BTU Desert Ultra – Elephants! Or ‘Where I Run a Really Long Way on a Mint Cake & 3 Twizzlers’

By December 15, 2018 No Comments

“This desert doesn’t want you to run 250 km in 5 days… it will try to kill you.” Brett Rocos, head of Exile Medics @ pre-race briefing


Base Camp
Photo: Mikkel Beisner

Sitting in the tent listening to pre-race briefing, I’ll admit to a bit of internal eye-roll (dramatic much?). I’ve run in the Sahara; how bad could this be? Got my answer 3rd day & 140K in, temps continuously running @ 120-130*F & I’m on the ground throwing up all my (hard earned) calories & hydration. Well, shit – guess Brett was dead on.

This is a stunningly fabulous race! and hella hard.  Where MdS is 250K @ 7 days, this is the same distance over only 5 days – so you start Day 1 @ 50K. No “easing in” to distance or heat or terrain or… anything.

Happy athlete! while I was still relatively clean

It is also one of the few (OK, only) stage race I would do again.  It’s that good. Race organization (Beyond the Ultimate) is extraordinary – they know what they’re doing and actually care that you have a good experience. Exile Medics, who run all of the medical support, are smart, experienced people who do everything possible to keep you in the race — but will make the hard call if needed.

1st day @ camp! w Adam Kimball — who I only saw at beginning of each day & camp at the end — as he not only won the race but set new course record.
Photo: Mikkel Beisner

I don’t have good words to describe the immense beauty of this desert. Huge rock formations, “rivers” of pink quartz spilling across the trail, sand that is white one moment, black the next (& everything in between). It holds plants that are up to 2,000 years old (they look like that huge wormy thing in “Men in Black”, only bigger).

Sunset at base camp
Photo: Mikkel Beisner

And brutal. As in Texas, everything either bites, stings, or pokes. Even the trees have huge thorns (found this out the hard way, by falling into one on last day of racing. Holy hell ouch!)

“See the break in those 2 mountains? run that way!”
Photo: Mikkel Beisner

I got to run through tracks made by rhinos, lions, zebra, giraffes. Saw herds of springbok. Held my breath while elephants strolled through base camp on Day 3, not 20 feet from where I sat at door of my tent. Quiet, majestic.

It’s a memory I will hold for the rest of my days.

Photo: Mikkel Beisner

If we’re friends on FB, you know I trained my brains out for this race. High mileage run weeks – up to 100 miles during “Hell Week”, carrying a weighted pack.  Strength training 3 days a week, tens of thousands of yards swimming (active recovery + building upper body strength for pack running). Hours of heat training in dry sauna in days leading up to the event.

Start of Day 4
Photo: Ed Morris

And at the race? I was grateful for all of it! Had some initial issues with right hip/ITB – but Race Director Kris borrowed a roller and worked it out for me. (How many RDs do you know that would do that?!).

In the tent — prepping for next day’s run.
Photo: Mikkel Beisner

Temps for the first 3 days were in the 120s, last 3 days – as we got deeper into the desert — 130+ degrees. Running in those temperatures – with zero shade – is a bit of a surreal experience.  You adjust (kind of) while your body does everything it can to cope.

For me, heat became a real issue midway through the marathon on Day 3 when I was no longer able to take in (or keep – ewww!) any solid food.  Medics held me at a checkpoint for 30 minutes until I could get and keep ½ liter of water down.


So many rocks!
Photo: Ed Morris

Fought my way through to end of that day’s run on guts & determination.  When I got to the finish that day & stretched (OK, fell) onto a mat, I cringed a bit when Kris came over, thinking he might pull me from the race.

All he said? “You went to war today.” Yes, yes I did.

Caked with salt! (with Simon Davies, ultra runner extraordinaire)
Photo: Mikkel Beisner

With two long days of racing to finish, I had to stick with water & some sips of drink mix to keep my stomach from full rebellion.  Managed to down a small Kendall Mint Cake (pure sugar!) and 3 Twizzlers on the last day (who knew Twizzlers were running food?) to get to finish.

Waiting for (diabolical) noon start on “short” day – so we wouldn’t miss hottest part of the day (thanks, Kris!)
Photo: Mikkel Beisner

Now I am home and healing – feet are not bad, sunburn is peeling (I look a bit scary!), recovering from All The Bad Things that happen when your body is forced to metabolize muscle over an extended period of time*. Joints, muscles, tendons a bit sore, but no injuries (yay!).

Photo: Mikkel Beisner

And letting the whole experience sink in — all of the magic that happens when everything you thought you were gets scraped away by sand & heat & exhaustion, when it takes everything you have to keep moving forward. And that feeling – deep in your bones – of an ancient desert rearranging your molecules in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Photo: Mikkel Beisner

So very grateful to be able to do what I do.



What Worked Well

  • Nike skirt, shirt – lightweight, dried well, held up to heavy salt
  • 2 buffs – one for head, one for neck – dunked in water every aid station. Sure, it evaporated 2 mins after, but it was a heavenly 2 mins.

    Photo: Mikkel Beisner

  • DryMax socks – I’m a fan.
  • Altra Lone Peak 4 trail shoes – got a bit torn up by sharp rocks, but held up just fine.
  • Garmin Fenix 5 – battery held up with just 2 charges during week (used a small iHome portable charger). Tended to under call mileage pretty substantially, but it was helpful to have a rough approximation.
  • Leiki trekking poles – helpful in deep sand & balance in general. Held up well.
  • PhD Desert sleeping bag – lightweight, plenty warm enough for cool nights
  • Ooshoos camp sandals – camp often had mega-thorns, stickers – helpful to have solid soles vs. flimsy slippers
  • Pearlizumi arm coolers – good UV protection, doused in water @ aid stations
  • Smith Pivlock Max sunglasses – good coverage for sun & wind (& there was always wind!)
  • Training – hell week @ 100 miles gave me confidence about the distance, all the lifting & swimming helped with upper body strength for carrying my pack
  • Travel & logistics – went smoothly for as long as it was!
  • Talismans — from Aidan Wachter & Jonathan Emmett (well traveled, well loved).
  • Feet – couple of blisters & one hot spot on last day. Overall, pretty well.

Pack & contents – pre race

Not So Well (in reverse order of negative impact)

  • Raidlight desert hat – worked great in the Sahara, didn’t hold up to Namibian desert winds. Result: burned the crap out of my face (buff, sunglasses, sunscreen not sufficient)

    Sooo sunburned!
    Photo: Mikkel Beisner

  • Altra 4-point gaiters – fell apart at the sides, pretty ineffective. Had to stop continuously on sandy sections to empty shoes.

Sand, sand, & more sand — gaiter fail!
Photo: Mikkel Beisner

  • Hydroflask soft water bottles – no leaks, but difficult to fill quickly at checkpoints & get back into pack
  • Salomon Outpeak 20L pack – worked great in training, WAY too fussy in race. Straps difficult to connect quickly, front pockets blocked when both water bottles full, difficult to pack properly and adjust on the fly.
  • Nutrition – epic fail & greatest (negative) impact on my race. Next time: more salty food for breakfast (noodles, potatoes) and more snacks to eat in small bites along the course.

*I lost 7 lbs. – almost 7% of my body weight –over race week, even after rehydrating.



Author Isabelle

Endurance athlete, writer, Chief Dog Smoocher

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