Last updated: 20-Aug-18
By Marina Ranger
Since January 2013 I have kept finding new ways to challenge myself and try new things through the journeys and experiences I have by running. Running, no matter what distance, was a challenge for me 2 years ago today. But by the end of 2013 I had run my first 250km Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, and it completely changed my life. I finished last year in 37th position, taking me a total of 42:59 hours. The challenge last year was simply to finish, so coming back this year I needed a new challenge. With a lot more experience under my belt I knew I could improve on last years performance if I committed to a thorough training plan.
I had my training plan written for me by Lucja Leonard (2nd Lady in 2013 and 2014). I have been her guinea pig in training, coaching and helping runners achieve new goals. I spent a weekend in Edinburgh with Lucja and her husband Dion (2nd Male) to discuss my goals and to also get out on some of the beautiful trails of Scotland. After the training plan was complete, she kept track of my progress and maintained contact with me for tips and support along the way. It really helped and kept me focused knowing I wasn’t the only one monitoring my training. My training plan started in July and since then, had become my priority and focus in every day life. My weekly mileage ranged between 30 and 70 miles, which I fit in before work, in the early hours of the morning and on the weekend. A typical week would consist of one hill session, one tempo run, a yoga class, two steady runs and one or two long runs, back to back on the weekend.
A lot of people have been asking me: So, what else got me back to the Kalahari again this year? The answer to that is, a long list of things: the beautiful desert; its wildlife, scenery and unpredictable weather, the feeling of satisfaction at the end, the wonderful race organisers Nadia and Estienne, the fantastic crew who support you at every checkpoint and at camp, the chance to meet new runners and see ones I already knew and finally the chance to improve since last time, so that although I was doing the same race, I had set myself new objectives and was therefore still ticking boxes!
The night-flight from London Heathrow to Johannesburg was long and restless. I flew with David Ball (KAEM finisher 2012, 2013 and now 2014 and also my boss!) and Ian Jamieson (David’s good friend). Our night flight was followed by an internal flight to Uppington, which is a coach journey away from Augrabies Falls Lodge, where we would be staying for the two nights before and after the race. It was good to see a few familiar faces including Lucja, Dion, Princess, Jessie and Edward and to be introduced to new ones who throughout the week I would gradually feel more at home with! I knew before arriving that I would be one of the few ladies and this year, the youngest overall competitor in the race so I knew I already had some bragging rights!
The agenda for that evening and the next day included a dinner, race briefing, kit check, lunch and ‘the last supper’ before the morning of the start of the race. The kit check was fairly easy and took me a matter of 2 minutes to run through all of my items. There was also a medical check and weigh-in for a comparison at the end of the race.
My roomie this year was Altie (SA), a first timer at KAEM. I think people tend to make a special bond with their roommate at KAEM. It’s such an intense week that I seem to classify anyone I have met at KAEM on a strangely, different and more memorable level to someone I might meet at work or on a night out for example!
Day 1 – 26 km
Finally the big day arrived! I was feeling considerably relaxed compared to 2013. This mainly comes down to knowing what to expect, training harder, being more experienced and having planned everything thoroughly. When I woke up I immediately checked the weather. The forecast predicted it to be in the early 30’s with sun and cloud. It was overcast!!! My Dad’s wishes had come true! However, one thing I have learnt since visiting the Kalahari – never underestimate the weather’s ability to switch from one extreme to the next in a matter of minutes!
For breakfast I had my first Chia Charge Flapjack (I love these and they give me a decent amount of energy). Altie planned on having porridge, but a giant baboon stole it from inside our kitchen before she managed to cook it!
At 08:00 we made our way to the start line with an hour to spare before the start. We spent the next hour trying to relax, taking photos and wishing everyone good luck. By the time we set off at 09:00, the sun was out and it was heating up. I maintained a steady pace in the front half of the race for the first 20km or so with Annelise by my side. The first 20km was mostly all on dirt track road, undulating frequently but by small amounts. We later hit rock boulders at the bottom of a riverbed and then a long stretch of steep uphill, which we managed to reach when the day was at its hottest – increasing my body temperature, my heart rate and my fatigue. Back at camp it seemed that most people had had a hot and tough day too. It felt strange, but satisfying to come in at lunchtime on the first day. I normally came in much later in 2013 so had less time to chill with others and put my feet up. On our first night at camp in the Kalahari…it rained!
