Trail Running

Running through the Namib desert in lockdown … Hannes Arangies remembers his epic 131km solo run

My Desert Ultra Adventure

My name is Hannes. I am Namibian and live in the in the North of Namibia. My current running goal is to complete a 100-miler. 

Trail running events for me usually include travelling abroad, accommodation, car rental, time off work etc. etc. But then my girlfriend suggested that we planned my own 160km route, right here in the North of Namibia. She agreed to second me on the trip where all I needed to do was to prove to myself that I could do it. It would be the chance for an event that would give me experiences to remember right here in my own “backyard”. I welcomed the idea and asked Coach Neville to make my training plan accordingly. The run was set to take place 8 May, 2020 and the training for the race began at the end of 2019.

The Namib desert route

The time came closer and so did the coronavirus. Namibia went into a State of Emergency and the country was in lock-down. My girlfriend got caught outside the country and could not enter Namibia to second me on the run. For a while, I did not know whether I would be able to continue with my plans for the run, but I stuck to my training schedule and hoped for the best. In April, I approached two of my friends and asked if they would second me on the run. They both agreed and took on the task with great enthusiasm! YouTube videos were watched, doctors were consulted, equipment gathered; they realised that I was not kidding and 160km is far!

In my day, I have driven all over Namibia. One of my favourite places and the chosen place for the run was the Messum Crater, which lies within the Namib Desert. The start was just outside the village of Uis and the run would take me around the southwestern base of Namibia’s highest mountain, the Brandberg, through the crater and across the desert to the coast by Cape Cross. We had divided the stretch into three stages; stage one went from Uis to the crater (60km), stage two went into and through the crater (50km) and the final stage was crossing the desert plains to the coast (50km).

I was to have an aid stop every 10km, where the vehicle would be waiting for me with supplies. The route was downloaded onto my GPS watch and the vehicle GPS. The course would be descending in altitude, from 1500m to sea level. We drew up a time schedule in order to estimate the time required. I based my running time on an average of 8 minutes per kilometre, and in stage one my aid stops were set at 10 minutes, in stage two at 15 minutes and in section 3 at 20 minutes. The last aid stop on stage one allowed for a 50 minutes break and the last aid stop of stage two was set to last one hour. This was to allow me to sleep and get a change of clothes. If I could stick with this schedule, the 160km would take me around 26 hours.

Devoid of shade, the Namib desert is arid and hot during the day and freezing cold during the night when the wind brings the cold sea air from the coast. As wearing warm clothes would be easier than coping with the heat, I decided to start running into the night. I wanted to finish stage one by sunrise, so we planned that I should set off at 9pm that Friday evening. I wanted to cross the rim of the crater at or after sunrise as this was the only place where I was afraid of getting  lost and being away from the aid vehicle. This would have me running two nights and one day. Saturday night/Sunday morning would be spent at the lodge at Cape Cross where we could all sleep before heading back on a 5 hour drive home.

Two weeks before the run, I started to organise my gear. I made sure to have the right clothes, food, energy drinks etc. I had a goodie bag with medicines and remedies for everything from stomach ailments to blisters and pain relief. I met with my support crew and we discussed the trip and what was expected of them. All of us were prepared and ready to go!

We left home at 9am, which gave us 12 hours for a trip that can be done in 5. However, it is a crazy time with the lockdown and we were sure to come across road blocks, and we just wanted to enjoy the trip and not be stressed. We took the back roads and arrived at Uis at around 2pm. Just before Uis was a roadblock, and we were stopped and the police informed us that our tail gate was open … all our equipment was on the back. Fortunately our only losses were a jerry can with water and some other small containers. Our bags were still there!

Uis looked like a ghost town, so we drove a little outside the town and looked for a place to set up for a braai before the show was to begin. We found a dry riverbed where we made a fire and mentally prepared for the run. I checked my gear again, ate some wors and watched the rise of a beautiful full moon; a stunning and amazing start to the adventure run.

