“There’s a difference between ‘risky’ and ‘dangerous’. What you’re doing is risky – we will be doing all we can to make sure it’s not dangerous.” – Kris King, Race Director, at pre-race briefing.
“Mind the zebra shit.” – Ranger to me, as I was about to step in it on way to start line.
I’ve run in some wild and difficult places – Saharan desert sand, Icelandic volcanoes, around ancient Peruvian ruins, and across the desert in Namibia. But this race? this one was by far the wildest.
For Rangers Ultra is a 230 km self-supported run across 5 nature conservancies in Kenya. Running through the conservancies means crossing vast expanses of land occupied by elephants, zebra, lions, rhinos, cheetah, water buffalo… on foot.
I’ve never felt so small.
Self-supported means I had to carry all of my food, sleeping bag, medical and emergency supplies for all 5 days. The race organization provides a tent for each night + water (including at checkpoints during the day).
While race was “self-supported” – RD Kris wasn’t kidding about doing all they could to make sure it wasn’t dangerous. There was air support – plane and helicopter – continuously flying the course, checking for wildlife, coordinating with rangers to move any animals that might be a danger (like large herds of elephants), and providing emergency support if needed.
And those rangers? amazing. Their mission is to protect wildlife from poachers – an extremely dangerous, sometimes lethal job. The race is a fundraiser to help with critical items like boots, uniforms, training. Even life insurance, so their families would be supported if the worst happened.
They were just as tough and intimidating-looking as you would expect.
Yet they were personable, friendly – and worked incredibly hard the entire time to help keep us safe. I would be running along a seemingly deserted area, a little edgy, thinking “ok, well this looks a little lion-y” and a ranger would swear-to-god materialize from behind a tree or rock, standing guard. “Jambo!” (Swahili for “hello”) — sometimes I would jump and we would both laugh.
While I appreciated their bravery and assistance right from the start, what I didn’t expect? their clear and abiding love for that place, for what they do — and how that would show up throughout the race.
On paper, this race doesn’t seem as difficult as some others. Slightly shorter distance (230 km vs 250), days divided into fairly equal distances (no 90 km “long day” like Namibia), fairly moderate temps. What isn’t readily apparent is the crazy amount of climbing + overall elevation.
The online race description includes an elevation profile, by stage. Those bumps don’t look terrible right? unless you look very closely. (Yes, that Day 3 climb at the end was just as bad as it looks.) Overall, my Garmin measured a whopping 115,039 feet total elevation gain for the 5 days. Whew!
Other super challenging aspect was overall elevation – we were at roughly 5,000 –7,000 feet the whole time. Big adjustment from sea-level Houston! At base camp the night before race, I woke up struggling a little to breathe & thought, “well, this is going to be fun”. Luckily, breathing got easier as my body adapted — but it took a several days to feel ok.
Stage 1 – Lewa Conservancy – 37 km/23 miles – beautiful! And rough (kept thinking “I’d like a little more oxygen in my air, please!”).
We ran through and around some villages – often meeting villagers driving goats or sheep. At first, I would stop and step away, so they could go on through. Eventually, I learned to just keep running – and watched the herd split and just kind of “flow” around and past me. (I was less brave with the cattle – they were freaking huge!)
Sometimes smaller children would run alongside, asking for sweets or just wanting to hold my hand. So cute! Though a couple of the bolder ones tried to take things out of my pack, so I had to be a bit watchful.
Day 2 – Borana Conservancy – 43km/27 miles
Day started with super steep climb – the entire first 6 miles were up up up! Thought to myself, “That’s one way to get adapted to thin air – climb or die!” Did a bit of both, I think.
This is where we started to see more animals – and it was incredible. Running along and seeing heads of giraffes above the treetops, looking across a valley at herds of elephants, seeing rhinos! & silly warthogs. I don’t have good words to describe what that felt like – scary, fabulous. Alive.
At one point, I was running and watching my footing (I tend to fall down, kind of a lot) — looked up to see a giraffe leaning over to look at me. Oh, hellooo!!
Day 3 – Lollidaiga Conservancy – 48 km/30 miles – a.k.a “Puke Day”
Arghhh!! Stress of low oxygen, lots of miles, and a body that decided food was not my friend. (While most of me loves this kind of racing – my stomach does … not.) Couple hours into the run, I was unable to keep liquids/food down. The good news? it’s a place I’ve been before. Got anti-nausea meds from medics, did my best to stay hydrated, powered through as best I could. Which was s-l-o-w-l-y! and with loads of encouragement from runner friends, race org staff (thanks, Will – for your company up that hill!) and medics.
Mid-way through, I was running/hiking some spectacularly beautiful sections – open vistas, drops into river valleys, monkeys-elephants-giraffe-zebras. Passing Rangers, I made sure to say hello and thank you – but also, “how beautiful!” Most nodded, smiled, said “Yes, beautiful!” – but one of them looked very closely at my face, held his hands out, palms up as if to take in everything around us, and said “thank God”.
And I lost it. Overwhelmed — not in a religious sense (that’s 100% not my thing) — but that shared recognition of spirit and power and majesty literally took my breath away. Spent the next several miles trying to breathe & cry & run at the same time (not easy!).