Day 2 – 35km
At the beginning of Day 2, I can clearly remember speaking to Lucja about feeling surprised at how nervous we were. That’s another thing I’ve realised after my second KAEM – you begin to forget the pain, worries, nerves and troubles you have during the race, as every other positive feeling you gain throughout the week outweighs the negative ones.
My night’s sleep was pretty poor because a sleeping mat was one of the items that didn’t make the cut in my bag this year, so I only had my hip to rely on for cushioning.
When it was time for my group to leave (group 2/3), I started off running with Annelise again, knowing that we were comfortable with each others pace and could keep each other company for the day. We actually didn’t talk much, but sometimes it’s just nice to know you are in it with someone else. The peace and quiet didn’t last for long as Harry soon caught up with us. Harry was the second oldest competitor (66)… probably the loudest too! He kept both of us so well entertained and we took the day nice and easy. The weather was warm with sunny spells and felt much more manageable than Day 1. In hindsight I could have pushed myself harder, but it was a good day none the less.
Day 3 – 40 km
Day three was the first day I spent time on my own, ran at my own pace and really pushed myself. It was a turning point in the race for me, one which gave me more confidence and allowed me to explore my limits rather than just running at a comfortable pace and stopping and starting when others decided to.
I had another average sleep. Fully expected. When we woke up in the morning (usually about 5am as the sun comes up and everyone around you starts making noise) it was overcast, which soon led to rain (AGAIN), causing all sorts of trouble for everyone under the gazebo nets, especially those under the gaps (including me)! The first group of runners got caught in the rain, but by my start time of 7.30am, the sun had come out so we managed to escape getting soaked. I started running at the front of the group with Annelise and Harry. The terrain was a mix of road and trail, followed by a long stretch of a stunning and technical river gorge, which was one of the most fun parts of the day. One of the biggest challenges of day 3 was the humidity; something none of us were prepared for. I ran on my own for the first time in the race when I sped up with Lucja as she passed us (meaning she was exactly 30 minutes ahead of us). As much as I really love company when I run, from this point on in the race, I realised that I actually enjoy running with myself and that I can compete a lot better when I run at my own pace.
The last 15km were scenically beautiful. I hit the top of the hill just as the storms were coming in, so I got to watch it in the distance before it eventually reached me.
Back at camp my typical routine would be to have a recovery shake, have a massage, wash my face and body with wipes and have a lie down. However, we were lucky enough to be by the Orange River so I had my first ‘wash’ of the week and a good rinse of my sweaty clothes.
In preparation for the big next day and knowing how little sleep I was getting, camp daddy kindly gave me some cardboard to sleep on. Joachim and Princess were clearly jealous so I adopted the name ‘hobo’ for the rest of the week!
Day 4 – 70 km
The long day start times are staggered in groups of on average 4, leaving every 15 minutes from 6am-1pm. I started at 10:15am with three others, which felt like a great deal of time to wait, having been awake since 5am. I knew I had a long day ahead of me but the sooner it was over the better, so rather than conserving my energy for the day and taking it easy I pushed myself to cover as much ground as possible in the earlier hours of the day. From CP3 onwards I buddied up with Joachim, pacing each other all the way to the finish line. We both had our best day, storming through the checkpoints and keeping an eye on the numbers of people we were passing ahead of us.
I got through the majority of my planned 3047 calories for the day, having something to eat every hour plus my salt tablets and electrolytes at every checkpoint we passed. We had beautiful views with the sun setting into the horizon of the mountains that we had been running towards for most of the day. The sun set as we reached the last checkpoint so I had my head torch on for only the last 6km of running. We really picked the pace up for the last 10km as Joachim was setting the pace at this point and was getting over excited for the finish line.
