehow forewarned was forearmed, I had committed in my mind to running every step this year, little short, high cadence steps, and that is what I did. I came out of the river bed in fourth and was only passed later by Kevin as I needed to stop, a few times, and empty sand from my shoes and tend to a few sand induced blisters.

Taking a self-congratulatory rest having well and truly beaten last years time for this stage

Day 4–22KM

At last a shorter day. I don’t recall much about Day Four other than fearing my lack of speed would catch me out on the shorter stage. It didn’t I managed to hold fifth place again.

Truly beautiful

Day 5–93KM

Stage five has an early start, very early 04:30. It’s well worth it though to get some distance in before the sun fully rises.

Getting as far as possible in the cool of the early morning

Temperatures this year were even higher than last, with the midday section of three days exceeding 50 degrees.

My challenge this year was to finish in daylight, last year I was about ninety minutes outside of this.

I adore the long stage of this race. Each stage through the week has its own personality, a mix of open plain, canyon, river bed, boulder fields and more, somehow the long stage stitches all of this together. Every ten kilometres or so the scenery changes, often quite dramatically.

The prize for being scorched over a whole day comes towards the end, when you enter utterly stunning canyons, and are greeted by a cacophony of animal noise, bouncing off the canyon walls. The Mars like terrain is simply stunning.

The final section seems to go on for ever, winding ever deeper into the canyon, turn after turn you expect to see camp to no avail. At the end of a tough week the last ten kilometres of two hundred and sixty will take all of your physical and mental strength.

You finish at a Ranger outpost, a Rhino conservation centre, it is truly epic in scale and brutal beauty.

Finish camp
Huge dry river beds

The Result

A partial success, faster by hours not minutes, fifth place overall in spite of the lost time on day one. Comparing year on year, my time would have been good for seventh in the previous year in a deeper field. So not quite where I was aiming but a really pleasurable race where I ran most of most stages, no mean feat in temperatures that peaked at 55 degrees.

I suspect this is not my last Beyond the Ultimate Desert Ultra. Another stone lighter with a better training build-up and I might be tempted to go back for, what would have to be a podium shot. 2017–10th, 2018 — 5th, 20?? — Podium?