It all started in the Atacama desert. I volunteered for the Atacama-Crossing, a 250-Kilometer stage race in northern Chile. This was my first event with RacingThePlanet and the beginning of many new friendship with a landscape does not always show it’s friendly face. At the time I was a volunteer for the Atacama Crossing. My job required me to sweep behind the last runners and to gather all course marking material. I was so curious about the Atacama Desert, that I asked to sweep the whole 250 Kilometers.
What does it take to finish a 4 Deserts Race?
- You must run 250 Kilometers in 7 days in extremely harsh environment,
- compete semi-self supported, meaning: you carry all your clothes, equipment and food,
- stay in tented camps overnight after each stage,
- you will be provided water at checkpoints and campsites,
- and you are open-minded and incredibly determined.
While sweeping the course, I was out in the open desert quite a lot. The vast open, the silence and the purity of this landscape were new to me. Temperature changes from below freezing level at night to high thirties during the day challenged my body in an unknown way. On top of that, the last runners walked slowly and often exceeded daylight to complete the marathon-length stages. Competitors had to bring their own food and volunteers likewise. Since the long hours increased my energy consumption drastically, I soon ran out of food. Luckily, my team members at the checkpoints would sneak the hungry German some chocolate bars and sweets. Even nowadays Mary Gadams, the founder of the event series, regularly brings treats me some extra snacks at the events.
Visiting the oldest desert in the world
Since Atacama in 2008, I worked on many races. Today I design full-grown race courses all over the world whenever there is a chance to leave my main job. As a course director, my main objectives for the race course include:
- a beautiful course that fits the race format,
- a safe course,
- a course that is logistically manageable.
As you might notice, beauty is subjective. This requirement often leads to discussions, especially when people are surprised by sand and heat, having in mind that they signed up for a desert race.
When RacingThePlanet asked me to design a race course in Namibia, I instantly agreed because I was eager to meet the oldest desert of the earth – the Namib Desert.
Skeleton Coast Park – first impression
As I visited Skeleton Coast National Park for the first time, the skull and crossbones on the gate welcomed me late at night. The Ugab gate is on the way to Torra Bay – an isolated campsite that is not further than 230 kilometers from the nearest town. We had been driving for hours along the beach where all these shipwrecks and stories rest.
Torra Bay campsite is located right on the beach, but the water of the ocean was cold and the currents were too strong to go for a swim. This only applied for humans because the seals were obviously enjoying the currents. Only during the two months of the summer season in December and January can the local fisherman occupy this place and share it with jackals, brown hyenas and stinking ducks. Every morning and evening the ducks would sit on the water tower that stands in the middle of the campsite. Their holding pattern appeared to be right on top of my tent where they would dump their organic waste accidentally. Far out on the ocean I could sometimes spot whales passing by. I spent two weeks at Torra Bay to scout the route for the race, and I was not prepared for what I saw during the reconnaissance.
An Ocean of Sand full of Life
First, I explored the area by plane. The plane was very small and light. The pilot could even land on the gravel roads when necessary – in case he needed to relieve himself for example. Then I continued the exploration by car and some sections also by foot. Being alone in the middle of a such an environment reduces your life to the moment. It takes you back to the place where we originate from. Some things become insignificant while others prevail. Your senses sharpen. Over the years, I learnt how to analyze terrain, how to read tracks, and how to interpret animal behavior.
This was particularly helpful in Namibia because the cold waters of the Benguela stream carry an ocean full of life to the relentless dunes of the Skeleton Coast. Even large animals such as desert-adapted elephants, extremely endangered rhinos, ostriches and a few lions call this place home. But this ecosystem is fragile. Wildlife gets disturbed even in the most remote corners and humans leave tracks that remain for centuries. You could still observe the tracks from the ox wagons of the settlers from more than one hundred years ago.
The moment I spotted my first rhino tracks, I nervously stared at them because I had no idea what animal could be around me. The only thing I knew: it was huge! I had never seen footprints that size. When we later spotted the large black rhino, I was impressed by the size and appearance of the animal in their natural habitat. There was no fence, no barrier, it was just free. It seems unbelievable how an animal that size can survive in a harsh dry and hot desert. It is just as hard to believe that people would hunt and kill the remaining few for a piece of horn in a world with Viagra and 3D-printers. Black desert rhinos are smaller and more aggressive than their white brothers. They roam mostly alone in areas as big as Belgium.