Heading in to the last checkpoint, 10 km or so from the finish — I was worried about the cutoff time (thanks to my ever-so-frequent puke stops). Running with Anna from NZ (who was lovely & patient & encouraging when I stopped offside to throw up) — knowing we were sooo close to cutoff time that they might not let us continue. We decided maybe if we looked better than we felt? it would inspire confidence and they would let us go on. We ran up to checkpoint tent whispering under our breath “look fresh! looks fresh! and laughing like crazy. Found out cutoff time had been extended (whew!), took a minute to catch our breath and headed back out.
This stage finished with a series of straight up, technical climbs – not quite hands & knees, but close. Stupid-long tough hills (SO much swearing!) but we made it.
And were rewarded with the most amazing! equally-long downhill run, full of switchbacks where we could look out and see for miles. Huge expanses of wilderness, towering rock cliffs, monkeys chattering at us from the trees. We made our way down –– laughing & running & just in awe of where we were and how that felt. It is a memory I will hold in my heart for a very long time.
At camp that evening, rangers brought over an elephant over from a nearby refuge. Gorgeous!
Went to sleep that night (well, tried to sleep) to the sound of lions– roaring, talking, huffing. I hid in my sleeping bag — as if that would save me! – and tried to doze a little, each time being woken up by a roar that sounded waaayy too close. (Yes, the rangers were watchful. No, nobody got eaten.)
Day 4 – Ol Jogi Conservancy – 43km/27 miles Last day! still not able to eat, but feeling a great deal better (“no food” thing seems to be a continuing theme for me at these races).
An early section was through a stunning red rock riverbed — that required a fair amount of bending/stretching and some hold-your-breath! narrow openings to fit through with backpack (helloo claustrophobia!). Beautiful! but I was happy when we got out to open air.
Another section, running the trail and hearing voices up ahead, I rounded a corner to find a ginormous rhino not far off the trail. Did my best impression of Wile E. Coyote skidding to a stop (think dust flying & legs backpedaling) while trying not to breathe. A ranger was nearby and other runners held up—we waited (quietly!) until getting the go ahead to continue (and my legs to stop shaking.)
This conservancy was different in that it was open to the public – all others had been private, only — so there was the occasional safari jeep filled with sightseers. Conservancy rules prohibited tourists from getting out of their vehicles, even to take photos – so I had the surreal experience of being watched by a truckload of binoculared tourists, mouths agape while I cut across the road and carried on with my race. It still makes me laugh, “pink backpack, coming through!”
This stage included some beautiful long, flat open spaces where you could see forever. At one point, I was running along, admiring a nearby herd of zebras and heard the plane go (very low!) over my head. Few minutes later, “Braaaat!!” huge! elephant trumpeted and stormed across the trail, less than a quarter-mile ahead of me.
Toward the end of the race – last 5-ish miles – a storm started moving in. Dark clouds, gusts of cold wind, a couple leading sprinkles.
Boom! I was chased in by the storm – crossing the finish line (at the Equator! so cool) just as sprinkles turned to real rain. Filthy dirty, exhausted, a bit torn up – but very very happy.
More convinced than ever that I always want to be that person — the one running outside the jeep — not tucked safely behind glass, looking out through binoculars. Feeling sun & scrub, breathing in the wildness and that fierce blend of exhausted + alive.
- Training (overall) – long workouts that included strength, endurance, and heavy-pack running
- Swim training – helped a ton with upper body strength for carrying pack
- PhD Desert III sleeping bag – super light, packed down to easily fit in bottom of my pack. Comfy and warm. This was my third race with this bag and it didn’t disappoint.
- Lululemon Trail Pacer skirt – light, comfortable, stayed in place. (Thanks to all who recommended!)
- Raidlight Responsiv 25L backpack – most comfortable of any pack I’ve used (& I’m a bit of a pack nerd.) Highly adjustable so I could dial in fit as needed – helpful, as my pack got smaller/lighter as I used up my food. And it was pink! (bonus points)
- Raidlight water bottles – worked great, easy to fill, carried fine in front of my pack. Downside: NOT easy to clean & tend to mold if use with drink mix (esp after 30+ hour trip home in suitcase)
- Altra Lone Peak 3.5 trail shoes – my “go to” and they worked beautifully in sand, rocks, everything.
- Skipped trekking poles this time – brought them along, but made a last-minute decision not to use for race. Was fine without them and appreciated being a bit lighter
- Food – worked well, when I could eat it!
- Gu Roctane drink mix
- Bonk Breakers
- Kendall Mint Cake – golden
- Rapid Fire coffee
- Logistics – amazingly smooth, even with VERY long flights and a few tight connections
- New contacts! that adjust to near/far based on pupil size (not even kidding). Helped tremendously with distance + depth perception.
Not so well
- Lip balm – forgot! & my lips burned like crazy
- Banana Boat Ultra Sport 30 sunscreen – higher altitude + sun = major sunburn. Could have used a higher spf.
- Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer jacket – I love this puffy! but it was not warm enough for the cold nights and even colder mornings
- Stomach issues – seems to be a thing, next time bring own anti-nausea meds
- Climbing! as much as I despise indoor run workouts, more time on stair climber would have been helpful.