‘We are inviting a few people to do this extreme double marathon event’ the invite said as it gently caressed my ego. My ego was excited, aroused. My imagination piqued and my crazy gene went into overdrive. I convinced myself it was an ‘interested maybe’. We arranged to go and have a chat with David Scott from Sandbaggers (the organiser) who sold it, although to be honest it was a pretty easy sell. As we left the meeting I turned to Alasdair and said,
‘I am so doing that’ to which he replied,
‘You were so doing that before we went in. I’m not sure why we bothered with the meeting’.
Before I get to my experiences I want to say a few things about these expeditions: they are expeditions. If you are a runner who likes to fly in rock up to start gantry and marked course, run your race with the crowd, collect your T-Shirt and medal and fly out then these are not for you. They are measured and runners are safe and well supported, but they are less about the numbers game and more about the location, the challenge of a wild and adventurous run: a marathon that is more like an ultra. It is running stripped back.
Our adventure started on a wet January morning as we flew from Glasgow to Frankfurt where we hooked up with David Scott (Sandbaggers) the organiser and the rest of the group before the overnight flight to Windhoek the capital of Namibia. Our first time in Africa, and a big milestone for me: setting foot on my 7th and final continent. There is a strong German influence in Namibia which was at one time a German colony. It has also been a British colony and held by both Angola and South Africa, only gaining full independence from South Africa in 1996. It has surprisingly good infrastructure and utilities; we could drink the water; and there was a distinct lack of flies and creepy crawlies, much to Alasdair’s relief. In addition to the distinctive desert and sand dunes it has a long Atlantic coastline and savannah.
Our first day was spent at a safari lodge giving us time to rest and relax in the stunning savannah. A safari was organised later in the day and we were saw a good range of game including giraffes, gnus, ostriches, zebras, assorted antelopes and a tortoise. I felt privileged to able to see and photograph these amazing creatures in their natural habitat. The water hole opposite the lodge terrace came to life at sunset as we dined.
On the second day was a long drive to Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast with a stop off in Okahandja, where there is a wood carvers market and where it was impossible to browse as you experience the hard sell, but worth visiting and experiencing. We arrived in Swakopmund late afternoon.
Alasdair and I went for a wander and he acquired a sartorially elegant safari hat at the expense of a stop at the ice cream shop which had closed before we got back to it. Not a happy bear. That night we enjoyed s ‘surf-and-turf’ dinner followed by brandies in the bar in a characterful restaurant that had been created in the wreck of a tug that had been wrecked on the shore.
Next day we were picked up by Burger, our guide for the next couple of days. We drove a short distance to Walvis Bay the start point for a coastal safari. Firstly we drove round salt pans where there was a large amount of birdlife, then into the coastal dunes which were vast and stunning. Dunes on one side and the impressive Atlantic rollers on the other. We stopped at the spot where there had been a whale processing factory that had been consumed by the dunes and would probably disappear completely over the year.
We stopped for lunch near a lagoon where I had a bit of a scary altercation (diva near drowning experience) with the rollers which dragged my off my feet and tossed me about leaving me bruised, scraped and spluttering.
After lunch we returned to Walvis Bay through the dunes and being treated to exciting, adrenaline inducing descents and ascents. There was more wildlife sightings too; a jackal, ostriches and antelope. Back in Walvis Bay we were greeted by masses of flamingos on the mud flats.
We picked up the trailer and set off inland where we would have a night’s wild camping in the desert before the marathon. The desert terrain here was rockier and rougher. Once camp was set I went out for a short acclimatisation run to test out my sand gaiters.
Then we gathered round the camp fire to eat and star gaze. The night sky was really impressive and the milky way clear to see. I retired first leaving the men to their camp fire tales of daring do.
Race day dawned damp and misty as it always does in the desert. I had slept better than I normally do the night before a race, but was still one of the first up. The camp started to stir and come to life. and we quietly breakfasted, packed up and prepared for the day. Tummy full and well hydrated we bundled into the van and headed out back to the road. After about half an hour the van suddenly turned off the road, crossed a railway line and then drew to stop.
Ready? Dave asked.
‘What? Here? Now?’
‘Yes. Let’s get started’
‘Err, Ok, give me 10 mins to get sorted’
I went into panicked diva mode. Alasdair instructed me to calm down, take as long as I needed, as nothing was going to start until I was ready. Good point. Twenty minutes later after a diva inspired ceremonial foot bathing I was sand free, sand tight and good to go. Temperature hot, 20 something, but manageable. Take it steady, don’t do anything stupid and finish. I had to finish and I had to finish knowing I would be good to run another in a week: I was the only loon signed up for the double.