The most impressive geographic observation for me was a massive dune belt that started near Torra Bay and extends several hundred kilometers north up to the border of Angola. Its sheer size exceeded my imagination.
I worked closely with Dr. Philip Stander, a British scientist, who dedicated his life to a desert-adapted lion population in the Namib. For almost 20 years, he has been following the unique desert lion population. Stander told me that he once monitored a male lion that walked all the way up to the border of Angola. The lion covered distances of more than 70 Kilometers a day. He even swam across the crocodile-infested Kunene river to Angola. He then turned around and walked all the way back. When the lion came back, he was shot. This story illustrates how incredibly powerful and skillful these animals can be, but it also illustrates that there is a human-lion conflict. Stander’s work addresses both: he collects research data from the animals and implements a strategy that allows for humans and lions to coexist. Part of his story has been published in the movie The Vanishing Kings.
When I first met Dr. Stander, his car was parked in the cover of the dark in front of the first campsite of the race. His custom-built research vehicle screamed in large letters: Desert Lion Conservation and a hyena head was dangling from the bull bars in front. I wondered about what kind of images this would create in the minds of the runners if they would see that. Fortunately, we left camp before sunrise. During the race, Dr. Stander helped to monitor the wildlife. This was necessary to keep the competitors safe and also to minimize the human disturbances to the environment from the race. On top of all my goals mentioned above, it is key to first understand the ecosystem to minimize our environmental footprint.
The First Edition … ever
For the first ultra-running event in the Skeleton Coast National Park, we welcomed 214 competitors and about 100 staff. The runners came from about 40 nations and included world-class athletes as well as entrepreneurs, soldiers, and even blind people. Some of them started as teams such as the Team The Sound of Small Bells – a group of 14 runners from China, South Korea, and Japan. The runners united for the race and showed that they could succeed as a team despite their language barriers and political differences. “We also want to bring some communication among the three countries”, says team member Arlen Wu. They achieved even more: “We want to help the blind to fulfill their dreams of running the world”, says Wu, who successfully guided one of the four blind runners in their team.
The Course Team
When the runners lined up at the start line the first morning, my team and I — the Course Team — were long gone. We set off early to ensure that the stage was completely marked and all the checkpoints were in place. This task can quickly turn into a race against time when access roads are long and cars get stuck. During this edition, the drivers were always on time and extremely skilled. I heard rumors saying that this was because of their German ancestors.
During the race week, our days were long because the Course Team usually leaves camp before sunrise and often reaches the camp for the night after sunset. The team members Susan and Dominik also share the passion for running. Dominik is an experienced sub-three-hour Marathon runner and Susan a 4 Deserts veteran herself. That is mandatory for course marking because the work is mostly done by foot, even when the stages are accessible by car.
I have worked on races before where the Course Team members ran even further than the competitors. This time each of us covered between 120 and 170 Kilometers during the event, which is at the lower end. During the marking we are often alone out in the open without support nearby. This requires experience, self-responsibility, but also facilitates unforgettable moments.
I will never forget what happened while I was marking Stage 5. About one hour had passed since I had left the car while I marked a wide open plane by foot. The surface was covered with a thin layer of tiny, colorful stones – a natural mosaic. The ground was hard and I had difficulties putting the flags in. The evening light painted the landscape red and I had to check my GPS device constantly for direction because there was no reference just horizon. Large hyena tracks indicated wildlife activity and I started getting a bit worried because they would get active very soon. Then suddenly a jackal showed up right behind me. He must have been curious as he came closer. The Jackal decided to follow me and we ran side by side for more than a kilometer. Having this sort of company made me feel accepted and welcome although he was probably hoping for me to slip so that he could have a feast.
Each of us has his own moment that he carries home from such an event. Watching 196 runners finish their journey near Torra Bay, our job was done. For some runners this was an experience of a lifetime, for me it was a visit of a friend.