I finished with an overall time of 09:19hrs, exactly 6 hours faster than in 2013, putting me in third place out of the ladies for this stage. Joachim finished with a cracking time of 08:49hrs (start time of 10:45am) exceeding his expectations at his first ever ultra marathon distance in one day. We were some of the first people back at camp so it was great to see everyone else stagger in after such amazing efforts throughout the day. Lucja took first position for the ladies for this stage, changing the leader board quite a bit and certainly putting the pressure on the overall leading lady Linda Doke. I also jumped quite a few places, putting me in 17th position overall and 5th lady!
Day 5 – Rest Day
Rest day gives the runners a chance to sleep more if needed, relax, refuel, wash, have massages and visit the medical tent if needed. I went for a couple of small blister threading’s that weren’t nearly as bad as some of the other blisters I saw so I counted myself lucky. We were by the Orange River again so I had a couple of dips to wash my hair and cool down from the heat. I had plenty of food to get through which I struggled with, having just lied around in the heat all day. Rest day is also a good time to chill and catch up with other competitors, some of whom you make close friendships with during the week.
Day 6 – 45 km
Having moved up the leader boards on the long stage, I placed myself in the top third of runners. This meant I had to start in the fastest and latest group out of three. In 2013, Day 6 was most people’s hardest day so I knew not to be complacent about the day, despite it being shorter than the long stage. The main challenge was the heat but there were others too. The route itself wasn’t as scenic as other days. Much of the route was on road or on long stretches beside fences and phone posts.
This questions your mental strength and ability to keep motivated. For the first half of the day I pushed myself hard and was in constant yoyo with Bakiye (3rd lady and previous winner). Being in the fast group was mentally challenging for me because I knew I was one of the slowest of the group so I was very conscious of not falling too far behind the middle of the pack, which would mean I was behind all of the other runners too. I unfortunately bonked with about 15km to go. I’m still not sure whether this was down to my nutrition for the day or just because of the heat. I have never felt so horrendous and I really started to question my ability to finish the day. I walked a lot at the end, simply because I felt too drained, weak and fed up to run.
I arrived back at camp after 06:03hrs and collapsed on my cardboard bed to regain some energy and sanity. Thankfully, the hardest day of the week was over but that meant we had arrived at our last camp before the end of the race, which is always a sad realisation.
Day 7 – 21 km
The final day, like the long day, is staggered so that all competitors arrive at the finish line at roughly the same time. For breakfast I had my last Chia Charge flapjack of the week, which took me over 30 minutes to eat (I’d normally eat this in 2minutes). This is no reflection on the taste of the flapjack; anything you have to eat in the desert every day for a whole week becomes repulsive by the end.
I started the last day with Peter, John and Floris. I dropped a place after Day 6, putting me in 18th place after Floris and before Peter and John. I was just over 30 minutes ahead of Peter so could be quite confident that I wouldn’t lose my position in the race over 21km. Peter, John and I decided to run the day together, making the most of our last day in the desert and in anticipation for the finish line. It was a hot day, so despite the shorter distance, it was definitely not easy.
I hoped to see wildlife as I did on my last day in 2013 but I saw nothing all week, which was a shame. We did however have another day of beautiful views with Moon Rock as our target in the horizon. Just before the finish line we caught up with Harry and Paolo, so for the last 50m the five of us joined hands and soaked up the incredible feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes with finishing KAEM. I finished KAEM 2014 in 18th position over all and 5th female.
Most of the time after the race is spent drinking and eating. After a couple of beers at the finish line I was already staring to feel the effects! The race finishes on Friday and everyone leaves on Sunday so Saturday is our free day to socialise with the other runners. I went on a walk with Dion and Lucja in the morning followed by a swim with Lucja and then a long afternoon BBQ with about 6 others for the rest of the day. Saturday night is the awards dinner, which involves more drinking and eating with a bit of dancing thrown in too.
Everyone’s so high spirited by the end of the race so its great to spend time with everyone feeling much more relaxed. Sunday is a hung-over coach journey back to Uppington and then goodbyes to everyone as we go our separate ways. I felt particularly sad to say goodbye and leave everything behind this year: the race, the crew, the organisers, the desert and, of course, the runners. It was the best week I have ever experienced, which I will take so many learning’s and memories from.