I decided to start one hour early, so at 8pm I set off on a gravel road away from Uis towards Henties Bay. After 13km I turned off on a secondary gravel road which took me past the Brandberg towards the mine. It was a stunning night run with a bright moon and no need for a headlamp with the silhouette of the Brandberg northeast of the road. The support vehicle kept 5km ahead of me which gave me plenty of time on my own to fully appreciate the experience.

 

It also gave me time to think of the possibility of meeting any wild animals, which my crew had asked about at the braai. I was aware that lions inhabit the opposite side of the mountain and I figured it was way too dry this side in the desert, but as I was running through the river bed, I could not help become very aware of the bushes and wondered if anything nasty was looking at me. It was then that I pushed all thoughts aside and just kept going.

The kilometres went by fast, I felt good and I was thoroughly enjoying this experience. In the light of the moon I saw the stones glistening and the shadows of the koppies and the trees. It was a pleasant run and I was getting close to the dry Messum River bed. At 40km, the vehicle was in front of me and I suddenly saw some lights in the distance. I came closer and heard some dogs barking. I figured I was entering a settlement, but just kept on going, still without my headlamp. Then a voice called to me and asked who was there. I answered that I was just running past on my way to the crater. The voice asked again, sounding confused that someone would be running at this time of night. I replied again quietly and confirmed that I was “jogging”. The voice then wanted to know if I was aware of the lions … the area is currently full of zebras and when the zebras are there, the lions are behind them. Apparently three people were eaten a few months earlier, did I not know this? We had a long talk and I decided to try to contact my support vehicle, but the phone reception was very poor so I stayed put until the vehicle came back looking for me. When the crew arrived, we decided that they would drive behind me with lights on so that I could continue my run up to and through the Messum River bed.

A nap in the shade of the support vehicle

After the river, the tracks started to become off-road tracks and running became difficult. The tracks were sandy, deep and corrugated, but I found a rhythm and just kept going up to the first big break at 60km where I arrived at 5am. At a stop not long before, I had a 10 minute power nap and some food (apple, banana, energy drink). Despite this,  I still felt very tired and I felt that I was sleeping while running. I seemed to stumble to the right, which woke me up and I would run back onto the  track into the deep sand only to doze off again.

Night and it is freezing

At 60km the crew had placed a canvas with a mattress on and I had a good 25 minute nap. The temperatures had plummeted and it was very cold. When I woke up, I just wanted to move on, but my crew told me to eat something. I was nauseous, but ate some cold, fatty boerewors and a few dates. As soon as I had swallowed it, I knew that it would be coming back up. I left the vehicle before the sun was up and after 200 metes I vomited. I tried very hard to control my nausea. The track became sandier and more mountainous as I climbed the crater wall. Between the mountains were dunes with soft sand and sand bridges. There was a beautiful solitude in the desert and the scenery was unbelievable and big!

The tracks had become very deep and soft and just as I had reached the bottom of a dune, I looked back and saw the vehicle had stopped at the top. The crew told me to stay put so I sat down and waited. I did not want to get lost as there were quite a few tracks in all directions. The crew struggled with the car which wanted to slip and tip and roll, and fortunately they managed to reverse out and down the dune in my direction, so I had to scramble to move myself out of the way. But the car was on track and went ahead with me following behind it.

Support vehicle stuck in the sand

It was still very cold until the sun started to come out. I saw the mountains with their shade and the contrast was beautiful. Then came the heat! As I started to warm up, the vastness and the beauty of the desert was indescribable. My mind was empty of all thoughts and I just enjoyed the moment. It was an amazing experience to become one with the desert. Alone, by myself, surrounded by sand and mountains with their dark rocks, no vegetation. Mesmerising!

