I'm not a natural blogger and I'm no techie. I'm an ultra trail runner by passion, and a journalist by profession - in that order of priority.
In this blog I use the one to talk about the other - my trail thoughts, musings and meanderings about running mountains and trails.
I call it rockhoppin', just because... well... that's what we trail runners love to do!

Monday, November 17, 2014

KAEM 2014 - the most beautiful desert race

(all images by Hermien Burger Webb, unless otherwise noted)

Looking to do a 7-day self-sufficient stage race in a desert? Look no further than the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM), long reputed to be the best organised self-sufficient stage race on the international trail running calendar.

KAEM had been on my bucket list for years, and two weeks ago I had the privilege of running my first. Of all races I’ve done in my 20 years of running, this one pips the lot hands down – the organisation, the route, the roll out, the efficiency, the crew, the support, the camaraderie, the friendliness, the generosity of spirit…  everything about this event epitomises for me what self-sufficient desert trail running should be about.

My 20L pack (5.8kg) and trusty Salomon Mantras
Designed in Marathon des Sables format (7 days, 6 stages, with the long stage, 70km, on days 4/5) but with a far more personal approach (KAEM allows a maximum of 100 runners, versus the +1 000 that do MDS), KAEM is staged in the Kalahari Augrabies region of the Northern Cape province of South Africa, close to the Namibian border.

Self-sufficient means just that – you carry your food, running gear, sleeping gear and a small medical kit for seven days. All that’s provided is water at frequent checkpoints along the way, and a communal tarpaulin to sleep under. As long as you carry the mandatory gear, how generous you are with what you take is up to you, and pack weights vary from as light as 5.8kg to as hefty as 14kg.

The stages are designed to test even the strongest runners, starting with a fairly easy 25km, a 35km, a 40km, then the 70km long stage, followed by a 45km, and finally 21km, making up a total of 236km – all in gruelling conditions.

The race always takes place during the full moon, early in November. At that time of year, the summer heat is already extreme, and maximum daily temperatures range from 38˚C to about 46˚C.

Did you know, it never rains in the Kalahari.
Hang on, that’s not true at all. It was Estienne Arndt, who is Race Organiser, Evil Route Planner and Big Boss of All Things KAEM, who once stated with absolute authority that it NEVER rains in the Kalahari…  and it’s rained every year during the race ever since.

Rain in a hot, dry desert means humidity. Anyone who’s hiked or run in a desert knows that hot, dry conditions are easier to cope with than hot humid conditions.
To add to the challenge, runners are subject to a staggered start each day – seeded according to their cumulative time. That means that on the long day, for example, the slowest person starts at 6am while the race leader has to wait until 1pm before he sets off on the 70km stage. The temperature by that time is easily a tidy 37˚C.

An insider's view of tent life    (pic by Altie Clark)
The terrain underfoot varies from stony shale to jeep track to dry, sandy riverbed, and the views from rocky gorges and rivers to endless grassy savannah speckled with stunted camelthorn, blackthorn and other acacias.

The Kalahari Augrabies region is rich in wildlife, and runners had frequent sightings of springbok, eland, gemsbok, ostrich, giraffe, and birds of prey.

The racing part of KAEM 2014
The start of KAEM 2014
This year there were 70 participants from 18 countries. It was the 15th running of the event, and many of the participants were return KAEM’ers.
Race winner Mahmut Yavuz

Competition in the front of the field was tough, with three times winner Dirk Cloete (SA) up against last year’s 2nd placed Mahmut Yavuz (Turkey), Dion Leonard (Australia), who placed 6th last year, Stephan Vernay (France) and local novice Martin Kalwenya.

Vying for top spot in the women I had stiff competition – Lucja Leonard (Australia) came 2nd last year and had since completed MDS 2014 and featured well in several ultras in the UK, while hard core ultra queen Bakiye Duran (Turkey) was back for a third time, having claimed 1st woman in 2012 and 3rd place last year. It was clear I’d have to work damn hard to win this one!

Apart from Stage 1 when Stephan crossed the line in 1st spot, Mahmut dominated the entire race, every day increasing his lead to make his final time a convincing 1hr45 lead over 2nd place Dion, who fought hard against Stephan (3rd) and Martin (4th).

The women’s race was nail-biting – Lucja certainly gave me a run for my money! I ran a cautious Day 1, securing a 6 min lead, which I increased to 31 min on Day 2. Then things went pear-shaped for me when stomach cramps got the better of me during Day 3, and I finished 5 min behind Lucja. Then on the long stage, Lucja had an absolute stormer, finishing a comfortable 18 min ahead of me, and shrinking my lead to just 8 min.
Lucja and I ran the final stage together

