28 June 2017 – The Long Stage.
The Long Stage is the ultimate test of a multi-stage desert race. By now you are already tired after running long distances on consecutive days, and you still have to conquer, both mentally and physically, the longest distance of the race. The Long Stage during the Big Red Run was no different, and after completing almost 160km during the previous four days, we set out in the dark at 06h00 on an 84km journey through the Simpson Desert.
I struggled with the long stages during my first few desert races (because of conditioning, lack of experience, etc.), but started performing much better in recent years. I had a good start to the Big Red Run over the first two days, and despite slightly slower times and tired legs on days three and four, felt quietly confident about the Long Stage.
Although the terrain was slightly easier to run than during the previous four days, there was still a lot of running in soft sand, over sand dunes, a long stretch along the ridge of a sand dune, through open veld, across big gibber plains and towards the end, straight into a strong wind.
I felt reasonably comfortable from the start and after leaving the second checkpoint ran on my own for most of the day, only seeing the occasional runner in the distance behind or ahead of me. I tried being as smart as possible in managing my pace and the distance we had to cover, running at a steady pace where possible and walking the sand dunes and rough patches through open veld.
Surprise, surprise, after reaching the hallway mark I never stopped running again until the end, other than at checkpoints to fill my water bottles. Not sure what went “wrong” (or right), but I have never felt this strong during a desert race. I basically sprinted the final few kilometres to the finish. Maybe it was the sense of relief or accomplishment at the end of a tough race which spurred me on, but given my struggles on long stages in previous races, those few hours in the Simpson Desert will always be one of my happiest and most enjoyable running memories.
I finished the 84km in 10h37, fifth place on the day, and fifth overall in the race. My best desert race result to date!
Regardless of time or position, finishing a desert race, and especially the Long Stage, is a very special accomplishment, and it was great seeing all the runners making it to finish, with the last ones reaching camp long after midnight.