At 80km it was getting hot. I tried to prepare for the day ahead where I would be running alone through the crater bowl. I ate some food and electrolytes slowly and carefully as I was still nauseous and I drank some water and coke, which made me feel better. I changed into a white shirt and white sleeves, washed my feet and put on clean socks and shoes, and put on a sunblock and a hat with a brim to protect my neck from the sun. As I ran into the bowl, the east wind came from behind. The breeze was a relief, but the wind was warm. I dried out very quickly. My lips became sore and my water consumption went up very quickly. I had a towel around my neck, but it still became too hot to run as my towel dried within minutes. I struggled with the heat and at this stage I was moving at a slow walk. One of my crew started to walk with me and gave me moral support for a few kilometres. 

Vastness, searing heat and reduced to walking at times 

Again, the vastness was the most striking feature of the huge open space that lay before me. The gravel plains were relentless and there was no shade except for close to the vehicle during my aid stops. There was nowhere to hide so I just had to keep going. I passed an old rusty sign which read “Murrto” (English translation) and had an arrow in two opposite directions. I could not help but smile as I knew exactly how that person must have felt who wrote this. I started  to see the other side of the bowl. I fixed my sight on a point and it seemed like ages before I got closer. At this point I was walking not running.

As I reached the far rim of the crater and a drainage river of the Messum river, I approached 100km. I felt happy, yet was struggling to move and was now down to a constant walk. I decided to take it step by step for the next 10km. On my way towards 110km, the gravel plains and the giant welwitschia lay before me. Welwitschia is the national flower of Namibia and is one of the few living things able to survive in this desert environment. They are able to live for hundreds of years and these plains are known as the home of some of the largest welwitschia in the world. And I saw plants larger than I had ever seen before. I have such respect for them and their ability to withstand all the hardness of this hostile environment. Fantastic experience!

At 110km my mood was deteriorating, my motivation was low and I was sleepy and tired. It was around 5-6pm and I told the crew that I was struggling and that this was the end. They told me to rest and drink and eat something. I ate some scrambled eggs which I surprisingly kept down and I was no longer nauseous. After that I slept a good 45-50 minutes and when I woke up I felt revived and energetic. The next 10km went a lot easier as the sun had now started to go down, and I moved in a slow jog or a fast walk. As the sun set, the mist came rolling in from the coast and once again the landscape changed, but was still breathtakingly beautiful. Coming up to 120km had me out of the crater and on a gravel road. This road went on for 10km before it ended in a T-junction with the Skeleton Coast road, which connects Henties Bay and Cape Cross.

Feet care was important with the sandy and rocky surfaces

Just as I came around the mountain, out of the crater, the south-westerly wind slapped me hard in the face. It was the freezing cold wind from the sea. I hurried to put on a second layer and windbreaker and pulled the hood over my cap. It was getting dark and at this point I had decided to make the T-junction my end goal; I would have crossed the Namib desert from the foot of the great Brandberg to the Skeleton Coast. As the wind came towards me, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I calculated in my head that I would reach the T-junction 26 hours after my start. My GPS watch had died on me and I was no longer able to track the distance, but according to my crew, arrival at the T-junction would mean that we had travelled 131km. On the final stretch before reaching the coastal road, it got dark and I had to make a decision, not only for me, but for the crew as well. I still had 30km to go to reach my planned goal and at the current pace, it would take me 6-7 hours more. We would be at the T-junction around 10pm and we would have to leave early in the morning to be able to get back home in time so we could be rested before Monday morning when we all had to be back at work. It was a tough decision as I felt that I still had strength left, but was running out of time. But I decided to stop after 131km!

Strava lies:-)  131km on GPS

We all got in the car and drove to Cape Cross where a nice warm shower and a good night’s rest waited. The next morning before we left, we picked up our take-away breakfast as coronavirus dictated. My thoughts went back to the day before, to the stunning solitude through the open expanses of the harsh desert and how for just a while, there was no such thing as coronavirus. It was such a relief not to be reminded about the crazy global condition that is constantly fed to us, whether we want it or not.

I am proud to have run through the desert on my own and so very thankful that it was possible. I am grateful to my crew who dove in and rose to the occasion. Later when I was uploading my data to Strava, the programme told me that the segment could not be found. Maybe because no-one else has ever recorded this. But now it is there, it did happen and it was an adventure of a lifetime!

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