The route was unmarked undulating and winding its way through the desert along the edge of the dunes which rose up majestically out of the sand. They were more like hills. Running through them you were struck by just how awesome and beautiful they were. The variety in the textures and colours of the sand were amazing: orange, gold, beige, black and red sand all mingling and creating swirls of colour and tone. The black sand is magnetic and the red is garnet. Once the sun appeared and heat began to build to 36 degrees the desert shimmered in a heat haze and mirages. Evidence of wildlife was limited as you would expect, but over one section I saw small spherical beetles with a large white spot on their backs.
The beauty was matched in equal measure by the challenge. This is a tough environment that has to be treated with respect. It was never going to be an easy walk in the park. It was a slog through hot soft sand that enveloped and dragged at the foot, sand that appeared firm and packed which would shift and fall away underfoot; and there was the energy sapping, diva strop inducing heat.
The support vehicle would maintain visual on us most of the time and would be a mobile water station and check point. All we had to do was follow the tyre tracks and keep checking for the visual reference: easy, but perhaps not.
After an over enthusiastic start it took a few miles to settle my breathing and pace and start to enjoy the landscape. It perhaps provided too great a distraction as we followed the tracks onto a shelf of flat rock. Chatting away we crossed the rock keeping the dunes to our left, but failing to notice that that there were dunes appearing ahead and to our right. Back onto the sand we suddenly noted: no tracks, no van anywhere on the horizon. I involuntarily checked my water bottles one was full and one low: a bit over half a litre of water was not going to cut it if we were lost. Cue an unhelpful image of crawling, parched across the desert and scenes from Ice Cold in Alex flashing before my eyes.
A quick discussion and agreed to head out of the dunes towards a line of telegraph poles marking the railway we had crossed at the start and which was running parallel to the dunes. Logically, the vehicle should be somewhere between the railway line and the edge of the dunes. As we dropped down the dune I spotted tracks. Phew. Not long after this we spotted the van.
My companion decided to call it day at this point and I was off chugging through the dunes on my own. It was getting very hot and I wondered if the factor 50 was doing its job (it wasn’t) and inevitably as I got hotter and fatigued I was getting a ‘good grump on’ leading to the support stops being dubbed ‘row stops’ as I growled and snarled at Alasdair whilst everyone else kept their distance. Dave assumed the safer role of ‘cooler’ pouring water over me and my buff.
It would not be an ‘Audrey’ event without a wobble and it came at the halfway point. After a long gradual but gentle climb I was not feeling so good. I knew from my acclimatisation sessions that my temperature and heart rate were high, too high. I started to feel weepy, distressed, anxious and dizzy. I took a few minutes break sitting in the van to settle. Dave encouraged me to start out and walk a bit, they would drive beside me for a short distance to see how things were. If I need to take longer break I could. After a wobbly start it was thumbs up and I soon got my chug on again.
‘She’ll be fine’ Alasdair reassured.
‘She does this all the time. Looks awful and like she’s going to drop and then she bounces back. Watch.’
At about 18 miles the tracks turned and led me into a bay in the dunes. It was stunning like the desert equivalent of a highland valley surrounded by hills, but the underfoot conditions were particularly hard and sapping and the heat ferocious. I was happy though because I was making good time and it was looking like I might manage 6.30ish certainly under the 7 hour target I had set. The van pulled up on the opposite side of the bay at the bottom of a massive dune. Oh dear God, they are going to send me up over that dune. I am going to have to scramble up there on my hands and feet. No, no, no. That would blow any chance of beating 7 hours. Stop it, man up, you can do this, time does not matter. It’s the finish. Turned out they were messing with me; no scrambling over the dune, phew.
I was really tired now, but only 6 miles to go. I can do this, but I was so, so hot and it just seemed to be getting hotter and hotter, going uphill and I was getting slower and slower. The route had moved away from the dunes onto a desert track for a few miles. The miles ticked over slowly and I waved for a couple of extra support stops for fluid and cool down. A last check-in and the van headed off into the heat haze back to the dunes where it crawled along them before coming to a halt. The finish was in sight.
Pick up the pace, lift those feet, lift your shoulders and look up, reel in that van. I spotted everyone assembling on top of the dune, the Sandbaggers flag and I was there, I was done, but not quite, a last scramble up the dune to touch the flag. Job done: 6:17; 7 hours smashed.
‘Let’s get this woman out of here’. Tired and exhilarated I clambered into the van for the short drive back to Swakopmund. As we arrived I asked what time it was: 4.20.
Ice cream, I want ice cream. I got ice cream.
Did I say? I was hotter than a hot thing that is very hot.
A shower, sun burn tended to and a rest before we convened back at the Tug for dinner. Fish soup; fish, chips and the best tartare sauce ever and most importantly the presentation of the Macadamia nuts.
No brandies in the bar for us that night, bed and sleep beckoned. The next day everyone was content to snooze during the long drive back to Windhoek and a final day of chilling out before Dave, Alasdair and I started the journey to Mongolia.