“You’re setting new limits.” – Alex, (extra kind) doctor with Exile Medics
“I see it! — right there.” – my friend Jason, pointing out codeine tablet in my vomit
This race broke me, in the worst – and best – possible ways.
While these adventures are always filled with highs and lows – this one was “spikier” – the highs were magnificent (I did a lot of happy-awed-so-much-amazing crying). The lows, well – when you’re fishing codeine out of your own vomit so you can retake it — that’s a new personal low point, for sure.
I tried recently to explain to a friend how these races are interactive – you don’t just go run through the desert, leave your footprints (+ barf, in my case) and go home unchanged. The desert leaves its imprint on you, too — it gets into & under your skin.
I like to think I’m partly made up of South African smoke, Icelandic volcano ash, Kenyan dirt, Saharan sand, and – if I’m very very lucky – some of the beauty and magic and grace of this desert.
BTU Desert Ultra is a 250 km, 5-day self-supported race in the Namibian desert. Temps are brutal – 120-130*+ F during the day, zero shade, sand, rocks, spiky thorns on 99% of everything else (& those without spikes? Poisonous).
It is also the most starkly stunningly majestically beautiful place I have ever seen – “rivers” of pink granite and black onyx, plants > 2000 years old, ginormous wind-carved rock formations. Ancient magic.
And here I was back for a second time – having done the race in 2018, I knew what I was in for.
Of course, it was not *exactly* the same race. There was a new race director (with former RD running as a competitor), a different group of runners. A desert that is never ever the same.
And I was going in so NOT recovered from Kenya race. I knew 6 weeks between major events was not sufficient — Kenya was wicked hard, on its own! – I was still working to heal up, gain weight back to a healthy level, get my brain around another crazy-intense 250 km adventure.
Got in to Windhoek the day before the race – to find notice that two competitors were missing their luggage, which meant missing a substantial portion of their required gear. Without hesitation, everyone – across different countries & languages — scrambled to sort through what they had to share and put together a workable set of kit for each of them. That instant coming together? it’s everything I love about the ultra-running community.
Upon arrival at base camp – we chose our tents & tentmates, went through mandatory gear/medical check & got settled for the next days’ start.
(Note: I totally lucked out in tentmates! with Dennis – always positive and fun. Also, careful and structured, which works for me.)
Tents for this race are smaller than the ones we had at Kenya, just large enough for 2 people. Coolest part? they had mesh at the top, so we could go to sleep looking up at the massive night sky filled with stars. Even sore-stressed-exhausted, it was an amazing end to every day.
And there was a dog! Shadow – a beautiful 10-month-old Staffie, who was part of the race organization. As best I could tell, his duties included: hand gnawing (puppy teeth!), checking out tents “whatcha’ got in here?” and wagging at every single thing. Love.
How It Went
Stage 1: 50km
First section is “find your own way” – no trail, just keep moving toward gap in the mountains. I love this part extra much – for its wildness, difficulty, and this year – a sense of being exactly where I was supposed to be.
Ran-hiked-climbed (there are ditches & ravines full o’ rocks & thorns – not visible until you’re in them). Settled in for the long day.
Couple miles from the finish, my back started acting up – niggling injury from Kenya (uh oh!). Finished slowly with a bit of swearing. Got to camp, stretched, and went to sleep hoping for the best.
Stage 2: 55 km
Back seemed ok! some overall tiredness (back pain is stressful!) but started out fine.
Until I wasn’t. Partway between Checkpoints 1 & 2 (10-ish miles in) I was in trouble — hurt, stressed, overheated. Pissed!
NOT willing to call it, but in serious difficulty.
Medics came by– concerned enough they started to radio top medic to consider my ability to continue. Yikes! I started edging away down the trail — while medics looked concerned and kept trying to radio the head doctor.
That’s when another competitor, Jason — one who had not received his luggage and had to drop the first day (unfamiliar food = projectile vomiting) — got out of the truck, “I’ll just hike with her (to next checkpoint) to make sure she’s ok”. We started off down the trail, before medics could reach anyone on the radio (whew!).
I got feeling better as we went – hiked & chatted all the way to the next aid station.
Here’s the thing – we were having so much fun that we just kept going. Jason stayed with me the whole time – encouraging, singing, telling *truly* awful jokes.
Medics worked on my back at the aid station and I was ok (ish).
We kept racing –as best I could – toward the finish. I was NOT fast! but happy to be on my feet, moving forward, and delighted with the company.
Stage #3: 42 km
Feeling relatively stronger – back stretched and recovering. Still hurting (though more low-level misery than painful).
The extra fun part? Jason decided to go out again – even though his race was technically over, since dropping on first day – and keep me company.
Endless stretches of desert, big sky, incredible heat. We saw baboons! perched along a rocky ridge. Ostrich feathers piled up under trees.
We were warned pre-race that elephants could (literally) be standing behind a tree and you might not notice (they’re surprisingly very quiet). For miles – and miles – the joke was looking at every tiny bush, “is that an elephant?!”
Still not fast! but finished the stage upright and moving (most I could hope for at this point).