Thankfully on Day 5 (45km), I pulled the proverbial rabbit out the hat – I had one of those runs where everything feels right, and I cruised across the line 27 min ahead of Lucja, stretching my lead to a healthy 35 min. With just a 21km stage set for the final day, the margin between us was big enough for me to have the win secured, and Lucja and I ran the final leg of KAEM 2014 together.
Competing in a self-sufficient race in a remote part of the world is an experience unlike any other. You’re one of a small group of people (ok, unless you’re doing MDS, in which case you’re one of more than 1 000 people) in a bubble for a week, and that week is packed with daily goals, challenges, pains, joys, disappointments, achievements – a smorgasbord of highs and lows, a microcosm of real life. And wherever you are in the field, you feel that week is a life truly lived.
Mahmut Yavuz, Dion Leonard (R) and Stephan Vernay (L)
me, Lucja Leonard (L) and Bakiye Duran (R)

It’s often said that perseverance is not one long race, but rather many short races one after the other. That’s what multi-stage events are all about. For everyone, whether fleet of foot or out there for the long haul every day, each stage is tough, challenging, and calls for a carefully measured approach – and one hell of a lot of positive thinking.

Camp manager Willem Basson with MediClinic doctors Caroline Murray (L) and Jann Killops (R)
When the 65 finishers and more than 50 crew of KAEM 2014 bid their farewells and headed home to after their week in the desert, they went so much the richer for their experience in the Kalahari. Many will return another year for another round; the others will just relive the memories.
The finishers of KAEM 2014
The fantastic crew behind KAEM 2014
In short, if you’re looking to do a self-sufficient stage race in an extremely beautiful and special part of the world, then KAEM is the one to do. Put it on your bucket list immediately.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Freedom Run - just 3 days til the finish line

Yesterday I had the privilege of joining Freedom Runners Mimi Anderson and Samantha Gash on the 29th day of their incredible 32-day, +2 000km run from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl, in South Africa.

I last saw Mimi and Samantha when they were in Cape Town, three days before they began their feat. They were bursting with excitement, laced with a hint of apprehension over what the challenge might throw at them. Being experienced with ultra distances and multi-day running in all sorts of conditions, they took on this challenge well aware that ahead of them lay the unknown, the only certainties being the basics of their route (rather than what that route entailed), the mileage they had to cover, and their shared determination to complete the challenge.
The mission of their run was clear: to raise as much as they possibly could to set up a social enterprise that will empower women in a rural community in the Free State to make reusable sanitary pads, enabling young girls to be free to continue their schooling without the interruption of their monthly periods.
The crew, aka "Cafe Boys Boys Boys" in action

The Freedom Run had been two years in the planning - from identifying their mission and carefully selecting the rural community for the pilot project, plotting the route and scheming the logistics with the help of the team behind the Freedom Challenge, to sourcing their wonderful crew who would give more than a month of their lives to slog, sweat over and serve Mimi and Sam for the duration of the Freedom Run.
The training these two wonder women had to do was the easy part of their preparation - it was organising everything that was the difficult part.

Stepping into Mimi and Samantha's world for a day almost a month after they'd started was in some ways like peeking 10 chapters on in a novel when you've only read the preface. In the preface to this book, the girls had looked fresh and bouncy, eager to face the unknown of the weeks ahead. Now, seeing them 10 chapters on, they looked so different - both very thin, drawn and somewhat weathered from running for 29 continuous days in the harsh African sun.
Sam and Mimi near Montagu, Western Cape

But as tired as they seemed on the outside, these two incredible women were still bursting with vigour and vitality within, more determined than ever to keep to their strict schedule, with the end goal being to help enable communities of young girls - girls that they will most likely never meet - to attend school for the education they need to have a decent future.

On Saturday Mimi and Sam will complete the Freedom Run, having covered more than 47 back-to-back marathons in 32 days, over 2 000km without even a single rest day. They've endured their fair share of icy starts and minus temperatures, of blasting sun through blistering days, of high winds and slamming rain; they've slogged on mountain trails 2 750m above sea level, waded across rivers, and whacked their way through reed beds. Together they've laughed, cried, winced and sweated their way across a vast chunk of our beautiful country, two non-South Africans with a determined dream to change the lives of those they can.

Here's a quick synopsis of why the Freedom Run is critical:
  • In South Africa, one in 10 girls between the ages of 11 and 17 miss out on 4-5 days of school a month due to their periods. This shouldn't have to be!
  • Commercially produced disposable sanitary pads are too expensive for most schoolgirls in Africa.
  • A girl missing 4 days of school every 28 days due to her period loses the equivalent of 8 weeks of school per year. Falling behind in lessons inevitably means they end up dropping out of school.
  • 60% of girls and women in South Africa don’t have access to feminine hygiene products. Instead, they make a plan, often using rags, cloth or bits of newspaper.
The Freedom Run is not only a mission to raise awareness and confront the problem, but to find a solution. The funds raised through the challenge will enable Save The Children International to establish a social enterprise in an identified community in the Free State as a pilot project. The business will employ women to make and sell reusable sanitary pads within their community.
The project will also provide ongoing education on health and hygiene for girls and women, as well as life skills training workshops for parents.

Show your support for the Freedom Run and what it stands for by becoming a part of the solution: click on the donate tab on this link: Save The Children Freedom Run