I have arrived in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, for a quick stopover before travelling to Banfora in the south west of the country for the Ultra Africa Race which starts on 14 November 2013.
Leaving Addis Ababa yesterday morning, and flying for six hours from east to west across Africa, a familiar picture emerged as far as I could see from my window seat – brown, barren, open…
The flight covered an area generally referred to as the Sahel – according to Wikipedia it spans 5 400 km (3 360 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east, in a belt that varies from several hundred to a thousand kilometers in width, covering an area of more than 3 million square kilometers. It is a transitional eco-region of semi-arid grasslands, savannas, steppes, and thorn shrub lands lying between the wooded Sudanian savanna to the south and the Sahara to the north.
In my language, the Sahel is the little brother of its bigger and older brother in the north, the mighty Sahara desert.
I have always been intrigued by deserts – their enormous size; their unique beauty in terms of landscape, fauna and flora; and their isolation – where else can you escape to from the modern way of living. Where else on earth can you go and run for a few days without much or any contact with people or most other living creatures?
Running is most probably the one thing which you won’t associate with the deserts of the world. The idea of running for a number of days through sand and in temperatures of up to 50°C most probably borders on craziness if not stupidity. And as much as this might be true, multi-stage desert running is an emerging and fast growing new running discipline and trend. With significant scientific and related improvements in recent years in running gear, nutrition and training methods, in addition to the “attraction” of extreme sports and testing the endurance of the human body, desert running is the new running craze!
My first desert running experience was in 2010 when I participated in the seven-day, 250km Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM) through the Kalahari Desert in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. At the time, it was the toughest thing I ever did, and I still rank the KAEM as one of the toughest desert races on the calendar. I really suffered for most of that race due to inexperience and a very painful knee, but finished in one piece, and have been hooked on desert running ever since.
My next desert race was through Africa’s biggest and most intimidating desert – the Sahara. I completed the seven-day, 250 km Sahara Race in October 2011, most probably my toughest event to date because of the intense heat and suffering from severe dehydration during the race. Fortunately, I was able to pull through and complete the race – with the finishing line situated opposite the Great Pyramid of Giza outside Cairo.
Next up was a race through probably the most beautiful (and oldest desert) in the world – the Namib Desert in Namibia. The five-day, 220 km Namib Desert Challenge in March 2012 will not be remembered for intense heat – but wait for it – three days of heavy rain which resulted in severe flooding and changes to the race route. The Namib and Kalahari Deserts are probably the two most beautiful sand deserts in the world, with the unique dune landscape of the Namib just tipping the Kalahari for top spot (in my opinion).
The Namib Desert Challenge was the first of three desert races which I entered in 2012. My next desert destination was the Gobi Desert in China. In June 2012 I completed the seven-day, 250 km Gobi March in the far western part China. With a bit more experience in desert races, I started the race really well, struggled in the middle, and finished very strong. Maybe my body was given me a signal that two desert races was enough for one year.
But the biggest test was yet to come – running 250km over seven days through Antarctica in what is called “The Last Desert” race. Given its low average annual rainfall, Antarctica is also classified as a desert – it is just not sandy! Unfortunately, I never made it to Antarctica as I picked up a serious calf injury – compartment syndrome – as a result of completing the Golden Reef 100 mile race in August 2012. This was my longest non-stop run and was supposed to be my final long run before Antarctica. But it was not be, and as a result of this injury I ended up in in hospital and three months of no running. This race is only held bi-annually, and fortunately the organisers were willing to transfer my entry to the next race in November 2014.
After a long and slow recovery, and many doubts about my ability to regain the fitness levels for long distance endurance running, my next big running adventure was the one-day, 100km race down the Fish River Canyon in Namibia on 22 June 2013. Although not a desert, the Fish River Canyon is a rugged and remote place, and one toughest environments in which to run. I definitely overestimated my fitness level and conditioning, and although I finished the race, it confirmed that I still needed more time before taking on my next multi-stage desert race.
But with a few more months of training and a four-day, 120km race under the belt, I am ready for my next big running experience – the five-day 213km Ultra Africa Race in Burkina Faso.
Although this is not a true desert race, running a marathon a day for five consecutive days in temperatures of between 30°C and 40°C, will be a tough challenge.
I have used all my desert runs in the past to raise funding and support for a social cause or campaign of interest to me, and I’m dedicating my participation in the Ultra Africa Race to the work of the ONE Campaign in Africa.
My next blog will focus on the nutrition and equipment which I will use during the Ultra Africa Race.
Also follow updates about my desert races on my new Facebook page – Desert 2 Desert – Running for Social Causes and Campaigns – as well as on Twitter at @david_barnard, and #DavidDesertRun4ONE and #desert2desert.
- Desert 2 Desert – Running for Social Causes and Campaigns (desert2desert4socialcauses.wordpress.com)