And at camp, just after dark – call went up, “Elephants!”. There were several (3, maybe 4) quietly eating next to our line of tents. (Sadly, no pics this time.)
Stage #4: 22km
Just a half-marathon, right? Tricky part – it’s a noon start– to ensure running is through the very hottest part of the day.
Even worse? almost all is through deep sand. Miles & miles of it, more than ankle deep. Imagine running-sliding-trudging through deep sand for hours (and hours) in 130+ degrees — with heavy pack? well you get the picture.
Jason met me at the start, “I’m with you, if that’s ok.” So much kindness!
We just kept going – through the heat and sand and more sand (did I mention the sand?!). Not fast, but steady. Most difficult half I’ve ever done! but made it through to the finish.
Stage #5: Dreaded “Long Day” = 90 km
Shivering in the dark, trying to get food down prior to 4:30 a.m. start – no idea how it would go! but willing to show up and find out. Jason checked in, “You going?” and we lined up @ the start.
Similar to the first day, this start was *point & shoot* – “see those lights on top of the hill? run that way”.
Moving slowly, first four hours went ok – into a truly amazing sunrise.
Focused on moving checkpoint to checkpoint. Thinking about the all the miles yet to cover was too overwhelming.
Back was acting up a little, but it was manageable – until I tripped, kicked a rock, and twisted (ever so gracefully) to keep from falling. Ugh! felt the shock through my whole system. Stretched as best I could, took a couple of tentative steps – and pain of it made me throw up.
Even stubborn-me knew — if you can’t keep hydration down in the desert, your race is over.
In an effort to save my race, I asked for codeine at the next checkpoint. It took the edge off – not completely, but enough to go on. (To be clear, I am not advocating this approach – it’s an obviously personal decision to push through. I also had ready medical support, an incredible friend along for every step, and race organization keeping track of me.)
On we went!
Alternating Tylenol with hefty doses of codeine, stretching whenever I could. Jason telling jokes, stories (even helpful stretching tips from his free diving background) — keeping me on track. Found that we grew up in neighboring states in the Midwest (what are the odds?!)
Somewhere mid-race, I choked while trying to swallow codeine tablet and threw up – all of my hydration, nutrition, meds. Shit shit shit! Jason – bless his ever-loving heart – spotted the codeine tablet in my pile o’ vomit so I could fish it out and retake.
We laughed so hard I had tears.
Coming in to Checkpoint #5, I was sure I was done. Turned around at top of the hill to say goodbye to the desert – then found out the cutoff was 2 hours later than we had thought! Took Jason’s advice (“never ever quit going in to a checkpoint – wait 20 mins, then decide”). Had an actual 30 min nap (heaven!) – ate a little, made a plan, and got going again. (Huge thanks to Henko! from race org who was encouraging, patient, and kept checking in to make sure I was ok).
Last 6 hours – mostly in the dark — were excruciating. And incredible. Wild, painful, powerful.
Lightning flashed from a (very rare) storm off in the distance. Louwtjie (from race organization) and Alex (medic) followed along, stopping occasionally — to get a yoga mat out! so I could stretch more comfortably on the ground. I can’t even describe how amazingly wonderful that kind of support and encouragement meant. They could have packed it up, pulled me for medical reasons – but they stuck with me. For hours (and hours).
And Jason was there for every bit of it! Laughing, joking, stories + physically moving me away from cliff edges, when needed. (Not even kidding – there are cliffs. In the dark. And I was SO not moving in an *upright* fashion.)
At 3:30 a.m. – 23 hours from the start – we got to the finish line. There was a campfire, people waiting and cheering, music. I leaned on Jason’s shoulder and sobbed.
If you ever are flat out injured exhausted-beyond-your-limits in 130-degree heat. Miles to go. With the option to quit, just quit! and make it stop — but found your strength + grace of an amazing new friend + encouragement and beyond-amazing support of people you hardly know. Well, I can’t recommend it – but holy hell, you will learn a great deal about yourself.
Six weeks! since I got home — and am just getting back to steady run mileage. Minor leg surgery, physical therapy for back issues + torn rotator cuff + dislocated scapula (which is exactly as painful as it sounds).
And — if I’m very quiet – echoes of the power and grace of an ancient desert in my bones.
- PhD bag – light, plenty warm enough (actually slept on top of it one night)
- Raidlight 25L pack – fabulous! light, held up to rocks, thorns, heavy use. Cleaned up well after Kenya!
- Patagonia puffy jacket – great for camp, just warm enough (I get esp cold when tired)
- Drymax socks – I’m a huge fan
- Raidlight gaiters – held up to rocks & sand & thorns (only one small tear)
- Nutrition – still puking with heat, but ate what I could
- Roctane – for water bottles – some calories + electrolytes
- Garmin – had to carry charger, but nice to have idea of distances
- Cup of soup! For breakfast last day as a treat
- Talismans – well traveled, well loved (from Aidan and Jonathan)
- Raidlight bottles – for drinking on-the-go
Not so well
- Recovery from Kenya – 6 weeks was not enough!
- Gu Recoverite – couldn’t stomach after 2nd day in the heat, too sweet & thick.